How much to disclose for comfort

A FEW years ago, British poet Hugo Williams brought out a collection, Billy's Rain, based on his real-life extramarital love affair. A journalist from The Guardian, Emma Brockes, went to talk to him. Her interview is very clever: it utterly skewers him.

Not that Brockes has to say much: she just hands him enough rope and he does it all by himself. Williams talks about the responses of his wife and his former mistress. He says: ''I think generally I don't worry about hurting people. I put making a good poem above and beyond everything and just have to take the consequences.'' At the end he says with relief: ''I thought you were going to give me a much harder time.''

I winced and gritted my teeth throughout when I heard this interview read aloud at the recent NonfictioNow conference in Melbourne. And yet Williams doesn't have a darkened reputation; far from it. Billy's Rain won the 2000 T. S. Eliot prize and he was also awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Even Brockes, his interrogator, liked the book: ''Poetry is his strongest alibi.''

The conference session was about how much to disclose in your writing, but the panellists (Randall Albers, Craig Batty, Paul Munden and Steve May) were writing teachers, and the focus was more on students than on celebrated writers such as Williams. They talked about the phenomenon known to practically every writing class: the student who has a traumatic past and is torn between impulses to reveal and conceal it. Albers, who chairs the fiction-writing department at Columbia College in Chicago, told us about a good student who was having trouble with her material about her family: the writing was flat. Then she began to write journal entries, then third-person accounts and letters to family members. Gradually, her writing came to life. It reached a new level when she described a scene of incestuous abuse during which she floated out of her body and observed the scene from above, as if it were happening to someone else.

Clearly, it required a deep level of patience, trust and encouragement from the teacher and class to reach that stage of disclosure. Albers said it was important for students to set their own limits and overcome self-censoring impulses at their own speed. The student left the class with a new-found confidence in her ability to render difficult material.

At the other end of the scale were students who seemed to disclose too much, who wanted to shock their audience with tales of sex, violence and blood. They had their own issues to work through. One student who wrote comic pieces about blowing up letterboxes when he was a boy later revealed he'd been hyperactive, and was moved to serious reflection about it.

I was struck by how careful and conscientious these teachers were, how protective of their students. At the same time, they weren't psychologists or social workers. Their job was to work on the writing, not the writer. The issue for them was not the truth or the degree of revelation in the story but the quality of the writing and its effect on the reader.

Perhaps their most difficult dilemma might be how to assess students who persistently use violent images of killing in their writing. In the wake of notorious school massacres, should they report these cases to police? There is no easy answer.

It's a delicate balance, nurturing disclosure. One day some of these students might publish work like Hugo Williams did, and take the consequences, whatever they might be.

■ janesullivan.sullivan9@gmail.com

guardian.co.uk/culture/1999/oct/27/artsfeatures

The story How much to disclose for comfort first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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