In she strode, begumbooted and beponchoed, red-lipsticked and bombastic. I’d seen Catherine Deveny speak before—about her novel The Happiness Show—and I was there for a dose of dynamite-under-the-bum-for-I-wanna-writers. Here was a woman who claims dyslexia and 1000+ columns for The Age in the same breath. A woman who says she bought a house relatively close to the city with her earnings from writing. If she can do it, can anyone? If so, how? Well, that’s what around 20 of we I-wanna-writers were there on Saturday to find out.
Backtrack: I remember reading Deveny’s columns years ago. I found them brazen, offensive and utterly, utterly addictive. I was brought up on a steady diet of toe-the-line, live-up-to-expectations, don’t-rock-the-boat and try-to-be-nice. I can’t remember the exact contents of her columns, save that they were on the back page of the Saturday supplement, but I do remember snorting, guffawing, gasping and exclaiming ‘You can’t say that!’ many, many times. This woman was pushing every boundary, crossing every line and being published for it. Remarkable.
Fast forward to 2013. My local library was promoting a literary calendar of author talks and I noticed that Deveny was one of the speakers, promoting her new novel. I RSVPed for me and my mum. After the talk:
Me: What did you think, Mum?
Mum: Well, she was certainly…confident.
Even though Mum stated it under a veil of there’s-a-load-I’m-not-saying, Deveny’s confidence was the hook for me. I want me some o’ that, I thought. Confidence has never been a problem for me, in general, but opening up about my writing, especially as I’m getting older, has been challenging for me. Am I good enough? What does ‘good enough’ even mean, anyway? Deveny’s baseline M.O. is who gives a fuck what anyone else thinks anyway?
I read The Happiness Show. Let’s be honest—I wanted to see for myself whether this brazen, funny columnist could turn out a decent novel. It was a cracking story and Deveny displayed a particular talent for dialogue and a realistic litany of cultural references. I liked it. By jingoes, she can write! thought I.
Fast forward to 2014. Last Saturday, to be precise. The City of Monash put on a writing workshop with Catherine Deveny as part of its (frankly, awesome) yearly WordFest calendar of events. I was there to soak up some of that overflowing confidence and do some writing exercises to get my imagination firing.
Her first comments to everyone were in the vein of If you thought you needed to be a literary genius to write, well, you can just fuck off. No matter what your personal opinion is of Deveny’s style, the woman is nothing if not encouraging. Who cares if you can’t spell? Who cares if you don’t read? Who cares if it’s not going to be a literary masterpiece? Her advice is clear: just write. To write you need only three things, she says:
Well, shit. Even I can do that.
The five hours that followed were centred around Deveny sharing her wisdom on getting stuff done, writing through the crap parts (because you never know what will reveal itself directly after the crap parts), ignoring what anyone and everyone says about your writing, and taking part in fun writing exercises she seemingly made up on the spot. She spoke to everyone individually and offered any insights we might find helpful. The thing I liked best: that she looked you directly in the eye while she was talking to you. It made her words take on keener meaning and made it feel like her advice was more likely to stick.
For me, the top 3 takeaways from the day were:
1. When you’re doing nothing, make sure it’s the best possible kind of nothing.
2. Work hard and just write, dammit. (All writers, whether literary geniuses or dyslexics, have that in common.)
3. Attempt it (whatever ‘it’ is) as if you could not fail.
After the workshop, as I was leaving the building, Deveny was just ahead of me. She saw me out of the corner of her eye, stopped and turned to look me in the eye. “I can’t wait to read your children’s stories”, she said.
Catherine, I can’t wait for that either. Thanks so much for your unique brand of encouragement.
Special shout out to the City of Monash, especially Sandhya Burton, for putting on such a wonderful variety of literary events. I am thoroughly enjoying myself.