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Dr Jared Thomas: On reading

May 15, 2013

If you want to be a writer I can’t stress enough how critical it is to read. One of the excuses I hear from emerging writers who don’t read is, ‘I don’t want any other stories to corrupt my ideas.’ A former writing lecturer of mine,Kerryn Goldsworthy, says that some people’s ideas need corrupting.  I argue that as an emerging writer you must gain an understanding of great stories, great writing, poor writing, the craft of writing. You MUST read.


Although I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like to, I read broadly, across genres and continents and styles. I include the watching of films and television, reading of articles and observation of life as part of this reading process.


Every person and experience encountered is a potential character or scene. Every book or film is a lesson in good or bad storytelling.


I remember once speaking with a psychologist, who said to me, ‘At parties people get nervous when they find out I’m a psychologist. They always ask me if I’m psychoanalysing them’. ‘Are you?’ I asked and he replied, ‘I tell them I’m not… but of course I am.’


A commonality of all successful writers I have met is that they’re inquisitive… they will ask questions about the things they don’t know and read to learn more.


I travelled through Jamaica with Olive Senior in 2008. Olive was Jamaica’s first female journalist and a Commonwealth Writers Award winner. She is the author of the‘A-Z of Jamaica’. She told me about the rivers she swam in not being acknowledged in the history and geography books she studied as a child and taking particular offence to this. This was part of her impetus to set the story straight.


When we travelled through country, Olive not only pointed out a particular plant but the history of the plant, when it was introduced to the country and all of the socio-historic aspects of its introduction. A meal was never just a meal and a road never just a road.


Olive was a visiting scholar of Adelaide University of Adelaide in 2010 and when I travelled through my country with her, I sensed her annoyance when I couldn’t tell her every particular detail of place, particularly the colonial history of place.


I was struck by Olive’s writing due to its vibrancy, the sense of place she conjures, the depth of complexity of her characters and gentle unravelling socio-political circumstances that influence the actions of characters. Spending time with Olive alerted me to the importance of learning my environment, the environment that I will continue to write about in great depth. The only way I will accomplish this depth of knowledge is through reading.


You may have gathered that I am a huge Paul Kelly fan. When I was undertaking a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing in 2001 my lecturer Kerryn Goldsworthy asked the tute group of about ten, who our role models are, who we wanted to emulate. Other students named members of the cannon of literature, abstract genre writers. When it came to my turn, I said ‘Paul Kelly’. She replied, ‘In a silver top, to her door’. I was happy that Kerryn got it. And then I went on to explain that I thought it amazing the way that Paul Kelly can evoke so much, develop such a sense of place and emotion in so few words.


I didn’t really appreciate the mastery of Paul’s story telling until I read his autobiography, of sorts, ‘How to Make Gravy’ the A-Z of Paul’s songs. To grasp the importance of reading to develop storytelling finesse, reading this work is a must.


Listening to Paul Kelly’s music, one thinks that every word he sings is one he’s lived or experienced, or at least someone has. This however isn’t the case. In ‘How to Make Gravy’ Paul deconstructs his songs, showing how they are a pastiche of ideas gained from reading other people’s stories, reading paintings, reading films and even reading the Bible… passing time in hotel rooms (ever available reading material). The story of how Paul Kelly develops his songs reveals devotion to chipping away through layers of meaning and influence to develop truly great stories. His unique approach to writing, unforgiving in his borrowing and transforming stories and ideas, is perhaps what makes him arguably Australia’s greatest singer song writer.


Today I was speaking with Anita Heiss about her methodology for developing a manuscript. I will certainly test her methodology in the writing of my new novel.


It takes quite a while for emerging writers to establish their approach. A short cut toward realising what works for you is to consider what works for your heroes.

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