I’m very pleased to be one of the presenters in the ‘By the Book’ video series, an exciting new initiative from the New England Writers’ Centre. Featuring local professional writers, illustrators, editors and publishers, each of these short videos offers tips and advice on a number of aspects relating to book creation and production. In my video, I share some advice I received many years ago from Anne Reilly, a Senior Editor at HarperCollins. Anne and I met at Varuna Writers’ House in 2011, through the HarperCollins Varuna Manuscript Development Awards. Follow this link to read ‘Go where it scares you’, my original blog post about Anne’s method for unlocking your emotional truth to make your writing stronger … and enjoy the ‘By the Book’ video series!
Tag: Anne Reilly
The Book Knows
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!
Hello again. Oh, what a crazy hectic time! I’m off to Bundanon in less than a week, and because of its remote location (nearest shop thirty minutes away and no live-in cook like at Varuna), I have a huge checklist of things to do / find / pack before the weekend. I’m really looking forward to having time to get back to the memoir – I’ve hardly looked at it in recent weeks. I managed to read the Varuna blah, and what an experience that was! I was exclaiming as I read through it, and my life made much more sense to me afterwards. The best thing is that it contains heaps of good material to merge in with the current draft. Emotional truths. Which is just what the memoir needed – so thanks to my HarperCollins editor, Anne Reilly, for that suggestion. Writing from the heart is something I’ll be doing first, not last, when I start on my next project.
I’ve been unsettled since I went to the Gold Coast a fortnight ago to help while my mother was in hospital for her knee operation. I was pretty nervous about the operation – actually, anything to do with hospitals makes me nervous – but, apart from a few worrying days, all is well. My mother is now recovering in a flash rehab centre, and I can breathe again. While I was at the Gold Coast, my dear friend, Edwina Shaw, came down from Brisbane to offer her support – we stayed in my mother’s resort-style unit at Broadbeach, and jokingly called it our ‘Hospital Retreat’. Each year, Edwina and I organise one or two writing retreats at Evans Head; we spend our time lying around reading, editing, writing, talking, resting, swimming in the sea and staying away of household chores. Our ‘hospital retreat’ was nothing like that… every day we were busy driving, visiting, shopping, cooking and cleaning. By the end of the week we’d filled my mother’s freezer with meals (which will make her life a lot easier when she comes home from rehab) and left the unit sparkling clean and ready for her return. Edwina and I couldn’t stop singing Amy Winehouse’s Rehab (what a sad short life she had), imagining all the oldies from the hospital pushing their walkers to and fro in time with the music – No! No! No! I tell you, hospitals do strange things to my head …
In the communal bookshelf at the unit complex we spotted Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, and in its place we left a copy of Edwina’s recently published book ‘Thrill Seekers’. Yes! One of us finally has a real book at long last! Unfortunately I’ll be at Bundanon when ‘Thrill Seekers’ is launched at Avid Reader bookshop in West End on the 9th March, and I’ll also miss my choir’s annual retreat at the coast. Bum! But I need to retreat. Desperately. Retreats are like rehab for writers … and just as rehab isn’t about lying around and doing nothing, retreats and residencies aren’t ‘holidays’ as some people like to think, but restorative sessions where writers have time to get themselves and their projects into shape. I want to leave Bundanon with a new-look manuscript – and that’s going to require time, effort and dedication. I’ll try and write a post while I’m there, and tell you how it’s going. Until then …
PS. My contribution to the Varuna Writer-a-Day “app” was recorded last week. Here’s the link:
Nothing is impossible
Hello again. Happy New Year! I’ve just come to the end of the first of my three one-week blocks of time, and what a remarkable week it has been. Full of brights and darks, which is often the way when you have time alone, but so productive. I’ve whittled away 26,000 words (another 10-15,000 still need to go), have drawn rough maps and narrative arcs for the new structure, and have a clear path to follow in the months ahead. It’s not so hard. Not really. I just needed to face it. I spent many hours walking, and some fabulous thoughts and ideas came to me on those walks. I even found myself going ‘Wow!’ on several occasions. It’s all coming together. Just as my ASA mentor Judith Lukin-Amundsen says: “The book knows.”
For the Summer Solstice, I met with some friends for an evening of pagan festivities. Using four separate packs of tarot cards, we each drew cards for the six months leading up to the Winter Solstice. My cards foretold of a fresh start, creative success, love, family happiness and the creation of a safe haven. What more could I ask for? As a result, I’m feeling very positive about 2012. It’s going to be my year of completion; my year of finishing the memoir and the PhD. Yes!
Not much more to report – life’s pretty quiet when you spend a week hanging out at home in a room all by yourself. One thing I do want to mention, though, is some of the other people on my ‘support team’. I’ve told you about my dear friend Edwina Shaw, my neighbour James Vicars, my mentor Judith Lukin-Amundsen, and my HarperCollins editor Anne Reilly … but there are others who, although no longer here in the physical sense, are still very much around. One is my father, Antonius Franciscus Pastor – former Olympic boxer, baker, tennis player, Bridge champion, classical guitarist, harmonica player, yodeller, card sharp, Scrabble fiend, and Jack Palance look-alike. He died three and a half years ago. The other is my friend, Sabine Altmann, who died in a car accident on the 31st October, 2011. Giving the eulogy at Sabine’s funeral was a great honour, and because she lived such an inspirational life – and had bucket-loads of talent, strength and drive – I’m going to share it with you today. Until next time …
Sabine Altmann was a woman of strength, passion, creativity and courage. A courageous campaigner for social justice, Sabine confronted the wrongs of the world like a Germanic Warrior Woman. She believed in a future without violence, a future where children were safe. Sometimes, when challenged on her strong sense of justice, or her beliefs, she would say: “That’s not ridiculous! You’re ridiculous!” or, “Nothing is impossible,” and then get on with the job of making things right. Her influence was huge, even on community programs she wasn’t directly involved with. As one of her colleagues puts it: “There are women and children who sleep safely in their beds at night, men who have fought the dark sides of themselves and won, who laugh and love and now live their own good lives, as a direct result of Sabine Altmann.”
Like an intricate work of mosaic, Sabine’s life was made up of lots of little pieces that came together to make something very special. Along with her passion for social justice, she was a homeopathic healer, with a special connection to PNG which began after she walked the Kokoda trail. Known for her incredible energy, Sabine was also a prolific print-maker, renovator, gourmet cook and an outspoken member of numerous committees and groups.
During the last twelve months, which she referred to as the worst year of her life, Sabine still lived hard and fast. While working full-time as a regional Domestic Violence Officer for the NSW Police Force, travelling over much of north-west New South Wales, Sabine renovated two bathrooms in her house, made several trips to PNG, travelled through India, created and exhibited her artworks, spoke at conferences and brought meetings into line in her characteristic way: “We talked about all this last meeting. What are you people doing?”. All this while she suffered suspected tuberculosis, anaemia and underwent major surgery. Yet she continued to bowl through people’s front doors, with her signature greeting: “Hello darling! It’s alright – I’m here now”, and had the rare ability of making everyone in her life feel special.
Sabine was born in 1964 in Griesbach in Bavaria, and grew up with her mother, Ilse Bleek, in Hamburg. Later in life, Sabine came to know her father, Friederich-Wilhelm Kaiser, and his new family, which included her siblings – Jessica, Matthias, and Alexander. When Sabine was four years old, her mother married Werner Altmann in Bucholz, and later, Ilse and Werner had a son, Andre. Because they lived in a little town outside Hamburg, each day Sabine and her mother would catch the train into the city so that Sabine could attend kindergarten. One day, a dark-skinned man sat opposite them, and Sabine looked at him and said, “What beautiful black eyes and hair you have.” The man smiled warmly at her, kindling Sabine’s life-long fascination for other cultures.
Her interest in social justice began early too. In Hamburg during the 1980s, while Sabine was studying natural medicine, she was an active member of the peace group and the women’s movement, and also worked in a youth centre. There she met Stephan Heidenreich who would become her partner. In 1995, Sabine and Stephan spent nine months in Australia and fell in love with Gunnedah. They returned to Germany for a year, where their son Niclas was born, and then immigrated to Australia in 1997 to settle in Gunnedah. Their second son, Philippe, was born in 2002. Shortly after, Sabine and Stephan separated, but they remained good friends and supportive partners in parenting. In 2006, Sabine became an adopted-mother to Sebastian Murray-Wessberg and Atlanta Wessberg, after their own mother died of breast cancer.
Although Sabine was frustrated when she first started managing non-government organisations in Gunnedah, and commented that Australia was twenty years behind Germany in its social policies, it wasn’t long others began to support her forward-thinking ideas. In those early Gunnedah years, Sabine also developed an interest in print-making, and created her artwork in the same frenetic way she did everything else. In workshops, while others would manage perhaps two prints a day, Sabine would do at least ten. Valued by many in the Arts Community, Sabine was a founding member of The Frida Group, which helped women increase their well-being through art.
In Gunnedah, Sabine also became Queen of Garage Sales – collecting cots, doors, windows, dresses, children’s clothing and wine glasses. Her aesthetic sense was finely-tuned, and she would go to any lengths to fulfil her desires. For example, when she bought her house in Armidale, she knew those old glass doors from Gunnedah High, that were now part of her ex-neighbour’s chicken coop, would be perfect, so she went and got them, even though her neighbour had sold the house and moved on. Sabine’s creativity was also expressed through her love of cooking, entertaining and catering. For many Europeans, hospitality is important – the German word for this is gastfreundschaft – and Sabine had it in bucket-loads. It was also the serving size she usually operated with. Famous for her mousse au chocolat, coq au vin and other dishes, she always made catering-sized quantities, no matter how large the crowd.
In 2006, Sabine moved to Armidale because she wanted her children to attend the local Steiner school. After travelling to PNG and Borneo in the last five years, mainly to walk the Kokoda, Black Cat and Death March Trails, Sabine started to work closely with PNG communities on community development, particularly health, education and gender violence. Using her knowledge as a social worker and homeopath, she engaged with women, elders and clan leaders to address social issues in the remote villages of the Huon Gulf district and the Morobe Province.
On one of her Kokoda walks, Sabine met community leader, Matthew Bumai, and after she returned to Australia, they worked together on community development. On her next visit to PNG they became lovers, which meant a lot of travelling, usually with one of the children. Matthew died suddenly in December 2010, and Sabine grieved his loss deeply. However, she was committed to maintaining her links with PNG, and had already bought tickets to return in December and have a house built.
Sabine’s commanding physical presence is no longer here, but she’s going to be stronger and even more powerful in her death. Just as the Australian soldiers had the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels to help them on the Kokoda Trail during World War II, we all now have a big blonde angel to help us when we falter on the path, especially her children – Niclas, Philippe, Atlanta and Sebastian – who she believed in and loved so much. And Stephan and his wife, Jo, who have been so strong and brave over the last week. Sabine is now someone we can call upon when we need to be tough, when we need to be strong, when we need to stand up and say: ‘Enough of this fucking bullshit!”, and when we need to remember: “Nothing is impossible.”
But, oh Sabine … we are going to miss you.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
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’s stopping you?
Hello again. I’m back, after what feels like a long time in the wilderness, and guess what? I have begun the re-working / re-writing process …what a relief! I’m on my way, I faced the dragon and now I know I have the strength within me to continue and get the job done. I must admit, though, that I went through another long period of feeling totally overwhelmed and inadequate; wracked with guilt because I was spending too long in the ‘writing without writing’ phase. That’s why it was so good to chat with Anne Reilly, my HarperCollins editor, a few weeks ago. I needed to hear her voice, to be reminded of her belief in me, and her enthusiasm. The Varuna HarperCollins Residency was starting to feel like a distant memory. Did I tell you that Anne’s parting words were: ‘Keep the faith.’ Yes.
It’s taken me another couple of weeks, but I’ve drawn up the rough map for the new draft, and have also re-read the manuscript – where I was able to see the problems with fresh eyes – and now I fully understand what needs to be done to make it a publishable manuscript. I can do it. Last week, after I finished the read-through, I had a ‘phone-meet’ with Judith Lukin-Amundsen, my Australian Society of Authors Mentor, and we discussed some of my thoughts on the process. As always, Judith was very affirming, and commented that my idea for the new draft’s preface was ‘a piece of genius!’ I think I need to write that up in big letters, and put it above my desk. I told her how the idea had come to me on one of my walks – ‘It was like magic’ – and she said the time-span in between when you’re not working on a manuscript is invaluable, and that I didn’t need to feel guilty. You only get a certain number of chances to see the writing with fresh eyes – and that’s after a long break, and when the manuscript is in the typesetting stage. It was just as Mandy Sayer said: ‘“Writing without writing” is a process that allows the imagination to wander freely; to make unconscious connections between narrative possibilities…’ It really works.
My new goal? By April 2012 I intend to finish the final draft, and have it ready to submit to HarperCollins. However, because I have such a great deal of work to do, I’ve been seeking opportunities that offer quiet writing / thinking time so I can achieve my goal. The other night, I caught up with my neighbour and fellow writer, James Vicars, who had just returned from a two-week NSW Lit-Link Fellowship at Varuna, and was full of stories. Along with relishing the time and space to think and write, he also commented on the rarity of having four other writers to sup with each evening, and the richness of the conversations they shared. As I listened to Jim, I thought to myself: I want to go back to Varuna. It had been cold, grey and rainy for weeks in Armidale – typical end-of-winter weather – my days filled with rotating the racks of washing around the fire, chopping wood, cooking dinner, housework, family commitments, tutoring … the writing side-lined. Chatting with Jim, I realised that opportunities for retreat are essential, because sometimes the writing just has to come first. I left his house more buoyant than I’d been for weeks, and since then I’ve applied for a Varuna Fellowship, a residency at Bundanon, a Writing @ Rosebank Fellowship, and a position as an emerging writer-in-residence at the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers’ Centre. Surely one of these opportunities will come through.
I’m very fortunate to have another writer living just around the corner, and Jim and I meet regularly to discuss the writing life and the health benefits of vodka. I’ll finish this post with an excerpt from a letter of support he wrote for me recently (for one of my retreat applications): ‘Helena has been a companion on the writing path since 2008 when she encouraged me to take my writing seriously. Her encouragement was followed up by the questions: ‘Why not? What’s stopping you?’. Asked with a genuine warmth and sense of potential, these encapsulate her positive approach as a writing mentor. While Helena knows we all have difficulties and obstacles to overcome as writers she always has a sense of what the next step might be and that one can always move forward in one way or another.’ Thanks, Jim!
Here’s to moving forward, which sometimes isn’t easy. I’ll try to remember to post my UNE talk next time. Until then …
Writing without writing
Hello again. What a month it has been. No, it’s not what you’re thinking . My index-card box is still empty; I haven’t written or developed any further scenes. In fact, I’ve hardly looked at the manuscript. What’s going on? Well, I think I’m in the ‘writing without writing’ stage. In a recent ‘Writing Class’ article in Spectrum, Mandy Sayer says that the ‘art of “writing without writing” is a process that allows the imagination to wander freely; to make unconscious connections between narrative possibilities without the pressure of producing a consistent tone, a tight prose style, beautiful sentences and startling metaphors.’ Not to mention a full box of index-cards. Recognising that I’m in a kind of ‘pre-rewriting’ phase has helped me understand that I’m nowhere near ready to put scenes onto index cards. There are many other things to do before I reach that next phase in the development of this memoir.
Also, if I’m honest with myself, I recognise that a large part of my ‘writing without writing’ phase is due to fear. The task ahead remains overwhelming at times, especially as my marriage ended ten months ago, and I’m less than five months away from submitting my PhD. The other day, seeking some reassurance, I rang my HarperCollins editor, Anne Reilly, and together we worked out three simple steps to help me ease into the task and dispel some of that fear. Step one is to sketch out yet another map – almost a statement of intention – of what I want the re-worked memoir to be, and to see that map as the bones of the story; second step is to read over the memoir draft as it currently stands and fit parts of that draft onto my map, and see it as adding flesh to the bones; step three is to go back to the ‘Varuna blah’ and match parts of that to the map in the same way. Anne believes that these three steps will enable me to merge the old draft with the new (without freaking out).
Even though I haven’t progressed far with the memoir, other positive ‘writing without writing’ things have happened. I enjoyed a brief but fruitful email correspondence with SMH Good Weekend journalist, John van Tiggelen, who responded to my questions about ethics and other matters with openness and generosity. What a gift to an emerging writer like myself. I also gave a paper about one aspect of my writing process – whether or not to show the subjects of your writing early drafts – at a UNE School of Arts conference. It was well-received, and I’ll post the talk here in the next week or so. I also gave my first tutorial in a ‘Writing in Genres’ unit at UNE which was immensely enjoyable, especially as I was able to participate in the same creative writing exercise as the students. We had to write about a place. Normally I find these write-on-the-spot exercises difficult, but this one was surprisingly easy. I thought I was going to write about my regular meetings with my PhD supervisors at a local coffee shop, but this is what ended up on my piece of paper:
The windows at my favourite coffee shop are large, and slide across to allow outside and inside to merge. At the end of each shift, the glass needs to be wiped clean of sticky fingers and handprints. Late, on the Saturday morning my father died, I walked past this coffee shop and saw a friend, who worked there, cleaning the windows. I think I was still in shock. I’d been shopping: first to Kmart to buy a new bra and some underpants to wear to the funeral (these items seemed terribly important that morning), and then to Darryl Lea to buy dark ginger chocolates, my father’s favourite. When I saw my friend, I stopped and said hello. ‘My father died this morning,’ I told her. She leant through the window and hugged me.
Hmmm … interesting what goes on inside us, eh? I read my piece to the students because even though it’s very simple, I like it. It showed me that I miss my father more than I thought, and that his death is still just under my skin – even though it’s been over three years. The piece was probably a little heavy for the students – they wrote about happier memories of places – but gee, it was good to be in a room where so many young people were writing and openly sharing their work (and who all listened quietly as one older person shared a piece of her heart). I think we’re going to have fun.
Until next time.
Go where it scares you …
Hello again. This week’s post will hopefully enlighten you about one possible method for bringing ‘emotional truth’ into your work. First of all, why do you need it? Well, according to my HarperCollins editor, Anne Reilly, a memoir without a heart doesn’t work. It doesn’t punch you in the guts. It doesn’t keep you turning the pages and make you stay up late reading. The book has to give the message that this is a story that has to be told. In my case, although my story idea (or arrow) was worthy – and its trajectory has so far attracted a lot of interest – for a variety of reasons (which I’ll explore in another post), I have ‘held back’ in my writing. Not only has this led to my work lacking emotional truth, but it has also led to problems with focus and structure.
One of the first things Anne asked me to do as we walked and talked around Katoomba was to ‘tell her the story’ that I had written; she thought I wasn’t clear about what it actually was. By the way, this blog is mostly going to focus on process rather than content, but, briefly, my memoir is about a mother healing her relationship with her son. After I told Anne this, she said she thought that was the case, but I hadn’t made it clear … I needed a more focussed story, and I also needed to form a much bigger picture of myself for the reader. She advised me to start by mapping my life journey on to a sheet of cardboard; to chart my journey from beginning to now. Then I had to write the life journey story without looking at notes or at a journal, write straight from the heart and follow the map. This would uncover deep-layer material, almost proto-book matter, and Anne said it would provide an authentic base to my story, the true emotional core. I would be the only witness to this uncensored piece of writing, so I could just let it all out. When it was finished, I would choose from it the information that would help readers understand the bigger picture of my story, and then I would shape it to go public.
I’d received similar advice from Anne Collins, chief-editor from Random House Canada, at the Brisbane Writers Festival a few years ago. She’d read the first twenty pages of an early draft of my memoir and, after we discussed some general points, asked, ‘So how are you going to make this into a story?’ I was blocked at the time; I couldn’t write and didn’t know where the story was going. What my memoir needed then, as it does now, was the emotional truth. Anne Collins’s advice was: ‘Go where it scares you … write as if everyone is dead. Think about the consequences later – just write now. And don’t show anyone till the end.’ This is a continuing dilemma for me, and I’m sure it has contributed to the problems I now have with my memoir; I show my work-in-progress to others too much, mostly for re-assurance or encouragement. I need to have more confidence as a writer and keep my work to myself until it is fully-formed.
Meanwhile, back at Varuna, it was time to find my truth, to go where it scared me. I bought three sheets of cardboard, and over the next week I mapped out and then wrote the story of my life. Following the map … writing, weeping, and walking. Writing, weeping, walking. I was like a madwoman, but that’s how I ended up with 66 000 words. I also had two massages with the fabulous Lyn Midgely from Katoomba Natural Therapies. Having a massage with Lyn at the beginning and at the end of the life journey writing activity really helped me make it through this highly emotional time.
What also helped was a trip to the movies to see James Franco play Allen Ginsberg in HOWL. I’d never really understood the poem, but seeing the movie changed that. The movie made a big impression on me. I liked how Ginsberg talked about being true to yourself as a writer, about the fear that holds people back from doing what they really want to do, about the fear of being old and living in a room with pee on your pyjamas and having no one to love you, and about how expressing real honest emotion is not shocking for anyone. On that note, I’ll finish.
Hello! Welcome to my blog. I am an emerging Australian writer of creative nonfiction / memoir, and I have set up this to blog to record the process of preparing my memoir manuscript to a publishable standard within the next six months. This memoir, currently titled ‘Iron Men: Alchemy at Work’ (a new title is needed, but has not yet been decided), explores the challenge of disaffected youth from a mother’s perspective. My work on this memoir recently won me a 2010 / 2011 HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development. The award includes a ten-day residency at Varuna, the Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Every year, five lucky writers work with five senior editors from HarperCollins, and the aim of the program is to help each writer to bring their manuscript to a publishable standard through an on-going relationship with their editor. The finished work is then submitted to HarperCollins, one ofAustralia’s leading publishers, for first consideration.
I have just returned from Varuna (27th April-6th May, 2011) where I consulted at length with Senior Nonfiction Editor, Anne Reilly, who chose my manuscript from the long-list. Thank you, Anne, for giving me this wonderful professional opportunity! Along with the four other HarperCollins awardees – Sally Bothroyd, Tim Denoon, Anna Hedigan, and Heather Taylor Johnson – I conferred with my editor at the beginning and at the end of the residency, and have left Varuna with a blueprint of what further work I need to do. During the residency we also had information sessions with Sue Brockhoff, Head of Fiction, who explained the intricacies of the publishing process should HarperCollins accept our manuscripts.
Varuna is heaven for writers (thank you Mick Dark!). All the household / cooking needs are catered for (thanks to Joan and Sheila!), and writers are left undisturbed (thanks to Lis and Vera!) to write, read, think, walk, sleep, have baths, eat chocolate, drink wine … whatever! As well as writing over 65 000 words while I was there – yes, amazing! – I walked for hours each day around the streets of Katoomba. My editor, Anne, also enjoyed walking, so we ‘walked and talked’ through the mist and rain, up and down hills and discussed what the manuscript needs. The good news is that Anne thinks my memoir is ‘imminently publishable’, but the not-so-good news is that it basically needs to be re-written and re-structured. Sigh … Did I mention that I’ve already been working on this manuscript for three and a half years? Oh, well.
According to Anne, there are two types of writers – mapper-outers and arrow-shooters. Mapper-outers, as the name suggests, are those writers who plan their manuscript in great detail, a technique which works particularly well for genre writers. They always know where they are going and what they are doing. Arrow-shooters, the category I fall into, are those who shoot out the arrow (the idea that interests them) and see where it lands. The place I am in now is that I have shot out my arrow – and have a work-in-progress of 85 000 words – but now I need to incorporate some ‘mapping’ techniques to improve the content and structure. My aim is to merge some of the 60 000 words I wrote at Varuna with some of the current content. By the end of six months I will have a much better story and will have learnt how to put my heart – my emotional truth – into this work.
And how am I going to do that, and where am I going to start? More about that in my next post … but let me just say that so far it has involved pencils, cardboard, a laptop, tissues, long walks, lots of red wine, a trip to the movies to see ‘HOWL’ and two fantastic massages.