Working with Words: Sian Campbell

Sian Campbell is a freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of Scum Mag. Her work has been published in Spook, Going Down Swinging Online, the Lifted Brow and Junkee. Sian spoke with us about career highlights, creative writing courses and gossiping with Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

Photograph of Sian Campbell

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A piece in Voiceworks about my open-heart surgery I wrote shortly after the surgery itself. It was for their ‘V’ issue so I called it ‘V is for Ventricle’, which was, upon reflection, maybe a bit of a cop-out.

What’s the best part of your job?

I’m just going to go ahead and say working in pyjamas. Also that one time I was flown Qantas interstate just to do a reading. Ca-ching!

What’s the worst part of your job?

Often no real reliable income and/or constantly having to compromise just to make money.

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

I think there have just been so many little ones. Getting published for the first time, any time I’ve published something I’m actually quite proud of that's been well-received, finding a writing community, talking as a peer to writers I admire, getting a piece shortlisted or longlisted in an exciting prize, having a publisher contact me about my work. It all feels significant at the time, and leads to the next significant moment, and so on.

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

I think that sense of reading something and thinking, ‘I could do this (with a lot of hard work)’, is incredibly important for a writer.

Look, no matter how many people tell me to get up at 5am to write because it worked for <insert famous writer here> I just am never going to do that. I am sorry.

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

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about myself or my work! At least nothing springs to mind. I would not classify myself as well-known. That being said, a few times at events or parties, someone has known who I am and has been excited to meet me because they’ve read my writing, which is super surprising to me! If you’re reading this and you’re one of the (few) people who have come up to me and asked whether I was Sian Campbell, I’m sorry I was so weird and suspicious. I thought I was being served.

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

Look, I’m not good at many things. Don’t make me think about this, it’s too depressing.

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

If someone has some sort of innate sense of how words work together and some semblance of an imagination, then you can probably teach them to improve their writing. If you don’t have that, then you’re never going to get anywhere. I think the formula really just comes down to equal parts talent, hard work, and time/experience. Creative writing courses can help you become a better writer in many different ways – exposure to great writing, understanding the industry, peer critiquing, making connections, giving you structured time to write and forced deadlines, giving you permission to call yourself a writer and chase that as your primary goal … but they can’t make you a writer to begin with, in my humble opinion.

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

It’s annoying, I know, but you kind of just have to write. Submit your work to places or don’t submit, but you have to be writing or thinking about writing, like, a lot. If you think you want to be a writer but find you’re not that interested in putting in the hard work of sitting down and getting things done, that’s okay! Play at writing in your own time for fun, and go be a boring lawyer or something else for your day job. Know thyself.

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

I think the formula really just comes down to equal parts talent, hard work, and time/experience.

Mostly at physical bookshops, although I will buy online if it’s something I can’t get in-store for whatever reason. My favourite bookstores are Avid Reader in Brisbane, and in Melbourne I throw all my cash at Metropolis, Brunswick Bound, and Paperback. I also like ebooks, and am a big fan of Emily Books.

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

Possibly Orlando, from Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name. Aside from the fact that it’s one of my all-time favourite books, I just feel as though Orlando would know how to show me a good time, and have a lot of great gossip to boot.

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

Anne of Green Gables has probably shaped a lot of who I am and a lot of what I believe in, spiritually. So has Orlando. In terms of my own work, every once in a while I come across a great piece of writing that I love, but that feels attainable to me as a writer. I think that sense of reading something and thinking, ‘I could do this (with a lot of hard work)’ is incredibly important for a writer. More recently, Black Wave by Michelle Tea has blown my mind. It’s exactly what I want my own writing to be. She’s one of my favourite writers.

Portrait of Sian Campbell

Sian Campbell is a freelance writer, co-director of the National Young Writers’ Festival and the editor-in-chief of Scum Mag. You can find her work in Kill Your DarlingsVoiceworksGoing Down Swinging, the Lifted Brow Online and Junkee.

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