An afternoon with Paul Harding - 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
I was on Emerging Writers’ blog and saw that there was going to be a work shop for writers in Dublin. Being a teacher and interested in the medium of blogging; I decided to go. I also decided to go to a lot of other conferences and workshops, which one teacher on Twitter said was “learning just for learning sake”....I learn cause I get bored....oh so very bored.
So, there I was in Dublin with my fabulous phone GPS-ing to me to the "Arts lab" off Talbot Street I did not even know there was a street off Talbot Street – all I knew about Talbot Street was that two of my friends were mugged here in broad day light. I found it, at last, and ran up to the room. Now, as I said before I have a lot of courses lined up this summer so I did not really do much research on this course. The lady beside me was from Limerick, she lived up to the place name as she was kindly telling me “Oh no, this is not just a workshop. No, no, no, no! It’s an afternoon with Paul Harding, author of “Tinkers” - Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.” Cue jaw drop! Here is what followed:
Paul opened the workshop by saying “no one sees the world like you, no one can give you your vision. Don’t mix up the world of writing with the world of publishing. If you are writing a genre book, then keep it to that genre. literature is experiential. You guys need to check out Faulkner, Virginia Wolf, Becket, and Moby Dick. Please don’t ever think that you can write anything without first reading! Think how you want to be affected as a reader, what revelations or insights you would want to read, but don’t tell the reader what to think – that’s just propaganda”
He takes a breath and asks if anyone has a question – we all look at each other and then put the head down so we won’t have to ask “The. Pulitzer. Prize. Winner.” in the room anything, how could us mere mortals ask him anything! One brave soul asks “what was the best advice you were ever given?”
He smiles and says – “be grammatically correct, you have to know your craft, do some courses in writing and READ!” He really emphasises the “read” part.
The Limerick lady asks “your book “Tinker” is full of observation, how can we do that?” Paul quickly drinks some coffee and as he places the cup down is already responding “I have faith in my subjects; it is my job to get them down on paper as beautifully as possible. When you’re down inside your writing energy comes from observing things very closely over long periods of time. Pay close attention as you will be able to write about what is really there and not what you think is there. You can’t make assumptions, you need to find out, for example – if you are going to write about water dropping, then go to water, look at the water, observe the water – then after close attention write about the water. People see the world of how they want it to be and not of how it is; a writer can see the difference and write about it.”
There is an audible mass exhalation, some people look worried. A question form the young girl with the rather low top “so, like, what can I write about...like where do you get your ideas and what how do you know what genre to write about?” The rather stuffy journo beside her suppresses a smirk. Why is it that some people think that if they are older or have more experience they are better than you? It never happened in the corporate world...only in my new teaching world – heaven forbid if I dare express an opinion. I feel a white flash of annoyance – thinking back on how this keeps happening to me in the teaching world. So I ask a question to back her us...newbie’s unite! “How do you know you are on the right track in relation to your story?”
Paul throws his head up and a mini shout of “Ha!!” is heard in the room. “ Well, I was once writing a book that I had to research to death and it was not a good idea.....you want to stay interested then write about something which you are interested in, what you spend your time obsessing about . You don’t have to know everything about your topic, that’s what the fact checkers are for – just write get something down on a page – you can always re-vision. I get snap shots of inspiration, a picture...then I just interrogate the subject until I get what I want. I am interested in the characters’ heart. To write well you need to dilate your self-awareness. Be humble, be ego-less, subordinate yourself to the characters in the story – just render what is there, write as clearly, as beautifully as possible. Have no aims when writing, simply write to find out what you don’t know.”
Another question “how do you build suspense?” As Paul replies, I notice that everyone is now writing, it had only been me writing for the past hour. That can’t be the time, I have been here an hour.....he really is one interesting Pulitzer Prize winner, I think as I look at him admiringly. Oh busted as – as he looks my direction - ok keep your gaze on your writing Michelle!
“The tale,” he responds, “is in the telling not in the trap door, things can be very dramatic if you know what is going to happen, so the reader thinks “oh that’s sad” but over the course of the book the reader is getting into the book and the character becomes their friend, their hero.....so they get more involved. Inevitability is great for tension. “
His book “Tinkers” opens with the line “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” and ends eight days later with George dying.
As time is closing in on us, we are all still awe struck, Paul offers us these last words: “When you hear your own voice in the story; then you have gone too far, your job is to present the subject to the reader. It is the subject that tells the reader everything he needs to know as he discovers it himself. I am not above my reader, I just want to present to you the snap shots that I have seen, how they struck me, how beautiful there were. Over-write something, you can always delete later. You don’t need to have a plot, just have a rough idea of it so you can just ricochet around it. You need to know your characters, dissect the snapshot.”
“My writing is a flood and I don’t want to put it on a leash – I just want to let it all go. Writing is like painting, paint layers, look at the coverage. You guys just need to concentrate on the character. The character is the thing – just describe the snapshot and the feeling.....let the story unfurl.”
“What you find beautiful is what you find true. Opposites.....what gets negotiated in the between is beautiful, say something like – life is hard, tough and sad then put something opposite right beside it and just leave it. Don’t explain the difference to the reader...the human heart in conflict...the negotiation in between – that here is beautiful!”
“You are a fictional writer so it does not need to be true, besides that is what the fact checkers are for!”
“When it comes to publishing you need to be dogged, you need to keep at it and just find the right publisher, and you have to play your long game. I got so many rejection letters and then I just decided I will write what I want. My writing is art for art’s sake. My only job is to write true sentences. The art was its own justification”
Did you know that he was in a band called “Power Trio*” and gave it up when he reached his thirties, the thought of getting a real job did not sit well with him so he went to grad school in Ohio and studied Literature, then he decided to write.....anything was better that an office job.
He ends up by saying in relation to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction “I am habituated to my own self-disbelief.” For what it’s worth Paul, I believe in you. We were there for about three hours and there was nothing boring about it, not even a little bit, not even a smidgen.
*Paul said to us that his band were called “Power Trio” but I have googled him and there seems to be different versions of his band name out there, so to clarify he did say he was not sure what the name was and said it was “something like “Power Trio”