Working with Words: Ginger Briggs

Ginger Briggs is a Melbourne writer whose work has been published in various national newspapers and magazines – and who gives writing workshops to judicial officers, lawyers and professionals.

We spoke to her about writing in a structured environment, Patrick White fandom and why you shouldn't necessarily write about what you know.

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

A poem in the Puffin Post, a magazine for literary tots that Puffin Books published through the 70s. Would you like to hear it? 

Who’s that
Creeping past
Creeping past my door?

Slow breathing
Soft footsteps
Padding on the floor.

It’s a mugger!
It’s a robber!
It’s a murderer, I’m sure.

Who owns
Those soft footsteps
Padding on the floor?

What’s the best part of your job?

I have two jobs, and work with words in both. My day job is as the marketing content manager in a university marketing department. I started as a copywriter – I wrote our editorial style guide and I’m still the go-to girl when it comes to capitalisation and apostrophes – but I’ve since been thrust into the fascinating world of content marketing and strategy. Challenges range from writing five Facebook ads in ten minutes – and we write to character limits, not word limits – to developing a strategy, calendar, and ongoing content for a year-round multi-platform resource for VCE students. The best bits: learning stuff, enforced brevity, nailing a killer catchphrase, enforcing editorial discipline, and devising plans to create cohesive, creative content.

Plus, it’s a university, and I like being exposed to clever people who are, quite literally, saving the planet.

My second job is as a writer writer, if you know what I mean. I’m currently working on my second book, a novel about a bunch of Melbourne bohemians making an Ozploitation film in a small town in the mid-70s. Two worlds collide, tensions rise, hilarity occurs, people die. The best bits are those rare moments when you suspect that maybe, just maybe, what you’re writing isn’t complete crap.

 

'Write about what you know,' is an idiotic but ubiquitous piece of advice I make an exaggerated fuss of ignoring.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part of my day job is that I’m not writing my novel, which is constantly in my thoughts, like a lover in prison. The worst part of writing my novel are those moments when it becomes completely, heartbreakingly obvious that I have zero talent and am indeed writing complete crap. The worst part of both jobs is admin. I’m also – and this is almost a deal-breaker for a writer – hopeless with deadlines.

 

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

Well, I think it goes without saying that being published in the Puffin Post ranks pretty highly. But in more recent years, the magic happened when I read the short but flattering reviews for my first book, Staunch, in the Age and the Australian. All my nerdy literary fantasies made real.  

 

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

The best advice is contained in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life, which every writer should read. (Warning: Lamott’s a god-botherer. You may want to skip the Christian stuff. Although, having said that, her cheesy, hippy Jesus is a pretty likeable chap.)

The worst? 'Write about what you know,' is an idiotic but ubiquitous piece of advice I make an exaggerated fuss of ignoring. Oh, and a former boss once said, 'You need to improve your primary writing skills.' No other guidance was offered, and I was dismissed from his office. The message I took home was that my 'secondary writing skills' must be flawlessly awesome. 

 

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

It’s not writing related, but about twenty-five years ago there was a rumour going around my old school that I had died. Initially I was concerned, but luckily it turned out to be untrue. 

There is much to learn about writing, but reading remains the best teacher.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

No idea. I really only have one skill. I’d quite like to train dogs. But only easy, biddable trainable dogs like Labradors. I can’t handle problem dogs. Stop trying to dump your difficult dogs on me!

See? This dog training business is never going to work. Back to writing, then.

(Interestingly, I looked over a few other Working with Words columns and discovered most of us express similar sentiments. Perhaps writing is the default vocation for people whose abilities are literally limited to the literary.)

 

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

There is much to learn about writing, but reading remains the best teacher. I do think latent creativity can be coaxed out of you, or perhaps viciously beaten out of you in an atmosphere of ridicule. It depends on the teacher. Elements of craft can be taught – avoiding the overuse of adverbs, for example, a skill I’m still reluctantly learning. And I do think writers do well in a structured environment, like university. Or rehab.

But at the same time I suspect creative writing programs are a bit of an indulgence. Or perhaps just unnecessary. I mean, William Faulkner didn’t even finish high school.

Hopefully, writing programs self-select. A lot of people believe they have a book in them, but don’t have the push to force it out. The truth is that writing is mostly not fun – for every half-hour of ‘flow’ there is a good month of banging your head against a desk while screaming obscenities, and at least one dull week of scrolling through a manuscript deleting every oblique reference to a minor character you’ve decided to omit. A program can alert you pretty quickly to the existence, or otherwise, of your push.

Image: Book cover for 'Staunch'

On the other hand, I reserve my right to be a complete hypocrite and enrol in a creative writing course in the future. Please don’t judge me. 

 

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

Stop making excuses. No one has the time. Everyone has competing pressures – jobs, kids, housework, friends, emergency plumbing disasters. You want to write? Then write. 

 

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

I prefer hours spent noodling in a bookshop building a huge stack of titles I totally have to read right now, but there are irritating financial limits to this practice. For me, this is a really a question about parallel imports – which as a writer I wholeheartedly support, and as a consumer I bitterly resent.

I did some epic binge buying on the Book Depository when I first discovered it, because it was so cheap. But then the guilt set it. Now I buy fewer books, but almost always from Aussie bookshops. My favourite is Hill of Content on Collins St but I have an enormous soft spot for Dymocks. They have a great rewards program.

 

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

I’d take the bus to Sarsaparilla, the fictional suburb where most of Patrick White’s nuttier characters lived, and hunt down a pub lunch. I wouldn’t talk. I’d just eavesdrop on the inhabitants as they stumbled, mumbled obscenities and went increasingly insane. 

 

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

There is no one book, but here are three that changed me. In my mid-teens I read Brideshead Revisited and was talking to my mother about it. 'Well,' she said, 'It’s about Catholicism really.' In that instant I realised that a book – maybe every good book – was about more than a bunch of characters racing from one side of a plot to the other.

In my early 20s, Lolita taught me about the malleable magic of the English language. In my late 20s, I read Patrick White’s The Tree of Man and a bomb went off in the very deepest part of me. It marked the beginning of a love affair that will travel with me far into decrepitude. 

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