Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop publishes first collection of short stories
Founder Janet Olearski talks about the group's new book and how she learned alongside 'Milkman' author Anna Burns
The Write Stuff is the first collection of short stories from the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. It is a beautifully produced paperback, featuring 14 stories by authors of varying experience from around the world. Each of them attends the weekly gatherings at La Brioche, a French eatery near Khalifa Park, to share ideas, experiment with prose and – crucially – support one another.
Writing fiction is hard; most of us fail at it. But knowing that other writers are struggling is immensely reassuring – it can be the difference between giving up and persevering. “We get people who say things like, ‘I don’t want to read out my writing because it’s such a mess,’” says Janet Olearski, founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop and editor of The Write Stuff. “But we all go through that stage and then people realise that sometimes writing has to be bad before it can be good.”
'Either they'll come or they won't'
That The Write Stuff exists at all is a remarkable achievement. In June 2015, Olearski, a graduate of the Manchester Writing School, posted a message on the website Meetup.com, proposing that Abu Dhabi’s writing community – if such a thing even existed – come together to chat about reading and writing.
Olearski arrived at La Brioche that first afternoon with limited expectations. “I thought, ‘Either they’ll come or they won’t come. It doesn’t make any difference because I’ll just carry on writing as normal anyway,’” she says. But people did come. Only 12 to start with, but it wasn’t long before Olearski was forced to limit the numbers “because there was not enough room”. There are now nearly 2,500 members of the Abu Dhabi Writers' Workshop.
What was that opening session like? “I remember they all sat around looking extremely uptight and nervous,” says Olearski, who now lives in Portugal but continues to liaise with the group via email. “They only started to unwind a little bit when I said, ‘OK, let’s try and write something.’
“Anything like this is dependent on attitude. You’ve got to be open-minded about it because even if you’ve never put pen to paper before, you’ll be amazed at what happens.”
Evidence of this can be found throughout The Write Stuff. For some of the contributors, Olearski’s workshops were their first experience of writing fiction – Adri Keller is a banker; Boby Tariq a stay-at-home mum. Both of them have written very different, but equally striking, pieces of “flash fiction”, a form of extremely brief storytelling.
Others, such as Ann Liska, Esther Jacoby and Juliet Robinson, have more experience. Most, though, are simply enthusiastic hobbyists, whose writing has now been given the permanence between covers we all crave.
Impressive literary flair
The standard of work in The Write Stuff is impressive, the book is a testament to what happens when you stop talking about doing something and knuckle down to the task. I was amused by Kwame Dadson’s The Kept Woman, unsettled by Jacoby’s Breathing Under Water and totally gripped by John J Jeffers’ A Bistro Called ‘Remeny’. It is a little unfair to pick out specific stories, though, since this is a book as much about endeavour as it is literary flair.
What all 14 authors featured in The Write Stuff have in common is tenacity. “There are a lot of people who want to take up writing,” says Olearski. “But they think that the writing should be perfect first time round. And it won’t be.
“One of the problems we come up against all the time is people who come in, write something on their phone, read it out and that’s it, finished. Other people will revisit the writing many times and each time they will see it in a different light. If we can get the writers to reach that stage, we’ve already done something very useful for them.”
Learning alongside novelist Anna Burns
One writer who never lacked doggedness is Anna Burns, who won the Booker Prize this year for Milkman, a startling, highly experimental novel set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Olearski attended a series of writing workshops with Burns in London in the 1990s and has modelled the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop on those classes.
She remembers a reserved woman more inclined to rush home and continue writing than to go for a drink with the rest of the class. “Anna was 100 per cent committed,” says Olearski. “She would have a cup of tea and the notebook would be out. When you have that kind of commitment, you’re going to make it eventually, so I have nothing but admiration for her.”
For her part, Olearski has published her own collection of short stories, A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and is working on what she describes as “a piece of life writing”, in which she documents her departure from Abu Dhabi after she was made redundant and the chaos that engulfed her life when fires in central Portugal during the summer of 2017 destroyed her new home.
With the support of Dadson, one of the original members of the Abu Dhabi Writer’s Workshop, Oleasrki is compiling a second collection of short stories, this one called Abu Dhabi Stories. So what would Olearski say to someone who is keen to have a go at writing fiction but nervous about having to read their work aloud? “Come anyway, sit in on the group and listen,” she says. “Nobody is forced to do anything but I think once you get in there and see what everyone is like, you will want to join in.
“Everybody has their own level and limit, and I don’t think they should be pushed; things should come out naturally over the course of the workshop.”
'You need to read as a writer'
The other thing is to read, read, read. “When you ask people, ‘Who do you like reading?’, they have no idea,” says Olearski. “You need to read as a writer. You need to go back to books, take them apart, look at how they’ve been constructed. Writing has to be proactive; look at other people’s writing in order to enrich what you’re able to do.
“A writer I talk about quite a lot in the workshops is [American novelist] Don DeLillo because of the way he structures texts. We take a section of one of his novels, cut it up and then get the class to put it back together in the right order. Of course, you can’t do that with DeLillo, which illustrates how you can sequence [a story] in many different ways and it will have a totally different effect each time.”
Coincidentally – or perhaps not – DeLillo started writing relatively late in life. “I wish I had started earlier,” he once said. So there’s one thing, at least, that we all have in common with the great American novelist. The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop might just provide the remedy.
Published: December 12, 2018 11:03 AM