Working with Words: Catherine Noske
Catherine Noske is editor of Westerly Magazine, at the University of Western Australia. She has a PhD in creative writing, and her manuscript 'The Call of Salt' was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award. She spoke to us about the value of anthologies, the pros and cons of 'show, don't tell', and the power of writing to show you yourself – and the world – in new ways.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
The first piece I had published was a terribly pretentious poem in Verge, Monash University’s student anthology of creative writing. I was incredibly excited. I went on to edit Verge a few years later, and enjoyed the same experience from the flipside – collections and anthologies like this (and there are some really great ones) make a huge difference to the confidence of writers starting out. It is a really lovely thing to be involved in.
What’s the best part of your job?
My job is generally far more exciting than I ever expected it could be. I have had the chance to meet some fantastic people and writers through the associations Westerly has with different groups and organisations.
But the best part, by far and away, is the writing. Pieces are submitted every issue that force me to reconsider the way I see the world, or that expand my awareness of language and its capacities, or that simply have moments of beauty to take away. The very first week at the desk, I had the chance to read original, unpublished work by Dorothy Hewett. The reading is unbelievably cool.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The worst part is the limitations the magazine faces in terms of scope and capacity. Every issue there are pieces that deserve to be published, but miss out. I would love to be able to do more than we are – publish more, and more often, offer more programs or prizes to support writers, even just give more feedback – but this isn’t yet possible.
'If literary magazines are going to continue, we need to become more self-sufficient.'
We have some big plans for Westerly, but they depend on us being able to support ourselves. Grant funding is wonderful, and helps achieve a lot, but it isn’t the answer in the long term. If literary magazines are going to continue, we need to become more self-sufficient. Part of this is developing audience to much greater levels; we really depend on our subscribers. Another part is making sure that we have the reach through distribution internationally to represent the work we publish to the world. All of this takes time.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Westerly has been pretty significant for me. It is a strange and beautiful feeling to inherit a magazine with so much history – 60 years of continuous publication – and such a wealth of writing in its archive. (Shameless plug, everything beyond our three-year embargo is free to access online.) But in terms of my own writing, finishing my PhD was a pretty big moment. The sensation of having a complete manuscript, and it having been given the tick of approval by people I greatly respect, was lovely.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The advice to ‘show, don’t tell’ seems to me to fit both categories. In some ways, it is absolutely necessary to remember. But it also diminishes our comprehension of the flexibility of language, dulls the compulsion to be creative in stretching the boundaries of what can be conveyed, and how. The best writing will do neither absolutely, but rather make us live through it. Also, it is given so often that it has almost lost meaning.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
I was once told that my writing is incredibly depressing. I can’t understand this at all. If it is, it is never meant to be. I tend to write for redemption, or at least the possibility of it, so this is the sensation which governs my emotional responses. But my mother complains that I kill her off a lot, so maybe that has something to do with it.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I have no idea. I occasionally fantasise about a life working with horses, but I’m not brave enough to make it in that world, so it’d be a pretty unfulfilling life in reality. Nice daydreams though.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Westerly has been working this year to introduce a series of seminars for secondary teachers on creative writing a s subject, and they all start with the concept that creative writing can be taught. I think it is a myth that it can’t. Of course there will be writers with a much greater natural aptitude for language, and those with less. But the skills are learnt. Publishing means that we (mostly) engage with the very best work, from the strongest writers. Saying that writing can’t be taught is like watching AFL and saying I could never learn to play football, or Formula One and never learn to drive.
'Saying that writing can’t be taught is like watching AFL and saying I could never learn to play football.'
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Make it part of your life. I don’t mean necessarily that you should give up your job or your life as it stands and dedicate yourself to writing. (All power to you if you can afford this!) But just that you need to find ways for it to happen consistently, around whatever else you do. And take heart when faced with rejections. They are never meant personally, and most often will be sent in a spirit of respect towards the author for putting their work forward.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I like buying in bookshops. Academic books are often bought online, though. And I scavenge books wherever I get the chance, without shame. I’m the person who will offer to help you move house, and ‘take those off your hands’ … My family regularly accuse me of stealing from their collections.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I think Maggie Tulliver, from Mill on the Floss. Or possibly Mrs Dalloway, or Caro from Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. All because they fascinate me. But it would be a rather fraught meal, with any of them.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Salman Rushdie’s essay, ‘Imaginary Homelands’ (in Imaginary Homelands, essays and criticism 1981–1991), has had a big impact on the way I see writing as functioning in the world. He talks about writers as dealing with broken mirrors – specifically he is thinking in a diasporic and postcolonial sense. But this seems to me to be the function of writing as a whole, showing us ourselves, sometimes in strange ways. Writing or editing, I am looking for a moment which does that.