Welcome to Why Write, a super short podcast that asks writers just that, why they write. Hi, I’m Noè Harsel, a writer and Chair of Writers Victoria, and I’m excited to chat to a diverse group of writers and simply ask, why write? I’m glad you’re here with me.
Today, I have Anna Spargo-Ryan. Anna is a Melbourne writer. Her latest book is A Kind of Magic. She was the inaugural winner of the Horne Prize and is the nonfiction editor at Ireland Magazine.
Welcome to Why Write Anna, you do that most wonderful thing of being able to write both in fiction and nonfiction. With your most recent book, a beautiful and sensitive discussion on anxiety, talking to you today is something I’m very excited to be able to do. So let’s get right to that big question. The real reason why we are here, tell us Anna, why do you write?
There’s such an obvious answer to this that I’m sure everybody gives, which is like, I have to. I must write. And I spent a lot of years not writing when my children were small. And I didn’t miss it. I didn’t remember that I was meant to miss it. It just didn’t, it wasn’t part of my life anymore. And now when I reflect on it, the reason that I have always written was less about putting words on a page, and more about having a conversation. So the writing that I do, whether it is fiction or nonfiction is for me a way to start a two-way or multi-way interaction with somebody else.
So I’ve been writing on the internet, since about 1995, when we had personal blogs, journals, they were called then. And we wrote down pretty much every single feeling we had, which is really not that different to what I do now as a writer, whether again, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s just sort of a just a brazen, filterless description of everything I think about and feel. And it was never intended to just be something that I did for myself, I don’t think I do write just for myself, I think I am saying, here’s something that has occurred to me, here’s something that I worry about or think about, what do you think, and in the writing that I’ve done about mental health in particular, that has been an exercise in trying to uncover ways of having conversations. And I am better at writing than I am about going out and having conversations. So that’s that’s the mechanism, I guess, that I use to try to instigate those kinds of, what are we doing about this? What do you feel about it? What are your fears? What are your hopes? What do we know about what’s going on? How can we get better help? How can we help people understand us better? All of those questions are my motivation for writing.
And I love the craft of writing as well, very much. Part of what I enjoy most about writing about mental health is that it is full of craft challenges. I’m basically saying here are some, you know, diagnostic criteria, some clinical language that we use to describe the experiences that I’m having that somebody else is having, how could we improve on that using other forms of language that we have? How can we take the word anxiety and use, you know, poetics use metaphor, and simile and other imagery and words that are common to, you know, all English speakers? Unfortunately, that’s the only language I know how to write in. Use those devices to create a better conversation. How can I use what I know about language to help somebody be able to go to their healthcare professional, and say, here’s a way I heard somebody describe it. Is that helpful? Is that going to help pinpoint the kind of care that I need? And although that’s obviously not always when I was four and writing stories, I wasn’t going, ‘how am I going to have better conversations about mental health?’ But I was thinking even then, I think, about, like, choosing the perfect phrasing, not even just the perfect word, but words that go together to create an image that means something to somebody else.
Yeah, I think that that’s really evident in your work and in reading your work about the care you take in the crafting of it. And that brings up something I mean, I love what you’re saying about, it’s about having a conversation for you, even though you’re putting something out there. It’s about that response, like a call and response. And so for me, your work seems to hold itself to, with a level of honesty and integrity. And I’m I can only imagine how much that takes out of you, for example, And you know, with the expectation of getting something back, so holding that in as a conversation, then I wonder if you can talk to us a bit about that emotional honesty? And how do you hold to that as a writer? Because writing isn’t, isn’t a quick in and out of like a conversation isn’t you have to hold that space for quite a while. How do you do that?
I think to your first point, I don’t find it draining because it gives me energy it I don’t, having serious mental illness is very isolating. So having an opportunity to communicate it to somebody else, and have them respond to it, which is why I’m on Twitter so much, I guess, you know, I’ve always also been a big social media user. And I think that’s part of the reason. It is energising to recognise something of value in a conversation that you’re having with somebody else, or to find the ideal way at that moment to describe a very difficult emotion or something that has previously been in articulable. So I find the the effort of writing about things that are hard, and writing with honesty and trying to understand the most honest way to write about it, which takes a lot of kind of introspection and reflecting on the past and being honest with myself about things that aren’t always nice to say to myself as well. Things that are hard to talk about are hard to imagine or hard to be honest with myself about, all of those expenditures, I guess, come back in a very rewarding way, which is: this helped somebody or we had a conversation we’ve never had before, or I’ve managed to reach some people who really need to know this, or it has been part of a change that has happened in a system or that’s extremely rewarding. So in that sense, I don’t find it draining.
Also, like I’m a huge egotist. So I find writing about myself very exciting. Like god, I’m so interesting, and I’m writing. Wow, there’s that really happened to me, What a fascinating thing. So there’s that. I’m holding it all. Yeah, that having it all at once, when I was writing my memoir, and I had to, as you say, go through, like this, not a quick in and out conversation, but a very lengthy process. It did occupy a lot of my thinking, you know, I was always thinking about it, I was always trying to figure out if there was a better way of doing it, I was trying to figure out how to piece it together. But there was a lot of value in that for me as well, which was, I had never had an opportunity or a reason to try to put together the story of my life, I sort of reflected on it like, oh, that happened that sucked, or that was a great thing that happened. But never, how did that look in a life at a kind of on a grand scale. And the nature of my anxiety is that it is, I have issues with memory, I have issues with understanding who I am as a person and feeling safe in the world. And part of that is not having a lot of continuity in the way that I reflect on my life where I do have big gaps where I don’t remember what happened. And I do have trauma, which can lead to the sort of, you know, yeah, lack of continuity, disconnectedness.
Having a reason to write down what happened in between and to think narratively about what connected those things together actually had a profound impact on my mental well-being, because I then had a new way of understanding my life and what had happened in it. And I needed that so much to feel better about myself, and I hadn’t had it until then. So, yeah, it is hard, it’s not easy to do this kind of, the writing itself, I don’t know that they don’t imagine that it’s very much harder or, or less hard than any other writing. But the level of interrogation that’s required to write it is hard, but it is very rewarding.
I love that. Because I think what you’re saying as well, which I think is so beautiful, all worth it, it’s all worth it. Because what you’re doing means so much, and that’s so beautiful. I mean, just quickly, and I think you touched on it is because you’re doing the writing and both the fiction and the nonfiction space, I guess, I would love to ask that question of you. Does it automatically flow to you? What is the fiction? What is the nonfiction? Or is that a conscious decision that you make in terms of the storytelling and what feeds into what for you? Or does it, does it just happen?
Mostly, I write nonfiction that that is something that I enjoy. I enjoy the piecing together the context of nonfiction, I think, how does this the thing that I’m writing, how does that sit in the world? Where does it fit in? What are the things that surround it? I just find that interesting. I find the research interesting, which isn’t to say that the fiction doesn’t also have those things, but in a nonfiction way, I find that to be a fascinating way of working and it’s the same thing. It’s like, how do I connect this to this? What’s the what’s that connective tissue look like? With fiction, I have written so I’ve written two novels and and both of them were a way of, I think fulfilling a childhood dream. Partly, you know, I thought that writers wrote novels. That’s what I thought a writer was. It wasn’t until I had written a novel, but I realised all the other things that a writer can be. But it’s the same principle, I think of trying to find the best way to say something to somebody else that is going to have the greatest impact. And sometimes that is a deliberate process of this is going to be more accessible to somebody to change more minds, or to reach more people, or to not alienate someone that I really want to speak to, if I write it in a fictional way. So if I’m writing a story about something that’s really difficult, and awful and hard, if I write that into a novel that’s full of beautiful things, and full of likeable characters, which is different from what real life is a lot of the time, is that going to invite somebody in to learn something new in a way that nonfiction can’t.
Thank you so much. I think that everything you said is beautiful and thoughtful, and shows exactly the things that we get when we read your work. So thank you so much Anna, for sharing with us the reason why you write.
Thank you so much for having me.
Thanks for listening. We would love to hear why you write, tell me at whywrite.com.au
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