My friends and colleagues at Queensland Writers Centre have featured me as part of the ongoing Queensland Writers Life series that asks some probing questions as to why we writers do what we do. It's already featured some tremendous and diverse talent from Sam Wagan Watson to Karen Foxlee to Krissy Kneen to Michael Gerard Bauer to... I could go on.
If you're at all interested in why writers do what they do, it's worth checking out the whole series.
Why do you write?
It’s tremendously satisfying to turn a vague idea into a finished, coherent piece of writing. Ideas tend to be fairly amorphous: you have a hazy vision of a character, a situation, a set of ideas. What writing does is discipline those ideas. Nothing exposes a stupid idea like reading it, externalised into text. But a good idea, rendered on the page or the screen, is an extraordinary reward for the sweat and hard graft that went into making it. It happens on two levels too: if can you derive satisfaction from a good sentence or turn of phrase you’re going to enjoy writing a lot more than if you’re dependent on completing an entire piece.
Ultimately, though, writing is about reaching a readership. As satisfying it as can be on its own, the text is just a vehicle to reach someone else. You place your trust in readers to understand you and to see the world the way you do, even if just for a little while. Sometimes you hear back from readers and it’s almost a little shocking to be reminded that the other party in this relationship is not just abstract. And that’s kind of where it all comes together. That’s why I write: to make a very human connection to someone else.
How did you come to writing?
At school, I was always ‘pretty good’ at writing and language from early on and even outside school I spent a lot of time creating stories and recording them in one way or another. I did have a good teacher who pushed me to read more challenging texts. That really set me on the path, I guess. I kept reading as much interesting stuff as I could and when I started to write, I had the right blend of naiveté and confidence to try new narrative voices and devices.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
I never thought of writing as a profession that was available to me because I never realised it was something I could just decide to do. I don’t know, I must have thought writers get anointed by the gods or something. For a long time, I was determined to be a musician, but I was a better writer and really I prefer working my own, quiet hours. The only difference between a writer and anyone else is that writers submit. They take the risk of putting their work out there. That seemed like a huge obstacle because when you start, you have big ideas that never quite make it the page the way you want them to. But you have to show somebody sooner or later and the courage that takes is not as profound as it first seems. Publishers don’t assess your work with you looking over their shoulder. So learned to send my work off when I thought it was good enough and put it out of my mind until I received a response. I got a lot of encouraging rejections. Those were like gold. It meant that I should keep trying, I was getting closer.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
Mostly, I read. I read other people’s work and I read my own work. I don’t know what happens for other writers, but if I don’t work on a piece for a little while, it gets worse and worse in my memory, all the mistakes magnified. When I read it over, those mistakes return to normal size and the job of fixing a work in progress gets a little easier. That motivates me. It’s only a little more work and it could get so much better.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
I don’t have a regular schedule. I don’t write every day. I steal bits of time like a thief in the night to work on a piece. Sometimes I block off a chunk of time to knock something over and that works pretty well. I’ve moved through different routines over the years depending on what else is going on. I’m making this up as I go along.
I used to write like a maniac. I would start writing at 9:00 or 10:00pm and work through to 3:00 or 4:00, sleep for a couple of hours, go and do a full day’s work, then do at all over again. For a while I was doing this three of four days a week. I’m lucky I didn’t lose my freaking mind. Or maybe I did. I don’t know. That was stupid. I have kids now. And an ageing body. And maybe I’m a little less stupid. Maybe.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I don’t have a regular time and don’t have a regular space. I move between spaces and computers. I have a study that I can use to shut the world out when I need to. Other times, I’ll set up a laptop wherever’s nice. I like couches. My back deck is nice.
What are your essential writing tools?
I’ve used a parade of Macs over the years: desktops and laptops. For software, it’s always been the sad and stodgy old Microsoft Word. I have a strange relationship with Word. I know every quirk in its system and how to set it up just so. But I’ve never loved using it. I’m just used to it. I’ve tried as many other word processors as I can get my hands on, but none have stuck. More recently I’ve used Scrivener but only for planning and arranging. I once tried using a manual typewriter for a month and it was surprisingly comfortable and familiar as a writing tool. I get why 20th century writers loved theirs so much. But it’s a ridiculous tool for 2016, little more than a novelty and a complete pain at the point you need to submit your work.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
The road is longer and harder than you ever imagine it will be, but it’s full of surprises and it rarely leads to the destination you’re expecting.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I tend to read fiction in print and I read it painfully slowly. It’s almost like I’m absorbing the text through osmosis. I can speed up when I need to (and I often need to) but that’s my default setting. By contrast, I read a truckload of non-fiction on screen: my phone is my main screen-based reading device though I read a lot on laptop/desktop too. I read a lot of experimental stuff on screens too: again preferring my phone, but a computer if necessary.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
Pretty sure I don’t get that Hollywood-style ‘writers block’. I’ve never been like Billy Crystal stuck on ‘The night was…’. I have days where it works and days where it doesn’t. If I’m struggling with a bit of text, sometimes I move on the next bit and leave the crappy part for later. Sometimes I have a deadline looming and I just need to sweat the words out. Maybe it shows when I do that, but deadlines are deadlines and meeting a word count with something you’re not completely satisfied with is a whole lot better than not delivering. I’ve been on the receiving end of that and, trust me, nothing pisses an editor off more.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Just one? Ha!
Read as much as you can and when you’re getting the words down, be true to yourself. Don’t try too hard. Enjoy the work: enjoy the language. Savour small victories. Don’t brag about your word count.