This was the first panel discussion I attended at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, or if you know me in real life, it’s probably obvious why I’d be drawn to this talk, given its title (I’m alluding, of course, to my love of classic novels). The panel was chaired by Julianne Schultz, with guest writers Dennis Glover, Catherine Lacey and Jeff Sparrow. They had each researched and written books about inspiring and noteworthy individuals: for Glover it was George Orwell, Sparrow followed Paul Robeson, and Lacey researched various individuals in an intricate web of relationships.
Most people know George Orwell – his works are very popular in school curriculums everywhere – but I hadn’t heard of Paul Robeson before (at least, I don’t think I had), and about half of the names Lacey was throwing around didn’t sound familiar to me either. Nonetheless, I wasn’t really there to learn about these other famous people; I was there to learn about the marks left by these people, as well as about guest panelists, their work and their views. I was simply there to learn from them and “be inspired” as the event’s tagline promised.
Perhaps led/prompted by Lacey’s book The Art of the Affair, the discussion tended to revolve around important relationships in the lives of the so-called “masterful minds” rather than the minds themselves. Perhaps this says something about the vitally important nature of support, connectedness and love in people’s lives, facilitating the creation of great things.
As I’d mentioned in a previous post, I hadn’t taken notes during the talks, so I’m a bit iffy on fine details, but I think Glover mentioned something about how Orwell’s first (?) wife actually helped him get published. It pretty much exemplifies that saying that begins, “behind every great man…”
Well, the discussion was such that an audience member even asked the panel (during question time at the end) if they thought it was necessary to have many lovers in order to be a genius. This brought much amusement, but a non-committal answer. (Perhaps, also, the cause and effect are the other way around…?) Either way, Glover told us Orwell probably did his best work in solitude.
It reminded me, actually, of something out of Anna Karenina. There’s a scene where Vronsky is talking to an old school friend, Serpukhovskoy, and is given the following advice: “Women are the main stumbling block in a man’s activity. It’s hard to love a woman and do anything.” (Part 3, Chapter 21)
Something else I found rather interesting was the way in which they researched their subjects, particularly Sparrow. At one point in the panel discussion, they were talking about the ready availability of information on their subjects. There’s been a lot written about Orwell, and Robeson’s life is similarly well-documented. This might mean it’s easy to research facts, but then there’s the worry that this has all been written before, and what is the point? (This is something that I’ve worried about with my own writing.)
What Sparrow did, however, was actually visit various places that Robeson had travelled through, and he spoke to anyone who had a story to tell about Robeson. I remember Sparrow gave the example of going to a town that Robeson had held a concert in. There he spoke to a man who had attended the concert, and for whom the event had had a great impact. Perhaps the man was not anyone historically significant, but his story was a new reflection on Robeson’s story, and certainly showed the influence one person can have.
Glover did something similar for his book, but I suppose he was more interested in places. He had followed Orwell’s footsteps (in the literal sense), and discovered many of the real places that had inspired the fictional places in Orwell’s novels, particularly in 1984. He seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and highly recommended that we, the audience members, make a similar journey of discovery for whichever authors or novels we admire.
Not that I didn’t have enough places on my holiday wish list, but now he’s put this idea into my mind too. I mean, I’d heard of these sorts of holidays and tours before (for some reason, I think the ones I’ve heard of are mostly in England, or mostly revolve around English authors, like Jane Austen or JK Rowling) but I never really thought that I’d actually go on one. I don’t have anything against it – it seems like a fun thing to do – but I just wasn’t sure I’d ever take a holiday specifically for this purpose.
And whose footsteps would I want to follow?
This particular point of the discussion also got me thinking about the places I could garner inspiration from. Glover asserted that much of Orwell’s work was inspired by real settings and locations – he built his fictional world from real experiences and observations. And I suppose this goes back to that old adage, “write what you know”.
Interesting, though, that an author in a later panel discussion would talk about a novel he’d written about a boy losing his mother, even though he (the author) had never experienced the death of a close relative. So I guess you could just write what you know, but you could also be inspired and pushed by what you don’t know.
Really, though, a lot of this – hearing about how other people write – the things that inspire and drive them – this has basically reinforced that there are many ways to go about writing a book or other text, but there isn’t necessarily one that’s more effective. Maybe all of these approaches are right. At least, they each have their merits.