Sian Prior: Working with Words
Sian Prior is a writer, broadcaster and creative writing teacher whose essays have been published in Fairfax and Meanjin. She is currently working on her first non-fiction book.
We spoke to her about the benefits of freelancing, the importance of having something at stake in your writing, and how reader correspondence made her adjust her views on former prime minister Julia Gillard.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
The first few articles I had published were in the Melbourne University magazine Farrago. I wrote some profiles and arts reviews and also a personal column that was published anonymously because I was embarrassed about the subject matter. An editor picked that one up and published it in a high school textbook - the first time I was paid for my writing. Priceless encouragement. (And no I won’t tell you what it was about.)
What’s the best part of your job?
Variety. I have a low boredom threshold and being a freelancer in a range of areas (writing, teaching, broadcasting, singing, editing, event hosting, etc.) means that if I get tired of one thing, there’s always something else I can do until I feel refreshed.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Insecurity of income - although I have got better at tolerating that uncertainty over the years. It’s worth it at the moment for the freedom.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Being contacted by an editor who said she might be interested in the book I’m currently writing (the first one I actually believe I’ll finish). It’s been a painful process and it was good to be offered hope that all that work might see the light of day.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
American essayist Ander Monson has some insightful things to say about writing. In his essay ‘Voir Dire’ he wrote, ‘How often is something actually at stake in essays, in memoirs, in most of the non fiction I read…? How often is there actual risk involved…?’ Whenever I feel anxious about being too self-revealing in my writing I remind myself of those questions.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
I once received some very negative emails in response to a critical column I wrote about the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. I was shocked but those correspondents were right. I’ve now written a piece about how my thinking changed after receiving those emails. Writing is so ridiculously self-reflexive sometimes, isn’t it?
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
More music. More more more more more music. When I’m not rehearsing or performing music I feel like a limb is missing.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
As a long-time teacher of creative writing I am entirely biased. You can definitely have an influence on the quality of someone’s writing by encouraging them to develop new skills and to be more self-critical with their own writing. The RMIT writing courses (where I teach) have helped to produce some breathtakingly good published writers.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Take risks with your writing. Show your writing to others and take their criticisms seriously. Write every day.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. I am doing a PhD and I buy most of my academic texts online (still hard copies) but I buy my novels in independent bookshops like Readings. I don’t yet own an e-reader (always a late adopter).
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
Can I pass on this one? I’m happy for imaginary people to stay within the pages of a book. I’d prefer to have dinner with some flesh and blood writers. New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones, maybe. He seems like a compassionate bloke. We could talk about the fact that he has the same name as my maternal grandfather.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I am a passionate devotee of Margaret Atwood’s writing, both fiction and non fiction. I envy the deft way she mixes humour and political critique with suspenseful narratives. I find it hard to imagine the literary landscape of the 20th century without her books. As the weather gets weirder and weirder (with climate change) I think often about her book Oryx and Crake. If only we could clone and transplant her imagination into the minds of the world’s political leaders.