Keeping a notebook

Extract from: Making Stories by Kate Grenville & Sue Woolfe

Interview with Elizabeth Jolley

INT: So you’re really picking up things all the time, almost as if unconsciously you’ve got a map in your mind where things might go.

EJ: Or a heap of manila folders. I don’t write in fixed pages. I used to when I was young, but you need to be able to move pages about. When the children were little I used to just take out the notebook and go on writing where I left off and I didn’t do any rewriting. I was just writing things that came into my head for the character in that story. I realised later on that if I really wanted to write a story seriously I’d have to have separate sheets of paper. It seems a really naïve thought, but it did come to me as a kind of profound thing, that you needed separate sheets of paper and folders. In fact it was my husband who said: Don’t try to cram everything on one bit of paper’. I’d start right up here and I’d fill up the whole page and there was nowhere to write in. He would say: ‘Spread your work out,’ — he just said that once, having glanced across — ‘Spread it out so you can write in between the lines.’ I did start to do that, and would often write in between with different coloured pens so that I could keep the original thing, and then pick up what I had written in, and decide later on, in the rewriting, what I was going to use. That was his idea. It seems very stupid that I didn’t think of simplifying things a bit in that way.

INT: Making the notes was part of the business of your life?

EJ: Yes. I’d developed the habit of making the quick note while I was in the kitchen doing things.

Interview with Helen Garner

HG: I never have a theoretical idea for a book. What I write usually emerges from things I've witnessed, experiences I've had myself, or that people around me have had. It emerges organically. I keep these small notebooks — I was going to say at random, but I mean without any particular aim except that I can't bear to let things get past me. Philip Larkin says somewhere that 'The urge to preserve is the basis of all art'. That's pretty much my approach. Small things are so fascinating and precious that I can't bear to let them go. So I write them down as they strike me. I don't invent a book out of thin air. I need — or I did at the time I wrote The Children's Bach — a bed of detail for the thing to be based on before I can start to make something up.

INT: When would you jot things down?

HG: Any time. I've become completely shameless. I take notes right in front of people now. It's not that I'm writing down anything particularly revealing about the person. It might be just an attractive turn of phrase—like someone saying 'euchred' or 'jiggered' instead of 'tired'. Often, though, it's got nothing to do with what's being said. People might be talking about one thing that triggers off in me a thought about something quite different.

INT: Do you think the notebook helps you to notice more?

HG: No. It helps me to remember in detail what I notice. I'm a pretty good noticer already… On another level, it shows you that even when you think you are idle, just walking around gaping at the world, you are actually working quite hard, in that part of yourself which is not amenable to organisation or routine or even conscious control. If you write down a dream, you take certain brief notes, and much later when you think you've forgotten the dream, you read the notes, and suddenly they trigger the rush of memory — suddenly you're in the land of the dream again, in its spookiness or its bliss or whatever its emotional tone was.

Making Stories

by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe

Making Stories shows ten acclaimed Australian authors at work.

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