I know I recently came out as a crime writer – and I love crime fiction! One of my absolute favourite authors is John Sandford.
That said, I think my first love is creative non-fiction. In fact, I love it – eep! – even more than fiction, because of its basis in real-life events and facts. If you check out my list of great reads, you’ll see the majority are non-fiction.
When I started writing my first book at 14, it was a novel. But when I got ‘serious’ about writing, at age 26, I only considered writing creative non-fiction.
And while I write both fiction and non-fiction (my first book combines both), my fiction writing always begins with research into true events. So my love for non-fiction is really at the core of everything I do, artisitcally.
My favourite creative non-fiction authors include Malcolm Gladwell, David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Tamim Ansary, Elizabeth Gilbert, Helen Garner and Samantha Irby. Even my favourite book by novelist Douglas Coupland is his biography of media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
Whether you’re writing essays or working on a memoir or other book-length project – or you’re hoping to but don’t quite know where to start – this course is for you.
I’ve just finished designing the course, and had a lot of fun putting it together. Each of the six weekly lessons includes instruction and advice on that week’s topic, essays and/or book extracts to analyse, discussion questions and generative writing prompts. Weeks 1 to 5 each include a writing assignment with a short peer feedback component.
Topics Week 1. Delving into creative non-fiction Week 2. Balancing scene, summary and reflective narration Week 3. Writing the self and others Week 4. Drawing on research Week 5. Exploring form and voice Week 6. Getting published
This course is entirely online, with no Zoom or scheduled meetups, which means you can enrol from anywhere in the world. The course is designed to work with your existing writing practice, or to help you develop one.
Throughout the course, we’re going to read a wide variety of essays and extracts from many of the authors mentioned here, as well as two of the godfathers of creative non-fiction, Lee Gutkind and Dinty Moore.
At the same time, we’ll consider work from award-winning emerging writers, to help you benchmark your developing skills. I think it’s important to read this sort of variety when we’re learning. It can be hard to look at, say, Helen Garner’s work and think ‘how would I improve that?’ It’s a lot easier to do this with emerging authors, whose work provides a pathway between where we are now, and what we might want to achieve.
We’re also going to learn about the fallibility of memory from Malcolm Gladwell, and consider advice from Anwen Crawford, Kate Holden, Sisonke Msimang, Lee Kofman and Ruth Ozeki. We’ll unpack ten aspects of the elusive concept of ‘voice’, and explore a variety of narrative forms.
We’ll also discuss a key question many emerging memoir writers face: What happens when you write about a family memory who really doesn’t want to be written about?
Along the way, I’ll be sharing behind-the-scenes insights and tips from my own writing journey – because a few years ago, I was enrolling in Writing NSW courses and writing, revising and submitting work with the hope of building a career as a creative non-fiction author.
In turn, I’m excited to learn about your writing and help you toward achieving your goals.
Online: Creative Non-fiction runs from 31 October to 9 December 2022. Find out more and enrol at Writing NSW.
I started the creative non-fiction manuscript that became Full of Donkey in 2010. I had my first essay, an extract from that work, published in a literary journal in 2015, and was awarded a Varuna Fellowship the same year.
In short, I’d been chipping away at the project for a while by the time of the KYD shortlisting.
SJ Norman ended up winning the Unpublished Manuscript Award that year. Which was disappointing for me, of course.
After, a publisher did ask to read my full manuscript. She ended up rejecting it, but did give me some useful feedback.
In 2018, Full of Donkey was also shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers. Once again, it didn’t win.
I kept working. I changed the manuscript’s scope, and it eventually morphed into My Name Is Revenge, my first published book, which came out in 2019.
In sum, I started that project in 2010, and the book came out – in a very different format – ten years later.
And even though SJ Norman won the award in 2017, it still took a while for the book to find a publisher. Permafrost came out in 2021, and went on to be longlisted for the Stella Award.
In 2017, I didn’t know any of the other shortlisted writers. They were just random names on a list.
I’ve since gotten to know Susan White through a writing alumni group, and so I’ve heard how hard she’s worked to revise Cut and get it to publication.
Cut is coming out from Affirm Press this month. (Sue had her first book, a YA novel, published in 2019.)
I’ve also gotten to know Amy Lovat, founder of Secret Book Stuff. We interviewed her for ep 34 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, and she was so fantastic (incisive, generous, well read, enthusiastic – I could go on), I convinced her to join my writers’ group at the end of 2021.
And not long after that, Amy signed a contract with Pan Macmillan for the release of Halfway to Nowhere. After working on the novel for ten years, it’s coming out in July 2023.
That leaves Sevana Ohandjanian. I don’t know her, and there’s no book news on her website, but who knows. She might have a publication deal for Black Grass in the works right now. (Sevana, if you’re reading this and that’s not the case, keep going!)
I think you can see my point.
If you’re working on a book that feels like it’s going nowhere, don’t give up. Take a new approach, maybe start a new manuscript, whatever you need to do. But keep going.
And if you’re working on creative non-fiction and keen to develop your skills, whether you’re writing essays or a full manuscript, join me this my six-week online course with Writing NSW starting 31 October.
Online: Creative Non-Fiction course Monday 31 October to Friday 9 December 2022, online Writing NSW This six-week online course with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt is an opportunity for you to delve into the dynamic world of creative non-fiction. You’ll try new techniques to stretch your writing muscles, and receive feedback in a supportive and encouraging setting.
Each lesson will include writing exercises designed to help you practise a wide range of skills, and weekly deadlines for short assignments will provide motivation. You can work toward the completion of a short-form piece for submission at the end of the course, or develop your skills for a longer project. For full details and to enrol, visit Writing NSW >>
For four of the past six weeks, I’ve been on writing retreat, first as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon in rural NSW, and then as a fellowship recipient at KSP Writers’ Centre in Perth, WA.
I love writing retreats because they allow me to focus on my current project to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it’s always a time of new insights and exciting progress. (Unless my CFS is flaring; then it’s just frustrating.)
I’ve been working on a major structural revision to my psychological thriller, and by the end of my two weeks at KSP, I’d made it through to the end of the draft. I still need to review the changes and do some more editing, but the hardest work is done, for the moment.
Now I’m at the point where I’m sharpening the scenes and the line-by-line writing. One of my favourite strategies is to use the find-all function in Word (shift + command + H on Mac) for certain words, and review each use of them one by one.
Instead of reading through the manuscript and getting caught up in the flow of the story, this strategy allows me to encounter sentences out of context. This helps me think about them differently. I ask myself a few questions about each sentence:
Does the sentence really need the filler word I searched? (Ex. Does that question need really?)
Could I rewrite the sentence to make it stronger, more interesting, with more specific imagery?
Do I need the sentence at all – maybe the paragraph/scene is stronger without it.
For example, this morning I searched the following words, and made these edits:
Reduced my use of almost from 31 to 11
Reduced all from 252 to 117 (very happy with this one)
Actually from 29 to 9
Absolutely from 5 to 1
A bit from 19 to 10
A little from 25 to 9
A single from 9 to 3
At least from 23 to 10
Always from 26 to 9
Back from 262 to 113 (very happy with this one too)
Obviously from 8 to 2
Very from 17 to 11
In some cases I simply removed these words, but often I reworked sentences to make them stronger. Where I’ve kept words like very and obviously is usually in dialogue.
I’ve created a list of words and phrases I search, and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be working through it while continuing with the revision. I’ve included it below in case you’d like to make use of it too.
a bit a little a single at least absolutely actually again also all almost although always another any as well at the same time back basically because both but certainly clearly completely decide definitely down entire especially even everything exactly extremely feel/feel like first, second, third generally have/had a feeling have/had no idea hear here I think in fact just know/knew/known likewise look/looked/looking make/makes no sense meanwhile nearly next nevertheless obviously of course off otherwise out particularly practically pretty probably quite realise really right see/seeing/saw seem similarly so so much some somehow something sound specifically straight suddenly then think/thinking/thought there too totally truly up very watch wonder yet
When Jacinta Dietrich’s boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to fiction to find this new terrain explored on the page.
Except she couldn’t find her story.
While there were lots of narratives involving cancer, Jacinta was looking for a story that involved a young couple involved in a newer – but crucially, established – relationship, who had to navigate the progression of their romance while one of them also went through cancer treatment.
Jacinta Dietrich is a writer and editor who holds a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Her first book, This Is Us Now, was published in 2021 by Grattan Street Press.
In episode 45 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Jacinta talks about fictionalising her story, writing confronting emotions, and telling her partner that the book she’d written based on their relationship was going to be published.
Plus, things go off the rails as we get into a heated and cryptic discussion of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, and also exactly which co-host asked author Lyn Yeowart what she was wearing. (If you’re looking to give James a gift, maybe don’t go with a photo book.)
When she was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease at age 25, one of the many things it meant for Heather was that she’d have to quit skydiving – though not until she’d injured herself trying to hold on the person she was before.
Heather Taylor Johnson is a writer and editor. Born in Minnesota and now living in South Australia, she has written novels and poetry collections, and is the editor of Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. Her writing has been published in Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite, Westerly, Griffith Review, Island and TEXT. She lives with Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear.
In episode 41 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, she discusses how more than two decades of living with chronic illness have inspired her writing and led to the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Illness and Chronic Pain.
She also shares Van Gogh’s misdiagnosis with her condition, describes how a year of studying art has changed her writing process, and tells us about her latest book, Rhymes with Hyenas.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability by Jennifer Bartlett (ed) – Prosopagnosia by Sonia Hernandez – No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
‘People come to me all the time and tell me about the metaphors I built in, and I tell them, “Man, I just threw it in there.”‘
David Heska Wanbli Weiden is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota nation and the author of Winter Counts. His debut novel, Winter Counts was the winner of the 2021 Thriller Award for Best First Novel, the Spur Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and Best First Novel, the Barry Award for Best First Novel, the Lefty Award for Best Debut Novel, and the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. He lives in Colorado.
Winter Counts is the story of Virgil Wounded Horse, a hired vigilante on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Through a compelling crime story, David reveals the profoundly broken criminal justice system on American reservations.
In episode 40 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we ask David what it means to be a Super Indian (and discuss the term ‘Indian’ in the American context), his starting place for the novel’s narrative, Lakota and Indigenous cuisine and food culture, and the surprising and heartening reader responses to the book.
Plus, if you’re ever in Nebraska, David recommends checking out Carhenge, a replica of Stonehenge made of out actual cars. Seriously.
Books and authors discussed in this episode: – Jim Thompson, US noir author – Don Becker, Denver comedian – Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby – These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall – They Can’t Take Your Name by Robert Justice – The House of Ashes by Stuart Neville – The Shadow House by Anna Downes (our guest from episode 5) – The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright – Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
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.
‘I went on a post-mortem enquiry. How did we end up here? We were five and now we’re two.’
Michelle Tom began her writing career as a print journalist in her native New Zealand. Michelle was selected for the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY 2019 program and for a Varuna Memoir Masterclass in 2017. Michelle lives in Melbourne with her husband and two youngest children.
Her vulnerable and cathartic memoir, Ten Thousand Aftershocks, explores two key traumas – the multifaceted abuse she experienced during childhood, and her survival of the 2021 Christchurch earthquake.
Together, we discuss how she began writing the memoir, the process of re-examining trauma, and her choice to tell the story in fragmented vignettes.
The fragmented narrative style wasn’t her initial choice. When she attend a one-week masterclass with one of Australia’s best-known memoir authors, she realised a lot of her early draft wasn’t working.
‘I’d gone to Varuna thinking that week was going to clarify everything and I went to Patti Miller who was running the course and basically said, Tell me how to structure this and she said, Darling, you’re going to have to figure that out for yourself.’
This episode also features a record-breaking What Are You Reading segment, in which James recalls the time someone recommended he read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series because the main character is 6’9, the same height as James, and we determine that main character height may be the worst motivation for reading a book we’ve encountered.
Plus, is it going to be just James from now on?! Join us for an emotionally turbulent episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home!
Books and authors discussed in this episode: – Memoir Writing For Dummies by Ryan Van Cleave – Trespasses: A Memoir by Lacy M Johnson – The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch – Lee Child’s Jack Reader series – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – The Return by Rachel Harrison – It by Stephen King – Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke – Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (of course!)
Plus Michelle’s fellow 2021 debut authors: – Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke – The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens – Echoes by Shu-Ling Chua – What Does it Feel Like Being Born? by Jodie Miller – The Sentinel by Jacqueline Hodder – Eye of a Rook by Josephine Taylor (who we interviewed in episode 20) – Smokehouse by Melissa Manning – Sha’Kert by Ishmael Soledad – Modern Marriage by Filip Vukašin – The River Mouth by Karen Whittle-Herbert
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.