Working with Words: Paul Mitchell
Paul Mitchell is the author of a short fiction collection, Dodging the Bull (Wakefield Press) and three collections of poetry, Minorphysics, Awake Despite the Hour and Standard Variation. His poems, stories and articles have appeared in various publications, including the Age, Good Weekend, the Australian, Sleepers Almanacs, Best Australian Poems and Best Australian Stories (Black Inc.), Meanjin, Griffith Review and Crikey.
We spoke to him about why ‘just keep writing’ is bad advice, why you should never believe what your friends and relatives say about your work, and his son’s lucky escape from being named ‘Valjean’.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
It was a poem called ‘The Five Teens’. I was in Year 12 English class and there were five of us talking about the meaning of life. As we spoke, a piece of fluff floated past and we kept it aloft with our breath. I wrote a poem about the experience and it was published in the school’s yearbook. People still quote it to me. I ignore them.
What’s the best part of your job?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a job so I have to make do with freelance writing and sessional tutoring! The best part of my non-job is that I can answer questions like these without feeling like I’m stealing time from the boss. It also means that, if I want to and the bank balance seems okay, I can do some bank balance-diminishing creative writing in the middle of the day when I’m awake.
What’s the worst part of your job?
See first sentence above. The worst part of my non-job is the bank balance. Mainly caused by putting time into bank balance-diminishing creative writing.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Career? Hmmm, more like careening over the writing landscape. But the most significant moments in my careening have been publication of my first poetry book and first (and only, so far) short fiction book. Both of these events deluded me for a while into thinking I was a ‘writer’, rather than just someone who wrote.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
‘Just keep writing.’ As if that alone can make you good at it. I mean, I could just keep baking cakes, but if I did it for 20 years without looking at recipes or learning from other cake bakers, I’d end up making 20 years worth of what my daughter and I created one day: Anzac biscuit flan.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
This year, two people have told me that my writing has changed the lives of people they know. Not their minds for a few seconds, their lives! I’m still gasping with disbelief – and I should have put this answer in the ‘most significant moment of your writing career’ above. Whoops.
If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
A lot more teaching. My freelance writing – scripts, copywriting, etc. – brings in enough money to ensure that not too many uni or school students have to put up with me each year. If I wasn’t doing anything to do with writing, I’d probably be working as a journalist (that’s a joke – what I’m saying is I’m not trained for anything else. My hopes of becoming a professional sportsperson have faded, though if I just keep playing snooker …)
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I can’t see why there’s a debate. Of course it can be taught. Just like music, painting, sculpture, dance, etc. Yes, some people have innate ability, but anyone who just keeps writing … and reading and learning from other writers and drafting and editing and keeping their sentences snappy can improve.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Don’t do it. If you absolutely must, then make sure you have a job. Never believe what your relatives or friends say about your work. And remember: only one person in about six billion is born with the name J.K. Rowling.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I go by price and convenience. I have bought my last five books from Book Depository (two), the Kobo store (for, yes, my Kobo e-reader), the Melbourne Uni bookstore and Readings Carlton.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I read Les Miserables just before my son Hugo was born. He is forever thankful I didn’t name him Valjean. But I’d like to have dinner with Valjean and just ask him how he managed to be such a good bloke despite having Javert on his tail his whole life. If he wasn’t available for dinner, I’d like to chow down with the cop character from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men and see what we could learn about good and evil together.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I have to answer the ‘life’ and ‘work’ questions separately. The book that has most affected my work is Flannery O’Connor’s non-fiction title Mystery and Manners. It has helped me believe that writing could be a valuable use of our limited time. And the one that has had the most significant impact on my life is John’s Gospel. The mystical Gospel, it proposes more strongly than the others that the divine is in all of us, and the world would be better if we gave it more room to move.