Yes, it’s hard to write, but it’s harder not to.
Carl Van Doren
I am often asked if I always wanted to be a writer. But as a child, I wanted to be an actor. My mum discouraged me from this path, telling me that it is very difficult to be successful, or even to find enough paid work to make ends meet, and that I would probably end up doing something far less glamorous, just to pay the bills. I took my mum’s advice…and then somehow found myself following a path equally tenuous and poorly paid!
So how did I come to take this path? It was, in all honesty, mostly a series of happy accidents. Firstly, I found myself, in the second year of my arts degree, enrolled in two literature units, which had me reading a book a week each, plus a ‘bonus’ book for each unit for the semester… which just happened to be Moby Dick and Ulysses (neither of which I finished).
Lamenting my reading load, Reid Library lawn, UWA, 1993
The following semester, keen to lighten my reading load, I enrolled in a creative writing unit. I remembered how much I had enjoyed writing stories as a child, and I enrolled in several more units the following year. At the end of my final course, my tutor, Marcella Polain, urged me to keep writing, which I was surprised and flattered by, as though I had enjoyed it very much, I didn’t think I had shown any special talent for it. After I graduated, I worked as a nanny in the UK. I knew no one in London and I had lonely hours to fill while the two girls I looked after were at school.
Me & my munchkins, London, 1995
I worked my way through a creativity course called The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron, and began the practise of journaling every day, and writing short stories. When I returned to Australia, I decided to enrol in an Honours year in Creative Writing to explore this further.
Towards the end of my honours year, my supervisor suggested I apply for a PhD scholarship, an idea I initially rejected as I associated it with a career in academia, which did not particularly attract me at that time. However, when I was offered the scholarship some months later, I realised I was being presented with an amazing opportunity – I would effectively be paid, for three years, while I wrote a novel, and would have a built in editor and guide in the form of a supervisor. Given that I didn’t have any better plans, this started to look like a very attractive option.
That three years became four and a half, and it was not all beer and skittles (though the ups and downs are perhaps the subject of another post) but by the end of it, I had not only written my first novel, I had also ‘become a writer’; not in the sense of having achieved fame and fortune, or even publication at that stage, but in the sense that I thought of writing as what I did.
After my PhD I worked almost full-time as a corporate trainer, and though I enjoyed my job very much, and was successful at it, I never thought of it as my career. Though I only wrote one day a week at that stage, writing was more important to me and the other job always only what I did to put food on the table.
So how did I go from being a dabbler to seeing writing as my calling? That is a mysterious process which I can’t fully explain. But it has to do with the creative impulse, with creating something from nothing, with the deep satisfaction of pounding at a sentence, a paragraph, and beyond, to create something which others will connect with and be moved by.
Being read is important to me. There are few things that give me more joy than receiving en email or a Facebook post from a stranger with whom my book has resonated. And yet, it is not my primary motivator. Because, in the three years it took me to find a publisher for my second book, three years in which I gradually came to doubt that the book would ever see the light of day, I still kept writing. So though, at some level, I do write to connect with readers, at a deeper level, I write because I have to, because I couldn’t be happy if I wasn’t doing it, because, perhaps more than anything else in my life, it feels like what defines me.
For Emma Chapman, writing offers the chance to imagine a life wildly different to your own.
Sara Foster writes because of invisible chains of imaginative impulses that stretch back and back through time.
Dawn Barker writes for the escape it gives her from real life, the way it lets her explore her own reactions to complex situations.
Natasha Lester’s reasons have to do with being a child and then a teenager and then a young woman and now a much older woman who still finds herself lost in the world of a book.
After years working as an editor Amanda Curtin had a light bulb moment when she explored writing fiction: So this is what I’m supposed to be doing.
Your turn: Why do YOU write?
Want even more?
Writers Ask Writers: A Day in the Life of…
Melbourne Writers’ Festival: The Future of the Novel