Working with Words: Fiona Scott Norman

Fiona Scott-Norman has always worked in the arts – for 15 years as an arts journalist, and theatre/cabaret/comedy critic for the Age, the Australian, and the Bulletin Magazine. She currently works as a columnist, satirist, comedian, deejay, cabaret director, and broadcaster. Her latest book is Bully for Them: Outstanding Australians on Hard Lessons Learned at School (Affirm Press).

We spoke to her about prioritising variety and freedom over being deskbound, the delight of taking silly things seriously, and having Tim Winton as a creative writing teacher.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Yikes. Going back a ways now. I’m pretty sure it was a review of the Sydney-based cabaret troupe Castanet Club, in my uni paper. It was Perth in the 1980s, so any performers who deigned to cross the Nullabor were very big news. I am fairly sure my critique was ecstatically positive.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of being a freelance writer/performer/writing teacher etcetera is, actually, not having a job. I’ve always prioritised variety and freedom over being deskbound, and the independence I enjoy because of that is a key element of how I like to live. Clearly superannuation and home ownership are not high on my priority list.

It’s also about the sheer delight of being able to take silly things very seriously. I once spent an entire afternoon co-writing a TV comedy sketch about a dodgy magician who was shoplifting large pieces of meat from a supermarket. I mean, what? Best afternoon ever. There is great joy to be found in finding exactly the right metaphor for the job, tinkering with language, going into the creative trance, expressing myself cleanly.

Writing, in the end, is who I am. So when I write, I’m home. And, ooh, that feeling you get when you’ve finished something and you know it’s good? That is also pretty sweet.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The loneliness, which I suppose is why I’ve chosen to explore performing, directing, broadcasting, teaching, reviewing, DJ’ing, comedy, you name it, anything where I’m connecting directly with actual people. Ultimately I’m a communicator, and if I spend too much time on my own I get depressed. So I choose not to write all the time.

And, lord, it’s arduous. It feels as though the better I get, the harder it is. I’m with Dorothy Parker – ‘I hate writing, but I love having written’.

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

Just after I moved to Melbourne I walked past a poster tacked to a telephone pole which read ‘writers needed for Doghouse, a new comedy/arts magazine’. I rang the number, and was immediately offered the job of editor. Doghouse lasted one edition, probably because the publisher offloaded the editorship to a random person off the street, but it offered me a divergent path from my burgeoning hospitality career.

Another key moment was, after working as a freelance arts writer for several years, I received a postcard from Tim Winton. Tim had been one of my creative writing teachers at Curtin Uni in Perth, and I spent most of classes arguing with him about the length of what constituted a short story; he said 40 pages, I said two was plenty. The postcard read ‘Wonderful to see a good writer in work’.

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

There’s so much good advice out there. ‘Write’, ‘read’, and ‘edit’ would be the mainstays. Tim Ferguson once said to me, ‘Keep those huskies mushing’, and I love that. What it comes down to in the end is ‘do the work’. He also advises putting the punchline at the end of the sentence, and there’s many a paragraph that’s been improved by employing that nugget.

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

Hmm. Not sure. I suppose this would be surprising to some, in that critics don’t usually get a good rap, but I know I had a good reputation as a reviewer. I was known for being fair. In these days of clickbaitery, being clear and measured isn’t necessarily a virtue, but I was proud of playing the ball, not the man.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Most everything I do employs getting jiggy with language. But if I put all of that to one side, I’d go into interior design/re-upholstering furniture/upcycling old things into sporrans or bookshelves. I’m a bit crafty, on the sly.

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

Well, I teach non-fiction writing, so in the name of keeping my sweet gig at RMIT I must argue in the affirmative. So, yes. But within reason. If you’ve got a tin ear for language, you don’t read, and no curiosity about life, you’re in the wrong room. I can’t open someone’s mouth and breath in the divine spark.

But, what can be taught is skills, structure, and most importantly, confidence. Most wannabe writers are crippled with low self-esteem. If that can be kicked to the kerb, miracles can happen. I’ve seen one young writer go from ‘meh’ at the beginning of semester to excellent by the end, and full-time employment six months later. He may have got there regardless, but it would have taken years on his own. A writing course thrusts you into close proximity with other aspirant writers, and the value of that cannot be underestimated.

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

Write.

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

Both. I am pretty much addicted to Book Depository. It’s very difficult for me to go into a bookshop and not walk out with something, but for a known want I’ll go to Book Depository. It’s cheap and to the door.

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

You know what? I think most fictional characters would be unbearable in person. Catch 22 is a work of genius, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with Yossarian.

I’d say Phryne Fisher. I’d spend an inordinate amount of time admiring her clothes, and then we’d go out dancing. Plus, being well-to-do, there’s a more than even chance she’d pick up the tab.

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

I suspect it was The Great Gatsby. I went through a huge F.Scott-Fitzgerald stage (I tend to binge-read once I’ve hooked into an author. I’ll just work my way through their catalogue), and I clearly remember looking up from a page where he was describing a room. I was 15 or 16 at the time. And I thought, ‘This is perfect. I could never write this well’, and at that moment part of me just gave up.

Every word I’ve written since then has been in defiance of that belief.

My other advice to people who want to write is ‘don’t believe the voices in your head’.

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