How to Become a Writer: Claire Varley

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.

Claire Varley is the author of novels The Book of Ordinary People (2018) and The Bit in Between(2015). She works in the community sector, specialising in gender equity, family violence and the prevention of violence against women, and has coordinated community development projects in Australia and overseas, including remote Solomon Islands and with refugee and asylum seekers in Melbourne’s outer north. She lives in Geelong and is working on her next novel. Here is her journey to writing:

The Author’s ‘Unreasonable yet Unshakeable Sense of Self-Belief’ Period

The first book I ever wrote was about a young boy who finds a magic lamp and goes on adventures with his pet monkey, a genie and a flying carpet. Perhaps this story sounds familiar to you? No doubt you’ve somehow gotten your hands on the one-off handcrafted texta-on-stapled-together-printer-paper edition of Aladdin and His Genie and His Magic Carpet dropped on Grade 3/4W circa 1995, (or else you’ve seen the little-known indie Disney movie). Either way, the point is, from a very young age I was raised in an environment that encouraged me to love and create stories. I kept writing throughout my school years, buoyed by the ongoing encouragement of those around me. I would ‘gift’ people pieces of writing I had created for them – without irony or self-consciousness, as if I was some kind of prophet or travelling bard – and they would encourage me to keep writing. For some reason

I was instilled with an utterly unshakeable and disproportionate belief in myself that propelled me to keep exploring ways of playing with language and story.

While I am baffled, bemused and somewhat embarrassed by my erstwhile moxie, the key thing is that this entire time I wanted to be A Writer and no one ever told me I couldn’t. That came later.

The Author’s ‘But How Will You Pay the Bills?’ Period

I finished high school fairly certain I had it all sorted. I started an Arts degree with the view to becoming a lawyer/journalist/writer/philosopher/…/…/… then realised I had no idea what I wanted to be despite the fact I was well on my way to being ‘grown up.’ It was a classic crash course in the Real World and my disproportionate childhood confidence was completely shattered. Do you know who wanted to be A Writer? Everyone in my Arts degree. And do you know how often any of us received pats on the head? Not even when we begged. After a year, I switched to a media course at a different university, then, after another year, deferred for twelve months to teach English in China and backpack around Tibet, Nepal and India (akin to the montage sequence in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button except I aged in the appropriate direction). I used this time to write travel pieces, a number of which were picked up by various publications and a majority of which were not, and in hindsight this was a really important training ground for my writing. By the time I returned to Australia to complete the first degree I’d started I was pretty sure I would never be A Writer and had decided instead to work in international development. 

I kept writing because I didn’t know how not to, but in a desperate pessimistic way that was matched by the growing pile of rejection letters I received from various publications.

My final subject for my degree was a summer course on the Meiji Restoration (because: Arts degree) and took place during an unbearable Melbourne heatwave where people languished in airconditioned shopping malls while the city’s northern fringe burned. I don’t remember too much about the subject except that during the final lecture the air-conditioner conked out and as we alternated between sticking to and sliding off the vinyl seats the lecturer gave up and dismissed the class, but not without telling us that the only advice he would ever give anyone was to find something they loved doing and make a career out of it. Which brings me to…

The Author’s ‘Lookin’ at the (Wo)Man in the Mirror’ Period

Around this time, I attended my first Emerging Writers Festival. It frustrates me that I can’t remember the topic of the session, or who is was that was speaking, but a panellist was asked something along the lines of ‘what advice would you give to people who want to be writers?’ I leant forward, pen poised over notebook, and the answer was like an electric shock. ‘The most important thing is to think of yourself as a writer. It’s not about whether you are published or whether you sell a million books. If you write, you are a writer.’ As obvious as this seems, it was a revelation to me and it changed my entire outlook on my writing and on myself. No longer did I see it as an albatross I would never be free of, but as a pursuit I loved and revelled in, private or otherwise. I went home and wrote a novel, making the most of the gap between finishing university and starting my first real grown up job, and when it was finished I sent it out into the world quietly confident it would be successful. You know how it is – sometimes you just know these things [winky-face-prayer-hands-poop-emoji]. Of course, it was rejected by everyone, but I received a personalised rejection letter from Penguin that told me to keep writing, so I did. A year or so later I moved to a remote part of the Solomon Islands for work and set out to write a second novel. And when I finished that novel I realised that it was not the novel I wanted to write, so I wrote a third novel, and this went on to become The Bit In Between, published a year or so after my return to Australia.

The Author’s ‘Sun’ll Come Up Tomorroooow’ Period

Of course, none of this ever truly destroyed the nagging uncertainty that dogs all writers because your goal posts of ‘success’ shift constantly. But I’m much better at ignoring these voices now and focussing on how I can continue to become a better writer. For me, a big part of this is exploring the opportunities for fiction as a vehicle for social change.

I don’t necessarily believe that books alone can change the world, but I think they have a key part to play in this, so I come to my writing now curious about what it might do, rather than what might be done with it, and this is a far more enjoyable state to live in.

The Book of Ordinary People

Claire Varley: The Book of Ordinary People

A grieving daughter navigates the morning commute, her mind bursting with memories pleading to be shared. A man made entirely of well-cut suits and strictly enforced rules swims his regular morning laps and fantasises about his self-assured promotion. A young lawyer sits in a fluorescent-lit office, typing indecipherable jargon and dreaming of everything she didn’t become. A failed news hack hides under the covers from another looming deadline, and from a past that will not relent its pursuit. And a young woman seeking asylum sits tensely on an unmoving train, praying that good news waits at the other end of the line…

In this charming, moving and affectionate novel, Claire Varley paints a magical portrait of five ordinary people, and the sometimes heartbreaking power of the stories we make of ourselves.

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