How to Become a Writer: Irma Gold

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.

Photograph of a woman with long dark hair in a black dress with her arms folded, against an abstract background.
Irma Gold, author of The Breaking

Irma Gold’s debut novel, The Breaking, was released in March 2021. She is also the author of a short fiction collection, Two Steps Forward, and her short fiction has been widely published in places like Meanjin, Island, Westerly and Review of Australian Fiction. She has published three children’s books, with two more out in 2021, and is co-host of the writing podcast, ‘Secrets from the Green Room‘. Irma works as a freelance editor and for a decade was Convener of Editing at the University of Canberra. She is Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge and Ambassador for the Save Elephant Foundation.

In Year 11 my best friend’s mother died. At that age you think you’re invincible. Bad things happen to other people, elsewhere. My friend – let’s call her Stevie – was angry, of course. And the platitudes offered up to her by well-meaning adults only angered her more. I had never lost anyone close to me, I had no experience of what she was coping with. In my inept sixteen-year-old way I felt at a loss about what to say, what to do. So I wrote.

We were both big readers and, at that time, writers of terrible, angst-ridden poetry. But on that occasion I wrote a short story. It was about a girl of our age who loses her grandma, but I gave that girl Stevie’s emotions. And then I gave it to Stevie to read.

I don’t remember being nervous, though I should have been. When she’d finished she looked at me with wet eyes and said, vehemently, ‘That is exactly how I feel.’ I could see that it was affirming for her, that she felt seen.

And in that moment I understood the power of words. I understood that if you paid careful attention it was possible, as a writer, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even when it wasn’t your lived experience.

I’d been writing and making my own books since I was six, but – although I didn’t know it at the time – in a way this moment was the real beginning.

Once I left school I lost my way for a while. The thing is, it never occurred to me that I could actually be a writer. Many writers know where they’re headed from childhood, but for me writers were hallowed beings, they weren’t people like me. I wrote because I loved it, but it wasn’t a vocation I thought I could pursue. And my school careers counsellor would have agreed. Apparently the only option for a word-lover like me was to become a journalist. And I knew I didn’t want to go down that route having had a columnist from The Age speak to us at a literature camp. Yes, my wonderful teacher organised a literature camp! But the journalist was bitter and clearly hated her job and I swore I would never be like her. Having now worked as an editor for over 20 years, I wish I could go back and give that counsellor a long list of all the jobs available to word-lovers.

But because I haven’t yet mastered time travel, I left school with no real direction. I did a year of an arts degree and then left to live in England for several years. While I was there I stopped writing. I can’t say why. I suppose I was too busy travelling and partying and working shitty jobs.

But one day I woke up and realised that the need to write was a hunger in me. Without writing, I wasn’t truly me.

So I applied to study creative writing back in Australia and decided to pursue what seemed like an irrational dream.

Lest you think that the story I wrote for Stevie was a work of brilliance and it all came easily once I’d made the decision to write, I want to take you into my first year tutorial at university. My tutor was Susan Hampton, a straight-talking writer with a sharp and brilliant mind. For our first task I wanted to submit a story that would impress her. But nothing I wrote was good enough. So I polished up Stevie’s story.

My high school literature teacher gave that story the highest possible mark, and it was selected for publication in the school’s annual magazine. But when I read it out in my university tutorial, Susan’s critique was excoriating. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I realised that if I really wanted to be a writer I was going to have to up my game. High school scribblings weren’t going to cut it anymore. Later that year Susan quoted a line from a story of mine in her poetry collection, so I felt that I must have redeemed myself.

Years later, and several published books later, there are still writers and editors in my life who challenge me and push me to be better. Although I work as a book editor myself, I’m too close to my own work to see it clearly. So as I developed my debut novel, The Breaking, I was fortunate to work closely with my friend and mentor John Clanchy. John is a truly brilliant writer who should be more widely known than he is, and his insights on each draft were astute and always on the money.

The Breaking by Irma Gold

The general perception is that a novel is the sole creation of its author but, as anyone who has been published will know, this simply isn’t true. Working with a good editor (or several good editors, as I did on The Breaking) will result in an infinitely better book – a book that is better than even the author thought possible. As an editor I find that exhilarating. But as an author the experience is quite different. It’s almost a relief — you think, How could I have imagined that the book was ever good enough before all this collaborative work?

And now the work is finished. The Breaking is sitting on bookshop shelves, looking beautiful and waiting for readers to enter its world. Although I’ve published a short fiction collection and a number of children’s books, my first novel feels like a big deal. It’s where I’ve always wanted to head. And sixteen-year-old me would be gobsmacked that I found my way here.

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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.

7 thoughts on “How to Become a Writer: Irma Gold”

  1. Nice read, Irma. As an aside, I studied poetry with Sue many years ago and experienced similar – a harsh critic, but also a gifted editor who asks helpful questions.

    1. My PhD supervisor was much like this – incredibly supportive but sometimes told me things I found hard to hear. But he guided me so well in where my writing could reach its full potential.

    2. Oh, how great! I am partial to a harsh critic, so long as they are fair and not cruel. And Sue always hit the mark. The best editors always know how to ask the right questions.

  2. I so agree with your comments about school not offering a way into creative writing. My teachers encouraged me to write, but neither they nor the counsellors suggested anything apart from journalism. Although I loved writing creatively, and they told me it was good work, no one told me to keep at it or submit to journals, etc. The only solid suggestion was to do English at uni, back in the days of no creative writing courses.

  3. I remember trying to hold back tears in my first critiquing tutorial! But the feedback was, as you experienced, incisive and helpful, not cruel. By the end of the course I was first with my hand up to have my work critiqued!

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