Today in brief: We spoke to writer and digital producer Elmo Keep about how to be a writer and make a living (it's tricky and involves work other than writing), why not to read university canon texts you don't enjoy, and what to do on those days where you're staring into the void and the words aren't coming.
Elmo Keep is a writer and broadcaster whose non-fiction work has appeared in places like The Awl, the Age, Meanjin, the Big Issue and The Rumpus. She was a writer/producer on three series of ABC TV’s Hungry Beast, was digital media producer with Zapruder’s Other Films and works currently as digital producer on the feature film, Kath & Kimderella, in Melbourne. Elmo’s first book-length work of non-fiction will be published by Scribe in 2014.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Not counting scintillating copy I filed in the high school newspaper re: changes to the tuck shop menu, an indignant missive in the Rolling Stone letters section detailing Moby’s crimes against music, printed when I was 18. Very proud of you, younger self! (On both counts.)
What’s the best part of your job?
When everything comes together on a story. Supportive editors. Talking shop with other writers. When you write something that connects with people and they get in touch to let you know. It doesn’t happen all that often but it’s the single biggest thing which motivates me to write.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The days when nothing comes, or it does but it’s a horrifying struggle that makes you feel like it might abandon you altogether one day. I would rather stare into the void on days like that but I’ve found that getting out of the house and doing something physical is much more helpful. That, and chasing invoices for work you’ve already done and which has been published. There aren’t many other industries where the workers would stand being treated like that, but writers do. They shouldn’t.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Signing a book deal with Scribe and being taken on by the Naher Agency. Two huge things which happened one on top of the other earlier this year.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best advice is what everyone gives, which is to read voraciously. I once had a great teacher at university who warned us off reading any canon texts we didn’t enjoy. I think that was really smart advice to young writers; to read what really turns you on, not what you feel like you should be reading. There is a whole lifetime to get into difficult books that you will appreciate a lot more from the perspective of later life, I think. It’s about being inspired, not necessarily being classically learned, when you’re young.
Bad advice? Probably someone who once told me it was fine to go cold and unprepared into an interview with a subject. NEVER, EVER do that.
Everything else is covered in this great list from the Atlantic.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
I try and not read about myself, so I don’t know. If you have a Google alert for your name set up, turn it off now unless you have disposable cash for therapy.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I don’t make a living from writing, so I am doing those other things which is working in television production as a digital media producer. The money I earn from writing is just gravy money, because it’s usually quite small amounts and a lot of publications are pretty lax in terms of paying on time.
I work at other jobs to pay the bills, which is something that really works for me twofold: I never waste the time that I do have for writing, and I get a lot out of being around people. It’s the most important thing for a non-fiction writer to understand other people’s lives. It can be a pretty short path to becoming self-absorbed if all you ever do is sit at your computer all day, which is the opposite way to be for someone who wants to connect with people through their writing.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
It can definitely be improved, I think, when someone points out your flaws to you. You can pick up some tools that will give you perspective for specific things, like if you’re blocked and how to get around it. I’m not sure why this is such an impassioned debate. If people want to spend their time and money learning and being with other writers, I don’t see that there is any harm in it whatsoever. It’s about getting outside of yourself and classes can be a great avenue for that.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
You have to be disciplined, that’s the first thing. It’s not about sitting and waiting for inspiration to strike you, it’s work. You have to do it every day. If you are talking about being a full-time freelancer, you have to have a very specific temperament for that, which if you don’t have will make your professional life a struggle. You have to sell yourself, constantly, that is basically the job of a freelancer. I’m too slow a writer to do that now, it takes me a long time to come up with ideas and then even longer to execute them.
Have something else that will pay the bills that won’t take up your whole life: part-time teaching, research assisting, copywriting, all of these things pay well and will contribute to your skills as a writer. Don’t be above a day job. If I get to the point one day where writing pays all my bills again (I freelanced full-time in my twenties) I will obviously be thrilled, but I’m also reasonably happy in my work life and I think that’s an achievement.
Poverty is a great impediment to doing the work you want to do, especially if you need to travel to interview people, file FOIs, pay for transcribing and all the other things that go into non-fiction writing. It can also make you resentful of your life choices when your sense of self is eroded by your bank balance. You need to strike a balance between paying work and doing the writing you love. For me, I’m working full-time at the moment this year to buy a whole year off next year to write my book. Literally every minute I spend at work now is buying those minutes next year, so it’s very worth it for me to do that.
And have at least one story in you that you’re so desperate to tell that you would do it for nothing.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I am terrible but I’m digital all the way. The convenience is INSANE. We have reached peak laziness. It’s really, really bad for impulse buying, ‘buy with one-click’. I read even more than I used to though, on account of that convenience (like the rest of Gen Y). Some people find it distracting, but I love the deep-linking in e-books, and being able to look up definitions instantly. I love seeing the parts that other people have highlighted, it’s like finding library books with notes in the margins. Our bookshelves at home are rapidly becoming an installation piece with no function.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
Miss Amelia at the Sad Cafe, because she is a woman of such deep self-reserves. I would travel both spatially and through time to the American South, too. Carson McCullers was very affecting to me when I read her books in high school, the scenes and smells, the sticky air are all so vivid, the sense of place still looms large in my imagination. And this cafe was extremely popular! I want to try the gravy biscuits and talk about the meaning of love.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Reasons To Live, the collection of Amy Hempel’s short stories. To read this book is to read a collection with not a single redundant sentence, let alone word, in it. There are such agonising levels of discipline at work to achieve that, it’s mind-bending, but it reads as total effortlessness. There is a reason why ‘In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ is one of the most anthologised short stories ever written. It’s devastating. I never tire of re-reading it.
Elmo Keep will be publishing a series of interviews with Australian writers for the Wheeler Centre’s Dailies in late 2012 and early 2013. Watch this space.
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