Sian Prior’s life on the page

Originally published on The Big Smoke (8 May 2015)

When Sian Prior sits down to tell a story, it is more than just the impulse of a seasoned writer, more than habit leftover from a career in journalism. It’s repair.

For most of her life, the broadcaster and author has turned to the “straight line” of the sentence to make sense of her experiences – including, at times, a paralysing social anxiety.

“Something about the process that goes on between the mind and the fingers tapping on the keyboard and the pace at which that happens helps me to think more clearly,” Prior tells The Big Smoke. “I will literally just sit down and have a conversation with myself in text and say, ‘well, what’s going on, why am I feeling like this?’”

This month, Prior is holding a “Writing as Therapy” workshop at The School of Life in Melbourne to help others take away the same benefits from their writing.

“I guess it’s a natural fit given the subject matter of my memoir, which was in many ways a deeply therapeutic process for me as a writer,” says Prior. “I hope to give people some practical tools on how to use writing as a way of understanding themselves better, of finding some relief from whatever it is that’s causing them suffering.”

In the case of Prior herself, that suffering has been a life-long struggle with what most of us call “shyness.” As she recalls in her memoir, Shy, social anxiety has always been an unavoidable reality for Prior – something she suspects may have just been hot-wired into her DNA.

“I have a memory of being on a beach at only three or four years old and hiding behind my mother’s legs because my big scary, teenage cousins were there,” says Prior. “That anxiety is something I don’t ever remember being without.”

Yet, even back in those early moments, Prior says there was another feeling too – a growing excitement for stories.

“My mother recently dug up a story I’d written when I was still at primary school, a little crime thriller involving the family dog,” says Prior. “It was very cute to read back over it and think there’s so much wrong with it but what’s right about it is the impulse to tell a story. I was clearly really excited by the possibility of story.”

That passion has since thrown Prior into a long line of very public careers – first as a campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, then as an ABC broadcaster and now as a creative writing teacher and author in her own right.

“I don’t think any of us are a singular, unified identity,” says Prior. “I think we all have different versions of ourselves; different voices and different roles we play. It’s about turning all that babble that goes on inside our heads, all those contradictions, into words.”

And it is there on the page that the writer will often find catharsis, Prior says. Teaching at RMIT University, she has now witnessed countless students begin to make sense of their lives through memoir.

“I have one student at the moment writing about dealing with incurable cancer and staying alive and, by writing about it, she’s realising that she’s not letting it get on top of her,” says Prior. “I have another student making all kinds of personal discoveries and revelations by going back over her past as a stripper and figuring out how it changed her. Writing can be incredibly transformative in the right circumstances.”

But, while confessional memoir is “a great way of outing shame and embarrassment,” Prior believes writers should also understand its limits.

“Just blurting out all of your innermost secrets is not enough. You need to craft it into a story, to manage things like self-pity. You should always be asking yourself: ‘what’s the story in this situation?’”

Fortunately, the author is not expecting a class full of Hemingways made to order ahead of her “Writing as Therapy” workshop this month

“I don’t want people to worry too much about the quality of their writing when they’re first starting out,” Prior says. “Do it so that it’s pleasurable and useful for yourself and then you can start to think about how to apply a bit of craft to do it even better.”

After all, just as writing can be healing, it can also be a whole lot of fun.

By Sherryn Groch
Photo credit: ABC
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