Anne Schuster with Erica Coetzee
REVIEW: Karin Schimke
Writing is a fairly accessible form of expression and most people with a basic education can write. They may not write well enough to entertain or inform others, or be published, but they can string sentences together well enough to let off some of the steam that collects in the head sometimes. Not all writing, after all, is public or needs to be published. Sometimes writing just needs to be writ.
“You don’t need a writing project,” writes Schuster about half way through this book. She suggests that, like Joan Didion, people may write simply to find out what they’re thinking, what they’re looking at, what they see and what it means.
But, no matter how strong the compulsion, many people hesitate to begin writing, as though it is a hallowed occupation for which practitioners received a licence at birth.
For thousands of South Africans (including hundreds of female prisoners, farm workers and refugees), Schuster has facilitated the uneven and often threatening space between wishing to write and having written. And while Schuster’s name might not be generally known, many accomplished South African authors have passed through her hands at some point, including Margie Orford (now known in several countries for her South African crime novels), Máire Fischer (who recently released Birdseye to general acclaim); Shaida Ali (winner of the prestigious University of Johannesburg debut prize for her first book Not A Fairytale), and Tracey Farren (whose award-winning book Whiplash is being turned into a movie).
To be clear: Schuster – herself a published author – does not help people to publish. She helps people to begin and to continue the practise of writing. The publication of To The Islands is a noteworthy event for South African writers, but it is also a poignant one, as it arrives just as Schuster stops running her workshops and courses in order to concentrate on her own writing.
Through the publication of this book, her gentle and encouraging wisdom will have a further geographic reach than Cape Town, which is the city she is best known in.
Books on writing are a dime a dozen in the USA, where the appetite for them appears to be enormous. From Stephen King’s On Writing, to Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write; from Peter Elbow to Natalie Goldberg, South African writers who write regularly and with a sense of purpose, have always had to fish far across the Atlantic to find guidance.
Schuster fills a gaping hole in the South African market, but she is not plugging it with it with any old rubbish. Her vast experience as a coach and facilitator, together with her own experience as an author and publisher, means that her material is meticulously chosen and carefully arranged. Her co-writer Erica Coetzee is a specialist in the development of learning materials and has worked extensively with local and international non-governmental organisations. Their combined talents make this a richly useful workbook.
To The Islands is, as its title states, a workbook, and has a workbook feel to it with its tight and logical internal structure, its lay-out and the use of white space on the pages.
Using principles of Taoist philosophy, Schuster imagines her workbook as an expedition “to the islands”, each of the five islands (each in its own chapter) representing an approach to both the attitude towards and practise of writing.
She explores some of the theory of creativity and writing, but mainly provides ample opportunity for practise and for writing in different forms. The idea is that whether the writer is an absolute beginner, a slightly more skilled writer, or a professional writer working on a new project, the guidance will allow them to write effortlessly and often.
The book can be used in several ways – regularly over a period of five weeks, or more casually whenever the writer is able. And this is where Schuster’s methods are particularly useful: while one might have a vague idea of what needs to be written, or the outline of a project, you may not know where to begin each time you sit down. Creative writing is, quite often, like being stranded in the middle of an ocean with no view to land or landmarks, and no floating device to hang on to. To The Islands provides land to swim towards and territory to explore.
As with all creative arts, writing promotes enquiry and contemplation and I have a liberal view of such things: everyone should have the right to practise any form of it whether they are “good” by outside standards or not. This right to write – or paint, or dance, or sculpt – does not pre-suppose a dutifully adoring audience cheering on the mere effort. Public acceptance and even acclaim requires a lot more direct and perhaps even cerebral engagement with the art and craft of creative endeavour by the creator than mere experimentation. But without useful starting points, much creativity can sink away. These Schuster provides abundantly in this well-produced and aesthetically appealing book.
Schuster has done excellent and valuable work in Cape Town in the past fifteen years. To The Islands reflects her intelligent and intense engagement with creative processes and what allows them to happen most easily.
Schimke is the editor of the Cape Times books pages.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.