On Writing

Writers, editors, agents, publishers and more share their thoughts, experiences and stories.

The distinguished English biographer Richard Holmes once described biography as ‘a handshake across time’. He was trying to draw out the degree to which writing a biography is ‘an act of human solidarity, and in its own way an act of recognition and of love’. This is surely true, but his analogy strikes me as somehow too cool. For me, writing a biography has been more like a big warm bear-hug across time, or maybe a wild, nose-in-the air, nose-to-the-ground fox-hunt across time.

It’s the opening night of the poetry festival in Heidelberg in Germany, one of the International Cities of Literature. Onstage stand a poet and musician who’ve travelled from Ballarat in regional Victoria. Nathan Curnow introduces his first poem, ‘Student Kiss’, about a famous Heidelberg chocolate. He’s googled those things that make Heidelberg unique and written poems to deliver. But he’s taking a risk; like saying ‘put another shrimp on the barbie’, it might not sit quite right. He gauges his audience as he shapes the delivery.

Five bells toll at 4.45am. The world is humid darkness and my mind, a sleep deprived fog. I’m supposed to jump out of bed in fervent prayer but my body shakes from the shock of waking up too early, even after two years practice.

Lost and naïve, traipsing through the wards

I listened to a chest and heard

A harsh rasping whisper

Blowing between beats and breaths

All but intangible from the outside

Yet I hear rumbling beneath my steth.

Behind all this was a person

Patiently waiting while I fumble.

I absolutely love to write. I always have. I first realised this from the enjoyment that I had when writing essays in high school. It resonated with me a great deal, to create a narrative prose on a topic. Then at university, more essays and reports, culminating in a thesis. These early forays led to a job in technical writing – equipment manuals, to be exact. I was writing – I was happy. But then, many things happened in my life at once, and my love of writing was placed to the side.

A portrait of Sian Prior

Why do we write memoirs? Memoir tutor Sian Prior says that humans have a powerful urge to tell, listen to, and learn from true stories for all sorts of reasons – just don’t write them if you’re looking for revenge.

I hold my one-year-old daughter in my arms, waiting for her to fall asleep while she suckles at my breast. I wait for her mouth to release and her breathing to settle before I put her in the cot and go downstairs to work on my writing. I feel grateful, at ease.

The transition from ‘writer’ to ‘author’ is strewn with rejection emails. Being proactive, resilient and willing to learn from your mistakes will serve you well on your path towards publication. A healthy dose of optimism doesn’t hurt either. I have just completed my first career plan at an age when some of my friends are considering retirement.

The Gothic writer must know their genre thoroughly. This does not mean following a template because Gothic is as much an aesthetic, a feel, an atmosphere as it is a strictly defined genre. Gothic fiction has few rules as it is characterised by illusion, equivocation and subversion. Therefore, understanding the Gothic largely relies on experiencing it, immersing yourself in the genre; taking from the texts elements which best suit or resonate with your writing.

Being a long-term diabetic and a photographer, I always felt I’d been given a rum deal. Here I was: a visual with little time for the written word who had to attend clinics with monikers like endocrinology, nephrology, cardiology, haematology and ophthalmology. I still can’t spell them without checking, of course, but their meanings have become crystal clear, particularly that last beauty.