How writer Sian Prior makes it matter
In this interview, author Sian Prior talks about the rise in popularity of the memoir, her personal battle with shyness – and she also reveals the topics she won’t write about.
How do you give it mouth?
I guess these days I ‘give it mouth’ in a couple of different ways. One, as a writer – both as a journalistic writer and now as an author – I’m interested in giving voice to people and ideas that don’t often make it into the headlines. My first book Shy: A Memoir was about a temperament trait that can cause people a lot of distress, which is not often admitted and discussed and is not well understood. I wanted to give voice to that distress. I wanted to give people who really suffer with their shyness and their social anxiety information to help them understand it and, ideally, lessen the impact on their lives.
I’m also interested in enabling other people to ‘give it mouth’ with their writing. So I do a lot of teaching of writing in creative writing courses, workshops and one-on-one mentoring. Many of the people I teach want to tell their own personal stories. I try to give them the tools to shape their writing so it is interesting in and will resonate with other people.
Memoir’s an incredibly popular genre at the moment isn’t it?
Definitely. There’s a very interesting book, by an American writer David Shields, called Reality Hunger. Shields argues we’re living in the age of reality hunger. People want to hear true stories. People want to tell true stories. Now is absolutely the time of the memoir.
Stephen Muecke told me to ask you to sing. I’m not going to do that, but I am going to ask you how writing is like singing.
Oh he’s naughty.
Well, what an interesting question. There are two ways of answering that – for me specifically, and then more generally.
For me specifically, they are both individual expressions of creativity, obviously. They both involve shaping what’s coming out of your body or mind into something of beauty – or, at least, trying to. And ideally they both involve giving pleasure to the person listening or reading and enhancing their experience of the world and of life.
So that’s for me specifically.
How is it like writing generally? Well, they’re both hard. They both look easier than they are. And I never do either thing to my own satisfaction.
What about things like beat and rhythm – is that something you’re conscious of in your writing? Because I can almost hear the rhythm of your writing. There’s a real beat in there.
It’s not something I’m conscious of, but now that you mention it I’m thinking what an interesting question. I’ve grown up with music my whole life, and maybe that stuff just seeps into your pores. But I’ve also been an avid reader my whole life and I always tell my writing students you have to read read read read read. Because the rhythm of the words will seep into your pores, will sink into your brain without you even being aware of it. And without it being difficult or painful you will start to imitate that part of the craft of writing.
So thank you for saying that. The more I write and the more I teach writing the more I can feel the importance of rhythm.
The other important thing to note is I started my career as a radio broadcaster, writing for the spoken word. And probably that more than anything gives you a fabulous key to understanding and using rhythm. Because you can’t write a sentence that’s hard to say, and therefore hard to think. So I always try to write as though I’m speaking.
Because you can then hear, can’t you, when the words are slightly off-key, or there’s a word too many, or there needs to be a break or something
Ideally you can. I feel like I’m gradually improving with that. But I still sometimes do readings of my memoir and think “Oh God, why did I … can I just take that out?”
Prior’s Shy: A Memoir (Text, 2014)
I do. I cheat. I totally cheat.
Okay, let’s talk a little about your book Shy: A Memoir. What are some of the aspects of craft you learnt from writing that? It’s your first large writing project isn’t it?
I learnt that you can use form to mimic or resonate with content. The subject matter was anxiety, so I tried to use form to mirror certain facets of that anxiety. As an example I use the writing of lists as a way of negotiating my own anxiety – as a system of control. So my book is full of lists because that’s what goes on inside my head, and also probably in the heads of other shy people. I also learnt about suspense and that’s an important thing to make suspense be felt in the body of the reader. That was a difficult part for me because the suspenseful events in question happened after I’d already started writing the book. So then I had to go back and ‘backfill’ to plant the seeds to increase the suspense.
Reading that probably comes as a surprise to a lot of readers, who may see the crafting of a book as a linear process. But it’s often more of a circular process, or a kind of all around the place process, isn’t it?
Yes! It’s messy messy.
What’s the difference between a shy person and an introvert?
According to the experts, the difference is that if you’re an introvert you don’t necessarily find being in company distressing. You might just enjoy your own company or the company of a limited number of people and you don’t seek out other people for energy and stimulation.
Shyness on the other hand means that you suffer distressing symptoms of anxiety but you might still be desperately in need of the company and stimulation of others. The essential difference is distress.
I wrote a book I hoped would be helpful for shy people and not shy people alike. I really wanted people who are not shy at all to have some bloody insight of what it feels like. What these behaviours that from the outside might look completely irrational why that goes on and what you can do to help.
As is the case with many creatives, Prior’s vivacious personality is coupled with intense shyness and social discomfort.
Shy is an intensely personal memoir and so are some of your opinion pieces intensely personal. Is there anything you won’t write about?
Oh yes, there are lots of things. For example subjects to do with exposing private things about other people. And then there are things that are just too tedious to write about. I don’t write very much about sexuality and that’s probably the most private thing about me – and about other people for that matter. Sexuality has to be handled very delicately. I think the public performance and exposure of sexuality has become so over-exposed and stereotyped and cliched it’s degrading a precious and infinitely complex form of human connection. So I think very carefully about any word I put on the page about sexuality.
Can writing be therapy and, if it can, should it?
Yes, I think writing can be therapy. And there’s now very good academic research to back that claim. I won’t bore you with details, but I teach a course called Writing as Therapy and I talk to people about how writing something down can be a way of getting it away from you, it’s a way of getting more insight, it’s a form of thinking.
Particularly I use a method where get people to separate the situation from the story in their life. The situation is the bare bones of the matter and the story is the insight and the wisdom you have come to say about it. You can zoom out from your own life and then get some perspective and come back into it with the new insight. This course is one of my favourites to teach because I can see just from the looks on people’s faces that they’re getting an awful lot out of it. They’re getting tools they can use for the rest of their lives.
In your postcard to David Foster Wallace you write: perhaps behind every first person narrator travel story lies a ghost story the story behind the situation. If a memoir could be read as travel writing, what would the ghost story of your memoir be?
There are a million ghost stories. Shy is the story of one version of me that readers get to find out about. But I reckon I’ve got another dozen memoirs in me. You can basically take any emotionally resonant aspect of your life and there’s infinite fodder for turning that into stories and insights and informative content. So there’s a ghost story of show-off Sian for instance. Who gets a look-in in the book but perhaps not as much as there should have been. And of course I write about a particular relationship but I only show a particular aspect of it.
Is travel writing about place or person?
Both. It needs to be about both. Because if it’s not it’s then … PR? The best travel writing is about – oh I do hate the word ‘journey’ – but it’s the journey of the self within place. I almost always put myself well and truly in the centre of my travel writing. I want to tell this through my eyes, so there’s no point in trying to hide the fact that these are unique individual choices about what’s being told.
You write, again a quote, you’ve “never read a tweet that simply says I’m lonely.” What’s been the loneliest time in your life and what did you learn from it?
Gosh. That’s a hard one because loneliness is something I’ve struggled with quite a lot. And perhaps what I’ve struggled with most is a fear of loneliness rather than actual loneliness. When I was a teenager, I had a few years where I felt desperately lonely and in fact I think I was probably clinically depressed in my mid teens. And there have been times where I’ve not been in a romantic relationship where I’ve deeply felt that absence. I think loneliness is part of the human condition. We’re all in flight from loneliness. But I must say I’ve made a commitment to addressing my fear of loneliness and actually embracing solitude.
And this is one of the great things about writing, because I often experience the world thinking, I could write about this, what would I say? It’s like I always have an imagined readership in my mind and that also assuages loneliness too because I always think I’m going to tell someone about this, how can I tell it in the most effective and pleasurable way?
See more of Sian’s work here.