Arriving early, I had time to wander through the gardens of Varuna at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, the tranquil setting an inspiration for The Physical Writer workshop with Carol Major. Varuna is the National Writers’ House and offers a range of events, workshops and residencies throughout the year.
The enticing workshop outline read:
In answering a question about the fundamental starting point for any story, Margaret Atwood replied, “Be clear about who is telling this story to whom and about what.”
Ah yes, but why is the narrator telling the story in the first place? The urgency to tell has both a physical and psychological dimension, and these dimensions are vital ingredients towards creating an authentic voice. They are also vital ingredients in creating believable characters and settings.
This one-day workshop uses both writing exercises and discussion to get under the skin of your narrators and characters.
The workshop is best suited to emerging writers who want to take their prose to the next level.
With a clear plan in mind, and characters taking shape, I wasn’t disappointed with the day. Carol is a calm and generous person who welcomed us and had posted a number of quotes around the cosy room. It became apparent how these tantalising ideas would be woven into a range of different writing activities.
Carol began by asking us ‘how is the story being told?’ and suggested that a novel is a whispering in the ear. She insisted that voice comes from the body – your attitude and reason for telling a story must suit the situation, even down to lighting details. We were urged to try sitting and re-creating the feel of the voice, be in the scene and recognise the truth of the characters. Remember that the voice is taking you somewhere for a reason, even if that reason is not revealed … yet. Ask yourself: is the character hungry? Tired? Cold? How will that impact the way they tell their story?
We were asked to
Carol then read a quote from Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft:
We’re not here today for therapy, Carol declared and stated:
I cannot hold, in this room, anyone’s trauma.
We shared our reasons for being part of the workshop with the person next to us, who then introduced us to the group: a practical way to consider our listening skills. We were reminded that:
For our first activity, we were given four first person extracts to read, then discuss in small groups. We were tasked to identify who was telling the story, as well as details of the where, when and why. I found this most successful if I imagined a motive for the scenario. Carol pushed us to explain how the character was sitting, how they were talking, which gestures were involved and how their story was received. Some clues could be gleaned from the text such as gender and language use. Interestingly, some ideas were similar across groups while others were wildly different: always leave space for the reader to feel their own way into a story.
Next, we considered Betty Edward’s quote and Carol discussed how drawing can be useful, both in terms of creating an image as well as making connections with our everyday experiences in bringing characters to life. In pairs, we took turns to cover our eyes, then on command from our partner, we lowered our hands and wrote briefly on what we noticed first: write what you see: what is your eye drawn to?
Carol suggested this could be applied in many ways, such as being on a train and quickly turning our head: what’s the first thing you notice about a fellow traveller? Her train trip example: a woman entered the carriage in a smart, pressed black suit with pointy black shoes – Carol noticed she had a bandaid on the back of her ankle. What might that detail reveal about a character?
To further interrogate physicality, we considered our own character and noted three or four events that had shaped their lives. How might these moments impact the way our character moved, spoke, engaged with the world? We were challenged to choose one event and explore their body by moving in the space, maybe walk to a bookshelf and choose a novel. I found this to be a particularly effective method of being inside a secondary character in my story and this exercise fed into later writing activities.
For ‘border crossings’ or ‘moving into the other’, Carol spoke about an exercise she used with uni students: write about who first bullied you, but she found that it usually ended up with students showing they were scared rather than revealing the bully. So, her modified activity was this: look at a moment where you felt uncomfortable. Write in first person from the perspective of the person who ‘made’ you uncomfortable and tell me what they have in their pocket.
This was fascinating. I chose a moment when I was bullied in my first year of high school, where the bully had her clenched fist in her pocket. Others shared various objects – keys, tissues, a letter – each having a clear impact on the character’s behaviour. Carol mentioned that reader’s need to feel; they don’t need to make a decision. If you have a ‘big issue’ to discuss, write an essay and referred us to Eudora Welty’s 1965 essay ‘Must the Novelist Crusade?
After lunch we considered our colours: read your list aloud with a preface for each word: eg. green as … green as … when my turn came, and having heard a very poetic list I fell into student speak “but green’s already been done …” Carol gently admonished me with Eudora’s quote:
and after everyone laughed, I shared my practical list of green things. Of course, what a perfect reminder of how we all see the world differently and our stories have a different purpose in the urgency to be told. We also removed the colour preface ‘as green as …’ and developed a list of objects that might, just might, offer up an interesting connection simply because our eyes were drawn to a wide variety of objects. Just seeing, observing, not questioning: how did you feel as each list was read? Carol suggested this as a generative exercise, perhaps a warm up or for a moment when a different tack is needed. It could potentially encourage the development of metaphoric links and juxtapositions and non-linear thoughts.
We considered ‘place’ in terms of its physicality and emotional attachment. How does your character occupy a space? Think about the physicality of motive – who lit the fuse? We then wrote about our character being in the Varuna room. Carol gave the example of a woman, sitting in the room. She has had a headache all day and gets up to take some pain relief. But why now? Why not ten minutes ago? Was it because a child kicked a ball into the window with an awfully loud crash? Character is place, character is motive. We were warned that when we shared our writing, she would keep asking ‘why’ until the motive, the reason for a character’s behaviour was real. This activity was almost fully formed in my mind as Carol spoke – I built upon the action of moving to the bookshelf. A clear scene, with motive expressed through a minor character, came alive through the physical presence of those in the room (in my story).
As part of this discussion on how characters inhabit a place, Carol had mentioned Dustin Hoffman’s ability to ‘be’ one with a part – the above quote was unscripted, yet included in the movie as Hoffman stayed in character when a minor mishap occurred as he walked onto the set. Film can be useful in considering how characters are revealed, such as the fragmented revealing of Holly in Breakfast at Tiffany or how the opening scene of Kramer vs Kramer tells us so much through actions and objects.
As the day drew to a close, Carol left us with a last exercise, a take home: consider who left these items behind – what might your character leave behind? The use of such details can help ground the reader by showing a character engaged in everyday activities, for example: does your character always find themselves looking for their sunglasses?
This was a most worthwhile day. I deliberately chose to focus on my own writing and left with a clear understanding of an important secondary character.
Carol Major has been a professional writer for over thirty years and works with writers across all narrative forms. Her skill is in drawing out the writer’s vision and matching it with crafting tools.
She is originally from Scotland, later educated in Canada and now lives in the Blue Mountains of Australia, a location she feels holds the ingredients of all three landscapes in one place. It follows that depicting place is one of her passions, and the subject of her Master of Creative Arts Degree.
Narrative voice is also a passion: who is telling this story to whom about what, and most importantly, why? What is the motive to tell? Motive was the subject of her Doctor of Creative Arts Degree, and one that Carol believes is a key ingredient in creating an authentic narrative voice.
Carol’s short stories, social commentary articles and essays have been published in Australian and Canadian journals and anthologies. She has completed three novels, and also works as a commercial writer with a particular focus on creating narratives to inform urban design. More about Carol can be found at www.advancednarrative.com.