Georgina Parfitt has recently joined the Unthank School team to teach An Introduction to Writing Fiction in Norwich. We sat down to find out all about Georgina and her writing and what you can expect from one of her classes.
Creative writing classes often start with everyone introducing themselves and their writing or plans to write. So, tell us about Georgina.
Okay. Hello! I would say. I’m Georgina. I was born just outside Norwich, raised there. As a shy kid in a quiet place, I took to books very gratefully. I started writing stories and, I think like a lot of writers, had that early thrill of imagining a whole world running parallel to my own, where I could go whenever I wanted.
I went to Harvard University for college, which gave me an incredible four years of an American liberal arts education, and allowed me to practice writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, and also painting and acting. That’s where I had my first workshop experiences.
For my senior year thesis, I wrote a novella, and came out of the four years there just aiming to write however I could. I really had no plan other than that. A few years later I took a year to attend Boston University’s MFA program, which was another skin-thickening training ground, and allowed me to test things out, ways of writing, and challenge myself.
While I write in a bunch of different ways, my work seems to be obsessed with a few things — nature, and humans’ communion with the natural world, women and their relationships with each other, strange feelings — by that I mean, the in-between, unromantic sensations of life that aren’t commonly the heroes of literature. For a while I was obsessed with that feeling you get after you spend a night with a new person or people (e.g. at a sleepover as a kid) — I thought it deserved to be looked at a little closer. That kind of tender/embarrassed feeling.
Anyway, I ramble, but that’s what I’ve been exploring.
You’ve previously taught creative writing in American universities. What do you think you learned from that experience? Did it broaden your idea of what a creative writing class can be? Is it different to what we do in England?
I actually don’t have much experience of writing classes in the UK. I got practically all of my writing education in the US and had my only teaching experiences there, too. So I have this American bias, and I wouldn’t try to compare and contrast. The great thing, I think, is a creative writing class can really be anything. You’re not bound to a set of rules or information or a method. You’re completely determined by who happens to be in the class, their personalities and inclinations and styles and backgrounds, so you’ll find something new each time. The first few workshops I took, I was amazed at how exposed I felt afterwards, as if I’d attended a therapy session or something. It was quite addictive. I learned that through teaching undergraduates, too. The workshop was a place to hone our writing skill, but at the same time, it functioned as this other thing, a place to work out problems, personas, and to maybe scrub away the sheen we put on in other disciplines.
You’ve joined the Unthank School to replace Sarah Bower as tutor for the Introduction to Writing Fiction, where we work on the basics with writers who have little or no experience. What are the essentials that new writers need to get to grips with when they start to write for the first time?
Firstly, I think it’s about “finding your people.” Reading enough and widely enough that you discover the kindred spirits — poets, novelists, essayists, visual artists, anyone — who make you understand why you’re writing. A teacher or mentor can help with that, by seeing your work and recommending writers who might be your people, and that’s something I try to do too.
Then, it’s about getting over that threshold of self-consciousness or hesitation. So much of what I write, and hopefully what other people write, at first, is a working-through of something, it’s imperfect, it’s transitory, like a diary. And that’s okay. You set out a bunch of stuff for yourself, and then you select and craft, but first I think you have to open up a bit.
That’s why I talk about my teaching philosophy being about the practical and the personal… you sort of have to get ok with that feeling that you might be embarrassing yourself, and even actively practice that.
Then, it’s something more granular. It’s being able to say, OK, here’s something — a sentence, an image — that moves me deeply. How is it doing that? Maybe just the idea is moving, but how did the artist position the idea, carve out their expression of the idea in a particular way?
The act it always comes back to, whether you’ve never written before or whether you’re writing every day for your living, is practice. You just do it more and you get better.
You’ve been published in Unthology a couple of times. How does it feel to be an Unthank tutor now?
It feels really good! I was first published in Unthology 6, and the books had built up this reputation for housing the stranger, slantier short stories, stories with dark scenarios, and weird ways in, and I love those, so I felt really gratified. And then I have a story forthcoming in Unthology 11, called “Wise Man,” which I wrote in my MFA program in Boston, but comes from the dark, flat, windswept landscape of Norfolk, and the unique social scenarios that landscape affords growing up. It received mixed reviews in the program, but I held fast to it.
So after having found Unthology as an accepting, loving home for these stranger stories of mine, I’m really excited to find myself at Unthank as a teacher and try to help other people get weird with their own stories!
What are you writing at the moment? Do you think both writing and teaching are complimentary activities, that one can nurture the other?
Well, as I write this, I’m sitting in an experimental forest in the Oregon Cascades, as a writer-in-residence, so I’m writing a lot of field notes and little tales of the forest right now.
I find that both activities are enriched by the other. When I’m teaching, my writing benefits from hearing so many different perspectives and talking about craft and just being open to ideas and new language. When I’m writing, I can come to workshop fresh from the struggle, and my teaching is the more honest and helpful because of it.
Is there anything, a story, a novel, a collection or memoir that you think all beginner writers should read?
So many! But everyone’s different, and one girl’s bible is another’s fish-wrap. One of the first things that springs to mind is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver. Or any collection of stories by Raymond Carver. I was lucky to read them when I was about fifteen, recommended by an amazing teacher in high school. They taught me that the heart of a story can be tiny, almost undetectable, a moment in a life that no one would point at as important, but the whole motion of the character’s experience hinges on it.
I also think everyone should read a lot of poems when they’re trying to write anything. Poets have taught me so much about rhythm and depth and observation, and also trusting the reader, taking leaps in logic. I visit a little set of American poets most regularly — Jorie Graham, Elizabeth Bishop, Ellen Bass, Terrance Hayes, Sylvia Plath — but everyone will be drawn to different voices.
The Introduction to Writing Fiction with Georgina Parfitt starts on January 8th 2019 in Norwich.
It’s a ten-week course that will gently and gradually help you to think and prepare like a writer and guide you on your way to that first, completed short story.
For full details and to register, click here.
If you have any questions or queries, don’t hesitate to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.