Working with Words: Georgie Dent
We spoke with journalist and memoirist Georgie Dent about angsty teenage letters, heart-wrenching must-reads and the best advice from editors.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I vividly recall reading Zlata’s Diary, the book written by Zlata Filipović about living in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, and sobbing. I was 11 when her diary was published in 1993 and she was only two years older than I was. Reading her account of living through a war was quite heart-wrenching because her writing was so accessible and relatable, but the reality of her days during that time was entirely foreign. I grew up in northern New South Wales in a town called Lismore, and was fortunate enough to have never considered my personal safety.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
I didn’t really write much at all beyond what was needed for school, but I did write letters. I went to boarding school, so in high school I wrote letters to friends from home and to family- but also, quite inexplicably because we literally lived together, my girlfriends and I wrote long and emotional letters to each other all the time. We laugh about that now, but it was the medium we often chose to express angst as well as friendship and support.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
My day jobs have ranged from being a waitress to doing telemarketing, selling clothes in a department store, working as a lawyer, raising three children and working as a journalist. Every job I have ever had has ultimately proved productive for subject material. I have always found observing people fascinating: seeing how people react and respond and behave in different settings is something I find endlessly interesting.
If you’re smart, it will show through ... but don’t try and use big words or sound vague in a bid to convince the reader of your brilliance. If you can write something simply – do it.
While studying law, and during my brief stint as an actual lawyer in a corporate firm, writing was a huge part of my job. I enjoyed the challenge of being both concise and accurate in written communication, though the parameters of that type of writing were stifling.
It wasn’t until after I left law that I realised how active the creative side of my brain actually was. After having our first child I trod the path of so many mothers and started a blog. I had totally underestimated the thrill of having a creative outlet.
Being trained as a print journalist at BRW magazine was terrific and influential at honing my writing. I believe that writing is like most things: the more you do, the better you will get. Having a day job that required me to write was a luxury – and still is. I was very fortunate to be trained at a time when BRW had a team of subeditors who were enormously talented and generous with their time. Being exposed to their expertise was a huge blessing.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
In a dream parallel land, I run a cake shop that is a mixture of Nadine Ingram’s Flour and Stone in Sydney and Beatrix Bakes in Melbourne.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
'Don’t ever try to sound smart' was wonderful advice my first editor shared with me. If you’re smart, it will show through, he assured me, but don’t try and use big words or sound vague in a bid to convince the reader of your brilliance. If you can write something simply – do it.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I haven’t, and the truth is I’ve always been far too self-conscious to put my innermost thoughts in written form. Funnily enough, the reason I feel comfortable disclosing that is because in a recent episode of Chat 10 Looks 3, both Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales admitted they both feel the same way. In some ways my blog, which I wrote for about three years, was a diary of sorts but it was for an audience, which I certainly prefer – even if it’s small.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
Anne Deveson’s Tell Me I’m Here is probably not an obscure unsung gem but I do count it as one of the most profound books I’ve ever read. I remember sobbing through almost every page – her love and pain at watching her son lose his mind was exquisite and excruciating. It’s one of those books that has stayed with me.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
The reality of working as a journalist in digital media – as well as having kids and writing a book on the side – means I rarely have the luxury of any habits or conditions. If it’s work time I often just need to write! And while occasionally I would love to have less time pressure, I think being in the habit of ‘just writing’ is actually very useful.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
I’m sure if I delved back into my early writing there is plenty I’d want to change but, happily, nothing springs to mind immediately!
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
Tina Brown. I would pepper her with questions all night about her fascinating career – particularly at the helm of Vanity Fair. I inhaled her book, The Vanity Fair Diaries (thank goodness she wasn’t too self-conscious to keep a diary!) and adored delving into her New York world at that time. She edited Vanity Fair at such an interesting point in American history and I imagine she is one of the great conversationalists.