Working with Words: Rochelle Siemienowicz

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a film critic, journalist, editor and columnist. Her work has been published widely, including in the AgeKill Your DarlingsScreen Hub and SBS Movies. We spoke to Rochelle about watching unlimited movies for free, facing the blank page, the nakedness of memoir, and why the Bible shaped her life 'but also kind of f***ed me up'.

We spoke to Rochelle about watching unlimited movies for free, facing the blank page, the nakedness of memoir, and why the Bible shaped her life 'but also kind of f***ed me up'.  

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

As editor of my high school newsletter I managed to have a meltdown every week at the prospect of writing a 200-word editorial (Drinking fountains! Uniform policy! Sports carnivals!). Later, I started writing film reviews for the Swine – Swinburne University’s student newspaper, because I’d worked out you could see movies for free that way. But my first paid work was a book review for The Big Issue in 1997. It was Marion Halligan’s Collected Stories. I was a huge fan of her tart and luscious prose and spent an entire weekend crafting a tiny column of praise. Thankfully I’m faster these days.

What’s the best part of your job? 

As a film reviewer, I get to watch unlimited movies for free and in a cinema that’s blissfully free of kids, mobile phone users and chip packet rustlers. It’s rather delicious to sit in the dark on a weekday morning, latte in hand, sinking back into a velvet chair for ‘work’. Sometimes the films are atrocious, of course, and then it feels like a job. But not a very hard job.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The constant fear of missing out, of not seeing enough movies to justify my claim to be a film critic. According to the Motion Pictures Distributors Association of Australia (MPDAA) there were 486 films theatrically released last year – and that doesn’t include film festivals and Cinémathèque screenings. So I am always missing out. It’s a feast too large for any single pair of eyes to consume, especially mine. And I’m a lover of books and great television too, so there are just not enough hours in the day.

In a more general sense, the worst part of my job as a writer is sitting down and facing the blank screen – not an original insight, I know. The first sentence is the hardest and the most important. It has to seduce, and it needs to have the right rhythm to pull the reader onto the next one, and the next one. Once I get the first paragraph right, I’m sailing, but that can take hours.

My favourite film quote of all time comes from The Castle, where the incompetent lawyer defends his case by citing ‘the vibe of the thing’! That’s how I work.

When I first started writing, the fear of the blank screen was quite literally nauseating. Now, after years of being a journalist and meeting tight deadlines – pulling words out of the air when I have to – I know it’s possible; I’ll be able to do it because I’ve done it before. But it’s still scary.

The trick with writing is to distract myself until I forget I’m doing it. I like to think of that description of learning to fly by Douglas Adams (another writer famously terrified by the blank page) in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: the ‘knack lies in learning to throw yourself at the ground and miss… Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.’

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

Completing a PhD thesis nearly broke me. But after I’d finished (it only took me seven years) I knew I could produce a large body of work that hung together, and that I could wrestle with ideas that seemed, initially, far beyond my grasp.

Most recently, signing a publishing contract with Affirm Press for my first book was a huge milestone. After twenty years of reviewing, critiquing and promoting other people’s creative work, I am finally putting a piece of myself out into the world. And it is a big piece too, because my book, Fallen, is a fictionalised memoir about sex, love and the last days of an open marriage. In many ways, I’m more naked in this writing than I’ve been before. It’s quite different to anything else I’ve ever written, and I’ve loved the creative process.

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

There are so many variations on this piece of advice, but here’s the essence of it: 'Put your bottom on your chair. Don’t get up. Write.’ Sounds easy, but it’s the hardest thing. I would also add: ‘Turn the internet off.’

For more sophisticated insights, Annie Dillard’s *The Writing Life* (Harper Perennial, 1990) has lived in my handbag all year. (My copy is looking rather shabby now.) In this spare, elegant volume she goes so deep into the physical and spiritual struggles of the writer. Here’s the first brilliant paragraph, for a taste:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.

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

My Grade Five teacher told me many years later that he’d marked down my work because he couldn’t believe an 11-year-old had written it by herself. That sounds like bragging. I guess it is!

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

I’ve always loved teaching, which I suppose is also working with words. It’s a wonderful thing to share knowledge and younger minds keep you fresh.

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

Good, competent writing is a skill and can be taught and I wish I had more formal education in this area. I have no idea about the technicalities of grammar, for instance, but I know when things sound wrong or awkward. I write by feel. My favourite film quote of all time comes from The Castle, where the incompetent lawyer defends his case by citing ‘the vibe of the thing’! That’s how I work.

I suspect truly great writing has very little to do with formal training.

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

Learn to live on a limited income. Find your joy in words and ideas rather than possessions. Or fall in love with a partner with a reliable income. That is a joke, but also kind of serious.

Another piece of obvious advice: Read. Read all the time. Stay off social media long enough to become absorbed in the words of others. Read the great books. Read them aloud. Hear how they work, or don’t work. Read your own work aloud. Feel where it gets boring or sticky. It’s not just that you’re tired of it. The writing is bad when that happens. Good writing is good even when you’ve read it fifty times.

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

Both. I adore bookstores and libraries. But I confess when I want a book that’s a bit saucy or racy (I’m reading all about female desire right now) it’s less confronting to order online. I’m a bit shy.

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

Ellen Olenska from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Madame Olenska is beautiful and witty and a little bit naughty. She’s lived abroad and there’s a touch of decadence about her. She knows things – about life and pain and art and sex. And she holds her head up high when society tries to crush her for being a woman with an open heart and a desiring body. We’d talk about what really happened with her first husband, the caddish Count Olenski.

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

The Bible. I was brought up in a very religious Christian home and the Bible was the book that ruled and shaped my life. I was made to memorise great chunks of it and I’m grateful for that. The Bible is an amazing book. It’s also a book that kind of f**ed me up. But you’ll have to read my memoir to find out why.

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