Blown away

Hello again. These are exciting times, folks – exciting times. Last week, I heard back from Anne Reilly, the senior nonfiction editor at HarperCollins who has been guiding me through the re-drafting process over the past two years. Anne was full of praise for my revised memoir and said she was ‘blown away’ by how sensitively and thoughtfully I had managed the re-write. Hooray! Anne has prepared a recommendation report for Catherine Milne, the non-fiction publisher at HarperCollins, and my fate now lies in her hands. Once Catherine reads it, and if she agrees with Anne’s recommendations, she will take the manuscript to the Acquisitions meeting – the big decider – where a pitch is made to senior Marketing and Sales personnel and senior management. Phew… I’ve made it through to the semi-finals on this path to publication, and I’m one step closer to reaching my goal.

All this excitement has left me strangely becalmed – stuck between the memoir and my next writing project – and I’ve taken leave from the PhD (yes, I still need to finish the exegesis) for a few months while I catch my breath. I’m feeling a mixture of relief, exhaustion, and also alarm at how much my garden has grown while I wasn’t looking — the lantana has gone wild, the crepe myrtles in the front yard are twenty-feet high, and a rampant species of ivy is threatening to pull down my carport. I’ve spent the last few days pruning, and am now ready to load up a 4-cubic metre skip which arrives tomorrow.

Gardening is hard and treacherous work, though, and I’m well and truly over it. Yesterday, while cutting back a feijoa bush out near the front of my house, I disturbed a wasps’ nest – they attacked the whole left side of my body and I ran off screaming, ripping off my clothes on the way to the wading pool in the backyard, where I madly threw buckets of water over myself to ease the pain. I don’t know what the neighbours thought, but those bites really stung! Time to head back into safer waters, methinks, and once I load up the skip, I’ll be ready to begin work on my next project and let the winds send me off on another writing adventure. Until next time …

What a time it has been …

Hello again. What a time it has been … six rejections in recent weeks, seemingly endless school holidays, a self-organised ‘exegesis retreat’ at the coast (a lonely and fretful week, not at all like Varuna), a three-week bout of laryngitis, various emotional dramas on the home-front and, last week, my normally wonderful hairdresser gave me a mullet (thankfully now fixed). During this time of rejections and mullet-induced low self-esteem, I’ve continued to step out of my comfort zone in academia – I gave my first lecture (the students clapped when I finished, and one student even came up to me afterwards and told me how much she enjoyed my talk, which greatly restored my confidence in life), put in an abstract for a creative writing symposium coming up at UNE next month and finally started writing my exegesis. Yes! And I’ve actually made some headway – over 8000 words on my ‘method chapter’ last weekend – and it was even kind of enjoyable. I’m about to go back to it this morning, but thought I’d better post something because it’s been so long. Next week, I’ll hear whether I was successful in my application for an artist-in-residence position at Bundanon – oh, please! – and then I have to wait until December to find out about a residency at Hedgebrook, a women only writing retreat on Whidbey Island near Seattle. Check it out – www.hedgebrook.org. In the meantime, I will continue to ‘keep the faith’ as Anne Reilly says, and send my work out with renewed hope. Until next time …

What’s stopping you?

Hello again. I’m back, after what feels like a long time in the wilderness, and guess what? I have begun the re-working / re-writing process …what a relief! I’m on my way, I faced the dragon and now I know I have the strength within me to continue and get the job done. I must admit, though, that I went through another long period of feeling totally overwhelmed and inadequate; wracked with guilt because I was spending too long in the ‘writing without writing’ phase. That’s why it was so good to chat with Anne Reilly, my HarperCollins editor, a few weeks ago. I needed to hear her voice, to be reminded of her belief in me, and her enthusiasm. The Varuna HarperCollins Residency was starting to feel like a distant memory. Did I tell you that Anne’s parting words were: ‘Keep the faith.’ Yes.

It’s taken me another couple of weeks, but I’ve drawn up the rough map for the new draft, and have also re-read the manuscript – where I was able to see the problems with fresh eyes – and now I fully understand what needs to be done to make it a publishable manuscript. I can do it. Last week, after I finished the read-through, I had a ‘phone-meet’ with Judith Lukin-Amundsen, my Australian Society of Authors Mentor, and we discussed some of my thoughts on the process. As always, Judith was very affirming, and commented that my idea for the new draft’s preface was ‘a piece of genius!’ I think I need to write that up in big letters, and put it above my desk. I told her how the idea had come to me on one of my walks – ‘It was like magic’ – and she said the time-span in between when you’re not working on a manuscript is invaluable, and that I didn’t need to feel guilty. You only get a certain number of chances to see the writing with fresh eyes – and that’s after a long break, and when the manuscript is in the typesetting stage. It was just as Mandy Sayer said: ‘“Writing without writing” is a process that allows the imagination to wander freely; to make unconscious connections between narrative possibilities…’ It really works.

My new goal? By April 2012 I intend to finish the final draft, and have it ready to submit to HarperCollins. However, because I have such a great deal of work to do, I’ve been seeking opportunities that offer quiet writing / thinking time so I can achieve my goal. The other night, I caught up with my neighbour and fellow writer, James Vicars, who had just returned from a two-week NSW Lit-Link Fellowship at Varuna, and was full of stories. Along with relishing the time and space to think and write, he also commented on the rarity of having four other writers to sup with each evening, and the richness of the conversations they shared. As I listened to Jim, I thought to myself: I want to go back to Varuna. It had been cold, grey and rainy for weeks in Armidale – typical end-of-winter weather – my days filled with rotating the racks of washing around the fire, chopping wood, cooking dinner, housework, family commitments, tutoring … the writing side-lined. Chatting with Jim, I realised that opportunities for retreat are essential, because sometimes the writing just has to come first. I left his house more buoyant than I’d been for weeks, and since then I’ve applied for a Varuna Fellowship, a residency at Bundanon, a Writing @ Rosebank Fellowship, and a position as an emerging writer-in-residence at the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers’ Centre. Surely one of these opportunities will come through.

I’m very fortunate to have another writer living just around the corner, and Jim and I meet regularly to discuss the writing life and the health benefits of vodka. I’ll finish this post with an excerpt from a letter of support he wrote for me recently (for one of my retreat applications): ‘Helena has been a companion on the writing path since 2008 when she encouraged me to take my writing seriously. Her encouragement was followed up by the questions: ‘Why not? What’s stopping you?’. Asked with a genuine warmth and sense of potential, these encapsulate her positive approach as a writing mentor. While Helena knows we all have difficulties and obstacles to overcome as writers she always has a sense of what the next step might be and that one can always move forward in one way or another.’ Thanks, Jim!

Here’s to moving forward, which sometimes isn’t easy. I’ll try to remember to post my UNE talk next time. Until then …

Writing without writing

Hello again. What a month it has been. No, it’s not what you’re thinking . My index-card box is still empty; I haven’t written or developed any further scenes. In fact, I’ve hardly looked at the manuscript. What’s going on? Well, I think I’m in the ‘writing without writing’ stage. In a recent ‘Writing Class’ article in Spectrum, Mandy Sayer says that the ‘art of “writing without writing” is a process that allows the imagination to wander freely; to make unconscious connections between narrative possibilities without the pressure of producing a consistent tone, a tight prose style, beautiful sentences and startling metaphors.’ Not to mention a full box of index-cards. Recognising that I’m in a kind of ‘pre-rewriting’ phase has helped me understand that I’m nowhere near ready to put scenes onto index cards. There are many other things to do before I reach that next phase in the development of this memoir.

Also, if I’m honest with myself, I recognise that a large part of my ‘writing without writing’ phase is due to fear. The task ahead remains overwhelming at times, especially as my marriage ended ten months ago, and I’m less than five months away from submitting my PhD. The other day, seeking some reassurance, I rang my HarperCollins editor, Anne Reilly, and together we worked out three simple steps to help me ease into the task and dispel some of that fear. Step one is to sketch out yet another map – almost a statement of intention – of what I want the re-worked memoir to be, and to see that map as the bones of the story; second step is to read over the memoir draft as it currently stands and fit parts of that draft onto my map, and see it as adding flesh to the bones; step three is to go back to the ‘Varuna blah’ and match parts of that to the map in the same way. Anne believes that these three steps will enable me to merge the old draft with the new (without freaking out).

Even though I haven’t progressed far with the memoir, other positive ‘writing without writing’ things have happened. I enjoyed a brief but fruitful email correspondence with SMH Good Weekend journalist, John van Tiggelen, who responded to my questions about ethics and other matters with openness and generosity. What a gift to an emerging writer like myself. I also gave a paper about one aspect of my writing process – whether or not to show the subjects of your writing early drafts – at a UNE School of Arts conference. It was well-received, and I’ll post the talk here in the next week or so. I also gave my first tutorial in a ‘Writing in Genres’ unit at UNE which was immensely enjoyable, especially as I was able to participate in the same creative writing exercise as the students. We had to write about a place. Normally I find these write-on-the-spot exercises difficult, but this one was surprisingly easy. I thought I was going to write about my regular meetings with my PhD supervisors at a local coffee shop, but this is what ended up on my piece of paper:

The windows at my favourite coffee shop are large, and slide across to allow outside and inside to merge. At the end of each shift, the glass needs to be wiped clean of sticky fingers and handprints. Late, on the Saturday morning my father died, I walked past this coffee shop and saw a friend, who worked there, cleaning the windows. I think I was still in shock. I’d been shopping: first to Kmart to buy a new bra and some underpants to wear to the funeral (these items seemed terribly important that morning), and then to Darryl Lea to buy dark ginger chocolates, my father’s favourite. When I saw my friend, I stopped and said hello. ‘My father died this morning,’ I told her. She leant through the window and hugged me.

Hmmm … interesting what goes on inside us, eh? I read my piece to the students because even though it’s very simple, I like it. It showed me that I miss my father more than I thought, and that his death is still just under my skin – even though it’s been over three years. The piece was probably a little heavy for the students – they wrote about happier memories of places – but gee, it was good to be in a room where so many young people were writing and openly sharing their work (and who all listened quietly as one older person shared a piece of her heart). I think we’re going to have fun.

Until next time.

Dark Corners

Hello again. This week’s post is about the importance of ‘believing mirrors’. In a 1985 ABC radio interview, Leonard Cohen (who was touring Australia at the time), commented that he had become much more ‘careful’ with his writing as he grew older, that it didn’t come as easily as it did when he was a younger man. When the interviewer asked whether that took something away from the enjoyment of it, he replied: ‘I never thought it was a joyous activity … I mean, one feels a certain sense of relief when you can finish a song or a book, but you’re generally working in, more or less, dark corners.’

I often think about that comment – I’ve worked in quite a few dark corners over the years, and I know I’ll come across more in the months and years ahead. Writing can be a lonely, dispiriting activity; many writers suffer from self-esteem issues, deal regularly with rejection and question themselves and their choice of career. The last fortnight has been one of those times for me. An article in the local paper, headlined: ‘“Don’t think too highly of your ability,” writers told,’ seemed like it had been written for me; I had a succession of rejections, my grand plan failed and my index-card box is still empty – I didn’t even manage to file those two ‘almost ready’ scenes. This was partly because of a PhD deadline I had to meet … but it’s always easy to find excuses, and excuses won’t get the job done. I haven’t yet mentioned in this blog that my memoir is part of a PhD in Creative Research Practice at the University of New England, and that I’m due to submit on the 15th December, 2011. I was planning to suspend my studies for six months and focus only on the HarperCollins re-write, but last week I decided to combine the two jobs – set small, gentle goals and meet them, right? – because I need to finish the PhD and move on in my life (and I also saw a psychic who told me that the message from the spirits was do not suspend! Okay!!!).

When I spoke with my ASA mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen, about the dilemma of whether to suspend or not, she said she’d seen many writers struggle through similar creative degrees, and added: ‘PhDs aren’t good for creative writers – it often wrecks the work, and there’s a lot of anxiety about the exegesis. Books aren’t meant to be written as part of PhDs.’ I tend to agree, although I suppose it depends on your previous academic experiences. In my case, I’ve been feeling nervous about the exegesis (a 20-25000 word critical analysis of the PhD creative project) for the last three years, but the time has now come to write it. No more running away. I do worry, though. Chris Lilley, creator of Angry Boys and Summer Heights High, says of the creative process: ‘If you over-think, it affects things too much; I work instinctively … think too much and you ruin everything.’ But to write an exegesis you have to think deeply about your work, so you can explain your research practice to your examiners. I hope I haven’t ruined everything …

Anyway, what I really want to emphasise in this post is the value of supportive writing friendships. At my lowest point last week, when I could no longer find my way out of one of those dark corners, I rang my friend Edwina Shaw and had a meltdown over the phone about how I’d never be able to write a concise plan for the exegesis, and how I’d had four rejections in a fortnight, and how friggin’ long was I going to have to wait to get my previous memoir published and what was the point of it all? She reminded me that after more than eight years of writing practice, and with two creative nonfiction manuscripts under my belt, I was more than capable of writing a damn interesting exegesis that might even get published one day and I just needed to relax and trust myself. Yes. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron calls a friend like Edwina (someone who believes in you and your creativity) a ‘believing mirror’, and says that having people like that in your life is the single most important factor in an artist’s sustained productivity. Not only did Edwina help me out of a dark corner, but she also encouraged me to do the work. We’ve been believing mirrors for each other for over eight years, and I’m very thankful for her support and friendship. I reckon we’re both moving towards the next stage of our lengthy writing apprenticeships … but more about that next time. I’ll end this post with one of Edwina’s favourite sayings: ‘Onwards and upwards!’

Brights and darks.

Hello again and welcome back to my blog. I’ve had a busy week ‘Varuna-ising’ my life:  creating a new private work area in my bedroom (my desk was previously in the middle of the house), clearing out lots of old papers, tidying bookshelves, organising some quiet time and, as usual, walking a lot. It’s been an ‘out with the old, in with the new’ preparatory time, and now I’m ready to begin work on the memoir. During the week, I also had a ‘phone-meet’ with my mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen. As mentioned in a previous post, my memoir has attracted a lot of interest over the last few years, and last December I was awarded an Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Mentorship to develop the manuscript. Each year, fifteen to twenty mentorships are offered, and the winning writers receive thirty hours mentoring from a professional writer or editor of their choice. For many emerging writers, it is a step-up to publication. This is actually my second ASA mentorship with Judith; we worked together during 2010 on my other manuscript: ‘Yahtzee and the Art of Happiness’. Judith is one of Australia’s most respected editors, and I still can’t believe I have the opportunity to work with her for another year. We’ve never met, but we have regular ‘phone-meets’ which last an hour or so, and I really enjoy her involvement in my life as a writer.

As part of the mentorship, Judith reads my manuscript at the beginning and then again at the end of the re-working process, and in between we discuss any issues that arise. We’d only had one ‘phone-meet’ before I left for Varuna, during which we’d mainly discussed issues to do with structure and content. So, last week, I filled Judith in on what had happened at Varuna, and about the suggestions I’d received from Anne Reilly, my HarperCollins editor. You’re probably getting confused at this point: yes, it is unusual to have input from two editorial programs like this. But, basically, Anne Reilly is working with me at the structural editing stage (and will move into fine editing when the memoir is ready, and will then hopefully champion the memoir to publication – yes!); while Judith is working at the mentoring stage. For me, it helps to compare it to the process of having a homebirth (my children were all born at home). The memoir is the baby. Anne Reilly is the hands-on midwife who is responsible for bringing my baby safely into the world, and she will be with me till the very end; Judith Lukin-Amundsen is my extremely knowledgeable support person, ready with hot washers and back rubs to help with the pain, but she can only offer me thirty hours of her time during this labour. That’ll be more than enough, I reckon: the three of us are going to be a dynamic team and we’ll get this baby out by the end of the year (ready to be submitted to HarperCollins, that is).

Judith was very impressed with Anne’s re-shaping ideas, and also with how much productivity Anne had drawn out of me during my time at Varuna. We discussed the life journey writing activity – which generated 66 000 words of what I now call the Varuna ‘blah’ – and I also told Judith about Anne’s idea of structuring the memoir into a ‘five act plan’, similar to how Shakespeare organised much of his work. It runs something like this: Act One sets up the problem, the background or context, and introduces the characters; Act Two builds on the troubles that concern the lead characters; Act Three is where the agent of change enters the scene; Act Four describes the crisis that precedes the major change; and finally, Act Five sees the resolution of the story, where the key test has been passed. This final act often includes a twist in the tale, something the reader isn’t expecting.

When I finished explaining all this, Judith admitted that she would be feeling a little overwhelmed if she was me, but she went on to reassure me that it was all very ‘do-able’. How’s that? A reduced version of the current manuscript will form acts three, four and half of five; selected parts of the life story ‘blah’ from Varuna will form acts one, two and the end of five. According to Judith, I have ‘bucket-loads’ of stuff already written, my re-structuring notions are ‘terrifically organised’ and she has great faith in my ability to get the job done.

At some stage of the conversation, Judith commented that a good narrative (or story) has brights and darks, just as life does. I love that expression: brights and darks. How true it is. But although I’ve had my fair share of darks – the reason behind all that weeping at Varuna – I’m not writing a ‘misery memoir’. I want my story to lift people’s spirits, to be funny as well as moving, to offer hope. So, before I begin to write acts one and two (starting next Monday), I’m doing a bit of reading to see how different writers integrate ‘dark’ material into their stories without it becoming depressing or boring for the reader. Anh Do does a great job in ‘The Happiest Refugee’ … I bought his memoir on impulse the other day and I’ve learnt heaps already, even though I’ve not yet finished the book. Writing about his early life as a Vietnamese refugee, Anh Do shares plenty of hard times, but I still find myself laughing out loud as I turn the pages. Brights and darks. Also, by the end of the first page, he had me hooked. His story punched me in the guts; it has emotional truth and I need to find out what happens next. That’s the sort of reader-response I’m aiming for.

Before I finish this post, I want to thank Anna Hedigan for setting up this blog for me when we were at Varuna (and while I was at the masseur!). Anna’s wide-ranging knowledge and resourcefulness was remarkable – if my oven ever catches on fire, she’s the sort of woman I want in my kitchen. I had planned to enlighten you about an index-card method I’ve stumbled across (which will hopefully make the task ahead a little less overwhelming), and also mention the supportive writing-relationship I enjoy with my friend, Edwina Shaw, but those topics will have to wait till next time. Until then …

Go where it scares you …

Hello again. This week’s post will hopefully enlighten you about one possible method for bringing ‘emotional truth’ into your work. First of all, why do you need it? Well, according to my HarperCollins editor, Anne Reilly, a memoir without a heart doesn’t work. It doesn’t punch you in the guts. It doesn’t keep you turning the pages and make you stay up late reading. The book has to give the message that this is a story that has to be told. In my case, although my story idea (or arrow) was worthy – and its trajectory has so far attracted a lot of interest – for a variety of reasons (which I’ll explore in another post), I have ‘held back’ in my writing. Not only has this led to my work lacking emotional truth, but it has also led to problems with focus and structure.

One of the first things Anne asked me to do as we walked and talked around Katoomba was to ‘tell her the story’ that I had written; she thought I wasn’t clear about what it actually was. By the way, this blog is mostly going to focus on process rather than content, but, briefly, my memoir is about a mother healing her relationship with her son. After I told Anne this, she said she thought that was the case, but I hadn’t made it clear … I needed a more focussed story, and I also needed to form a much bigger picture of myself for the reader. She advised me to start by mapping my life journey on to a sheet of cardboard; to chart my journey from beginning to now. Then I had to write the life journey story without looking at notes or at a journal, write straight from the heart and follow the map. This would uncover deep-layer material, almost proto-book matter, and Anne said it would provide an authentic base to my story, the true emotional core. I would be the only witness to this uncensored piece of writing, so I could just let it all out. When it was finished, I would choose from it the information that would help readers understand the bigger picture of my story, and then I would shape it to go public.

I’d received similar advice from Anne Collins, chief-editor from Random House Canada, at the Brisbane Writers Festival a few years ago. She’d read the first twenty pages of an early draft of my memoir and, after we discussed some general points, asked, ‘So how are you going to make this into a story?’ I was blocked at the time; I couldn’t write and didn’t know where the story was going. What my memoir needed then, as it does now, was the emotional truth. Anne Collins’s advice was: ‘Go where it scares you … write as if everyone is dead. Think about the consequences later – just write now. And don’t show anyone till the end.’ This is a continuing dilemma for me, and I’m sure it has contributed to the problems I now have with my memoir; I show my work-in-progress to others too much, mostly for re-assurance or encouragement. I need to have more confidence as a writer and keep my work to myself until it is fully-formed.

Meanwhile, back at Varuna, it was time to find my truth, to go where it scared me. I bought three sheets of cardboard, and over the next week I mapped out and then wrote the story of my life. Following the map … writing, weeping, and walking. Writing, weeping, walking. I was like a madwoman, but that’s how I ended up with 66 000 words. I also had two massages with the fabulous Lyn Midgely from Katoomba Natural Therapies. Having a massage with Lyn at the beginning and at the end of the life journey writing activity really helped me make it through this highly emotional time.

What also helped was a trip to the movies to see James Franco play Allen Ginsberg in HOWL. I’d never really understood the poem, but seeing the movie changed that. The movie made a big impression on me. I liked how Ginsberg talked about being true to yourself as a writer, about the fear that holds people back from doing what they really want to do, about the fear of being old and living in a room with pee on your pyjamas and having no one to love you, and about how expressing real honest emotion is not shocking for anyone. On that note, I’ll finish.

Welcome!

Hello! Welcome to my blog. I am an emerging Australian writer of creative nonfiction / memoir, and I have set up this to blog to record the process of preparing my memoir manuscript to a publishable standard within the next six months. This memoir, currently titled ‘Iron Men: Alchemy at Work’ (a new title is needed, but has not yet been decided), explores the challenge of disaffected youth from a mother’s perspective. My work on this memoir recently won me a 2010 / 2011 HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development. The award includes a ten-day residency at Varuna, the Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Every year, five lucky writers work with five senior editors from HarperCollins, and the aim of the program is to help each writer to bring their manuscript to a publishable standard through an on-going relationship with their editor. The finished work is then submitted to HarperCollins, one ofAustralia’s leading publishers, for first consideration.

I have just returned from Varuna (27th April-6th May, 2011) where I consulted at length with Senior Nonfiction Editor, Anne Reilly, who chose my manuscript from the long-list. Thank you, Anne, for giving me this wonderful professional opportunity! Along with the four other HarperCollins awardees – Sally Bothroyd, Tim Denoon, Anna Hedigan, and Heather Taylor Johnson – I conferred with my editor at the beginning and at the end of the residency, and have left Varuna with a blueprint of what further work I need to do. During the residency we also had information sessions with Sue Brockhoff, Head of Fiction, who explained the intricacies of the publishing process should HarperCollins accept our manuscripts.

Varuna is heaven for writers (thank you Mick Dark!). All the household / cooking needs are catered for (thanks to Joan and Sheila!), and writers are left undisturbed (thanks to Lis and Vera!) to write, read, think, walk, sleep, have baths, eat chocolate, drink wine … whatever! As well as writing over 65 000 words while I was there – yes, amazing! – I walked for hours each day around the streets of Katoomba. My editor, Anne, also enjoyed walking, so we ‘walked and talked’ through the mist and rain, up and down hills and discussed what the manuscript needs. The good news is that Anne thinks my memoir is ‘imminently publishable’, but the not-so-good news is that it basically needs to be re-written and re-structured. Sigh … Did I mention that I’ve already been working on this manuscript for three and a half years? Oh, well.

According to Anne, there are two types of writers – mapper-outers and arrow-shooters. Mapper-outers, as the name suggests, are those writers who plan their manuscript in great detail, a technique which works particularly well for genre writers. They always know where they are going and what they are doing. Arrow-shooters, the category I fall into, are those who shoot out the arrow (the idea that interests them) and see where it lands. The place I am in now is that I have shot out my arrow – and have a work-in-progress of 85 000 words – but now I need to incorporate some ‘mapping’ techniques to improve the content and structure. My aim is to merge some of the 60 000 words I wrote at Varuna with some of the current content. By the end of six months I will have a much better story and will have learnt how to put my heart – my emotional truth – into this work.

And how am I going to do that, and where am I going to start? More about that in my next post … but let me just say that so far it has involved pencils, cardboard, a laptop, tissues, long walks, lots of red wine, a trip to the movies to see ‘HOWL’ and two fantastic massages.

PS. The next post won’t be as long as this one!

Helena