Accidental Lesson from Melina Marchetta

When I was a teenager, an older more world-wise friend gave me some excellent advice: “If you are unhappy in love, don’t listen to the radio. It will only make you more miserable. There are always too many broken hearts in the Top 40.”

Throughout life I’ve found another truism in those words. Whatever is bothering me, or consuming my time and attention – suddenly the world is filled with articles, comments, opinions and instances related to exactly that. Sometimes it’s overwhelming but at other times it’s downright helpful.

And so it was recently, when on two unrelated occasions, the words of Melina Marchetta reached out to rescue me.

The first instance was my current work-in-progress. I am writing in third person-present tense. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that since I hadn’t read anything else like that recently, it probably wasn’t the right thing to do. I raided my bookshelves but found no matches. I rewrote in third person-past tense and then in first person-present tense. But even while I was patting myself on the back for all the revising and rewriting (such validating authorly activity!) I knew in the end I would be back where I started from. It worked best. It just wasn’t good enough. Surely if I could do the story better, the format of the writing would be transparent to the reader.

That night I sat down to read the piper’s son. I was about half way through (finished now, loved it, review to come) but it wasn’t until an hour later when I stopped to make a cup of tea that I realised it was written in third person-present tense! I was right – if it was well written the reader wouldn’t even notice the format!

A few days later I read an article in the New South Wales Writer’s Centre e-newsletter where Melina was being interviewed by a young writer she had mentored. Two lines jumped out at me. “When I teach creative writing I do not teach what is written in a book. I teach what I do.”

I’ve always felt a bit of a fraud as a workshop instructor – because I’m not a teacher nor have I ever completed any writing-based coursework. I learned all I know from the process of writing and the early-years guidance of my own mentor Di Bates. I apply the rules retrospectively and that makes me feel like I don’t have the right to teach others. But now I feel like credible. Because “I teach what I do.”

As for the work-in-progress, it’s flying along. And Finnikin of the Rock is still my favourite Melina Marchetta book.

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9 responses to “Accidental Lesson from Melina Marchetta”

  1. Karen Collum says:

    I LOVE Finnikin of the Rock – simply awesome book and my favourite from Melina too. So glad there was some synchronicity at work to affirm your gut instinct on the third person present tense. Can’t wait to hear how your WIP progresses. Happy writing!

  2. Janeen says:

    That’s wonderful news to pass on, Sandy. I haven’t yet read Finnikin of the Rock, but now i will – and I’ll read it with more awareness. Secondly I want to say how wonderful that you had that revelation about ‘teaching what you do.’ It’s true. And comforting.

  3. I’ve just finished reading The Piper’s Son and loved it. Finnikin is on my ‘must read’ list. I didn’t notice that TPS was in third person present tense, so there you go!

  4. Sally Hall says:

    I, for one, would much rather learn what/how you (and other authors) do things rather than what some crusty old textbook insists is the way to learn to write. Some things just need to come from the heart or they arent worth anything at all.
    I think you are a fantastic teacher!

  5. Nathan Luff says:

    Hi Sandy,

    Thanks for the blog. I’m struggling with the format of my latest work because it’s foreign to me but like you I know it’s the right choice … so you have inspired me to go searching for a good book match to get me in the right space.

  6. I hope the search turns up something good, Nathan. I guess we shouldn’t need to find validation like that to continue on but the truth is we authors are often not as confident as perhaps we should be. I figure if the approach works, I’ll use it! PS I tried to add your blog to my Google Reader but it doesn’t have a feed.

  7. Finnikin of the Rock is a quite different to Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca – both of which I enjoyed but weren’t favourites of mine. However, Finnikin (which is fantasy) and the piper’s son definitely are.

  8. nathan says:

    Hi Sandy – thanks for letting me know about the google reader omission on my website. I believe I have fixed it.

    The exciting world of blogs and feeds is still new to me though I’m confident that with time I will emerge as an online social butterfly.

  9. I love Melina’s books, Sandy.

    I totally agree with both of you about teaching what you do. It’s something that can’t be learned in a book – a writer’s special way of doing things that can really resonate with others.

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