Today’s guest in the attic requires no introduction—she’s one of Australia’s best writers, as well as one of the kindest, most down-to-earth people you could ever meet. (That’s how they breed them in Tasmania. 😉 )
I’m thrilled and honoured that Heather agreed to write a piece for the attic. When I read it for the first time, I had to keep pausing, let the phrases sit, allow time for the wisdom to sink in, and just linger over the beauty of these sentences.
No matter where you are in your career, this post will have something for you. I hope you get as much from it as I did.
Heather Rose is the Australian author of eight novels writing for adults and children. Her work has spanned literary fiction, crime, magical realism, satire and fantasy. Her seventh novel – The Museum of Modern Love – won the 2017 Stella Prize and the Christina Stead Prize and has been published internationally and translated into numerous languages. Heather is also one half of children’s author Angelica Banks with co-writer Danielle Wood. Their Tuesday McGillycuddy series for middle grade readers is also published internationally. Heather lives by the sea in Tasmania. Her new novel is Bruny.
A Few Thoughts About Writing
My imagination feels like a wide sea I traverse. I am never sure what I will find, nor the boat I might be required to travel in. I’ve been making up stories since I was about five years old. I wrote two novels in my twenties before my first novel – White Heart – was published when I was thirty-five. I remember being worried I’d left it all too late. Since then I’ve written another four novels for adults and three for children.
I know writing drives me like a hunger. A hunger, a craving, a yearning that these characters and their stories living inside me come out. My latest novel – Bruny – contains a family who have lived inside me since I was twenty-one. For thirty-one years they sat at a table waiting for me. Every now and again I’d glimpse them there. Now they finally have their moment.
Here are a few thoughts about writing I’ve observed along the way.
1. If you want to be a writer you must first learn to be alone. Utterly alone. Without hope. Without certainty. Without any kind of device that distracts you. This laptop has no email or internet. My phone is silenced and far out of reach. I cannot hear the door. I cannot be disturbed.
Until Bruny my books were written after 9pm and often after midnight, too. I was raising three children, running a business, caring for parents, managing a health condition, managing relationships. Sometimes I escaped for car trips alone so that the characters had time to tell me things.
Characters are relationships you are fostering. They are jealous of any distraction. They are shy. They are easily frightened away. They require the gift of your complete attention. Lilli, a character in my second novel – The Butterfly Man – took three years to trust me with her story. Before then she remained mute no matter how hard I prodded and pried.
2. Travel widely. The world is a place of immeasurable riches. If you cannot leave your small part of the world, do it via books and films and poetry. Do it via history. Learn your part of the world intimately. Know all its names and colours and seasons, moods and humours, its history and characters, its textures and disappointments.
People say I write beautiful descriptions but I have been looking out the window, staring at the landscape, observing with keen interest cloudscapes, trees, rivers, light, weather and seasons all my life.
3. Read a thousand books and then another thousand. Let your reading take you on strange, meandering pathways.
Let Bruce Pascoe teach you to see with fresh eyes. Let Helen Garner teach you observation too, and let her work lead you to other great Australian writers and all they have to say about society. Let Yuval Noah Harari teach you to think.
Read the classics – Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Woolf, Austen, the Brontes. Their stories are beloved for a reason.
Let George Elliot lead you from English countryside to Toni Morrison’s America and on into Murakami’s Japan. Let Kate Atkinson show you life, Margaret Atwood the future, and Hillary Mantel the past.
Discover the worlds of Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, Zadie Smith, Jamaica Kincaid, Shirley Jackson, Alexis Wright, Kate Atkinson, Alice Walker. Discover the beauty of Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver. Keep poetry by your bed.
4. Writing takes time. It is not a linear pursuit, although it may appear that way by the end of a novel. Writing takes curiosity. It takes persistence.
Use your best hours for writing. If 4am is the only time you have, then let that be the time you make coffee, light a candle, work in your dressing gown, lock the door.
Most of all writing takes writing. It takes the sheer joy and discipline of writing.
5. Manage your addictions. Books do not get written by succumbing to diversions. If I know one thing from a lifetime of writing, it is all the ways I distract myself.
There is no perfect day. There is now. Sit down and don’t get up until you’ve finished that thought. If you have to get up for family, for life, leave a thought waiting there for you tomorrow. Carry a notebook. Scrawl it down when it comes.
6. Every new piece of writing is hard. I have never gotten past feeling like an amateur. Perfection is the enemy of creativity. Finish the thing to the best of your ability, then let it go.
7. If you want discerning criticism, then you must ask a very discerning reader. Never ask someone who isn’t fulfilling their own creative dreams.
Be clear about the sort of feedback you need. Sometimes it’s just: ‘Keep going, it’s great’ and that’s ok. When you’re ready for robust feedback, find an experienced writer and be willing to listen.
8. It is the inner world of a writer that shapes our work. Do your inner work.
Make time for yourself. Find ways to be joyful. Deepen into your life.
Writing takes courage. Be kind to yourself. Keep going. There is a great expanse at the heart of creativity. Make your own map.