On the right lines

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 June, 1995, 12:00am

HOPELESS is not a word Caroline Richardson would ever use about a writer. Unpublishable, perhaps, but that's not a reason to stop writing, she says: 'You are not going to say to a 14-year-old, 'don't draw because you can't draw', so you shouldn't say to a 40-year-old, 'don't write because you can't write'. You can emerge, at any time of life.' And those who seem unlikely to ever emerge to publication standard can always be encouraged to write for themselves and their families as a form of self-expression. 'It's a very healthy, harmless pursuit. I don't think there's ever a reason to be totally negative,' Richardson says. She should know. Richardson, who emigrated to Australia from England in 1991 with her theatre company manager husband, Roger, runs the largest in the country's network of centres devoted to helping writers.

The Victorian Writers' Centre, with two full-time staff, one part-timer, a fast-growing membership of 1,900 and a monthly newsletter circulation of 3,500, is a source of help, encouragement, reference material and even rentable studios and computers - not only for published authors, but for those who'd like to be but don't know where to start. Fifty organisations such as the Society of Women Writers hold their meetings in its rooms in the old former factory in inner suburban Fitzroy that it has almost outgrown. Last year, Richardson and her staff dealt with 10,000 letters, phone calls and visitors. It runs a regional programme of seminars and mini-writers' festivals, plus Melbourne-based courses, seminars and an assessment service for writers.

Victorian Writers not only critique work submitted in advance, they offer pointers in what to do next, how to find a publisher or agent - or whether just to stick to family and friends. Richardson tries to 'marry' suitable tutors with would-be writers and in cases where the news is all bad, chooses someone who will deliver it sympathetically. Such services, though geared to those living in Victoria, are also good news for Hong Kong writers - the centre offers an overseas subscription which includes a newsletter. The assessment services are available by mail and there are correspondence workshops for both groups and individuals in most writing genres.'Our brief is to promote writers and writing and reading, to increase professional opportunities and development for writers and the ever-mushrooming number of new writers,' Richardson says.

'We provide information services and referral advice.' There are special programmes for multi-cultural and young writers, for the elderly (an increasing number of whom are interesting in committing their life stories to print) and for working people, through writers' seminars in factory canteens, through the Australia Council's Art in Working Life programme. The Victorian Writers' Centre has grown with Caroline Richardson, a mother of three young children who took up her post as director in September 1992. Its new Handbook for Victorian Writers makes her a published author, but she wasn't previously and she thinks that's as it should be: 'I think it is much easier not to be, you don't have a particular bent or preference, you are open to everything.' She is an honours graduate in drama who grew up in four countries (though not Hong Kong) thanks to an army father. She began her working life in theatre management, ran an antiques business in Germany, then spent five years running the bookshop and literature programme at London's Riverside Studios. It's a time that has given her a fund of anecdotes about writers: Salman Rushdie, the 'shy and retiring' young man she launched in paperback; Hanif Kureishi, useless as a bookshop assistant because he spent all his time reading; Germaine Greer lecturing a young mother on how to have babies. From there she went to Islington Council in North London as arts officer, running programmes for its population which - like Victoria's - is multi-cultural. It was that programming and administrative experience which won her her present job, she says.

The centre was started in 1989 by a local writer, but most of its policies and programmes have evolved during Richardson's tenure. This year its turnover will be A$250,000 (HK$1.4 million), half of that in grants from the State Government and the Australia Council, the Federal Government's arts funding body. The rest comes from the Copyright Agency, which distributes copyright fees not collected by the writers entitled to them, through membership and course fees, handbook sales and an unlikely source - Senior Citizens' Week, for which the centre runs a programme. It's big business, but in Australia so is writing. Statistics aren't readily available but it seems the numbers of would-be writers here exceed many other countries, possibly a result of a search for identity and self-expression seen as stemming from post-war improvements in education.

'I just think people care about how they use their minds and there is a great feeling of wanting to express family history, from autobiography and biography to fiction,' Richardson says. This burgeoning interest is reflected in the fact that a professional diploma in writing and editing is being studied by more than 1,000 students at nine universities and further education colleges, with 400 of those students centre members, she says.'I think the recession played a small part in the growth; writing can be very cheap,' Richardson says.

'More and more people are interested in making money from it and we are offering workshops such as writing feature articles. But money is not the central thing.' The growing number of writers' groups show members keen to get together with those of like mind, be encouraged, criticised and to learn.

'There are an awful lot of people who are emerging writers who don't necessarily know anybody else who writes and at home or at work or in their social situation they do not have anybody to talk to about it. Our assessments give them the chance to talk about what happens next,' Richardson says.

It's the most satisfying job she has had and she points proudly to the newly-announced shortlist for the prestigious Angus and Robertson fiction prize as evidence of the results the centre can bring. One third of the 300 entries were from New South Wales, but six of the 10 finalists are from Victoria - two of them centre members.

But for Robertson, those who have not been published, and perhaps never will be, are as important as those winning accolades.