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.