Interview

Interview with
Cecilia Condon


Cecilia Condon is a Melbourne based writer and actor. She works at the Wheeler Centre for The Emerging Writers' Festival and you can find her blog at shmockery.com.


 

How does your approach to writing fiction, non-fiction and poetry differ? I know that you write across all three mediums.

I don't really have a definitive approach to selecting a medium. Certain ideas demand to be expressed in a certain way; some favour poetry, some narrative prose, and others long form non-fiction. These are the three forms I feel most comfortable working within but if I practiced playing the piano more diligently, more of my ideas might be expressed musically, who knows? The relationship between how the particular strengths or weaknesses of a medium shape the essential idea is fascinating. I do believe that the better you understand how a certain medium functions, the better you are able to manipulate its specific strengths in order to communicate more clearly to the reader. I have been very active in trying to understand the mechanisms at work behind a range of literary mediums, in order that I too may one day try my hand. Perhaps this desire is symptomatic of a restless, post-modern inability to settle down into one medium but it also speaks of a deep hunger to simply understand how things work. I'm not very keen on the idea of specialisation but it's probably true that some writers are naturally better suited to one medium or another. I like to move between narrative prose and poetry and find the transition refreshing. Poetry has always been the form of expression closest to my unguarded, unconscious self, probably because it functions on a more sensory level than prose and relies far more heavily on the tools of metaphor, leaps of logic and aural and visual cues than narrative prose. Prose, both fiction and non-fiction, functions more 'rationally', it makes emotional and/or intellectual arguments based on the 'logic' of cause and effect – this happens therefore that happens – the writer working with prose must carefully construct the flow of ideas and information in order to persuade the reader one way or the other or evoke a certain emotion within them. Despite feeling less natural, narrative fascinates me but I think there are many more hours of writing to go before I fully understand how it works.

 

Have you found it more difficult to find publishing platforms for poetry?

I have had more success publishing poetry than prose but this has less to do with publishing opportunities and more to do with the fact that I have been a little more strategic in searching for publishing opportunities for my poems. There are so many really great small presses and independent magazines and blogs which are hungry for new writers working across a variety of mediums.

 

You studied a diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT. I wonder what your thoughts are on the benefits, or otherwise, of tertiary creative writing courses.

I often toss this question around with fellow writing course alumni without ever really settling upon a definitive answer. I suppose it's easy to feel that there is something artificial about writing schools and everyone seems to accept that 'you can't learn how to write.' In essence I agree with this; the only grist for a writer's mill is life itself and the only way to become a writer is to write. The comfortable, supportive and diplomatic environment fostered in so many tertiary writing courses will never provide a writer with the actual material for their work and no matter how amazing it looks on paper, a degree won't sit down and write the words for anyone. The two things that really make a writer – material and talent are unteachable and I don't think writing schools should be expected to teach them. Having said that, there are many teachable 'assets' and invaluable tools that a good writing school can provide to its students. Writing schools can encourage discipline and focus in their students and they can provide them with a firm understanding of the various mechanisms at work behind the variety of literary forms. Another, more ineffable 'asset' that writing schools can provide to their students is a sense of community; a sense that they are part of a group of people who understand that writing is a serious and worthy endeavour requiring real skill and real hard work. I grew up in a family where the arts were deeply appreciated, not simply as a decorative element to an otherwise full life but as fundamental nourishment. However, the gulf between appreciating the arts and actually practicing them seemed to be an impassable gulf. It wasn't until I enrolled at RMIT that I really began to believe that I could be actively creative and that if I set my mind to being a writer, I could do just that. Being part of the RMIT writing community was fundamental to this leap of consciousness. I had good classes and bad classes, a lot depended on the skill and dedication of the teacher. But cumulatively, the course definitely had a positive influence on my writing. The sad and frustrating thing about many writing courses is that they buy into the unrealistic romance of a writer's life and completely fail to provide their students with even the most basic structural tools necessary to forge a career (successful or otherwise) as a writer, and with university education becoming so expensive, I think that is inexcusable. Writing is not some mythic beast; there are very real skills that can be taught and no writer should leave writing school without having a firm grasp of their chosen literary medium, a strong awareness of the economics and politics at play in the publishing and media industries and a deep understanding of how sentences, paragraphs and narratives actually work. Armed with this knowledge, their own unique creative material, and the support of a literary community, the emerging writer has a far better chance of going on to lead a productive and lengthy career in whatever field of writing they may choose.

 

This poem in Griffith REVIEW, has been published as part of an edition on mythmaking and storytelling and fairytales in Australia. I wonder how you see the poem linking in with those ideas.

I am always reluctant to pin down the meaning of a poem (especially my own) as in most good poems, meaning is provisional, just when you think you have pinned it down, just when you think you've found the point of it, it darts off in another direction. Poetry, more so than narrative, should be multifaceted and slightly evasive. I hope there are a few different interpretations of 'Going On' but if I consider the poem again, I suppose it explores the idea of residue; where, amid the inexhaustible and urgent necessities of life – moving house, making dinner, folding the washing – do we find meaning? 'Going On' speaks to my feeling of occasionally finding the ceaseless bluster and the constant forward motion of life exhausting and extraneous to the ultimate questions of existence - what do we make of life, what do we take from it. If for one moment, we could hold the accumulation of all our lived experience in our hands, what would decide was worth passing on to others? The poem speaks to a slightly gloomy perspective on life, a feeling that the majority of day to day existence and all the gains made by technology and science and industry are all pretty irrelevant if not utterly futile. Despite this, I do believe – and I hope the poem reflects – that it is only through the accumulation of each tiny, and relatively insignificant moment of experience that we are able to view a life in all its fullness. To connect my poem with the theme of Edition #42, I would say that on a larger scale, myths and fairytales are the collective accumulation of the wisdom that societies accrue as they develop. They are the guiding hand, the word of caution and the encouraging smile that a culture offers to itself and to future generations. In this sense, myths are perhaps the most powerful residue of all.

 

The kind of imagery you use in the poem was very interesting. There's very much a contrast established between ideas of timeless landscapes stripped back to bare elements, against 'the hurricane of progress' – ebooks, climate change, space ships.

I was working for an independent publisher at the time of writing 'Going On'. A friend - who also worked in the book industry - and I were laughing about the fact that we'd both probably be out of jobs in a year or two because no one wanted to read books nowadays and if they did, they'd be reading ebooks. 'Piss off ebooks,' my friend joked. It was a moment of desperation, tinged with humour, a feeling that the future had no place for us and our desires. If there was a definitive moment of genesis to the poem, I think that was it. To contrast with the idea of the wizz-bang future, most of the imagery is quite elemental and references nature. The idea for hurricanes, blustering sand and the pebble being tossed across the water came from nowhere in particular but I guess they took hold of my imagination because they play with ideas of solidity and fragmentation, things which are forever and things which are melting and ineffable and intangible. Lots of paradoxical and contrary notions which are fun to play with.

 

One of the things that's very striking about this poem is how visual it is, and the way that structure effects your reading of it. How important do you think the visual element of writing is?

Lot's of my poetry, and poetry in general, deals with abstract concerns. When you're working with such cerebral material my instinct is to tie it down and anchor it to something more tangible and solid. Using strong, vivid imagery is a nice way of doing this.

 

You've worked previously with the Small Press Network and now you're working as the Development Officer with the Emerging Writers Festival (EWF). Both of those organisations are at the heart of Australia's evolving literary culture. What kind of effect do you think these organisations are having?

I've just finished up with EWF, but that's the nature of working for smallish arts festivals. However, I'm still very connected to the literary community that gravitates around the festival and on a larger scale, the community orbiting The Wheeler Centre. Working in 'the hub' of literary activity has been a wonderful and affirming experience for me and I have witnessed first-hand, many positive trends in the independent publishing scene. Over the last five years it seems to me that the quality of big, mass-culture products seems to become more distant and diluted, while the quality of niche and independent culture seems to become stronger and in many ways, more fierce. It's too easy to become disheartened by the brute force of mass culture. Although, some days I do give in to the feeling that terrible action-movies and terribly written erotic fiction and terrible TV are taking over the universe and swallowing up all the cultural territory in their wake. But that is simply not the case; people are still reading and buying and loving poetry, niche fiction, humour writing, long-form non-fiction about all sorts of other crazy things. Do these 'niche' literary creations shift as many units as the latest J K Rowling or cunningly marketed Scandinavian Crime-Thriller? No – and they probably never will, but I don't think we should expect them to. If you don't conflate economic value with cultural value I think it's easier to feel more positive about emerging writers and the independent literary scene. Publishing faces some very real challenges in the coming decade but the independents are as best placed as any to grapple with these and emerge victorious. If organisations like SPN, EWF and The Wheeler Centre continue to promote independent writing and the critical conversation around it, support emerging writers, connect writers with one another and connect writers with passionate new audiences hungry for quality, independent material, then I feel very optimistic about the future of Australia's literary life.

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