The power of self-delusion

Young Emerging Writers Night at the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival

Steve ToltzMuch is being made at the moment about the number of students enrolling in creative writing courses across our fair land. In fact, it is fair to say that in the next decade Australia’s biggest challenge won’t be overpopulation; it will be a severe skills shortage due to the fact everyone is chucking in their jobs and going off to ‘learn’ how to be a writer. If you want to read about the way this may or may not be impacting on Australia’s literary culture, I strongly recommend reading Rjurik Davidson’s article ‘Liberated zone or pure commodification?’ in the current issue of Overland. (I would happily cut and paste it right here, but appropriation hasn’t really taken off in the literary community the way it has in visual arts.) Suffice to say, there are a lot of folk out there tapping away on their keyboards in the hope that one day they will make it into print. Or to use an animal metaphor (which regular readers will know I am rather fond of) there are a lot of hungry caterpillars out there wondering how they can help themselves emerge from their cocoons as beautiful butterflies rather than dusty brown moths – squashed under a pile of rejection slips.

A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of gathering in a room full of emerging writers keen to gather as many insider tips as possible. The event was a night held as part of the third annual Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival. Rather than being a soup kitchen set up to provide a hearty meal for impoverished emerging writers, the evening took the form of a panel discussion to encourage such people to keep clawing their way toward literary success – no matter how poverty stricken and downtrodden they may become. And who better to offer words of encouragement than three successful and charming writers: Cathy Randall, Steve Toltz and Ben Naparstek, all of them bright-eyed and showing no signs of malnourishment. (Don’t worry, I’m going to stop there.)

Ben NaperstekIf you are unfamiliar with these names, dear Overlanders, you will surely be familiar with their work. Cathy Randall wrote and directed Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger, Steve Toltz is the author of the Booker Prize nominated A Fraction of the Whole, and Ben Naparstek is the editor of The Monthly. (A post he took up at the age of twenty-three. No, that’s not a typo.) .

The advice given by these three charming panellists was simple: in order to make it as a writer, one must possess an extraordinary amount of self-delusion.

Cathy Randall said that this is absolutely imperative because everyone you confide your aspirations in will tell you they are out of reach. In her case she was working as a ‘not very good’ journalist when she decided at the age of twenty-eight that she wanted to write and direct her own film, despite not having a skerrick of industry experience or training. When Ms Randall did apply to the Australian Film Television and Radio School, she was rejected and received her application back only to discover the words, ‘This person will never be a writer!’ scrawled across it in red pen. (Seriously, who the hell invented red pens? They have a lot to answer for.) Randall said the rejection only made her more determined.

Lets face it, being an emerging writer is much like being 15 – rejection is a big part of life. I can’t remember the stats exactly, but somewhere near a billion manuscripts land on publishers’ desks every year. Actually, that was last year; it’s probably a trillion by now. Of these, about two get published. So the odds aren’t good. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I would be better off spending the equivalent amount on lottery tickets rather than postage. But I don’t, because I don’t want to be a millionaire, I just want to get my bloody book published. In order to stay motivated, it’s best to be as naive as possible, because if one knows exactly what one is up against, one would probably not even attempt to make it as a writer. Also, according to Steve Toltz, it’s vital one doesn’t have a ‘fall back’ profession in reserve for the moment they do realise just how tough it can be out there in the big bad world of publishing. If he had had one, he would have never finished writing his book and would have fallen back long ago.

Toltz is also a big believer in the idea that good writers aren’t taught; rather, they learn by reading – and ‘as a writer you always emulate what you read’. Therefore it follows that you’d want to make sure you’re reading ‘good’ stuff. Toltz went so far as to say emerging writers shouldn’t read their contemporaries, but stick to the classics instead. ‘Think of all the contemporary Australian novels that get published, they can’t all be good,’ he said. Which leads me to suspect he is unfamiliar with the abovementioned statistics and has perhaps got it the wrong way around: of all the contemporary Australian novels that get rejected, they can’t all be rubbish. In fact, it would be nice to think the very limited number that do get published are usually very good by very nature of the fact that they are limited.

Toltz’s rule was to read one contemporary novel for every five classics. (Blimey, looks like I may have to pick up Ulysses after all.) For those of us who have a deep, deep love of contemporary fiction, it would be comforting to say that Toltz’s own writing disproves his rule, but in my humble opinion, A Fraction of the Whole is marvellous. (It is worth noting that since attending this talk I have made myself read an hour of Dickens every night, and I dare say it’s doing more for my writing than watching Bondi Vet, ever could.)

All three writers also spoke about their training taking less of an academic form and being more self-directed: Naparstek studied the work of journalists he loved, Randall learned to write a screenplay by ploughing through piles of screenplays, Toltz – you guessed it – read the classics. Interestingly, none of the three speakers ended up working in the field their undergraduate degrees were associated with.

The effectiveness of events such as the one held at the SJWF relies heavily on the participants being open and honest about their experiences. It is no good going along and listening to someone natter on about how they received a $10 million advance for the first thing they ever wrote, before watching them take off in their helicopter. Emerging writers go to these sorts of things specifically to hear from writers who financed their endeavours by working in call centres (Steve Toltz) or as extras on B-grade TV hospital dramas (again, Steve Toltz). In this respect the evening was a great success, a sort of prep talk I will keep in mind the next time someone asks when I’m going to get a ‘real’ job. (Or I ask myself, more like.) It did leave one question hanging though: what if one doesn’t listen when people advise one give away writing and one carries on tirelessly, but is really a bit crap? The key is, I guess, to know which bits of advice to listen to. At the moment I’m sticking with Toltz’s and am off to read another chapter about the young Phillip Pirrip and his great expectations.

Claire Zorn

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

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  1. Thanks for this post, Claire. I love that comment about self-delusion – Joss Whedon said something similar at the MWF Keynote as well. I think it’s a pretty common sentiment.

    Perhaps this not entirely related to your post, but I just read Rjurik’s article too, and you’ve both got me thinking.

    I am currently participating in one of these academic-institution-creative-writing courses. One very good thing they’ve done for me is pay me while I write my first novel (scholarships are a wonderful thing) and while there are no guarantees of the work actually going anywhere post-submission, at least I have the time to focus on it and the money to eat (just). But only on a couple of occasions has being part of the course given me a leg-up (in the industry, so to speak) where I might not have had one otherwise. But then again, I never expected it to work that way. I think the uni would like to sell it as a great boon for participants re: industry contacts or whatever, but for the most part, I did the work myself.

    Having said that, I have come across a number of people within the institution especially, but also without, who think that my objective as a PhD candidate is to remain within the academic institution for as long as possible. (Read: become a lecturer in something, or perhaps tutor forever. I’d rather die.) Not to, you know, explore new places and ideas, get to know intriguing people and experience extraordinary things – as well as read everything from Tolstoy to Tsiolkas and all the sideways, small press, experimental gems I can get my hands on, which probably ought to go without saying. Which is, in my opinion, what interesting people, and interesting writers, do. When trying to do this (live creatively, I suppose, although I hate the way that sounds like some bad corporate slogan) while participating in the course, I came up against huuuuge opposition. I still do. “Is it really necessary?” “But you will miss this important seminar!”

    Yeah, I digress. I think the institution can do good things if you know how to use it, but it’s no substitute for living creatively.

  2. Great post – very enjoyable, thank you. RMIT Prof writing & editing has been great for me as a writer. The people and the craft. I’ve met some wonderful writers, published or otherwise. I’ve wrote fiction & poetry & commentary mostly in the form of letters, unassisted for 30 years and I think the input of my RMIT lecturers and fellows has definitely improved the writing, introduced me to the machinations of the ‘industry’ and more importantly, I suppose, given me the confidence to be ambitious for my work. Perhaps the more lofty university degrees in creative writing are different – and RMIT may change now too, with the new fee structure … but I’ve loved it and still love my last lingering class – short story II with the extraordinary Ania Walwicz. Love your work, Walwicz!

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