In Episode 191 of So you want to be a writer: The freelancing life and mental health. Writing movie ‘tie-in’ books as a path to publication. Creating a CV for your protagonist and tips on how to be prolific. Introducing a brand new Facebook group. Why you should make it easy for the media to find your book. Plus: Patti Miller on her new book Writing True Stories.
Writer in Residence
Patti Miller is an established writer and Australia’s most experienced life-writing teacher. Her books have been published by Allen & Unwin, Random House and UQP. Her passionate and supportive approach to life writing has grown out of her love and knowledge of the art of writing and literature and her fascination with the stories of our lives. She has taught writing workshops for more than twenty years, specialising in life writing since 1991 and is the author of the best selling Writing Your Life and The Memoir Book.
Her latest book is Writing True Stories.
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If you shout out about your book on social media, then make it easy for people find out more about your book! Valerie discusses an author who posted that she was going to be interviewed on ABC radio about her book. Valerie was intrigued but, after much hunting, could find no links to the book on her profiles or website. #epicfail
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Thanks for joining us today, Patti.
You’re very welcome, Valerie. I’m really pleased to be talking to you.
I had the pleasure and privilege of launching your book recently, Writing True Stories. And the subtitle is The Complete Guide to Writing Autobiography, Memoir, Personal Essay, Travel and Creative Non-Fiction.
Now, it would be safe to say I could be slightly biased, because I’ve now known you for about twelve or thirteen years, you’ve been teaching at the Australian Writer’s Centre for about ten years or twelve years or something. I’ve lost track now. I think you’ve been there since the very beginning. And you have mentored and helped so many students write about their life, but also write about, in some cases, other people’s lives. And you’ve helped and mentored so many students to publication, as well.
So I will admit, I’m a little bit biased. This book, Writing True Stories, I absolutely love it. I think it’s going to be life-changing for people, in possibly quite surprising ways for them. Not only in terms of their writing. I have no doubt that it’s going to help them improve their writing and explore different creative processes. But I think there’s something special about this book in the way it is going to help them change their own lives.
But, before we go into all of that, just tell us in your words first what this book is about. What is Writing True Stories about?
Well, for me, it’s the whole territory of narrative non-fiction, but with the narrator always in the story. There’s plenty of non-fiction, it’s a very broad territory, non-fiction. But it changes when the first person narrator is in the story. So whether you’re narrating about your own life, or somebody else’s life, or some topic that you have investigated, you are still in the story as the narrator. And that makes it very personal. It makes it intimate in a way. It actually turns it into a relationship between reader and writer.
And that’s the territory that I’ve explored in Writing True Stories. It’s the territory that I’ve explored in all the years, actually, that I’ve been writing myself, but also all the years that I’ve been teaching writing. And this is a way of communicating everything that I’ve learned from my own writing processes, but everything I’ve learned from students, about what it’s like to write a first-person narration, about any kind of story.
So the thing is that you teach, you teach courses with us, you take writing retreats to Paris, you write your own books, you’ve written novels, you’ve written memoirs. What made you think, I want to write this book now?
This particular, Writing True Stories?
Well, I think it was because I’d written other writing books. Writing Your Life, which was the first one, the first edition of that was way back in 1993, I think. And then there was the memoir book, I think about 2007. But I realised more and more that many of the people who were coming to the writing classes, and my own writing practice, was evolving more towards being able to write a first-person story about something else.
Say, for example, in The Mind of a Thief, I was writing about a native title claim in my home town. And in Ransacking Paris I was writing about Paris and French memoirists. And I realised there were other skills involved, which was to do with research and interviews and how to bring situations to life that weren’t part of my own life.
So I wanted to write a book that covered all of that territory as well as the territory that I had already explored in the first two books. So the book ended up as a combination of the first two books plus a lot of other material, and a rewriting. Because the more that you teach, and the more that you write, the more that you learn from other people. So my practice is evolving all the time. So I wanted to write a book that would share all of that and expand the territory of life writing.
Now there has been certainly in the last five years or so, and probably a little bit longer, an increasing trend for people to write from their own point of view about something else. Why do you think that is?
That’s a really good question. I think it personalises the story. It gives the reader a point of connection about how to regard the story, how to look at the story, what kind of perspective to take.
I think maybe Helen Garner in Australia has been one of the main writers who have actually developed this technique in say, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief, and others, where she’s actually researching and exploring another story. And you might think, I think the reader might feel, what’s that to do with you? What’s that to do with her? And putting the narrator in there, acts as a kind of point of connection and relationship.
It’s almost like the Greek chorus in ancient Greek plays, it was the Greek chorus, which was the point of contact for the audience about how to relate to all these events and magnificent and tragic goings on. The chorus gave the audience a point of contact. This is the ordinary mortal, looking at and understanding and connecting to these things. And I think that’s what the first person narration does. It gives the reader a personal and even an intimate point of contact with the material that’s being related.
And so in this book, it’s divided up into workshops. And there are examples, there are some explanations, and then there’s these fantastic exercises at the end of each workshop. How do you suggest that people use this book?
It could be used in a number of different ways. Partly, I wanted to have a book like this for me to use in my own writing workshops, because it helps me to have a text book. As I said to someone once, I wrote my first writing book because I got sick of standing at photocopiers photocopying material. But that’s just a small use of it for me and for the students in the writing class.
But other than that, you could actually start at the beginning depending on your own experiences of writing. If you were inexperienced, you could start at the beginning and you could actually work your way through it. If you’re a more experienced writer, you could start in the second half. Because it’s actually divided into Part 1 and Part 2. So the first part is more for beginning writers and developing more the idea and the skills for autobiography and memoir. Whereas the second half expands it out into the broader territory of non-fiction.
Or you could dive into it wherever you like. You could just have a look at the contents page and think, gee, I need some input about voice. Or, I’m really feeling bothered with this issue of self-indulgence. Ah, there’s the chapter on that. So you could use it in that way, whenever and wherever you needed the input. Because for me, the best writing book is one that you put down and start writing.
I love that.
To me, that’s the test of a good writing book. If you sit there and read the whole lot of it and think, ah yes, that was good, I fail. To me, I have failed in my purpose. My purpose is for you to think, ah yes! Put the book down and start writing yourself. That’s what it’s for.
I love it. Now, you mentioned self-indulgence. Because when you are writing from your own point of view, even if you’re writing about something else, it is as you say, sometimes people will go, well, why are you in there? Not everyone can write in that way as amazingly and with such balance as yourself or Helen Garner. I remember the first time I read The First Stone, and I was thinking, oh my god, she’s so clever.
So this is something that people do worry about and that people do make mistakes in. Because I do read people’s stuff that you just go, that’s just too much of you. Where is the balance? What are some rules that people need to follow if they’re thinking, it’s just too much navel gazing now.
Yes, and it is a real issue. It’s one of the things that everyone who comes to my class either wants or needs to talk about. And I think for me there’s a few guidelines. And one is that you’ve got to step back from the material and realise that you are the reader’s guide to the material. And to give yourself, mentally and emotionally, that step backwards from the material and to see yourself as the, if you like, as the guide. So I think that mental step backwards is very useful.
But also, to remind yourself that your particular obsessions and passions might not be of interest to others. That little bit of detachment, I think, is good.
But also to remember always that you are not writing in your journal. I think journal writing is a really useful thing to do, as a writer, and for all sorts of reasons it can be very useful. But, and I don’t mean to sound rude, but writing in a journal is a little bit like throwing up. You need to do it, but you don’t do it in public. That’s how I feel. Or you try not to do it in public, at least. And that kind of writing can sort through stuff, it can get rid of stuff. But when you are writing for others to read, you are construction a world for them to inhabit. And so you look at the craft of it. You look at the craft of how you build that world. So I always remind writers, you are building a world for other people when you write.
Well, look, that’s true, but – and I agree with you, the writer should be a guide for the readers, and that your particular passions may not be of interest to the reader – but the thing is, when you are reading something like Joe Cinque’s Consolation, or Ransacking Paris, it is very personal and the writer, you or Helen Garner or whoever, they are including a lot of their own thoughts and reactions and responses. It’s more than just being a guide when you’re writing about other things. The Mind of a Thief is a very good example, I think.
And so where do you draw the line there? How much of your own responses and reactions and feelings and all of those sorts of things should you include?
Well, I think the other side of it, and this is the other side of the coin in a way, is that truthfulness is very important. Honesty and truthfulness is key. And that’s one side of it. Honesty and truthfulness can veer over into self-indulgence. And I think, to me, that happens when you forget that you are actually constructing something for other people to inhabit. When you forget that you are making something. Some people want to pour everything that. And I admire that emotional passion. But you actually need the discipline of the thought that you are actually making something.
The whole time when I’m writing Ransacking Paris or The Mind of a Thief, and I know it would be the same for Helen, I have in mind that I am making something for other people to inhabit. I am not just pouring everything out onto the page in a great big soup. I’m actually constructing something. So I’m always aware of the power of language, I guess.
Yes, that makes sense. So when you’re writing something like this, which is very structured, because it’s divided into workshop form and each workshop has certain elements, it’s a totally different approach to if you’re writing a memoir, or a novel, for that matter. So was this in a sense easy? Not easy, but a much clearer linear path for you when you sat down to write? Or not? Compared to those others?
Absolutely. That’s a really good perceptive question. Because it’s true. This kind of book, Writing True Stories, it comes from my teaching experience. And it comes from observing my own writing practice. So it’s really strongly solidly based in actual experience. There’s a lot of theoretical discussion in it. But that theoretical discussion comes straight out of the practice of writing itself.
So it actually comes from the intellect. Even though it’s talking about creative processes, it comes from the intellect. And I guess I’ve always found it easy to write from there. My journey has been, as a writer, has been to trust the creative process. So it’s been much more difficult for me, much more of a challenge, I suppose, as a writer, to learn to trust those chaotic and dark processes that can happen in the creative.
And I think, as a writer, the journey is always balancing the creative and the intellectual. That’s certainly been my journey, is balancing those two. Because the writer actually needs both. I think that some other art forms, you might not need the intellect so much. Maybe as a, I don’t know, maybe as a dancer, maybe the creative always leads and always dominates.
But I know as a writer you need to find a balance between the creative and the intellectual in the writing process. Because the tools that we use as writers are words which come from the intellect. Whereas say a dancer uses the body, and a musician uses music. But we actually use that very tricky and slippery thing called words. And words come from the mind and words have also shaped our consciousness. So we’re actually using a tool that is making us at the same time. So it’s very tricky what we do as a writer, I think.
I’m always interested in the gestation period of books. Can you give me just some vague timelines, if you can remember, of when you thought, oh, I’m going to write this book and it’s going to be about writing true stories. And then the time period of thinking about it, structuring it and the time period where you sat down and wrote it?
I could probably roughly say. I started thinking that I wanted to write a book, I didn’t have a name, Writing True Stories, but I wanted to write a book that was covering all of that territory that kept on expanding for me. About two years before I started, I was thinking about it even as I was finishing Ransacking Paris. I had probably, even before that, it had come into my head a few times that I wanted to write that book. But I needed to, obviously, have the time to write it, and I wanted to finish the book that I was on, Ransacking Paris, which was from a very different place in my writing self.
So I then thought about when I would have time to write it. And I knew Ransacking Paris was coming out and I’d have to be promoting that. So it was more that practical thing of thinking when will I have the time to write it. And in the meantime, I pitched it to Allen & Unwin as the new book that I was going to be working on. And they straight away said, yes, that’s great. We do want that very much.
When I sat down to do it, it probably took, it was probably the shortest book to write for me in that it was probably about eight months, I would say, to write the whole first draft. Whereas say, something like The Mind of a Thief took three years to write. And even probably my first non-fiction book, which was in 1994, I think, or in the 90s anyway, The Last One Who Remembers, that probably took seven or eight years to write.
So it’s not that I’m getting quicker at writing books, but I think Writing True Stories, as I explained before, was in many ways easier to write because it was more coming from the intellect. So it took about eight months and then I had a break from it. I always have a break, if I can, about a month or six weeks if possible. And then I go back and look at it again and redraft. And then it goes off to the publisher.
But I think every book is different in terms of the length that it will take to write. Many friends of mine who are writers, who are experienced writers, and it can still take seven to nine years for a particular book to be born. It just depends, not just on what’s happening in your life, but on the complexity and extent and subtlety of the material. It can just take longer to form I think.
And so let’s talk about this book. When you were in that eight-month period, did you divide it up – I’m going to write one workshop every two weeks, or did you have some kind of target? How did you approach it and did you have a routine every day? Like, I’m going to complete this today, and I’m going to work from nine to whenever. You know what I mean?
Yes. That’s what I do. I had a deadline, obviously, which I think was the beginning of September. And I was also going away to France to walk for a month or so then. So I knew I had to have it ready by then. So I did have that deadline.
But I actually work in a way, and I always have, I actually roughly work out how long the book’s going to be. So this one, the publishers had an idea how long it should be. They told me. I think it was 70,000 words. And I said, well, no. It has to be longer than that because I won’t be able to fit it all in. I said it would be about 85,000 words. So I had that idea of how long it was going to be.
And then I actually roughly looked at the structure. I don’t normally do this for the creative books, like Ransacking Paris or The Mind of a Thief, but for this one I worked out how it was to be structured. And I realised that I needed to have a part one and a part two that would show the difference between the two areas that I was looking at and developmental structure.
And I also thought about the fact that I did want it to be not just covering various topics, but that it did need to be developmental. That it would start off with people who were inexperienced, and that hopefully the material was in the order that people would want to learn it. And would best learn it. So it was developmental in that way. It wasn’t random. It wasn’t just let’s put this chapter next. I thought about, because of my experiences as a teacher, I thought about how to best develop someone’s writing skills.
And then I did work out, I knew roughly how much I’d be able to get done. If there was a lot of, if it was entirely new material, then I knew it would be probably about two to three weeks to write. If it was rewriting of material that I already had, I knew it would take about one week. So I worked that out.
And I would write in my diary – and I always do, whatever I’m working on I’ll always write in my diary, each day that I’m going to be writing. And I do work about nine to two, that’s my writing day. Whatever book I’m writing, that’s my writing day. And then after that I take care of other things. Answering emails and doing whatever else needs to be done in terms of students or preparing workshops or all of that kind of thing. So my writing day, when I’m working on a book, is nine to two. That’s what I do. But even though I know I’m doing that, I still put it in the diary. And I say that to my students as well, if it’s written down, that gives you something to tick off as well.
Yes, that’s so true.
And I always say to them, it’s like the gym. Because it’s been difficult for me to have that discipline, and if it’s not written down I don’t do it. It’s easy to pretend that it was never there. But if it’s written down, you know that’s what you’ve got to do. So that’s what I do. So if you open my diary you will see, on the days where I’m working on a book, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, you know, ‘writing’ will be written in big letters. Usually Friday there’s the workshop at the Australian Writers Centre or somewhere like that.
So I do have a very disciplined approach to writing. And I think it actually started way back when I was a young writer and I actually had young children as well. And I knew that I wouldn’t get anything done if I didn’t use the time that I had when they were at childcare.
So I actually very young became very disciplined in the way that I used my time to get my writing done. And I think it’s actually served me well. I’m not saying that you need to have babies young to be a disciplined writer, but I know that it certainly helped me. Because I had to get it done in that time, because I had little kids around the house and it’s very difficult to write. And as they got older, I also trained them to not knock on my door when I was in the middle of my writing.
So all they’ll remember is ‘go away, I’m writing’.
Now, as you mentioned, you structured and included the exercises so that the person going through them may ideally develop their writing in a particular way and follow a path. What can people expect from doing these exercises? I don’t mean the actual exercises themselves, but their experience of the exercises. What do you think they’re going to hopefully discover about themselves or their writing?
I think that they will develop skills, certainly, if they do the exercises, they will develop skills in each of those areas. But also there is something about the process of – especially if you’re writing about your own life – you will discover things about yourself that you had either forgotten or that you didn’t want to know or that you just didn’t realise were there.
I mean, that’s the sort of process, really, that happens in every, what I’m writing, but also in every writing class. People are actually blown away by what they discover about themselves. And I think that the insight and understanding that they gain can be very empowering.
So it’s empowering from the point of view of developing skills. That always makes you feel that sort of pleasure or mastery when you’re developing skills. But also the empowerment of gaining insight into yourself and into other people as well. And that you can actually, sometimes, be free of anger and judgement. I mean, I’m not approaching it from that point of view. I’m not a psychologist or a therapist or anything like that. It’s just something that I’ve observed happening, that people do find it revelatory in many ways.
Now, as you say, you’re not a psychologist or a therapist, but one of the most common things I hear from the people that have done your courses at the Australian Writers Centre is that it’s transformative. It’s life changing. And I, having read this book as well, I believe that this book, as I said at the beginning of this conversation, will be life changing.
Oddly, I can’t fully express why myself, even though I’m a writer and I should be able to do these things. And you’ve just said, what you said makes sense, in of course that when you write about your own life you’re going to discover things about yourself. That’s not actually a surprise. But I also think, after reading this, that when you are writing about other things, from your point of view, but writing about things that are not about you, you will discover things about you as well.
So can you try and put into words the thing that I can’t? Why is this process so life-changing?
Well, I was just thinking about what Dorothy Hewitt – you know, the writer and playwright – said that when she was writing her autobiography, she said the person who finishes writing an autobiography is not the same person who starts it. So she was acknowledging that transformation.
But I actually think it’s to do with the fact that you are becoming the author of your own life. You are actually constructing your own life on the page. And it’s to do with that sense of creative power, I guess, that any kind of writing, whether you’re writing a novel or not. But I think it’s more transformative when you are writing a memoir, or writing about other things from your perspective, you are actually being in the position of, I guess, a pilgrim of sorts.
And I know people are very critical of that expression of ‘journey’, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. Because I actually like the idea of taking journeys, and I take walking journeys all the time. And there’s something about that particular process of observing the world, and then finding the words to say it, which is very empowering.
So I keep coming back to that sense that you are actually becoming an authority. Author and authority come from the same root word, in fact. So in a sense, you’re gaining that power of an authority when you write your story. It’s not that you’re going around telling anyone else what to do, or anything like that. But there is a sense that you are, in a sense, a more powerful human being because you have been on this particular journey.
I don’t know if that explains it or not. But it is a fairly intangible thing to try and grasp. It’s just something that I’ve observed many times.
I love it. I love it. It must be so gratifying when you do observe that.
It is. It can be emotionally rewarding. I guess because as a writer you live a very solitary life, because when you write you’re on your own. And so going to writing classes and helping other people take steps with their writing is actually, it is my contact with the outside world, if you like. And I find that rewarding. Because I do gain a lot of joy from seeing people’s writing develop.
And also seeing their self-confidence develop. Seeing their sense of… And maybe that’s some part of the key that we were talking about before. The transformation is actually, perhaps, a transformation in confidence as well.
I love it. On that note, thank you so much for your time today, Patti.
Thank you, Valerie.