Working with Words: Damon Young

Damon Young is a philosopher, author and commentator. He is regularly published in the Age, the Australian, by the BBC and elsewhere. His first book, Distraction, has been published in the UK, the US and Mexico. His latest book is Philosophy in the Garden (Melbourne University Publishing).

We spoke to Damon about being a ‘so-called philosopher’, the surreal contrast between public applause and private penury, and why you have to be bored on behalf of your readers.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I wrote a poem in 2004, ‘Howard Watches the Oscars and Weeps With Joy’. That was published in Overland. I remember poetry editor John Leonard, in a handwritten note, calling it ‘neat’ – an adjective that surprised me.

My first published literary essay was ‘Facing Nietzsche’s Demon’, in Meanjin, 2005. It began as the introduction to a manuscript, and ended as a stand-alone work. The first paragraph still prods me to keep an intimacy with readers.

(My very first publications were in academic journals, from 1998 onwards. But they had a small audience.)

What’s the worst part of your job?

The surreal contrast between public applause and private penury.

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

On the strength of Philosophy in the Garden, I was just invited to write a new book for Pan Macmillan UK, part of their popular School of Life series. Writing and rewriting a manuscript can be a prosaic and anxious business—this was a welcome slap on the back.

And I was recently chuffed to sign with UQP for two children’s books. The craft of the rhyming picture book – a cross between aphorism, poem and joke – is a real challenge.

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

My Year 8 English teacher had a rule: “Never begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’.” But I never took her seriously. (And now I write for a living.)

More helpful was my colleague, philosopher and author John Armstrong: ‘You have to be bored on behalf of your readers. You swallow all the tedium and banality so they don’t have to.’ I enjoy writing – as a career and as a daily discipline – but this reminds me to accept the dull days.

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

Angry readers of my journalism (often religious) sometimes call me a ‘so-called philosopher’. As if my profession were in doubt because I take a hammer to their idols.

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

Teaching philosophy.

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

I’ll be brief, but this is a Big Question. Writing is a craft, just like carpentry, medicine and the martial arts. These are all what the Greeks called techne: practical skills with predictable outcomes. Techne can be systematised, taught methodically and learned step-by-step. In short: yes, writing can be taught.

Will this guarantee students publication or literary excellence? No. The market is fickle, and the best artistry can’t be taught: it involves aesthetic and existential novelty. But if students have the right skills, and receive good feedback and criticism, this can help them educate themselves. English novelist Emma Darwin is very good on this.

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

Read widely, charitably and patiently. Write in the same way. Do this daily.

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

In Melbourne, I buy from bricks-and-mortar shops like Embiggen, Readings and Minotaur. At the Paris end, I like the Paperback Bookshop.

For out-of-print, hard-to-find and just-plain-expensive books, I do shop online. I also read on a Kindle.

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

Odysseus, from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. The so-called “man-of-many-sorrows” is a veteran raconteur – up there with Hemingway. We’ll trade anecdotes.

But Kazantzakis’ Odysseus is also a philosopher and ascetic. We’ll talk about the ambivalence of loyalty, the value of lies, and the role of savagery in civilised life. After a few red wines, we’ll do sprints. Perhaps Odysseus will teach me archery.

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

Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics rarely get too dusty. Nietzsche condemns my sentimental ideas, smug certainties; kicks me in the bum to create and destroy without fluffy idealism. Aristotle warns me to check my wannabe iconoclasm with adult virtues like courage, temperance, pride.

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