Sue Woolfe inquisitions the muse in her new book

23 May 2007

In The mystery of the cleaning lady, launched this Friday, award-winning novelist Sue Woolfe - who teaches creative writing in the University's masters and continuing education programs - sleuths her way through neuroscience to discover what's known about the unique ways creative writers twist their minds.

Cover of Woolfe's new book to be launched 25 May
Cover of Woolfe's new book to be launched 25 May

It was 'the cleaning lady', heroine of her acclaimed novel, The secret cure (2003), who - back in 1999 - nearly stopped Woolfe writing the novel.

"She was wonderful at the start, but then she sabotaged my imagination so I couldn't think of anything else - and all I was writing was plot, plot, plot," Woolfe said.

"Everybody longs for a plot, but my contention and experience is that writers like me can't write a story if they have a plot because it dictates what you write. I wasn't getting into the voice which is where the real freedom comes."

'Stuck' on the cleaning lady, Woolfe began researching what neuroscience had to say about creativity, "in some vague hope that I might be freed". Her discoveries illuminated what she knew from her experience, helped explain some mysteries and gave her novel a new lease of life.

Through Martindale and Kelly, for instance, she saw why a story emerges best from copious scribbling in stages of 'loose construing' - writing you daren't read out or edit at that point because, like imposing a plot, this impedes creativity.

"That's because editing, a stage of 'tight construing', uses a part of the brain that insists on self consciousness," Woolfe said, "whereas to access the vaster part of the brain that you need for writing, the sense of self has to drop away, you need to lull and defocus the mind to allow it to meander with no anticipation.

Novelist Sue Woolfe - now using her discoveries in her teaching
Novelist Sue Woolfe - now using her discoveries in her teaching

"It's a profound, trance-like state that I suspect can unlock memories impermeable to the normal processes of logic."

The 'tight construing' - the pulling together and finally the editing - should come much later, and experienced writers had learnt how to move in and out of the two stages in what Kelly called a 'creativity cycle', Woolfe said, as a means of triggering insights.

In fact this was what freed Woolfe from her block over cleaning lady Eva when, "in despair one day, writing in my attic, I thought: Who do I want to walk up the stairs?"

"And the character Owen came into the room with a cloth shoulder bag and a manuscript in it . . . and slowly I realised that he shared the cleaning lady's house and had been in love with her just about all his adult life."

Woolfe had conjured Owen by willing her mind to loosely construe, she said. Involuntary contemplation of him took her further.

Her most important discovery, she said, was Briggs's theory of themata being thrown up by a work. It gave her faith while writing The Secret Cure that her themes would finally emerge - which they did.

Briggs's theory, along with Damazio's evidence that ideas have emotions embedded in them, helped explain Woolfe's burning question: "why is it that from such humbled and muddled beginnings, novels become coherent apparently of their own accord?"

The moment of finding the themata after years of work was so infused with bliss, Woolfe concludes, that she'd swear it's the main reason she and many others write fiction, "why we court the anxiety and terror … why in the end we are compelled, again and again, to enter into this pact with the devil."

Creative people could live with anxiety in their work greater than others could, findings showed, and this was what writers needed to be able to do when confronted by the many disparate elements and contradictions thrown up by loose construing, Woolfe said.

If she'd 'corrected', for instance, the contradictory pictures she'd had of her character of mathematical genius while writing Leaning Towards Infinity - the novel that won her the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction - she'd never have realised that the disparate images represented mother and daughter and "there wouldn't have been a story".

Woolfe's long interest in the creative writing process had already spawned the highly successful Making Stories (2001), co-written with Kate Grenville. The Mystery of the cleaning lady is not yet another how-to book. Riveting and insightful, it uniquely interweaves one novelist's journey through the writing of one book with her scholarly discoveries of what neuroscience knows about creativity.

These discoveries Woolfe now uses her in her teaching, more confident with the backing of science, she said, of the positive outcomes of helping students mimic the creative processes that work for her.

"I think it's very exciting and a privilege to help people unlock their creative self," she said. "I'm not a writer who likes to hide under a mystique. I think the more we have a creative population, the better it will be for our culture."

The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady - part of UWA Press's New Writing series - will be launched this Friday, 25 May, at Gleebooks in Sydney's Glebe (6pm for 6.30pm).The event will feature Woolfe in conversation with Natasha Mitchell, presenter of Radio National's "All in the Mind".

Bookings for launch: Gleebooks 9660 2333.

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