Sian Prior on writing memoirs: It is a way of processing my long-buried grief

Today we bring you the incredible Sian Prior for our ‘Behind the Book’ segment. Sian is a Melbourne-based writer, broadcaster, musician and creative-writing teacher. With a career spanning thirty-plus years in journalism, she has also written two memoirs, Shy- a memoir published in 2014 and the recently published Childless.

Why did you decide to write a second memoir- Childless

Sian- This memoir is a record of my long and complex quest to have a child of my own, a seven-year quest that ultimately failed. It’s also about coming to terms with grief – the grief of not being able to have something you always thought would be yours and the long-buried grief of losing my biological father when I was very young. In writing the book, I wanted to try to understand the many decision I’d made, large and small, that had led to me finding myself alone and childless at an age when most of my friends were enjoying being parents and grandparents. Writing it down was a way of processing my long-buried grief, a form of writing as therapy if you like. The book is also about my decision to try to embrace the positive side of these experiences by taking advantage of the incredible freedom my childlessness has given me. I describe my years of campervanning solo around Australia every winter, enjoying nature, and finally visiting the beach where my father drowned. More broadly, I wanted to write about our communal duty of care toward children and how our failure to confront the climate crisis might impact future generations.

Childless opens our hearts to a very sensitive subject that not many find the courage to speak about. How did you convince yourself that you must write about your journey?

Sian- I suspected there were many other women – and men – silently managing this grief and feeling very alone with it. By bringing it out into the open, I hope we will all feel less alone and less stigmatised as childless people living in a culture that is still intensely focused on the ‘ideal ‘of the nuclear family. My first memoir, ‘Shy‘, was also very self-revealing because I put so much of my vulnerability into it. But many people contacted me after that book came out, thanking me for publicly admitting to my anxieties because it made them feel less like the odd person out, with their own shyness. So I learnt that admitting my vulnerability in public can be helpful both for me and for others. 

Do you think the judgements around involuntarily childless people are still extreme and brutal? What do you think we can do to make this world a better place for those who are hurting?

Sian- There are still so many negative stereotypes around childless people, especially women. It’s woven all through our language – spinsters, barren women, crones – we are still somehow seen as abnormal, as lacking in something. There’s also sometimes an assumption that we are being selfish if we don’t have kids – that we’ve chosen to please ourselves rather than to care for someone else, or we’ve chosen our careers over motherhood. For someone like me, who tried so hard for so long to be a mother, that one is particularly insensitive. But I’ve also had people suggesting that I only wanted to become a mother because I was giving in to peer pressure to be ‘normal’. None of those things are true. All are hurtful. The stories behind childlessness (or being child-free) are usually complex and often painful, and I hope this book will encourage us all to be more sensitive when we’re talking about these subjects.  

Is there a particular message you want to convey through your memoir- Childless?

Sian- I want everyone to pause and think about how many people might be grappling with the grief and trauma of miscarriage and/or infertility – of being childless, not by choice. Although I mostly wrote the memoir for myself, I also wanted people who have children to read it so they know what it feels like to not be able to have children. I want people who are unable to have children to read it to know they are not alone with their grief. I want everyone who cares deeply about the future of the planet to read it, so they don’t feel alone with their ‘solastalgia’ – their grief at the prospect of losing so much beauty and ecological complexity on this warming planet. I want people who don’t yet care about climate change to read it so they stop and reflect on the potential impacts on their children and grandchildren.

But I also wanted to share the positive side of my story – that I have finally embraced the privilege of freedom that my childlessness has given me and become a traveller, an adventurer, a ‘blonde nomad’. I’ve been able to indulge my love of being in nature, being beside and in the ocean, being in forests, beside lakes, and walking up and down mountains – including beautiful mountains in New Zealand! I’ve come through the worst of the grief and found community and communion in all sorts of ways other than being a parent. 

What is your writing technique like- do you always know what you have to say, or do you prefer to go with the flow? 

Sian- My process is kind of messy, but maybe in a good way. I make a lot of notes in notebooks and on my phone and in journals about scenes I want to describe in my book, and then as I’m describing them I figure out why they were memorable for me, and what I’ve learnt from, or wondered about, those experiences. It’s a form of thinking on the page, of having a conversation with myself about my life. I struggle to be disciplined with my writing habits, especially when the subject matter is painful, as much of this was. I need a deadline, and sometimes I have to manufacture one for myself to get things done. 

Let’s talk about your first foray into writing. How did it all begin?

Sian- I began writing stories as a child – my mother hung onto one I wrote when I was about nine, all about our corgi Buffy, in which he and I solve a crime. Hilarious! Then I started writing short stories as a teenager and won a prize for one of them. At uni, I started writing for the student newspaper, including what I would now call creative non-fiction pieces. I stopped doing much creative writing for many years when I became a radio presenter and producer. Then around 2004, I enrolled in the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT University and never looked back. I wrote more short stories and non-fiction essays and started writing my first book,’ Shy: m a memoir’. I was also writing personal columns for newspapers which was a great way of learning how to write condensed, impactful narratives. 

What has been your biggest takeaway while writing this memoir?

Sian- Grief can’t be buried. Deep loss can’t be ignored. There will always be a time of reckoning. But if you are able to go through that process of grappling with the pains of the past, you can sometimes find a path to a more hopeful future. None of us gets everything we want in life. I’ve had an immensely privileged life in so many ways. My losses have (hopefully) helped me to become more empathetic towards others who’ve lost something or someone precious. 

Did you have to go through some initial rejections while getting this book published?

Sian- No, I was very lucky – my agent sent it first to Text Publishing, who’d published ‘Shy: a memoir‘, and they wanted to publish this one too. 

What do we see you doing when you’re not working?

Sian- When I’m not writing or teaching writers, I do a lot of singing – I’m in two choirs and a vocal quartet. I just love making music with other people. I go out to hear bands, see plays and films, and be a bit of a culture vulture. I jaunt about in my campervan with my crazy cavoodle Jazzy, doing bushwalks, swimming, and reading beside the sea under a beach umbrella. Meet up with my Book Club, cycle around on my electric bike, and visit family. I have a busy life, a life with a lot of joy in it. I’m lucky. 

Do you have any tips for the new aspiring writers working on their first novel?

Sian- I always advise my writing students to prepare themselves to live with a lot of uncertainty about their writing projects for a while. The process can be messy, but the messiness can be productive, even fun. Trying things out, discarding things, and finding better ways it’s all part of the creative process. Try to think of a word as toys you can play with, not stones you’re trying to chew on.   

Childless was published on 29th March 2022 by Text Publishing. You can purchase the book here.