Hello again. Oh, what a crazy hectic time! I’m off to Bundanon in less than a week, and because of its remote location (nearest shop thirty minutes away and no live-in cook like at Varuna), I have a huge checklist of things to do / find / pack before the weekend. I’m really looking forward to having time to get back to the memoir – I’ve hardly looked at it in recent weeks. I managed to read the Varuna blah, and what an experience that was! I was exclaiming as I read through it, and my life made much more sense to me afterwards. The best thing is that it contains heaps of good material to merge in with the current draft. Emotional truths. Which is just what the memoir needed – so thanks to my HarperCollins editor, Anne Reilly, for that suggestion. Writing from the heart is something I’ll be doing first, not last, when I start on my next project.

I’ve been unsettled since I went to the Gold Coast a fortnight ago to help while my mother was in hospital for her knee operation. I was pretty nervous about the operation – actually, anything to do with hospitals makes me nervous – but, apart from a few worrying days, all is well. My mother is now recovering in a flash rehab centre, and I can breathe again. While I was at the Gold Coast, my dear friend, Edwina Shaw, came down from Brisbane to offer her support – we stayed in my mother’s resort-style unit at Broadbeach, and jokingly called it our ‘Hospital Retreat’. Each year, Edwina and I organise one or two writing retreats at Evans Head; we spend our time lying around reading, editing, writing, talking, resting, swimming in the sea and staying away of household chores. Our ‘hospital retreat’ was nothing like that… every day we were busy driving, visiting, shopping, cooking and cleaning. By the end of the week we’d filled my mother’s freezer with meals (which will make her life a lot easier when she comes home from rehab) and left the unit sparkling clean and ready for her return. Edwina and I couldn’t stop singing Amy Winehouse’s Rehab (what a sad short life she had), imagining all the oldies from the hospital pushing their walkers to and fro in time with the music – No! No! No! I tell you, hospitals do strange things to my head …

In the communal bookshelf at the unit complex we spotted Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, and in its place we left a copy of Edwina’s recently published book ‘Thrill Seekers’. Yes! One of us finally has a real book at long last! Unfortunately I’ll be at Bundanon when ‘Thrill Seekers’ is launched at Avid Reader bookshop in West End on the 9th March, and I’ll also miss my choir’s annual retreat at the coast. Bum! But I need to retreat. Desperately. Retreats are like rehab for writers … and just as rehab isn’t about lying around and doing nothing, retreats and residencies aren’t ‘holidays’ as some people like to think, but restorative sessions where writers have time to get themselves and their projects into shape. I want to leave Bundanon with a new-look manuscript – and that’s going to require time, effort and dedication. I’ll try and write a post while I’m there, and tell you how it’s going. Until then …

PS. My contribution to the Varuna Writer-a-Day “app” was recorded last week. Here’s the link:

http://varunathewritershouse.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/writer-a-day-helena-pastor-reading-from-iron-men-alchemy-at-work/

Hello again. This post is about distractions, which can be dangerous for writers, and which have recently engulfed me in a big way – even though I’d resolved to be more focussed and dedicated; prepared to spend long hours working alone in my room while declining the more immediate gratifications that life threw my way. Some distractions, of course, are valid – my mother is due to go into hospital to have a knee operation soon, and I’m pretty distracted by that because three and a half years ago my father went into hospital to have a knee operation and never came out again. I’m also feeling crap after a too-short haircut, and have had some busy times over the school holidays with kids and birthdays and so on. Maybe there was something in the stars last week because I heard several people say they reached record lows, but that’s the way it is sometimes – you need the lows before you reach the highs.

So last Monday night, feeling sad and sorry for myself (and super-ugly because of my haircut), I moped around the house, trying to work out why I was so miserable. I’d organised a catch-up session with my neighbour and fellow writer, Jim Vicars, but felt too fragile for visitors, so I texted Jim not to come. But he rang and insisted on coming anyway, so I had a bath and laid out a fresh tablecloth and lit candles and found the last of a bottle of whisky in the cupboard and put two delicate gold-rimmed glasses on the table … and by then I was starting to feel a little better. It was Chinese New Year and that was something worth celebrating.

Jim brought me some freshly-baked Anzac biscuits which was a lovely treat, and I poured the whisky and we toasted the Year of the Dragon and chatted about our PhD writing projects and other matters. Over the second glass of whisky, I told Jim about an arty home-decorating idea I’d had, and he got very excited and suggested it could be the basis for my next creative nonfiction project – “It’s got legs!” – and we had a fabulous brain-storming session. By the time Jim went home I was feeling born-again, full of joy to be a writer, and the possibilities for the future suddenly seemed endless because yes, this new idea does have legs and it could be a whole new direction in life and oh, the things I could do … But the next day, when I was telling my dear friend, Edwina Shaw, about my wonderful new idea, she very wisely said, ‘Watch out for distractions, Helena.’

She is so right.

My idea is good, I can feel it in my bones, but The Year of the Dragon is my year of completion – I want to have the memoir ready for HarperCollins by April, and the PhD finished by August, and that won’t happen while I’m dreaming about a new project. So I’ve shoved it on the backburner – where it can simmer away for the next eight months while I focus on what is most important right now. With that in mind, I’ve just printed out the Varuna blah. As you know, I’m a little wary about reading it again – 66,000 words written straight from the heart over six days at Varuna last April and not looked at since. It’s scary to think about what I’m going to find in there … and yes, writing this blog post is a distraction, and then I have to make a cake for a party tonight, but I’ll definitely start reading it tomorrow. I promise! Until next time …

Hello again. Happy New Year! I’ve just come to the end of the first of my three one-week blocks of time, and what a remarkable week it has been. Full of brights and darks, which is often the way when you have time alone, but so productive. I’ve whittled away 26,000 words (another 10-15,000 still need to go), have drawn rough maps and narrative arcs for the new structure, and have a clear path to follow in the months ahead. It’s not so hard. Not really. I just needed to face it. I spent many hours walking, and some fabulous thoughts and ideas came to me on those walks. I even found myself going ‘Wow!’ on several occasions. It’s all coming together. Just as my ASA mentor Judith Lukin-Amundsen says: “The book knows.”

For the Summer Solstice, I met with some friends for an evening of pagan festivities. Using four separate packs of tarot cards, we each drew cards for the six months leading up to the Winter Solstice. My cards foretold of a fresh start, creative success, love, family happiness and the creation of a safe haven. What more could I ask for? As a result, I’m feeling very positive about 2012. It’s going to be my year of completion; my year of finishing the memoir and the PhD. Yes!

 Not much more to report – life’s pretty quiet when you spend a week hanging out at home in a room all by yourself. One thing I do want to mention, though, is some of the other people on my ‘support team’. I’ve told you about my dear friend Edwina Shaw, my neighbour James Vicars, my mentor Judith Lukin-Amundsen, and my HarperCollins editor Anne Reilly … but there are others who, although no longer here in the physical sense, are still very much around. One is my father, Antonius Franciscus Pastor – former Olympic boxer, baker, tennis player, Bridge champion, classical guitarist, harmonica player, yodeller, card sharp, Scrabble fiend, and Jack Palance look-alike. He died three and a half years ago. The other is my friend, Sabine Altmann, who died in a car accident on the 31st October, 2011. Giving the eulogy at Sabine’s funeral was a great honour, and because she lived such an inspirational life – and had bucket-loads of talent, strength and drive – I’m going to share it with you today. Until next time …

*

Sabine Altmann was a woman of strength, passion, creativity and courage. A courageous campaigner for social justice, Sabine confronted the wrongs of the world like a Germanic Warrior Woman. She believed in a future without violence, a future where children were safe. Sometimes, when challenged on her strong sense of justice, or her beliefs, she would say: “That’s not ridiculous! You’re ridiculous!” or, “Nothing is impossible,” and then get on with the job of making things right. Her influence was huge, even on community programs she wasn’t directly involved with. As one of her colleagues puts it: “There are women and children who sleep safely in their beds at night, men who have fought the dark sides of themselves and won, who laugh and love and now live their own good lives, as a direct result of Sabine Altmann.”

Like an intricate work of mosaic, Sabine’s life was made up of lots of little pieces that came together to make something very special. Along with her passion for social justice, she was a homeopathic healer, with a special connection to PNG which began after she walked the Kokoda trail. Known for her incredible energy, Sabine was also a prolific print-maker, renovator, gourmet cook and an outspoken member of numerous committees and groups.

During the last twelve months, which she referred to as the worst year of her life, Sabine still lived hard and fast. While working full-time as a regional Domestic Violence Officer for the NSW Police Force, travelling over much of north-west New South Wales, Sabine renovated two bathrooms in her house, made several trips to PNG, travelled through India, created and exhibited her artworks, spoke at conferences and brought meetings into line in her characteristic way: “We talked about all this last meeting. What are you people doing?”. All this while she suffered suspected tuberculosis, anaemia and underwent major surgery. Yet she continued to bowl through people’s front doors, with her signature greeting: “Hello darling! It’s alright – I’m here now”, and had the rare ability of making everyone in her life feel special.

Sabine was born in 1964 in Griesbach in Bavaria, and grew up with her mother, Ilse Bleek, in Hamburg. Later in life, Sabine came to know her father, Friederich-Wilhelm Kaiser, and his new family, which included her siblings – Jessica, Matthias, and Alexander. When Sabine was four years old, her mother married Werner Altmann in Bucholz, and later, Ilse and Werner had a son, Andre. Because they lived in a little town outside Hamburg, each day Sabine and her mother would catch the train into the city so that Sabine could attend kindergarten. One day, a dark-skinned man sat opposite them, and Sabine looked at him and said, “What beautiful black eyes and hair you have.” The man smiled warmly at her, kindling Sabine’s life-long fascination for other cultures.

Her interest in social justice began early too. In Hamburg during the 1980s, while Sabine was studying natural medicine, she was an active member of the peace group and the women’s movement, and also worked in a youth centre. There she met Stephan Heidenreich who would become her partner. In 1995, Sabine and Stephan spent nine months in Australia and fell in love with Gunnedah. They returned to Germany for a year, where their son Niclas was born, and then immigrated to Australia in 1997 to settle in Gunnedah. Their second son, Philippe, was born in 2002. Shortly after, Sabine and Stephan separated, but they remained good friends and supportive partners in parenting. In 2006, Sabine became an adopted-mother to Sebastian Murray-Wessberg and Atlanta Wessberg, after their own mother died of breast cancer.

Although Sabine was frustrated when she first started managing non-government organisations in Gunnedah, and commented that Australia was twenty years behind Germany in its social policies, it wasn’t long others began to support her forward-thinking ideas. In those early Gunnedah years, Sabine also developed an interest in print-making, and created her artwork in the same frenetic way she did everything else. In workshops, while others would manage perhaps two prints a day, Sabine would do at least ten. Valued by many in the Arts Community, Sabine was a founding member of The Frida Group, which helped women increase their well-being through art.

In Gunnedah, Sabine also became Queen of Garage Sales – collecting cots, doors, windows, dresses, children’s clothing and wine glasses. Her aesthetic sense was finely-tuned, and she would go to any lengths to fulfil her desires. For example, when she bought her house in Armidale, she knew those old glass doors from Gunnedah High, that were now part of her ex-neighbour’s chicken coop, would be perfect, so she went and got them, even though her neighbour had sold the house and moved on. Sabine’s creativity was also expressed through her love of cooking, entertaining and catering. For many Europeans, hospitality is important – the German word for this is gastfreundschaft – and Sabine had it in bucket-loads. It was also the serving size she usually operated with. Famous for her mousse au chocolat, coq au vin and other dishes, she always made catering-sized quantities, no matter how large the crowd.

In 2006, Sabine moved to Armidale because she wanted her children to attend the local Steiner school. After travelling to PNG and Borneo in the last five years, mainly to walk the Kokoda, Black Cat and Death March Trails, Sabine started to work closely with PNG communities on community development, particularly health, education and gender violence. Using her knowledge as a social worker and homeopath, she engaged with women, elders and clan leaders to address social issues in the remote villages of the Huon Gulf district and the Morobe Province.

On one of her Kokoda walks, Sabine met community leader, Matthew Bumai, and after she returned to Australia, they worked together on community development. On her next visit to PNG they became lovers, which meant a lot of travelling, usually with one of the children. Matthew died suddenly in December 2010, and Sabine grieved his loss deeply. However, she was committed to maintaining her links with PNG, and had already bought tickets to return in December and have a house built.

Sabine’s commanding physical presence is no longer here, but she’s going to be stronger and even more powerful in her death. Just as the Australian soldiers had the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels to help them on the Kokoda Trail during World War II, we all now have a big blonde angel to help us when we falter on the path, especially her children – Niclas, Philippe, Atlanta and Sebastian – who she believed in and loved so much. And Stephan and his wife, Jo, who have been so strong and brave over the last week. Sabine is now someone we can call upon when we need to be tough, when we need to be strong, when we need to stand up and say: ‘Enough of this fucking bullshit!”, and when we need to remember: “Nothing is impossible.”

But, oh Sabine … we are going to miss you.

Hello again. Well, I’m heading off for my retreat at Bundanon next February. So soon! I was relieved to hear back from the Arts Program Manager – it was starting to feel like a dream, and I was wondering if they’d made a mistake and sent the congratulatory email to the wrong person. But no, I really am going to be an artist-in-residence at the Writer’s Cottage by the river for two weeks. Phew. An added benefit is that I have a new incentive to work towards. By the time February rolls around I want to have finished cutting / editing the current draft of the manuscript, re-written some important sections, and to have fitted parts of this draft onto a good strong outline that shows the peaks and troughs of the two main narrative threads in the memoir. Then, two weeks of solitude at Bundanon (such a luxury, even if I do have to cater for myself and the nearest shop is half an hour’s drive away) will provide the perfect opportunity to re-write the Varuna blah and go deep into the heart of this memoir. All going well, by the end of February I should have a complete draft of the re-worked manuscript.

I’ve been making slow and steady progress with the cutting / editing, but it’s easy to get caught up in the hurly-burly of pre-Christmas parties and social gatherings. Maybe it was an important and necessary part of re-discovering who I was after being in a relationship for such a long time, but I’ve socialised way too much over this past year, especially in the last weeks. I’m starting to feel like I need to cut the distractions and go inwards, like a woman about to give birth. Last weekend, in The Sydney Morning Herald magazine, author Elliot Perlman featured in the ‘Getting of Wisdom’ section. I liked what he said about dedication: ‘Everybody you know might be out having fun while you’re alone in a room working, but I’ve learnt that if you want to achieve anything worthwhile, you have to get good at declining the more immediate gratification.’ That’s what I need to do, especially over the next seven weeks; start saying ‘no’… a small but powerful word.

The other night, however, when I was out socialising at the Armidale Club, a local venue for live music, I caught up with one of the Iron Men from the welding shed. Because we’d both had a couple of drinks, we talked more that night than we had in the two years I’d spent working alongside him at the shed. I told him I was editing the book, and asked him what pseudonym he’d like. He couldn’t think of one. No nickname? I asked. He said no, he just wanted to use his own name, and was proud to do so. He mentioned one of the early chapters I’d shared with Bernie and the boys; although he hadn’t agreed with something I’d written, and thought I had it a bit wrong, he still loved it. It is what it is, he kept saying, and he liked the way I presented the world at the shed, a world that not many people got to see. His words reminded me of a comment I’d heard recently when I’d popped in at the shed to give Bernie and the boys an update (I’m sure they never imagined writing a book could take so long). On that day, one of the boys had said he liked the book because I ‘tell it how it is.’ As you know, this memoir has won me a few awards over the years, but to hear that comment, and to know my writing means something significant to the boys involved in the program… that means a lot to me.

One time, when I was going through a particularly dark period, I emailed Bernie and asked him to remind me why the book was important. He wrote back with some lovely words of encouragement which I often re-read when I start to doubt my abilities, and his advice is useful for anyone involved in a major creative project: ‘Sometimes when you try to capture something special that is going on, in this case the way we work with young men and make a real impact on their lives, then you need to do it in a special way. If it means something to the boys you write about, then we know you’re on the right track. The bonus comes when the book is having an impact on others. You have a gift – you can choose to use it or not. It’s a bit like how we teach the boys with the jumping dogs: look up, aim high, and when the dog takes off from the ground, there’s no coming back down. It’s a one way ticket – the reward is on the other side of the wall. To look back down when you’re on your way up will not get you over the ten-foot wall.’

It’s true – the reward is on the other side of the wall. And all the parties, and dinners, and nights out dancing at the Armidale Club will not help get this book written. As my friend Edwina Shaw says: ‘Retreat from the world without regret.’ That’s what any creative-worker needs to do to make it over the wall. During the school holidays, I have three one-week blocks of time to myself, and I’m going to use these constructively. There’ll still be time for swimming in the river at my friend’s property, singing with my choir, watching romantic comedies, spending time with my children and occasionally catching up with friends – but mostly I’m going to be here, alone in my room, working. Getting the job done, and preparing for my time in the Writer’s Cottage at Bundanon.

So, have a good Christmas break (if you’re having one), and in a few weeks I’ll post an abridged version of the transformation talk I did at UNE. Until then…

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 …

Hello again. This is a quick post to share some good news. Out of seven recent applications, one finally came through for me. I have been offered a 2012 Artist-In-Residence position at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s old property on the banks of the Shoalhaven River near Nowra. I will stay in the one of the ‘writers cottages’ – how affirmative is that! A much-needed boost to the writerly self-esteem. Thank you Bundanon Trust.

http://www.bundanon.com.au/content/residencies

Here’s to good news. And more of it, please. Until next time …

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 …

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 …

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.

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!’