I recently attended the first class of The Sydney Writers Project, founded and run by authors Michael White (who also writes as Sam Fisher) and Jonathan Englert. I was offered an honorary studentship at the end of February to give me further insight, following my interest in the course. I have decided to be a fully participating student (half online while travelling around Perth, Melbourne, the Gold Coast, etc) and half in person in Sydney. The classes are held at The Barn in Mosman; constructed in 1908 as Australia’s first scout hall.
I personally consider The Sydney Writers Project to offer the most promising writing program currently being run in Australia. I am optimistic that writers will build and strengthen writing skills which will serve them well and prepare them to write compelling, original writing for commercial publication.
The entry-level course of The Sydney Writers Project is called The Gateway. The Gateway is focussed on helping writers develop strong foundational skills while also generating completed pieces of writing. The main purpose of The Gateway is described as follows in the course notes and was reiterated by Jonathan and Michael in the live class:
“The main purpose of The Gateway is not to supply you with some kind of foolproof writing guide book. The purpose is to help propel you to that breakthrough in your writing. We don’t relish the prospect of writers going in endless circles from one workshop to the next and never completing anything. We believe you can and will be able to move your writing forward.”
There is a strong focus on each writer’s adaptability and awareness of writing options spanning both fiction and non-fiction, since many writing skills are useful for both.
The first class was split into two topics; the nature of non-fiction writing and the nature of memoir writing.
The key point of the non-fiction topic can be summed up with the sentence: “Nonfiction must use truth as its centrally organizing principle or it will ultimately fail as nonfiction.”
Each student was asked to write a response to the question: “What is non-fiction writing?” before Jonathan shared his thoughts and we all discussed a range of subtleties in distinctions between fiction and non-fiction.
Jonathan, who has a degree from Columbia School of Journalism and has worked extensively writing journalistic non-fiction, emphasised the benefits of having a journalistic spine to our writing – whether fiction or non-fiction. He states in the course notes:
“No matter what novel idea or unique slant you propose, your work must supply the reader with facts and details that come from observation. The journalistic spine is that sturdy structure of facts and observation upon which your voice, your style, your wit, your story can be fully realized.”
We went on to discuss subtleties of detailed journalistic observation in light of the reality that each of us retain only a small portion of what we hear or see; and the limitations and streamlining efects of memory, directed attention and articulation in what a writer ends up writing. In the context of this discussion, Jonathan suggested that a good general guidleine is: “The more precisely you record what you see, the better your work will be.”
This leads to the next point: “Writing isn’t about a single great idea; it’s about execution.”
“Only you can tell the story that you need to tell – no one else. After all, it may be only you who has access to this particular story or you who has the perspective or background to tell the story in a way no one else can.”
Michael discussed various kinds of memoir, autobiography, etc, which have been written, citing a few diverse examples.
One aspect covered in distinguishing memoir from autobiography is that memoir is based more on a period or episode from a memoirist’s life while an autobiography is more based on the the whole of an autobiographer’s life.
Michael then discussed his own memoir of an episode in his early life when he was in a popular British band, A Thompson Twin: An 80s Memoir, in detail. Michael has also written biographies of a range of fiction authors and scientists.
A brief summary of some things Michael recommended considering when writing a memoir is as follows:
1. Why are you writing this? Will anyone care?
2. Is there a market for it?
3. Is it really a memoir? Or is it fiction? Is it autobiography?
4. Have you done your research? Unless you’re deliberately intending to obfuscate the truth for your own reasons (and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that …just so long as you’re up front about it)…are you telling the truth as best you know it?
A brief summary of Michael’s process when writing A Thompson Twin: An 80s Memoir is as follows:
1. Decided on a general scope of the book
2. Took a lot of notes, interviewed people, etc (in addition to his own memories)
3. Gave it a structure
4. Wrote an outline and the first few chapters
5. Got a publishing deal
I look forward to progressing through The Gateway with the first class of The Sydney Writers Project and reading the writing they (or maybe I should say we) each produce, and then to reading what the students who go on to The Seminar and The Masterclass produce.
Further details on The Sydney Writers Project can be found at www.thesydneywritersproject.org.
The Australian Literature Review