Paying attention: the writer’s superpower

I began to wonder why the verb that goes with ‘attention’ is ‘to pay’. Is it a debt? A duty? A tax? An outlay of energy? Work seems to be involved in the phrase, or perhaps sacrifice. And what do we get back, if we pay it?

Helen Garner

Helen Garner’s reflections on her writing life – featured in this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival – were as welcome as could be to this HG-starved aspiring author. Immersing myself in the writing life of other writers feels like relaxing back into a warm bath. These are my people.

Helen Garner - one of Australia's leading writers - in a Melbourne Writers Festival publicity shot

The delightful Elizabeth Strout – in conversation with Kate Torney – let us into her inner world. She spoke about the genesis of the one-of-a-kind Olive Kitteridge. Olive popped up one evening while Strout was stacking the dishwasher – she may have even appeared inside the dishwasher – saying ‘It’s high time everyone left’. Such an Olive thing to say.

Elizabeth Strout was exactly as I hoped she’d be.

She was whimsical, kind, insightful, invested in her characters. She had a complete disregard for hair, make up and colour-coded bookcases. Her bookcase looked like mine, with some books sitting horizontally on top of others and manila folders shoved in any old how. And just over her left shoulder was an open window through which a glimpse of midsummer Maine greenery was visible. It spoke to me of gentle sea breezes and white picket fences beyond. Yet this was a woman could write a sentence.

Elizabeth Strout - one of the USA's leading fiction writers - leans against the open doorway of her home
Credit: DARIO LASAGNI

She always played his song because whenever she saw him, it was like moving into a pocket of warm air.

Elizabeth Strout Olive Kitteridge

And she could create a character like Olive Kitteridge out of her dishwasher – fully formed and utterly believable, for all her eccentricities. Strout was a woman who paid attention.

She puts me in mind of another of my favourite authors.

Cate Kennedy – whose short stories both inspire and prevent me from trying my hand at short form fiction – sets a similarly impossibly high bar. She has paid attention: her stories resonate with many readers who recognise their own lives on the page. In Dark Roots, her 2006 collection of short stories, she wrote about the end of a marriage.

Passing each other in the hall we might as well have been two strangers on the bus, standing to let the other pass with a brittle courtesy that made me know it was finally over.

Cate Kennedy Dark Roots

I met her at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in 2008. I asked her how it was she had been sitting on my shoulder throughout the final stages of my own marriage. She signed a copy of her book ‘To Elizabeth, Best of luck with your writing’. I have referred to it whenever I felt the urge to have another go at her specialty. Re-reading excerpts from it now, I can feel that urge and this time I’m not going to have a lie down until it passes.

Signed copy of Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy - one of Australia's leading short story writers.
Credit: ELIZABETH QUINN

I have finally lived long enough to understand that fear of failure should not be a reason to stop me from attempting something I really want to do. That writing and learning from other writers are the things that give me happiness even in this time of pandemic, and that I can be happy even in lockdown. To be anything other than grateful would be churlish. 

I kept thinking, can it be that I’m happy? Is a woman of my age allowed to be happy, when the world outside her window is going to hell in a handbasket?

Helen Garner August 2020

2 thoughts on “Paying attention: the writer’s superpower

  1. I really enjoyed the Elizabeth Stout interview too. I haven’t read the second Olive book yet. I loved the first despite or because of Olive! One of the great characters of fiction!

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