Monday, September 29, 2014

Always an Apprentice

This month we welcome a guest post by the author, raconteur and spritual tourist, Walter Mason. Walter was a student of mine some years back at University of Western Sydney where I taught a number of writing subjects. In my creative non fiction class he wrote a brilliant personal essay about meeting a monk in Vietnam. I told him it was so good he should send it out immediately for publication. He found a publisher (Allen & Unwin) not only for that essay but for a whole book of them. (I love it when students take my advice!) His bestselling Destination Saigon was published in 2010 and was followed by Destination Cambodia in 2013. Walter is also a great authorpeneur and a generous promoter of other authors work. If you want an example of how to be an entertaining, living, loving, giving author, just follow Walter around for a month or two on his library events, festival appearances, classes, lectures, web chats, blogs, tweets and FB activity. His energy is boundless and infectious. Here is taste of it...

I’m afraid I am rather an anxious type, and one of the first things I do when faced with a challenge is to read a book about it. And normally not just one. I can lose several days in a whirlwind of research when faced with preparing a coleslaw for a barbecue, or being asked what BB cream I could recommend a personal trainer. I am under no illusion that these are avoidance tactics, pure and simple. I would do almost anything not to put forward a firm opinion, which is why I am a member of several research libraries and am still not really sure what I think about the Macarena. These things take time. Come back to me when I have really examined all sides of the issue.

Worse, once I make a commitment and actually start doing something, I can never really give up researching it and learning more about it. Perhaps it’s a blessing, but I have the ability to remain constantly fascinated by subjects it might be safely assumed I had exhausted. I will still read every book, for example, on the New Romantic movement. I have been buying books about mermaids since I was ten years old. And my library of books on controversies surrounding the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist may be one of the biggest in private hands. I don’t let go of my obsessions easily. 

And so it is with books about writing. I adore them. I buy every new one I hear about, and simply delight in the discussions – circular and endless – that famous and not so famous writers have about their craft. Certain writing books are like holy relics to me, and I read them over and over again. My go-to books are Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” and Julia Cameron’s “Your Right to Write.” Added to these are the more belletristic books about writers that dwell on elements of their subject’s professional writing habits and concerns. These I find even more addictive.

The very best are Edmund White’s book about Proust, S. N. Behrman’s “Conversation with Max” and the simply superb “The Quest for Corvo.” I could (and regularly do) just devote two days to sitting down and reading these back-to-back and coming away completely satisfied. And if I were ever stranded on a desert island all I would need was Richard Ellmann’s enormous (and very writerly) biography of Oscar Wilde and I could spend the rest of my years in complete contentment. 

But now there’s a new book which is the perfect combination of these two strains of write-o-tainment. “Always Apprentices” is a collection of interviews and interactions between working writers, all of them originally appearing on the pages of the American literary magazine ‘The Believer’. It is a wonderfully diverse collection, and filled with fascinating observations, pearls of wisdom and insider information. I am on my second read, and bring away something new from it each day.

It contains some big names: Michael Ondaatje, Pankaj Mishra, Joan Didion and Don DeLillo talking to Bret Easton Ellis. These chats are, of course, completely absorbing. But I have been inspired and charmed by some lesser-known writers whose work I have been inspired to seek out because of this book, people like Mary Gaitskall, Christine Schutt and Geoff Nicholson.

“A writer is never successful,” says Bruce Jay Friedman in the book, echoing a sentiment I came across recently in Justin Heazlewood’s brilliant book “Funemployed.” It’s a bitter truth but one I think is true. In a landscape in which writers – and probably all creatives – are increasingly devalued, it becomes harder and harder to earn a living. This is, of course, bad news, but I think it is an essential fact to confront. Now, I think Friedman is making a more esoteric reference, something along the lines that a writer never fully succeeds in the project s/he undertakes. But the more prosaic interpretation stands. We live in age in which we must constantly work and work hard in order to carve some sort of career as a writing professional, and this is why books like “Always Apprentices” are essential reading. We can never afford to get lazy or rest on our laurels.

This brings me back to Zen Buddhism, which is essential to the work of Natalie Goldberg, one of my aforementioned classic writers’ writers. Zen talks about the “beginners mind,” the state of being in which we look at everything with fresh eyes and seek to empty our minds of preconceived judgements and ideas. Such an approach is an exceptionally helpful one for writers, and is, I think, the reason why writers often appear deceptively youthful. To write is to cultivate surprise and to be constantly discovering. It is an extremely healthy approach to life. 

The wonderful eccentricity of the writing life is best expressed in the book by Joy Williams, a novelist who doesn’t have an email address and can’t use computers. Though such a position must be maddeningly inefficient and even socially isolating, I can understand its charm. As someone who currently has  2,751 emails to attend to (and possibly more since you started reading this) I am hyper-aware of the fact that technology can be a writer’s enemy as much as her or his friend. Noy Holland continues the creative luddite theme by conducting her interview with Stanley Crawford through the medium of letters. It’s no surprise that letters are making something of a comeback in this age of ephemeral communication (see the success of Melbourne literary collective Women of Letters). Like handicrafts, zines and waxed moustaches, letters represent a kinder, more tactile age in which some painstaking effort of the hand produced an immeasurable reward. May they continue to experience this resurgence, and may each of you reading this commit to sending at least a few letters and postcards this year.

There is much in “Always Apprentices” that delights the writer, and much that makes the writer despair, but anyone in love with literary loveliness will be delighted by the stories in its pages of survival, resilience and remaining committed to the acts of writing and creation. Reading it I am reminded of the drive that lies behind all authorial efforts, what Graham Greene called: “a desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order.” Paula Fox talks about being “rediscovered” and of roaming across the city looking for copies of her out-of-print novel (now rightly considered a classic); and Aleksandar Hemon writes of the compulsion of writing, its psychic necessity:
“I write and read with the assumption that literature contains knowledge of human experience that is not available otherwise.”

Reading this book restores some of the romance of writing, and a sense of its great wonder. I am put back in touch with the tremendous glamour that accompanies all who choose to take seriously the call to write, and even to write for a living. As ridiculous and constantly frustrating as that path might be, it is undoubtedly still a noble one, and “Always Apprentices” is a record of that patchy, varied and multi-hued nobility. Do get a copy.

“Always Apprentices” is edited by Vendela Vida, Ross Simonini and Sheila Heti. It is published by Believer Books.

Walter Mason is an author, speaker, blogger and tour guide. In November Walter is appearing at the Emerging Writers NSW Roadshow at the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Does no-one send you snail mail any more as Walter says? Want to receive some exotic postcards in your letter box? Sign up for Postcard Prompts and receive four writing prompts by post card over a designated period of weeks or months. Find out more here.

Postcard Prompts is brought to you by Writer's Journey - heading for Morocco Nov 6-19, 2014.

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