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Life comes before writing

Gathered in the ABC3 Marquee, would-be writers and connoisseurs of the short story scribbled notes and absorbed the wisdom of specialists Arnold Zable (chair), Nick Earls, Wayne Macauley and newcomer Laksmi Wilson, winner of the Heading North young writer’s competition 2012.

Zable opened with a condensed and informative run-down on the history of the short story, taking the audience on a tour of extraordinary diversity from Chekhov’s ‘tales of quiet desperation’, past James Joyce and his love of epiphanies, Virgina Wolfe’s affection for the ‘moment of being’ to Raymond Carver’s moody, dirty realism.

For Zable, the mood, the epiphany, the ‘moment’ are the hallmark of a good story, a strategy he intentionally incorporated in his last two novels Fig Tree and Violin Lessons. The birthplaces for his ideas are the observations he makes while going about his life, journal and pen at the ready, jotting down images and fragments of sentences as they float past his conscious mind.

He described watching a young woman walk along the Tigres River with her father while he sang in Arabic to her and the day he watched a migrant woman crawl on her hands and knees behind a tractor collecting rotten fruit, images that planted themselves in his imagination and one day became the starting point for a story.

Earls agreed that his desire for a good story springs from capturing that special moment for the reader, giving them a glimpse of someone or something that they can recognise and relate to. He scribbles ideas on scraps of paper, amassing manila folders filled with airplane boarding passes, tickets and torn bits of paper, returning to them as a springboard for his stories.

Earls said writers must be observant and learn to watch for the small things that stand out, that at the heart of his stories are the people and his plots exist to serve them. Like Zable, he looks for the starting point in images that have touched him with a certain indefinable quality or that hold the promise of imaginative possibilities.

Macauley agreed with the other panelists saying that his ideas come by remaining alert, looking for those ‘moments in his surroundings’. He related a story of how he had noticed a woman at the airport, bringing the image to life for the audience with the details. The woman was playing with her child’s hair as she sat on her knee and the words ‘sifting her child’s hair’ dropped into him.  There had been a poetic beauty in the image and the words that he was confident will emerge later in a story.

Laksmi’s approach echoed the others; she looks for the sublime and special moments and imprints the details on her mind or scribbles them on paper, unearthing them later as starting points for her stories. She likes the way the short story forces you to trim away the fat, making sure every word counts.

Zable summed up the panel’s views with these statements, ‘writers are thieves and scavengers’ and ‘life must come before writing’.

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Margo Laidley-Scott is a media student at Southern Cross University.

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