Sue Woolfe on writing dangerously

14 November 2003

Novelist Sue Woolfe tells her students "write dangerously and don't throw anything away", and much like her own work, and life, her advice affords recklessness and good sense in complementary balance.

Sue Woolf
Sue Woolf

She believes that writing, like any complex and arduous task, is one in which you can lose your way and find at some point that it doesn't say what you really believe. So she is interested in how she can make the imagination conform to what she wants to say:

"That's the very delicate tension in writing. You don't want to impose on the imagination, because in fact imagination is subversive. The difficulty is having it subvert the things we want it to subvert without compromising the things we most deeply believe in."

With her recently published book and newly permanent position teaching in the English Department's creative writing masters program, it would appear that Ms Woolfe has negotiated the not so delicate tensions between work, creativity and life with skill and aplomb. She describes herself as thrilled by the appointment and sounds duly enthusiastic while giving a thumbnail sketch of her approach to teaching:

"I try to get my students writing to the point where they can subvert their controlling instincts in order to say and define the things that they almost dare not say. When I was writing my first novel that's what Margaret Drabble suggested I should do. Now I always pass that on to my beginner writers.

"Very often you don't know what that is, but if you get to a state where you almost stumble upon what the unsayable is for you, you recognise it. If you write from that position, you write with passion, energy and probably more fluency than normal, as this voice draws out metaphors that are potent and original."

She adds that often her students are surprised at what they find they are saying. "Sometimes they disagree with their own imagination," she laughs. The Secret Cure is Sue Woolfe's third novel, following Painted Woman and Leaning Towards Infinity. Central to this new work is the clinical research paper by Hans Asperger on a type of autism now called Asperger's syndrome. The seminal paper was written in Vienna during the Nazi era and gathered dust for almost 50 years before it was discovered and translated into English.

Since knowledge of Asperger's work could have improved, even saved, the lives of many autistic children, Woolfe wanted to know why it had been ignored for so long. Kristina Caithness of the University's Communication Disorders Treatment Clinic helped her find the answer as the book took shape.

"Men have said to me, 'you write about women's things', and I think: yes, there is a culture that I'm writing about," Woolfe says. "Men write about war, and being a soldier, but being a parent can be life changing as well, especially when you're juggling between that and a career that you love. It's not just about getting dinner on the table. It's about where your soul belongs, and how much you belong to each aspect of your life - and how that can change."

On the subject of change, Woolfe describes herself as a poor reader of her own work, explaining, "No artist is pleased with their work. There are always ways to improve, and it's distressing when you're doing a public reading from your published work and you come across a phrase or sentence you wish you could re-write. In fact I have a terror that I'll realise at my own launch that the novel's ending, or beginning is wrong."

The Secret Cure ($30) is published by Picador.