Working with Words: Pepi Ronalds

Pepi Ronalds is a freelance writer based in Melbourne - and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Outback Magazine, Killings, Open Manifesto and A List Apart. She blogs at The Future of Long Form.

We spoke to Pepi about juggling writing with a job that pays the bills, why you should ‘just write’, and the thing she’d be doing more of if she couldn’t write - visiting theme parks.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a book review in Metro magazine a long time ago. Despite that mini breakthrough I was convinced I could never be a writer. So I spent the next 15 years working in a different industry before studying writing. It took me a long time to bite the bullet. I wish I’d done it sooner.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I suppose the worst part about it is that most of us need another job (that pays the bills) in order to be a writer. But the writing itself (and the research/meeting people) is a job I can’t fault. Sure some days are better than others, but life would be dull if they were all the same. Maybe after a few years I’ll feel differently, but right now I love it.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Heh heh – ‘so far’ being the operative words – as a new writer I don’t feel I’ve established a career yet. But there have been key moments of encouragement. The opportunity to be an Emerging Blogger for last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival was a really big break, and it’s led to more and more opportunities. My first paid article was also a significant moment. At my desk at home I have the remittance advice of that article in a frame, and the MWF access pass wrapped around that. I stare at these for encouragement when in periods of self-doubt(!)

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Best: just write. Also, as a writer of non-fiction, I find the phrase ‘blend, blend, blend’ useful as a way of handling exposition. Props too to Sol Stein’s Solutions for Writers, William Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. These craft books are always near my desk. ‘Find your voice’ was among the most frustrating advice I’ve ever been given. But actually, I think I get it now, and I kind of agree with it.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

I’m not a writer of the calibre where things get publicly written or said about me so I’m lucky in that sense. In my own little world, I’m always surprised and delighted by positive feedback from my editors (whether they accept a pitch or like a submission). I’d say the most surprising things I’ve read about my work have been the few unsolicited emails I’ve received from editors. It’s a great feeling to know that someone’s read my work and wants me to write for them! I thought that would take decades to happen.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Because writing is a second career for me, it is the thing I’d be doing instead. But if I couldn’t write (and money was no concern) I like to think that I’d still be engaged in the world around me – researching, getting out to meet new people and learning new things. For a long time I thought that designing the rides at Disneyland would be a very cool job. I’m really interested in theme parks, so maybe I’d visit them more …

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I don’t believe that creativity is a gift. I wrote an article about it for Open Manifesto and in researching that I was convinced that creativity is simply about hard work. If the student is engaged, diligent and dedicated, and the teacher a master of their craft I believe that it can be taught. But it does take time (the research I found said it takes around ten years of dedicated study and practice in your domain before you can begin to be creative).

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Oh that’s easy: just write. Do it. Don’t say, ‘I’m gonna write’ and don’t ‘just write’ every now and then. And don’t ‘just write’ only when you think the writing is going to be good. Just write. And make time for yourself to do that. Make your writing a priority wherever you can.

Also my other favourite: don’t ask, don’t get. Why not ask a famous person for an interview or advice? You’ve got nothing to lose and you’ll be surprised how often they say yes.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Interesting question … as someone who explores the space between writers and readers in the new media galaxy via my blog, I do have an e-reader. But right now I find the experience of the e-reader far inferior to that of a book. I was dead-set ready to accept e-reading as a major part of my reading process. But if I can afford (and get access to) the book I prefer it. I buy both, but with a preference for books. I also use the local and state libraries a lot.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Sit me down with the main characters of The West Wing. I’d try and throw a firecracker in there and watch them all unravel in that charming way that Aaron Sorkin writes them. That would be fun. Actually, probably any main character that Sorkin writes would be an interesting dinner companion. I like that they are always engaged with their worlds and keen to talk about things that matter to them.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Most books give me a little something … it’s hard to choose. But craft-wise, I can’t go past William Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. He’s been really helpful and a resource I constantly refer to. I love Nam Le’s short stories (The Boat) and Miranda July’s (No One Belongs Here More Than You). These two contemporary writers showed me that writing can still be inspiring, fresh and new despite all that has already been written.

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