Humans are creative creatures. Look at everything we’ve created, from the Eiffel Tower to competitive hot dog eating to this amphibious bicycle.
I’m always bursting with ideas (though none as great as that Floaty the Bubble Bike). And I’m sure you are too – even if you don’t know it.
This has been one of the delights of becoming an author. When I was writing my first book, one of my 8000 worries was that I only had this one idea. What if I wrote the book, and it got published, but then I couldn’t think of anything else to write about?
But learning to write meant, in part, learning to pay attention to my creativity. And the more I paid attention to it, the more I realised the problem wasn’t too few ideas.
It was too many.
Now I have a list of about a dozen ideas for books, some more far-fetched than others. I have ideas for essays scrawled all over the place, and no time to even start them.
More and more research is showing how creativity is a muscle, and that even if our adult selves have been conditioned to tune out our creative impulses, they’re still there. We just need to rebuild them, which basically means to start listening again.
Elizabeth Gilbert has lots of wonderful things to say about this in Big Magic. Do yourself a favour, listen to her narrate the audiobook. She advises having an affair with your creativity – sneak it into your life however you can manage, get excited, let it be joyful.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that creativity is a practice – that means just sitting down and doing it. There’s incredible freedom in that. There’s no right or wrong way to be creative, whether you’re writing or dancing or gardening.
Recently I had the opportunity to discuss all of this with author, Story Room Aus host and positive ageing activist Karen Sander for her podcast, Ageing Fearlessly.
In my work at Writing NSW, I’ve met a lot of people who started writing later in life, often in retirement. They usually say that they always wanted to write, but that they never had the time. I always admire them for finally making time to reconnect with their creative selves.
In my interview with Karen, I talk about the process of developing my writing practice and prioritising creativity, and share tips and resources for doing the same.
The Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, presented by Writing NSW and Text Publishing, is awarded to an unpublished Indigenous writer who has made substantial progress on a fiction or non-fiction writing project. The writer is paired with a senior Indigenous writer for a structured year-long mentorship.
The 2021 Boundless runner-up is Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie, for her memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. She’ll be working under the mentorship of Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko.
I’m especially excited for Samia because my husband and I had the honour of funding the 2021 runner-up mentorship. In this Q&A, she talks about her early experiences with writing, how she began to work on her memoir, writers that have inspired her, and her best writing tip.
When did you start writing, and what kind of writing did you first aspire to? As a child and all through my teens writing was my to go safe place and I wrote prolifically. Stories, poetry, prose, mostly long streams of consciousness and long 10-page letters to my grandmother and pen pal friends.
The touch of a fresh sharpened pencil and feel of the pen on paper completely absorbed me. I was deeply traumatised as a young person, so reading, writing and painting were my world, my safe place, and helped me survive.
I had two significant English teachers. One was Mr Jardine, he wore a cravat. It was the 70s, he took us to A Clockwork Orange, exposed us to Russian writers, Blake, and the classics as well as contemporary Australian and American writers. In my mid-teens and I was introduced to feminists and Marx, which was unusual, through another English teacher, Elizabeth Cousins.
Elizabeth knew my life was hard and in many ways I couldn’t function in the mainstream-learning environment, so she just let me write whatever I liked and didn’t require I come to class. I’d meet with her regularly instead and she’d read my writing, point me to things to read and make comments and constantly encourage me.
I also did a radio show at my school, so I was very influenced by radio, drama, youth theatre and music. A real mix, symphony, opera, jazz. Mozart and Pink Floyd and Country. We didn’t have a TV till I was 11. So these things shaped my world.
I was an adopted baby, taken from my birth mum, and my parents were significantly older than all my friends’ parents. I had a very lonely and abusive childhood. I just didn’t fit in for all kinds of reasons, Race being just one, so, I had to have a rich inner life to survive.
I spent hours learning and reciting poetry, long form and verse. I loved acting, and I would write my own scripts and then spend hours playing all the characters.
As a young teenager I also spent a lot of time at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and this is where I first started to understand that there were alternative stories and histories to the ones I was being exposed to. I’d grown up with Albert Namatjira on the living room wall, strict Methodists who had both been in the Army during WWII, and a father who grew up in an orphanage. I also spent long periods of time with relatives and then in institutions, so there were lots of disconnections and contradictions. Writing continues to fulfill the same role. It’s my safe place and my way to challenge the complexity of my inner and outer world. To give voice to these complexities and challenge the status quo of society. I love the craft, the voice, the landscape and terrain of stories. I love reading other people’s stories, ones that take you on a journey that transports you. That’s what I’d love to achieve. Telling a story that takes the reader on a journey.
I’ve written a lot of poetry over more recent years, up till then I put all my creativity into community projects, films, digital stories, events, concerts and lecturing and travelling.
Tell us about your memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. Last year after I had an accident and was having a lot of severe pain, I started writing again just for myself, to distract myself. It started to become what felt like a story, one that had been sitting inside me for decades. I decided okay, just write.
Once I made that decision words just flowed out faster than I could type. I have called this work The Woman Who Came from the Sea because the ocean, salt water, and fresh water have always been important in my life. I have experienced deep bliss surfing down the face of a clear blue wave and near death in the center of a cyclone in the middle of the ocean on a small yacht.
I’d say its memoir, but also could fall into being creative non-fiction. I don’t want to give away too much yet; I can say it’s a wild story, a story of adventure and survival against the odds. I know I have lived a life that’s very full and left of center. I actually hate boxes and strive to challenge being labeled or locked into other people’s definitions of who I am. I’d like that to be the same with my writing, I am not trying to write in a specific formula or write for a living. I am just writing.
Various people throughout my life have heard pieces of my life and always commented that they would love to read the full story. So, maybe they will get that chance. I hope so, that would be wonderful.
What books or authors have inspired your writing? I have read broadly, the books that really stand out are always ones with rich landscapes and diverse voices. First Nations writing from this country has always had a special place ever since meeting and then reading the work of some of our early trailblazers, people like respected Elders Oodgeroo Noonuccal or Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert who founded the writing group I’m currently part of called Us Mob writers in Canberra.
Since being involved with Us Mob writers and First Nations Australia Writers Network, I have made a point to read nearly exclusively Aboriginal and Indigenous writers. We have so many talented storytellers; I have a never-ending pile.
I also love Hispanic and Latino and First Nations writers from the Americas where I lived for 12 years, mostly in the southwest. So, of course I am very impacted by the landscape of those places and the voices from those lands. I like to read and listen to stories that are recommended me by other writers. Films, theatre and podcasts inform me as well.
Through the Boundless Mentorship, you’ll be working with author Melissa Lucashenko, winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. What are you hoping to take from this? Being runner up in the Boundless Mentorship and being matched with Melissa Lucashenko, whose book Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award, is an extraordinary opportunity. The process of shaping my writing into structure and working out how to keep the story moving, is why it’s important for me to have a mentor. Just to get feedback and encouragement and not be so isolated means a lot.
I’m just grateful to learn whatever I can from her and hope it helps me bring my story to life.
What writing tip have you found most useful so far? Right now, it’s just about getting the writing on the page. That’s the best tip I have had. Just write, don’t stop, don’t edit, just get it down first. The rest will follow. The others are to read and read a lot. I’d add listen. Listen, be interested and brave.
It’s scary sometimes, to be visible, but I have such a great community of writers who inspire me. Aunty Kerry kept telling me before she died that she’d watching me and will be on my back if I don’t write. So, I have to honor her, as she really believed in me.
I want to thank Boundless, Writing NSW, Text Publishers, Booktopia, the judges, and of course my generous sponsors. I hope I can give you something that rewards your choice in supporting me with this opportunity.
Time is precious, so, now, it’s back to my story. I hope you might get to read it one day.
Congrats also to this year’s Boundless winner, Torres Strait Islander Lenora Thaker.For more about the Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, visit Writing NSW.
I’ve been in a writers’ group for over six years now, and the process of getting regular feedback has been transformative for my writing.
Whether you’re thinking about joining a writers’ group (do it!) or you’re in one already but think it could be more effective, here are my tips on getting the most out of the experience.
Find the right group for you All writers’ groups are different, so it depends on what you’re looking for. The first one I tried focused on generating material in their sessions, then reading aloud and giving light verbal feedback. I think the most important thing you can get from a writers’ group is robust, in-depth feedback, but it depends what stage of the process you’re at. Don’t be afraid to try a few different groups before settling on one. Or form your own.
Exchange excerpts in advance My group focusses on feedback, and our monthly meetings work like this: approximately one week before each meeting, we email our excerpt around, so we can all read them in advance. To me, this is essential. For one thing, it means I have time to re-read and think deeply about the excerpts. It also means I can make as many comments as I feel necessary, on what works as well as areas I think need improvement. This is a time commitment – everyone in my group sends up to 6000 words each month – but it’s worth it for the quality of feedback.
Set the rules When my group gives feedback, we follow a set of rules: if my excerpt is being discussed, everyone takes turns giving me their main points of feedback – they may have written more comments for me, but verbally they only raise their key points. As the feedback recipient, I can’t talk until everyone is done – I can’t explain what a certain paragraph meant, or tell the reader why they misunderstood. I shut up and take notes until everyone is done, then I have five minutes to ask questions. This helps to keep the meeting moving along. This also gives the writer a chance to absorb the feedback and think about why the person might have interpreted the excerpt in a particular way.
Another rule we stick to is restricting the group to five members. Three is too few, and six means we don’t have enough time in our meetings to fully discuss each piece.
Finesse your feedback Great feedback focuses on your experience as a reader, while drawing on your expertise as a writer. Note what works well, what captivates your attention, where you feel the tension building, and your emotional investment in the scene. Note also where you’re jolted out of the scene, where the description drags, where you’re confused or uncertain. This can be most helpful when it comes to the balance of showing and telling. Are the details showing what the writer thinks they are? Your own writing skills will improve as you develop your ability to pinpoint what works in others’ writing, no matter the genre.
Find your writers’ group State and local writers’ centres are a good place to find a group. Writing NSW hosts over 30 groups and lists more around the state, some of which are open to new members. Early each year, they also host a Writers’ Group Open Night, which is a chance to learn about the various groups, meet their members, and discuss.
If you can’t access an in-person group, you might try joining an online writers’ group. One way to do this is to take an online writing course, and connect with others looking for ongoing peer support and feedback. In Writing NSW’s online writing courses, online groups often form after the course.*
This August, you can also join me for two online sessions with Writers Unleashed.
Writers Unleashed Festival Saturday 21 August 2021 Online! Full-festival access pass $90 Writers Unleashed has a fantastic line-up of authors on this year’s online program, and I’ll be taking part in two sessions:
Getting Your Scenes Right: The Nitty-Gritty of Scene Structure 9:30-10:30am **live**
Social Media and Building an Author Profile Pre-recorded, part of your seven-day access pass Ashley Kalagian Blunt & Alan Baxter
Your work has started a conversation Teeth over teeth tattoo
Live fast, die pirate
Think of good things 15 seconds plus, think about how it made you feel!
Chuck black high heels Cupcake with bow Fruitys for life
Thanks to the health professionals and all other essential people. Addicted to hair
Snake bite speeding cop body cam
“No matter how else you suffer, you will never have an itchy spleen.”
Cleveland butcher, torso murderer What a Bobby Dazzlwr! Ah struth — violence in braveheart
Ah beauty Jacqui’s mum
Writing is about the love of strangers I don’t sit down to commit an act of literature. Billy Collins
Tattoo: a noose with the words hang in there
Experience furniture like never before
Increase simplicity Increase flow state time Increase time with people I love
“It doesn’t matter if you’re sick” fuck you.
*This week I opened my Notes app and found the above collection of text. At various points I entered each of those series of words into the note, adding to it progressively, intending to do something with those phrases and concepts.
But what? I have no idea.
Regardless, I still get a kick out of the phrase fruitys for life.
Instead of anything sensible, please enjoy these photos from the 2015 Sydney Vivid Festival.
‘It’s really important to me, as a writer, to get under the skin of my characters.’ In her new novel, Love Objects, Emily Maguire does exactly that, exploring one woman’s experience with hoarding disorder as a way to better understand our relationships with objects – and with each other.
Emily is the author of six novels, including the Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award-shortlisted An Isolated Incident, and three non-fiction books. Her articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Observer and the Age. Emily works as a teacher and as a mentor to young and emerging writers and was the 2018/2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.
In episode 27 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to Emily about her interest in hoarding disorder, our relationships to material possessions, and why it’s often so difficult to talk about what causes us pain.
She also draws on her experience as the longtime teacher of Writing NSW’s Year of the Novel course and shares her key advice for writers.
Recently I was invited to be a guest author at the Sutherland Shire Fellowship of Australian Writers, who are an absolutely lovely bunch of people.
You don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at the How to Be Australian themed afternoon tea they put on.
If you’re wondering, I didn’t have an iced vovo. I was busy digging into the salted caramel slices, which were perfectly chewy and had no dessicated coconut in the base! A++
And in honour of the event, I wore my caramel slice earrings. I’m very on brand.
As the guest author, I decided to share some of the advice I’ve learned over the ten years I’ve been steadily developing my writing process and industry expertise.
I talked about trusting the processing, about learning to be your own editor, and about the importance of regular feedback from informed readers (ie other writers).
I also talked about project inertia.
This is what I’ve come to call the feeling when a project stalls, when I’m not working on it (for whatever reason, some more excusable than others) and then feel a lot resistance when I try to get back into it.
I began my current manuscript in July 2019 and it’s been through a few serious bouts of project inertia. I had to spend several months editing How to Be Australian. Then I had a two-month stretch of terrible fatigue in early 2020. (That happened right before covid hit, so I spent two months cancelling plans and staying home, and then as soon as I started to feel better, we were suddenly in lockdown.) Then I spent a couple of months doing book publicity, and then I had another 10-week stretch of fatigue.
After each of these long breaks, I really struggled to get back into my new manuscript. I felt distant from the project, and a bit overwhelmed, and there was always something else to keep me busy.
A standard creative writing tip is to write every day. For a long time, I disagreed with this. In fact, I was asked in a Q&A from the Wheeler Centre, “What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?” I said:
One common piece of advice is to write every day. This is nonsense. I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years, and I’ve never managed to write every day. I have, however, interviewed more than 140 people, completed two Masters theses, written four manuscripts and published two of them. Most of that time I also had a day job, and for almost four years I’ve had a debilitating illness. Better advice: write when you can, write what excites you, keep going.
Kate talked about her writing process and the process journal she keeps, documenting all her thoughts around the project and its development as she goes. We also talked about writing practice, and writers who write every day.
So I decided to try it. Both the process journal and this crazy writing every day thing. I committed to working on the manuscript for at least 15 minutes every day for a month.
And seven months later, I’m still doing it, for one amazing reason: no more project inertia.
I still greatly prefer to sit down and work on my writing for at least an hour at a time, ideally two or three. I can’t get much done in 15 minutes.
But it is exceptionally helpful to create a habit of sitting down and the computer, opening the file, and getting my head into the manuscript. This means when I am able to sit down for a longer stretch, I can get straight into it.
I still miss one or two days a month, almost always because of the fatigue. But otherwise, I keep myself accountable in my process journal.
And I’ve made huge progress since that October commitment. Then I only had 45,000 words of a first draft. Now I’ve completed that draft, used it to develop a 15,000-word scene-by-scene outline, and am already 25,000 words into a new draft.
So now I’ve started suggesting writing daily. Fifteen minutes a day can lead to a surprising amount of of progress, and spare a lot of the torture of project inertia.
When we spoke to David Vann, he was on his final day of a two-week covid quarantine in a hotel room in Cambodia. He had with him an AED (an automatic external defibrillator) and an EPIRB (an emergency position indicating radio beacon), in case of sinking. He wasn’t specifically concerned about sinking the hotel room, but if it happened, he was ready for it.
David Vann is the internationally bestselling author of seven novels and three works of non-fiction. Published in 23 languages, his books have earned him literary accolades worldwide, appeared on 83 ‘best books of the year’ lists and seen him featured at nearly 100 international literary festivals. Among many publications, he’s written for Esquire, Men’s Health, the Observer, the Financial Times and National Geographic Adventure. He’s currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick in England.
David spent his childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska, a setting which features in much of his work. When he was 13, his father Jim committed suicide by shooting himself. The pivotal event in David’s youth has been explored and alluded to in many of his novels, but never more directly or confronting than in his 2019 novel Halibut on the Moon.
Halibut on the Moon is an excruciating depiction of a downward spiral to suicide, written from the point of view of Vann’s father.
In episode 23, James and I speak to David about his writing process for this novel and others, and what he considers to be great writing (to James’s dismay, it’s not Knausgaard). We also speak about gun proliferation and mental illness in the US, and the current challenges of the publishing industry, even for authors as accomplished as Vann.
Books discussed in this episode: Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace The World According to Garp by John Irving Goat Mountain; Aquarium; Legend of a Suicide; Bright Air Black; Last Day on Earth by David Vann Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter Shadow Child by PF Thomése Eight Lives by Susan Hurley The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright
Episode 15 of James and Ashley Stay at Home is out now, and it’s chock full of writing tips. Can you write a bestselling novel through the simple process of 5 words a day? Technically yes, though it would take you 43.8 years to complete a first draft.
We suggest better writing tips, like these:
Protect your writing time.
Write about what scares you.
Don’t show people the first draft – or, do, if you like. We debate this.
Write a process journal: we get into what this is and why it helps.
Try different genres, voices and forms (this is how Ashley created My Name Is Revenge, a novella and collected essays that combine memoir, history and journalism).
Make time for close reading and analysis of writing you admire.
Plus, James gets real about his motivations, and also reveals that he didn’t know what a writing residency was until he was awarded two of them back to back (at the National Writers’ House and KSP Writers’ Centre).
(And if you’re wondering why he bothered applying when he didn’t know what they were, it’s because I sent him the links. I might send James a link to clown college just to see if he’ll apply to that. He’d probably get accepted.)
One of my favourite things to do in Australia is ask people for their spider stories.
Everyone who’s lived here has at least one good one. I wrote about a few of them, including one of my own, in How to Be Australian.
After nearly 10 years in Australia, I started to think maybe there wouldn’t be many new spider stories left to discover. I’d heard about spider encounters in moving cars, in beds, in swimming pools. I’d heard about people who had limbs turn ‘the colour of dead flesh’ after being bitten by a white tail. I’d even heard about monstrous spider-wasps flying through open windows with flailing huntsmans in their mouths.
I thought I’d heard everything.
I was wrong.
Out for dinner with two Canadian expats who moved to Sydney in 2019, the topic of spider stories came up. This couple’s story is a frontrunner for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2020, and possibly Spider Anecdote of All Time.
Here’s the scene: they spot a biggish spider in their apartment. The husband happens to have a long umbrella in his hand. He reaches out and, with perfect aim, manages to smush the spider with the umbrella tip.
THOUSANDS OF SPIDER BABIES EXPLODE FROM THE SQUASHED SPIDER, RUNNING IN ALL DIRECTIONS IN THE APARTMENT.
The next day at work, the wife relates this horrifying experience to one of her coworkers, a local.
“Oh yeah,” the coworker says, “that’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia. Better to use bug spray or catch it will a bowl.”
That’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia?? I’ve lived here 10 years and have talked about spiders with a lot of Australians. You could say cataloguing spider anecdotes has been part of my life’s work. And I’ve never heard this advice, or heard about exploding spider babies.
“Wait,” I said to the couple, “don’t spider lay eggs? Why would a spider have thousands of spider babies with it?”
It wasn’t that I doubted their story. The horror on their faces as they recalled it was genuine. I was simply confused about the biology.
I don’t want to alarm you, but there are 2888 species of wolf spider, and they’re found throughout the world. According to my very minimal research (I can only look at websites with photos of spiders for so long), all species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs with them.
When the ‘spiderlings’ hatch, they live on the mother for a number of weeks. (Imagine that, ladies! Clambering around for weeks with several hundred babies clinging to you!)
So it seems my Canadian friend’s coworker is correct: you should never squash a spider in Australia, unless you know definitively that it’s not a female wolf spider. And even then, you’re still risking gross spider innards oozing all over. (Readers of How to Be Australian know my prefered spider-prepardeness plan is a vacuum.)
Got spider anecdotes for me? You know I want them!