My Path Through the Forest (Sydney Writers Festival)

Thank you NSW Writers’ Centre and Sydney Writers’ Festival for inviting me to speak at the Forest for the Trees day on Thursday 17th May 2012. This is the first blog post about the day and a fascinating one for all writers and aspiring writers.

(The session and author information below comes directly from the Sydney Writers’ Festival program)

My Path Through the Forest

“A writer’s life entails much more than just getting words on the page. Author, publisher and journalist Sophie Cunningham takes us through what she will be doing in 2012.”

Sophie Cunningham has worked in publishing for 25 years. She is course director for the Faber Academy in Melbourne and is a founding board member of the Stella Prize. She is the author of two novels, Geography and Bird, and the non-fiction, Melbourne. Her third novel (in progress), This Devastating Fever, is about Leonard Woolf’s years in Sri Lanka. She’s currently writing a non-fiction book on Cyclone Tracy and extreme weather.


I’ve been in publishing as long as Sophie and we’re about the same age so you would perhaps think that I’ve read some of her books. Very importantly to me she’s also been a driving force behind the Stella Prize. I’m ashamed to say that to date I haven’t. However because this year I’m reading books by Australian Women Writers I’ve just downloaded Geography now and will start reading tonight!

In case you haven’t heard: Sophie Cunningham has just been announced as new Chairwoman of the Australia Council Literature Board!

Some notes from Sophie Cunningham’s session:

  • Sophie really explained to the audience what life is like as a writer. How it’s hard to earn an income from writing and how she achieves that through a combination of writing, teaching, speaking and even doing walking tours of Melbourne as a result of her latest book!
  • I loved hearing how sometimes ‘research’ can be a form of procrastination, putting off the actual writing.
  • She explained how it can be difficult to write when you don’t have the time to write. Yet the fact you need to earn a living can take away from that time. She gained the confidence to write full-time because she landed a regular newspaper column that paid the rent, but these are harder to find these days.
  • Signing up with a speakers agency has worked for Sophie because it’s not making a commitment for a whole year. You can work for part of the year and then step back in order to concentrate on writing.
  • Sophie believes writers do need to be engaged with social media but acknowledges that she spends less time on it when writing to avoid having six hours sucked out of her day!
  • Always knowing she wanted to be a writer she set an internal deadline of being published by the time she was 40 – and that was the year that Geography was published. Interestingly enough she feels that she didn’t have enough to say when she was young, although she had a lot of angst. She acknowledges that there are a lot of great young writers but doesn’t think she would have been one of them!
  • She finds non-fiction faster to produce than fiction (perhaps 2 years v’s 5) and although she is also partway through a novel Sophie is following her agent’s advice that this isn’t the time to publish it. Sophie is currently working on a non-fiction book about Cyclone Tracy and finds working on her obsessions a great way to find a subject.
  • Sophie’s birthday is on Boxing Day and she had memories of unrolling the paper that day and seeing the devastation of Darwin. It is funny how the memory can play tricks though because when  researching the book she discovered that front page image was actually three days after Cyclone Tracy.
  • One troubling fact about the Cyclone? She discovered that when the authorities were doing a count of those missing or dead after the Cyclone they didn’t count the indigenous population or hippies. How many really did perish?

Sophie Cunningham finished up this brilliant session with two pieces of advice:

  1. “If you want a life of the mind you can’t lose track of your physical life.”  If your job isn’t physical, you need to find a way to be physical (or your back will go by 40!)
  2. “Find a way to write a book that is true to you, your process and who you are. Something that works with the person you are. Find a form that speaks to you and do it and practice it.”

You can read more about Sophie Cunningham on her website and her Twitter handle is @sophiec – although her account is protected!

Part Two of my blog about the day can be found here.

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