Writing advice from Jennifer Clement

Award-winning novelist, poet, memoirist and PEN International president, Jennifer Clement gave a special master class for our students in January 2019 (photos here).

We spoke about craft in her latest novel Gun Love as well as the challenges of writing about social issues, the role of research, why fiction writers should study poetry, and more. You can now listen to the complete audio recording of the class online.

Here are a few of our favourite tips:

  • Use all the senses – “I’ll go back and see do I have a smell? Do I have a taste? Because writing tends to be very visual and the minute you put in other senses, it comes alive.”
  • Look for unnecessary instances of “I saw” or “I thought” – “You can just say, ‘There were many clouds in the sky’, you don’t need to say, ‘I saw many clouds in the sky’.”
  • Nail your opening – In addition to being the first thing anyone reads, “the first line is like an arm that says ‘come walk with me’”.
  • Use the tools of poetry – Techniques such as alliteration can give your words music. “Simile and metaphor can take you to a place of great discovery and truth.” Of the two, metaphor is stronger. Do a search for “like” in your text, and replace similes with metaphors.
  • Write first thing and give yourself a concrete goal – “If you set your alarm for 6 in the morning, and you do not under any circumstance open any email or social media or the news, because that’s the rabbit hole to hell…and you say to yourself, I won’t get up until I’ve written 800 words . . . then the rest of the day you’re OK with yourself because you did your 800 words.”
  • Focus on writing the book you want to read – “If you’re thinking, am I going to be published, what’s the editor going to say, what about critics? If you’re sitting down with all these voices, that doesn’t work.”
  • Open the door for your subconscious – “As a younger writer, I tried to control everything. Now I open the door for my subconscious to just come . . . The subconscious will work to create connections you weren’t even aware of.”
  • Don’t be afraid to write from the perspective of a character who is very different from you – “I would hate to be placed in the ghetto of my own experience. How boring is that? Obviously, have there been injustices? Yes . . . but literature is the universal. What’s happened which is very worrisome, and it even happens unconsciously, is people are practising self-censorship because they are so afraid of being attacked . . . It’s literally turning your back on the land of the imagination, which is where all writers live.”

A special thank you to the John Adams Institute and Clement’s Dutch publishers De Bezige Bij for helping bring her to Amsterdam. Gun Love is widely available from online retailers and in stores. You can purchase the Dutch translation Wapen Liefde direct from the publisher as well as many other outlets in the Netherlands.

28 February 2019

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