Dark Corners

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!’


  1. Hi Helena, I’m a total stranger – your blog post was forwarded to me by an editor friend (also called Helena). But I would like to offer myself as a “believing mirror” too.

    Your blog provides ample evidence that you’re a person who can do whatever you set your mind to in the field of writing. Look how difficult it is to get an ASA mentorship, to be in the position of working on a “Harper-Collins rewrite” – in short, to have reached the point you’re at now. You’re a legend! The fact you’ve received four rejections in a fortnight is simply testament to the fact that you’re writing and submitting so much – good on you! Read any successful writer’s history, from Henry Lawson to Stephen King, and they all joke about getting enough rejection slips early on to paper their bedroom wall (not that I recommend doing that, and I’m sure Julia Cameron would agree).

    I was feeling something similar recently, having entered two major short story competitions and not being short-listed or whatever. Then I entered a “less ambitious” kind of competition, and won it, which was a real confidence-booster. Perhaps there are similar small things you could do along the way that would help maintain your self-esteem?

    I’m in the first year of my PhD, working on the novel for which I’ve been trying to find “spare moments” for the past three years. It’s a great joy to finally have created the space to focus on it.

    With all due respect to Judith, I’m not sure the statement “PhDs aren’t good for creative writers” is universally justified. I’ve read and talked with a lot of people who have various opinions on the value of the exegesis – and who’ve opened my eyes to the range of directions it can take. This is a perennial topic of discussion in TEXT. Personally I’m finding it valuable because the process of writing the novel is informed by the research required for the exegesis, and vice versa, in quite convoluted and interesting ways.

    And I’d have to agree with Edwina – that if you have two creative nonfiction manuscripts under your belt, the evidence says you’ll write a successful exegesis. Is there a way you can think about your exegesis as a product and process just as potentially creative and joyous as your memoir? (I do take the point that you’ve done some “writing in dark corners”, but surely creativity and joy have been a larger part of the process – otherwise it seems unlikely you’d have made it this far).

    I realise you posted this months ago, and I hope you’re really happy with the progress you’ve made since then. Maybe this comment will reflect belief in a way that’s helpful as you work towards submission. All the very best.

    Andrea Baldwin

    1. Dear Andrea,
      Welcome to my blog … and thank you! You’ve made my day, and it’s so affirming to have another believing mirror. I’m not long home from a six-night self-organised exegesis retreat at the coast, and have just cleaned the house for an hour (grrr … 18 year-olds), received another rejection (for a Katherine Susannah Pritchard writer-in-residence position), and am about to put the first of many loads of washing on (and it’s starting to rain). Your comments have lifted my spirits enormously. Although I didn’t make as much progress as I’d hoped on my exegesis, I now understand the ‘beast’ a whole lot better than I did. Yes, the PhD is a huge learning curve, but after re-aquainting myself with my notes I do realise that creative writers can make a valuable contribution to academia … especially, in my case, in the area of immersion research (where we might teach those ethnographers and qualitative researchers a thing or two!). What a positive sign for you – that your research is already so rewarding. My PhD deadline was the 15th December, but now that I fully understand how much I still have to do, I’m going to ask for an extension till the end of January. Finger crossed …

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