The reward is on the other side of the wall

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…

4 comments

  1. You sound so wonderfully resolute, Helena. I wish I could find a way to capture some of that resolve myself. Life has away of swallowing us up and our creative projects run the risk of being side-lined.

    I’m sorry to hear about the end of your relationship. That must have been very hard and painful. Yet its ending perhaps paves the way for something new and hopefully better. I look forward to hear how you find your time at Bundanon. I’m jealous of the opportunity you have there. What a treat.

    Have a lovely Christmas.

  2. I miss not seeing you often – and all the fun we’ve had. Loved reading your Blog and good to know your plan of channelling your energy into your writing is working well. xo

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