A Creative Hero: Carmel Bird

Hero is a term that is easily thrown about these days. Skilled sporting stars are named heroes, as are people who complete an extraordinary act in an otherwise ordinary life. It is a badge that I’m a little bit wary of, yet I like the idea of a creative hero.

For me a creative hero is someone who is versatile in their field, passionate not only about the act of writing but the craft of it – being willing and generous in their sharing of knowledge. They would be able to write in various styles and genres, from poetry to prose, non-fiction to fantasy, offering a breadth of approaches and worlds for their readers to enjoy.

A creative hero would have an impact on readers and writers alike, perhaps have a wider profile than many writers, and be advocates for the power of creativity.

There are many eligible candidates out there, both living and otherwise, but if I was put on the spot I would have to say Carmel Bird is an Australian contender for my creative hero. I came across Bird’s fiction years ago with a mystery novel Open for Inspection, and have read many of her short stories in various compilations.

Her contribution to the craft of writing is extensive, through workshops, classes, and author talks. My introduction to the world of writing via Bird’s viewpoint was through a chance finding of a second-hand copy of Dear Writer. I found it in the wonderful book town of Clunes in Victoria, and enjoyed reading through the correspondence between an aspiring writer and their patient and wise tutor. The warmth and humour made it stand apart from many of the books that I’ve scoured over the years, and I was pleased when it was re-released a couple of years ago with some updates as Dear Writer Revisited. There is a review on the NSW Writers Centre site here.

There is an extensive interview with Bird on the Sydney Review of Books site written by Rachel Morley. This provides insights into Bird’s creative process and practice, including travelling with a small paper notebook and capturing three good things from each day, from simple moments to more complex events. Bird also outlines the importance of observation for a writer, of how the act of writing is a way of making sense of aspects of life.

For me a creative hero is someone who I admire, with work I respect and enjoy, who is prolific and inventive and has an evident joy in the act and art of creation.

Who is your creative hero?

[Photo: detail from stained glass door in Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath]

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Writing Book Review: Dear Writer … Revisited by Carmel Bird

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]