The ad was aimed directly at me, “you’re a writer but you’re not writing”. It was $275 for six hours to be locked in a room with Catherine Deveny and 11 fellow writer wannabes. We would learn how to sharpen our wit, get up close and personal with social media and in general, just get our writing motors running.
I was in between jobs (‘freelance consultant’, I like to say) so my time was my own. I handed over my credit card and flagged the day in my diary. Between signing up and the day of the class I got employed. Back to the routine of an office with a coffee machine and people to talk to. Thankfully my rent-paying life involves a hefty amount of writing so taking a day out to sharpen one’s skills in this area was an easy sell.
I’m sure they pictured some grammar-improving, sound-sentence-structure type deal that was run by the Centre for Adult Education. Not a day in the company of a woman who frequently uses my favourite ‘c word’ and once hoped 11-year-old Bindi Irwin would “get laid”.
Catherine Deveny is (was) an enigma to me. A prolific writer, educated, opinionated, entertaining, sassy and most importantly not afraid to be exactly who she is. While I don’t agree with everything she says (tweets) I do admire her chutzpah and her brand. I knew I’d like her and having spent a day in a room with her as Captain, I am 100% hooked.
I arrive at 9.15am for the 10am class. Not just because I’m an annoyingly punctual girly-swat but because I knew that I was going to need a good coffee to kick start my brain for the conversations ahead. When I get into our classroom for the day (The Monthly’s super slick so-not-bored room) I’m delighted to see two others already seated. I introduce myself; we make some small talk (I’m good like that).
Arranged neatly around the table are 12 bright red folders from the Monthly.
Inside are four articles. ‘Keith Waterhouse on weblogs?’ by Keith Waterhouse, ‘A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists’ by Tim Radford, ‘The ultimate guide to writing better than you normally do,’ by Colin Nissan (“think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals.”) and ‘Writing tips. Procrastination.’ by Catherine Deveny.
As we waited for our Captain these articles were read studiously by most in the room (following the obligatory greeting and smile before taking a seat). I was tweeting.
Then she arrives. In a splendid bluster of all bike-helmet and bike-friendly bags. “Hi, I’m Catherine. Shall I keep this on?” she asks referring to her helmet. Having clearly commuter-cycled to the Monthly’s so-hip-so-cool Collingwood office she immediately fires out “how did you get here?”
I wish I could put up my environmentally-friendly flag and respond with “rode all the way from Ballarat” but no. I remained quiet for fear of revealing my $80-a-tank four-wheel-drive parked in a $10 parking spot for the day. Later in the day she challenges me that I could in fact ride from home (Port Melbourne) to work (Hawthorn). The next thing out of her mouth is “I’m going to work you fucking hard today.”
I’ll take up the writing challenge but probably not the commuter-cycling one. Thanks. I’m a hair and make-up corporate type.
One of the first things I noticed about Dev (notice that I choose to refer to her as an old friend now) was how incredibly present she was. Very fucking present. Seemingly remembering important skerricks of information about each of us with ease. She interacted and coached everyone throughout the day.
Another thing I noticed very quickly was how easily she got off track. She’d make a point and then happily segue into a story of her teenage son’s teenage proclivities, or her days at the Age or her columns or her first novel (which is ‘so now’ when in fact she actually wrote the manuscript 10 years ago while breastfeeding in front of a fan in the heat of a Coburg summer).
And we hung off every word. If you don’t already know this, Catherine Deveny is a fabulous teller of stories. Mostly true, with a sprinkling of poetic license.
As she listened to us tell our tales of what we couldn’t but needed to write she’d intermittently scribble on her red folder using her black sharpie. “Sexing the chicken”, a point to come back to.
Of course she didn’t spend all day talking. We had to write. On paper with a pen. Something I haven’t done since my 1989 Matriculation English Exam (90%, in case you wondered). A laptop would have made life easier but our instruction from The Monthly was that a pen and notepad were all that was required. And like dutiful students we all complied. As it turned out, any electronic gadgetry would have been welcomed – a note for next time.
Our six hours were not only filled with –you know, actual writing – but also with her sharp wit, sardonic cultural references and top tips. “Write this down,” she orders. And like obedient school children, we did. And there were some crackers. Not all copyright Deveny.
Set yourself low expectations (write for 30 minutes a day).
Write what you want to read.
Perfect is the enemy of good. Be a completion-ist not a perfectionist.
What would the tweet say? What’s the title? Six words or less.
Eat that frog (google it!)
We were also treated with her reading some of her own words. Aside from pumping out my own words that day, this was my favourite part. Catherine Deveny in story telling mode. Fabulous.
Sometime after lunch (which we ate together because no one wanted to break the spell) she dangles the ultimate carrot. “Get me your piece by 10.30pm tonight, not a minute later, and I’ll post it on my website.” My jaw drops. I am in awe. How generous. How incredibly fucking generous. She doesn’t even know what shite is going to come her way and yet she’d given her fledglings the ultimate incentive. Published words.
We went around the table to share our ideas with the group. Testing the water for interest. I was keenly aware of how nervous I was as I waited for my time to speak. It occurred to me that I really need validation. That this tale I had wanted to tell for two years was worth telling. Happily my fellow students all agreed and that I should just fucking write it. So I did.
I don’t remember much after that. I was too focused on getting home to my happy place (in front of my keyboard) because this old school pen and paper was tearing me apart.
I raced home. Turned off Twitter. Turned off my phone and finished my piece – 2000 words.
Dev made me do it.
And I’m still doing it.