What I think about when I think about writing

‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’

Looking inwards is inevitable, natural, expected, required for a writer – writing being an essentially meditative activity. But prolonged navel-gazing is a selfish waste of time if it doesn’t translate into actions that make the world a better place. However, that says more about what I value and the standards I set for myself than it does about how I expect the rest of the world to behave.

Sometimes I feel like art is standing on the in-between: realism / idealism. Reality / imagination. Tradition / experimentation. Art can make the world a better place simply by being beautiful, but I’d like at least some of that beauty to be accompanied by meaning.

I am in my third year of a PhD in Creative Writing by research at Monash University. I’m not in an academic institution because I thought having a PhD would make me better qualified to write fiction; I’m in one because I knew when I decided I wanted to write that new writers, young writers, ‘emerging’ writers, make very little money from their work. I am on an Australian Postgraduate Award, a living allowance paid in fortnightly instalments. I am effectively getting a salary from the Federal Government to write my first novel, even if in the end nobody wants to turn it into a commercial product – copy it, mass-produce it, sell it, profit financially from it. Even if nobody wants to read it.

I’d like both of those things to happen because I feel like I have important things to say, but there’s no guarantee of anything post-doctorate except the opportunity to wear a stupid hat and a gown for 15 seconds on a stage. But the institution, the scholarship and the degree itself are tools at my disposal. I can eat and pay rent, and I do my best to make what’s available work for me as I attempt to juggle the practicalities of living in this society while trying to critique it, change it, make it better – however clumsily.

That’s not to say that it isn’t a fight. I am frustrated by what I see as the dampening and anaesthetising of crackling-new ideas, energy and enthusiasm for change by bureaucracy and over-administration driven by concerns of money and power. I am angry that people’s lives are dismissed so easily in favour of trivialities.

Last night I dreamt of an apocalyptic tempest, rust-red storm clouds snaking down from the sky, sending feelers across the earth towards a bellowing ocean. We were stuck in a cage, halfway up a tower at the mouth of a river, surrounded by a raging torrent. The only way out, you said, was to jump in.

I had students for a while. I told them that their fiction ought to change the reader in some way. A shift in mood. An altered perspective. A better understanding. A different understanding. Growth. I told them that fiction should be transformative, because that’s what I believe.

I told them I wanted them to put feelers out into the world and let them snag the rough spots and the corners and the cracks and the sharp edges, because I think if you’re serious about fiction you have to be serious about living, and if you’re serious about living then you pay attention to the world and what’s going on in it. That means paying attention to politics – politics as your own understanding of the world manifests itself in morals and agendas, but also politics as the systems of negotiation and argument that result in changes to the social fabric.

But that doesn’t mean politics are the point of fiction. The point is, surely, to make life richer – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically – for as many people as possible. Isn’t it?

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. hi, steaphanie. i would say no to your question at the end. perhaps that is what it is to you. and it is a common held thought amongst writers and literary types, artists in general i suppose. but definitely not everyone, not for myself anyway, a small example.

    i don’t write to change the world, or to try and improve it for others. i write because i enjoy expressing myself and relating to other people through this medium. it’s selfish, yes, but so is trying to change society. you obviously see your own view of how the world should be as superior (< maybe the wrong word) to others, or in some way, more 'right' than others, probably the majority of people and you've expressed a desire to change others around you so that they conform to your idea. isn't this selfish? or do i misunderstand what your intention is?
    why is it that you would like to 'make life richer – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically – for as many people as possible.'. i hope it doesn't seem rude to ask.

    1. I don’t think I see my point of view as superior. I think there are things that are awful about the world – racism, sexism, war, etc. – and that all of those things can only be made better by broadening points of view, which is something fiction can do in a very powerful way. Even if people disagree with what I say – even if I’m flat out wrong – I think there can only be something gained by sharing ideas and attempting to think differently. But I also think there are things that are very beautiful about the world too, that perhaps some people haven’t had a chance to see yet, or haven’t thought about in awhile, or simply bear repeating.

      The impulse to write fiction (as opposed to other kinds of writing) for me doesn’t come from a desire to change the world – not at a base level – and I don’t believe I’ve said that it does. I write stories because I love stories, because reading them makes *my* life richer. That’s first. I’m not the only one who feels that way because people all over the world are telling and reading and listening to stories. I read them for the same reason that I write them – to engage the imagination, MY imagination, and hopefully other people’s, too. And I think if that desire to engage the imagination doesn’t exist on some level then nobody would write fiction at all. Fiction, by definition, allows – encourages, requires even – imaginative engagement before anything else. And that’s a positive thing in and of itself, I think. But that doesn’t mean it can’t do other things at the same time.

      I also feel passionately about things in the world, so I put them into my fiction. But the art of fiction – fiction as art – comes first. I also write non-fiction, too, about the things that I feel passionately about. But I don’t write non-fiction in order to make things up because imagining things is fun – it’s writing with a different overall purpose.

      You say:

      “i write because i enjoy expressing myself and relating to other people through this medium.”

      Before anything else, is that not something you do to make your life richer – more interesting, or more entertaining, or more meaningful in some way?

  2. hey, thanks, i appreciate your response.

    for your question at the end. yes! it is defintely to make my own life richer, but not so much other peoples. i think i’ve jumped in the deep end here but i’ll try to quickly explain. i feel that my desire to perhaps enrich other peoples life (disregarding the medium of writing here, i mean in any circumstance within life) i do in order to enrich my own. making others makes me happy, if it didn’t, i wouldn’t do it etc. therefore changing others is selfish. perhaps this is somewhat of a syllogism…

    i understand and agree with everything in your second paragraph, pretty much. i spose i’m questioning the motive of writing, fiction or non-fiction for anyone other than ones-self within society.

    you say \Even if people disagree with what I say – even if I’m flat out wrong – I think there can only be something gained by sharing ideas and attempting to think differently\ and this is where i’d sort of get pedantic. who is gaining here? you? or society at large? and if society at large, then surely this is only your perspective and therefore means once again that it is a gain for you (or in your view) and not necessarily for others.

  3. I believe all writing (whether an article, a blog or a literary piece) is selfish for it is an activity that reveals Self and its inclinations. And I don’t think that is bad for writing is the mirror of our emotional and psychological circuitry . Now, the intention behind the piece, that is what gives writing its meaning, and meaning is what elevate us. There is meaning in catharsis (writing for the sake of it),and there is meaning in challenging views that are not edifying in society. What we cannot deny is that writing is a therapeutic process because it releases our longings. After years of journalism, I’m doing an MA in Creative Writing and I’m using the process to facilitate self awareness through self expression. And by the way, people don’t have to agree with what we say, it is the writer who needs to be genuinely comfortable with what is being said.

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