How to Become a Writer: Michelle Johnston

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.

Michelle Johnston

Michelle Johnston is both an emergency physician and an author. On good days it is difficult to tell the difference. She is a Staff Specialist at the Royal Perth Hospital Emergency Department, a busy inner-city trauma centre where she works as both clinician and teacher. Michelle’s first novel, Dustfall, was published by UWA Publishing in February 2018 and shortlisted for the MUD Literary Prize for a debut novel in 2019. She speaks and holds workshops, for both doctors and normal people, about marrying critical care and creativity, and she is occupied searching for the beauty and awe in an often-brutal reality.

An Ungodly Mess

I’ve found there are two common questions that make their way to microphones, asked during last-call in writers’ sessions. The first is how does being a doctor fit with being a writer? The second is how do you find time to do both? The latter is straightforward to answer, and consists of some variation of ‘I don’t know’, or ‘by letting some of the vital life jobs slip ‘(my house is an ungodly mess), or that one simply does find the time to do the things one is deeply, irretrievably compelled to do.

I wish the first question was easier to answer – after all, the history of literature is riddled with doctor-writers: Chekhov, Oliver Sacks, William Carlos Williams, Michael Crichton. But as I have lumbered through this writing career, hauling myself up the steps of the literary ladder, it has become clearer to me that these two lives – doctor and writer – do not play at all nicely in my head. They both desire very different existences: the doctor being orderly, constrained and reading nothing but research and texts, and the writer letting go of all that is precise to create things new and wild.

Let the Doctor Inform the Writer

The best solution to this gunslinging I could come up with was to let the doctor part of me inform the novels. Tiny Uncertain Miracles is set in the labyrinthine, crumbling basement of an inner-city hospital, with the protagonist, a (not very good) chaplain, trying to come to terms with some extremely peculiar occurrences in the tunnels. He’s a man in a battle with his own faith, and is thrust into the question of trying to understand why any of us believe the things we do. Muscling in on the narrative is an emergency physician, untidy, exhausted, wearied by the things she has seen. It is my own cameo to help me figure out what the fundamental plot in the book means. Bacteria producing gold? What strangeness.

A Life Inside Books

I have always written. I have lived an entire life inside books. My earliest memory has me lying on my stomach at the age of three with a record player and accompanying book, learning how to read by following along and replaying the record so many times the grooves wore out. From there it was the usual. Enid Blyton, Anna Sewell, Ethel Turner, Louisa May Alcott. I recall reading a copy of The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov in early high school, thinking it was going to be a story about cats instead of a Russian masterpiece about the Stalinist Soviet era, and I suspect I have never looked back.

Writing, words, literature incorporated themselves into my DNA. They are my epigenetics, forming me as much, if not more, than my real memories.

The writing simply followed. What began as irrefutably mopey poetry morphed into unreadable short stories and eventually creaked into longer forms. I have had this overwhelming feeling that great books have been the most powerful gift I have ever been given, and somewhere inside me I wanted to be able to pass that gift onto others. I wanted to stop being the eternal spectator and become a participant in the world of literature. I wanted to be able to create a sentence so beautiful that readers would have to put the book down and stare into space thinking, how did she do that?, as so many sentences have done the same to me.

Failure & Rejection

I am very much of the apprentice model of writing. I’ve had no formal training, unless you count endless workshops and online classes, of which I am a serial-dropper-out-of.

I have learnt to write through pure failure. Failure and rejection have been my most loyal companions, and have taught me everything I know about the difference between pouring a tornado of words onto the page and what is readable (and even better, interesting), to those taking the time to pick up a work. My greatest advice to upcoming writers (apart from let the crazy out – your dragon will take you great places), is to learn to read your work as a reader, not just a writer.

It’s a brutal ride, though.

Writing, if one wants to be published, is not for the faint-hearted. There is no easy, nor confirmed path.

There is just the blank page and the love and the willingness to rip open the seams of your soul and patience and faith. That’s all. That’s how to be a writer.

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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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