Working with Words: Jane Howard
Jane Howard is a freelance arts journalist and critic. Earlier this month, she was announced as the new director of the Digital Writers' Festival. We caught up with Jane to talk Siri Hustvedt, string theory and her surprising Scottish readership.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I started blogging reviews during the 2009 Adelaide Fringe Festival, but my first paid piece was an 800-word feature on contemporary dance for the Adelaide Review. It was published in their July 2011 issue, which means I’ve just passed my five-year anniversary of being a professional writer!
What’s the best part of your job?
I’ve always loved performance, but sitting down and spending hours grappling with it and trying to write about it has been the most incredible shift in my engagement with the art form. Through writing, my relationship with all forms of performance has become deeper and more emotive, and it’s through writing I now find the way to understand so much more of the world I live in. That is such a gift. Having the excuse (and, often, the tickets) to see theatre and dance almost every week is also such a joy.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Performance criticism is such a niche subject with such a small readership – especially in a country as small and with such a disparate population as Australia – that it really struggles to survive when journalism intersects with the marketplace and clicks matter. There is much more work being made than being written about; and the work that is written about often isn’t written about by enough people, or with enough depth. It’s frustrating to see so much great work under-analysed and unrecorded through criticism – and it’s a struggle as a freelance writer to work in that environment.
Your community will be your biggest cheerleaders and your best source of commiseration.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
I’ve had so many incredible shifts in my writing career that every time I feel I’ve had the 'most significant moment' something else has come across to take me off in a whole new and unexplored direction. If you’d asked me a month ago, I probably would have said being offered a position with Fest magazine to cover the Edinburgh festivals in 2015. It was scary and exhausting and exhilarating and I loved it. Now, I think the answer will change to taking on the role of director of the Digital Writers’ Festival in Melbourne. While the role itself won’t be writing, I’ll be interacting with writers and thinking about Australia’s writing community every day and that is sure to impact the way I pursue my writing career.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best: editors don’t publish you to be nice. It sounds harsh, but it came from a dear friend when I was grappling with a pretty severe bout of self-doubt. She reminded me editors want to be publishing the best writing they can be publishing: if they’re working with you, you’re on the right track.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself ?
When I was in Edinburgh I met people who said they loved reading me in Kill Your Darlings! It was the most incredible and unbelievable feeling that the work I was most proud of, that was the most local, and that was with a relatively small Australian literary journal was being read by people I didn’t know on the other side of the world.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
When I was 20 and finishing my science degree, I wanted to be a computational evolutionary geneticist. In some string theory universe that version of me still exists, blissfully unaware of theatre criticism.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I can’t speak for creative writing, but my instinct is all writing can be taught. I think you perhaps need particular predilections to be a writer: for solitude and working alone, and for working deeply and unrelentingly. For a critic, too, you have to be content with the knowledge that people will often not like you. But I have learnt so much in my time as a writer, and one of the things that keeps me excited about continuing at this career is knowing how much more I have to learn. The best teachers I’ve had are my editors: if they’ve just slightly changed sentence structure, or if they’ve ripped my work apart at the seams and made me start again, I am always learning so much from them and am learning all the time.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Find your community of writers. They may be in your city or your town, or they may be on the internet – and both can be important as each other. Writing is so often a solitary act, and the struggles and the joys of it can’t always be completely understood by friends who aren’t writers. Your community will be your biggest cheerleaders and your best source of commiseration. I wouldn’t be here without my friends having my back.
For a critic ... you have to be content with the knowledge that people will often not like you.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Mostly physical bookshops. I went down the ebook route for a while but physical books just pulled me back in. I love the danger physical bookshops present – I go in for one book and invariably walk out with four.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I’d skip dinner, and instead see the artworks created by Harriet Burden in Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World. I was once desperately trying to remember where I’d seen this incredible installation piece spread over several rooms, the scale of the objects in each room growing each time – only to realise days later I’d not seen it at all, only read about this fictional creation called The Suffocation Rooms. And yet I can picture it so vividly!
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
When I was 17, I read The Handmaid’s Tale around the same time I discovered the feminist blog Feministing. Those two things changed my feminism from simply agreeing with the belief of equal opportunity regardless of gender, to a political focus that I found I was deeply passionate about and realised needed to be fought for. My feminism impacts my life every day, and that means it impacts my writing and criticism, too.