So very happy to have Annabel Smith grace the attic with her presence today. She was one of the first authors I met when I started writing and she has more wisdom about books, writing and publishing in her little finger than I’d hope to attain in a lifetime.
Annabel is the author of interactive digital novel/app The Ark, US bestseller Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. She is an Australia Council Creative Australia Fellow, holds a PhD in Creative Writing and teaches for Australian Writers Centre.
P.S. If you’ve never read Annabel’s blog, you must correct that ASAP! If you’re a writer, read her series on How to Be A Writer, which features acclaimed authors such as Andy Griffiths and Jenny Ackland, and her ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Book’ Series, which paints a realistic picture of what it’s really like to publish your novel. If you’re a reader, don’t miss her ‘Top Ten Books’ series.
Finding (the Right) Reasons to Write
I started writing my first novel in 1999, as part of a PhD in writing at Edith Cowan University.
Why did I enrol in a PhD?
Because I was offered a scholarship and it seemed like madness to refuse an opportunity to be paid to write when I didn’t have any better ideas about what I wanted to do.
But there was another reason too:
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Kazuo Ishiguro said: ‘Stories are about one person saying to another, This is the way it feels to me? Does it feel the same to you?’And although, at that point, I had only written a handful of short stories, I was already a little addicted to the satisfaction of shaping my own experiences and preoccupations into something I could share with others, and use to connect with them.
Twenty years on, my reasons for writing remain the same: a desire to connect what’s in my heart and mind with the hearts and minds of others, through words.
But there have been times in my journey when I have lost sight of why I write, lured off course by the siren song of ‘being a writer’.
And by Being a Writer, I mean the external public face of it, the part where your work goes out into the world, and is weighed and measured and compared to the work of others, and where various metrics are applied to decide whether the work, and therefore you— the writer—are ‘successful’. These metrics include being longlisted or shortlisted for, or winning, competitions and awards; sales; reviews; festival invitations; radio appearances and so forth.
In short, the part you have no control over.
What I have learned in the last two decades is that you can’t build yourself as a writer from the outside in. You’re not an amalgam of your outward successes who just happens to have a heart and mind.You are, first and foremost, a human who wants to share stories that resonate, who, if you’re lucky, might have had some opportunities and outward successes along the way.
As Charlotte Wood said in her 2016 Stella prize acceptance speech (which I have stuck to the wall above my desk):
‘The measure of a book’s quality, and the measure of one’s worth as an artist, can never be decided by awards. Nor can it be defined by sales, nor even the response of our beloved readers. If there is a measure—and I’m not sure there is—it can only be time. But all this measuring and grading, in any case, is not an artist’s job. Our energies must be dedicated, purely and simply, to the work itself—returning again and again to the writing room and the blank page, defying the cold logic that says you are only worth what you earn, or what others think of you.’
I’m not saying you can’t enjoy the rare moments of the ‘champagne lifestyle’ that you imagined when you finished your first novel. I’m not going to lie; I was pretty much wetting my pants with excitement when I was chatting to Michael Chabon at a party at Ubud Writers Festival (not least because he is extremely handsome and charming); I screamed with excitement when I was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Prize; I was utterly delighted to be flown to Sydney to be presented with an Australian Council fellowship and put up at a fancy hotel.
Those moments were thrilling. But they constitute approximately 0.01% of my life ‘as a writer’.
The other 99.99% is me at my desk with my keyboard and screen and my heart and my mind thinking about how I can use these amazing things called words to connect with other humans.