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 …
What a fascinating post, Helena. You and I seem to be working at opposite ends. I submitted my thesis on 18 October and as I wait to hear whether or not it’ll get through as a satisfactory PhD I’m beginning to mull over what I now need to do to transform it into the book/memooir that I hope one day to submit to a publisher.
In many ways it sounds as though you’re streets ahead of me as regards finding an interested publisher, but I’m ahead with the academic bit. What does it matter? Hopefully we’ll both get there in the end, both with PhDs and both with published books.
I’m sorry to hear about your friend’s death. I agree, life can be unpredictable and we have only so much time.
I’ve been procrastinating myself over how to proceed and your post has given me the courage to get back into the saddle. Thanks.
Thanks so much, Elisabeth. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it, and that I’ve even given you courage to get back on the horse. Writing is a scary business, no doubt about it. And congratulations for submitting your PhD!!!! I’m looking forward to when that day comes for me, but I know there is hard slog ahead. As my friend Edwina often says: Onwards and upwards!
Great post. I am very sorry to hear about your friend’s death. At the risk of uttering psychobabble, I think it’s very healthy of you to use that tragedy as an opportunity to reflect, and clarify your own priorities.
I don’t know a way to contact you apart from posting a public comment on your blog – sorry, not trying to exploit you or your followers!
I wanted to ask if you’re happy for me to link your blog to my blog. I’m a virgin blogger – just started mine yesterday – so there’s not much on it yet, but I’d like to have links there to other Australian writers’ blogs as well as to publishers and resources. I’m hoping the blog will serve as a focal point for writers who are interested in the interrelated areas of writing, self and place – so the participation of a memoirist would be very welcome! 🙂 You can find my blog here: http://placeofsafety.wordpress.com
And thanks again for continuing to put up such brave, personal, interesting, inspiring posts. All the best for the grand adventure of rewriting.
Thank you! Your comments are always lovely – you are a true believing mirror. I’m going to check out your blog, and also send you an email so you know what my address is. I’m very happy for you to link my blog to yours. And I will do the same to you.