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.
Angela Meyer aka ‘literary minded’ is a Melbourne-based author whose debut novel, A Superior Spectre, is out in August with Peter Bishop Books (Ventura). She is also the author of a book of flash fiction, Captives (Inkerman & Blunt), and the editor of an anthology of spooky Australian stories, The Great Unknown (Spineless Wonders). Her essays, articles, interviews and reviews have been published in some of Australia’s best known journals, newspapers and blogs. She is a publisher at Echo Publishing and has a PhD in Creative Arts from the University of Western Sydney.
I met Angela when she chaired my first ever writers festival session at Perth Writers Festival, with Madeleine Thien and Emma Chapman. The four of us were squeezed on a tiny stage, knees touching, in a beautiful tropical garden. We had all read and liked each others’ books and Angela made us feel so comfortable, despite myself and Emma being novices. We had a wonderful conversation and it remains my favourite session so far. A few years later, I had the privilege of returning the favour: chairing a panel which included Angela in a session on short fiction after her gorgeous flash fiction anthology Captives was published. I’m delighted to feature her on the blog to celebrate the release of her first novel, A Superior Spectre in which ‘the historical richness of Outlander meets the dystopian feminism of Margaret Atwood’.
I didn’t know there was a difference between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, growing up. I loved to get lost in a book, any kind of book. When I started working in a bookstore in my home town of Coffs Harbour when I was 19, I would simultaneously read Michael Cunningham and Clive Cussler, Cate Kennedy and Diana Gabaldon. I listened to customers’ recommendations and gave books in all genres a try. I found books I loved in a huge range of genres, though I did learn I was literary-leaning. The more you read, the more you subconsciously pick up about how to construct a work: plotting, rhythm, character development, imagery, and so on.
I added a layer to all this by studying film and literature. And I began reviewing books, initially for my own blog, LiteraryMinded, and a couple of publications who generously gave me a go. Later, after I moved to Melbourne, I reviewed for a range of professional publications, and began regularly interviewing authors at writers’ festivals around Australia and overseas. These years of ‘deep reading’ in my twenties, where I would read every book with a piece of paper in hand, taking notes, and would often read around a book (other books by the author, other books in the same movement/genre/etc.) gave me a deep understanding of not only what makes a book work in a structural sense, but also how authors weave their themes and the greater meanings of the text into the work. What I loved to discover were the psychological elements of the work: the character’s motivations, the ‘effect’ produced on me (the reader) by the author’s (sometimes unconscious) orchestrations. And so I also came to appreciate genres like metafiction, which playfully invites the reader in on the ‘process’ of construction. And also works that engage with philosophical ideas, or deeper meanings about human existence: the ways we behave, react, our conscious and unconscious desires and fears and how these manifest.
Write a Lot, and then Write Less
I was not just reading through all these years. I wrote and I wrote. I wrote three blog posts per week for years, on top of work and study. I wrote screenplays. I wrote plays. I wrote more than 50 short stories. I wrote poems. I wrote book reviews. I wrote a doctoral thesis. I wrote novel manuscripts. Yes, not just one. Not two. Not three. But four. Four before A Superior Spectre.
How much of this work did I publish? Hardly any of it.
I remember when a year went by and I had published no creative work. I was devastated. I wondered if I had ‘lost it’.
And then in 2014 I had a short story, ‘Too Solid Flesh’, published in Island and then Best Australian Stories. I had worked on this short story for a very long time. Over a year. Much longer than any short story I’d written before that. And you know what? It was a much better story. There was also something about the idea – a feeling I’d had about it from the beginning. This was the start of learning to be more discerning, and more patient, as a writer, of trusting that I would know which ideas to pursue, and to spend longer with them, and to discard them if they do not work out. You might say that it was around this time I began to properly find my ‘voice’ as a writer. Compared to 10-12 years ago I now write much, much less, and I only send something out when I feel it has legs.
A Superior Spectre was about three years from idea to final draft. I wrote it slowly, but consistently, one or two days per week, with breaks sometimes when travelling or when I had other deadlines. But in some ways it was even longer in the making. There are elements in it borrowed from my previous novel manuscript, which I wrote as part of my doctorate. And there’s a central idea that goes way back to a short film I made when I was around 17. When I was writing it, I had that feeling I had with the BAS story. That something was clicking into place.
It’s a cliché for anyone following a creative pursuit, but let me tell you a bit about mine. First, I want to acknowledge my privilege as a white, able-bodied woman, with an emotionally supportive family. My ‘sacrifices’ are of course relative to this. But in continually prioritising writing in my life, I have definitely sacrificed a great deal of money and time. After I finished the draft of A Superior Spectre I was deeply in debt from both the last research trip for the novel and for the time I’d spent up until then working part-time (but often doing bar shifts on top) so I could complete it. People around you, who care about you, may never completely understand what writing means to you, and why you need to operate like this. In fact, you won’t understand it yourself a lot of the time. For me, that could be the last time I make such a deep financial sacrifice, because of the realities of existence: being a woman living in a city without a live-in partner and with a high-maintenance rescue hound, and no financial back-up. I work full time now, because I was skating pretty thin, and it was a tough time therefore mentally as well. The sacrifice of time is another one I get conflicted about. Because I work full time, have an anxious dog, and write every Saturday morning, I don’t regularly get to see friends, and this is something I have been finding particularly hard lately. The financial and the time aspects are related, of course. Money may not make you happy, but it sure would free you up to pursue all the things you want to. I’m not sure if one day I will have more freedom in this area. For now, I think it’s just a good idea to continually assess my priorities, perhaps be a little less hard on myself, and enjoy what I’ve already accomplished.
Push Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
My writing got better when I dared to write what I was afraid to. I was afraid of how it would feel to explore it, I was afraid I’d get it wrong, I was afraid I wouldn’t pull off the complexity of what I was trying to explore. I was afraid people would read it! And that’s when I wrote the best stuff.
Reignite the Spark
I’m a big fan of #inspo. It is very easy for me to remember why I do what I do (not just as a writer but in my day job as a publisher) when I revisit my favourite books. And sometimes we need to remember. Because it’s a tough-arse industry. Most people are not going to give a shit you wrote a book. And if they find it interesting that you wrote a book they still may not buy or read the book. Why should they? There are a gazillion good books out there, not to mention all the great shows on Netflix. But you wrote it because you love to write, and because you had to. Pick up your favourite book. Remember why.
Support and Encourage Other Writers (with Honesty)
Keep reading widely, and within that… did you know there are such incredible writers in this country? Did you know that Australian publishers, both big and small, are publishing some really world-class stuff? I could write lots of things about supporting your own industry and keeping it alive and bla bla but really you should read Australian books because they’re good, and because the authors deserve your support and encouragement. Because they’re VERY GOOD! My favourite to recommend lately would be Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck. And I loved Mirandi Riwoe’s The Fish Girl. Everything Brow Books are doing should have your attention, too. Go into your local bookstore and have a chat with the passionate staff – tell them what kind of book you’re in the mood for, and tell them an Aus author would be good. Do it.
I would not be the writer I am if I had not loved, and had my heart shattered, and loved again, and stayed open to love, despite the pieces of my heart still crunching around inside me. It has melded a little bit wonky, but it still works. I could not write without it.
You might also like:
How to Become a Writer: Ryan O’Neill; winner of the Premier’s Literary Award