Writer and teacher Lynn Jenner answers our latest 5 Quick Questions. Lynn will be teaching at the upcoming Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat.
1. You’ve come to writing later in your life. Was writing a creative practice you had earlier in life?
Yes, I loved writing stories till high school and university left me with the idea that you had to be dead or male or both to have anything worth saying. I was always very interested in writing though, even when I wasn’t writing for literary purposes. I used what is called ‘narrative therapy’ in my psychological work. I also enjoyed (yes, really) the challenge of writing clearly in my work. Creatively though, pressure was building up. When I realised you could write without waiting for the ideas that would make you the greatest writer in English, it was a great moment. I gave up making strange clothes and cooking esoteric dishes from Russia in the 15th Century and started writing for fun.
2. Your work is hard to describe, in that it seems to draw from poetry, essay, memoir and more academic non-fiction. How does the form come to you for a piece?
I start with the idea or the phrase or the feeling that interests me and I start writing. I don’t usually have a plan for what form it will be, and when I do, I am usually wrong. I let a new piece of writing develop a bit and then look at its best bits and then look at what shape or form it seems to be leaning towards. In my head there are form options based on what I have seen other writers do. This is where reading comes in. If I didn’t keep reading I might always do the same thing.
3. Your work often brings together seemingly disparate people or places together. Do you set out with the idea of bringing these elements together, e.g. the work of Charles Brasch and the Kāpiti Expressway in your latest work Peat, or is it something that evolves out of the research and writing process?
My experience of the world is that it is a confusing complex place, where some people think that their knowledge is more trustworthy than other knowledge. I don’t like that idea at all so I like to show ideas and insights coming in from all sorts of places and sources.
In the case of Charles Brasch and the Kāpiti Expressway, I knew I would have to write about the natural environment because environmental impact was one of the main critiques of the Expressway. Nature- writing has not been my forte, so I wanted to get the support of a writer known for his sympathy with the natural world. I thought that if I tried to get my head around his way of seeing, that would help me ‘see’ the Expressway. So I set out to connect with Brasch’s work, even though it is Romantic and a bit outside my usual taste. The results were richer than I could possibly have expected.
4. Tell us about three books or authors that have significantly influenced your writing.
Probably my favourite book of all time is Tales of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. Forgive me for raving about this book! Oz’s memoir describes growing up in what was Palestine and then became the state of Israel. His parents escaped from Eastern Europe before the war and he was the child of the new place. I love the way you are reading along while he describes something and, all of a sudden, the description has lifted off the ground and into some magic and strange territory. There is a big whiff of Hassidic tales and the scary folk tales of Eastern Europe. I love the way Oz writes around the most important subjects without ever describing them. You gradually realise what he is telling you because you feel it in your heart. I love his warmth and empathy for everyone in the story. I also love the construction of his book. The story swirls and eddies and loops. Oz is the master of asterisked sections as a way to tell a big complex story. What a cocktail! For locals, Kāpiti Library has this book.
I’m very fond of The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald because of his mastery of the implicit. Nothing is ever spelled out and nothing is neatly summarised in these stories, but you gradually realise that grief is the real core of all the stories.
Most recently I have been intrigued by All for Nothing, a novel by Walter Kempowski. It tells of the wave of German-speaking refugees trying to escape the advancing Russian army near the end of World War Two. This is another story where all the meaning is unwritten. Kempowski’s tone is slightly astringent. I like irony (and also the absence of irony). Kempowski is determined to tell parts of the story of World War Two that matches the experience of some German people but doesn’t match the permitted narratives of the post war period. It’s uncomfortable. I appreciate his attention to those things.
5. Can you tell us a little about what participants should expect from your workshop?
We’ll be looking at how to use language that sets off empathy and emotion in readers. We’ll be focusing on using the details in descriptions of events or places or people to do that. Franz Kafka famously said ‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ I’m not suggesting we think of writing as a form of violence but I’m interested in how we can choose words to reach through the frozen sea of habit and numbness. I chose this topic because it matters to me and I think other writers will find the topic worth thinking about.
We’ll be using that magic mixture of reading, writing and feedback to get new work written. The readings will be a mix of poetry, prose, fiction and non-fiction. I hope the work people will write in the workshop will be a mixture of genres and forms too because each has something to teach the others.