How To Talk About Writing by Barbara Turner-Vesselago (Vivid Publishing, 2019)
Foreword by Nicola-Jane le Breton:
This splendid guide lights the way for all of us who long to give helpful feedback to writers asking for our input, but who don’t always know how or where to begin.
As a writing teacher, editor and publishing consultant whose mentoring approach has been transformed by the principles that Barbara Turner-Vesselago outlines in this book, I can vouch for the power of moving away from old paradigms of criticism and toward giving feedback that is sincere, perceptive and honours another’s creative journey.
Facilitating community writing workshops for over six years in a small town on the south coast of Western Australia, I witnessed the profound effect of creating a culture around writing founded (as is recommended here) on encouragement and respect. Some of my students had no prior experience in creative writing. A few were barely literate, while others had decades of experience as professional writers. And yet many of them kept returning to my classes and telling me that for the first time in years, or ever, they felt inspired and hopeful about their writing.
One of my students used to sit through my classes with tears trickling down her cheeks. At first I worried, thinking I’d said something to upset her. But when I spoke to her privately after class, I discovered her tears were not of sadness but of homecoming: of finding a safe place in which she could express and explore her creativity and her life stories without fear of inappropriate judgment. Another student, with a long and accomplished background in journalism, once wrote that my workshops had “opened fresh summer breezes onto wintry landscapes” and helped her bid farewell to “the strictures of the sub-editorial craft.”
I believe I was able to create these safe spaces for other writers to grow and blossom because of what I had learned from my longtime mentor, Barbara Turner-Vesselago: the power of focusing on what works and of having faith that each of us, with the right kind of feedback, can find and nurture an original writing voice that flows freely from within.
As a child, I loved to write. Stories poured out of me like bees from a hive, buzzing with life and color. But along the way, like so many, I received the wrong kind of feedback. I remember, in high school as a thirteen-year-old, receiving back an angst-filled short story covered in my English teacher’s red pen.
Words and sentences were scratched out in red biro with scrawled admonitions like “too melodramatic!”, “implausible”, “cliché” and “excessive”. As the story was the result of a genuine desire to write creatively and authentically, these words seemed not only to damn my dream of being a published author one day, but also to label me as someone with problems who needed help.
After that experience the bees retreated and the hive of endless story-honey fell dormant, a dried-out husk from which I could only occasionally draw a tiny trickle of inspiration. I reigned in my ‘excessiveness’ and focused instead on developing the analytical and essay-writing skills that were expected, praised and rewarded by teachers and parents.
The longing remained: to be a writer, to tell stories, to fly from one flower of experience to another, gathering pollen and making honey. But my wings wouldn’t carry me anymore, and I couldn’t find the hive that would help me turn moments of creative vision into honey.
And then, in 1994, in my late twenties, I attended a weekend workshop with Barbara Turner-Vesselago at the University of Western Australia. Her simple ‘Freefall Writing’ precepts allowed me to step back into the creative flow that had been blocked for so long, and her feedback gave me faith that my journey of words and stories was one worth continuing.
I discovered a writing voice I could trust and a garden of possible stories to share. Flower by flower, I would find my way home.
Over the decades, I have attended many of Barbara’s ‘Freefall Writing’ workshops—each retreat an opportunity to explore new writing territory unhindered. But as much as enjoying a safe space to write, I have cherished them as a supportive space in which to talk about writing—my own and others’.
Not only has Barbara travelled the traditional path of higher education, to earn a PhD in Literature at the University of Cambridge, but she has also mentored hundreds of beginning and experienced writers, through her unique ‘Freefall Writing’ method, to develop their authentic writing voices in stories and memoirs uniquely their own. Many of her students have been published to wide acclaim.
With the insight and simplicity that can only come from decades of practice, Barbara has distilled the essentials of her teaching approach into six discoveries that will assist even the most seasoned writing mentor or editor to fly free from the cage of conventional feedback and literary criticism. Others just venturing into the world of writing discussion groups or taking on the role of a ‘beta-reader’ to give feedback on unpublished stories, novels and memoirs, will find straightforward guidelines—easy to comprehend and instantly rewarding to apply.
Following these guidelines, we can help writers find the best way forward to whatever they need to accomplish in their writing for now—whether their purpose be personal reflection and meaning-making, connecting more intimately with others through shared stories, or creating a finished work for publication.
Barbara Turner-Vesselago offers a fundamental shift in perspective that will help all readers find a beneficial and compassionate relationship to the writing they are asked to consider. Giving useful feedback is a matter of discovering what works—and here to guide us, at last, is someone who can talk about this journey with wisdom and clarity.
May all who read this little book be empowered to find and nurture the original voice that flows freely from within—whether in their own or in another’s writing.
Let the revolution begin!
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