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!’

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!

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 …

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.