Ingrid Laguna is the Education Advisor for the Melbourne Writers Festival and the author of four books – a memoir and three novels for young readers. ‘Songbird’ was given Notable recognition by the CBCA and shortlisted for Speech Pathology Australia’s Book of the Year Award. ‘Bailey Finch Takes a Stand’ is her latest release.
Ingrid is teaching Writers Victoria’s ‘Inspiration for a Writing Life’ workshop – how to plan for a supported, inspired and purposeful writing life – on Sunday, August 1, and here talks to us ahead of the workshop.
You’ve had an extremely varied and experienced career so far, working as an author, teacher, education advisor, percussionist, singer/songwriter, film crew member, festival director… how has your varied work experience affected your current day work ethic and approach to staying inspired?
I’ve always been driven. I’m a passionate person and I throw myself into my work, whether it’s drumming, teaching or writing. I still have a school report from when I was twelve where a teacher wrote, ‘Ingrid needs to learn to control her natural exuberance’. (Who says that to a kid?!) I’m enthusiastic by nature so perseverance, in work that I love, is not my challenge. But I do beat up on myself and as a writer, that can be crippling. Connections with other writers and the support we give one another through empathy or encouragement continues to be critical for me. I recognise that I need support and so I ask for it and I give it. I couldn’t do it alone.
I’m such a beginner. Remembering that also keeps the pressure down. I have a sticky note on my computer that is a quote from Maria Tumarkin: ‘The difference between writers and non-writers is that writers write.’ That’s kind of brutal because it means you have to do the work. There’s no getting around it.
You’ve written four books so far. How have your strategies and thoughts around inspiration and purpose changed from your first book to your current one?
I wrote my first book in a state of grief and shock after six months with two babies in intensive care, both of whom passed away. Stringing the words together for that manuscript, ‘Serenade for a Small Family’, was a project I became addicted to. I fell in love with the process of playing with words. Between that memoir and my first middle-grade novel I spent six years teaching children, mostly from Iraq and Syria, at an intensive English language school. I was stunned by their courage and resilience and inspired to write ‘Songbird’ and ‘Sunflower’, stories based on an eleven-year-old Iraqi refugee settling into her new life in Melbourne. While writing and re-writing those two novels, my editor at Text, Jane Pearson, helped me to hone my craft of writing for children. By the time I wrote ‘Bailey Finch Takes a Stand’, the words came easily, particularly as the story was inspired by my kid and her dog so I was writing what I knew.
As writers, it’s difficult to separate ourselves from the need for external validation, especially when we send our writing out into the world for others to read and comment on. What are some basic ways we can manage this?
I keep reminding myself why I write: for the challenge and satisfaction of moving words around and crafting something new. It’s in our nature to need external validation; strangely we get a taste of validation and then we want more! I think that once you just know that, you learn to write with the discomfort right beside you. My mum, an artist who never stops creating, says that ‘self-doubt is just the salad on the side’. I’ve learnt that if you just keep going, keep turning up, your writing gets better. Your manuscript will shift and move out of the swampy bits if you stick at it. Perseverance and fortitude, I remind myself. Just keep going.
When I recently interviewed Ursula Dubosarsky for Readings, she said: ‘Whatever you’re writing, whether it’s a story, a poem, a play, an article, a script, an essay…make yourself FINISH it.’ I love this advice.
How important is a planned approach to writing? Is it something every writer should do?
Jury’s out for me on this and maybe every story is different in terms of how it is crafted. In ‘Big Magic’, Elizabeth Gilbert says, ‘Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.’ I write because an idea is sparked. I’ll either just pour the words out and follow my characters along or, as with ‘Bailey Finch Takes a Stand’, I might plot the story in detail. I definitely do not believe there are rules around this.
How do you personally find the discipline to keep writing when the going gets tough?
I read a quote by Margaret Atwood: ‘You become a writer by writing. There is no other way. So do it. Do it more. Do it again. Do it better. Fail. Fail better.’ The more I write, the more I accept this simple fact. Having said that, when the going gets tough, I whinge, I call a writer friend (looking at you, Emily Brewin) and together we curse writing and the industry and we swear a lot. Then I walk, hang washing, eat biscuits, polish the phone charger, anything to avoid the page (screen). Then I might listen to Tara Brach speaking about equanimity or sleep on it and then the next day I’ll tell myself, ‘I am a writer. I will write for three hours today, no matter what.’ I let myself spend time on one sentence or one paragraph, or let a thousand words onto the page, despite the doubt and inner critic sitting right beside me.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says: ‘Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky.’ For that to happen, you need to spend time at the page, ready to catch them.
Social media can be extremely overwhelming, especially for writers who may not be digital natives or are trepidatious about the amount of work it may require. Do you have any tips for making social media productive rather than draining?
I’ve worked out that I’m better off spending time playing with story ideas and moving words around on the page than curating content for social media or getting sucked into its void only to come out half an hour later in dire need of cake or wine.
I do value interaction with other writers and writing industry friends online, and I’ve made connections that might not otherwise have happened. I’m also aware that as a writer you need to have an online presence as promotional opportunities are limited.
I’ve learnt to limit the time I’m allowed on social media because it can leave me more drained than inspired. It can tip me into comparing myself to others and feeling bad. In ‘How to be an Artist’, Gerry Saltz says, ‘Make an enemy of envy. It will eat you alive as an artist; you’ll live in its service, always on the edge of a funk…always seeing what other people have.’ So true. Make an enemy of envy.
What are you working on now?
I’m so excited about the contract I’ve just signed to co-write a book that I’m not allowed to say a word about just yet! I want to tell the world about it but for now my lips must be sealed. (It’s in the contract. Ugh.) I’m beside myself to co-write with someone for whom I have enormous respect and whose work is changing lives. What a gift.