Focus on young writers: Frank Boyce

Frank Boyce is the third author featured in the ‘Young Writers’ section of Overland 201 with his story ‘Minerals are not nomads’. Frank is a writer and student living in Melbourne. He’s interviewed here by Kalinda Ashton and Samuel Cooney.

Why write?

Terry Eagleton speaks about artistic or cultural production as different groups of people trying to make ‘symbolic sense of their situation’. It’s quite a plain quote but probably the most vital piece of reasoning when it comes to the questioning of writing. Feeling as though you are a part (small as it may be) of the collective process of shaping symbols, or uncovering them, or adding to them, or rejecting the old or commonly held ones, is something exciting and worthwhile.

Outlining why I put a pen to paper to create fiction is difficult to do. Maybe I would say that working with a system of language that is so unconsciously embedded and underutilised in everyday life is completely unique, and has the possibility to surprise even as something is making its way out of your mouth or onto the page. I mean, you are altering this ancient thing, putting pieces of it in different places and at different intervals to produce effect. Imagine walking down the street and sucking in a mouthful of air to find it suddenly tasted completely different, totally alien, and that the density was wrong, and there was grit in your throat! A writer gets to tool with a primal system that still actually affects how people live in and relate to the world. I think anyone would be mad to not do it (despite writers being often poor, ignored, and apparently prone to alcoholism).

There often seems to be a real dilemma between a love for language or writing and the question of whether it is actually the most effective way of making sense of the world. The writing process is long and arduous and sometimes difficult and sometimes boring and often intentionally oblique, misleading, allegorical, or metaphorical. Don’t ever ask a writer for directions.

There is always the temptation when you are writing a story to simply state what you mean. But I think if that becomes the case then you may as well go and write hard news and be a dead vessel for someone else’s opinion. Learning a particular craft or style and actually working at the way you use language shows that you can present something in a different way and anchor it in a time and place. Only it seems that this method is becoming devalued, or is devalued enough already. There are probably easier and more effective ways to get things done. I mean there are, definitely. But they are via different systems in which language is not the chief operant for presenting or solving a problem. And those systems are usually set up to produce results while writing stories only produces more questions. Because of that there is an ethical question around writing novels and fiction that I’m not sure I could address, probably because it might stop me doing what I’m doing.

I suppose there is this feeling when you finish a good book (or short story or poem), something that you know is important to you, there is this feeling of absolute clarity and possibility and that everything seems okay. It is really a luxury and an indulgence.  But then when you are sober again, you feel as if all you can do is work. Work really fucking hard. Because you have been given this vital thing … and I guess you want to believe in that clarity and in that feeling and in the possibility at some point in the future of it being sustained.

Does the term ‘young writer’ mean anything to you?

Not really. Not in the sense that I feel as though I belong to a particular group of ‘young writers’ yet. It almost feels like an excuse is being made for you. Here is a piece by x or y, and if it’s not up to standard, well, go easy, because they are a young writer.

That say it has its undeniable advantages like submitting to certain publications and competitions that apply age caps. It might even have its commercial advantages if you publish a literary novel by a certain age that doesn’t flop. People may pay attention to your next one if you get a chance to write it. But apart from that, no, I don’t really like it. It creates a split. If you submit a piece of work to a publication and it is accepted, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s in there with everything else. It’s ageless; it’s a piece of writing. I mean, if I’m seriously talking in the context of collectively working to understand things, then it just creates a rupture, a sense of difference, and even a sense of opposition. Like the young are coming after the old with their fucking iPhones and knives and they’re going to jam the heads of the old poets and writers on those blades and post pictures of it on Facebook and laugh about it over a can of V and that will be their clean break. Which may or may not be the case. But ‘young writers’ have the potential to be ruthlessly old-fashioned in the way that they think, too.

The difference that the title implies in the work isn’t necessarily there at all. I think it’s a complicated thing to produce a ‘young’ piece of writing, or something that feels new and fresh. Maybe it requires a greater sense of history and self-consciousness, of what has come before. The younger you are the less likely you are to possess that I suppose. And if you don’t have that sense then maybe you end up standing where it’s steep and thinking you’re the very first one, when there are hundreds of bodies waiting for you at the bottom. Maybe you need to be older to produce something that’s young.

There is also a side-effect of its use in the Australian media. The word ‘young’ often immediately implies something negative. Ultimately it seems like an unfortunate piece of paratext that’s going to alter someone’s perception of your work before they’ve even laid their eyes on it. I suppose the anxiety is around being considered a young person who happens to write rather than a writer who happens to be young.    

What in your view are the biggest barriers facing young authors in Australian publishing?

I’m not really sure. It seems anyone who tries to get something published in Australia does it pretty tough and that it’s a very, very small world. I think that volume could be a problem. Publishers might not take risks on younger writers if they’re having enough trouble publishing and selling other writers.

Also, there is the broader problem of not as many people reading for pleasure or entertainment. I mean, yes people read, but not in a healthy ratio to other competing forms of media, which is worrying but also completely understandable. Using the example of language and oxygen again, as a writer you’re making things strange for the reader (the one who reads maybe two novels a year). It’s understandable that they might find it difficult and need to come up for air and consume things that are clearer and more obviously mimetic and don’t require a constant assembly and interpretation in the way that language does.

Maybe epublishing will provide new opportunities for younger writers considering the costless reproduction of digital files. Maybe a publisher would be more likely to take a risk with a digital publication. I suppose there are problems with straight digital publishing for debut novelists or younger writers, though. If you are not well known, the physical paper-and-ink book is a piece of evidence showing that a publisher has invested something in you. I feel like I need that proof to be comfortable as a reader and writer. Then again, none of that really matters if the state of consumption is complete shit and people don’t buy books regardless of their format.          

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’m currently in the second year of a creative writing program and still haven’t gotten over how often people confuse it with journalism when I tell them what I’m doing. To be honest, it doesn’t seem like the term ‘creative writing’ properly exists yet as a field of practice. It seems like it’s strung between two different perceptions. One is that if you’re creative enough and if you’re a ‘true artist’ then you don’t need a course to tell you what to do, and you’ll carve your own path and the universe will open up for you and everything will be good. The second perception is that creativity is essentially non-academic and anyone who engages in it is a flake and not actually intelligent and doesn’t care about theory or history or the implications of what they’re doing in a wider context, only caring about self-expression. The problem is that both of those things, in a sense, are true. Some people only care about expression. Some people don’t need a course to publish a novel. Not many people care about creative writing as a field of academic study. And maybe people don’t know whether or not to take it seriously.

The only real point that I can engage with that isn’t circumstantial is the ethical situation. I don’t think any course should promise publication. It’s wrong on a personal level, to claim to be able to get everything published while still maintaining authorial integrity (though some students, admittedly, might be willing to sacrifice this). I would also think (or like to think) that a creative writing course was being run or administered by people who were actively engaged in the current publishing industry. Maybe this is a completely archaic idea, but I’d also like to think these people had some sense of responsibility regarding what they were injecting into the market place. It’s likely they are the ones going home to work on their own literary novel, and no doubt join in the discussion about the state of Australian literary publishing/reading/writing and complain that it’s a brutalised corpse with a few copies of a Masterchef cookbook embedded in its skull and that all hope is deliciously lost.

People are allowed to publish their books. But why take something that is borderline quality and give it a few stale and conventional touch ups and shove it out into the world as if it’s nothing?

My own experience has been up and down. On the one hand there is some theoretical engagement in the form of actual literary theory, and not just second-hand theory through studying particular texts. Proper stuff. There have been two general literary studies subjects to go along with it, which were fantastic. On there other hand there was (in the beginning) a lot of vague and annoying crap about creativity in general, about becoming inspired, about keeping a notebook and dancing the rest of the stereotypical writer jig, and none of it ever actually approaches the subject of real work. It gives the impression that you can be fluffy and quirky and that more often than not, that will be enough to get you by. It often cushions you into thinking that what you have to say is always valuable, and that everything you write is available for discussion and sharing. Which often for a writer, someone serious about getting published, is a lot worse than being told you have no hope.

I think I have been quite lucky over the two years in my course, having met three or four actually inspiring people who I can say have changed my attitude toward writing and whose commitment to the field motivates me to do them some justice. (There seems to be a big difference between writers who teach to get paid and writers who are actual teachers). Their cynicism regarding publishing and writing in Australia may be unmatched, but it is better that way. It makes you feel, once you do get something published, that you have earned it, and that doing a creative writing course does not by any means entitle you to it.

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. “There seems to be a big difference between writers who teach to get paid and writers who are actual teachers.”

    I’ve been following this discussion about writing courses with some interest, and I wonder if that statement – for you – connects to what Koraly wrote a while ago when she suggested that Creative Writing is better suited to TAFE.

    Having studied the Humanities at university, inc. lit, and creative writing at TAFE, this is definitely my bias. At TAFE, all my teachers were writers and we were privy to their struggles with everything from having to be there as teachers and pay their mortgages, to their moods and frustrations, and even to dealing with media obligations.

    Basically, I have a very real separation in my understanding of academia and and the craft of creative writing. Both are useful for writers, obviously, but I’m not sure that the environments and practises of the one can simply be transposed into the other.

    This comment, I realise, is tangential to the post, but that particular line and some other pieces of your answer struck a chord and seem to connect to my concerns, specifically regarding the fetishisation of the “degree” and the deleterious impact that has had on fields of study which actually require a university environment at the same time as debasing our TAFEs.

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