How to Become a Writer: Laurie Steed

This series is based on 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 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; we must each find our own path to the writing life.

Laurie Steed is the author of You Belong Here, published by Margaret River Press in 2018. His fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has appeared in Best Australian StoriesAward Winning Australian WritingThe Review of Australian FictionThe AgeMeanjinWesterlyIslandThe Sleepers Almanac, and elsewhere.

He is a recipient of fellowships from The University of Iowa, The Baltic Writing Residency, The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, The Katharine Susannah Prichard Foundation and The Fellowship of Writers (Western Australia). He currently teaches short fiction for Writers Victoria, and has previously worked in advisory roles for the Small Press Network, The Emerging Writers Festival and The Australia Council for the Arts. He lives in Perth, Western Australia with his wife and two young sons.

Several years ago Laurie looked up my email address on my website and wrote to me to say, You’re a writer, I’m a writer; let’s meet and talk about writing. We did, and many writerly meet-ups followed in various places. In the time I have known Laurie I’ve been consistently impressed by his friendliness, his generosity with early-career writers and his commitment to his own writing. Now here he is in his own words:

Bottom-Drawer Manuscripts

When I was twenty-five, I told my then-girlfriend’s father that I wanted to be a writer. He said, ‘What have you got to write about?’ I showed him in no uncertain terms, with my first manuscript, Sleeping Giants, a novel about the thread connecting two guys to an overdue copy of the movie Beaches.

My second novel, Nevermore, was not much better, although it was the first time I revised my long-form work. I took the manuscript for my third novel to Officeworks on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, said, ‘I need you to shred this, please.’ By then, I was writing mostly short stories because I was good at them, and they felt safer: tiny bombs you could explode, the threads not so unruly that they’d knot up in the weaving.

You Belong Here was my fourth full-length manuscript. My ex-girlfriend bought three copies on pre-order; I like to think that one of them was for her father.

The City of Literature

In Perth in the early 2000s, the most offensive thing you could do was to become a writer. Having spent the best part of twenty years there, I moved to Melbourne to study my Master’s degree in Editing and Publishing. There, I met two lecturers. One was a charming man, with an impressive proclivity for false promises. The other was knowledgeable, a sometimes curmudgeonly but always generous fellow who I’m still friends with, and who, after ten years, he has never let me down.

Every now and then, you’ll come across someone as sound as this. These people are constants, gems in a sea of silt. You should hold onto them, let them guide you, inspire you, as they’re the ones who’ll be there regardless of what you just wrote, or your standing in the literary industry.

A City of Fingerprints

Tom Perotta says there are two types of writers: those who leave home, and those who come home. And so, even as I lived in Melbourne, I knew at some point, I would again cross the country.

A fellow PhD student at UWA, once said that if I were serious about my writing, I’d have moved to Paris, London, or New York. This kind of thinking is dangerous (and invalidating) as it pertains to the worth of experience, wherever it occurs. Joyce Carol Oates famously wrote that ‘the regional voice is the universal voice.’ And yet, the regional voice cannot be universal if everyone moves to the same region. While writing You Belong Here I felt invigorated by a city I’d once loathed. I charted stores no longer there, and streets now different. And yet, I never saw such things alone. The story, the people in You Belong Here, and in my own life, mattered because we were there. We lived there, lost there, grew up on those streets. And that matters as much, if not more, than the Champs-Élysées, Nelson’s Column, or the Brooklyn Bridge.

Iowa Graduate Fiction Workshop

In 2012 I went to Iowa instead of New York. Why Iowa? Many of my favourite authors and short story writers (such as Raymond Carver, Stuart Dybek, and Flannery O’Connor) had studied at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, and one of them, ZZ Packer, was teaching the 2012 Graduate Fiction Workshop. Perhaps I was also, unconsciously, seeking stateside validation.

ZZ Packer did not disappoint. She was the no-nonsense, robust, insightful but necessarily critical voice that makes writers better, even as she’s bursting their bubble. I went into Iowa thinking I was the bomb. I came out knowing I had a lot to learn, that I’d need to be tougher, go deeper, and write better to complete a book worth reading in the first place.

Residencies & Revisions

In the time between the beginning of my Ph.D. in 2011 and its completion in 2015, I worked almost solely and extensively on You Belong Here. I spent time at Varuna – The Writers’ House, and at Rosebank, the getaway property of a wealthy benefactor near Hanging Rock donated for residencies to the Victorian Writers Centre. In WA, I did three more residencies (one at the WA Fellowship of Writers, and two at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre) and had two children. I was selected for the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria in 2014, which helped me begin my next project, The Bear, and in turn, closed-out writing on You Belong Here (although revision would go on for another three years.)

That’s eight years, two kids, three homes, three fellowships, three residencies, a freak accident involving a family member (a story for another post, perhaps) two awards, and one Ph.D. later. For one published novel.

Support from fellow Writers

After sixteen years of writing I have a novel, and some stories I still like. Sixteen years or more than 10,000 hours of writing is a long time. In those years, I’ve been grateful for friendship and support from fellow writers: those in Melbourne who emerged much quicker than me but still talk as if they’re midway through the journey (and maybe they, and we always are.) Editors and industry professionals Australia-wide who prioritised connection over cliques and self-aggrandisement. Writers in Perth who walk loops of Hyde Park alongside me, who, despite their increasing success, still turn up their nose at sales-based strumpets that pretend to be authors; who made time for me, found me working gigs at festivals before I’d earned the right to be there. 

And other non-writing friends too. Some who’d much rather I was talking about Suits, or the latest Gomez album as opposed to stressing the importance of play and experimentation in the narrative form. But then, that’s who I am… and how I became a writer.

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