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Writing comes from living, says Brakenbury

Rosalind BrakenburyOne has to live to write. It is a lesson that Rosalind Brakenbury stressed during her recent reading in the Tucker Hall Theatre; it is a point she continually emphasizes during the fiction seminars that she conducts as the College’s writer-in-residence. In her case, she has “lived” as a journalist, as a mate on a schooner, as a teacher and as a mother—“living in the real world,” she says, in order to gain experiences that can be translated into words.

“You need to go out and immerse yourself in things, just learn about the world,” Brakenbury said. “Sometimes it may involve something like giving birth to children—that’s an experience. Sometimes writers feel it is not a good idea to be employed in menial jobs, but I think menial jobs teach you quite a lot about life and about yourself.”

Brakenbury opened her public reading with a selection from A House in Morocco, one of 11 works of fiction she has published. The novel became an exercise in perseverence for the author—“I got 29 rejection letters before it was published,” she said. Publishers, she speculated, were not interested in a novel that featured an Arab setting at that time. As she read, however, exchanges between two key characters, Sarah and Bill, seemed extremely pertinent. Bill, a would-be war correspondent, is discontent in Morroco, which is, he says, too far removed from the violent newsworthy confrontations elsewhere in the Arab world. As the couple breaks up, Sarah chastizes Bill, “You want to go for the blood.” She ends up with a Morrocan wind-surf guide, beginning her journey toward an understanding of Arabic culture.

In comments to the audience, Brakenbury said, “I wrote this book in 1991. It took 10 years to be published.” She was about to give up on the novel when a friend advised her, “Obviously this is very important to you.” She continued her revisions, concentrating on creating a distance between Sarah and herself as the author. “Ultimately, that process made for a better novel,” she said.

After reading selections from Yellow Swing, one of her five poetry collections, Brakenbury shared a short piece from Windstorm and Flood, a novel scheduled for publication in the spring. Written from her experience living in Key West, Fla., the book revolves around characters who, following a hurricane, pick up the material pieces of their lives while reassessing their personal ambitions. In the selection she read, a pastor, who is on the verge of losing faith, is shown walking from a flood-ravaged street into his church building while reflecting on the unsettling emotions of “feeling out of control.” “It is absurb, at 60, to feel this way,” he says. Entering the dark church, he becomes aware of whisperings, which turn out to be the rustling of the wings of birds who have taken sanctuary in the chapel. As the door opens, the birds take flight. The pastor watches, obsessed with identifying each departing species.

Brakenbury explained, “The book attempts to deal with chaos and mess and new beginnings, along with the question of how do you connect with the young person who is yourself” after many years have disappeared.

As a young girl, Brakenbury envisioned writing a novel that was Homeric in its breadth and which drew out the complexities of human relationships in a manner worthy of Virginia Woolf, a childhood heroine. In each of the works she read, elements of a human odessey were available to her listeners along with descriptions that were virtually tactile in their vividness.

At William and Mary, Brakenbury is attempting to help young writers arrive at similar depths. She forces them to read aloud, suggesting that “you know what is wrong with a sentence as soon as you hear it.” Some students, she finds, are copying the styles of other authors. “I tell them that is all right,” she said. “They will not get stuck there.” Concerning the greatest struggle facing young novelists, she said, “The character that is most like you in what you write always is the difficulty.”
Brakenbury compared her stint here to a similar experience she had in Scotland. “American students are much more chatty and forthcoming,” she explained, a positive trait in terms of her writing seminars. She encourages her students by telling them, “There has got to be a new generation of American writers. It might as well be you.”

(Brakenbury is serving as the College's Scott and Vivian Donaldson Writer-in-Residence. Her reading was made possible, in part, with funds from the Patrick Hayes Writers Series.)