During Melbourne’s last lockdown of five days, I was supposed to attend a writing workshop with Australian short story writer and poet Cate Kennedy at the Wheeler Centre in the city. She kindly offered to run the workshop online. So that Saturday I spent the day in my study looking at a screen of the unknown faces of my fellow participants as well as Cate’s fabulously detailed slides.
I have long been a fan of Cate’s short stories and poems. Her poems about the miscarriage of her son and the birth of her daughter are heartbreaking. Her two short story collections, Dark Roots and Like a house on fire, have stayed with me long after I finished reading them. Cate focuses on ordinary people, and she shines a light on them to show both their vulnerability and strength.
Her characters are us – a woman organising herself and her family before she goes to a doctor’s appointment to have a lump checked, a man making poor decisions after his partner has left him, a woman struggling at work on her first day back after maternity leave, a young girl rebelling against her mother’s family Christmas photo, a young cleaner befriending an elderly man in hospital. But it’s never about just these events – there’s a subtext of anger or loss or relationship concerns which adds a quiet background hum that sometimes rises to a roar of frustration or despair. Cate discussed the idea that conflict, even though small, brings the inner life of characters to the surface.
Cate was generous with sharing her knowledge and experience with a set of slides which whizzed us through the different elements of creating stories. ‘Emerging writers always have wonderful ideas,’ she told us, ‘it’s about the execution.’ Too true.
Cate’s latest short story collection, Like a house on fire, is on the Yr 12 VCE English curriculum. My Yr 12 son’s first SAC (School Assessed Coursework) was to write an addition or adaption of one of Cate’s stories. It’s such a wonderful opportunity for students to try to understand another human being, through reading about ordinary people’s circumstances and choices and then writing a response. Cate’s stories can be so subtle, that students are encouraged to look at her characters and empathise with them while they imagine different possibilities for them.
What does that elderly man need at the end of his life? What sort of person will that young girl, rebelling against her mother, grow up to be? Cate told us,
The story is the transformation of the narrator.”
So how does that elderly man change the young cleaner’s life? How will that young girl grow up to parent her own children?
Writing is about imagining different scenarios, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, daydreaming about different possibilities for ourselves, reinventing ourselves as characters. Cate urged us to go into the ‘vortex of doom’, to face any resistance we have on the page, to allow the secrets of our characters and their inner worlds to float up to the surface, to be examined in the light. Therein lies transformation.
The wonderful thing about students studying these short stories is that hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, they gain insight into their own lives. That in writing their additions or adaptions, they look beneath the surface of Cate’s characters and see what they really want, how they strive to reach it, and how they transform when often they don’t get what they want but instead what they need. In fiction – and life.
Thank you very much for your kind comments last week – I’m glad to be back too in such wonderful company!