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 …

Hello again. No news on the memoir – I’m still waiting for Judith, my Australian Society of Authors mentor, to get back to me with her final report, but that should be coming through soon. In the meantime, life has felt like one long application form – for jobs or for funding grants – and I’m either doing that or sending off submissions to journals or competitions, or trying to get my head around the huge and sometimes insurmountable task of writing my PhD exegesis. But it’s a lovely feeling indeed when all the long hours spent hanging over a computer answering application questions and working out a budget are rewarded with a successful result. A few days ago, I heard my funding application for the Country Arts Support Program (CASP) – organised through Regional Arts NSW – has been approved, and in early 2013, I will do a stint as writer-in-residence at BackTrack Youth Works in Armidale. What a wonderful Christmas present!

With the ‘Stories from the Shed and On the Road’ project, I’ll deliver a series of writing workshops to young people involved in a range of activities at the ‘Shed’. Participants will create prose or poetry which will be published on the organisation’s website, and I’ll also creatively document some of BackTrack’s rural and shed-based activities. The funding news gave my recently-flagging spirits a huge boost, although when I read the media release about the project, and when the ‘idea’ suddenly became a ‘reality’, I began to feel somewhat daunted by what lay ahead. How the heck am I going to do this? I thought to myself. Did I really say that I’d go on the road with a truck full of boys and dogs, and sleep in a swag at truck stops on the way to rural shows?

Did I mention that I’m scared of dogs?

While I was in this state, though, I remembered a Woody Allen line from Manhattan that I saw in the paper a few weeks ago – ‘talent is luck; the most important thing is courage’ – and I reminded myself that I’ve been in this place before, and that writers need a certain amount of courage when starting out on a new project and following an idea through. Five years ago, I came up with an idea to write a story about a youth worker and a group of boys in a welding shed. Finding the strength to begin that project was an enormous undertaking, and I had much the same sort of fears when I put on my King Gees and boots for the first time – me in a welding shed? With a group of wild boys who didn’t fit into mainstream anything? I knew nothing about welding or power tools, or even youth work for that matter … but I gathered up my courage and walked into that shed and set to work. I might have been shaking in my boots, but I forced myself to have faith in the process, and that initial idea has led to so many positive opportunities down the track – including this latest round of CASP funding.

Another funding application I put in to further develop the same ‘Stories from the Shed’ project was the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship. Hazel Rowley, who died in 2011, was an Australian biographer. From reading some of her articles, essays and books, I learnt a lot about the sort of person she was, and I remain full of admiration for the way she lived her life. Hazel Rowley wrote about people who were courageous, who were ‘outsiders’ in society, and each time she embarked on a new book, it invariably involved an act of courage for her, too. The literary fellowship was formed to commemorate Hazel Rowley’s ideas and interests, and the selection committee mentioned they were particularly interested in projects that were about ‘risk-taking and expanding horizons’. My 2013 writer-in-residence project certainly fits that description, and whatever happens, and however I work it out, ‘Stories from the Shed and On the Road’ is going to be a grand adventure, and I just need to take a deep breath and enjoy the ride. Until next time … courage to all writers!

Hello again. I’ve been thinking about how much of a writer’s life is spent waiting – waiting to hear about journal submissions, funding grants, applications for writing retreats or waiting to get a book accepted for publication – and, at times, all this waiting makes it hard to ‘keep the faith’. Over the past few years, I’ve seen everyone in my online writing group get published, which is wonderfully exciting, but sometimes I wonder how much longer I will need to wait – and yes, I’m aware the tone of this post is very different to my manic rant from last month. Writers must seem a little erratic to other people – one minute we’re up, the next we’re down, and our circumstances can change so quickly. Earlier this week, my dear friend Edwina Shaw heard that her book Thrill Seekers has been shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, which is part of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. This is a dream come true for Edwina, and a prestigious validation of her many years of hard work on the manuscript. One of Edwina’s oft-repeated sayings is: ‘Successful writers are the ones who don’t give up,’ and making it onto the shortlist has proven Edwina’s words to be true. Go Edwina! I’ve also just seen the fabulous cover of Ghost Wife – a memoir written by another friend, Michelle Dicinoski, which Black Inc. is publishing in February next year, and I have to admit I’m envious.

The other day I emailed Anne Reilly, the HarperCollins editor I first met at Varuna in April 2011, and asked her if I should be concerned about how long it has taken me to prepare my manuscript for submission to HarperCollins and whether I should try and hasten the rest of the process. As always, Anne’s reply was prompt and reassuring. She wrote: ‘It has necessarily taken a while; writing is like that. Don’t be worried. Some people whiz through quickly; they are exceptions.’ And so I will wait a little while longer. My time will come, and although I haven’t yet published a book, my writing has attracted some wonderful opportunities and I am very fortunate. The latest news is that I’ve been awarded another residency at Bundanon next year – where I will stay in the Writer’s Cottage and work on my next project, ‘The Bakery Stories’, while the cows and kangaroos wander past the window. What a blessing, and a welcome reminder to ‘keep the faith’. Until next time…

Hello again. It’s spring in Armidale, and I’ve just returned from a fabulous annual writing retreat at the coast with my dear friend, Edwina Shaw. We both brought full manuscripts to be edited and checked over, and although Edwina and I spent many hours sitting on the veranda of our cabin reading and making corrections on each other’s work, we still managed to walk along the beach and swim in the surf and eat delicious food and drink beer and laugh long into the night and sing ‘Speed Bonnie Boat’ and light a candle for Helen Greaney, a beautiful 93-year-old woman who died last week (and we even had time to debate Hemingway’s use of ‘and’ in lengthy sentences). And the best thing is that when Edwina finished reading the completed draft of my memoir – yes, you read that right: the completed draft – she thought the new narrative structure worked really well. Hooray! Edwina thinks I still need to do a little cutting and ‘rejigging’, but the final HarperCollins-submission-ready-draft is rapidly approaching.

A huge motivation to finish the memoir came my way in early September, when I heard that Heather Taylor Johnson – one of the other Varuna HarperCollins Award winners – had her manuscript accepted by HarperCollins. It took ten months for the team to reach a decision, but it was well worth the wait because Heather’s book is going to be published in Australia and probably in America as well. Heather is so happy. She’d just gotten off the phone with her editor when she sent the news through, and after I forwarded my congratulations, I thought to myself: ‘I want that feeling, too, but it’s never going to happen if I don’t finish this draft.’ So I did it. I worked like a madwoman to get it done before the 20th September (the final deadline I set for myself), and posted the manuscript to my ASA mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen, with a great sigh of relief. Judith has two other manuscripts to edit before she can look at mine, so it may be a while before I receive her feedback, but she was so pleased that I’d finished and said: ‘You can be thrilled, Helena, to have brought yourself out the other end of this draft.’

I am thrilled.

Life has responded accordingly. Since I sent the manuscript to Judith (and escaped from the confines of my writing area), the world has opened up before me. First of all, a washing machine unexpectedly arrived into my life, just as my old Simpson spun its last load. Then, last week, I heard I won a Varuna Fellowship for my next project – ‘The Bakery Stories’ – a novella which explores the story of the Dutch Jews during World War II. I’ve been working on ‘The Bakery Stories’ on and off for about five years now (as a way to build up a publication record) and it’s such an affirmative ‘Yes!’ to be awarded the fellowship to further develop this project.

Fired up by these positive signs, and strangely energised after finishing the memoir, I developed an idea for a future writer-in-residence position with a local youth organisation. The possibilities of this project are so exciting they just about keep me awake at night, but because I need funding, I had to quickly pull together a Country Arts Support Program (CASP) Application. I sent it away just in time to meet the submission deadline, and will hear whether my application was successful in November.

Also, while still intoxicated by the potential of this writer-in-residence idea (and flying high about the Varuna win), I ran into a friend – another PhD student – on the path outside Dixson library at UNE. I’d seen this same friend in the lingerie shop in town the week before, when I was buying a new bra to celebrate finishing the draft, but it wasn’t really the place to have an in-depth discussion about our studies. This time I had a pile of books under my arm – like a proper post-graduate student – so we stopped to chat. I excitedly told my friend about finishing the memoir and about my writer-in-residence idea, and then I showed her the books I’d just borrowed – titles by Tom Wolfe and Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson – and we talked about the legacy of the New Journalists, and it was all so exciting I could barely contain myself, even though I was aware of raving and perhaps coming across as just a little manic. But my friend was beaming with excitement, too. ‘It’s all so perfect!’ she enthused at one point. She also suggested that my idea could be incorporated into my exegesis, which caused me to remember that I have to write my exegesis very quickly if I am to make 2012 my ‘Year of Completion’ – but even finishing my PhD felt like a cinch that day.

As we said our farewells, I remembered my Varuna news and told my friend about the fellowship. ‘Oh Helena!’ she said, her eyes shining. ‘You’re a writer … a real writer!’ And I looked at her and thought, ‘Yes, I am!’ After nearly nine years, I am finally ready to admit to myself – and to the world – that I am a writer!

And the possibilities of life suddenly seem endless.

Hello again. Just a quick post to say I’m still here. Feel like a deadline-fraud, but I’m doing my best and will begin work on the conclusion tomorrow – yes, really! It’s head out of the sand time, as a friend told me rather firmly the other day. More news in a week (when I expect to finish!). Until then … Ms Emu.

Hello again. Yep, still here. Didn’t make the 31st May deadline or the 14th June deadline, and probably won’t make the Winter Solstice deadline either – but I’m getting close! And missing my deadline(s) is not through lack of trying, believe me; I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life. I cancelled my social life, cancelled my haircut, cancelled the carpet cleaner and even cancelled a complimentary facial because I didn’t want any distractions. I’m like a woman approaching birth. The reward (the baby / the book) will come later. I’m super-tired but also super-happy because I’m finally overcoming the challenges of this memoir. The manuscript is currently 86,000 words, and I’m just doing a final read-through / cut / edit before I send it to my ASA mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen. After her feedback, I’ll polish the memoir one last time before sending it to my editor at HarperCollins, Anne Reilly. But really, folks, miracles have been happening behind the closed door of my bedroom, absolute miracles. The creative process is magic, no doubt about that, and it’s just as Judith once said to me: The Book Knows. Everything is falling into place and all is well. I just needed to trust in the process. So, until next time … keep the faith!