In Australia, we have a thing for social realism. Cloudstreet, The Slap, The Thorn Birds- the vast majority of our canonical national texts are firmly rooted in the everyday reality of Australian life. And, while Tim Winton claims that “ordinary life overflows with divine grace”, Patrick White decried the predominant mode of Australian literature as “the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism.”
Though Ryan O’Neill is much better-mannered that the notoriously cranky Nobel Laureaute, he seems to empathise with White’s disinclination to write realistically. His debut collection of short stories, The Weight of the Human Heart, is radically experimental in both voice and style. Stories are narrated through infographics, tables, and graphs. They take the form of lists, the minutes of a meeting, and, had Jennifer Egan not got there first with A Visit From The Goon Squad, the collection would have included a story in a PowerPoint presentation. O’Neill says that much of his work has grown out of a desire to see if he can “pull off” a particularly weird or wacky idea. And, so far, the general consensus seems to be that he has, indeed, “pulled off” his literary experiments. The Guardian recently said that The Weight of a Human Heart “will dazzle and impress” its readers, praising the sheer audacity of O’Neill’s work.
Though O’Neill insists that “you shouldn’t bee too happy with your writing”, he thinks that this audacity and autonomy are important characteristics for writers to possess at every stage of their careers. For those whose pens are still hovering over the blank pages of their exercise book, he affirms that you should just “decide what you want to write and commit to it, rather than trying to write for a market.” For those struggling to get noticed from the slush pile, he warns against the getting caught up in excessive self-promotion, saying that “connections can get you a foot in the door, but that’s really all they can do. It’s better to just do the writing first and let your stories do the work for you.” And, for those lucky enough to have been published now looking to consolidate their writing careers, he says that under no circumstances should you compare yourself to your fellow writers. “Don’t get discouraged by things you read, by things that other people are doing. Don’t worry about Nabokov being better than you. He’s not in the same game.”
In addition to his writing career, O’Neill also teaches creative writing at the University of Newcastle. He is, however, reluctant to extol a set of fundamental rules to which all writers should adhere- once again, audacity and autonomy seem to be the defining words in his writing philosophy. “There are all sorts of rules for writing, and they all contradict each other, so you just have to come up with your own rules and stick to them,” he laughs. But his time as a literary editor at Etchings Creative Journal has compelled him to give one piece of advice to those looking for a way into the pages of any publication: “Eliminate cliches. When an image or a metaphor comes to mind, just think about it for a minute before putting on the page. Chances are you’re thinking of it because you’ve seen it a hundred times before.”
Other than that, O’Neill says that aspiring writers just have to keep on keeping on. “Don’t look back. Grimace on through your first draft, then re-write it. Get feedback from someone you trust, then re-write again. Then, when you inevitably get rejected ten times, don’t take it personally.” For him, all writing is worthwhile, even if it never makes it off the screen of your laptop. “I think that all writers have a certain amount of shit in them that they just have to get out. For Dickens, it was about three pages, and then he was a genius. Austen, maybe three sentences. Personally, I wrote total rubbish until I was 25, and I’d say that’s pretty standard. But it was rubbish that I had to have written in order to be where I am today.”
This article was adapted from Ryan O’Neill’s appearance at the Library of Unwritten Stories.