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 we have Sarah Krasnostein. Sarah is a multi-award winning writer and researcher. She is the author of The Trauma Cleaner, The Believer, and most recently Quarterly Essay, number 85, Not Waving, Drowning, on Mental Illness and Vulnerability. Her work has appeared in publications and journals in Australia, America and the UK. She has a doctorate in criminal law.
So welcome to Why Write, Sarah. Many of us will know you as the best-selling, multi-award winning author of The Trauma Cleaner, and now of course, The Believer. Your writing is expansive, your topics are so diverse: asking us to think, to pause and indeed wonder about ourselves and how we engage in our world. So it is indeed a real privilege to be able to chat with you. But let’s get right to the big question, the reason why we are here. Tell us Sarah, why do you write?
I have been thinking about this, obviously. And the first answer that comes into my mind was really just a memory of the doctor I had when I was a little girl, who I saw regularly for a time. And I heard her once answer a question that she’d been asked and was like: ‘How did you know you wanted to be a doctor?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, I had a calling.’
And I had no idea what that meant. Who called you? What did they say? Like, did you have any choice in the matter? What does that mean? And I mean, the short answer to the question is, I now know what it is like to have a calling. But it really just restates the question. Because, again, why do we do this? Why are we called? Why are we compelled to do something that most of the time is fairly unpleasant? And I will quote Helen Garner, who can’t, you can’t say better than she can, and I certainly can’t: ‘It’s like digging a hole in cement every time.’
So I think that, to get a little deep, for those of us that perhaps weren’t adequately heard, or held, whether that was in our first families, or in our school experience, or in the culture of the society that surrounds us. I think that we were driven into books, first as readers, because that was a place where we could at least seek answers and make the world make sense. And when we find kind of an information there that feels right, or illuminating, or certain or safe, there is a connection that’s made between the author and the reader over time and over space. And once you’ve been touched in that way, you have this ineluctable urge to be on the other side of the dialog, and perhaps doing that for someone else. And it’s not the same sort of exchange, or connection or dialogue that takes place in person, but it is an exchange nonetheless. And it’s made every time you pick up a book that you connect with.
So I think that call not just to return the favor, but to remain in dialogue, remain in connection, remain actively searching for answers and seeking, you know, to understand, or to find a home for yourself in the world, and to provide that for others and to keep that connection alive. That is at bottom, probably why I do what I do. And what keeps me coming back to the desk. Um, so yeah, I mean, that’s probably the short and long answer.
I mean, I think that that answer, actually, that I mean, that answer sort of says it all, I mean, that answer even that describes how I feel about your writing even. It’s full of such empathy and such deep thoughtfulness. And it makes me wonder, in a way, how do you protect yourself when you’re in the depth of your writing, because it can often take years, and during which time you’ve got a real life, you’ve got a full life, and that continues, right? So do you create a conscious separation between Sarah the writer and Sarah the regular human who goes home, does the laundry, and all the other things, and how do you do that?
So again, you get the thinking ‘so’, um, I mean, Yes, and No, which is another unhelpful answer, in terms of the practical aspect of the work, this is now my, my day job. And because it’s writing it’s not just limited to the day, so you know, I’ll try to squeeze it in nights if I have to, as well. Um, so you know, there’s that discipline of when, when it’s work time, you’re on, you’re writing, and you’re doing all the other aspects of that practice. And so there’s that, but in my other life, where I’m mom, and you know, friend and person in the world, I’m also writing all the time, in the sense that I’m drawing kind of from the world around me the emotional experience, the practical experience, everything that I’m feeling and seeing and doing and hearing is kind of being filtered through the prism of whatever I’m working on at the time. And so not kind of in a wanky kind of Juju energy sort of way, but also yes, in that way.
So like Carl Jung with his definition of synchronicity was this connection between your interior life and the world around you, so meaningful coincidences, between the exterior world and your interior world. And if you kind of are thinking about what you’re writing, and this applies to factual writing, as well as fictional writing, it will be, you’re always taking information wherever you are. So it’s always at the service of that work.
And as much as I’m a ‘type A’-kind of neurotic, former lawyer, who wants to account for the six-minute blocks of work during the day, a great part of creative work is in the unconscious, and the subconscious. So it’s kind of marinating away when you’re away from the desk. And if you give it the chance to breathe, and you really are present in your other life, there’ll be information coming through all the time, that will open your eyes in a new way, or illuminate in a new way, like a corner of your work that you have on the boil. So there is a divide in a certain sense, because you know, I’m not at the desk all the time. But in another sense, there’s not because everything is always kind of going into the soil of the work. That’s probably not very helpful.
No, no, I think no, no, because what you’re saying, I suppose, if I’m understanding correctly, is that the bleed between the two is something that, you know, you have to consciously manage, otherwise, how could you survive? But at the same time, you’re unconsciously allowed to flow through freely, because otherwise, how could you do so successfully, what you do so well? And does that make sense?
I mean, I feel like that, that’s it, like, it’s not artificially quarantined, and it can’t be and, you know, anything that takes away from the work emotionally or practically, is ultimately in a very abstract sense at the service of the work, because, you know, life should go into the work. And if you need this monastic, you know, sterile day to get it done, maybe you should be doing something else. So it will be messier than you’d like, particularly if you’re coming with that neurotic personality, as you know, you can just work 24/7, and you know, but there’s always, the even if you could, if you have that personality, 24/7 wouldn’t be enough, you’d find some things, I hate about the work. So the other thing is, you know, for professional writers, or any writers, you’ve got to have the end date, the best you can do in the time that you have, then you have to let it go. Otherwise, you’d just be, you know, worrying over it for decades,
I think that you’ve really hit the nail, I mean, what you’ve just said there that whole, you have to have the end date. I mean, it makes me want to ask this question, because you tell an amazing story, in what you’re I mean, everything that you’re weaving together, it comes full circle and a beautiful narrative, which of course, I mean, you do, you have to do. And I guess that’s another way of saying that you research impeccably. So I guess the question, the nut of the question, I guess what I’m trying to get to, is, does it kill you to leave stuff out?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I hate it. I’m never well with it. Um, but you know, set it elsewhere. Like particularly when it comes to factual writing. That’s my experience. But I know this is also true in fiction and memoir, and all the other types of genres that we artificially divide our work into. There’s the CCTV footage of life in all its, you know, particular reality. And then there’s the story that you’re telling and that story, you know, no matter how hard you try is always going to be partial and selective and subjective. And you’re always going to want to say, there was this and this, but here, you can’t do it. And that’s where often, you know, you’ve got to be brutal on yourself and kill your own darlings. But if you have an editor, either professional editor or friend you trust to really be brutal and say this is not necessary. You can’t include everything, and you shouldn’t. And if you’re doing it right, all the other stuff will just be, you know, the submerged part of the iceberg, but it doesn’t need to be there. But that never gets easier that would whittle down.
Amazing thank you so much, Sarah, you have given us everything, and I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much, so much for having me.
Thanks for listening. We would love to hear why you write, tell me at whywrite.com.au
Why Write was recorded at Brand Music and engineered by Michael Burrows.
Original Music by Brand Music.