The search for a distinctive and productive way to use some of my Overland VU Short Story Prize money, other than just for paying the rent and bills, has brought me to Ubud in Bali for a few weeks. While I’m here, I’ll be working on my short-fiction collection. I’ve visited Ubud several times for its writers festival, and wanted to experience its mood at a different time of year. There’s a tradition of artistic activity, and a number of creative workers are based here, so it’s not unusual to arrive looking for escape and a workspace. Importantly, it’s an inexpensive destination, and so I’m able to visit for a significant period of time.

I’m staying in a room overlooking the rice fields of Jalan Bisma. The main streets of Ubud are a short walk away. My stay includes breakfast and unlimited Indonesian tea and coffee, and there’s a swimming pool in the grounds. I spent the first few days shaping a daily routine, and shaking off a faint anxiety around doing visitor activities. But the pressure’s off. A huge relief. No tours required. No need to try different venues for food or coffee. I’ve had dinner in the same Padang restaurant for the last five nights, followed by consistently good espresso-based coffee from a nearby bakery. There’s no need to visit the sights; I did it on a previous visit. The guidebook’s in the bin. It’s liberating to explore without an agenda. Gradually, the commercial spruikers of Jalan Raya Ubud are realising they’re barking up the wrong tree with me. Or at least the chants of “taxi” and “transport” are sounding fainter in my ears. My main requirement is that my keyboard clacks and my pencil scratches for a few hours each day.

Writing process, Jennifer

When ‘writing process’ was first mentioned, I thought it meant how you put sentences together, how you might start with rough notes and turn them into a carefully crafted story. I see now that it can be considered in a broader way: how do you go about writing?


Discipline is tremendously important for me. I think it comes from a life of having music practice hanging over me. Sometimes ‘hanging’, sometimes something that I passionately wanted to do. But I’ve always had to fit it into my life – somehow. How could I fit writing into my life?

It was very hard until I decided to cut my paid working hours from full time to three days a week. This gave me two precious days a week for writing. I treated it as another job that I do on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. So, when friends asked, which are your days ‘off’? I would say, I don’t have any days off. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I write. I make sure that I’m at my desk by 9 am – usually much earlier. If a friend wants to meet for lunch on one of these days I work at the Public Library and we meet at a café near there, for just an hour – like a lunch hour.

I spend most of my ‘writing’ time sitting at my laptop. For me it is a kind of tactile process. Moving the fingers on the keys seems to stimulate my brain! But I walk a lot, usually alone, and I ‘write’ then – imagining my characters, having conversations with them. Ideally, I start a writing day with a 45 minute walk, much of it along the waterfront.

How do you get started? I always need something to latch onto – it can be the tiniest phrase, maybe even a word, a fragment of an idea, a snatch of conversation. The idea for my novel came from a piece of music. When I’m working on something substantial I like to go back over the last bit I wrote – there is always a temptation to go back to the beginning. As Paul Mitchell once said in a workshop, it’s like the tide going in an out: you are drawn back with the current to edit yesterday’s work and from there you wash forward into something new. I like editing – trying to get the story just right, trying it this way and that, picking away like a dog at a bone.

Writing Process, Margaret

I write in my journal every morning for forty minutes, or I try to. My first writing teacher, Kim Trengove, was a fan of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artists Way. Cameron recommends the  ‘Morning Pages’ as a way of ridding your mind of the dross, and helping you uncover your real thoughts and feelings. Journaling also helps develop the ‘writing muscle’.

In writing memoir, the ‘pages’ help me drill down to my hidden beliefs, and uncover any fear being them. In clearing my mind of daily minutiae, I am better able to discover what actually lies there.  Mentor, Kaylie Jones, says memoir is about creating the ‘eye’ that watches the “I”.

As I learn to detach, ironically I can go deeper into what I am most afraid to write, find a way to express it, and allow a structure or at least a pattern to emerge. Miles Davis once said: “You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” This is true for me. It takes me a long time to learn to write like myself; a long time to find my own voice. But any glimmer of that individuality emerging is well worth the effort. For in the single story, they say, lives the universal.


Chaos and Catharsis – My Writing Process

My writing process has always been pretty chaotic and unruly. Ideas for stories have been written on tram tickets, serviettes and gas bills. Ideas can come to me at the most inconvenient times, usually when I walk away from the page! They sometimes come through dreams – which I write down every morning. They’ve come from snatches of conversation – ‘Did ya hear about the bloke who shot his missus on the train,’ was all I heard one day running towards Flinders St station. I had a story deadline pressing, so that became the title of my story, as well as the opening line.

A lot of my stories are been based on my own experiences, sometimes challenging ones. I’ve found humour to be a great tool to help me write about certain things. I grew up watching the great female comics – Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett. They were strong women who seemed to be able to broach any topic, even taboo subjects and make it all funny. I like the quote ‘if they’re laughing, they’re listening.’ There’s power in that idea for me. I’ve found it a very cathartic and validating experience writing about things from the past and having people laugh and clap. It didn’t matter in the end that it began as a sad story, what mattered was that I found a way to tell it.

One of the hardest struggles I’ve experienced as a writer is sitting down to the page. Suddenly there’ll be a sponge in my hand or a load of washing that must be put on. I had a writer’s studio for a while at Linden Gallery and spent most of my hours there decorating it then filling it with writer’s meetings! But luckily, I’m a sucker for a deadline.  As such, I set aside whole weekends to work on specific writing projects – story competitions, magazine submissions etc. I wake up, grab the laptop and work through the hours from my bed. If you knocked on my door at midnight, that’s where you’d find me – unshowered, still in my dressing gown asking you in for breakfast…and I’ll be smiling.


My Writing ‘Process’ – Helen

Haphazard is the word I would use to describe my writing process. I have tried to put structure to, and boundaries around, my practice, but after many years it still seems to resemble squiggly lines on a piece of paper. I’m not hugely disciplined and like many writers will procrastinate to the bitter end, and think up anything to do rather than sit down and actually write. I’m slow too. I walk a lot – fresh air and exercise is a wonderful guilt-free excuse for not getting it down on paper.

But here’s the funny thing – it happens anyway. As I stride along, ideas take a hold of me – like gremlins they whisper ‘go on, go there, I dare you.’ I am surprised by what I write. Often it is the thing I most want to avoid – or bury in a deep hole quite frankly. It’s what takes over when I am pondering other themes to explore or stories I want to tell. To my astonishment, the slow decline of elderly parents, the heartbreak of separation, the fear of drowning in the mire of daily struggles – there it all is poured onto the page.

These words take form in poetry. I love the intensity of making every word count. I struggle with it and despair. But sometimes, just sometimes, I see in the words a truth I’ve told.

And then I know why I write.


Writing Process: Barry

I visit my writing several times throughout the day. Sessions vary from five minute bursts to extended periods of a few hours. This way, I can put in a minimum of a couple of hours a day, and often more like four to five. This is a framework. I have a home workspace – a place for my computer, books and tools – but can work anywhere.

Writing isn’t just a physical process of working with words on a page. It’s the creative and percolative activity that goes on in the spaces. In other words, the work also happens while reading, daydreaming, riding the bike, poking around, or what-have-you.

I’m never without a paper notebook. I keep the old ones stored in a filing cabinet. Captured moments. Conversations, song lyrics, glances, peripheral observations. The unorthodox, discordant, and mundane. Here, an obsessive mind might be a fortunate trait.

Short fiction suits my temperament and way of working. A new story can begin from a blank page, or a paragraph or phrase within an existing piece of writing. I rarely delete. An opportunity arises, such as a competition or a callout for submissions, and I circle round until I land on a fragment of material that captures my interest, and then begin to shape it into a new piece. Experimentation is thrilling, and I love the idea of development through failure. It’s a playful process, and instinct plays a part. Sentences are the building blocks of a story, and proficiency in them gives a reader confidence that they’re in capable hands, so allowing greater experimentation within the work.

Reading aloud, and listening to playbacks, I imagine works as radio pieces. Listening enables an objective sentence by sentence edit, and a chance to gauge the texture, mood, rhythms and poetry of the prose.

Writing can help to make life navigable. Anxieties, uncertainties and ambiguities can be contained and explored on the page through the endless possibilities of fictional forms.

Barry’s Adelaide reflections

coffee-adelaideThe festival experience in Adelaide becomes richer with each visit. This year, I felt an initial restlessness during the events. I wanted to be away from the authors talking about their work, and to get in front of my own writing. To put my hands inside my manuscript and pull the guts out of it. To lay it all out, examine it closely, and put it back together again. This reaction, far from a complaint, is rather desirable. I’m travelling to Ubud next week to work on my manuscript, and I can be confident the trip will be one of industry and production.

A highlight of Writers’ Week: The Crow on Wednesday morning at the west stage. Max Porter, author of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, converses with Jonathan Bate about the life and work of Ted Hughes. In the soothing dapples of soft early sunlight we listen, rapt, to the disembodied voice of Hughes reading his work aloud in Adelaide forty years ago. Eerie and beautiful, this presence of the poet. Afterwards, I decide that I want this to be the taste that stays with me, and so leave the garden setting for the final time this year.

A similarly affecting experience on Thursday at the Art Gallery. A series of photographic images by William Yang chronicles his friend Allan’s demise from AIDS between 1988 and 1990. Each image is accompanied by Yang’s handwritten narrative. An unexpected punch arrives with the final photograph, of Allan in 1980. His vibrant and healthful face stares out. Ten years later, he’d be dead. Grateful to be alone, I search the image for a long time, looking for some communication between it and the fate of its subject.

The poignancy of Yang’s work is sharpened by the shade of an incident a few days’ earlier in the dorm at the youth hostel. Vivid anti-gay sentiments were a valuable reminder that we can’t be complacent; that, despite whatever ultimately happens with marriage equality in Australia, fear translates into hate in some minds. The hostel interaction is, however, a timely gift, prompting me to consider my short-story collection in a stark and vigorous light. Now on to Indonesia. There’s work to do.

Helen’s Reflections on Adelaide Writers’ Week

Adelaide Writers' Week.jpg

Looking back I barely dipped into the rich lucky dip of writers and their works on offer at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week. A smorgasbord of talent on offer, it was hard to pick and choose which sessions to attend.  Fortunately everything will be up on podcast within a week, so I can listen to my heart’s content to those authors I missed.

I had the sensation that bees were coursing through my veins, such was the level of excitement around the Festival hubs.  My creativity leapt and each night I lay in bed with thoughts and ideas sparking randomly and uncontrollably.  In short, I was beside myself.

I took a lot of notes so that, in the words of Australian poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe, the ‘immortal words’ I heard would not prove to be mortal.  I wished I’d seen more.  In the written expression of the human condition I learnt from New Zealanders Kate De Goldi and Fiona Farrell how it is to survive a devastating earthquake and record those experiences in both fiction and non-fiction forms.  Hyeonseo Lee took me on her journey as a defector from North Korea’s strange cult of the ‘Dear Leaders’, into hostile China and finally South Korea, where her welcome was not as warm as she might have anticipated.  Her perspective was fascinating to me as I lived in South Korea for four years in the 1980’s and had stared across the impregnable 59th parallel into a North Korean mock village, its communist soldiers bizarrely laughing and pointing at us.

French novelist Muriel Barbery – ‘The Life of Elves’ – is exploring a deeper understanding of her life, as she tries to live it more slowly as she ages.  It was heartening for this slow writer to know she has taken eight years to write this, her second book.  It’s OK to take time!  I loved her sense that the novel is ‘more intelligent than you’, taking on its own life while she writes.

Annabel Crabb and Jane Caro entertained with their wit and quips while American Jim Shepard inspired with his extensive research into the voices of Polish children in the 20th century for his latest novel ‘The Book of Aron.”  New Zealand’s first Poet Laureate, Bill Manhire, advised us to write what we don’t know.  How encouraging to hear inspiration is what happens when he’s NOT working.  First time UK novelist Max Porter thrilled with his readings from ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers”.  In the same session (recorded for ABC Radio National) Oxford English literature Professor Jonathan Bate’s erudite reflections on  the life and work of poet Ted Hughes was dramatically enhanced by original recordings of the poet reciting his work at the Adelaide Writers’ Week forty years ago.  It was haunting.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe, a national treasure, uses all language in his poetry, mixing linguistic styles, the professorial with the profane – and he travels without Gods.  Nothing is unavailable and he believes lyric poetry turns sound into language.

I took away the message from Max Porter that nothing should get in the way of the reader.  There should be no connection between the lived experience of the writer and the word.

But most of all it made me want to write!