Writers encouraged to 'leap into the dark'
19 June 2017
Tracey Slaughter and short stories go hand in hand. With a string of awards to her name and in-depth expertise on the New Zealand writing environment, Tracey is a sought-after teacher for the University of Waikato’s creative writing courses. She is also one of the creative forces behind the university’s new Master of Professional Writing, the only course of its kind in New Zealand.
Q: You get students from all over the university taking your writing papers as electives, from computer science, education and management for example, not just English or writing studies majors. What’s the attraction?
Tracey: I’m always surprised and delighted with the diversity in my classes. Creative writing is a brave thing to do, and what we do in class is tap into that raw creativity. It’s revelatory for many people, unleashing that creative impulse. Students are often surprised how creative they can be when there are no restrictions. Having said that, writing studies links to creativity in other fields; it isn’t separate from professional writing. Whatever you’re writing requires great care, beautiful sentences and the need to communicate some kind of theme or message.
Q: Your own writing has received great reviews, in New Zealand and overseas. Your stories can make a person cringe and squirm, or they evoke great joy or sadness. Do you have a particular way of writing?
Tracey: I think the short story is the best way to reflect real life. You travel along then, kapow something hits you, you deal with it in a good or bad way, then things settle down to the mundane again until something else comes along. A short story is usually based on a single theme or incident, and you hone in on that.
My writing is aimed at getting a visceral response from the reader. I want the reader to feel what the character is going through. And I usually start with a character, get inside his or her head, their body and feel their experiences, look at life through their eyes. I don’t have notebooks full of plans. I believe in the discovery process of writing. Maybe a single image or voice and the character comes into focus and then leads me through the story.
Is that how you teach your students to write?
Tracey: The open-form process is what makes the creative process exhilarating. It’s the most rewarding part of teaching, helping the students not to be afraid, getting them to leap into the dark. It’s exciting to see students embrace that mode of creation and what results.
How will the new Master of Professional Writing differ from what you teach in your other courses?
Tracey: We’ve introduced this higher degree because there was demand for it. Many of our students wanted to continue with their writing and the master’s degree will enable them to explore professional writing from a range of angles. It involves taking a core paper, designed specifically to enhance your workplace readiness, as well as elective papers that range across a variety of fields from creative writing to writing for promotional purposes and advertising, for digital media and for scholarly and professional publication.
We haven’t restricted the MPW to those with English or writing studies majors; anyone with a bachelor’s degree may apply.
What will creative writing students be doing during their year-long study?
Tracey: We anticipate a lot of interest in the creative writing option. It doesn’t have to be fiction. I teach a creative non-fiction paper and some of the writing that students produce from their own experiences and observation is wonderful. I think there’s a lot more genre-bending happening these days –just look at Ashleigh Young and the success she’s having with her poetry and essays. [Young won Yale University’s international Windham-Campbell Prize, worth 230,000.] So I’m saying don’t be put off applying because you aren’t ready to write a novel.
Students will spend the year writing a full-length manuscript of their choice, whether that be a short story or poetry collection, a series of personal essays, an autobiography, or a novel. It’s a safe and encouraging, supportive environment in which to work. We’ll meet regularly for workshops where we’ll discuss participants’ progress. They’ll need a lot of self-belief and a bit of a thick skin. The group environment motivates people to keep going, while tutors and students alike can give constructive feedback and assist with technical aspects of writing that may still need development.
At the end of the year, completed manuscripts will be sent to professional writers for criticism and insight into what might be required to achieve a manuscript of publishable quality.
What makes a good writer?
Tracey: I don’t think there’s one single thing. I’d say read a lot and read widely, all sorts of genres from all sorts of countries and eras. I know people on the master’s programme will be readers who immerse themselves in the language of books. Be observant down to the details that other people are likely to miss. Constantly be on the alert and take note of how you and other people behave in different situations. Open your senses, all of them, fuse the genres and don’t be afraid to push boundaries.
Dr Tracey Slaughter’s PhD thesis was a study of New Zealand women’s autobiography. A two-time winner of the Katherine Mansfield short story award, Tracey won the UK’s Bridport short story writing prize in 2015 and was a finalist in the Manchester Poetry Prize the same year. Her novella The Longest Drink in Town was published in 2015 and last year her short story collection Deleted Scenes for Lovers won rave reviews. Tracey also plays the drums in a covers band, an ideal position from which to observe people.