How to Become a Writer: Kate Mildenhall

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.

Kade Mildenhall, author of The Mother Fault

Kate Mildenhall is a writer and teacher. Her debut novel, Skylarking, was named in Readings Top Ten Fiction Books of 2016 and longlisted for Best Debut Fiction in The Indie Book Awards 2017 and the 2017 Voss Literary Prize. Kate teaches creative writing and co-hosts The First Time, a podcast about the first time you publish a book. The Mother Fault is her second novel. Kate lives with her partner and two daughters in Hurstbridge, Victoria.

Reading

It began, as it does for so many writers, with a hunger for books. I was a voracious reader – my Grade One teacher saw me plough through Anne of Green Gables and The Neverending Story and told my parents to put a basketball in my hands instead. I yearned for our weekly library visits and the fat piles of books we would bring home. I pedestalled writers, and even though I filled my journals with overwrought poetry and stories, I thought that ‘being a writer’ wasn’t something real people actually did. Writers were gods, and so while I wanted to write, I didn’t really think I could become a writer.

Perfectionism

My teachers told me I was a good writer. When I was in year seven, I had a story published in a collection for young writers and I was editing the school creative writing anthology by the time I was in year nine. The most satisfying and addictive responses, though, were the ones I got from my peers, for whom I wrote poems and stories on their birthdays (I loved to make them cry) and who hung on every word of an epic love poem I wrote one year on camp. The problem was I got used to success with my writing. It came easily and I was rarely told to edit. I wasn’t rejected. I was no good at failing. So when my first rejection came in the form of a no reply when I entered a local writing competition – I decided I wasn’t any good at writing, and I gave it up. I wasted ten years without it before the birth of my first child forced me back to the page.

The problem was I got used to success… So when my first rejection came …I decided I wasn’t any good at writing, and I gave it up.

Learning & Mentors

It was late at night, reading by lamplight and breastfeeding my first child that I devoured Lisa Jacobson’s verse novel The Sunlit Zone and emailed her. She had taught me at uni and I asked if she was running any courses. She was, and – total thrill – she remembered me. It was all that I needed. By the end of the year I had successfully applied to RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course.

I revel in a classroom (real or online) and with writing teachers and the communities of writers that are built in such places. I devour the recommended reading and I love writing exercises and the strange and mysterious things that are revealed. I wrote my first novel, Skylarking, in weekly instalments for a writing workshop and relished the deadlines and feedback.

I have always sought out teachers whom I admire and have been lucky to be mentored – formally and informally – by the likes of Kelly Gardiner, Toni Jordan and Charlotte Wood. I also greedily surround myself incredible writers – both through the podcast I host with Katherine Collette – The First Time Podcast – and by hanging on to those I meet so we can talk writing and life and I can be close to their incredible minds.

Mim’s husband is missing. No one knows where Ben is, but everyone wants to find him – especially The Department. And they should know, the all-seeing government body has fitted the entire population with a universal tracking chip to keep them ‘safe’. But suddenly Ben can’t be tracked. And Mim is questioned, made to surrender her passport and threatened with the unthinkable – her two children being taken into care at the notorious BestLife. Cornered, Mim risks everything to go on the run to find her husband – and a part of herself, long gone, that is brave enough to tackle the journey ahead. 

Taking risks

I’ve found that those moments, in life and in writing, that scare and energise me, are the ones I should leap in to.

It would have been wiser and safer (from a publishing perspective) to follow up my first novel with more historical fiction. But I wanted to show my chops and instead reached forward in time with an ambitious project that I wasn’t sure I could pull off.

Halfway through writing that ambitious project (which would become my new novel The Mother Fault) I got the idea in my head that I needed to experience the open ocean on a yacht if I was to going to write the book and character properly. I sent off an email and months later found myself crewing aboard a yacht sailing from Darwin to Ambon in Indonesia with six sailors I’d just met. I felt thrillingly, dangerously alive. I came back to the book energised – bursting with the experience.

The greatest lesson I took from my mentorship with Charlotte Wood was this mantra I now have above my desk: Confidence is a discipline. We have to practice it. Fake it til we feel it (even when we don’t feel it AT ALL).

Confidence is a discipline

And it’s not necessarily the confidence to speak about your writing to an audience, or pitch it to an agent, or submit it to a competition (although it is all those things too) – it is the confidence to turn up to the work, day after day, reeling from rejection or from overwhelm or indeed, in the midst of a pandemic. It’s confidence that the words, and the work of them, matter.

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Annabel Smith is the author of US bestseller Whiskey & Charlie (published in Australia as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot), digital interactive novel/app The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. I am currently working on Monkey See, an epic quest with a sci-fi twist featuring a monkey, an evil priestess and the mother of all tsunamis.

One thought on “How to Become a Writer: Kate Mildenhall”

  1. Love the idea of confidence taking practise! I really enjoyed reading this. All the best for The Mother Fault, Kate.

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