Essay: Romy AshRose Michaelon talking writing

A Third Space: Giving voice to works in progress

This essay is in conversation with ‘Streaming Together: Audiobooks as shared reading‘ by Linda Daley and Brigid Magner.

Especially since the arrival of the global pandemic, we have had to reconsider what it means to be present for – and to – one another as writerly peers. For mid-career novelists with complex lives like us, this has meant rethinking what a ‘group’ is and what being part of one might mean: must we be physically present? Could we develop asynchronous practices that retained the intimacy of face-to-face interaction? This essay shares our collective experience, from articulating what we wanted from a writing group, to experimenting with different approaches to being together, and finally to adopting audio recordings – a specific type of ‘talk’ giving voice to our novels in progress – as our preferred method and reflecting on possible reasons for that. We developed this way of being together at a moment, post lockdowns, when it was again legal to meet in person. With more than one person. Many writer-reader groups pivoted online during the pandemic; our experience is part of that story, a reaction to it. Talking online using video chat platforms took energy; it was exhausting. The audio recording as ‘talk’ was surprisingly intimate and allowed us to connect collectively as our worlds opened back up. As creatives working on long-form sole-authored books, we are committed to the possibilities of the collective. No solitary geniuses here! We all need someone – or some ones – to wash the sheets, shop for coffee, make the soup, feed the birds. 

George Saunders is right, talking about writing isn’t writing, but we have found that talking about novels that aren’t (yet) is ‘productive’ (sceptical as we are of that value, we are still professional authors with livelihoods to sustain), generative, and offers a gift of sharp focus. 

Writers commonly speak about their writing in two contexts: in a workshop with other writers; and at the end of the publishing journey, at festivals and author talks addressing readers. (Of course, writers are also readers, and readers also write; both these contexts include many writer-reader-researcher-teachers, but in general the audiences are seen in these ways.) In a workshop, a writer is often silent, and effort is put into separating the work from the writer. The conversation revolves around the writing. Is it working? How could it work better? Participants are often advised to ‘address the work’, and feedback is phrased, in line with sound editing principles, in terms of ‘the reader might think/feel/find …’ In the infamous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a writer must listen; the response to feedback usually comes in the form of rewriting. The next draft may answer the questions and queries raised. (Or the writer may not bring their work – or themselves – back.) This model has been our general experience of receiving feedback, as writers of novels and short stories and essays and articles, and as convenors of workshops within and outside the university environment. (It might be worth noting, though, that this has not been our experience as jobbing journos, where ‘workshopping’ takes place on the page, via a one-on-one text-based back-and-forth between author and editor. In that exchange the editor explicitly represents the ideal reader, as Mandy Brett sets out in ‘Stet by Me’.)  

The other common context for writers to come together and speak about their work is during the promotional period immediately following a work’s publication. At writers festivals (the absence of a possessive apostrophe recognises the fact that while ‘writers’ describes the festival, they do not own it) the author is there as the mouthpiece for the work. The novel is finished, done, published. It’s a perfect golden thing – or as perfect as it’s ever going to get. Done, anyway. In these contexts, which, let’s not forget, are designed to sell books (helped by a sense of connection between reader and writer, author and narrator), the difficult process of novel writing is spoken about retrospectively, if at all. There is no longer any creative uncertainty, fear of failure is forgotten, the messiness inherent (for us) in writing long-form fiction is likely lost – though some of that messiness may appear at the bar or over the breakfast buffet.  

These familiar, naturalised ways of speaking about the work of writing and the work itself (the works themselves) miss the actual process and practice of writing. We wondered: was there another way to come together, as writer-readers? To be present for one another during the long period of time between sharing a draft and speaking performatively about a finished work? As we struggled out of Melbourne’s long lockdowns, without a finished book under our belts, or a festival bar or breakfast buffet in sight, we wondered how to talk about the practice of writing – outside the formal framework of study, or a workshop-based writers group. The isolation of those COVID years – which are not over – impacted our practice in ways we were not (possibly are not) yet able to process. We emerged suspicious of old models and yet drawn to seek out other novelists. We dared to ponder: what if we never shared work at all? We didn’t want to read drafts. We didn’t want what we were doing to feel like more work. What if, instead, we shared the work around writing at the time of its making, embracing an idea of collective, community care that could hold us, as writers, and our unformed works? What might that sort of ‘talk’ look like?

And so we two, and then four and then six, began a ‘writing’ ‘group’, a creative practice ‘research’ group that didn’t share work (though we do share books and articles to read), that didn’t write (together, or sometimes at all), that barely even met (never online, we swore). Where we work is more like a laboratory than an office – even if it is actually at a kitchen table, or walking, or on the couch with a snoring dog on our laps. Individually, we write. Think. Together we talk, reflect, sharing our findings (as we are doing here) in the hope of contributing to others’ knowledge and, perhaps, in some way furthering our own. 

An ‘early career researcher’, Rose returned to campus life after two years of homeschooling deeply missing the collegiality she remembered. Where was everybody? Had she romanticised a pre-COVID sense of community? Was it because she’d finished her PhD and no longer had a supervisor and first reader with whom she’d built a decade-long mentoring relationship? Coupled with this lack was the constant, increasing pressure to maintain a significant publication output. In a discipline – and institutional setting – that favours (or, we would argue, falsely lauds) solitary endeavour (privileging single-authored works and prioritising first-named authors), where could she find the support she needed to maintain and sustain her creative practice?  

She turned to a dear intervarsity peer she’d taught with prior to and then during lockdowns, who pointed out that academia has always been challenging for women –especially for creative practitioners working on long-form projects. As Ann Cvetkovich notes in Depression: A Public Feeling (written in 2012 but even more relevant today), the ‘forms of productivity demanded by the academic sphere of the professional managerial class’ can make it ‘especially hard to justify creative or individualised intellectual work, and teaching or administration may feel more concrete than pursuing creative thought’. The situation had only worsened with COVID; many have written about how female academics were disproportionately affected by the pandemic in terms of employment and research productivity.

It may be no accident that the first members of NovelLab were mothers. Many of our early conversations concerned similarities between the long game of parenting and guiding a novel to publication – alongside more practical concerns about the necessity (or challenge) of changing one’s art to fit one’s time. Realising we needed time and space for us, and our books, we applied for grants and began articulating what we were trying to do, to be, as an explicitly collective writing practice. Fundamentally opposed to Romantic notions of novel writing as a solitary activity, we had firm ideas, from our professional publishing experience(s), that writing was never entirely an independent production but always a collaboration – and we weren’t just talking about with publishers and editors, but with partners and peers, parents and children. The world around us. Novels are not written only, exclusively, or even often in garrets. Many authors – like us, as we discovered – do not do well working in isolation.

The first two members of our newly formed Lab reached out to two other writer-academics with whom we’d taught creative writing. We had a familiar language, an established practice – not of sharing our own work, but of talking about how to work – in a pedagogical environment that was supportive, inclusive, and prioritised experimentation. For years, as a small team comprising a coordinator, lecturer and tutors, we had discussed how books worked in the world. It needed only a tweak to turn this conversation towards how books could be made to work on the world. Was it a coincidence that two of us had recently commenced creative-practice PhDs? We invited two more higher-degree researchers to join. The conversation shifted from strategies for supporting students to how we might better support our own creative endeavours. Where previously we had shared teaching challenges and workarounds, now we shared professional and personal ambitions, failures – not failures, according to Thomas Edison’s famous admonishment, but the myriad ways novels, our novel, succeeded in not working – writing process(es), readings: the stuff of a writing life. We learnt about each other’s works in progress incidentally, as context for and outcomes of these conversations.   

We never engaged directly with each other’s manuscripts – was that because we didn’t have time? Energy? Could it have been a semi-conscious strategy formed from those student workshops that hadn’t worked online? We had become increasingly aware of criticisms levelled at the Iowa model, but also we were working, we were studying, we were caring for others and ourselves. And, honestly, during and just after COVID, some of us weren’t doing that much writing that we could talk about. We talked about practice. We talked and talked and talked about process. How had we written our other books? Where had they come from? When did it, we, go wrong? What had or hadn’t we tried? We talked about making and not making. About aiming at one thing and sometimes doing something utterly other. About intentions: making them, having good intentions (one of us even minuted our intentions), about how the very word knotted another one of us up inside. We came together to check in and began to realise that until we did, until we reported back to each other, sometimes we didn’t know how we were going. We learnt where we were at by hearing what we said. The group itself began to hold our goals.

NovelLab was working. NovelLab was our witness. 

This collective witnessing became more obvious once we began to share audio recordings. We were surprised to find, listening to the audio records we sent each other, that they retained the feeling of a ‘real’ meeting: the voice carried much of the body, but the recordings also had a heightened intimacy. There was something about the collective listening process, and the deep thinking pause (for writer/speaker and fellow-writer/listener) this allowed, that felt revelatory and wildly joyful. What a gorgeous feeling, listening to another writer talk about their work.

A novelist might imagine a generalised audience, but each reader experiences a novel as if addressed directly. Each reading experience is unique to an individual reader. It is in the ‘third space’ (a term used by Randall Packer to describe online, collective, co-created spaces) created by our audio records that the group ‘meets’ one another today. The audio record addresses the collective but is received singly. The listener is directly, bodily, engaged through the process of active listening. There is something about listening that fixes the memory of the embodied voice in time and place. 

Walking along the Merri Creek, past Pentridge, past the eel run and the bin chicken island where the rocks of Merri Merri (‘rocky rocky’ in Woi-wurrung language) are obvious and beautiful, in among the bobbing rubbish, and the plastic bags caught and shredded, flapping in the creek-side brush. It is here Romy remembers listening to Leanne in her headphones, talking about a short story she was writing where a character literally catches fire from playing jazz so hot the sound itself combusts. Each time Romy walks along this part of the creek, Leanne’s story returns, a haunting of sorts, and Romy remembers again not just the story, but the timbre of Leanne’s voice, the sound of her fellow novelist’s dog snoring beside her. 

Rose remembers walking around Sydney, fresh from a reader’s feedback, feeling overwhelmed but hearing how practical, professional, she sounded as she reported back to the group. Feeling not the impossibility of the task ahead, but a sense of what was actually possible. Realising this not just because of what she said, but how she said it.  

Romy runs down a steep switchback, fallen wattle blooms turning the pathway yellow on a winter afternoon, listening to talk about wind farms. She will remember this every time she runs that way. 

We had aimed to retain the intimacy of face-to-face interaction in the third space of our audio records, but there was something unexpectedly even more intimate about where we found ourselves. The audio was transportive, the background noise not background but vivid and immersive: the snores of the dog; the huffing as one of us walked to work recording on the way; the dark sounds of an early morning truck collecting garbage as a writer sat with coffee recording before children woke; the chop chop chop of onion and garlic against the board; suburban birds; beach birds; a cacophony of budgerigars tweeting in a work-at-home office. In our audio records the writing life that is vividly expressed through these background noises is not solitary. Our creative lives are embedded, not separate to living and caring and being in the world. As Ursula K Le Guin says in Text, Silence, Performance (1986), ‘I began to wonder why I had to work in silence all my life as if I were writing in a giant library with a giant librarian always going ssssshhhhhh’. We were not silent writers any longer.  

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose writes: ‘In life, it’s rare that we truly are able to listen and find someone who will listen to us. And yet it’s unusual to find the more common phenomenon – inattention – appearing on the page. Generally, in fiction, one character speaks, and the other listens, and, having listened and understood, replies’. Yet in the audio records we found ourselves mirroring this fictional way of speaking; we were truly able to listen and, having listened and understood, to reply. The common phenomenon of distraction was absent. The focus on auditory processing sharpened our attention. There was something about the pause between listening and replying that deepened our musings. Threads were carried and passed from writer to writer as we spoke into and around and, eventually, about this third space. Our words/thoughts reading/writing works/working entangled with one another’s. 

Sometimes within a single audio record a writer would talk themselves all the way around to a different position. If we had been in a room together, we would likely have joined in, taken up space, talked to and over, the first idea – the energy of conversation moving us differently. In such a discussion, the speaker often doesn’t have the chance to talk themselves out, to finish such a thought – or even a sentence. The workshop snowballs. Agreement? Disagreement? This is the joy of hanging out, of course, but for writers practising together, and speaking about practice, the space provided by the audio record allowed for a different sort of talk. Though our recordings functioned differently to a diary or a journal, modes of writing not usually intended for readers, they became similarly confessional: as revealing of the self, to the self, as those other media can be. 

Audio recordings, audio records, aren’t podcasts, but much of the scholarly writing around podcasting can be used to help explain why listening to them is so affecting and generative. Mia Lindgren in Personal Narrative Journalism and Podcasting (2016) says, ‘By listening to detailed personal experiences of “others”, listeners become connected to the people whose stories they share’. Lindgren argues that ‘the movement towards personal narratives (in podcasting and radio) is intrinsically linked to the intimate nature of the audio medium’, ‘a medium privileging sound and the human voice’. Jonah Weiner also talks about the form’s ‘special sense of intimacy and even its erotics’ in ‘The Voices: Towards a critical theory of podcasting’ (2014). We have stumbled upon a relevant, rewarding, and recommended practice.

In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1976) Le Guin writes, ‘The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.’ She continues: ‘Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage. (They also have a sound – a fact the linguistic positivists take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect.)’ This paradox, which captures so well the difficulties of writing fiction, is not often quoted in full to include Le Guin’s thoughts on sound: that a sentence might more easily be understood by an attentive ear than an attentive intellect. What does it mean to listen? 

It’s the breath, it’s the feeling, it’s the body. It takes time to say something; it takes time to listen. And in that time, there is the opportunity to be changed. To change. NovelLab is not a virtual or online writing group. It is a third space where we convene.

‘The voice note is not just a method of communication,’ says Penni, ‘it is phenomenological. It doesn’t just reflect process, it is process. It is a “thinking aloud” protocol, in which we are engaging in the creative act of meaning making. Through the act of speaking (to each other and to ourselves) we test the edges of what we know and don’t know about our novels in progress and about the way we work.’ NovelLab, our audio recordings – they mean holding one another and one another’s work, experiencing the process of writing novels alongside one another. Collectively righting the Romantic myth of writing in isolation.

NovelLab is Romy Ash, Leanne Hall, Rose Michael, Kate Mildenhall, Nicola Redhouse, Penni Russon. 

Published July 3, 2023
Part of The Collective: In this third series of jointly commissioned essays, the SRB and non/FictionLab have brought writers together to help revitalise our ways of being and thinking in the collective. All The Collective essays →
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