on Censors and Mentors

Posted on September 8, 2008

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The poet, WH Auden, wrote that the aspiring poet needs to develop an internal Censor. This is the voice of a past master. The poet needs to have a ‘literary transference’ onto that master. It is the poet’s apprenticeship, served in a library, not on a building site or workshop. By studying your chosen master, you develop your internal Censor, the voice of the chosen master who tells you what the poem is like, what is working, what isn’t.

I am attempting to cultivate the voice of Australian poet, Les Murray, as my Censor for my poetry. I can imagine him stomping around in frustration at my efforts. In deference to Les, I have put my poetry book aside for now. I suspect that even my imaginary Censor can only take so much.

While this idea of poetry Censor is only some weeks old for me, arising out of a poetry lecture several weeks ago, I believe that it applies equally well in writing fiction. And I am already cultivating these to an extent as mentors.

Jack Dann’s novel, The Memory Cathedral, resides on my bookshelf as a reminder of verisimilitude. This is a concept that Jack tried to get into my thick skull as a workshop on a brutally cold July weekend in 2003. The Memory Cathedral is more than a reminder of this concept, it practically reeks of it.

Time Future by Maxine McArthur, sits by Jack’s novel. Maxine’s story is a magnificent example of how to construct a self-contained world with a cracking story.

A goodly piece of shelf space is devoted to David Gemmel’s novels, magnificent examples of how to write heroic fantasy. His untimely passing was a tragic loss to the story-telling world.

Rounding out my collection of internal mentors is Bernard Cornwell. His novels about Richard Sharpe, primarily set during the Napoleonic Wars, are cracking reads, packed with authorial authenticity from his painstaking research. Cornwell’s telling of the Arthurian legend, putting it in a much more realistic setting, fitting what a is traditionally a Welsh legend, is a fantastic read.

For my money, Cornwell is a master storyteller, everything that I aspire to be as a writer. My interest in Cornwell has become refreshed by two recent occurrences. First, a friend returned my set of Cornwell’s Warlord trilogy, his telling of the saga of Arthur. Second, I recently required a box set of the 15 feature-length dramatisations of the Sharpe novels. These have all been very well done with every appearance of the same care being taken in their presentation as Cornwell in his own research.

So what do my mentors think of my writing now?

Back in 2003, Jack Dann told me something along the lines of ‘guy, you have a LOT of work to do, but it will be worth it.’ He also told me that my work was page-turning, but that I need to do a lot of work developing my plots. Earlier this year, I emailed Jack to let him know that courtesy of my studies, I now understood what he meant. Jack was delighted to hear this and replied that I had taken a great step forward in my writer’s journey. I think Jack would be pleased with the way that I am now developing things, although probably would find room for improvement, encouraging me to keep on writing and working at refining my skills.

Maxine has previously read my work and been complimentary. However her advice was that I need to bring in more detail, the details that brings the story alive in the mind of the reader. I believe that Maxine will be pleased with my development in this respect next time that she reads some of my work.

Cornwell would no doubt have plenty of good advice to offer on my research, on my research techniques. I realise that this is still an area that needs more work. I find myself easily losing direction, not sure what to look at, becoming distracted, unsure where I need to be searching.

I have made progress with my apprenticeship but it is a long way from over.

Claudia Hunter Johnson writes in her excellent book, Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, that the writers apprenticeship takes 5-10 years to learn the craft. I am 45 years old. I have an auto-immune disease which means, statistically, I will most likely not make it to average age. I simply do not have 10 years to spend on my apprenticeship and still make any impression on the stories that I want to tell. So I have to find ways and means of compressing this apprenticeship as much as I can. That is why I need quality, demanding internal mentors.

postscript – this weekend’s The Age, has an article about another writer who was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at 15, and then found to have aggressive bowel cancer at 31. Another emphasis on potentially how little time I might have and the need to pack it all in as much as I can.

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