Sydney Writers’s Festival 2014 – Craft Lecture with Kathryn Heyman
What is story for? Why do we need it? And what are the elements needed to create story that transforms?
A well structured narrative – in fiction or non-fiction – gives a glimpse of transformation, not just for the characters, but for the reader. Acclaimed novelist Kathryn Heyman works through elements of narrative structure to explore how story is made, how it impacts on your life and why it matters now more than ever.
My thoughts – The session on craft with Kathryn Heyman was enlightening, informative, and at times, with Kathryn’s great stage presence and timing – very funny. Many of the things Kathryn talked about reaffirmed what she had taught me during my two mentorships with her. If only I’d had the wisdom of these words before I started writing! I love the novel I’ve completed and honestly think I would never have finished it without Kathryn’s help – but I find myself more excited, (and a little scared), about the next novel – the one I will write armed with knowledge about the craft of writing, but more importantly – about myself as a writer.
I will paraphrase here a little – my manic scribbling skills are pretty good but still, I was unable to speed scribble fast enough to catch all of Kathryn’s words. I will do my best.
What is involved in creating a good story?
To begin, Kathryn described her experience while completing a scuba diving course – she’d had lots of practice and thought she would be a natural, but in the deep water, in the murky depths, she panicked – she couldn’t see, felt a heavy weight on her chest and everything pressed upon her. The instructor advised her to ‘just breathe’, but she couldn’t breath underwater, breathing seemed impossible, so in her panic she did the logical thing, or so she thought at the time, and pulled out her regulator.
When the regulator went back in – Kathryn breathed. It didn’t feel entirely natural – but it sustained her. To Kathryn – creativity is like breath, it sustains us.
So, for those in the audience – or the world at large – Why does story matter to you?
There is danger in words, in stories – with the reading of words one imitates the words and actions of the character – we feel scared if our hero is threatened, excited if our protagonist locks eyes with a lost love, feel the emotional aspect of pain if the character is hurt, patriotic if the words question an issue in our society or politics. Words can induce a revolution. A writer, a storyteller, can persuade an audience with their words. There lies the danger.
Kathryn refers to Christian Salmon’s book and his discussion of the rise of narrative in business and politics. She used Coke as an example and their use of narrative to sell their product – to Kathryn this is just surface storytelling, brand created stories, corporate appropriate story – surface storytelling – and without the murky chaos it is the appearance of being authentic, but it is merely curated anecdote that won’t transform the reader.
What is the heart of what you want to say? What is it that only you can write about? What is the desperately alive thing?
Storytelling is a tool to become more connected and to be more human – story is dangerous, and creates empathy and unity even with the mess of truth – so just as your protagonist needs to go through the murky chaos, so does the writer.
It is integral to the craft of writing that the writer has a willingness to engage with authenticity and to tell yourself the truth.
I have always wanted to write a novel a novel BUT….
The external excuses, the distractions of work, children, etc, are not the true distractions. Kathryn recommends the writer dig deeper, dig away at the external reasons until you find the truth – and keep digging until you find something powerful. Name the secret fear and you will get to the truth – and then – shine a torch on it.
CHAOS, DOUBT, FEAR and FAILURE
Your protagonist should lead your reader into a deep empathetic experience. We need to share the characters habits, thoughts and desires and their compulsion to get something. We must create a concrete dominating desire for our character.
- What does your protagonist desire?
- Who is stopping them from obtaining it?
- Who is helping them?
Desire vs. Obstacle – This desire has to overcome the obstacle and the conflicts – this will allow the story to unfold. The characters external need will keep your story running and drive the narrative forward.
- What is you protagonists wound? Their weakness?
The wound is the first thing we see, it makes the protagonist (and us all) repeat the same fatal flaw. The character is intrinsically led by pain and is unable to acknowledge the wound for what it is. If your character knew their wound they wouldn’t be under its sway – they need to transform through the novel to enlightenment. But not all characters transform – will your character choose what they want (external need) or what they need (internal need)? Kathryn talked a little here about the characters want vs. need. Most characters choose what they need – to heal their internal wound and get what they truly wanted all along – but some – as in Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, the character chooses what they want. I am sure this generally leads to unhappiness or death for the character. With my extremely limited knowledge on this subject I am no expert but, I am fairly sure this happens rarely in books.
Kathryn went on to say that weakness drives narrative – when you know the weakness that propels the protagonist, you will begin to find out what the character needs for transformation. There will be that dark moment necessary for the protagonist, but also for the writer – the moment where there is nothing but disorder and uncertainty and we must visit the murky chaos, and shine a torch on the wound.
Your character must have this loss, this wound. Kathryn reiterates – there must be an abandonment of hope, a journey into chaos and the risky trip to the underworld before the character can begin to transform.
Kathryn wants us to be brave – dig deep with your characters weakness and your own. Only abandonment allows genuine transformation.
THE WRITERS LIFE
To finish – Kathryn says that the writers’ life requires courage, openness, empathy and a willingness to fail. Don’t tell your stories with mere gloss, tell them with all their murkiness – it is as simple and complex as breath.
Kathryn Heyman is the author of five novels, including The Accomplice and Captain Starlight’s Apprentice, published internationally and in translation. She has received an Arts Council of England Writers Award, the Wingate and the Southern Arts Awards, and been nominated for the Orange Prize, the Scottish Writer of the Year Award, the Edinburgh Fringe Critic’s Awards, the Kibble Prize, and the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. She has written several radio plays for BBC radio, including adaptations of her own work. Her fifth novel, Floodline was published in 2013.
As well as directing the fiction program for Faber Academy Australia, Kathryn Heyman is the director of the Australian Writers Mentoring Program and a member of the Folio Prize Academy.
To find out more about Kathryn and the Australian Writers Mentoring Program click here.