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Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic. Her first book of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance (2015), won the 2016 Kibble Prize for women’s life writing and a Queensland Premier’s Prize. Her latest collection of essays is The World Was Whole. Fiona also has two collections of poetry, Knuckled (2012) and Domestic Interior (2017). She tutors in creative writing at Western Sydney University, and mentors emerging women writers who live with chronic illness or disability.

What have been some challenges in writing your own personal essays?

When I started writing personal essays, I knew so little about them – and there were certainly fewer of them around, especially in Australia. I really did feel like I was making things up as I went, and learning what to do by trial and error. To some extent, this is always the case with any kind or piece of writing – you never know how to do it at the beginning. But it did take me a long time to feel comfortable or even legitimate within the form. One of the biggest challenges with personal essays is that it always feels like there’s so much at stake – because you have a narrative, a set of ideas, and a personal voice to attend to all at once, and because a vigorous kind of thinking and speaking, an honesty, is always required. I don’t think they’re a form for the faint-hearted. But I’ve never met a writer who is faint-hearted, either.

What unexpected things have you discovered while writing personal essays?

I’m not sure if this is a common experience or if it’s just a neurodiverse thing, but I love the way that personal essays often help me to untangle my thinking and my emotions. These are both of things that my brain normally tries to hide from me, so there’s a very personal reward that I never expected to find there. And the form is so flexible that I always feel like I’m discovering new approaches and formats and styles, so there is always more space for play.

Why are personal essays important in 2021?

Because they’re an inherently political form. I don’t think there’s anything essentially solipsistic or indulgent about them: at their heart, they’re an attempt to show something of the self to the world in order to make connections, whether that’s between an individual and the societal forces that surround them and shape them, or between people who might not otherwise understand one another or their own selves and experiences. Personal essays are a project of empathy, and god knows we need more of that right now.

Which essayist has most influenced your own writing?

I’m going to do a classic politician move here and wilfully misinterpret this question so I can give an incomplete list of some of my favourite essayists instead: Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Alexander Chee, Olivia Laing, Andrea Long Chu, Rebecca Solnit, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maggie Nelson… There’s a whole tonne of Australian essayists that I love too, but I’m not going to start on that one because I’ll almost certainly forget people!

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?

That would be a spoiler – the answer to that one is in my writing course! I will tell you that I swear by it, and draw on it all the time. I used it this morning. It’s that good.

You can find Fiona’s writing course here: