Feature picture by Klein.

August 2014, Salisbury Writers Festival, Adelaide

For a towering figure of Australian literature, John Marsden is looking rather grey, his leg encased in a plaster cast. He is probably in pain, definitely in discomfort. He sets us a writing exercise: write the dialogue of three different personality types coming out of the movies.

I thought back to how my course mates and I watched  Schindler’s List after our end-of-year uni exams, and wrote the following fictitious piece:

“It was so sad,” said Belinda.

“Yeah – move from the sorrow of Statistics to the sorrow of Schindler. What ever were you thinking Dave?” said Ken.

“Very sad, but very good,” said Dave.

“That music will haunt me for as long as I live,” said Belinda.

“As will the pictures of fat naked women. How can you be fat in a war?” asked Ken.

“Ken!” scolded Belinda. “That is just plain wrong.”

“We need to do something to cheer ourselves up,” said Dave. “How about we grab a couple of cans of shaving cream and cream those poor Engineering students still studying?”

“Don’t even think about it Dave,” said Belinda.

“Don’t be so such a prick, Belinda, for once I think Dave has a great idea. Nothing funnier than nerdy guys in a rage,” said Ken

“ There’s a 24-hour Coles round the corner. Let’s pick up some shaving cream then head for Baillieu Library,” said Dave.

“I’m not having anything to do with this,” said Belinda.

“I tell you what,” said Ken, “you drive the getaway car. That way your conscience will be clear and you’ll still get a fresh first-hand account from us.”

He tossed her the car keys, which she caught.

John asked each workshop participant to read out her work, giving feedback. Towards the end, John remarked that almost all of us had made our people-pleaser character female, and commented on the role of women in peace-making.

John Marsden's works of Fiction
From my bookshelf: John Marsden’s popular book series, ‘Tomorrow, When the War began’

His comments percolated in my brain. A few days later, I wrote to John. Here is a portion of my letter:

Dear John,

Thank you for coming to Adelaide for the Salisbury Writer’s Festival and conducting the Master Class at the end of August.

You asked us to write a piece of dialogue, 3 people coming out of the movies: a people pleaser, a joker, a need-to-be-in-charger. I was driving to work two days later, feeling rather smug about the line I had written: from the sorrow of Statistics to the sorrow of Schindler. I thought of your comment about my people pleaser, ‘Poor Belinda, she’s not getting anywhere’.

Suddenly the awful realisation struck me that I was Belinda. It was profoundly disturbing. Before you explained it at the master class, I hadn’t understood how writers could write out of their subconscious. When I told my husband and my sister about my epiphany, they said, “Yeah, so you are a people pleaser, where’s the revelation?” But they took care to sound a bit nicer than that. I never thought that writing fiction could lead to a better understanding of self.

I spent the following days wrestling with myself and mentally dissecting my closest relationships in light of the things you spoke about: high status, low status, exclusion, inclusion. I have started becoming more assertive, and am surprised at the results, even though being that way makes me nervous.

 

Avoiding confrontation has been part of my personality for a long time. Being raised in Asia, where respect for authority is highly prized, probably accentuated my natural inclination to try to find a way out of unpleasant situations, to try to allow the other party to ‘save face’.

But after that workshop, it came to me that there is a time to be assertive, a time to speak out, to hold my ground. This is what John spoke of as ‘high status’. He taught us that well-loved teachers are people who know when to assert authority – high status – and when to step back and back down – low status. High-status and low-status is not something you are – it is something you do, the kind of behaviour you choose, appropriate to a particular situation.

marsden book cover

For me, even something small, like disagreeing with the use of the word ‘often’ in the headlines is something that I’ve had to cultivate, by trying to examine things logically, using critical thinking, and not believing something just because a reputable media brand is attached to it.

Through John’s workshop, I’ve become increasingly aware that writing and reading fiction can be extremely powerful. It can reach places in our souls we don’t know exist because our defences are down, and we’re reading for entertainment, and voila, what is this I haven’t seen before?

In recognition of the power of fiction, I’m launching a new page on my blog dedicated to Book Reviews. Although I plan to review books of all genres, the first book I’m reviewing is a work of fiction, The Golden Hour, by fellow Adelaide writer, Claire Belberg.

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