How Krissy Kneen makes it matter
KK: There’s a definite transition in my life where I’ve felt like the struggle has been about finding my voice and who I am on the page. I think recently something has shifted. And I’m beginning to feel as though I’m at a point where I can help others and impart what I’ve learnt. I’m beginning to trust that I have learnt something. Whereas before now I’ve always felt I was completely clueless the whole time. And I still feel like I am. And you can never figure it all out. But I think I’m beginning to see I have some wisdom to impart. I can help others and it’s time to make sure that next generation of writers has a leg up. Because they need that in their own careers. I never had anyone to give me that leg up.
GIM: And so what are the kinds of things you’d have liked others to mentor you about?
KK: I would have liked to have seen how the business works earlier on. I think for the first 20 years of my writing life it was just me with a page and then not knowing what to do with things after that, apart from entering a competition. There was no actual writing community that I could see in Brisbane. There weren’t any creative writing courses when I was at university – and creative writing courses are where you find your community and your tribe – and so while I knew a lot of people in the arts, they weren’t necessarily in the same field as I was. And there wasn’t a way of accessing the knowledge of the writers centre, plus there wasn’t a hub or a place where people could meet and talk about writing and realise there is a future in writing.
I want to be a person who does the things for younger people I would have liked at that early stage.
GIM: What are the top three things you wish someone had shared with you earlier?
KK: To tell me how those rejection letters that were more personal and made suggestions for the manuscript were not actually rejections. I should have followed up, worked on the manuscript and re-sent it. I didn’t realise that feedback was an invitation to resubmit. I had no idea about submission processes. There was no one to pick up my manuscript, read it and say this is really good and then take it to a publisher.
I also think just modelling that it’s okay to feel bad about your work. I think seeing that is a relief to some people. Sometimes you see people on the writing circuit talking about their books. They seem so confident and to have it all together and know what they’re doing and answer questions so slickly. Part of that is a bit of an act. And that’s not anything to do with the process of writing. And I think it’s important for a younger person to realise that heartache and pain and insecurity are common to all writers.
Another good thing to learn is you don’t have to look like a writer. You know, often there’s a feeling you have to be cool, look a particular way or go to particular events and that makes you into a writer. In fact that just breeds a monoculture. But actually we need fresh voices from writers who might slip through the cracks because they’re not so good at networking with their peers or different from other people in some important ways.
GIM: So that’s mainly emotional support. What about the pragmatics of the business. Is there something you want people to know about doing the work to save them a lot of pain and grief.
KK: The first thing is that when you complete a manuscript you have to keep going with it. The biggest mistake I see is people lose heart. When they lose heart they lose concentration. The difference between someone who is a writer and someone who is not is the ability to stick with, and follow through on a first draft. Your first draft is going to be bad. And knowing it’s bad is part of the process too. So you can know how to make it better. A lot of people who think their first drafts are amazing usually haven’t done the reading to know what a good book is. Being a good reader is the first step to being a good writer.
GIM: So is that part of your mentorship, to recommend readings?
KK: Yeah. And it’s not through how-to books, but reading fiction or nonfiction that relates to their book. Or something well-structured or that nails the ending if their ending is not working. And I think that’s really the only way you can learn about writing is to actually read it. You can see how it works then. And also to not read just anything. A lot of people think reading anything and everything is going to be good for your work…even reading books that are really bad is going to be good for you. But they’re not. They actually teach you bad habits; to become lazy. You really need to read the best books you can get if you want to achieve a level of excellence. Because becoming a writer is knowing how bad you are and trying to get better each time. You’ll always feel bad about your work, which is part of the job.
GIM: Should fledgling writers be asking mentors that one simple question of “what should I read?”
KK: Yes. A really important part of being a writer is having people who can recommend the books that make them better writers.
But I also think the other thing you can give as a mentor is that emotional support to let a mentoree know they’re not alone. This stuff happens to everybody. You know, you’re spending so much time with yourself when you’re writing and you’re spending time digging down into yourself and you can come out feeling dirty after doing that. And I think that sitting down and listening to a writer and figuring out where they’re at in the process and what their frustrations are can help them realise all writers have the same frustrations and that’s part of the job.
GIM: Isn’t that whole support thing what the visual arts used to do so well with the notion of the studio or the atelier where the master would do their work and the students would participate in the preparation of the work and the running of the studio. Through that they’d learn their craft. It seems a lot of contemporary artists work alone and you’re saying that’s not always good for the development of their craft, as well as the other skills they need to be writers, like emotional resilience?
One of my practices is to work with a writing partner. That writing partner is someone I physically sit and write with, almost always a younger and less established writer than me. And it teaches them a few things. It teaches them the concentration I have. Sometimes people will get to the end of a tough passage and say “That’s it I’m exhausted”. And I get to the bottom of a tough passage and have a stretch or a little walk but then I get back to it, because I need to keep going to the end – it’s the only way to finish. And I think modelling that behaviour is really important. And also the idea that if they’re really stuck on an idea they can stop and say to me this is happening now, it’s making me feel like this and I don’t know how to move forward. When this happens I can sometimes make suggestions on how to approach the problem from a different angle, which is handy if you’re there on the ground when that’s happening for them. Plus it means you can watch each other’s computers when it’s time for a loo break.
GIM: I know you’re a person who thinks about the ethical parts of your life. What are the ethical considerations a mentor has and what are some of the ethical aspects a fledgling writer should look out for when they’re working with mentors?
KK: I know there was a case a while ago where one of the writers I work with asked me if it’s okay to make something up in a memoir to keep the story moving forward. I had to really think about that because there’s division amongst memoir writers about the extent to which inventing scenes in a memoir is okay. For me, I want to make sure every scene in my memoir writing is part of my memory. I have to at least believe it happened, even if it didn’t. I told her simply that she had to live with her own story, and advised her to perhaps flag that there was a creative component to the memoir.
GIM: So you’re saying your position is to offer ideas from your own practice but then ultimately leave it to the mentoree to decide the best choice for them?
KK: That’s right. You can’t be them. They have to be them.