I recently read an early short-story by Lorrie Moore called ‘How to Become a Writer’, a wry account of all the seemingly random events, choices and missteps that led a young woman called Francie to dedicate herself to a life of putting words on paper. This is a subject I’m fascinated by. Whenever I talk to authors, read their interviews or hear them speak, I’m struck by the enormous variety of routes there are to the same end-point.
There are those who come to writing through study, others are self-taught; some begin early while others are ‘late-bloomers’; some are lucky enough to find mentors, others go it alone; some begin as teachers, editors or in other word-related professions, others come from lives as accountants or sheep shearers. I take tremendous comfort in knowing there’s more than one way to pack a sack; that just because you haven’t done certain things (like gone to university), doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer. Not to get all Zen or anything, but we must each find our own path to the writing life. To illustrate this very thing, I’m starting a new series on the blog called How to Become a Writer, in which I’ll be inviting writers to share their stories of their idiosyncratic journeys to writing.
To begin the series I have invited a writing companion for more than a decade: Robyn Mundy. Robyn is the author of the novels Wildlight and The Nature of Ice, and co-author of the young readers’ Epic Adventure: Epic Voyages. She works seasonally as an Assistant Expedition Leader for Aurora Expeditions. Robyn currently lives in Hobart where she teaches writing and is at work on a new novel.
The Reluctant Writer
In a 2005 commencement speech to Stanford University graduates, Steve Jobs reflected on his circuitous route to Apple Inc. He shared three potent stories from his life, all of them about beginnings. In one story, Connecting the Dots, Jobs said to the graduates, ‘you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.’
Circuitous journeys. That’s me. At an event a few years ago, I was asked to speak about writing my first novel. At the end of the evening a poet of giddying acclaim approached me, looking fierce and demanding to know how I could call myself a real writer without having been a writer, as she had, from five years of age? I had no answer. No lineage to draw on. I drifted through childhood and adolescence in a perpetual daydream (though who’s to say daydreams aren’t their own form of writing?). I envied those of my schoolmates with clear direction. I hadn’t lived enough of life to even imagine what I might do. I enrolled in a local college because my two older sisters were teachers and that seemed like the thing to do. I lasted four dreary weeks. I had artistic abilities and fell into a media role, and from that to a graphic design position. It amounted to an on-the-job apprenticeship, at a large drawing table laying out type with Letraset® (you may need to use Google here), illustrating with a Rotring® pen (and here), learning the aesthetics of design and the fundamentals of offset printing. The design role was transformed with the advent of desktop publishing and when I think back to those early software packages and a tiny Macintosh screen—wondrous as Steve Jobs’ new world then seemed—they now feel Stone Age.
Writing Influence 1: Identity & the forces that shape it
In my early thirties, working as a freelance graphic designer, I developed a neurological voice disorder called Spasmodic Dysphonia (James, my character in Wildlight, will tell you about the impact of that). While I had become proficient at book layout and cover design, I felt restless. I felt lost. My ability to speak was diminished, and with it all sense of self.
Writing Influence 2: Encouragement
(I haven’t the words to express how the many offerings of encouragement, even those initially discounted, have made a difference along the way). I made the decision to study to become a speech pathologist—an obvious choice given I knew about voice disorder firsthand, and by then was under the care of two impressive speech pathologists. My initial enquiry to the university was dispiriting: I’d been away from education too long to even qualify for entry; in all likelihood, I was told, any university level course would be beyond my reach. Sigh. Double sigh. I enrolled at Tuart College in Perth to complete a year of Academic Preparation Studies. At the least it would qualify me to apply to university, whether or not I was accepted. That year I won the college prize for English and was encouraged by my teacher to reconsider a tertiary degree in English and writing studies.I loved writing and reading, I liked thinking about literature and film, but an Arts Degree? How was that going to land me a new career? I duly ignored the advice though I never forgot it. I was offered a placement in Speech Pathology, worked hard and made good grades through my first year. But there was a niggling problem: I wasn’t enjoying the course; I was simply going through the motions. I found myself at a crossroads, struck with the sickening thought that I’d wasted an entire year, and the year before that. And if I gave it up, after all that effort, what then would I do with my life?
Writing Influence 3: Ice, penguins & a love of wild places
I’d discovered something important about myself: that it was not the medical diagnosis but the experience of a disorder that intrigued me; the feelings, the changes thrust upon all of us in life, the undermining of identity, the stories of what it is to be in the world with dissonance
That Christmas, confused and lacking direction, I followed a lifelong dream to travel to Antarctica. Setting caution aside, I spent my tax money* to sign up for a voyage on a small ice-strengthened ship to the Antarctic Peninsula. That voyage was life changing. That single decision continues to be life shaping now, my 18th year of working seasonally on tourist voyages to wild places. But during that first voyage, sitting at the edge of a colony of 100,000 chinstrap penguins, I experienced a moment of utter clarity. My year at Tuart College had not been wasted. It had shown me something I might be good at, something I deeply enjoyed. My year of Speech Pathology was not a waste. Amongst a cacophony of squawking penguins and the acrid smell of the colony, I saw a glimpse of a future.
Writing Influence 4: Two mentors & a new voice
I returned home from Antarctica, cast away visions of income and job security, and switched from Speech to an Arts degree, majoring in Creative Writing. That led to an exchange year at the University of New Mexico (UNM), which led to a Masters Degree at UNM under the guidance of mentor Sharon Oard Warner. The state of New Mexico rates as one of the poorest in the United States but what I came to understand is that it’s not the wealth or prestige of a university that offers a worthy education; it is a precious handful of generous, gifted educators, and a willingness to listen to them. During my time in the USA I underwent successful neuro-surgery on my vocal cords, a daunting procedure that left an impressive throat scar and, for the first six months, no voice at all. But when my voice finally recovered, it offered me a second chance at being. I returned to Australia to take up the opportunity as a PhD student, under the guidance of a rock-solid mentor, the very special Richard Rossiter.
Writing Influence 5: Trusted readers
During the PhD journey I formed a writing trio with Annabel Smith and Amanda Curtin, two accomplished writers and firm friends who I learned a great deal from, and who contributed much to me with their sensitive, insightful feedback. The result was my first published novel, The Nature of Ice, set in Antarctica.
Writing Influence 6: Affirmation & obligation
During the early stage of my recently published novel, Wildlight, I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts. While the financial support offered much-needed practical support, equally as significant was the Council’s affirmation of me as a writer. Its act of faith also delivered a stark realisation: now it was up to me to honour my pledge and write the work.
Though there are many more, these six influences steered a circuitous journey to where I am now, making inroads on a third novel, guiding and encouraging emerging writers on their creative journeys, and being still stupidly and dizzily in love with icebergs and penguins.
Steve Jobs finished his story, Connecting the Dots, with these sage words that may resonate with you as they did with me: ‘You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. Don’t settle.’
*cautionary note: it’s never a smart idea to misspend your tax money