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Centre for Stories

Short Talks – Susan Midalia

"I’ve seen emerging writers nurtured by the belief of other people. I’ve continued to learn that people are gloriously different. I’ve experienced pleasure, frustration, surprise, pride, and the therapeutic effects of laughter."

August 31, 2019

So many good people interact with us online and walk through our doors at the Centre for Stories, and so we’re pretty proud of the little community we’ve grown. Collaborations often turn into comradeships and patrons become friends. Short Talks is a series of interviews highlighting the remarkable people who have connected with us at the Centre for Stories. Some are writers, poets, and storytellers, and others are arts workers, community leaders, and small business owners.

We invite you to get to know our friends a little more.

What has brought you to the Centre for Stories—what are your motivations or ambitions for your continued collaboration with us?

I was initially attracted by the events at the Centre committed to cultural and sexual diversity; it was something quite new and exciting in the Perth artistic community. I became more actively involved when, as the author of three collections of short stories, I was invited to join the organising committee for the inaugural Australian Short Story Festival (ASSF), held at the Centre and other Perth venues, in 2016. Since then I’ve been involved in a range of wonderful activities at the Centre: mentoring emerging writers; running workshops for marginalised people who wish to write their stories; running workshops for teachers of creative writing; chairing the 2018 ASSF; telling my own story about growing up as a child of migrants; having my first novel launched at the Centre; and becoming a member of PEN Perth. I want to continue to work at this vibrant, inclusive place for a whole raft of reasons. Because it gives me, as an experienced writer, editor and teacher, the opportunity to help emerging, enthusiastic writers refine their craft. Because I enjoy the contact with diverse people united in their belief that writing and telling their stories helps to create a more respectful and compassionate society. Because the staff is welcoming and supportive, professional, and a whole lot of fun. Because the physical environment is comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. All those books on the walls! The photographs. The inviting spaces. There are also pragmatic, if not self-interested, reasons for being involved. Working at the Centre helps to raise my profile as a writer, and it provides me with an income.

I’m particularly interested in continuing my mentoring work, because the intensity of one-on-one sessions, and the opportunity to develop a sympathetic working relationship over time, is a really productive way to help a new writer. I would also like to run more workshops for aspiring writers and teachers of creative writing. I’m open to trying new things, such as working with disabled people, or with children. Finally – and what follows is said without a trace of hyperbole or false flattery – I want to keep working with the inspiring Caroline Wood, the Centre’s co-Director. She is generous to new writers and voices of difference; her ideas are inventive and imaginative; she listens respectfully to people’s experiences and ideas; she makes strenuous efforts to secure new sources of funding; she’s not into ego or the trappings of power; she’s always open to trying something new; and she helps to make the community a better place. Caroline doesn’t just walk the talk about diversity and difference; she marches, gallops, jumps hurdles that get in the way of her vision. I couldn’t think of a better person to work with.  She and her husband John, co-Director of the Centre and equally energetic in his commitment to making things work, are legends!

What did you take away from your experience here?

I’ve experienced the joys of collaboration and helping other writers improve their craft. I’ve been moved by the growing confidence of young people faced with difficult, sometimes traumatic, experiences, as they begin to find their voice. I’ve seen emerging writers nurtured by the belief of other people. I’ve continued to learn that people are gloriously different. I’ve experienced pleasure, frustration, surprise, pride, and the therapeutic effects of laughter. I’ve also acquired new skills in my role as chairperson of the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival, including helping to write detailed grant applications and contracts, liaising with writers from around Australia, and planning a program. (This role also taught me the value of patience, in which I am sadly deficient, and the need to curb my use of expletives.) I’ve been heartened by the continuing success of the Centre in an increasingly competitive market for the arts, and in a culture that often values people in terms of dollars and cents instead of for their creativity.

How have your experiences with teaching informed your story writing or artistic process?

Teaching creative writing is a wonderful way to hone your analytical and self-editing skills. As the saying has it: “You don’t have to be a good writer, but you must be an excellent self-editor.” I often give participants short writing exercises that deal with common weaknesses such as overwriting, clichéd writing, laboured explanations and inadvertently comic metaphors, all of which reinforce my belief that a writer must pay attention to every word on the page. The fact that I’m often not very good at what I ask my students to do – write something interesting and engaging on the spot – reminds me that, as a writer, I work best when I have lots of reflective time. But there’s almost always a detail I might work on later: an image, a sentence, an idea, a single word. As well, hearing other people’s writing in workshops reminds me that we should never compare; that people have different styles and modes, different strengths and weaknesses. People in workshops often give me suggestions for reading, too; and reading is, of course, the best way to learn about the many wondrous possibilities of story and language. Teaching a group of motivated people also returns me to the reasons why I write: for pleasure, to provoke thought, to try to make sense of that unruly, sometimes vexatious, sometimes ecstatic thing called life. Or make no sense at all. Conversely, teaching indifferent and/or lazy students (I’ve had this experience teaching at university level), reminded me of the value of humility, and why we must read if we want to be better writers. It also gave me some great material for a satiric story about the ethically dubious nature of some university creative writing courses.

You recently led a teacher’s workshop at the Centre focusing on short story and poetry writing. What was the most rewarding aspect of this event for you?

May I be permitted two rewarding experiences? One was witnessing the unwavering commitment of teachers to help their students improve their writing. They genuinely cared about everyone, from the verbally deft to the semi-literate. One teacher in fact left her job at a high-achieving, merit-select school in order to work with disaffected students. She wanted a challenge, she said, and she didn’t boast about it either. My second “reward” was being reminded of the value of collaborative learning, in a system that typically rewards competitiveness and “winning”. The teachers in this workshop taught each other, and me, how to tackle two important issues in the classroom. One involved sharing strategies to help creatively adventurous students avoid being penalised by ill-informed teachers and assessors. Penalising students who write non-linear or elliptical stories, for example, or poetry that doesn’t use “poetic” language is, it seems, a not uncommon event in high schools. The second problem was at the other end of the scale: how to motivate the unmotivated. My experience of this is confined to the aforementioned university students; but while I initially tried to enthuse them by metaphorically hanging naked from the ceiling while reciting Beat poetry, I ultimately took the view that they were adults who had chosen to enrol in the course, and who needed to take some responsibility for their learning. Call me old-fashioned. It’s much tougher for teachers in “tough” secondary schools, particularly now that creative writing is a compulsory part of the English syllabus. Teachers in my group shared their strategies for motivating the unmotivated, and everyone found them useful. One example was setting a timer for five minutes, and asking a student to write something – anything – in that time. Even a single word could be built on. I’ll certainly be using the teachers’ ideas on how to prod/cajole/gently bludgeon the reluctant or unconfident writer in a classroom.

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