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.
Laura Elvery is a writer from Brisbane. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and Literary Studies. Her work has been published in Overland, Griffith Review, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and The Big Issue fiction edition. She has won the Josephine Ulrick Prize for Literature, the Margaret River Short Story Competition, the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize and the Fair Australia Prize for Fiction. In 2018 Laura’s first collection of short stories, Trick of the Light, was a finalist in the Queensland Literary Awards. I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura about Trick of the Light for the Australian Short Story Festival in 2019.
In 1895 Alfred Nobel rewrote his will and left his fortune made in dynamite and munitions to generations of thinkers. Since 1901 women have been honoured with Nobel Prizes for their scientific research twenty times, including Marie Curie twice. Spanning more than a century and ranging across the world, this inventive story collection is inspired by these women whose work has altered history and saved millions of lives. From a transformative visit to the Grand Canyon to a baby washing up on a Queensland beach, a climate protest during a Paris heatwave to Stockholm on the eve of the 1977 Nobel Prize ceremony, these stories interrogate the nature of inspiration and discovery, motherhood and sacrifice, illness and legacy. Sometimes the extraordinary pivots on the ordinary.
At my state high school in Toowoomba, my grade 10 English class sat in a U-shaped ring of desks in a room in the Art block. Our teacher was a totally fascinating woman to us 14-year-olds. Of course she seemed a bit old because they all were. A bit strange. And single, as far as we could tell, giving us salacious details about the filming of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, talking to us like she believed we’d be interested in odd things – which of course we were. I was a very good student – I knew this. Then one day my English teacher sat me down to go over a short story I’d written for an assignment. I don’t remember much of the story, just that it was very earnest. I can remember a man moving along a street; it was probably set in a city I’d never visited. My teacher told me my story was great. Thank you, I said. It was awkward to hear this – there was nothing worse than being up yourself. But my teacher didn’t take her eyes from me. She really wanted me to understand that she thought it was wonderful.
I was a high school English teacher myself for several years, mostly in Brisbane. I also taught in the UK for a short stint, in a small town just outside London. After I quit that job, I landed a straightforward and pleasing office job in central London. For the first time in a long time, my nights were free, my weekends were free. I could turn up to work on very little sleep and still have a good day. I felt open to sightseeing and travel and going to house parties without the need to dash off early so I could go prepare for classes, or finish marking year 9 Geography drafts. For the first time, my job felt undemanding, a bit invisible, not performative. Easy.
I returned to Brisbane, to my school. I taught students I adored. I organised extra-curricular activities I knew made a difference, and my days were buoyed by supportive colleagues who cared for me. But that year I felt sad, overworked, and at sea. Standing in the maths block one day with my grade 12 students, I opened the QTAC book, with a view to leading a lesson to help them choose their tertiary courses for their post-year high school lives. None of them seemed as excited by this prospect as I was. Look at all these things you can do! Then, in the bottom left-hand corner, I noticed a small paragraph about KK88 – a Master of Creative Industries in Creative Writing. Had the idea been there, in me, for a while? It must have been. I’d certainly never entertained the thought when I was choosing my own university course in grade 12.
I knew precisely zero writers and my parents were supportive of dreams but pragmatic to a fault.
Very clearly, however, leaning against the desk in the maths classroom, I knew that this could be my lifeline. Without recognising something so big as to think I’d be a writer, I thought: I’ll get to be a student again.
I was petrified the night before I started the Masters, but the sun rolled out across the green lawn at Kelvin Grove and soon I met a few people, bought books from the co-op, and found my way through those first weeks with a great deal of joy. Up at Z block my writing class sat in a brightly lit workshop with our lecturer. I was taking my time with the course and sinking into it, reading writers I’d never heard of and willing the semester to go on and on. This first creative writing class was introducing me to working to deadlines and listening to critiques, led by our careful lecturer. Who was willing to share the work they’d written? I decided I was – my turn would come eventually anyway – and the lecturer put my story up on the projector, saying we’d edit my fiction together as a group. Nothing is ever perfect, and this vignette I’d written about some townspeople experiencing a flood certainly wasn’t. But my lecturer read it aloud and moved through the sentences I’d written. My classmates jumped in to mention the bits they liked, and the bits that could be fixed.
If you’re lucky, I think, you get to decide which parts of your life you want to be different, too, and then you get to change them.
I do now realise that writing was not something I fell into. It wasn’t a passive change. Rather, I actively pursued it even when I didn’t know it was quite what I was seeking.
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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.