Dr Robyn Ferrell is the author of several books of philosophy and creative writing and is Honorary Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. In the lead-up to her The Art of Truth course, we pick her brain about her own writing and the writers that she admires.
What is creative non-fiction? And what makes it good?
I include in my definition of ‘creative’ non-fiction, all non-fiction that is not straightforward commercial journalism. I do this because the genre is infinitely flexible, using the various forms of non-fiction such as memoir, reportage, review, polemic, catalogue and biographical essay to different creative ends.
It’s possible to produce a wonderful emotional range in creative non-fiction at the same time as it can be powerfully persuasive on ideas, too. I think there are important things about narrative, argument and imagining generally that are explored in good creative non-fiction. It can be both personal and factual, which is often a strong combination.
What are some of your favourite creative non-fiction works?
Australia has some great writing in the creative non-fiction vein. As a kind of writing it is among the most vigorous and contemporary, I believe. During the course, we’ll be looking through the latest edition of Best Australian Essays 2012 to see the energy and creativity in specifically Australian writing in the genre.
I love Annie Dillard’s essay ‘Living Like Weasels’. She captures the essence of something wild in a brilliant image. There are some other longer-length classics I really admire, like Susan Sontag’s Regarding The Pain of Others. And Helen Garner’s The Consolation of Joe Cinque, which uses the classic ‘courtroom drama’ genre to creative effect. The essays in Umberto Eco’s Faith in Fakes and Roland Barthes’ Mythologies first inspired me to try this form of writing for myself.
Are there opportunities for getting this genre of writing published?
Creative non-fiction is one of the most publishable kinds of creative writing. Many literary journals welcome it and even some mainstream journalistic publications will take a well-crafted essay. In the course, we will look at how to place a piece of creative non-fiction, what length to write it to and how to pitch it to an editor.
Of course, creative non-fiction can also be the foundation of a wonderful blog, and this too we will explore in the course.
The Real Desire was shortlisted for the 2005 NSW Premier’s Award. Can you tell us a little about the process of writing this book?
The pieces in The Real Desire were written over a long period. Early on, I had the chance to publish some of the shorter ones in newspapers and magazines – the eponymous ‘The Real Desire’ was written about Sydney real estate, for example, and published in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Some of the longer, more poetic pieces like ‘Paris Does Not Exist’ were written as creative writing and appeared in literary journals. There were also examples of memoir, like ‘The Kingdom of God’ and ‘New York is Full of Women’ that I wrote specifically to play to the strengths of creative non-fiction as a form.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a longer length work of creative non-fiction, using the text of a Jersey sea captain’s journal that has been passed down in my mother’s family alongside a parallel text of story and memoir. It’s called Genealogy and the Sea, and also uses etchings I have made to accompany the text.
Dr Robyn Ferrell will teach The Art of Truth over six weeks: Wednesday evenings: 28 August; 4, 11, 18, 25 September; 2 October; 6:30pm-9:30pm.