Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Hello again. I’ve been thinking a lot about my sister lately, and about the huge influence she had on me as a child. Nine years older, she was like a second mother … a cool ‘hippie’ version of a mother, though, in her velvet hotpants and floppy felt hat. We lived in an old bakery house and I hung out with her a lot. Her bedroom door was covered in posters, and some were what we’d now call ‘affirmative messages’. I often think of those posters. I’d read them over and over, trying to make sense of what the words meant, never really understanding. One was: To see a world in a grain of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand / and eternity in an hour. What the …? Another proclaimed: Today is the first day of the rest of your life. That also had me stumped at the time, but I sort of get it now, and it is exactly how I felt yesterday when I began re-working the memoir. Yes, the time has finally come!

It’s been a long break from the manuscript, but maybe I needed it. The problems in the work are so clear now; for example, the flat-line narrative of one of the threads in the story, how there is too much dialogue, how I need more reflection, and how large sections need to be cut, cut, cut. Back in September, I did a read-through with a pencil and noted where things needed to be cut or changed, but I just hadn’t been able to face it until yesterday. Probably because the past year has been full of emotional highs and lows – or brights and darks, as Judith would say – and I didn’t feel strong enough. But I do now. And it’s exciting! With my read-through notes beside me, I’m going through the draft on the computer, cutting and editing, and new thoughts and connections are already starting to happen – and it’s only been two days!

This is the first step in re-working the memoir into a loose five-act structure. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the current manuscript – drastically reduced – will form Act Three, Act Four and the first half of Act Five. Then I’ll go back to the ‘Varuna Blah’ – I’m ready now! – and use parts of that to write Act One, Act Two and the last half of Act Five. Can I do all of this before April, so I can submit the manuscript to HarperCollins? Yes. I’m going to meet my deadline. In fact, I will get a final draft to Anne and Judith some weeks before that. The time is right. I’m strong, I’m ready, I’m back … this time for good. I’ve suspended my PhD for seven months – as you know, the memoir forms part of my PhD so it’s not like I’m going to stop working on it or doing my reading for the exegesis, but stopping the clock has given me the breathing space I needed.

Why has all this come about?

Well, first of all, a good friend died in a car accident on the 31st October. Death is always a shake-up and often involves a re-assessment of your own life. A week later, I gave a talk about my research at a Creative Writing Symposium at UNE – I spoke about the memoir, the transformative experience of writing it, what still needed to be done and the fabulous support I’d received through gaining Anne Reilly’s editorial guidance with the Varuna HarperCollins Award, and having Judith Lukin-Amundsen as my Australian Society of Authors mentor. But after giving my paper, I felt confused … why wasn’t I working on the memoir when I had been given these wonderful (and rare) opportunities? The next day I emailed Judith and Anne, asking for professional advice about whether or not to suspend my studies. Judith was a little evasive – she wasn’t going to make the decision for me – but said: ‘In the writing you’re best to follow your gut desire: ie. Why are you doing all this? And – Why do you write? The answer to these two questions should clarify your confusion … yes?’

Yes, it clarified my confusion. I emailed Judith with this reply: ‘I write because it’s very satisfying and (mostly) makes me happy. I want my books to be published. I want to keep writing for the rest of my life. Also, a good friend died three weeks ago in a car accident. Just like that you can go. And if I die tomorrow, what is more important? The book … NOT the exegesis. It can wait.’

And that is how yesterday came to be the first day of the rest of my life. I’ll finish now, but for your interest, I’ve added a story called ‘Wedding Coat’ to my ‘writing’ page. It’s from a collection of short fiction I’m working on called ‘The Bakery Stories’, and is based around my sister and I. Until next time …

Holding your breath for a year

Hello again. This week’s post is about organising your work. When I was discussing this subject with Judith Lukin-Amundsen (my Australian Society of Authors mentor) the other week, she said: ‘Writing a book and trying to keep it all in your head is like holding your breath for a year.’ I agree – except for me, it’s been nearly four years. Having some sort of organising process in place will hopefully enable me to breathe again – even if it’s just little gasps – and make it through to the end.

During our last ‘phone-meet’, I explained to Judith that I was going to try an index-card method to help me cope with the task ahead. As mentioned in a previous post, I have 66 000 words of loose-writing – the Varuna ‘blah’ – from which I now need to choose pieces to craft into scenes that will help me create a bigger picture of who I am for the reader of my memoir – and then those scenes will merge with selected scenes from my existing manuscript (85 000 words) to form an improved narrative based around a five-act structure. Sounds easy? No way. In fact, lately I’ve been feeling somewhat panic-stricken at what I have to do. However, easy or not, the job has to be done. I’m not sure whether it will be better to go through the ‘blah’ from beginning to end, or, alternatively, to pick and choose and go with what I feel like writing about on that particular day, but whatever strategy I decide on, once I finish writing a new scene I will print out its basic details onto an index card and file the card in a box. Each week I hope to add three index cards to the box. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron says it is important to set small gentle goals and meet them, so you feel like you are achieving something. Three new scenes a week is manageable for me at this stage. Once I finish going through the ‘blah’, I will then go back to the existing material and re-write selected parts into scenes which can also be filed on index cards.

When the time comes to merge the old material with the new, the index cards (along with the three sheets of cardboard that map my ‘life-journey’) will help me to structure the memoir into a different shape. I can imagine spreading the index cards over the floor and placing scenes that work well next to each other, much like piecing together a patchwork blanket. Judith said many writers use this method, although she warned that a feeling of randomness can develop and it is important to pay careful attention to the bridging between sections. Although the job ahead is daunting, I’m excited about it as well. I already have two scenes just about ready to slot into the box, and it’s refreshing to be working with new material again.

Over the last fortnight, I was also chatting with my friend, Edwina Shaw, and she said something which made me understand the need to form a clearer picture of myself in my writing. Edwina, with whom I share a deeply supportive writing-based friendship, also won a mentorship with Judith Lukin-Amundsen last year, and the two of them recently met at a coffee shop in Brisbane (I’ve never met Judith – we just have phone-meets). At some point in their conversation, my name was mentioned, and Judith said to Edwina that she thought of me as petite, perhaps a little fragile (all that weeping!). ‘Oh, no,’ Edwina had said in surprise. ‘Helena is tall, strong, beautiful!’ Gee thanks, Edwina … I’ll run with that for a while! (Why are there no photos on this blog, you ask? Never mind about photos … this is a blog about writing process). But, jokes aside, if Judith, after reading both of my memoir manuscripts and working closely with me for over a year, visualises me as petite – which is definitely not the case (emotionally fragile, maybe) – then something is missing from my work. And that is what I need to fix.

 Anyway, more about my friendship with Edwina in the next post, along with some wisdom from Leonard Cohen and Chris Lilley. Until then …keep writing!

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