In Episode 296 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Patti Miller, author of The Joy of High Places. Discover how the Creative Writing Quest for Kids can help your child improve their writing. Learn why you need to stop apologising for your voice. Plus, we have three copies of The Joy of High Places by Patti Miller to give away.
Writers in Residence
Patti Miller has taught creative writing, with a particular focus on autobiographical writing, for more than 20 years. Patti’s latest book The Joy of High Places was published by New South Books in 2019.
She was included UQP’s Reading the Landscape which was published in celebration of its 70th anniversary. Released in 2018, it’s a collection of stories from some of their best authors.
Her memoir Ransacking Paris was published by Penguin Books Australia in 2015.
Her novel The Mind of a Thief (2012), was long-listed and short-listed for several awards and won the 2013 NSW Premier’s Prize for History.
She is the author of Australia’s bestselling autobiographical writing texts, Writing Your Life and The Memoir Book as well as The Last One Who Remembers (memoir), Child (novel) and Whatever The Gods Do (memoir).
She is published regularly in newspapers and magazines including essay pieces in the Good Weekend magazine (The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age) and is available for speaking engagements to clubs and other groups. She has a BA (Communications) and MA (Writing) from UTS.
Patti teaches Life Writing, Life Writing Masterclass and Memoir Writing in Paris at the Australian Writers’ Centre.
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Thanks so much for joining us today, Patti.
It’s a pleasure, Valerie.
Your latest book, The Joy of High Places, and I had the pleasure of attending your book launch recently, which went super, super well. What a beautiful book. Now, for those readers who haven’t read it yet, can you tell us what it’s about?
Well, The Joy of High Places is about walking. It’s about walking. And it’s about flying. It’s about myself and my brother. He liked to fly a paraglider. And one day he broke his spine when he was flying. He fell out of the sky and his spine broke in four places. And he thought he wouldn’t walk again.
And I was very interested in, at that time, and still am doing long distance walking. And I started thinking about his struggle to walk again. And I thought, I want to write about it. I want to write the whole passion for walking that I have and the passion for flying that he has. But I realised in the end that it actually in both of us was a passion for nature, for the beauty of nature. And for a kind of knowing, a sort of union of wildness connection in both of us that I hadn’t suspected.
So in a way it’s a story also of a brother and sister getting to know each other through their own individual passions for something that was quite – in his case – quite dangerous, and in mine quite challenging. So it’s those two stories kind of woven together.
So at what point, though… Because you would have already had a love for walking before the accident happened with your brother. So before you even knew your brother was going to go through this journey, were you interested in writing a book about walking before that?
No, because I actually done long distance walking before that. I’d done a lot of walking, the usual kind of bush walking that people do. But I started long distance walking that year, you see. And that’s a very different kind of thing. A different thing happens when you do long distance walking. And by long distance, I mean hundreds of kilometres. Day after day after day. And that changes your brain, in fact. It slows it down and it tunes you into a slower pace of life and a kind of more creative space, I think.
So it really was that the two things came together. Over time I realised that his story and my story were deeply connected. But at first, I couldn’t understand why he was risking his life in this way. You know? It was crazy, I thought. And it was only really when I started seeing similarities and talking to him and finding out about it, I actually discovered him for the first time as well. Because he’s a very different person to me. So it was exciting in that way.
But I’m interested in at what point then the penny dropped or you realised there is an entire book in this. I want to write a full on book as opposed to just exploring these parallels that you were going through.
Yes. I think it was when I started to think that I just wanted to write about my own walking. And I had taken notes every day after walking in some little French or Spanish or Italian village or wherever. I’d been taking notes. So I had a lot of material and I started doing it.
And I did research on walking and how fundamental it was. In fact, that our brains started developing when we started walking. Human beings, I mean. We developed from Australopithecus Lucy, who was the first known skeleton that must have walked, Lucy must have walked. So that developed our brains.
And I started thinking then about, when I was doing that research and how important it was to philosophers and writers, I started thinking about my brother’s struggle to walk. And I thought, with him, I realised, suddenly, there wasn’t any kind of romantic desire to wander around the countryside. He had to. He had to be able to walk again to be able to live his life again.
And I suddenly… I even felt a little bit kind of ashamed. That I’d been wandering around the countryside but he’s struggling to walk again. And I thought, maybe I can look at that more closely. Maybe I can really dive in to what it means to talk and what that’s about.
But that of course led me into his flying and interviewing him and having endless conversations with him about his experience. And that’s where it really came together, really. Together in our desire for beauty and for a wild enjoyment of something that really outside doesn’t make any sense. It’s not that safe. It doesn’t earn you any money. In a sense, it’s kind of pointless. Lots of people look at me in astonishment and think, why are you doing that? Why do you walk hundreds of kilometres? And I know with my brother, most of the family thought, what on earth are you doing?
So I think it’s actually trying to open up that. And I think it’s in all humans, actually. When they discover some passion, in the end, after that it doesn’t matter whether anybody else gets it or not. You just have to do it.
Yes. So when you decide you will be incorporating your brother’s story and therefore your book now has so many more layers than potentially what you originally intended, and you start talking to your brother, I’m interested in the – apart from really getting to know each other, as you’ve explained – I’m interested in the practical aspect of it. Because you do talk to him informally, just through chats and stuff. You talk to him formally. You said interviewing him. You talk to him in cafes, you talk to him over the phone, you talk to him over email. A whole variety of ways.
What practical process did you use to collate, compile and sift through the stories he ultimately told you?
That’s a good practical question. I like that question, being a practical person.
And I think I took notes of our conversations. Or if it was very informal, of course, I would just wait til I got home and quickly jot notes down.
But I had notebooks. And I printed out emails. I’ve got a big folder on my bookcase of all our different conversations. And I would have it open beside me as I was writing. So I worked mostly from the printed out notes and from informal jotted notes. And then every time I came to a particular point that I realised I didn’t quite understand, I would send him another email asking him. And he would send another two or three pages back.
So I ended up with a huge amount of material. And the curious thing was that his explanations, his writing, his emails actually started affecting my own writing. So that was a kind of curious side effect as well. I don’t know if that happens to other people when they’re writing and interviewing other people. Whether the other person’s personality starts affecting them. But that’s certainly what started happening to me.
And so I’m interested in the structure, how you determined the structure of this book. Because was it something that you mapped out from the outset? And I’m guessing no, because you’re not really sure what’s going to unfold. But do let me know. How do you map out a structure when you potentially didn’t know what was going to happen with your brother? Or did you do it later after…?
It was a lot later after we knew that he was okay. So it wasn’t during the time. So he in a sense, I knew he would survive. But it actually, the question you ask is actually a very interesting one for me because the structure was probably the most difficult part of the book.
Yes. I started off first as writing it as separate stories, in fact.
Because I didn’t see the connection at first. I started, I just wanted to write about his learning to walk and my learning how to walk in a different sense. My in a sense inner learning to walk, and his practical learning to walk. So I had it as separate stories. And there was about, I don’t know, ten or so separate stories.
But they didn’t work together because mine were quiet and his were quite violent.
And dramatic. You know? And I felt like his all needed to go together. So they formed this big kind of dramatic lump in the middle of the book. And it didn’t work at all. And I realised, and I gave it to a couple of other writers, as I often do, and other writers I know do the same. Delia Falconer looked at it for me. Pamela Freeman looked at it as well and gave a couple of suggestions.
And I went away and thought about it and I realised that I needed to find the through thread. What was kind of connecting the stories. And started really thinking more deeply about it and finding the connections between it. Including our connection to nature.
And also in both of us a desire to record what we did. Because he’s a practical person, he had data and computer print outs and that kind of thing. Whereas I had stories. But I thought, it’s the same urge. It’s the same urge. It’s like Kundera said, it doesn’t feel like it’s happened unless we make a record of it. And for some of us it’s stories and paintings and songs and whatever. Barney’s was in a practical sense.
So I started finding the threads and patterns that connected it together. And then I realised after a while it was working a bit better, but it was still kind of lumpy. And I realised I needed to break Barney’s stories up, my brother’s stories up more so that they’re spread throughout my story as well.
And then I realised, because his way of expressing himself was a lot more practical than mine was, his was more like a photorealist painting, if you like, and mine was like an impressionist painting. So it was like these two different things happening. And I realised I needed to find a way of connecting our two different kinds of stories.
So I wrote chapters that were kind of, if you like, inter-chapters. They were kind of ways of getting from my story to his story. And they were things perhaps like the chapter about the gods and monks. All the different theological stories of flying. So I put those kinds of pieces between the two.
So it was a very complicated process coming towards the structure. And I think that’s often the case. Unless you’re working in a genre where you’ve got a set formula, or a set way of doing it, you have to make it up as you go along, or otherwise you’re just kind of pressing a pre-decided pattern on it. And I didn’t know what that pattern was.
And I often think that I write to discover what’s there. I don’t write what I already know. I think for me it would be a bit boring to write what I already know. It would be like colouring by numbers. So I think for me, the whole excitement of writing is about discovering. And it’s painful and difficult but I think that’s the challenge for me. It’s like walking. You head out into the wild and you solve it as you go. You don’t work it all out beforehand.
Can you expand a little bit more on what you mean by you write and discover it as you go? What exactly are you discovering?
I’m discovering… I think I’m discovering everything, actually. Everything that is compelling me to write the book. Because at the first, I don’t really know what it is. I just have the feeling that I want to write it. Then as I start writing, and the problems start emerging, the problems come from working out what it is that’s really going on in the story.
And by that, I mean the deep kinds of connections and patterns and the things that I find out about myself, but also about humankind. And in this case, the connections that I think are in all human beings in terms of their heading out into the world and the kinds of challenges that they give themselves. Which are really maybe just a way of proving that we are alive! That we’re connecting and are alive to what’s going on around us.
And I guess it’s also re-finding things like that childhood wonder and joy and delight in the world. So all those things that I’m discovering as I go along, they give me that kind of aha feeling. This is what it’s about!
One example was, when I realised when I was writing about my brother’s experience, that his very disciplined nature, his very methodical nature, which I had thought earlier in my life I’d thought was fairly boring, I actually realised that disciplined methodical approach was the key to total freedom. I’d never full realised this before, that discipline led to freedom. I hadn’t kind of… In your art, I mean, or your craft. It was one of those things that I thought, aha! When I wrote that. So it’s almost like I write to find out the things that I didn’t know.
And you have written several memoirs and other types of books as well. And you teach memoir. So when you are encouraging other people to write their memoirs, presumably you’re encouraging them to also go on that process of discovery. When you discover certain things about yourself, it can be kind of freaky. And confronting and frightening or sad. It can be the opposite as well. But it can also bring up a lot of traumatic stuff sometimes. What’s your comment on that? If you’re writing a memoir that you hope for publication and then all this stuff comes out that you’re kind of wondering, should I be telling the whole world this?
Yes. Yes, this happens obviously all the time. The difficulties of truth telling. And it also can be very emotionally painful for people. And in the end, I have to bat it back to them. Because I’m not a therapist or psychologist or anything like that. I’m only humbly helping them with their writing. So I have to say I can’t tell you whether you should keep going with this in terms of your emotional safety. You have to be able to work that out for yourself.
But one of the things I do say to them if it’s feeling hard, if it’s feeling difficult in terms of the emotional stuff that’s coming up for you, why not write some of the good stuff instead? Some of the happy things and the good things, just to give yourself a break. You don’t have to put yourself through hell every day.
And that actually incredibly works for people. Because it’s not just the relief of writing about some good things. It actually helps them rediscover their own lives, that things actually weren’t all bad or always bad. And it also obviously helps the manuscript. Because otherwise the manuscript would be too dark and bleak as well. So you need that light and shade.
So I do warn people that when they head off in this kind of way that I suggest, where you’re heading off into the wilds, more or less, that they will bump into things that they hadn’t known were there. And people tell me all that all the time. But they also, like me, they make discoveries and new insights and new understanding about themselves and about the world. So it’s worth it. It’s worth the risk.
Now you teach Life Writing at the Australian Writers’ Centre and you have mentored many books to publication. What do you enjoy most about helping other people with their memoirs?
Oh, that’s a nice question. I just realised a little while ago, I got an email from somebody who I had regularly, who I first met in a workshop when she was 17. And she’s now 37. So work it out, that’s 20 years. And when she emailed me to say that she had got a contract, I think it was from Harper Collins, I was just over the moon. Over the moon. And I realised it’s something to do with the pleasure of seeing somebody develop. I mean, she was an extreme case of it. She was just a child, a teenager when I first met her. So it really was like watching her grow up.
So I think it’s a lot to do with that. I get a great deal of pleasure off seeing people’s work develop. And you could say that it was the pleasure of a parent, as well. That you get a great deal of delight out of seeing somebody learn, and seeing someone gain confidence in their writing, and be able to express themselves. And I got a lot of delight from their delight in understanding and learning.
I’ve had, I think, this young woman I was just mentioning, she’s going to be my 50th person that I’ve worked with.
So I think I should have a 50th birthday…
I think you should. That’s such a great idea. That’s brilliant.
Especially that it’s this young woman. Because she had leukaemia. And she’d been ill since she was nine. And she did three lots of classes with me. And I remember in the second lot, when she was 19, she was actually in treatment and there was every possibility that she was going to die. And she thought she was going to die at that point. So it was extraordinary for me to see her turn up in another class. And then to see her sign up, get her contract, for her book. So it’s just an utter thrill for me to see that.
If you stick at it, it really is that old adage, that those who succeed are the ones who keep trying. I really think, I really think it’s true. You really have to stick at it.
Now let’s circle back to this book. What was the hardest thing about the process of writing this book on a practical level, in terms of the writing process? And what was the hardest thing emotionally?
I think the hardest thing practically was, as I said, working out the structure. That was very difficult.
You got there, though. I got to the end, and I’m like, oh my god. That’s… I don’t know how she did it, but it’s amazing.
I think now I don’t know how I did it. Because it was so difficult to do. And then also getting the two different styles. I mean, even though I wrote the whole thing, I was so affected by my brother’s sensible approach that I became kind of practical and sensible like him. So getting the two different levels, two different styles, to work together was very difficult.
So those two things. The structure and the two different writing styles, getting them to work together was probably the most difficult.
And I think emotionally, I think really it was my fear that my brother would realise that I was delving around inside him and that he would pull out. That was my main anxiety. Because it’s one of those things that you realise as a writer, especially when you’re writing about other people, that you do go deep inside. And most people actually, despite this age of performance and display, are still very private in lots of ways. And especially this particular brother of mine. And I thought, he’s going to realise how exposed he is going to be in this.
But each time, he was fine with it. The only thing he won’t do, and wouldn’t do, was have any interviews with the media. He wouldn’t do that. And he explained why and I thought it was very insightful. He said, because when I’m speaking I’m speaking about myself. And I feel very daunted by that. But he said, when I tell it to you and you write it, then it’s your story. And I thought that was very interesting that he made that distinction. He doesn’t see it as his story. It’s simply my version of his story.
And one of the things that I have to ask you is you talk about how your brother and you had dreams, as children, had dreams about flying at night. And subsequently discovered that some of your bazillion other siblings –
All of them.
– had dreams of flying at night. And I’m like, I have never had a dream of flying at night. What do you attribute that to?
Ah. Well, see, I started to think everyone did.
Because as you say, there’s eight in my family. And I found out one by one by one after the last couple of years as I’ve been writing this book that every single one of us had had dreams over the landscape. And we discussed the different ways that we flew. There was slightly different variations on it. My brother kind of swam up through the air like he was coming up from the bottom of a swimming pool. And mine was more hovering in the air. And I had to run to go and that kind of stuff.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s to do with growing up in the country with all that kind of night sky all around you. I really don’t know. I started to think everyone did. That it was kind of…
But the thing about it that’s very curious is that I always believed it was true. And that it was really happening. And most of my life, I’ve thought somehow I was something, because I could see things from above.
I could see… And others have said that too. I know what things look like from above, which I couldn’t know otherwise. So it’s a bit of a mystery, really, to me. The whole thing is. But it makes me think that maybe there’s stranger things than we understand with our rational selves.
For sure. I found that fascinating.
Now, coming back to the writing process. When you were doing your interviews, you know you’re writing this manuscript, can you just give us a quick overview of the timeline you gave yourself to a first draft or to the draft that you were happy with? And how you achieved that in terms of did you have wordcount targets or what?
Yes. I do… I had an idea that I… Usually, once I get going, I have an idea of how long a rough first draft is going to take me. And I thought I would have about a year. That’s what I thought would get it done.
And I usually, or I always in fact, have a very regular working time when I’m working on a book. That is, I start work at 9 o’clock and I finish around about 2. So I have… And I know how much… I can’t get up or do anything until I’ve written 1000 words. So I know how much I can write in a week, I know how much I can write in a month.
And if there’s lots of other things that I have to do, having to do workshops or whatever else, I will take some time off and go away for a week or two weeks or a month where I can write all the time. And I know that I get three or four times as much done when I go away.
That’s one of my real recommendations for anybody is go away. If you want to write, take periods of time out of your life. Most people have jobs or kids or households or whatever. Just make time for yourself so that it can come together. I find especially with structural work, I have to go away. Because otherwise my time is too broken up. But when I go away, and I rent a little caravan or holiday house or something like that, and I can work all day from early in the morning til late at night. And work out the structural problems.
So that’s what I did several times, working on this book, I’d go away and work on it. And then it probably took me another year to redraft. And that was probably two or three redrafts. The first part I showed, I only had about five chapters, I think, I showed to Delia Falconer. And she actually gave some good advice and said, think of this, this is probably a shorter book than your other books. And that was… I mean, it was a very practical thing to say, but it helped me think about it in a different kind of way. And I realised she was right. And it is. It’s about 15 or 20,000 words shorter than other of my books. So that was good.
And I kind of got it working from her suggestions I started working on it again. Even at that early stage. So the first draft was actually a couple of drafts, really. And then when I showed it to another writer, Pamela Freeman, she talked about that Barney, my brother, was really interesting. And she wanted to know more about him. And I often find that that’s what other people can tell me. And I think it’s a good thing to show your work to other people because they can tell you what’s interesting. And it’s not necessarily the things that you think are interesting.
And so that led me… And she also talked about the through thread. And so I worked on that. That was probably another year. And then there was a particular publisher who was looking at it, a couple of publishers looking at it, and one of them made a suggestion about cutting a particular chapter and a couple of other editing points. And so I did that over probably about two or three months. But in that time, I got a form offer from another publisher. And so I signed that contract while still working on the suggestions from the other publisher. And gave the publisher that almost in the state that you see it in in the book condition. There was very little editing that needed doing after the publisher got it.
Yeah. And finally what I’d like to finish up on, we usually ask what are your top three tips for people who are thinking, you know, I might like to write a memoir. Now I’m going to throw in a the bonus tip first, which is they should get Writing True Stories by Patti Miller, which is just the most brilliant, brilliant, brilliant book for anyone who wants to write true stories. So number one, do that. But you still need to give me three others.
Thank you for that one. That was a very good tip.
I think you need to commit to it to make it the important thing that you’re doing. Because otherwise it won’t happen. It’s like going to the gym, really. I do think you have to schedule it into your life or it just won’t happen. So you have to look realistically at your life, the work that you do, the other responsibilities that you have. And actually write it in your diary that you’re going to be working from 8 o’clock at night to 10 o’clock at night. Or something like that. Just make it regularly, so that it’s at least three times a week. Because then your creative brain gets to work on it once you’ve set up a rhythm like that.
But before you answer the other two then, what if you’re not quite at that stage that you’re committed to writing a book? You think you want to write a memoir but you’re kind of scared because of the stuff that could come out.
Well, maybe it would be a good idea to come to a writing class.
And I actually do, I’m not being facetious, because one of the things I notice is that what it does to people, it gives them confidence. And also they see that other people are finding it, you know, it’s a tricky and difficult thing to do as well. And that gives them confidence. So it’s not just coming to a writing class to gain writing skills. It’s actually to gain confidence in yourself. And that I think is a worthwhile thing to do.
So I think it’s probably, and I’d probably do that even before getting my writing book, because I think it’s actually working with other people that gives you the confidence to do it. So go to a writing class, get the writing book, commit to it.
And I also think if you treat it as a… Not as some kind of big thing. This is what most people do. They think of it as a big thing that’s going off in all directions like your life is. But to think of it in small parts, you know. Because I always say to people, I do an exercise, I give them a ten minute exercise, and most people write about half to three-quarters of a page in that time. And I say to them, look, you’ve written that much in ten minutes. So just think of it as something that you can do. You can sit down and write for ten minutes. And don’t worry about the wholeness of it. Just work in small chewable bite sized pieces for quite a while until you get your confidence. Because I’ve noticed that most people are daunted by the hugeness of writing 50,000 or 60,000 or whatever. When really they could just sit down in ten minutes and have fun.
I think a lot of what I do is actually let people have the fun and pleasure and delight of writing and not be scared by the hugeness of it. That’s why I never start with structure, you see. Because structure just frightens you. Start with making people, it’s like making a patchwork quilt, just make some pieces first.
Great advice. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today. I think you could write about a blade of grass and make it interesting. So congratulations on The Joy of High Places.
Oh, thank you, Valerie. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.