A Way with Words: Ashleigh Young

by Ashleigh Young / 19 May, 2017

Ashleigh Young. Photo/Russell Kleyn

Ockham New Zealand Book Award winner Ashleigh Young describes how she writes. Hold on – no she doesn’t.

Right now I’m that cursed thing: a writer who isn’t writing. For a writer, not writing is a bit like being a deep-sea diver with nitrogen narcosis. You can function for a surprisingly long time down there, feeling pretty normal. You don’t realise that you’re hallucinating mermaids or offering fishes your oxygen mask. Only when you resurface do you realise how weird things were getting.

It’s dangerous to give the reasons I’m not writing, because reasons feed off being named, but here are some reasons: I work full-time as an editor at Victoria University Press, a job that I love, and sometimes my mind gets caught up in the books I’m working on. It can be hard to disentangle myself. It’s the same with teaching, when I’m teaching. And something else happened: I won this incredible award, Yale’s Windham-Campbell Prize. It’s the biggest thing to have happened to me in my writing life. Suddenly, there are festival invitations, an agent, an overseas publisher, things I have to laugh about before I can believe them. And commissions come in that sit on the edge of writing. I say yes, because I like being asked to do things, and then I resent the interruption to the dream time I might have had. I mean I like my cat, but I wish he wouldn’t attack my shoes at three in the morning.

At the same time as changing my life, the award has momentarily heightened my self-consciousness, made me question again what my voice is and should be. The question “What are you writing next?” always trips me up, too. And when I’m writing, now, the hesitations stretch out between each word, until hesitation is the only story on the page.

In moments of hesitation, at my most desperate, I’ve watched YouTube clips of, yep, boils being lanced. A writer truly becomes her worst self when she’s not writing.

I’ve made brief resurfacings. Last week, I wrote up an interview with children’s author Jack Lasenby. I’ve written a talk I am giving about, er, the cultural significance of meat. I wrote some poems about dogs when I was trying to encourage people to donate to a campaign to help dogs in Rarotonga. Before sleep, I write in a notebook beside my bed – often just something I’m trying to figure out how to say. It’s writing as fidgeting, like twisting and retwisting a paperclip. It’s writing to keep myself affixed to the earth, rather than hoping to make anything good.

Working with writers has taught me, more than anything else, how many different ways there are to keep going. Erratically, passionately, wearily, at speed, in a fog … the only thing that doesn’t work is berating yourself. So I don’t do that. (Joking! Right now, it’s all I ever do!)

Writing will be waiting for me. I’m privileged to have a life where I know that I can come back to it soon, because writing is where I come back to myself. It’s where I make myself.

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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