At home with Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood is the award-winning and acclaimed author of six novels, a collection of interviews and a book about cooking. She has won the Stella Prize, the Prime Minister's Literary Award, the Indie Book of the Year, and most recently the ABIA for Literary Fiction.

This interview explores her 2021 work of non-fiction, The Luminous Solution: Creativity, Resilience and the Inner Life. Charlotte has appeared on The Garret before, once exploring her most famous work, The Natural Way of Things, and again discussing her novel, The Weekend.

At home with Charlotte Wood


ASTRID: Charlotte Wood, thank you so much for returning to The Garret.

CHARLOTTE: Astrid, thank you for having me. I love The Garret.

ASTRID: That is high praise coming from you, and greatly appreciated. Congratulations on The Luminous Solution: Creativity, Resilience and the Inner Life. I have so many questions for you about creativity and resilience in this time.

But before we go into that, I'd like to actually ask you about the very first line of the book. To quote you, you write, ‘Other people's creative lives have always fascinated me’. So even before we have The Luminous Solution, you've previously published The Writer's Room – which was a collection of interviews with other writers, you have a podcast, you have a PhD interrogating these questions. I guess for our listeners, why do other people's creative processes intrigue you so much?

CHARLOTTE: I don't know, except that probably because I want to learn from them about how to improve my own, but I guess I've always liked the slightly mysterious element of creativity. I think it's one of the things that appeals to me about doing it is that it's actually... Well, in the book I go quite a lot into this tension between the pragmatist and the instinctive intuitive drive and how you need both of those kinds of thinking to do any creative work. I guess you can learn the pragmatic stuff. You can learn the discipline, you can practice it. You can learn the craft stuff, but you can't really learn the mysterious stuff. I think what you can learn to do is be awake to it and be more accepting of that complete uncertainty, and you can pay attention to your intuitive mind and you can sort of practice and learn to do that.

I guess in some ways other people's creative lives, the books and things that I mentioned, all this sort of area of my study that I'm motioning to now, I feel like I've been mentored by all these writers and artists that I've read about and I've read their work and I've read interviews with them. Before I even started writing really, I was kind of obsessive reading the Paris Review interviews and in Australia, way back when I started, the bible for writers was Making Stories, the Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe book. There was Candy Baker's series of interviews. I just always found them completely compelling, even when I wasn't really... Well, I certainly wasn't a writer, but even when I wasn't even really doing it, hadn't even started yet properly. But I think it's that combination maybe of the kind of rigorous discipline and the dreamy unconscious mind together that I find really interesting.

ASTRID: You said so many interesting words in there, Charlotte. The two that stuck out for me were mysterious and compelling. That is what a writer is trying to access or touch or find. Of course, that is what a reader is looking to experience in some way, shape or form when they pick up a book or when they experience any other form of art. I feel like nobody wants to talk about COVID anymore, but I also feel like we can't talk about The Luminous Solution without noting that now is the time where you decided during COVID in 2020 and 2021 to interrogate this question again, and perhaps how isolation or lockdowns have been impacting creatives of all types, but specifically writers. Why now for you?

CHARLOTTE: It's funny, when I was editing the book in sort of January and February of this year, when we thought we were free of COVID and I was thinking, ‘Oh, it's kind of missed its time a bit, this book’. And then, bang, here we are again in major lockdowns. I was commissioned last year, early last year, to write a piece. The topic was the inner life. So that it was one of those gifts that was... somebody asks you to write about a certain thing, you might not phrase it that way yourself. So, then I was led to think about, ‘Well, what is an inner life? Do we all have one? Do we need one? Who cares if we don't have one? What does it mean to have a rich inner life or no inner life?’

I found that a really interesting exercise to just ask those questions and then thinking, ‘Well, for artists of all kinds, we sort of rely on our inner life and inner world, that we then bring out and share with other people’. After I published that pace, I had a lot of contact from people I didn't know, but people who sort of surprised me. They weren't just writers or artists. They were readers and they said, ‘Oh, it articulated just how I felt’, because in that piece it was the beginning of the first lockdown and I felt kind of panic-stricken and I felt a need to rush around doing things, in inverted commas, mainly on Zoom, but buying yoga and doing lots of classes and having Zoom drinks with my friends and sort of cramming the time with stuff, because I was just in this sort of sheer panic.

Then, of course, you can't do that for very long before it hits you full on the head. I wasn't doing any writing. I wasn't doing any creative work at all. Then I realised, ‘Hang on, I've just got to stop all this and calm down and go quiet’, which is the normal working state for a writer, to go into that sort of quiet, private, interior world. So, when it was published, as I said, most people commented that it reflected this state of mind as well, and that they needed to calm down and go still whether or not they were artists or writers. I just thought, ‘Well, maybe it's got a broader appeal than just talking to writers about this, or artists’. I don't know. I think the pandemic... I hope it has made us completely reevaluate everything. I kind of fear that it makes us feel like that while we're in lockdown and we get out and we forget all that, but we have to change the way we do things.

It's so clear now, and I guess this book is talking about creating an interior world that doesn't depend on exterior things so much and material things. I mean, I'm as terrible online shopper as the next person, so I don't have any actual expertise in doing this, except that I like to think about it and I feel like the book in general is talking about paying attention to the workings of your own mind, and if you want to live a more creative life there, you have to do it consciously. It doesn't just happen by itself. There are boundaries you have to draw. Your inner world needs feeding and nourishing in the way.

I use a garden metaphor through a bit of the book, that it's got to be cared for and fed and watered and designed a little bit, but also you need to allow flexibility for surprising things to pop up and sort of be open to what a writer like Joan London would probably call gifts from the unconscious, or the imaginative world.

ASTRID: I like the word gifts. It struck me as I was reading The Luminous Solution that in one way, this is very much a book for writers who are considering their craft and their creativity and how they approach their art, but on so many other levels, this is a book for anyone, whether they consider themselves an artist or not. It's a book for anyone who enjoys the written world and now finds themselves asking questions about their own life and their own inner world where we are all living now, through choice or not. I'm going to give this book to my mum. My mum is not a writer. She's a reader, but not a writer, and I think she will find a great deal of happiness or contentment in here too, Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE: Thank you, Astrid. I really wanted that sense, but I don't think creativity is just for artists or writers. I don't think this idea of a rich inner life is just for capital C creative people. I think I say in the preface that the sense of accomplishment and joy and enrichment that comes from making anything that wasn't there before, I really feel like that is a birthright, a human right. It might sound kind of highfalutin to say that, but I think the joys of making are really profound, and they might be just making a harmonious room to be in. It might be making a cake. It might be making a garden. It might be making a skateboard. Anything that involves bringing something into life that wasn't there before I think has a really deep effect on the psyche. I still don't even know what that effect is, except that it's so important to me and the idea that it's only for creative people, I can't stand that.

The book is also about cross pollination. The idea that artists can learn from scientists, from builders... I've got some friends who run a kind of environmentally sustainable butchery, who are some of the most creative people I know. I love the idea that creativity actually relies on keeping your eyes open to all fields, not just your own narrow field of work and that you are enriched by really looking at completely different worlds from your own and bringing them back into your own creative project.

ASTRID: One of the questions that I have for you, Charlotte, is almost a... you prompted me to reimagine what I think of as creativity. I always thought it was the kind of process before the creation of something. It was the what came before and then something comes afterwards, whether it's a beautiful new story or a shiny new skateboard, whatever the process of creation is. But in reading this work, throughout the work, you often meditate on your 2015 novel, The Natural Way of Things, and reflect on many of the different ways that you have thought of and unpacked your own work since then. It occurred to me that I have never thought about the feelings and the emotions and the creativity that comes after the birth of a thing, after the creation of a thing, because you clearly have thought about that work a great deal.

So often, and I have been guilty of this myself, Charlotte, I ask a writer, ‘How does it feel to have your work out in the world now?’ But I think really the question I'm asking is, ‘Do you still think about that work? If you do, that's quite a deep thing if you haven't quite left or if it means something different to you’.

I guess I have a quote here for you. You write, ‘It seems clear now that it also took a lot of processing for me personally once it was out in the world’. I guess my question is, how do you think about what comes after creativity when you have given birth to something like this work, The Natural Way of Things?

CHARLOTTE: That's complex. I think one of the reasons I've thought so much about that book was that it was a really... it was kind of an aberrant book for me, it felt like. It felt like it came from a different place than my other work, a much more unconscious part of me, a much more primitive part of me. A lot of people told me they read it in that way, that they felt like they didn't read it with their minds, but with their bodies. I felt like I almost wrote it with my body. It was so kind of primal and then it went out into the world and had this effect that none of my other books had had to that point, where it was widely read, and it won some prizes. I still get asked to talk about it sort of six years later.

Because I was asked to talk about it so much, I sort of had to think about it so much, but also, I guess, because it came from this sort of other place in me, I wanted to know then what to do with that, that effect that it had on readers but also on me. It kind of liberated a part of my creative mind that I had sort of kept a lid on somehow or just hadn't allowed to kind of really let it rip, and that is this unconscious mind to just go, ‘All right, rather than ...’

I'll backtrack, but one of the things that was difficult about writing that book was it was so dark, it's a book about misogyny so it had a kind of violent heart and I didn't want to have a violent heart. I don't feel that I do have a violent heart. Then it kind of frightened me a lot to think, ‘Well, I must have. There must be things about me that... there are things about me that I don't want to know. If the book is to work, I have to let those things come out’. So, it was this sense of kind of exposing these weird, creepy, dark, and kind of... I mean, the weirdness was quite big. There's a girl in the book who pretty much turns into a rabbit, it's kind of hallucinatory things. I felt quite vulnerable exposing that that's what came out of my mind, if that makes any sense. But then I also felt kind of proud of that later and I also felt liberated, that, ‘Oh, you can allow your weirdness to expose itself to the light and not only does it not kill you, but some people love it’.

I felt like as an artist, I was becoming much more whole by allowing this sort of deepest, subconscious, unconscious, weird stuff to come out. Then I wanted to know, ‘Well, how do I...’ I didn't want to write another book like that. I don't want to write another book like that, but I do want to have access to those places in myself that allowed that book to kind of be born. I guess that's the long answer. I think of one's creativity as... I mean, I know I keep going back to this metaphor of the garden. It's so useful as a metaphor because there are so many things required to keep it flourishing. One of those things is of sense of wildness, to just let it be and let it create itself. I guess I don't think of creativity as a time based thing. I think of it as a place for almost and as a kind of home, and I want to be able to look at all the different areas of it and visit all the areas of it and see what I find there.

ASTRID: One of the other areas that you explore in The Luminous Solution and for those listening, it's not a huge area that you explore, but it did kind of grab my attention, Charlotte, is the idea of kind of a different... at least on the public facing side of creativity, a different way that males manifest or talk about creativity than do females. This actually ties into a discussion I very recently had with Yves Rees, who was talking about the acknowledgements in books and the difference they have noticed between acknowledgements written by men and other creatives – the idea being that men have these lone geniuses who just happened to have this rich inner world that's perfect and no one ever touches, and then everybody else who's doing the groceries or paying the bills or whatever other minutiae of life that we all actually are engaged in. I just wanted to touch on that because while we are all at home, it's playing out differently in many households for males and females.

CHARLOTTE: I either heard it or read something about Yves's comments about acknowledgements and I really responded to those comments, because when I was younger, I felt quite indignant at short acknowledgements, for the very same reasons that, well, of course you didn't really do it on your own. There's all these people around you helping you. I have to say that as I've gotten older, my acknowledgements have gotten shorter. Sometimes for myself, if I've done a really long acknowledgement, it sort of becomes a bit self-indulgent in a way, sort of like, ‘I've written such a glorious piece of work …’ like an Oscar speech or something. But also, partly, I do think as you get older, as you work more, you are more self-reliant, you don't need the kind of assistance that you did when you were younger or earlier in your writing career, I guess. But I still have plenty of acknowledgements to write. There's also a lot of, ‘Oh, what if I miss somebody out’, and all that sort of stuff, so short is safe in a way.

I think somewhere in the beginning of The Luminous Solution, I do talk about the kind of lone genius versus an artist with a tribe or a community. I certainly have always been very needful of colleagues, of writer friends, of artist friends to share the struggles with basically, and also to be challenged by. I actually think it's quite an old-fashioned idea now, the whole one genius thing, the sort of towering art monster, male figures are kind of a thing of the past now, I think. I don't think really contemporary male novelists would... Well, if they did think that way, they certainly would not have the guts to speak about it in all sorts of ways.

But one used to hear... I've been rereading Helen Garner's second diary volume and the expression of male versus female in that ways that before we finally understood that gender was a much longer, more interesting spectrum, used to be a sort of male, female idea of creativity. But in her diary, there's a relationship that really brings that clash to the fore. But I feel like, look, it's the patriarchy doing that, and in that Helen talks about the Stravinsky lunch idea, that Stravinsky had to have lunch with his family around him, but they were not allowed to speak, move, make any sound at all. But he couldn't have lunch by himself because he needed the family to be supporting. I mean, that's gone. That's over.

But I think there's probably a lot more subtle versions of that going on around all the time. I do think for anyone with children, it's pretty clear that women are still the ones doing the sacrificing of their personal ambition, productivity. If there are two parents in the house and if it's not absolutely equally shared, then it's the woman doing the hard yards. I don't have children so I haven't had to have that battle, but I've seen it a lot and I've seen it a lot in men expecting it, but I've also seen women just doing it in a way that I've thought, ‘What are you doing that for? You can choose not to do that’.

I've done quite a bit of teaching and mentoring stuff, and the last time I was doing for regular teaching was in a little thing I called the third, which was kind of like an at-home retreat where we did it for a week and I would send the people all these preparation stuff, which is you need to claim four days for this work and the difficulty that so many women had of telling their families they were not available, and I'm not talking about four year old children. I'm talking about 27-year-old children who women would allow to come into their working space while they are in their four-hour block of work, and they just couldn't seem to say no. That sort of really staggers me really. A lot of women of that age say they desperately want to go to their creative license they've neglected for so long because they've had to raise families, but it's almost like they can't allow themselves to claim that, and I find that really distressing.

ASTRID: I also find it distressing, Charlotte. I'd like to now turn to how you approach your own work, and when we began this interview, you noted that there is the kind of the mystical intuitive burst of something that is hard to define, and then there is the practical realist, ‘I'm going to sit down at my desk and I'm going to try to hit this target’. In The Luminous Solution, you described the way that you kind of tested your own creativity and your own practice and deliberately consciously changed your approach to writing so it would suit you. What did that mean for the art that you created, but also for the person that you are, that change? What did you gain from it?

CHARLOTTE: So, this was a result of a couple of different things. I had begun kind of more formally studying creativity for a doctorate that I was doing. At the same time, I was working on The Natural Way of Things and going through a kind of dark night of the soul, I guess, and finding it so hard to do because of the nature of the material was very, as I said before, it's a darkness itself, and I was just miserable. I was miserable because I was resisting sort of what the book was trying to become.

Anyway, I came across this study or it was a meta analysis of 25 years of mood creativity research and it was basically looking at all these studies over 25 years of what makes up the most creative mood state. So my general mood state when I went into a writing day was fear, anxiety, didn't want to be there, reluctance, agitation, which turned out to be, according to the psychology study, the least creative mood state.

The most creative mood was made up of three things. The first one was called a positive hedonic tone. So positive feeling, basically feeling happy as opposed to sad. The second one was what they called a slightly elevated activation, which meant not too chilled out and relaxed, but not too excited and certainly not agitated and fearful. I translated that as a kind of slightly excited curiosity. The third one was this idea of seeking pleasure rather than avoiding pain. It was called a promotion focus. As I said, my normal mood state was not want to go into the room, be fearful of going to the desk, just want to get it over with and get out of there as soon as I could, knowing it was all going to be terrible, blah, blah, blah. So consciously kind of basically faking, switching my mindset to this slightly excited, curious, optimistic sense of, ‘I wonder, what's going to happen today in this book. Ooh, I wonder what I'm going to find’. Looking forward to it.

I did that both through looking at that study, but also with the help of a psychologist called Alison Manning who worked with writers a lot and she's very gifted. In order to create this kind of mind state, I think it was called state creation in psychology terms, I would sort of think about my work as going into my novel, into a place to watch this beautiful thing happen, and I could only go into this place if I left all the kind of self-loathing and the fear and all the negative stuff outside the door. It was kind of incredibly effective, and yet I still have to practice it all the time and decide to do it all the time. So it doesn't, ‘Oh, now I've discovered it everything's rosy’. Because writing is hard. Writing is always hard, and being in the deep uncertainty of a novel in progress is hard.

I don't want to be too kind of Pollyannaish about it, but the effect that it had was to just make me feel so much more kind of integrated in my life and my work. Like I talked before, I think about that sense of wholeness in terms of the different parts of my creative process, bringing those together, but also it just brought a lot more pleasure and joy, made me realise that's why I started doing it in the first place, because I really loved doing it, not because I hated it and was fearful of it. I've seen a lot of writers go through this, especially three or four books in. That's a really, really hard time and the equivalent for any creator, I think. In the beginning, there's a kind of novelty of it and I think we have unrealistic fantasies about how great it is and how great it will continue to be. Then four books in, when you're still not selling any work and no one really cares and it's hard and you've got a lot of financial pressure, that's when you can become really disillusioned, I think. I've seen that a lot and it happened with me. So deciding to change that was completely liberating.

ASTRID: I like the word liberating, Charlotte. I have a question about mediums. I mean, words are the medium that you have dedicated your life to, if I can phrase it that way, but through The Luminous Solution, you are very clear that inspiration or a different way of thinking about something can come from... it can come from gardening, it can come from cooking, it can come from music or painting or anything can be the source of inspiration. I guess I agree with you, although I don't always take the opportunities when they come, but for you, would you ever consider exploring different mediums? I mean, you've written long form and short form before. Fiction is where you mostly write, but you are also obviously dedicated to non-fiction. You have a podcast. I don't know. Are you going to write a play? Would you compose a song? Is poetry in your future? I'm being a little bit facetious, but it's a genuine question.

CHARLOTTE: I mean, I think it would be good to try those things. I've kind dabbled with trying screen writing for about five minutes. I worked with a couple of friends, one of whom is a real experienced screenwriter, and we sort of got together to try and write a bit of a series. I realised I just am not a collaborator in that way. I mean, I love to have a creative community, but I just found myself... just wasn't my skill. Poetry, I almost feel like they're just such highly specialised skills that I feel like I wouldn't be able to... Maybe if I was younger, I would. When I was really young writing, I wrote poems, but I actually would not call them poems. I would call them short words stuck together. I wouldn't insult poets by saying, ‘Oh yes, I might go and write poetry now’, because I think it's like saying, ‘I might become a brain surgeon now’.

I feel the same about plays. What I'm excited about is that there's, every now and again, sort of some talk and a bit of action now on adapting some of my work for film or TV or the stage. I don't want to be involved in the creative part of it, but I love to watch what's happening. It's kind of thrilling to me to see. I've been at a couple of table reads where someone else has taken my work and making it into a new thing, that is very, very thrilling. But doing it, no, I don't think so. But I guess my other forms of creativity are things like cooking and gardening, and what I love about that is that nothing is dependent on the outcome. A, it's much more instant gratification than writing a book and B, if the cake's a big flop, who cares? You can still pick the top of it or whatever. I liked that it's not a professionalised thing for me. It's very joyful.

ASTRID: I found a great deal of joy, coming back to that word, reading The Luminous Solution, Charlotte. I am very serious when I say that I'm going to give it to my mother and in this time of uncertainty in people, and a lot of things that we don't want that press in on us and maybe take away our choices or we don't get to do what we would otherwise maybe prefer to do, I really found it quite ... I found it comforting and fraying at the same time. Made me safe, but it also gave me places to go. Thank you very much.

CHARLOTTE: Ah, thank you. Thank you. The idea that we can choose what to do with our minds when we can't choose what to do in so many... right now, especially, that actually our mind is this enormous, vast playground, a place for us to turn to that is full of possibility and riches if we attend to how we use it, that is so exhilarating. It's not dependent on what's on Netflix or being able to go to a restaurant or whatever. It's all there. That's what's exciting to me.

ASTRID: So well said, Charlotte. Thank you so much for coming back to The Garret.

CHARLOTTE: Thank you, Astrid. It's so lovely to talk to you again.