On Writing

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

The tendency to look overseas for great literary works is hardly new. The notion of ‘cultural cringe’ (coined by AA Phillips¹ in 1950) describes an Australian assumption that ‘the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article’. We suppose it’s being done better internationally, and look to international markets as arbiters of taste. We measure our own successes against international works – both in terms of sales and reception – and maintain the baseline assumption that international work represents the highest level of achievement.

Professor Megan Davis recently presented the 2018 Human Rights Oration, ‘Towards a Treaty’, organised by the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

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.