Finally getting back in the groove again after several super-busy months of doing everything but creative writing. Aside from having a number of part-time jobs – like maybe four! – I’m edging towards the final stage of my PhD in Creative Research Practice, so I haven’t had much time to devote to new work. But over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a new idea that will combine my two passions in life – singing and writing – with a fascinating slice of Spanish history. Olѐ! I’ve also made progress on ‘The Bakery Stories’ novella, and, after working on my PhD for what seems like the last eight hundred years, I finally understand the concept of a ‘research question’ and how to master the academic voice. I tell you, life is good!

I didn’t get a Hedgebrook residency and still haven’t heard back from the publisher, but I feel buoyant and happy. One thing which helped was re-reading The Artist’s Way, especially the section on ‘Recovering a Sense of Strength’. In this chapter, Julia Cameron offers a range of strategies for dealing with artistic ‘loss’ – for example, instead of thinking: ‘Why me?’ after a rejection, we can think: ‘What next?’ Simply changing a thought can help us keep moving forward. Julia Cameron also writes about the importance of ‘filling the form’ – which means taking one small action each day towards achieving a creative dream instead of becoming stuck because life isn’t presenting the perfect conditions. The concrete goal that signifies the accomplishment of this dream is an artist’s ‘true north’.

As I read through Julia Cameron’s advice on ‘Recovering a Sense of Strength’, I realised I’d become ‘stuck’ in recent months because I’d been thinking: ‘I can’t possibly write anything new until I finish the PhD / secure an agent / get published / go to America / win a $40,000 grant / hang the washing / cook dinner / (insert any excuse here).’ But since I started taking one small step every day – like reading through my father’s recollections of the war in Holland, or writing an updated synopsis for a grant application, or having a go at writing a parable – I’ve re-discovered the joys and the excitement of the creative process, and I’m back to thinking: ‘Holy heck! How lucky am I?’

Another thing which helped recently was a friend’s advice: ‘Energy follows intent,’ he told me. ‘Work out what it is you want, then go and get it.’ So I’ve set the compass to my own version of ‘true north’, and, step by step, I’ll get there!

Until next time …

Hello again. No news on the writing front, except that an agent has expressed interest in my work and is currently reading the manuscript. I hope to hear some news soon. Meanwhile, through my teaching position with BackTrack Youth Works (the youth work organisation that features in my memoir), I was involved in an inspiring writing-related activity earlier this week when I attended the BackTrack School’s inaugural poetry camp with eight dogs, nine teenage boys, my co-teacher Simmo, three youth workers – Dusty, Blissy and Matt, and one bush poet: Murray (Muz) Hartin. We camped by the Macdonald River at Marinka, a property near Walcha, and slept in swags under the stars.

Four nights after leaving the riverbank, my head is still filled with images of the camp: the oaks along the river; the boys unloading their truckload of firewood; sitting around the campfire sharing songs, stories and poems; the change in Murray Hartin’s face when he recited poetry; Dusty reading ‘The White Horse’ from his note-book of poems; Simmo’s torch-lit rendition of Tonchi’s song Gallipoli; stone sculptures popping up everywhere; a midnight yabbie feast; eight black and white and brown dogs gathered by a tree, watching everything; and a circle of swags around the fire. Murray Hartin was very entertaining, and by the end of the first day, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose cheeks were aching from laughing so much.

After breakfast the next morning, I saw Blissy and a group of boys sitting some distance away – guitars and notebooks in hand – thinking up words to fit the tune of Stand By Me, while others sat back and read their signed copies of A Whole Lotta Muz. Later, we dragged the rolled-up swags into a circle in the shade and shared poems, thoughts and feelings, and everyone rated the camp well into the 80s or 90s out of 100. Before we left, we did charcoal drawings on large sheets of white paper – some people drew the trees and rocks along the river, and others drew what was in their heads. Murray did a tree ‘rubbing’ by holding his paper against the bark of a tree, Matt sketched the sheep’s skull I’d found on my walk that morning, and two of the boys asked if they could move away and spend time drawing in solitude. That’s where we were at by the end of the camp.

I think I’m still absorbing the experience – which was right up there in the 90s out of 100 for me. In our ‘outdoor classroom’ at Marinka, we may have learnt about rhyme, rhythm and rap, but, for me, the poetry camp also offered a lesson in cooperative living and respecting each other and our environment. I’d never been camping with so many men, boys or dogs before, and it’s not common for a woman to be on a BackTrack camp either, but I felt an accepted and welcome member of the group. I also noticed that whenever the word ‘black’ was used in any context, like describing a black horse or a black container, someone was sure to joke: ‘Don’t be racist!’ – but as far as race relations were concerned, I thought we lived in harmony during our time by the river, and we can all take that lesson away into our everyday life.

Thanks to Regional Arts NSW for funding the poetry camp, thanks to Murray Hartin for being such a fabulous guest artist, thanks to Sally Denyer for providing us with a range of nurturing and delicious food – to sit by the fire and eat pavlova with local berries and freshly-whipped cream was probably worth 100 on the rating scale – and thanks also to BackTrack’s Jen Kealey and her family for sharing their beautiful property with us, and for joining us in poetry and song. All in all, the poetry camp was a huge success and we’re keen to organise more professional artists – starting with a singer/songwriter – to join us in 2014. Check out some of our photos at http://backtrack.org.au/1000-words/

This project was made possible through a Quick Response Grant provided by Regional Arts NSW through the Regional Arts Fund, an Australian Government initiative supporting the arts in regional, remote and very remote Australia.

quick reponse picture

We meet at six on the stone verandah.

I bring merlot, spiced pear paste, blue vein and crackers;

the others – a Mexican artist and an opera singer from Melbourne –

bring roasted almonds, an opened packet of Granita biscuits,

and five squares of dark chocolate. I wave off their apologies –

shopping day for car-less residents was a week ago.

In the fading light, we settle on wooden benches

and prepare to share wine, food and stories.

When she heard only two other women were here, my mother said:

‘Hopefully a man will arrive soon … more interesting then.’

Hmmph!

During their time at Bundanon, the two women before me

collaborated on a site-specific event involving seven tree-based mesostics

and performed it for groups of visitors, and for me, on Open Day.

As the opera singer stood by each tree in the garden –

Jacaranda, Orange, Weeping Willow,

Olive, Quince, Red Cedar and Magnolia –

her hair blew wildly in the wind, and at the end of each song

I said ‘Oh!’ in surprise and gratitude.

Mesostics.

Silence.

John Cage once wrote a mesostic for a stewardess when she asked.

Mid-flight.

I knew nothing about any of this.

More interesting when a man arrives?

I don’t think so, Mum.

I’m interested in anyone who gives themselves over to creativity.

Like Arthur.

And I’m curious when someone gives it up.

Like Yvonne.

In the gift shop I found a photo-card of Yvonne in Tuscany;

dressed in a blue-patterned skirt and white sleeveless turtle-neck,

she turns away from the camera, her feet hidden in long grass.

I like the way I have to imagine her face,

just as I have to imagine why she stopped painting.

On her stone verandah, the three of us raise our glasses to Yvonne,

and to Arthur, and to my artist-friend Sabine,

who died in a car accident two years ago.

Then we sit back and watch the goings-on in the paddocks.

‘Look at the ducks,’ the Mexican artist says, pointing.

‘Over near that wombat … can’t you see? Just behind the cows?’

The ducks, like us, are on a huge adventure –

from dam to paddock, from artist complex to homestead.

Before we leave, the opera singer – a mezzo soprano –

performs her composition of the Jacaranda mesostic;

her voice, unencumbered by wind, floats poignantly over the garden,

honouring a tree planted in memory of a father and daughter,

long ago drowned in the river.

Bundanon has seen sad times. Joyful ones, too –

like this impromptu communion of artists.

I am at Bundanon.

Surrounded by birds, cows, kangaroos, wombats, bush, river, sky.

I spot an echidna on my morning walk.

Twice.

In the wild.

How lucky am I?

I sit on my verandah.

I work at my desk.

I walk across paddocks.

Wombats play statues in the grass as I pass; black-coated cows chew and stare.

I immerse myself in the river like it’s the Ganges, washing off the outside world.

‘This residency is like a sanitarium for me,’ I say to one of the other artists. ‘Or is it sanatorium?’

She looks at me strangely. I’ve forgotten how to talk to people.

‘Whichever isn’t the Weet-bix brand,’ I add, unable to remember. ‘That’s what Bundanon is for me.’

Creative recovery.

Time to think, to write, to dream, to plan new projects.

Time to write poetry … and I don’t even write poetry.

Time to read Animal People, which Charlotte Wood left in the Writer’s Cottage recently.

Time to notice a lemon tree in the bush by the side of the road on the way up to the gate.

Time to pick up a dried-out snake skin to add to my collection of found objects.

Time to remember who I am.

Hello again. The title of this post is a quote by American writer Daniel Hillel, and it resonated with me the other day when I read it in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and lifeBird by Bird is one of my favourite writing books, and I often go back to it, especially in times of self-doubt caused by long periods of waiting for publishers to get back to me. The chapters on ‘Radio Station KFKD’ – Lamott’s analogy for the negative voices that fill a writer’s head – are laugh-out-loud funny, even after you’ve read them as many times as I have. Anne Lamott taped Hillel’s quote above her desk to remind herself to keep ‘dancing’ during the rough patches, which is a good thing to remember. Like Anne Lamott, the way I ‘dance’ is by writing … and also by singing, especially with other people. I would have lost the plot a long time ago if it hadn’t been for my singing groups.

Over the last few months, though, I’ve mainly been busy with paid work and PhD matters, but things are beginning to calm down now. Not that I’ve been idle on the creative writing front – a few weeks ago, I put in an application for Hedgebrook, a women’s writing retreat on Whidbey Island, near Seattle. Hedgebrook (www.hedgebrook.org) is a unique residential program that supports the creative process of women writers, and ever since a friend went there in 2010, I have fantasised about the Amish-inspired cottages, the food baskets, the quietness of the woods, and the conversations over shared meals at the end of each day. I’d love to be offered a Hedgebrook residency for 2014, where I could have some focussed writing time to develop my next manuscript, a fiction project. Residential retreats – especially ones where you don’t have to cook – are so important for writers like me who don’t have long stretches of time to write, to think, or to dream.

I also had a ‘20 Pages / 20 Minutes’ session with Rob Spillman from Tin House Books (US) at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. I’ve found these ‘speed-dating-style’ editorial sessions very useful in the past, and this one was no exception. Rob Spillman gave me some excellent advice on how to improve the opening of my memoir, and he also recommended I contact an agent in New York because he thought my writing would appeal to an American audience. Oh, yes please! We talked about Hedgebrook and other American-based writing programs – like the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming and the Tin House Workshops in Oregon – and Rob said my writing was good enough to get me into any of those places. I walked away from the editorial session filled with renewed hope for the future. Bring it on!

Another piece of exciting news is that the first book from my HarperCollins Varuna group has been published. Heather Taylor Johnson’s Pursuing Love and Death looks fabulous and it will be the first ‘pleasure’ read I allow myself after finishing my PhD in early February. Yes, the end is in sight, folks – I recently had a breakthrough moment where I suddenly understood how to structure an academic thesis and the exegesis isn’t half as scary as it was. Thank goodness for that. Until next time …

Hello again. I’ve been home from Varuna for several weeks now and, as always, the transition back to the ‘real world’ hasn’t been easy. Varuna was full of its usual charm, of course – fireside chats over glasses of wine, long walks to Echo Point and surrounds, Sheila’s fabulous dinners – but for various reasons, it was a fairly challenging retreat. During the two-week residency, I began work on two new fictional projects, but it’s a huge leap into the unknown to start something fresh, especially now I fully understand how most writing projects take years to complete. I was amazed when one of the other writers at Varuna told me that he’d been working on his memoir for twelve years. Twelve years! That’s a long time to stick with one project, but as my friend Edwina often says: “Successful writers are the ones who don’t give up.”

My house-mates at Varuna were a wonderfully diverse group – Sophie Torney, Gabrielle Wang, Rosalie Fishman, Peggy Frew, Andrew Kwang and Chris Barker – and I learnt a great deal from them over the residency. In particular, Sophie and Gabrielle, who shared the house (and ghost visits) with me for the entire two weeks, were very generous with their knowledge about all matters related to writing memoir and young adult fiction and what computers were best for writers and, most importantly, what essential wardrobe items to take on holidays and writing retreats. I miss them both and wish I lived in Melbourne so we could meet up for coffee and book launches. Huge thanks to Jansis, Vera, Sheila, Mick, Rod and all the other people who make Varuna possible – it’s always magic, even when it gets tough.

Since I’ve returned home to Armidale, a little voice inside my head keeps suggesting: Let’s write a young adult novel! or Let’s write a screenplay! or Let’s travel to Spain and write about Spanish Jewish music! or, after seeing Deborah Conway at the Armidale Club the other night, Let’s learn the guitar! So many exciting possibilities to pursue, but I have to be firm and tell that little voice: No, let’s write an exegesis! The time has come to complete my PhD – I’m not the sort of person to have unfinished business hanging over me, and I feel I’m ready now to face this final part of the process.

As for the status of the memoir? Well, I need to learn to be more patient and trust in the process. In the writing world, four months is actually not that long to wait for a publisher to read a manuscript. Sometimes it can even take as long as twelve months to hear news. Keep your fingers crossed. Until next time.

Hello again. No news on the memoir. I’ve been affirming positive thoughts of publication and agents and wonderful wild adventures in the literary world, and I’m now calling on the assistance of archangels and my Dutch ancestors and whoever else I can muster to help bring my publishing dreams to reality. I know I’m sounding a little ‘hippy-trippy’ here, but keeping the faith during this time is probably one of the biggest tests of my life. Each day I recite a quote by Rabindranath Tagore that a friend sent me recently: Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. So, even though it’s hard and dark some days, I’m still singing because I reckon my turn is coming … very soon. As I said in my last post: I need to keep trusting in the universe.

With that in mind, I’ve been ‘following the signs’ and it seems the universe is telling me to go to Barcelona in 2014. I’ve been offered time to do some research and writing at two fabulous artist residencies: Jiwar Creation & Society in Barcelona, and Can Serrat in El Bruc. All I need now is some funding … but as Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way – ‘Leap and the net will appear.’ Thoughts of this trip are also a great incentive for me to have my PhD finished by November, and I’m going to reach my submission goal this time.

Closer to home, I’ve finally managed to settle in at the BackTrack Shed. Like a new dog entering an established pack, I wasn’t quite sure of my role at first, but I think I’ve worked it out now. My day at the BackTrack School brings a lot of light into my life, and the other teacher and I are having a heap of fun with the boys – who have shown themselves to be talented artists and singers and writers and sportsmen. I’m taking a few weeks off soon to go to Varuna Writers’ House for the fellowship retreat I was awarded last year. Armed with new pens, paper and cardboard, I’m planning to try Anne Reilly’s ‘Varuna blah’ method again to write a first draft of an exciting new project. Then, when I return home, I’ll put the new draft in the drawer and get back to my similarly exciting exegesis. Until next time …

Hello again. No news regarding the memoir – and perhaps that’s why I’m feeling like my literary dreams have come to a standstill. I’m working hard to ‘keep the faith’ and to keep believing that I will one day get published, but this is not always easy to do. A friend of mine often advises me to ‘trust in the universe’ at times like this, and I’m working on that, too. My turn will come … soon I hope. Meanwhile, I’ve been going along to the BackTrack Shed as writer-in-residence, and I’m now also teaching one day a week at the new BackTrack ‘school’, an alternative education centre based at the shed. Teaching a group of boys who don’t fit into mainstream education is both exciting and challenging, especially as we have little in the way of resources and equipment. Some days I could burst with enthusiasm about the possibilities of this work, but other days I wonder: how the hell did I end up back in this shed?

I first arrived at the BackTrack shed in 2007 and began an immersion research phase that lasted nearly two years. Readers of this blog would also know that I’ve spent the last six years writing a memoir about the life-changing events that came out of this experience. I submitted the memoir to a publisher earlier this year, and since then I’ve been contemplating my next major writing project. My thoughts were leaning towards finishing a novella I’ve been working on for the past seven years, and then settling into a family history project that would take me to Barcelona, Manila and Amsterdam, where I would uncover exciting secrets about my family’s involvement in the Spanish Inquisition. Momentarily side-tracked, I took the opportunity to be a writer-in-residence at BackTrack, where I imagined travelling over the countryside attending rural shows with a group of boys and dogs. Yet here I am every Wednesday – standing in a noisy welding shed less than two blocks from where I live, trying to speak over the shriek of a drop-saw, surrounded by boys who eat nothing but devon and tomato sauce sandwiches.

Trust in the universe, Helena.

The next few weeks should sort out my current confusion about what the universe is trying to tell me. As usual, I’m waiting on a few applications, and if any of them come through for me, I’ll follow the signs. In the meantime, I’ll try and keep the faith.

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

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

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

Hello again. The big news is … [drum roll, please] … I finished the memoir. Yes, after all this time! How did it happen, you wonder? Well, I had my final phone-meet with Judith, my ASA mentor, two weeks ago. Judith loved the new version – and even though she’d read my story before, she just didn’t want it to end this time. Her words made my spirits soar. What a relief! I don’t know what I would have done if Judith had said: ‘Sorry, Helena, I think you’ve still got a long way to go with this manuscript.’ Judith had a few further suggestions on how to improve the narrative – proposed so tactfully that they almost seemed like my own suggestions – but these were only minor and I managed to knock them off during the next ten days. Then, on Thursday night, after I’d read through the draft once again, I said to myself: ‘I think I’ve finished the book.’

One time, when I asked Anne Reilly, my supportive and ever-so-patient editor at HarperCollins, how I would know when to send her the memoir, she said: ‘You just simply submit it to me when you feel you’ve got it as beautiful and polished as possible.’ I was a little concerned about how I would know when that time came, but that’s exactly how it felt on Thursday night … like I couldn’t do anymore. I sent the memoir through to Anne yesterday, and it was a big moment in my life. As I pressed the ‘send’ button, my heart beat fast, and for a moment I thought I was going to have a mild anxiety attack. I’ve since calmed down, of course, and am feeling much lighter. Time to make way for the new. And now … another period of waiting, as Anne reads the manuscript and decides whether it is ready to be given to one of the publishers. As I’ve said before, much of a writer’s life is spent waiting.

In the meantime, I keep applying for things. I missed out on the Hazel Rowley Fellowship, but over the past month, while everyone else in Armidale was holidaying at the coast, I spent my days sorting out a budget and answering questions for an Early Career Residency grant with the Australia Council. I’m just about finished, thank goodness – and it’ll be worth it if it comes through – but jeez. My proposed arts project is to develop ‘Stories from the Shed and On the Road’ (which I mentioned in my last blog post) into a much larger project that will firmly establish a creative writing culture at the BackTrack Shed. By the way, I had my first day as writer-in-residence with BackTrack today – attending a Paws Up dog jumping event at the Armidale Racecourse for Australia Day – and I really enjoyed being back in the world of boys and dogs and circle work and good-natured humour. Soon after I got to the racecourse, though, one of the dogs peed on my leg while I was leaning against a pole. I was a bit embarrassed, but then decided to see it as a friendly initiation gesture – a sign of welcome – and didn’t even bother running off to a tap to rinse my leg. This is the new tolerant me, and after today, going on the road with those boys and dogs doesn’t seem quite as daunting anymore. I reckon 2013 is going to be a very good year. Hope it feels that way for you, too. Until next time …