How to Become a Writer: Susan Johnson

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.

Woman in white T-shirt sitting in garden
Author Susan Johnson, photograph by Chrissa Fatsea

Susan Johnson is the author of 13 books, mostly novels, and two non-fiction books, On Beauty, and a memoir on illness, motherhood, and writing, A Better Woman. Her books are published in Australia, the UK, US and in European translation and her new novel, From Where I Fell, has just been published by Allen and Unwin. Her work has been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award and shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Prize, the Christina Stead Award, the National Biography Award, the Nita B Kibble Award and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, among others.

YOU ARE EITHER a writer, or you are not.

It’s a way of being in the world, the way you are born with blue eyes or brown. This is unfashionable, contestable—even questionable—to some, but it’s what I’ve known, not only about myself, but from what I’ve witnessed in other writers.

For some, it takes time to understand what being a writer means. Sometimes it takes a long time to make manifest what is a way of being in the world.

You can learn the “outside” bits of being a writer—studying written expression or the critical analytic skills to unpick a book. But you don’t choose to be a writer in the same way you choose to be an accountant or a pharmacist. It’s not a career choice: you are either a writer, or you are not.

Writers begin as readers.

I don’t know a single writer who wasn’t an avid childhood reader. It was a wonder to me as a young girl reading David Copperfield and Heidi and Little Women and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe that there were people who knew exactly what it felt like to be alive, and who could tell you about it.

I consumed all my grandmother’s tiny Victorian editions of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. I can’t say exactly when I started longing to replicate human experience on the page, but at some point I connected reading and writing.

It took me a long time to work out how to write a novel.

Although I studied English at university, it was in the late 70s, before creative industries, before writing a novel and an exegesis could earn you a PhD. I never finished my degree and I worked out how to write a novel by taking apart my favourite novels and examining their workings as if they were clocks.

How did Garner’s Monkey Grip cast its spell? What was the ingenious structure Marguerite Duras used in The Lover to make every part of it work so beautifully together as a whole? I discovered it was not plagiarism to take the basket of a book—its central frame—and put my own content inside.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you there is a method or a system or the fair hand of writerly justice in writing books: it’s a crap shoot. Sometimes brilliant books get the attention they deserve—it’s a joy to me that Deborah Levy’s books are finally getting their due, and I remember an interview I did with Hilary Mantel before she won the Booker, when she joked about being a hostage to fortune and how hard it was to get her first book published—but many mediocre books sell by the bucket-loads. Fifty Shades of Grey? I rest my case.

Book cover image: brightly coloured abstract picture of human faces. Text reads 'Susan Johnson, From Where I Fell'

I got lucky. I was a journalist working for a now defunct national newspaper (The National Times) when Harper & Row (an early iteration of what is now global giant HarperCollins) wanted to start a new Australian fiction list. An editor was actively seeking writers: I was writing my first novel, Messages From Chaos, and wanted to enter it in the Vogel Literary Award for writers under 35 (I was 29). The editor kindly waited for the short-list to be announced, and when my novel was not on it, I signed my first publishing contract.

I got my first agent when I knocked on the door of Curtis Brown with an almost completed novel and interest from Harper & Row. More than 30 years later, I am thirteen books down and, to the best of my knowledge, the Vogel Literary Award winner of 1986 has not published a second book. Like I said, crap shoot.

For every not-on-the-shortlist story, there is the exception. I give you the loveliest man in Ozlit, Trent Dalton. First novel, out-of-the-ballpark success. Example of the literary crap shoot going in the right direction.

The hardest thing in the world when your book is not being accepted by agents or publishers or prize-choosing judges is knowing if your book is good or bad.

Sometimes if publishers or agents or prize-choosing judges keep not choosing your book, you have to step back and ask yourself: are they right? Does the book need work? Is the book not working at all? Sometimes they are right: the difference between writers and wannabe writers is that writers will put in the hard work to find out the answer. They will rip their work apart if it is not working. They will listen to criticism. They will put it in a drawer and throw away the key. But, if they really believe their book is alive, they will fight for it to keep breathing.

Some really bad writing students I’ve taught believe their path to publication is like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 (rejected multiple times) or JK Rowling’s or any of the sorry stories of publisher’s rejecting best-selling books such as Lord of the Flies (“rubbish and dull”). They plod on, and on, and on. In my experience, no successful writer I have met has ever considered him or herself a genius: most writers (including myself) live only with a sense of how vast the gap is between their work and the work of the greats. In other words, there is often a correlation between how bad the writing is, and how good the writer believes him or herself to be.

A writer’s work is never done.

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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.

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