Fighting with Sentences

Friday, April 26, 2019
By: 
Ellena Savage Interviewed by Christy Collins

Ellena Savage

Shaping an Essay Collection

CC: Congratulations on your forthcoming essay collection 'Blueberries'. Can you tell us a little bit about the ideas that shaped the collection?

ES: Thank you! It took me a while with 'Blueberries' to work out that what I was writing was essays rather than fiction or poetry. I also learned early on that I am not the sort of writer who can ‘plan’ an essay. I have to follow the writing to see what it can do and say. Most of my research comes from what I already know.

Because 'Blueberries' is my first collection, while I was developing it, I followed a lot of blind leads and ended up with a load of work that went nowhere. I have all these beautiful titles of essays that are now in the bin. If I were to start the project now, I’d do it differently. But that’s a truism. Trying and testing is a necessary part of bringing a collection together, and also just for developing as a writer.

Thematically, 'Blueberries' interrogates how patriarchal class society shapes how I live and think, but that probably sounds quite dry and abstract. The truth is that what links the essays in the collection is not so much a common object of study, but an aesthetic interest in the unbreakable nexus between the small, the personal, the everyday, and the enormous blind structures that contain and consume us all.

CC: You write poetry, essays and fiction. When an idea initially comes to you, are you aware of which form will be the best for it?

ES: Genre boundaries are fairly arbitrary. Genres become recognisable as genres because they’re repeated over time. You know what an essay looks like because you’ve read essays before. If you break with those repetitions, you can come up with something interesting. Or something terrible! You can always try.

I’m never entirely sure what methods I’m applying when I’m working on something new—there’s some tension, I’m sure, between conscious and unconscious processes. I can comment on the conscious practice, though, which is that before I know what something is, I play with the language and maybe some narrative elements until it tells me where it wants to go. I am a slow writer and I spend a lot of time fighting with sentences.

Sometimes when I have a new idea it becomes most legible in an already very well-established genre, say, a personal essay. Other times, it just won’t fit in a form that I’m already familiar with, and I’ll have to come up with, or borrow, some new or different formal arrangement to contain it.

I’m also a suggestable writer, and I find myself using models. Often when I am reading something that moves me, I throw the book down and jump on my laptop to imitate what they’ve done. So, in my experience, ‘the best form’ tends to emerge from the writing itself, but it sometimes needs some direction.

CC: Over the years you’ve presented your work in many settings, some of them outside of the conventional settings for literary readings. Do these types of events – especially the unconventional ones - inform your writing and if so how?

ES: Yes. I enjoy collaborating with other writers and artists, particularly on projects that are off the page. In the past, that has been making performance works with visual artists, learning from and writing with, or against, friends who are academics, making magazines, corresponding with friends who have interesting things to say, and hosting reading events.

I’m not at all a specialist in film or contemporary art but I have learned a lot about structure and voice by engaging with those disciplines as a spectator, and I’d like to keep learning from other disciplines. I have a lot of solo work to get through this year—finishing a thesis and editing my book—but I’d like to work with some more physical artists again in the future—dancers, actors, musicians—and find out what they might teach me as an essayist.

CC: At what stage might authors want to start considering how to shape their essays into a collection?

ES: I don’t think there’s a right way of making a collection; some writers recognise themes emerging from essays they’ve already published over the course of a few years, and will rework them to fit as a collection. Other writers will think up the seed of project and meticulously plan and write each essay to spec, making each one a piece of a unified artistic object. So I would say: start the collection whenever you want to.

With writing, so much of what is going on is subconscious, so training yourself to write—and writing is always self-taught—is training yourself to recognise your own work patterns. What is your writing really concerned with? What are your true obsessions (including those you might not yet be conscious of)? How can you push through a block in your thinking or writing? How can you use language to address, explore, confront, or explain, these objects of your obsession, in new, exciting, difficult, and funny ways? 

About Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage’s debut essay collection Blueberries is forthcoming with Text Publishing and Scribe UK. Over the past decade, Ellena has worked extensively with emerging essayists: as a teacher (at RMIT and the University of Melbourne), an editor (The Lifted Brow, Spook), and as a curator of literary events (Synthetic Heat Reading Series). Ellena’s work has been published widely in literary journals including The Paris Review Daily, Literary Hub, Cosmonaut’s Avenue, Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, TEXT Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, and Eureka Street, where she wrote a column between 2011-2016. While in development, Blueberries was short- and longlisted for: the Penguin Random House Australia Literary Prize, the Scribe Nonfiction Prize, the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Prize, and the Richell Prize.