David Malouf at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Sydney Theatre. 11.30 am. 22 May, 2014

David Malouf

David Malouf

The auditorium lights faded.

Enter stage right, David Malouf. Australian Book Review’s first laureate. Multiple literary award winner, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Man Booker short-lister.

Enter Tegan Bennett Daylight. Interviewer. One of SMH ‘Best Young Australian Novelists.’

David Malouf was dapper. Smart grey blazer and cream trousers. He was so polished even his bald pate glowed. He spoke perfectly formed sentences with a beautifully modulated and warm voice. At 80 years old, he looked 50.

Tegan Bennett Daylight was natural. Hair windswept. Red and white swirly sun dress and flat birkenstock-style sandals to match. An Australian accent with no pretension. She looked 18.

If you wondered how this young slip of a thing came to be interviewing the Grand Master of Australian Literature you didn’t wonder for long.

Tegan Bennett Daylight

Tegan Bennett Daylight

Tegan Bennett Daylight asked those questions you would like to ask yourself, and questions which elicited thought-provoking ideas. Even questions you didn’t know you wanted answered. Even questions you wouldn’t be game to ask. A perfect interviewer, in other words.

Were you in love when you wrote that book? she asked soon into the session. The house stopped breathing. Malouf rarely talks about his personal life. He hesitated briefly. Yes, he said, and steered the conversation smoothly into a discussion of his book.

Malouf shared his writing practice.
– He writes daily, otherwise it’s too hard to keep starting up again.
– When he writes he can often reach a heightened state, where he loses all sense of time and place, so immersed is he in his created world.
– His characters take him on their journey, sometimes where he doesn’t want to go. Story is about characters being tested and having to find a new way of being in the world.

The writing self, he said, is selfish. It will find its own process, its own agenda and logic and way of putting things together. The work, poem or novel, knows something the author doesn’t. You have to trust it.

Safety by Tegan Bennett Daylight

by Tegan Bennett Daylight

What fascinated me about his process was this statement, “Form doesn’t matter.” Alex Miller said a similar thing yesterday. For Malouf a novel is worked an inch at a time and creates its own arc magically. I suspect he means that great works grow organically.

Yet almost all writing students worry constantly about form and structure. They have the ideas or the plot, but they are anxious about how to put it all together. Very rarely are they satisfied with ‘write it and see what happens.’ It takes great courage to trust that the form your work will take magically resolves itself, especially in creative arts where doubt and chaos play such an integral and crucial part.

I believe the best way to learn to write is to write , and read attentively. Miller and Malouf have the advantage of coming out of their apprenticeships a long time ago. That’s not to suggest they aren’t still discovering new ways to create, far from it. Miller has written 10 novels. Malouf has 9, as well as plays, poetry, non-fiction, libretti. Their reading lives are extensive. But the experience they have to draw on is colossal, and their trust hard won. When they were writing their first novel were they confident the structure would invent itself? I wanted to hear about the process that took Malouf and Miller to the point where they could say with such conviction that “form doesn’t matter?”

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Talking of rich reading lives, David Malouf’s is astounding. Could he really have read the complete set of Shakespeare’s plays at the age of 10 when his father presented them to him? How much did he understand? As a 12 year old he was reading novels like Wuthering Heights, Persuasion, Vanity Fair because they showed him the most extraordinary things about a world he couldn’t wait to grow up to inhabit. I’m ashamed to admit that at 10 I was reading Charlotte’s Web and anything with horses in it.

At one point in the session Bennett Daylight had to ask the audience to amuse themselves while she took a moment to contemplate the profound idea that Malouf had raised. The audience laughed, but it was the laugh of consolidation. Hadn’t we all felt like that at least once during the hour?

A First Place Book of essays

A First Place
Book of essays

To celebrate his 80th year Malouf has brought out a book of essays titled A First Place. He said you never leave or grow out of the first place you come to know. Writers form from the age of 3. This early world remains exotic because you see it through the eyes of a child. It is here you learned or became aware of the mystery and unpredictability of the world. Questioning and eavesdropping. You exist in a heightened state because everything is new and exciting. At the heart of his essays is the idea of home, what and where it is.

Graciously, just before they left the stage, Tegan Bennett Daylight thanked David Malouf for his generosity, not just for his open willingness to share himself and his ideas with the audience, but for his generosity to her personally as his interviewer.

It’s Thinking Season flashed up on every screen during the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This conversation epitomised it.

Definitely look out for this session on podcast.

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15 Responses to David Malouf at Sydney Writers’ Festival

  1. dianathrelfo says:

    Karen, I found this post profound and thoughtful and admire the way in which you have managed to so clearly share your experience of what sounds like a really awe-inspiring session, together with some of the questions it raised for you. How interesting to read Malouf’s opinion about the formation of a writer, and the significance to our lives of the first place we come to know. And bravo to Tegan Bennett Daylight for putting forward that awkward query!

    • Hi Diana. It was the best session I attended at the festival. Not only for the new ideas but also for the calibre of the speakers. I was thinking today about travelling, and why I prefer new places where the culture is very different from mine. Could it be to recapture that heightened childhood state of wonder Malouf talked about? Japan was like that for me. Robert Dessaix spoke on why he travels at the festival, and that was one of the reasons he goes to ‘dangerous’ places. Hopefully, I’ll get a post on soon about his lecture. Now, was that the highlight? Mmmm…

  2. fabulous post Karen, I have been fortunate over the years to read a few of Malouf’s novels and teach ‘An Imaginary Life’ a number of times. Its one of my all time favourite novels. The process of writing fascinates us doesn’t it, my mantra of have a go and find out where it takes you works for me as it gives me that sense of excitement in the writing process. I enjoyed this post and happy you shared it here.

    • Thanks, Michael. It’s always interesting to hear how other writers write. I share your excitement in writing to see what comes out. It’s kind of like reading – if I knew all about a book I probably wouldn’t read it. So if I knew all about my story and had an outline, where would the excitement be in writing it? I know writers who think that’s a terrifying way to write. I wonder if their excitement comes in the creating and planning of the outline? I’d be very interested to hear from those writers about the excitement in their process.

      • It’s often a magical mystery tour for me. Last Saturday I wrote to the fairy tale prompt on my blog. I used a piece I wrote a few years ago basically re writing much of it and got a point where a needed to conclude it and suddenly my muse took over and the end happened. Not idea about what happened when I began. Now that I found exciting and satisfactory when I finished. Often I wrote to a notion and then see where it takes me.
        This afternoon there will be a wordle challenge and it’s another example of not knowing where I might go, but it’s such fun as I have to work the set words into whatever the story might be. It’s why I find writing such a fun activity and I’m lucky I have the time to indulge myself as I do.
        Have a good day Karen.

      • Thanks for that, Michael. I love it when the muse takes over and you just have to move the pen. Have a fun writing day.

  3. margaret jackson says:

    Thank you Karen for sharing this amazing session. David Malouf’s statement about reaching a heightened state where he loses all sense of time and place, so immersed is he in his created world surely describes reaching the Higher intellectual and emotional centres. Perhaps the truly great writers inhabit these centres more often than most writers.
    “The writing self is selfish” – Perhaps we need to be more selfish to immerse ourselves in the writing and put aside the everyday worries for a time?
    Form doesn’t matter. I too would like to know more about these writer’s early writing of novels. Did they learn this as they went or did they instinctively know and just write. I would love a discussion on this point.
    Lastly Karen I want to say – don’t be ashamed of reading Charlot’s Web and anything with horses in it at ten. This is where your love of reading was nurtured and perhaps even then when your writing self began emerging.
    Your generosity in sharing the SWF session is wonderful – thank you.

    • Hi Marg. If only we could turn that heightened state on at whim! I know it’s elusive for even the great writers – I read interviews or heard them talk about their unproductive days. There may be something in them inhabiting these spaces more often. Although I also wonder if they write more often, and therefore have more opportunity to catch the wave.
      I hear what you’re saying about being more selfish. Some of us struggle with that one, don’t we!?
      I’m not completely convinced that form doesn’t matter. I’m thinking Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett. The unique form Woolf developed for ‘The Waves’ is crucial to its success. She agonises about how she’s going to do it endlessly in her diaries. Form does matter in ‘The Waves.’ But I get excited about experimental writing that successfully pushes boundaries. I read it differently, though. I’m not necessarily looking for narrative or plot, but I do insist that I’m moved and my thinking is challenged in some way. Mmmm.. you’re right, this question requires more thought.

  4. Tony Harris says:

    I love David’s writing and this post provides him the respect that is well deserved. That his writing draws on reading is a fabulous selfishness – both reading and writing are selfish activities that draw on “the magic” of the next word, phrase, idea and contemplation…
    Never be ashamed of where or when you started reading or writing! That you do read and write is the result of your own travels… I was happily reading at the age of 3 and at age 8, rewrote the endings to RLS’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped because I didn’t like the originals – I got into deep trouble from School Teachers for that escapade.
    I’m encouraged by Mr Malouf’s statement that form doesn’t matter. As a software writer – form matters immensely – so as a fiction writer, to be released from that bondage is a totally liberating idea. Here’s the Rabbit Hole, let’s see where it goes.

    • I’m glad you think I’ve treated David Malouf with the respect he deserves in this post, Tony. I am in awe of his writing and his mind.
      I really enjoy the way you talk about writing with all its magic. And likening it to falling down the rabbit hole into the unknown. It is like that, isn’t it? And also raw and cruel and heartbreaking. What a shame your teachers didn’t encourage your imagination and innovation.
      I can see that being liberated from form if you’re a software writer would be a relief. Most stories do write themselves when you are deeply immersed in them. The form grows organically from the well-developed story. It does take incredible trust and confidence in the process, though.
      The more I think about this idea the more I believe that there is writing where form matters immensely. Jonathon Safran Foer found form offered unique solutions to what he wanted to get across in ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.’ The chapter Jennifer Egan wrote as a powerpoint presentation in ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful if she hadn’t experimented with form.
      Thank you for adding to the conversation about the SWF sessions, Tony. I really appreciate your comments and thoughts.

  5. anne says:

    I loved your review of David Malouf’s session. Some of David’s work I like, more especially his earlier work and I like his poetry very much.
    Re Form: Mmmm. Me wonders if one worries about something like form too early, when writing a piece, might that, in fact, stop us from drifting into that wonderful space where you drift, unconsciously, where one has no idea of time of day, to which David referred. I very much like the idea of trusting the work itself so I’m a bit surprised by the rising discussion about form. It sounds like form is a demanding beast and I’d like to tell it to get back in its box and keep quiet so I can get on with the job of listening to, and interpreting, the work. I need to hear its whispers in that quiet place.
    As for being embarrassed about what you were reading at ten, Karen – well, you won’t be impressed by my confession. By ten I would’ve read every Enid Blyton book available and the Billabong books several times. I would’ve ead endless comics, which I had ready access to at my uncle’s newsagency – Archie, Bettie, Reggie, Veronica. I was quite in love with Archie; Batman and Robin, and The Phantom. I read True Romances, National Geographic, verses of the Bible every day as a Scripture Union member, a wonderful watered down version of Pilgrim’s Progress. I devoured the children’s sections of daily newspapers, like Daily Telegraph. Listened to the Cruel Sea, Wind in the Willows … I could go on and on but will spare you. Oh, but before I do, I must mention the picture book about wild brumbies, which I knew by heart. I’m not embarrassed about my eclectic range. They opened doors for me; took my budding imagination through fantastical doors, into fantastical worlds.
    I’ve recently started to reread the classics, probably some of the ones David read as a boy, which I would have had to read at school or at uni as a mature age student. Just finished ‘Sons and Lovers.’ Oh my goodness. It was like I’d never read it before. So, I’m really looking forward to the rest of this wonderful rediscovery tour.
    I’ve just been looking at ‘Privilege’ with my creative writing group; privilege being something unearned. David M was privileged in the way that he had access to such wonderful books and privileged that he had an intellect that could understand them at such a young age. But you had the privilege of being a young girl besotted with horses, like most young girls, and having access to horsey books, and having a wonderful imagination and intelligence. I could go on.
    Write on my lovely friend. You are opening doors, exciting doors for others and for yourself. I do so enjoy The Writers’ Life.

  6. margaret jackson says:

    I heartily agree with Ann.particularly her last two sentences. I’m living the fact that you are opening exciting doors for writer’s Karen. And Yes I do thoroughly enjoy the Writers Life – it is always thought provoking and instructive.

  7. anne says:

    Karen, I’ve been looking up this ‘form’ thing. Do you think it’s another word for structure?

    I see it as the shape of something. Is that how you see form/structure? Am I missing something? With Virginia W and ‘Waves’ I wouldn’t have known it was to be read in a particular way unless I’d been told so by her. When I did read it I tried to be carried away by the current of the waves, the ebb and flow and thought it was very clever but I can’t remember a thing about the novel unfortunately because I was so caught up in its craft.

    I’m curious about this because one of the things that often niggles me about writing is the, sometimes, over emphasis on craft, too early in a work, in either reading it or writing it.

    If we’re writing a piece, whether short story or novel, should we think about craft first i.e. what form it will take or do you let it tell you what it wants to be?

    For example, sometimes I’ve written a piece that I thought was going to be a poem and it turned out to be a short story but I had to run with it, because it dragged me, until we were both puffed out. Only then did it truly reveal itself to me. On the other hand, I could have moulded it into what I wanted it to be and that’s where I’m always asking myself, have I let the thought/piece/idea have its say.

    I’m wondering if writers who worry about not being able to find that timeless place when writing
    (such as David M mentioned and which I like to call ‘wonderland’) – have bought the wrong ticket for the wrong trip? I feel that if you catch the train that goes looking for theme, structure – form… too early then you might never get to visit wonderland, except by chance, rather than by choice.

    Wonderland is that place where one wanders, trusting the process, with a seed, an idea, a phrase, a character, a place, running with it, letting it lead, wherever it will, till you’re all puffed out. You take a rest and come back to earth to find the work has its own dominant force/shape.

    I feel that only then can one be more objective and look at the piece from a craftsperson’s point of view re shape, form/structure.

    It’s just a thought and it’s how I work. I’d be interested in your feedback.

    • Hi Anne.

      I’ve been looking up this ‘form’ thing too, and yes, I think it’s another word for structure. Thank you for sharing your writing process. I’m always fascinated by the way other writers write.

      You asked “…should we think about craft first… or do you let it tell you what it wants to be?” I can’t see how we can craft our work first. You can’t craft nothing. Sue Woolfe likens the process of writing to making a pot. You have to dig up the clay before you can start shaping it.

      My process is that I just write. Sometimes about something that concerns, interests, intrigues me and I want to explore it in writing. Often I just pick up my pen and write. From that comes ‘stuff’ that excites me and I’ll go deeper, unpicking and following the threads to see what’s underneath.

      All this is chaotic and messy and completely free of any thought of craft or form. When scenes start writing themselves I know something’s forming in the murk. Much of this happens in what David Malouf refers to as the timeless place, and which you call ‘wonderland’ but there are frustrating days when it evades me.

      Having said that I do know a superb writer, one I work very closely with, who seems to have the story worked out before she writes a word. But I know she spends days, months, and years, thinking and dreaming before she puts a word on the page. Even then nothing is set solid; it changes and moves all the time. Her periods of not writing are spent in a ‘wonderland’ in her head, I suspect.

      I’m in awe that you can go into ‘wonderland’ by choice. Do I worry about not being able to find that timeless place every time? Yes and no.

      Yes, because that’s when the doubts, uncertainty and self-criticism come in. How can anything come out of this chaotic mess? I question what I’m doing and the ridiculous purpose of ‘making up stories.’ And as you put so wonderfully, worry that I have ‘bought the wrong ticket for the wrong trip.’

      And no, because experience has taught me that when I come out of this ‘difficult’ time I seem to gain a little more clarity about what I’m doing. I have learned to trust it will work itself out, and I just keep on writing anyway. Sometimes losing myself and sometimes not.

      I wish I could write in a much less painful way, but it’s the way it happens for me.

      Once the story reveals itself then I do consciously craft and structure the story so it is as effective as I can make it. Mostly the form is already an organic part of the story. Sometimes it’s not. Then I have to go back and ‘just write’ again. Until you know what you want to say I can’t see the point in crafting or structuring a piece.

      But the structure my story eventually takes is an integral and organic part of the writing. It’s not separate from it, but has emerged from it. It’s as important as character or plot or any of the other things that go to make a story. The way a story is structured can make a crucial difference to how a reader connects to, reacts to, is moved by, informed by, experiences and engages with a story. It’s not so much ‘how’ or ‘when’ form is determined that interests me, it’s why David Malouf thinks it’s not important.

      Or does he simply mean it doesn’t matter which form you use to communicate with your reader? ANY form can suffice.

      Those are my thoughts in answer to the wonderful conversation you’ve instigated.

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