Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Seven

The Centre of the Mystery

Think of writing as being a process of discovery.  The treasure is you!

Virginia's seventh letter returns to the material covered in her first, which was all about drawing on experiences to write what you know.  But just because she's asking you to write about your past doesn't mean she is giving you a free pass to go and pass off works of autobiography as works of fiction.  Once again, I stress; in writing what you know, teachers of creative writing really mean experiences, feelings, relationships, the essence of things, rather than real events, people and conversations, although you can fictionalise those too if you're really sneaky about it.

In accessing our memories and experiences, we must become like children, but remain mature writers.  We must learn to see the world in a childlike way; as if for the first time, every time.  Because we may not be, but our reader is.  Just because you know the jetty down at Deep Water Point like the back of your hand (oops, sorry, cliche) doesn't mean your reader has ever been there.  What colour is the wood?  How does the water smell?  Can you hear the shrieks of children on the nearby playground, see the top of the tower at Aquinas and count the number of jetskiers toppling into the diesel grey river?  Yeah.  Now you can.

Dickens was especially good at this sort of writing because he found a way to access the emotional landscape of his childhood.  Although Virginia does not tell us how he did this (she probably doesn't know for sure), it's pretty safe to assume that this came from practice.  Speaking of which!

Writing Exercise 7- write an account of a painful incident from your early life.

You'll excuse me if I deem this one a little personal to share until I've edited it some more.

My reaction to publishing the exercise is also somewhat indicative of the raw emotion I have touched on whilst writing it.  But sometimes the hardest things to write about are those experiences that are most important, and if we can find a way to record them, we are often rewarded with our best writing.  I encourage you to look at the beautiful, heartbreaking words that Louise Allan very bravely shared with us today.    This is exactly the kind of raw emotion that makes a moving read and I am very proud to know Louise today.  Conflict and hardship are the building blocks of a great story; think of Jane Eyre, Great Expectations and Little Women.  It is most important that we learn to deal with writing about things that are painful to us.  Personally, I believe it may even be beneficial.  As they say, writing is cheaper than therapy.

Be strong.  It's worth it.

In truly delving into the depths of our memory banks, we should be able to, as Seamus Heaney has said, unlock the mysteries of ourselves and make some sense of the world, even if it is just for ourselves.


  1. Thanks Emily. I'm glad you enjoyed reading the post. Well-timed for your seventh lesson!

    I did a course last year -- Freefall, with Barbara Turner-Vasselago. Barbara really encouraged us to just write as it came, and if something was painful or sad or had energy, to go 'fearwards'. It find that good advice and the words flow. You can always tidy them up before showing anyone -- or you don't even have to show them.

    Barbara also believes that it's best to give really emotional things time to 'compost' before writing about them. I imagine the piece on my sister that I posted today would have been far different if I'd written it 25 years ago, soon after her death. If things are too recent, I find it hard to step out of the story. I'm still too emotional. (Especially if I'm angry!)

    Great going with these exercises -- I'm enjoying reading them!


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