Me & Coetzee

May 20, 2017
Coetzee on writing

I read 'Disgrace' by JM Coetzee in the year 2001 when I was living in New York. I had written two books; flops. 'Disgrace' focused my intentions. It became apparent to me that there were heights that were attainable and that those could be reached by careful, quiet, slow work.

During the nine months of my last pregnancy I sat at my desk in Brooklyn overlooking the garden every morning and wrote. At night I read either the Bible, Chekhov, Carver or Coetzee; most likely the latter. I broke my routine on September the 11th when my husband called me downstairs and we watched the news on the television then went outside and from out brownstone stoop saw the second plane hit the Twin Towers.

My daughter was born at the end of November. I'd finished the book a couple of days before. In the spring I sent the book to agents, then it went to publishers and I sent it to John Coetzee in Australia when the book was published in 2004. He replied and it was a breathless moment to stand and hold in my hands a letter from the man I called 'the master':

I sent Mr Coetzee my second book 'This Human Season' and he read it and replied again and added that if I wished I could use his response for my publication. I did so with great pride.

 My third book, I wrote to tell him, would deal with 'schizophrenia.' 'Sounds didactic,' he replied. 

He is a man who is careful with his words. 

He was right and I had a lot of trouble with that book. I had a lot of trouble with life from then until recently. Still, as Hemingway says, a man (or a woman) has to take a lot of punishment to write a truly funny book.

Now, I am teaching writers how to write a book in 90 days. Not because I am a genius or prolific, but because I believe a sense of camaraderie joint with a communal commitment can concentrate the mind.

I believe that I need Coetzee to make this first draft of mine shine. I am not sure I can do it without him. This is why it is an essential part of my 'method' at Kritikme to use Coetzee to teach from. We may not reach his heights, but we must at least try.

There is so much to learn from this reclusive, careful, gentleman.

I believe writers should have apprenticeships to other writers. I am not so eminently qualified of course for such attachments, but then beneath Coetzee we are all rabble (only some of us are looking at the stars...) He is, and remains to me, the master. And so I walk behind him, and invite you to join us for this part of the pilgrimage.

He is part of my own story-telling story. 

“All autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography.”

With this statement , he releases us from the burden of unfathomable genius and reminds us that we need to be ourselves, only more so; exposed and simple.

The time we spend with 'the slow man', the master, Coetzee, is the slowest, quietest yet most vital part of the Ninety Day Novel course.

 Join us. You'll be in safe hands.


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