Working with Words: Shirley Stott Despoja

Shirley as a young journalist at the Advertiser newspaper in the early 1960s.

Shirley Stott Despoja has worked as a journalist for more than 60 years. She worked in the 1950s at the Anglican, then covered general news at the Canberra Times. Later, Shirley became the first woman to be employed in the general newsroom at Adelaide’s Advertiser and the paper’s first arts editor. Today she is a columnist at the Adelaide Review, a member of the South Australian Journalists’ Hall of Fame and a United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Award winner. Here Shirley talks to us about writing, reviewing and why ‘you should go to your laptop as though you were coming home to a beloved’.

Shirley (foreground) subediting at the Anglican in Sydney, 1959.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A philosophical poem in the school magazine or was it something for [ABC Radio children’s program] The Argonauts. But after Sydney University, I went to work at the Anglican newspaper in Sydney (Bob Ellis came there after me). Back then, it was owned by the wild, charismatic Francis James who taught me to check facts and to punctuate by throwing the Concise Oxford at me. He published some of my early reviews, including a review of a jazz mass and a recording of Noel Coward’s songs. I decided this was my line of work: journalism, criticism. I received some feedback during my time at the Anglican from a bishop’s widow. Reading my 21-year-old’s waspish prose, she said, ‘I am glad I haven’t got a mind like yours’. So that felt right.

What’s the best part of your job?

The writing of a piece, when it takes shape, style, has some humour and the ending is right. Nice feeling that lasts about ten minutes, max.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Fear that the piece won’t happen as I want it to, that I might make a mistake. I am not shivering in my shoes, though. It is a nice sort of fear, the kind actors have before they go on stage, I would think.

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

I received some feedback during my time at the Anglican from a bishop’s widow ... She said, ‘I am glad I haven’t got a mind like yours’. So that felt right.

The most significant moments in my career have been about writing and fighting for women’s equality ... knowing I was, in  the sixties, seventies and early eighties, a forerunner. Writing about violence in the home, incest, custody, maintenance and access and telling women’s stories then was sometimes dangerous. Getting death threats was significant. It was important, too, not to mention the threats because it would have given men an excuse to censor me. I was lucky to have some decent editors in those days before the Advertiser became less independent. The paper was leading in the arts, Indigenous issues and in coverage of violence against women. 

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

The best advice was to be true to myself: ‘Write to please yourself’. If you please yourself, you may please others. If you write to please others, you surely won’t. The only advice I want before publication are my editor’s and my daughter’s.

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

I am always surprised by the generosity of people about my Adelaide Review columns. A really lovely comment from my editor can bring tears to my eyes. After all, I know I am abrasive. The worst things I’ve read were comments on the ABC’s Drum site by some deranged trolls (I asked the editor if he had sooled the witches in Macbeth onto me). But when, at a concert in the 1980s at the Adelaide Festival Theatre, conductor Richard Bonynge leaned over a couple of rows to say he loved my interview piece about Joan Sutherland, making sure people heard, I was surprised, and can still feel the glow. She was heaven, of course.

Shirley won a United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Award in 2010 for her Adelaide Review column, for excellence in the promotion of positive images of the older person.

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

 I would be a painter struggling with watercolour. As it is, I struggle part-time.

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

People can be taught to avoid the traps. But using words as an art, like playing the clarinet or the piano well … don’t we know that comes mostly from within?  Writing is solitary, and I imagine the competition of being in a class, might be stimulating for a while.

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

The same advice that was given to me and that I give myself: be true to yourself. And don’t develop habits, such as smoking, eating, to coax yourself to the hard task of writing. Go to your laptop as though you were coming home to a beloved.

If you please yourself, you may please others. If you write to please others, you surely won’t.

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

I buy books online and in bookshops and I read books on my iPad, too. My Kindle has packed up. My daughter and my favourite doctor give me more books than I can read. Panicky feeling to have at my age.

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

Portia from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. We’d talk about women in professions, equality, our daughters and, maybe, the quality of mercy.

What’s the book or other examples of writing that had the most significant impact on your life – and why?

Betty the Scribe, by Lilian Turner. It’s at my elbow as I write, but I will never read it again, because I want to hold on to the memory of reading it as a scabby-kneed kid in a hammock in Rockdale, New South Wales. Also: as a schoolgirl, I was friends with Phillip Knightley’s sister, back when he was a reporter (on the Tele, I think). She used to talk about him, his ambitions, and showed me some cuttings of his work. I dropped my plans to be an actor then and there and journalism was it. And has been now for more than 60 years.

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