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Gemma Nisbet: It Was a Very Productive Couple of Weeks

I had the sense, sitting at the big desk in front of the big windows in my cabin at KSP Writers’ Centre, of being a point of stillness in a scene in motion.

Outside, I could see planes landing and taking off against the backdrop of the city skyline; the wild bees that live in the eucalypt outside the next-door cabin perpetually in flight; the magpies and galahs and twenty-eights and wattlebirds and others whose names I do not know winging between the dusty-green foliage of the trees. Even the light moved and changed throughout the day, from the deep shadows of morning to the brighter glare of the late afternoon, when the slats of the blinds cast striped shadows across the desk.

All of this was precisely what I’d been hoping for, in coming up the hill to Greenmount as an Invited Writer-in-Residence. This quietude, and an opportunity to focus intensely on my project — an essay collection titled The Things We Live With, which is being published by Upswell in October — ahead of submitting the manuscript to my publisher. I had a decent list of things to get through: edits and revisions to make, and some creative decisions to finally stop deferring as ‘too hard’.

Sitting there at the big desk in front of the big window, I managed all of that and some more — it was a very productive couple of weeks. But many of my favourite moments occurred during my breaks from work: when I read the diaries containing messages of advice and support from previous writers in residence, for instance. And when I spent time in the beautiful library in the main house, browsing the shelves and leafing through the copies of Australian literary journals such as Westerly and Meanjin, spotting names familiar and less so in issues dating back to the 1950s.

Doing so gave me a sense of becoming part of a writing community in a way that went, somewhat unexpectedly, beyond the opportunities — invaluable in themselves — to chat with fellow writers-in-residence and attend the centre’s writing groups. I’d often think of the other writers who had stayed here before me, stretching back to Katharine Susannah Pritchard herself, whose timber-walled workroom I’d pass on my way to the main house on baking-hot days. I’d read that KSP had worked in there for decades throughout the heights of summer without the luxury of air-conditioning.

This always made me feel extra grateful to have my cool, comfortable cabin to return to — and to have the opportunity to be there, watching the bees and planes and birds outside my window.

Ten tips for writers

1. Read a lot, and read as a writer, with a pen in hand, thinking about why a particular piece of writing ‘works’ for you, or doesn't. Read the kind of writing you would like to produce, even if doing so may sometimes be a source of despair for the ways your own work can seem to fall short.

2. Read outside of your comfort zone, too — try different genres and subject matter, and writers who might seem intimidating or those you may have unfairly overlooked. You never know what will resonate, and it’s not compulsory to finish a book once you’ve started (life is too short!).

3. Write a lot — I underestimated this importance of this as a younger writer. As Rebecca Solnit says: ‘Write bad stuff because the road to good writing is made out of words and not all of them are well-arranged words.’ There are many factors that conspire to keep us from writing — including family responsibilities and the need to make a living — but I think it’s also true that the surest way to improve is to do the thing with as much consistency as your circumstances allow.

4. Interrogate your creative and stylistic choices. Why are you writing about the things you’re writing about, and why are you writing about them in the way that you are? It is often helpful to understand — or at least try to understand — your motivations and aims.

5. Similarly, when you’re editing, attempt to approach your work as a thoughtful literary critic would, by considering what you’re trying to ‘do’ with a particular sentence or paragraph or piece and then assessing whether you’re hitting those marks. This is helpful on the inevitable days when discerning the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ becomes difficult.

6. Be curious about other writers’ creative habits, but don’t assume they’ll be the best fit for you. There aren’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to get work done, although some are definitely more efficient and less painful than others.

7. Seek community with other writers, whether it’s through study, joining writers’ groups or online communities, attending literary events or whatever else. Learn to give and receive constructive criticism in a spirit of generosity and mutual investment in one another’s creative development.

8. Whether the writing project you’re working on is a long or a short one, be open to the possibility it may change over its course. This suggests you’re learning new things.

9. Try to resist the pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to feel you need to seek publication for your work before you and it are ready. It can be easy to feel rushed when friends and peers are finding success, but you’re running your own race.

10. When all else fails, going for a walk is a helpful antidote to creative uncertainty — and writer’s block.

Gemma Nisbet, Invited Writer-in-Residence - January 2023


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