Today, we’re featuring the second author in Overland 201’s ‘Young Writers’ section: Sam Twyford-Moore. Sam’s story is ‘Library of Violence’. He is one of the founding editors of Cutwater. His non-fiction has appeared in Meanjin and the Reader. He is currently finishing his first novel.
He was interviewed by Kalinda Ashton and Samuel Cooney.
There were two other writers on my street growing up. One was Frank Walker, a retired journalist for both the Sun and Sydney Morning Heralds, who wrote self-published maritime novels, which didn’t look very appealing on the shelf and even less so in hand. And then there was a wunderkid up the road who had staged a successful version of Romeo and Juliet by the time he was fifteen. Sort of a Max from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Like Max, though, pretty much everyone hated him. He had scolded one of the mothers on the school’s P&C for calling him Shakespearean, when he much preferred the term Elizabethan. In writing, I am consciously trying not to be like the other two writers on my first street. They led the way, though.
This street was Sunrise Avenue in Budgewoi, which is on the Central Coast. The cesspit between two cities (Sydney and Newcastle), as a too clever uncle put it. Lisa Pryor writing in the Sydney Morning Herald was kind enough to call the Central Coast a ‘cultural wasteland’ and that had a particular sting in it when it came out. But now I think, what does a voice sound like from a cultural wasteland? I think it would sing in a way that other voices might not be able to – to hit certain unheard notes. That’s what I’m interested in exploring.
Does the term ‘young writer’ mean anything to you?
I probably would have shied away from the ‘young writer’ tag when I was twenty. There would likely have been a certain impatience with the term, wanting to be just the ‘writer’ already. I have written before about my queasy relationship with the young writer tag. In 2008 I applied for a grant to edit something called The Best Young Writers. It was a pretty pathetic move on my behalf to assert myself but they gave us the grant, so I think there might be a problem with the term in the wider culture – an over-eagerness to define and categorise. Best Young Writers was to feature writers under twenty six, but it ended up mutating into Cutwater and our oldest contributor was ninety-six, lending us his story about being the first cyclist to cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
I’m still not one hundred per cent okay with the young writer tag but learning to be patient though. The piece I have written for this issue of Overland is four thousand words long and took my the better part of seven months to get to a first draft, and then another three to revise. I realise that I’m very, very slow at this and that I actually find it very difficult too.
What in your view are the biggest barriers facing young authors in Australian publishing?
I’ve been lucky enough to be published a few times in literary journals and magazines. I can imagine it would be a struggle without the confirmation that comes with publication, but it’s a struggle either way. I recently published an essay – Don’t Get Me Down – in the Emerging Writers’ Festival’s Reader, which detailed my experience with depression and writing. I think the main point that I wanted to get across in that essay – considering it was going to be published in a journal aimed at emerging writers – was that young writers tend to create unrealistic expectations for themselves. I was terrible at this and put myself through a lot of unnecessary pain in order to achieve at a level higher than which I was at.
Of course the other side to this is that young writers can be overconfident too, and impatient. The biggest barrier facing young authors in Australia might just be a sense of entitlement – an unwillingness to read and participate in a greater cultural conversation, or to simply be grateful for publication (after say the first or second story). The late Barry Hannah wrote in an essay, Why I Write, ‘I do believe that as you write more and age, the arrogance and most of the vanity go. It is a vanity met with vast gratitude: that you were hit by something as you stood in the way of it, that anybody is listening.’ I look forward to that feeling. I can feel it coming on a little now.
Malcolm King argues creative writing courses are untheoretical, inhibitively and unjustifiably expensive, commodified and potentially unethical with their promises of fulfilling a student’s potential all the way to publication. He calls them ‘dream factories’. What do you think of creative writing courses? Have they assisted you? Are they teaching you craft and self-expression or are they symptomatic of a culture that promises much (at a great price) and offers very little? What are your experiences with studying creative writing and your opinions of it?
I think that this question is very much tied up in the previous answer. I fear that the overconfidence of young writers partly stems from doing a Creative Writing. The really critical part of this problem is that there are enrolments for these kinds of general Creative Writing degrees to teenagers is part of that problem. I say this as someone who started their Creative Writing undergrad at eighteen. I was following through on what I really wanted to be doing, but I had a little boy’s voice without anything to say. I no longer think that’s a good age to start studying writing. I think that’s a good age to start a Bachelor of Arts and do as much reading as possible – to bury yourself in piles of books and attempt to lose your life in a library. This should really be the writer’s training ground – reading. There are many students in the Creative Writing programs who are unwilling to do the readings assigned. The level of reading necessary to be able to write well needs to be stressed and this may take a few years, before the writing even comes into it. No one is going to give the student of a medical degree a go at the surgical knife in first year.
I agree young writers need support and maybe the Creative Writing degree is the environment for that. But maybe not. Maybe Creative Writing degrees need to focus less on the workshop and producing work than being about reading or publishing a journal or not doing anything for a while and feeling okay with that. It actually would be fairly easy to negate the whole creative writing degree entirely anyway. The basis for most Creative Writing classes at a tertiary level is the workshop, based on the Iowa model. This is usually run by a tutor where participants (not really students) split up into groups of say four or five and read each others work and then give constructive criticism. How hard is it to set up one of these on your own? Not very, I’d suggest. If you’re interested in writing, chances are you know other people who are interested in writing, and who says that they are any less capable of reading and assessing your work than a paid tutor. I’m less interested in mentors who you find in a classroom environment, and have to pay good money for, than one’s you find in the everyday interactions as you try to work things out on your own.
No matter which side of the debate you fall on, however – whether you see writing programs as sluggish gulags or productive hives, say – you’ve got to admit they work for some people and they do create creative hubs. I was very lucky to be at UTS at the time when I was there. There was a really strong group of students, all of whom were equally dedicated and open to collaboration: poets Tim Wright and Astrid Lorange, philosophy nuts Tom ‘Fred’ Lee and Nick Keys, current Reader editor Aden Rolfe, comic artist Pat Grant. That all these people were in the same room together – often on a weekly basis – is a testament to the Creative Writing degrees ability to introduce like minds. They became quite close with the more established poets Martin Harrison, Peter Minter, Kate Fagan and Michael Farrell, all of whom are beautifully warm and engaging people, happy to help younger writers. I write about them here – and give their names – because I think that is the best of what a Creative Writing degree and culture can provide, a sense of support and community and an acknowledgement of what is going on around you. Maybe they’ll get their own Generation 68 tag, or at least have their lives sucked up into a Savage Detectives style fictional bio of the times. Their personal lives probably don’t warrant it – to the best of my knowledge, none of them is planning to disappear in the drugged heat of Juarez any time soon – but the quality of their work does. That’s all that counts in the end.