I came across a version of Dear Writer, originally published in 1988, in a second-hand bookshop in the Victorian town of Clunes a few years ago. Clunes is an old gold town and the first recorded finding of gold in Victoria took place there. It maintains several historical buildings in a heritage streetscape and in recent years has become an internationally recognised book town. Among the several books I bought whilst passing through the area, Dear Writer stood apart.
Dear Writer takes the format of a series of letters from Virginia O’Day, a manuscript assessor, to an unnamed writer seeking to improve her work. The letters cover a range of topics, from the use of adverbs and adjectives, the selection of point of view and the role played by imagination in the creation of fiction to the final draft. Pragmatic advice is offered in a manner which is constructive without being condescending. Each chapter begins with a quote from an accomplished writer, echoing the theme for the chapter. For example, for the chapter titled ‘Writers are Different (A way of life)’ the quote is from Jean Cocteau: “What does one do, at a quarter to twelve, when one isn’t working? I’ve forgotten.”
There are practical exercises to encourage inspiration and a series of steps to take when becoming serious about writing. Guidance is also providing on naming characters and stories as well as tips on submitting short stories and manuscripts. Due to the passing of time and changes in technology, some of the advice is inevitably dated but the essence of good sense and sound writing advice remains and I remember getting quite a bit out of it when I first read it through, and I have revisited sections over time.
Dear Writer … Revisited was published in 2013. The introduction acknowledges the changes in technology and writing over the subsequent years as well as recognising the merit of the original content in regards to the art of writing. Many of the chapters include author notes with updated commentary to modernise the content.
Additional content at the rear of the book includes a snapshot of why Bird was drawn to writing fiction, and the influences of her early life in Tasmania. There are two short stories, and the second story is followed by a series of points on the writing of the story. I found this particularly interesting, as it dissembled the foundations of the story and provided insight into how the various influences come together. This is best summed up in Bird’s own words:
It has occurred to me that one of the attractions the short story has for me both as a reader and a writer is the ability the form has to provide moments of illumination, to draw together delicate strands of emotion, character, incident, theme, subject – and to do something akin to what a conjurer does with coloured silk handkerchiefs, pulling them all in to make a ball, and then, with a flourish, opening them up as a brilliant full-blown rose.
You can find out more about Carmel Bird on her website here.
Is there a classic writing book that you return to for inspiration?
[Photo: glimpse of the grand Clunes Town Hall, Victoria]