Feminartsy Fiction Prize – Advice from Robyn Cadwallader

As we get closer to the closing date for Feminartsy’s inaugural Fiction & Memoir Prize, we’ll be sharing some wisdom from our wonderful judges. Today, hear from Robyn Cadwallader, author of The Anchoress, and judge for the Fiction Prize. 

When did you first decide to begin drafting The Anchoress, and what drew you to writing fiction? 

The Anchoress had a slow development. I first thought of writing a novel when I was doing research for my PhD and came across the mention of anchoresses. Fascinated, I kept digging, finding out more, and eventually travelled to the UK where I visited some of the few remaining anchorholds. Sitting in one, I began to wonder not only what it would be like to stay locked inside a small dark cell for the rest of my life, but more specifically about one woman: why was she there? What was her background? And what was her experience? That’s where the idea began, but it was a few years later (about 2010), and after some false starts, that I made a committed attempt to write the story.

I had always dreamed of writing a novel, but was full of doubts about my ability. Gradually, through journaling, writing poetry and short stories, I began to find a voice, and some wobbly writer legs. It was my fascination with the idea of an anchoress’s experience of enclosure that made me take the leap.

You have also published a poetry collection – how did you make the transition to a novel, considering how vastly different the two are? 

I have always loved stories, but had previously written quite a lot of poetry and some short stories, with an interest in the single moment, akin to William Blake’s idea of seeing the world in a grain of sand. I struggled at first to find a narrative for The Anchoress. I’m always anxious about plot and I focused on it too much, wondering what could possibly happen to a woman in a cell. One day, musing about this with a friend, he said to me, ‘But doesn’t story begin with character?’ Of course, I knew that! It took me back to my experience sitting in the anchorhold, to the woman I had imagined and the questions I had asked. Once I began to develop Sarah, my main character, the story began to emerge. Nonetheless, my poetry writing was an enormously important foundation, especially in such an interior story as The Anchoress. There were lots of ‘moments’ for her that needed to be explored in depth. And I discovered that the academic writing I had done, though very different from fiction or poetry, was enormously helpful in developing basic skills like putting together a good sentence and thinking about structure. Those skills are transferable; nothing is wasted. The basics of grammar and syntax are crucial, even if you end up deliberately breaking them sometimes.

Do you have any tricks you use to keep focussed when drafting a story? 

Spending days at my desk when writing a novel, I have a few very common issues. The first one is getting myself there, on the chair and working. I write mostly on the computer because I find I’m freer with my words, trying out new things, knowing I can keep several versions and keep track of them. On paper, I quickly feel muddled and hemmed in when I cross out sentences, and feel I need to start all over again. However, I love writing with paper and pen, so I keep a notebook for ideas, questions, desperate worries — it all goes in there, fairly randomly. First thing in the morning, I write in my notebook because it’s easy and I’m not scare of it! It’s not the novel, it’s just me chatting to myself about what I’ll do today. Very quickly, I find an idea has emerged and I’m on the computer.

The second problem of focus is, of course, social media. I’m about to give up on my own attempts at discipline and find some software to do it for me.

The third problem is simply concentration and imagination, and I think meditation is an enormous help. Sometimes I sit and concentrate on my breathing, sometimes I talk to my characters or just let myself dream away — it all depends what I need.

And of course: a deadline. Amazing how that focuses the mind!

What are some books you have particularly enjoyed as a reader, that may have taught you something about great writing as well?

Ah, let me count the ways! When I first went to university, I discovered poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, ee cummings, poets who played with words and rhythm and metre in ways I had never come across before. It was, for me, like someone had opened a window and said, ‘Look what’s possible!’ Then I read William Blake’s poetry, and though I didn’t understand much of his mythological construction of worlds and gods, I just loved the huge vision of it all. They taught me to take risks, play around. Medieval literature — Chaucer, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Orfeo in particular — seem to embody life, grab at chunks of it and put it down on paper. And though it seems an odd pairing, Tim Winton also uses Australian language in the same way. Helen Garner’s work, any of it, has such beautifully constructed sentences, and her non-fiction, especially her short pieces, have a lovely combination of playfulness, wit and insight. They always make me feel like I’ve seen the world in a different light. And there’s a list of story tellers: Ursula le Guin and Margaret Atwood for their imaginative vision; George Eliot for characters that I never wanted to leave; J M Cootzee, Ann Patchett and Kate Atkinson know how to build a story slowly, almost without effort, until I look around and realise I’m immersed in characters and ideas; Michel Faber for his wonderful sentences, his risky subjects, and his trust in the story to tell itself gradually.

 What is one piece of advice you would offer to a writer considering entering this prize? 

I’m generally wary of advice, especially the kind that begins, ‘You must … ‘ or ‘You should…’ We all need to find what works for us.

That said, I suggest it’s important to take risks and to find the energy in your story, being attentive to what it wants to be. I know that’s two suggestions, but they’re related! If you’re writing for a competition, it can feel like you’re sitting an exam, with the judges already looking over your shoulder (as if you didn’t have your own inner critic already perched there!). It’s so easy then to tighten up, trying to get it ‘right’. Don’t try for right, go for lively. Find the place where the story really comes alive and go with that. Listen to the story and forget about the competition and the judging, play around, take risks, see what happens. In later drafts* you can tidy the parts that got too far out of hand.

* See what I did there: I snuck in another piece of advice: revise, revise, revise!

Entries for the Fiction & Memoir Prize close at midnight on Friday 21 April. Find out how to enter here!

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