For her final edition as fiction editor, Kalinda Ashton wanted to showcase young writers. In Overland 201, she worked with Samuel Cooney to curate a special expanded fiction section, featuring four writers under thirty. Over the next days, we will be introducing each of the writers in that section through interviews put together by Kalinda and Sam.
Today, we are featuring Rebecca Giggs. Rebecca is a Western Australia writer of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Her story in Overland 201 is ‘Blow In’.
Bertolt Brecht once wrote that ‘the word is the thing’s dead body’. I cannot agree. My ideas are never pre-formed, sub-surface things to be trawled up and given expression. In writing, I am always trying to solve something for myself, to push air into a feeling. Perhaps I have a sense of significance or an aesthetic interest first, and then I record one line or two in my journal, but it is often not until I sit down to work that I hit upon what I’m writing towards. I might do a whole piece in fiction before a line snags, and then I see that what I’m actually working on is an essay or a poem. That will be frustrating, of course, but usually I can bring myself to extract the line and start again – perhaps after two months, or six, of concentrating on something else. I work on a lot of different things at once, which means that I don’t work fast (much to the distress of the few editors who have been kind enough to read my writing). Here is one of the reasons that I write: to take something from inside and see what it becomes out there on the page, and how in turn the writing might function to further clarify my motivations. Often there is a grey and un-writerly explanation for whatever it is I’m worrying at but I don’t see that as a lost opportunity. And then occasionally the thing kicks a little on the page. One of the skills to develop as a ‘young writer,’ I think, is to be able to recognise when that kick is the writing taking its first breath, and when it is the shudder of an idea rattling to its demise. Either way, you have to be careful with what you’ve made then, and give it time and space enough to be able to discern the living parts from the withering ones. It is my hope that if I get that step right, what it is that I’ve been wondering about or fixated on will become something that resonates with readers. And that’s a sense that I try to develop, every day.
There is another reason that I write and it has to do with self discipline. Specifically, the persistence and fortitude that is required to sit with yourself, making things (join) up, day after day, in solitude. Not because this kind of discipline might improve my writing but because it is an end in itself. Working through something mindfully, deliberately, slowly (not being dilatory but focused), enlarging what you are capable of thinking about and talking about, seeking the energetic core of a phrase, an idea or a situation – the process itself has become an almost radical act in a culture that is accelerating and dividing. Rebecca Solnit has compared synthesis of this kind to resistance (and sections of the interview linked here are stuck with yellowing tape to the ledge that overhangs my desk). But also, it is more personal than that. I have a jumpy, hungry sort of mind – as I suspect many writers do – and the practice of writing disciplines me to think narratively, or at least to build connectedness between stuff rather than falling into a deep multiform miscellany of abstract concepts. An apt metaphor might well be diving. The deeper you go into the place outside you, the more acutely you become aware of yourself – as a diver does, hearing their own breath, pulse and heartbeat amplify as they descend. So often in writing I am trying to slow myself down and become more aware of my impulses, as well as where I am, experientially, in relation to my ideas. A friend recently pointed out to me that the high-altitude perspective has become a common trope in my fiction writing, and that perhaps this has something to do with a desire to ‘get above’ a problem and map it, or show how it fails to map. There is something important in that statement that I’m only just now starting to unpick.
Reading back over this, I am aware that it sounds as if I am advocating for writing as a panacea to all types of unmindfulness. I am not. The proportional and ‘right’ response to some concerns is not to write, but to act, to react, speak, or simply to think – if for no other reason than because a lot of bad writing comes packaged as polemic and jeremiad. Personally, I am interested in the kind of writing that pushes up against a silence, an inner silence or an outer one, and how those spaces might tessellate. There are many more talented writers than me who cannot put words into their silences purely because of where and when they were born. Every time International PEN set out their empty chairs at the various Australian writing festivals I am reminded that it is a golden privilege that I can even ask myself the question ‘why write,’ when so many confront the daily reality of persecution, having answered ‘how can I not write?’
Does the term ‘young writer’ mean anything to you?
That is a notoriously porous phrase. ‘Young writer’ gets deployed to mean half a dozen different things, depending on whether you’re talking with funding bodies, writing communities or individual practicing writers. Even within these contexts the definition can fluctuate – OzCo would classify me as ‘young’ for example, even though I am too old to be young according to the DCA (WA) criteria, which sets the bar at twenty-five. To the extent that the term designates a writer who has not yet settled on a set of career preoccupations, a writer still casting about for a distinctive style, a writer who has only recently begun to have their work widely published: in those ways, I don’t believe in the label ‘young writer.’ All writers should zigzag, meander and fail throughout their career. All writers should embark on infinite tasks, abandon works half-way through, try to take on the wrong voice, start in an incorrect place and finish too far after the end. Writers should definitely wander in and out of specialist territories that they are not ‘qualified’ to speak about. There is no other way that I know of to say something genuinely original.
Additionally, ‘young writer’ can be an unhelpful tag in terms of establishing disproportionate expectations of a writer’s craft. In my opinion, it is not the case that a writer ought to make an impact in their twenties or else they should give up on their practice. You do not need to have a significant lineage of publications to consider yourself a serious (as opposed to recreational) writer, only strict dedication to your talents. And writers who are young need not necessarily write about ‘youth-culture’ (there’s a phrase to raise the goose-flesh!) or the avant-garde. This is particularly so given the cults of the personal that pervade ‘youth culture’ (help, I have no alternate synonym!) at the moment. If write what you know means remaining locked into the tight focus of self, glossing up an ever brighter public reputation, then it saddens me greatly that a bunch of good writers will never get past ‘glinting,’ Peter York’s expression for sinking into one’s own publicity. Write what you know should not be construed so as to delimit empathy or remove the impetus for social conscience. If anything it should be seen as a impetus to know more, to go and find out.
I do not believe that work should be published only because the writer is ‘young,’ for the same reason that work should not be published merely because the writer is ‘established’ or well-hyped. The work needs to be good work either way. In saying that, I do not intend to imply that there should be no young writer publications or young writer institutions. Writing is a lonely, potentially narrowing activity, particularly when you’re starting out in it. Unlike most other creative enterprises – recording music or taking photographs for instance – writing is a cauterisingly antisocial enterprise. It doesn’t matter how many open-mic nights you go to, or how many festivals you attend, you’re still going to have to spend those long nights staring into the dully glowing screen, reliant on your own voice for company. Institutions like Voiceworks and over here in Perth Cottonmouth are antivenin for the kind of torpor and parochialism that can pervade your work and your life if you lock yourself away for too long. But initiatives like the one this interview promotes, Overland’s ‘young writers’ selection, can only be viable if they showcase qualitatively strong writing (which, I hope, this does). The merits of having an under-30s selection in Overland are manifold: it encourages people who might otherwise have shied away from potential rejection to submit fiction, and it permits those writers to have access to editors who are alive to the specific dynamics of early work (and, let’s be honest, sensitive to the often fragile egos of younger writers). The story that I have written called ‘Blow In’ for example, I would have resolved was too under-developed (and, originally at ~8,000 words, much too long) to submit for Overland’s consideration, but for the fact that I knew the editors were keen to work with young writers who had a ‘second to final draft’ to hand. About four years ago I did send the journal some fiction, and it was (exceedingly politely) rejected. That was the right decision – it was ghastly and messy work. But had it not been for this initiative, I would have prevaricated for much longer, unsure of whether that past rejection would count against me having fiction published here.
Setting aside all the reasons that ‘young writer’ can be considered an unconstructive brand, there are a few obvious occasions when it is beneficial to utilise age and experience as a differentiating marker of writers. One of these is in regards to mentorship. I have a lot of enthusiasm for mentorship – not the kind that involves kowtowing to reputation and influence, but in the lively exchange of opinions between a more established writer and an emergent one. These kinds of relationships seem strongest where they develop organically, rather than through the various formal mentorship programs, where the balance is likely to be tilted towards the senior writer’s authority. Mentorship should be a two-way street, and be less about the vicissitudes of publication, than about the mental-states conducive to a healthy writing life (inspiration, participation, conversation, deliberation, synthesis and so on). Peers contribute to this kind of mentorship too, and writing collectives can be hugely beneficial to young writers (I personally owe a lot to my friends in The Concrete Organisation, and to those in writing communities in the eastern states). But I am hesitant to promote the sharing of work with peers, because of the obligation of reciprocity that it enlivens. Far better to have a mentor, who does not expect you to read and critique their work in return, and whose garden you can weed or garage you can help sort as an exchange for their advice.
I would like to think that generationally Australian writers in the 20-35 age bracket are beginning to make their presence felt. I am excited to read the work of so many of my contemporaries, some writing non-fiction, others poetry, fiction and plays, and also the creative non-fictionalists, the ficto-critics, the critics, and the writers in hybridised areas like radio and screen. I am not yet sure if you can identify a common stylistic resonance, or group of settled concerns to apportion to us. There are some geographical, perhaps educational trends, but the range of subject-matter overall is astounding. And one thing that excites me is that so many of us are putting the hunt for an outer story right up against the hunt for an inwardly dialled one. Cultural cringe has been shown to be a waste of energy, and narcissism a waste of time; this kind of tumble into to the deep of things – that’s the kind of writing that leaves me dumbstruck and zinging.
What, in your view, are the biggest barriers facing young authors in Australian publishing?
Aside from the perceived bias of youth mentioned above, financial security is another major barrier to young authors, although I suspect that we are sometimes better equipped to manage that kind of pressure than our established counterparts, who are likely to have less-flexible financial obligations. But young writers are often under-educated when it comes to their intellectual property rights or negotiated rates for publication, or they perceive themselves to be in an inferior bargaining position (though many are highly educated about copyright and creative commons licenses). To that end, the Australian Society of Authors plays an important role in benchmarking rates and providing information about contractual relationships, rights and permissions, royalties and the like to young writers. While I think that every writer deserves to be treated like a professional regardless of whether they are emerging or established, there is an obligation on the part of the writer to know what they are entitled to argue for, and many young writers plainly haven’t had the time or the opportunity to do so.
Speaking from the west coast, self-promotion can also become an issue, being located so far away from most of the major publishing and literary institutions, and without an agent to speak on your behalf as many young writers here, including myself, are. This is a problem that is undoubtedly compounded if you live regionally, although I prevaricate over how much of a problem it in fact is. A few times I have pitched articles to national journals via email followed up by phone (most commonly met by voicemail) and had those pitches cursorily turned down. Part of me clings to the idea that had I in fact been able to meet with the editors they would have been drawn in by my enthusiasm, intellect and wit, enough at least to read a full draft. But perhaps I am both over-selling my enthusiasm, intellect and wit – and my bad ideas! Certainly the staff at WritingWA are conscious of the need for young writers to network across to the East coast, and provide funding pools and specialised initiatives to enable that to happen. And electronic media, inclusive of social media, shortens the distance markedly.
Malcolm King argues creative writing course 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?
First, a few disclaimers. I have taught creative writing both at an undergraduate level at university, and in a workshop environment as part of two extended residencies in the North and in the Perth hills. I am also very close to finishing a PhD that includes a fiction component (it is not, however, a Creative Arts PhD, as is offered by many of the other Group of Eight universities). So in answering this question I am conscious of the fact that I may be perceived to have a vested interest in perpetuating a system that supports creative writing in the academy, and that people I have worked with (students and colleagues both) may read what is written here. I have tried to make my comments as unfettered by these histories as possible – as much as they can be, being based on my experiences – and therefore they should not be extended to reflect the opinions of any of my past or present employers.
I strongly believe in a pedagogy that embraces creativity. It is a very different thing to work within the hermeneutics of suspicion that critical theory fosters, than it is to attempt to build new work that answers those suspicions. I would argue that this kind of creativity ought to be valued beyond its economic viability as a workplace skill (‘creovation™, half creativity, half innovation!’ to paraphrase the protagonist in Kellaway’s Who Moved My Blackberry). It is not just that Australia needs more creative thinkers to generate more patentable ideas, more commercial innovations and more international prizes (the very idea of ‘a patentable idea’ looks more and more outmoded). So many of the problems we face now, as communities that are local, global and dispersed simultaneously, demand creative conception. Creativity, like science, needs to be something everyone ‘does,’ on one level or another. When you think of a problem like climate change for example (the current bee in my bonnet), there is a very real way in which our encounters with climate change are founded on imaginative capacity. Here in the outer suburbs of Perth, I can’t see or sense climate change – my squashes still grow and it rains real rain here every winter. Climate change is a kind of everywhere and nowhere disaster, being both intimate (because it extends from beneath your feet in your carbon ‘footprint’) and intensely abstract (because complex scientific instruments with computational power beyond the human brain are required to ‘read’ it). The problem has no end to it, it transcends our personal deaths, and it transcends the demise of all the systems and the objects that we know, so that even after those systems are changed, climate change will still be there like a kind of inverted ghost, growing more and more material, rather than ethereal. In many ways, to be a person who believes in climate change enough to act upon that belief you have to have a good imagination. And of course a failure to imagine the extent of your material influence on the world would seem to be a basic precept of the denialist camp. But there is a hitch: the imagination can ‘bleed to death in the exhausting embrace of an infinite idea,’ when it comes to climate change (I can’t remember who said that, Kierkegaard? It sounds like mawkish old Kierkegaard!). Everything being connected can begin to feel like an advanced paranoia. So developing the kind of imagination that is able to conceive of this kind of expansiveness, without losing the motivation to act, becomes a crucial first-step in ecological awareness. But this is an argument for creativity, education and political conscience generally, not creative writing education specifically.
The main criticism that I have of creative writing as it is currently taught in the universities is that there is insufficient emphasis on developing attentive, writerly reading. Being a writer reading fiction (or anything for that matter) is, in my opinion, an entirely different approach to reading as a critic or a de-constructionalist or purely for enjoyment. Some talented young writers lack a sense of the mechanical substructures of fiction and poetry, and will not develop an ear for it in isolation. This is not a failing of skill: it probably means they are passionate readers and accustomed to suspending an awareness of structure as is needed to become caught up in narrative or style. Nor does it mean that there are mathematic forms of structure that can be unearthed from texts and utilized to achieve certain, inevitably successful ends – I would never be so proscriptive. But learning to read in a writerly way – looking for where apertures close and open in a story, how information is released or withheld, how structure disintegrates as it approaches or retreats from revelation – having a knowledge of these types of apparatuses can only improve your own writing. This doesn’t mean forcing students to read formal, highly taut prose in a classical style. Someone like Denis Johnson, for example, has amazing mechanical control in his short stories and shows how to draw a reader in, often against his or her better judgment, to a system of reasoning that holds steady throughout.
The other facet of creative writing courses in the higher education sector I have my reservations about is the meta-critical exegesis. This is often a component of an Honours, Masters or PhD qualification, wherein the writer reflects on their own creative work through the lens of a certain literary theory. I have done it before, not in my current work but during my undergraduate degree, and the experience was such that I can only offer my absolute admiration to anyone who manages it with their sanity intact. To be asked to give a critical treatment of your own work, as if it were a piece of literature written by someone else, results in a kind of contrived doubling that puts creativity and criticism on either side of a tall wall. Beyond that, it’s just cruel and often results in people working their fiction into an excessively theorised corner, in order that their exegesis can appear more sophisticated.
To temper these criticisms – and I can only speak to how things run over here in WA – I want to make clear that I have definitely built constructive practices out of all the creative writing programs I have been involved with, both as a student and later on, in dialogue with students as a tutor. For all the denunciation of the workshop system I don’t believe that anyone is genuinely seduced by the promise of publication such as to render the universities ‘dream factories.’ I never entered the PhD program because I wanted to write the manuscript that would define me as a writer (or, if once I did, I was rapidly disabused of that notion) – rather I had a stumbled into a series of questions that I considered it important to solve, and an inspirational and intellectually assiduous supervisor encouraged me to formulate these questions into a project. This relationship in particular, which is one in which I am pushed to achieve a higher level of thoughtfulness and inquiry than I would ever have been capable of without the considered counsel of my supervisor, has made my association with creative writing at a tertiary level a positive experience.