THE WHITE WARATAH
Australian Story Writing – Class 8 – Main Lesson
Note that the concepts in this lesson can be applied to any country you live in.
The small audience of high school teachers were settling in nicely in the comfortable – smoke-free! – lounge-staffroom as the visiting speaker, after the usual formalities, began her lecture on the Short Story.
“Some uncharitable literary commentators state that the short story is an inferior form of literature – a ‘small’ story in fact; one designed for those with the attention span of an 8-year-old child. Not so, in its finest manifestations, like the series of short stories of the life of Christ in the four gospels, the genre stands as high as any prose form.
The reality is that one particular content package is more suited to one-word length than another. This occurs from the one-line aphorism; through the 3000-word short story; to the novella, a short novel; right up to the 1000-page blockbuster – or the 3-volume saga even!
Only in terms of sheer effort is the novel a superior literary form. Literature should never be judged on quantity – if you want your reading by the kilogram, read the phonebook!
The first thing we meet in the short story is the title. Oh, how important are titles! Millions of excellent stores have remained unread because the reader could not get past an insipid, tasteless, inapt, inept or mundane title. But how inviting is a good title like – um – Vance Palmer’s series of short stories called Sea and Spinefix. The clear nature images and alliteration are evocative, setting the tone even before you read the first line.
The less intimidating short story form is often a starting point for would-be authors; many whom have time, energy or inspirational limitation. A regimen of say 1000 words a day can produce a collection of short stories with a manageable time frame. These can be worked up into an acceptable manuscript form for submission to publishers. They can also be self-published – in a limited edition of course.
There is a current truism around the publishing world that it has never been easier to publish a book – with desk-top publishing and so on – but it has never been harder to sell one! Though in Australia the selling climate is quite good for the short story writer, with a surfeit of quality magazines and less-known literary journals of one kind or another; like Meanjin, Westerly and Voices. This acceptance of the Creative Word in our country is built upon two foundation stones.”
“the first foundation stone of a genuine Australian literature was the old Bulletin Magazine; this gave many inspired but anonymous writers their nervous beginnings in publishing. These are writers who are today as legendary as the characters and images they wove into the national psyche, like Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and Dame Mary Gilmore.
The second stone was the Sydney publisher Angus and Robertson; under its visionary auspices, word wrights of every complexion found their way into print – some found their way out again just a quickly! Other went on to international fame; the greatest being Patrick White.
But then a lot of Australia’s erstwhile short story literati came from, or wrote in – curiously – the Adelaide-Melbourne axis. All this literary creativity, as well as giving the world the Stumpjump Plough! But ow to go about writing a short story?
Experienced authors have their own sworn-by methods of course, and keeping an eye on the literary pages of papers and magazines can reveal many hints and secrets successful writers reveal in interview. But the simplistic idea of just banging away on a typewriter to see what happens would almost certainly not be one of them.
There is actually a directional factor in good writing – from above down. This reality is expressed in the vernacular in many ways – ‘The idea just came down to me.’! Even Moses had to go up to receive that timeless best-seller ‘Thou Shalt Not’! Anyway, a beginner could do worse than follow the Seven Steps to Short Story Writing.
- First, we raise our creative antennae to find the Idea – the overall concept of the story. Let’s say the bud of an idea blossoms about two wounded Australian soldiers in adjacent beds in a military hospital; of how they uncover, through a shared musical talent, a re-incarnational truth about her meeting on an earlier battlefield – say in the Middle East – on the killing field of the Crusades.
This idea is the most vital part of the creative process, without it, nothing else can happen, so take your time. As the Aussie short story writer Louis Esson said (Louis who?!) ‘Better bread and cheese and an Idea, than fortune and champagne and no idea.’ If the idea is good – make that great – then you might be lucky enough to have both!
- The next step is a kind of meditation, to jot down everything relevant that you know about the period and people; in our case, early 20th Century Australian soldiers in a military hospital in Palestine. This flow of knowledge comes from within, a specialized compilation of your whole life’s experiences. As an example, write everything down you can think of about the people/period mentioned, I bet you could surprise yourself and fill a whole page!”
“This flow of personal knowledge of a subject comes from within; it is the main element of research which stamps the story with the author’s own individuality.
- Research – now from without, reference books and the like are used shamelessly; if for no other reason than to fill in the gaps of one’s own knowledge. What was the name of the hospital ship which brought the soldiers home! What kind of uniform did a military nurse wear in 1916? What is/was the color of the desert in Palestine?
- By hand, write a rough draft of the story – concentrate on flow and continuity, not punctuation and spelling! The hand-written original assures yet again maximum impress of the individual, apart from its advantages in quick re-arranging, adding, and deletion.
- Now we’re in Class 8, we can type the finished manuscript; use a typewriter with word-processing facility. Observe the publishing convention, like double-spacing; 4 centimeter proofing margin on the left; copyright, date and name; page numbering (top right corner).
Have the MS sub-edited by someone with word skills; this throws light on the inevitable blind spots everyone has in relation to the form of the written word, helping correct clangers like: tautology and tedium, slang and solecisms, malaprops and mispelling, er, misspelling, ambiguity and affectations, platitudes and puerility, prolixity and pleonasms, redundancy and rambling, dilation and discursions, turgidity and timidity, pomposity and pretension, clichés and crabbing, rant and cant, pedantry and plagiarism, obscurity and opulence, archaisms and artificialities (like this list!).
- Submit to a publisher – select one which print similar material. Make a publishing file so that as soon as the reject slip arrives (if they have the courtesy you can shunt off the piece to another magazine, newspaper, book publisher whatever. Include a self-addressed envelope and a short covering letter.
- When all else fails, self-publish. You might only hand-produce 50 or so copies of your breakthrough short story collection, but at least you’re in print. This is important (apart from the self-esteem lift) because the author is then exposed to feedback (not the sympathetic friends and family variety!) – and self-education proceeds apace.
Some people use the pejorative ‘vanity publishing’ for self-help authors, but in essence self-publishing is no different from making pottery and selling it yourself. So good luck”.
The speaker sat down, smiling self-effacingly at the warm applause. Soon the clink of tea and coffee cups heralded concern for less lofty but not unimportant considerations.
A short, wiry man handed her a plate of sliced honey roll. He was the ‘Guardian’ of Class 8. “thanks for that.” He said smoothly “I understand that you’re a lady of leisure at the moment, with plenty of time between freelance jobs.”
“Well yes, things are sometimes slow in this, like any other creative, business – why do you ask?”
“um, I’m looking for an experienced word person to take a 3-week language main lesson with my 14-year-olds – interested?”
“Yes! Er, I mean no. I’ve done very little teaching with teenagers – cough – it’s, ah, what subject area?”
“Australian Short Story Writing.”
Class Guardian went on “It’s part of the 3-fold Language main lesson stream – the ‘Body’ aspect actually, under the general heading of Australian Literature. The body element is a national lit. program is related to the dominance of the geography – earth body – element in so much of the country’s literary expression. The other two strands in the Language stream are Expression and World Lit. (Soul and Spirit!).
“Tell me more.”
“Main lessons appeal to the ‘head’ forces of the students; middle the heart, and afternoon black lessons the hand. Main lessons further devolve into the ‘four bodies’ of the human being: Language informs the ego; maths resounds in the astral; social science illuminates the etheric; and science irradiates the unconscious depts of the physical body.
So Australian Short Story Writing is a head-ego-body unit – of course there is an Australian main lesson every year for the 5 years of high school.”
“Mmmm – that all sounds very interesting – informing, resounding, illuminating, and irradiating even – ha, ha! – er, go on please.”
“Basically the unit, taught every morning for 2 hours for 3 weeks, can be roughly divided into 2 strands – the Inductive and the Expressive. The first is the ideas they imbibe via your instruction – the second, their own creative writing, research or other activities. It’s a kind of breathing; inspire the content, expire it transformed as deed.”
“Ha, ha – you’ll go far, teen love humor! In terms of content, there are 3 areas of Australian Story that should be covered – the Will story, that brought from the ever-wise earth itself, by the Dreamtime visions of the Aborigines. Then there are the Feeling tales, those written for children, of which we have a wonderful, creative and spiritually rich heritage in this country.”
The Speaker’s eyes shone in warm recollection as she remembered her favorite Australian tales, May Gibb’s Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, or Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding. Only now did she understand how Lindsay wove in the four temperaments in the primary characters. There was phlegmatic Bunyip Bluegum, choleric Barnacle Bill, sanguine Sam Sawnoff (a great name, penguins do look somewhat forcibly truncated!) – and the melancholic Pudding Thieves themselves.
“That story is just packed with soul truths,” she said, “the rampant etheric and astral nature of Possum and Wombat, expressing as ‘trespass’ and ‘temptation’ respectively, is contained in the image of the ‘box’ in court – the box or cube is an ego force, that which restrains the excesses of the lower bodies.”
“That’s exactly what the students want to hear, in an appropriately veiled form of course. They want to know that there is a creative spirit ready to inspire the writer; even if s/he is not particularly well-informed spiritually – to inspire subliminally with divine truths. So we present the very best of Australian children’s stories to the class – only ones with literary merit of course. The third stand is the adult story; that which you spoke to us earlier about. This is the ‘thinking’ element of the will-feeling-thought troika in the fun unit.”
“Australian content eh? One could explore the antipodean eclectic element of English by hanging a large sheet of paper on the wall at the beginning of the unit, and write upon it strictly Oz word coinage; like sway, bludger, wowser , boomerang…”.
“Right,” said the teacher, warming to the idea “and sleepout, hoick, drongo, dunny, big smoke. The students could regard it as on-going homework, driving their parents mad with jumbuck, gumboots, mate and others. But another important facet of the lesson is reading. Many stories can be read aloud by the students – a page or so each (less for the poor readers of course). Here they exercise their declamatory and recitative skills – so important for 14-year-olds, side-tracking them as it does from kicking in phone booths!
The impulse for both speech and vandalism comes from the same incipient astrality in the young adolescent – both are genuine forms of expression; but one is higher, more constructive, than the other. Much of the ‘Activity’ part of the lesson should be devoted to writing – in fact a kind of test for the completion of the unit might be a well-written and presented short story; the ‘test; make of same, and some of the more outstanding passages should go into the end-of-unit Report. Another benefit of reading – or ‘public speaking’ as it really is – is to awaken the students to their dialect, or accent.”
The teacher looked reflective for a moment, then continued “That which bonds the person to the folk soul is the accent, to a large degree anyway. Our goal is to lead the students to a form of expression which has universal acceptance – the Michaelian factor in speech we call it.”
“I’m of cockney background you know.” Said the author shyly.
“Well!! I wouldn’t have known; your speech is so, so – one can’t tell where it’s from.”
“Yes, I consciously rose above the street dialect of my native tongue, as that I could enjoy the expressive benefits of my mother tongue (note the difference), English. I was ridiculed at school for being posh – but now I see that it was worth it.”
“hmmm, an excursion helps cement the unit into long-term memory. Visit an author – or have one come in to speak to the class. People of talent might help dispel the old literary adage that a good story only has to have tree elements – sex, violence and the occult.
I must say though that as the 3rd Millennium – The New Age of Abraham – draws near, there seems to be an insatiable appetite for esoteric content in stories.
The students should be led from simplistic formulas to perceive the story as a living alphabet of the human being – Thus is Us! Like us, stories have a 7-fold constitution; the first is the Physical Body, the place or setting/s of the tale. The second is the time – in the Australian story, this is fairly limited, except in the indigenous sense at least, by our short sojourn on this continent. The specific images express the story’s astrality. Some stories become immortal by having a simple unforgettable image.
The characters, with their moral or otherwise conduct, expressing individuality as it does, is the story’s Ego. Spirit Self is more elusive, evidenced by the literary merit of the work – the juxtaposition and selection of the words. The scrupulous adherence to truth is that in the story which calls upon Life Spirit – an example? Take Colin Theil’s Stormboy; here the Koorie Fingerbone muttered wryly after the tragic shooting of Percival the pelican “Birds like him never die.” – as they watched a new chick hatching! The eternal verity here being the immortality of the spirit, pelican or otherwise!
Ah; finally the most cryptic, but most important, of all, the rue magic of the story, originality, the primal creative element. A story, yes, even a ‘short’ story, can incarnate an entirely new vision onto the earth (maybe this one?!! – Author) – this gift of the Divine is Spirit Man, the 7th, and highest ‘aspect’, in action.”
“How interesting, then every story can be viewed in this way, analyzed to determine its inherent 7-fold nature?”
“one can ask a series of questions about any story, the answers determining what kind of tale it is.” Said Author quietly “Is there a ‘place’ emphasis, one might ask, hence a ‘physical body’ story? Or are there indelible images, but a poor literary standard? – indicating strong astrality but not rising to embrace spirit self. Perhaps there are timeless truths, but pale, unindividualized characters – active life spirit, but lacking in ego strength.
Here light can be cast on the author as well – what kind of person wrote the story? We should imprint the creators on the student’s psychic membrane by coloring them with interesting anecdote – like the fact that Henry Handel Richardson was a girl!
In dealing with the adult short story, we should be careful not to introduce too sophisticated material, such as that from our greatest short story writer, Patrick White. The style and concepts presented would bore most teenagers. One should start with simpler souls, like Alan Marshall, Steele Rudd – the Dad and Dave tales of a pioneering Aussie family are quite hysterical! – and Joseph Furphy. The life circumstances of each author, and hence their imagery, is fascinating to young people – Alan Marshall of course being crippled.”
“Quite so;” added the teacher admiringly “but don’t let other literary forms sneak in to upstage the story – like Australian poetry. This is dealt with in Class 9. Now to a loose structure for the lesson; each activity should take about 15 minutes. In a 2-hour main lesson that makes about 8 segments. These range in emphasis from a ‘thinking’ beginning, through a ‘feeling’ middle section – to a ‘will’ emphasis in the last third of the lesson.
The 8 segments might be: revise yesterday’s content; then exercises of some kind, like spelling; introduce today’s material, the new author whatever; free dialogue and discussion; record and material in main lesson books; speech or reading activities; silent story writing (finish at home). This is merely a convenient scaffold, not a prison; a framework from which one can merrily depart at will!”
The Speaker looked quizzically at the teacher “you seem to have the whole thing down pat, why don’t you teach the unit yourself?”
“high school is, above all, a world of the ‘specialist teacher’; I may be able to muddle through with a bit of research, some faking and bluffing, all masked by my pleasant personality; but I will never really convince the students of my authority in the subject. Adolescents can increasingly smell the dilettante.
Anyway, as class guardian, I will make myself available if you need any help in classroom management.”
“Just because you’re a specialist in short story writing doesn’t mean that you are necessarily a professional schoolteacher. With your expertise and my watchful eye, we can make this Australian Short Story unit a truly memorable and meaningful experience for my class.”
Author/speaker began thinking how she would present that lovely Dreamtime story, The White Waratah, to her 14-year-olds. “Now it’s a bit thin on literary merit – spirit self, but as an expression of spiritual truth, life spirit – wow!!”
Teacher: In some languages the double negative means a positive, and in other languages a double negative still means a negative. But there is no language where two positives make a negative.
Student, from the back of room: Yeah, right.
The stuff from which Australian Stories are made: This unretouched photo of cascades on the Barron River North Queensland caught the Spirit of the River, a long-dead Aboriginal Guardian whose face appears for those with eyes to see. Picture by Tan Whitehead, 1943.