Keen to improve your creative non-fiction skills?

Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt with rainbow bookshelves

I know I recently came out as a crime writer – and I love crime fiction! One of my absolute favourite authors is John Sandford.

That said, I think my first love is creative non-fiction. In fact, I love it – eep! – even more than fiction, because of its basis in real-life events and facts. If you check out my list of great reads, you’ll see the majority are non-fiction.

When I started writing my first book at 14, it was a novel. But when I got ‘serious’ about writing, at age 26, I only considered writing creative non-fiction.

And while I write both fiction and non-fiction (my first book combines both), my fiction writing always begins with research into true events. So my love for non-fiction is really at the core of everything I do, artisitcally.

My favourite creative non-fiction authors include Malcolm Gladwell, David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Tamim Ansary, Elizabeth Gilbert, Helen Garner and Samantha Irby. Even my favourite book by novelist Douglas Coupland is his biography of media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

So I feel especially lucky to get to teach Online: Creative Non-fiction, a six-week course with Writing NSW, starting 31 October.

Whether you’re writing essays or working on a memoir or other book-length project – or you’re hoping to but don’t quite know where to start – this course is for you.

I’ve just finished designing the course, and had a lot of fun putting it together. Each of the six weekly lessons includes instruction and advice on that week’s topic, essays and/or book extracts to analyse, discussion questions and generative writing prompts. Weeks 1 to 5 each include a writing assignment with a short peer feedback component.

Topics
Week 1. Delving into creative non-fiction
Week 2. Balancing scene, summary and reflective narration
Week 3. Writing the self and others
Week 4. Drawing on research
Week 5. Exploring form and voice
Week 6. Getting published

This course is entirely online, with no Zoom or scheduled meetups, which means you can enrol from anywhere in the world. The course is designed to work with your existing writing practice, or to help you develop one.

Throughout the course, we’re going to read a wide variety of essays and extracts from many of the authors mentioned here, as well as two of the godfathers of creative non-fiction, Lee Gutkind and Dinty Moore.

At the same time, we’ll consider work from award-winning emerging writers, to help you benchmark your developing skills. I think it’s important to read this sort of variety when we’re learning. It can be hard to look at, say, Helen Garner’s work and think ‘how would I improve that?’ It’s a lot easier to do this with emerging authors, whose work provides a pathway between where we are now, and what we might want to achieve.

We’re also going to learn about the fallibility of memory from Malcolm Gladwell, and consider advice from Anwen Crawford, Kate Holden, Sisonke Msimang, Lee Kofman and Ruth Ozeki. We’ll unpack ten aspects of the elusive concept of ‘voice’, and explore a variety of narrative forms.

We’ll also discuss a key question many emerging memoir writers face: What happens when you write about a family memory who really doesn’t want to be written about?

Along the way, I’ll be sharing behind-the-scenes insights and tips from my own writing journey – because a few years ago, I was enrolling in Writing NSW courses and writing, revising and submitting work with the hope of building a career as a creative non-fiction author.

In turn, I’m excited to learn about your writing and help you toward achieving your goals.

Online: Creative Non-fiction runs from 31 October to 9 December 2022. Find out more and enrol at Writing NSW.

Success story – Curlews on Vulture Street

‘Plenty is going on between humans and wildlife. This intersection of realms is where I have been dwelling now for several decades; the strange, exhilarating place where people and nature mix, often uneasily, trying to understand what the heck is going on.’
– from the introduction to Curlews on Vulture Street

Curlews on Vulture Street: Cities, Birds, People and Me is the newest book from urban ecologist Darryl Jones. Darryl has published a number of popular science books on his area of expertise, Australian birds, including The Birds at My Table, and most recently, A Clouded Leopard in the Middle of the Road.

But Curlews on Vulture Street is special. And not only because I played a tiny part in its creation.

Curlews blends Darryl’s highly engaging writing about birds with a splash of memoir, told with his wry humour and natural storytelling talent.

If Bill Bryson were an urban ecologist, this would be his masterpiece.

The book traces Darryl’s interest in birds from his childhood in rural New South Wales, growing up near Wagga Wagga, to his first lessons in ecology as a university student-researcher, and then through his highly successful and fascinating career.

When Darryl began his university studies, there was still a clear divide between ‘the natural world’ and urban centres. If you wanted to study anything to do with nature, you could only do so by going out into nature. Whatever animals and other creatures might be doing in the city, no one knew, and no one wanted to know.

Darryl was one of the ecologists at the forefront of a new paradigm, asking questions about how birds live in cities, and why? How can we live better with them? And, you know, maybe not get swooped so much?

The answers he discovers are fascinating – and his methods for getting there are often quite humorous, like the time he tried to build a crow trap. No surprise, the crows very nearly outsmarted him.

Through the book, he explores the behaviour of magpies, lorikeets, cockatoos blackbirds, mousebirds, peaceful doves, curlews, ibises, and more.

And if you’re wondering what a curlew is, it’s this ‘strange, lanky, awkward-looking’ creature, as Darryl describes. They all have they that unensettingly bug-eyed stare; it’s their thing.

I discovered Darryl’s books a few years ago, when what we thought were two rainbow lorikeets were visiting our apartment in Camperdown. It turned out to be a whole flock.

We know this because one day they held their annual conference on our balcony. We had 16 lorikeets squabbling at the top of their surprisingly powerful lungs. I suspect I suffered permanent hearing damage.

Because I knew Darryl was a talented writer, I was surprised when he signed up for a six-week memoir course I ran at the start of 2020. Like all good writers, he was pushing himself to further develop his skills – he wanted to learn techniques particular to memoir, and push his writing into new territory. It was a delight working with Darryl, and when the course ended, we continued on into a mentorship that lasted throughout the early draft of Curlews.

He very kindly mentioned me in his acknowledgements, in this overly generous statement:

‘No one has had a bigger influence on this book than Ashley Kalagian Blunt. At a crucial early stage I was lucky enough to participate in a memoir workshop run by Ashley for Mirrabooka Writers. She provided an extraordinary level of personal feedback as well as invaluable advice and encouragement. She is an exceptional writer and teacher as well as a generous and constructive critic. … When the workshop concluded, I plucked up the courage to ask Ashley if she would act as a style editor for a book I was trying to write. If any of this works, it is largely due to Ashley’s incisive, critical yet gentle touch (and ‘appropriate’ sense of humour). Ashley, I apologise deeply, pointedly and embarrassingly for the overabundance of adverbs that remain. You tried your best.’

(For the record, I don’t believe ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’ as Stephen King has famously said. See? I used one right there. But I do think they’re best used in moderation. Darryl really did try!)

Curlews on Vulture Street is in stores now. It’s a great read for anyone interested in Australian birds (and who isn’t interested in them? They’re so bizarre!) and fauna, but also for anyone who enjoys smart humour and great storytelling.

~

If you’re interested in nonfiction writing, whether that’s essays or book-length work, including memoir, check out my upcoming online course with Writing NSW.

Online: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop with author ashley kalagian blunt, information about this course on the Writing NSW courses website and a copy of her book cover, How to Be Australian, a memoir

Online: Creative Non-Fiction course
Monday 31 October to Friday 9 December 2022, online
Writing NSW

This six-week online course with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt is an opportunity for you to delve into the dynamic world of creative non-fiction. You’ll try new techniques to stretch your writing muscles, and receive feedback in a supportive and encouraging setting.

Each lesson will include writing exercises designed to help you practise a wide range of skills, and weekly deadlines for short assignments will provide motivation. You can work toward the completion of a short-form piece for submission at the end of the course, or develop your skills for a longer project. For full details and to enrol, visit Writing NSW >>