Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gabrielle Wang: Inspiration for Writing Workshop

By Nadine Cranenburgh

When I was young (and even now, to be honest) the mere hint that my parents had a love life sent me scurrying for cover, hands over ears. For similar reasons, Gabrielle Wang says her young adult novel Little Paradise, based on her parents’ love story, was the most difficult book she’s ever written.

Her imagination was taxed to the point where she didn’t have a single dream until the first draft was complete. This was followed by more time on tenterhooks when she asked her mother, now in her nineties, to vet the manuscript before publication. Luckily, her mother loved it. The result is a coming of age story that incorporates an exquisite blend of historical romance and magic realism. To complement the personal nature of the book, Gabrielle was also able to incorporate a vintage photograph of her mother in the cover design, along with several fashion sketches that her mother drew as a teenager in the end papers.

According to Gabrielle, everyone has untapped potential as a writer, but each of us needs to find something we want to write about. For her, it was the prejudice she experienced as a fourth generation Australian of Chinese origin. Her first book, The Garden of Empress Cassia, describes how she felt growing up. Every child feels like they don’t belong, she says, but in her case, looking different set her further apart. This is something I experienced as a ‘bitser’ growing up on the very vanilla Mornington Peninsula, and I’ve never seen it expressed better than in Gabrielle’s work. One of my favourite lines in Little Paradise comes after a teacher asks Mirabel whether her English is holding her back. "No, it’s you English who are holding me back," she thinks in response.

On Saturday, Gabrielle travelled from Melbourne, braving confusing freeway systems and a five-degree drop in temperature, to deliver inspiration to a room full of aspiring writers at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka in Ballarat. Preliminary introductions revealed us to be a well-assorted grab bag of participants including: a children’s writer, a neuro-economist, a dramatist, a lapsed blogger, a couple of memoirists and a retired nurse with a passion for words.

This was no obstacle for Gabrielle, who is a seasoned workshop leader, skilled in holding the attention of audiences as challenging and as disparate as preps and teens. She had us writing straight away and, armed with a stack of photocopying paper, she made sure those who'd forgotten their notebooks weren’t left out.

We started with a simple free-writing exercise, letting go of conscious thought as we wrote, moving from there to sensory visualisation - describing memories linked to strong emotions. The most interesting exercise for me, though, was writing to another person’s memory, which we swapped anonymously. This lead to some unexpected and highly imaginative interpretations. Participants grew in confidence and daring as the session progressed, and by the end, words were gushing out and ideas were pinging. Gabrielle also shared tips and insights she has garnered in reference to the software program 'Scrivener,' which she uses to organise her longer works; the memoirists’ eyes lit up as they scrambled for pens to note the details.

Gabrielle was generous with her time, and stayed to answer a steady stream of questions after the session was done and before embarking on her long trip home. We discovered then that her first book was rejected nine times before it was published, that she really loves the editing process, and that no matter how well you research historical fiction, there will always be someone who knows better (and will not hesitate to correct you).

Afterwards, our little group congregated in a cafe, still buzzing from the inspiring hour and a half we’d just spent ­ letting our stories grow in our heads and scribbling them down on paper, because we knew they mattered.

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