Writing authentically

You know when parts of your brain fire off each other, as connections from things you’ve read, seen, done spark together?  Well, authenticity has been my food for thought this week.  I start from the premise of a person liking to ‘get things right’ (tendencies towards perfectionism, not always a very helpful thing), so hold that in context.

One of the events I attended at The Port Eliot Festival was a talk given by Kurt Jackson.  At the Q&A at the end, a girl in the audience asked him how he painted the sea – she just couldn’t emulate it no matter how she tried to glean techniques from studying his texts.  “You have to observe the sea, truly know it” he said, almost telling her that she was looking the wrong way.  He told her to experiment with paint, rubbing off, adding, highlighting until you have it.  Or that was the gist of the technique.  He then talked about understanding how something ‘works’ in order to re-create it, and how in working with kids from the city, who don’t know the sea, that it translates so clearly in what they create on paper.  “You know they don’t know the sea,” he said. It’s not authentic is where my mind goes.

I’ve had that experience with writers too.  Someone wants to toss in a scene about sailing, and it shows that they’ve never experienced it.  Also about the world of business, how organisations work.  Not everything runs like a school (where some people’s experience of large functioning organisations end).  It makes me think about my own attempts in raking up the past in my WIP – and why I’ve spent hours pouring over reference books.  I have a good sense of how people lived, what they wore, what they ate, what the houses were like, how they farmed, and how they seemed to a relatively sophisticated 18th Century Scottish adventurer (fairly rustic, it has to be said).  But I’ve some work to do in understanding the religious dogma that was around – hence a  parallel process on searching for sermons, and investigating the Spanish Inquisition.  I’m not aiming for text-book quality, but I want my reader to believe that this is 18th Century Lanzarote. I’m also revelling in studying about volcanoes, and representing the eruption accurately will be an aim of mine.  There won’t be any ash clouds, although it’s tempting to write about it as there’s so much footage/writing after the 2010 explosion of Eyjafjallajokulll.  It wasn’t that kind of volcano.

The nature of authenticity also had me thinking about writing about sailing (the other book I want to write).  The whole language about it when I first started set my head into spins.  I had a similar experience the other day, as I’ve started a ‘learn to row’ (a gig) course – when in Cornwall and all that.  There is a whole new language, and I’m right at the start, AGAIN!  In the 90 minutes of the lesson my mind was completely fused, and I am completely at the “Consciously Incompetent” end of the learning curve, beyond “unconsciously incompetent”. In less polite terms, this means “ignorant” – which is the quality that betrays some writing.  I’ve been reading Tim Winton short stories this last week (what an amazing writer), and noticing the authenticity and authority in his writing.  I could never convey what he does about Australian society, culture or surfing.  Stereotypes don’t create authenticity.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I don’t believe in ‘write about what we know’, as we’d never have the opportunity to grow as writers. Certainly write about what interests you, but please do it authentically.

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