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.


Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now

@nzlistener @nzlistenermag @nzlistener

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

How my email hacker made me rethink Google
78306 2017-08-19 00:00:00Z Technology

How my email hacker made me rethink Google

by Mark Broatch

After having his Gmail account hacked, Mark Broatch wonders: do the digital giants have too much power and not enough responsibility?

Read more
Inti: The new South American restaurant by Javier Carmona
Four must-see art shows, and more exciting Auckland events
78321 2017-08-18 12:57:44Z What's on

Four must-see art shows, and more exciting Aucklan…

by India Hendrikse

A special exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery plus work from Koji Ryui, Kazu Nakagawa and two of Cuba's best emerging artists.

Read more
Wellington rental horror stories: 'I had spores and fungi in my system'
78276 2017-08-18 06:49:26Z Social issues

Wellington rental horror stories: 'I had spores an…

by Michael Cropp

New voluntary Warrant of Fitness scheme for Wellington rental properties is a good start, but will landlords actually take part?

Read more
Greens dip below threshhold in new poll as Labour surges
78273 2017-08-18 06:38:34Z Politics

Greens dip below threshhold in new poll as Labour …

by RNZ

A "perfect storm" of scandal and the 'Jacinda effect' spells polling disaster for the Greens.

Read more
Masterton's Aratoi Museum puts Ngati Kahungunu taonga on display
78086 2017-08-18 00:00:00Z History

Masterton's Aratoi Museum puts Ngati Kahungunu tao…

by Sharon Stephenson

Prized 19th-century artefacts are among iwi treasures that have returned to the Wairarapa.

Read more
Citizens around the world are suing over climate change
78244 2017-08-18 00:00:00Z Environment

Citizens around the world are suing over climate c…

by Rebecca Macfie

In the face of perceived political inaction on climate change, citizens worldwide are taking the case to court.

Read more
The best red wines under $20
78270 2017-08-18 00:00:00Z Wine

The best red wines under $20

by Michael Cooper

Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t any good local pinot noirs for under $20, $25 or $30.

Read more