Sian Prior has been a writer and broadcaster for twenty-five years. A former ABC radio arts presenter and Age columnist and an award-winning short story writer, Sian recently published her first book, Shy: A Memoir (Text Publishing). The Sydney Morning Herald described Shy as ‘brave and beautiful’ and The Saturday Paper called it ‘a finely observed piece of writing’. She has been teaching creative writing in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing courses for a decade. In 2014 she completed a PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT University.
Q. How would you define writer’s block?
The term is an over-simplified way of referring to a multitude of reasons why we sometimes find it hard to write the things we want to write. I try to de-mystify the term by breaking it down to a series of clear and soluble problems. Sometimes fear gets in our way, sometimes planning and logistics are the main problem, and sometimes we actually need to stop writing and allow our brains to do some of the work internally. Guilt is a common symptom (and sometimes a cause) of so-called ‘writer’s block’ and shedding this guilt can often help us kick-start our creativity.
Q. As you’ve reminded us, Thomas Mann wrote ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ In your words, what’s he getting at?
I try to interpret this statement in a positive way. Writing is more difficult for writers because we care more about the quality of the writing than others, and we understand better than most what makes the difference between good writing and bad. Ironically it is this very fear of writing badly that enables us to write well. So in my workshops I look at the benefits of this fear and how we can use it to our advantage rather than allow it to disable us. Writing is tricky. Not every idea or everything we put in a first draft is going to be worth salvaging. But almost all ‘bad’ writing can be made better.
Q. Do you think most aspiring writers lack confidence in their writing and how important is confidence in getting published?
Most of us have doubts about the quality of our writing, and again. Those doubts can be useful. When I interviewed best-selling author Christos Tsiolkas a few years ago he said a very interesting thing:
‘There’s this voice on my shoulder that says, “Are you good enough? Are you a fraud? Are you deserving to be… a writer?” [But as well as] that voice… there’s the other one that goes, “You’re a bloody genius.” Equally wrong. I think.’
So too much confidence can be equally dangerous. We need a balance of confidence (or optimism) and realism. It is useful to show your work to others – people whose opinions you trust – before submitting it to a publisher, to get a reality check. I would say discipline is more important than confidence. If you are disciplined about your approach to the logistics of your writing practice and the quality of your work, you will inevitably have more confidence in it.
Interview by Sarah Menary. Sian Prior is teaching Overcoming Writer’s Block: Unlocking your Creativity on Saturday June 13 at Faber Writing Academy go to www.faberwritingacademy.com.au for details.