Grenville on Unlearning to Write

Writers, to begin: ‘unlearn’ yourselves free and create something wonderfully messy.


My only advice to writers is this: don’t listen to the voices. Writers have to unlearn a lot before we are free to write. We have to unlearn a lot of the things we’ve learned, such as all the pieces of advice above. We have to unlearn, for a while, the desire to have a finished product. Getting a piece of writing to work usually means many failed attempts.
Hardest of all, we have to unlearn a lifetime’s training in being orderly and making sense. Writers have to end up making sense but they don’t have to start off making sense. In fact, a certain amount of apparent disorder is healthy in the early stages of writing. Why? Because being orderly is a process of eliminating things, and when you first start a piece of writing, it’s better to have far more material than you need and more ideas than can possibly fit into the piece. You need to have a great untidy overflow of characters, events, images and moods so that you can pick and choose, rather than having a poor thin little heap.
This takes practice. At first, it may feel self-indulgent, pointless and messy. This is alarming. Remind yourself of two things: first, that this is only an early draft, not the finished product; and second, that you are the only person reading this.
And try not to ask the most paralysing question of all: ‘but what is this all about?’

extract from Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book, 1990

Visit Kate Grenville’s website and read an extract from her book for budding writers.  She urges writers to begin writing and to free themselves from the constraints of well-meaning advice.  It is about adjusting one’s expectations and learning through the act of writing.



Points of View and Narrative Voice


Read this article from Ohio University about point of view and the range of options for a narrative voice.   When you write your response to The Secret River you will make some decisions about your narrative voice.  This exercise will help you appreciate the range of ways authors write with different points of view.

Read the following extracts from fiction set in an historical setting to ascertain what kind of narrative voice is being used.  Read the following extracts – all are openings of some of the novels mentioned in Jenny Stewart’s  ‘Revisiting The Secret River’ essay.

Mr Midshipman Hornblower by CS Forester

This book is one in a series of novels set in the Napoleonic Wars era, charting the rise of a young naval seaman called Horatio Hornblower.  Talented and introverted, he performs acts of great skill and daring and is promoted through the ranks, but his stories are made all the more interesting as they reveal the self-doubt (and seasickness) that runs counter to this.


Bring Up the Bodies  by Hilary Mantel

This is a sequel to Mantel’s rather fabulous Wolf Hall, which follows the fortunes of King Henry VIII’s first minister and closest advisor, the brilliant political tactician, Thomas Cromwell. Here we watch him hunting with his falcons which are named after deceased members of his family.


The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

This is the novel that breathes life into the infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly.  It opens with a map of the colony of New South Wales, an account of the death of Ned Kelly, an original historical document and a spooky quotation from William Faulkner: The past is not dead.  It is not even past yet.’




  • Which values and attitudes are communicated within the text and how they appear in the text;
  • How quickly the reader is provided with clues which give a sense of time and place;
  • Whose perspective we get and how wide or narrow this is.



  1. Rewrite a passage from ‘Mr Midshipman Hornblower’ from a first person point of view of one of the oarswomen in the boat.
  2. Rewrite the opening of ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ in the past tense.
  3. Rewrite the first paragraph of ‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’ with conventional punctuation.

How do the two versions of each text compare?  What advantages might the author see in their chosen approach?


Pyramids of power

Who has power The Secret River and why?  Is there a difference between having and thinking you have it?  What is the basis of the power?  How do those with and without it interact?  To whom does Grenville give a voice?  Who is without a voice?


Examine George Cruikshank’s British Bee Hive above.  It represents a pyramid of power and industry in British society, originally designed in 1840.  See if you can find where the boatman  – our Will Thornhill – sits amongst the other labours.  This is a pyramid of power which gives an insight into the heriarchy of trade, professions and public office.


Draw up a pyramid shape and label this ‘London’.  Place the names of the characters we encounter in the London chapter of the text in a power structure.

Draw up a second pyramid labelled ‘Secret River’.  You might need to indicate a character with an arrow to show how they progressed in the pyramid over the time the novel spans.

What questions about the nature of power in colonial Australia does this raise?

You could tell ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ from a male point of view. People have mistakenly felt that the women are oppressed, but power tends to organise itself in a pyramid. I could pick a male narrator from somewhere in that pyramid. It would interesting.

                                                                                                                Margaret Atwood



Choose your narrator and make some notes on their power or lack thereof.


  • their position in the power dynamic of their society and culture and how this impacts on their understanding of the world.
  • What power do they have and how is this manifest in their values, attitudes, actions and voice?
  • Where do they fit in the pyramid and how do they relate to those above and those below them?




Adapting the Novel to the Stage

492489-121222-rev-bovellAndrew Bovell writes about his approach to the text in the Syndey Theatre Company’s magazine section on their website.  Read  A Note from Andrew Bovell to understand something of the thinking that went into his adaptation.  You will be adapting ideas in Grenville’s text and finding inspiration in the text for your own writing.



  • why he was drawn the to the character of Dick;
  • what parallels he tried to show between the European and Aboriginal families;
  • what he finds powerful in the text and how he dramatizes it.




  • the tone Bovell adopts when writing about the process.  What assumptions does his text make about the readers?
  • what register he uses – the level of formality of his language
  • how he explains his ideas
  • the use of the first person
  • link to the task of writing a director’s notes for a film or stage production.


Creating a play for voices


This written form would lend itself well to responding to The Secret River.  You can create drama through the interaction (think: trailing off….interrupting– and chorus or turn-taking) to create a kind of dramatic interaction between characters about issues that are contentious or deeply personal.

To get an idea of what this might sound like, listen to BBC Radio 4’s Drama of the Week here.  Download a podcast to get a sense of how drama is built and controlled in the text.  Sound effects can help create a sense of location.

Revisiting ‘The Secret River’

What is the difference between history and historical fiction?  What demands do we place on historians and are they similar or different to those we place on authors?  How important is the ‘truth’ in constructing a narrative and interpreting history?

Read the following ‘Revisiting The Secret River’ article from the Quadrant in which Jenny Stewart examines the act of reading and interpreting Grenville’s novel.

Respond to the following questions:

  1. How does Jenny Steward explain the problematic nature of writing (history and novels) through the Jewish term ‘midrash’?
  2. What decisions has Grenville taken in her book when representing the past which historians have taken issue with?
  3. Steward is dismissive of guilt:  ‘The guilt may be a stage we need to go through. But guilt is the least productive of the emotions—it makes us sad, without making us more consistent or effective. It is an emotion that is difficult to sustain, nor, I suspect, is it even very widely shared. Almost a quarter of Australia’s current population was born overseas. Multicultural Australia knows little about indigenous Australians.’                    Do you agree with her view that ‘Multicultural Australia’ is ignorant?  What issues does this raise for you?  How might we understand the past in the present?