Working with Words: Margaret Simons
Margaret Simons is an award-winning freelance journalist and author. She is also the director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and coordinator of the new Masters in Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on media for Crikey, and has published ten books. Her latest is Journalism at the Crossroads. Margaret will be appearing in a Wheeler Centre event, Making the News, next Wednesday.
We spoke to Margaret about covering the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the 1980s, advice for writers (including courage, discipline, mentorship and cultivating the imagination), and talking women with Biggles over dinner.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
It was an awful poem, that was published in the Adelaide Advertiser’s ‘Possum Pages’ – a section of the paper devoted to the efforts of children. I sincerely hope nobody ever digs it up.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Filling in forms. (That’s the university part of it). Freelancing – hustling for money, and the self doubt that accompanies every single piece of writing.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
So many! Getting a job at the Age, being assigned to cover the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the late 1980s, leaving the Age, publishing my first novel etc etc.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Best advice: Just do it (Apologies to Nike).
Worst advice: ‘There is a correct way to do this. You must have a narrative arc/archetypal story/plan/conflict at the heart of your plot/structure worked out before you begin/know what you are trying to say/ (ad infinitum).’
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself, or your work?
The Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine thinking that my footwear is worthy of note.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
No idea. I am not very good at anything else.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Plain simple writing skills can certainly be taught, and should be taught.
So too can many things about creative writing, including the skills, disciplines and attitudes that help to turn a want-to-be-writer into an actual writer. In some cases, teaching and mentoring can make all the difference for someone who has the talent, but not the necessary support and technique, discipline or encouragement.
There is a spark, though, that is essential to creative writing, and it cannot be inserted by teachers.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Cultivate the discipline of imagination.
Listen to yourself when you say ‘I don’t want to write a book that (insert phrase that gives a hint of what it is you need to be writing).’
Understand that drafting is a process, not a rough version of the final.
Go in to the fear.
Never show your first draft to anyone.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
Biggles. We would talk about women (if he could).
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
There is no single book. A number that have been important:
C.S. Lewis - The Narnia Books
Jean Craighead – My Side of the Mountain
(Both of the above for firing my imagination in childhood.)
Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice (A perfectly structured book, and I thought so before Colin Firth.)
Ernest Hemingway - Byline
Joan Didion - Slouching Towards Bethlehem and After Henry
(Both of the above for showing me different ways to do journalism.)
Tolstoy - Anna Karenina (But not the boring bits about agricultural politics.)