People here is a photo of my desk @gormancommons which has been my refuge and hidyhole for nearly 2 years now. Here, I’ve been working, among other things, on an exciting project in collaboration with the very talented Paul Summerfield (check his work out here) which just made a whooshing sound as I sent it on a journey. 🤞🏼🙏🏼
I remembered something last night – as the rain over the city twinkled in the light and gurgled in the drain pipes. I remembered that I am in love with reading. And that this is why I write. Because if I can do to a reader what Ondaatje did to me when I was about 17 and just ready for a book that was a poem and a love song and a nest of complications to rattle my brain and reassure me that the world was not at all a simple place, then I will have achieved my life’s ambition.
The world is no simple place.
Is it the writer’s job to remind us of that – no matter what they write? Perhaps.
Here I am working away at many projects, some more advanced than others, some in poetry some fiction some non fiction, occasional journalism and I realise I am stabilising my view of the world by admitting – word by word by word – that it is more complex and nuanced and incredible than I will ever be able to fully express.
And that I am at peace with that. Because I have tried.
I am currently mentoring a year ten student – let’s call her Miss C – and it’s a really enriching experience. I hope it is for her, too.
I found myself giving her a list of writerly advice, and I think I would probably do well to heed my own words.
I thought I would list my top 5 tips from a practicing writer to a beginner and then remember that they really apply to everyone who is undertaking creative practice. No matter how good you get and how experienced you become, it’s always helpful to stop and unpack what you are doing.
- Make plans. I found myself confiding to Miss C that in fact I wish someone had sat me down and taught me to plan writing when I was 15. Because that’s the bit you don’t see when you consume a book.
- Work towards an endpoint. Dream up where your story might go and take it towards that; in all likelihood you will change your mind, revise and edit, but in the meantime go to that point you can see on the horizon. (This does relate to planning, see step one…)
- Collaborate. The writing life can get a bit lonesome, so if you are ever offered the opportunity collaborate your heart out. Humans are social beings (even if writers sometimes forget this) and collaboration makes for new and interesting points of reference for your work.
- Keep your reader in the back of your mind – but don’t let them get behind the wheel too much.
- Be focussed – perhaps you could call it obsessive – but it’s important to stay with your writing though the tough times. Days of despair, keep writing. Days of dreadful anxiety, keep writing. Stay there and it will pass. After that you will have words on the page.
Note to self: revisit this page regularly.
I love dogs. And, in trying to follow my own advice to do what you love I am researching a non-fiction dog based book.
It might take a bit of researching but it’s an idea I’ve had for a long time and I am really excited about it. It’s a corker. I can’t go into it here, but really, it’s good.
I’ll let you know as soon as I can about what’s happening. I know you’re on the edge of your seat…
So, I went backwards.
Not in a bad way at all.
HARDCOPY is an initiative run out of the ACTWriter’s Centre with the help of the Australia Council (or its new entity Ozco). Budding authors (fiction and non-fiction on alternate years) are invited to submit manuscripts that are assessed by talented professionals and then 30 are selected to participate in rigorous series of workshops, talks and panels. This equips the writers with knowledge of the Australian publishing industry, gives them a new lens through which to examine their own work and furnishes them with connections otherwise inaccessible – with publishers, agents, other published writers and other writers who are also seeking publication. These last are an amazing resource.
As an alumni from the inaugural HARDCOPY 2014 fiction edition I was able to attend the Friday seminars of ‘Intro2Industry’ which, from my previous experience, was one of the highlights of the HARDCOPY experience. Seriously. There you are in a room with agents, authors, publishers. The head spins, the tongue goes thick, there are little prickles of excitement as conversations are started and cards exchanged.
I was back there with my pulse accelerating, glassy eyed and dreamy listening to the talk of a world that seems so far removed from my experience – which so far has been and continues to be about getting good words onto the page and seeing where it takes me.
Here are my highlights from the 2016 HARDCOPY fiction edition Intro2Industry seminars from Friday 9th September.
Catherine Milne Publisher at HarperCollins
‘What Publishers Want’
Milne spoke engagingly and pitched her talk at exactly the right level for the group – well balanced between informal and informative.
She said her aim that day was to demystify the process of publishing and give us hopefuls greater knowledge when fronting up to publishers…
Milne had a turn of phrase of her own – while talking about the publishing market in Australia she confided in us that market spikes are like rare wild ibis. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites for example and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.
Australian and International reading patterns are changing, Milne suggested. We are curating our lives on social media as never before and TV shows are improving, filling a gap in the market that reading used to occupy. But, she stressed, there is GOOD NEWS. People are still reading, publishers are publishing, there are better attendance of writer’s festivals than ever before, bookshops are opening and not closing.
‘Publishing is at the uneasy intersection between art and commerce – dangerous and exhilarating, like a cross road in New Delhi.’
Publishers, Milne stressed, are not gate keepers, not door bitches, they see their role one of collaboration with the author.
What it comes down to is this equation: the author says ‘Give me you $32.99 and 10 hours of your life and I’ll give you a story you will never forget.’
We loved that Catherine stayed and sat among us and listened to the rest of the sessions for the day.
Jacinta Di Mase – Literary Agent
‘The Role of the Agent’
Di Mase compared ‘getting published’ to ‘getting married’ – for a new author the focus is on ‘the dress/the cover’ and sometimes not so much on the longevity of the relationship.
An agent provides perspective and continuity.
On selling a new title she riffed ‘ This book is very sexy, witty think Gourmet Traveller meets Vogue – see, this is what an agent can do for you…’
Di Mase stressed than an agent has a combination of commercial sensibility and nous.
Alex Adsett – Agent and Publishing Contracts Specialist
‘Copyright and Contracts’
This was a less formal session as Alex encouraged us to throw questions to her as they came up. Demonstrating her amazing knowledge of the area she answered all comers concisely and clearly.
She told us about the Copyright Agency and urged us to join it.
Adsett broke down the concept of copyright into two sentences.
Copyright applies to original work in its original form. If you created it, you own it.
And while you don’t need the © symbol on it to own it, it doesn’t hurt if it is there.
In terms of contracts, Adsett is the expert, and she went into complicated details of the various concerns of the group. But, at base she stressed that you need to negotiate with a publisher, work out what a deal breaker is for you individually and walk away if it’s important enough. Make sure to read (or have someone you trust read) the sneaky fine print.
Only go into self publishing as if it is a business in itself. Do your research.
She closed on this note:
‘This is why I love publishing. Everyone has a vested interest in this industry and because it’s small we need each other to survive.’
Sulari Gentill, Adrian Caesar and Robyn Cadwallader
‘What I know about being published (and what I wish I had known)’
Fragments of what was said in the discussion of the topic with Nigel Featherstone.
Gentill: ‘I write into an historical scaffolding and that will tell me where the characters need to go…’
‘And let me just say that when the call comes through that a publisher wants your manuscript you will not be in the best position to make rational decisions.’
Cadwalladar: ‘I remember sitting in the British library and crying when the email came through, thinking ‘the publishers get it!’’
Cadwalladar: ‘I have had to learn to put my sense of the value of my wrting in a different place.’
Caesar: ‘I was pushed into fiction because of the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. People tell you to write from your gut, which is what I’ve largely done – which is why I’ve not been published.’
Gentill: ‘Here’s a tip, the program called ‘Wordle’ will seek out an overused word in a text. In my last book that word was ‘Burly’ everyone was ‘burly’. There’s one in every book I’ve written.
Cadwalladar: I think I learnt from writing The Anchoress that I have to write to find out what’s happening. It’s helpful to get to a certain point where I’m not just churning out plot – where I can see themes and deeper shapes emerge. It’s enormously comforting…’
Gentill on the best way of dealing with rejection: ‘Go and sit at your desk and keep writing…’
- You need to be unobserved. In your room you will have your internal editor, and your mother’s voice in your head and the words of that unkind friend that rattle your confidence. But they will not be able to see what you are doing. You might be writing. You might be picking your nose. They don’t know and can’t tell.
- You need to close the door. There are times you need to push back in your chair and sigh. You don’t want to tell the world why. Sometimes you cry because you’re writing well. Other days tears come because you’re writing badly. Either way, you have your room, you do it your way.
- Is it selfish? Let’s just think about selfish. Is it selfish to sit alone and talk to the world – the world of the future? Is it selfish to imagine beyond the four walls you’ve cleverly encased yourself in? Selfish is when you hold yourself back. When you eat all the food knowing others needed it more. Having your room is not selfish. As long as each time you sit down in your room you ask yourself whether you are enriching yourself and those around you. Then you will not be using up all the resources, you will be creating them.
- Moments of not being called upon are essential to quality creative time. You need to find flow so that the hands of the clock move in quick jerks across the day. Negotiate with your family and friends that you are not free for them when you go in there, that your room is a sacred space and you are doing hard work.
- But your room must hold possibilities. Having said you need to gently and firmly close the door to the mundane does not mean other doors within the room should not be opened. Open these door by practising your writing, but also sharing it. Make sure each day in your room to follow up some small lead you left yourself from last time so that the train of your doing can be traced in the light you shed. Not just for yourself and the safe place of your thinking, but in the world where you live.
This is a photo of an experiment I did with my big daughter yesterday. We tried making new crayons from all the old crayons around the house and as you can see the results will not make it onto Pinterest.
However, we really learnt something from doing this…not simply that we heated the crayons too quickly and the wax ran out of the moulds. What we found out was that we were risk takers. The kind of people that experiment and find out through trial and error. We weren’t too worried if the crayons didn’t work – though there was an element of disappointment that they were really thin and brittle. (‘What’s brittle mean?’ My daughter asked me ‘Just like this.’ I answered cracking another of our home made crayons out of its shell.)
What we also found out was that in order to make something you have to be prepared for mess, and possible casualties. I’m resigned to the fact that the biscuit cutters may never be the same…
Today I sat down to work on a short story. It started as a poem and had some lovely lines but no actual narrative. It was brittle. It would certainly crack under close observation. Making it into a story involved making it longer, filling it in with which’s and this’s and small descriptive passages.
I was tidying, after taking the risk and inventing the lines I was cleaning it up and making it something someone might one day want to read. Hell, they might plaster it all over a billboard one day, perhaps written in bright coloured crayon…even though the poem it had been had leaked and run and melted and become brittle, the story (like later versions of the crayon-cakes done in muffin trays with pattypan casings) was much more successful.
That’s another thing about creative mess. It takes creativity to get the mess sorted out. Even then, when it is done a bit of mess in there gives an inkling of how it was created. Perhaps this gives the finished product a bit more interest?
PS The yellow koala turned out quite well.
I’ve recently hired a desk in an arts hub. It’s warm here and very white. There’s nothing wrong with that – here it’s winter so I’m grateful for the heater – and the white is seems safe and new and clean.
My desk is white, the filing cabinets and lockers are white, the walls are white and have the texture of walls that have been painted over and over as the room has been put to different uses. The ceiling is white and the neon light there seems to give off a whitish glow, as does the sunlight through the window.
Fortunately the carpet is a deep maroon-like purple. That’s where I pull my ink from.
So I come into this room in the morning and start my battle against the blank. First, I spend some time smearing actual ink on the paper I brought. The scratch of pen on paper is reassuring. I just write something, anything, keep my loping hand travelling until I feel as if there’s enough scrawl on the white to make it possible to start the next phase.
I pull out my laptop and I start with a screen as blank as the whitewashed wall. My job is to fill it. My job is to put some words on the screen. That’s what I do. While I write, my white fingers on the black keys, I only make the sounds of clicking and breathing, and even then sometimes I hold my breath. The white walls recede a little bit.
Sometimes in my reflection I notice some of this white has landed in my hair. I resolve to brush it out later, but now I concentrate on the words against the white.
The thing is, in the rest of my life I work towards the white. I am a patron of whiteness. I am the white’s own slave. I work at cleaning up mess and sorting things out to create more space for the white to reside. I wash and wash clothes and sheets in the hope that the white will come back. I wipe the white cupboards of muddy little handprints to rectify the white’s rightful place in the kitchen. So it’s strange to come into this pristine room and write words of my own onto the white white screen.
The heater hums and I write down lists of things I will do later. People who expect things from me. Things I must tell my husband. Things I have to buy for the family. And then I look up at the white white wall with all its history and I imagine the lost young man who found a place to rest here in the dormitory this room once was. How he had his shoes and his shirt and a small bag that his sister had sewn him from a flour sack which had a knitted hat (from his mother) and a folding knife (from his father) and the key to the old back door of the family’s farmhouse inside it. Why is he here? What does he dream? What did he say to the warden and the sound woman at the desk? I am still thinking about that.
What’s happening between the words? You know, those spaces there, here, everywhere? Is there time to breathe? Is there something hanging from that last letter there? A thing so essential it’s left unsaid?
And in this realm of the unsaid, the unvoiced, the things that are so obvious that they are omitted – that is where you should concentrate.
Like a breathing exercise, the inhalation and the exhalation are the parts that are often the main focus, but I ask you – what about that moment between? What’s happening in the pause between them, where the lungs are expanded or contracted, getting ready for their next big move? What about the space between the heart beats? What about the space just before you write the word dead.
Going a bit insane, writing and editing a thesis, I became concerned about what happened when I deleted text. Where did it go to? Running the curser backwards over words, sentences, whole paragraphs and pages – I would sometimes amuse myself by saving the occasional s or e hoping, later, when re-writing, I’d find I had completed the word I was writing without actually striking the key. So, my paragraphs would end like this sseees…
But what has this got to do with the gaps, the unsaid, the little markers that divide one word from the next?
Well, everything. Because in deleting that writing I was making more space. I was unsaying. I was erasing what had been written ( I claim in no way that it was actually and good) and in this I was making spaces. I was giving my poor reader a chance to breathe, to pause on an idea and savour.
Because this is what is needed in writing. Reader’s need spaces to take it in. They need to know that you will guide them, hold them, wrap them in your writing – but no too tightly. Not tied down forever. Because then, they will cut the ropes and flee…
So, give them spaces between the words. Give them unsaid things, these they can learn to trust you and lean into your writing. Give them whole paragraphs missing, just to make the point. And occasionally, when they are least expecting it, give them an extra e, just for the hell of it.
Writing is not like knitting. Not at all.
With knitting you use yarn to tie knots and these thread onto a long needle that is then paired with another needle. You use this second needle to tie knots from the knots you originally made.
So, you can see already there are no parallels with writing.
With writing you thread lines of letters along between margins. Sometimes the letters are made of ink; sometimes digital-ink, quite often they are the shadow, the spaces where light is not. When enough of them are gathered in one place they are referred to as ‘a piece of work’.
Not like knitting. When knitting accumulates along the needles it’s called stocking stitch (for beginners). As the work grows its called ‘My project – don’t touch it!’
More often than not when you are knitting you are forming something to wear, or to keep you or a loved one warm. At the end of all the knot-tying you have a cardigan or vest or baby’s blanket. You run your hands over the twisty knots, you admire the tension, the even stitches, the thread that runs on and on; the colour and pattern, the remarkable nature of something ‘hand made’ that shows small faults and foibles that endear it to you.
More often that not when you are writing something you are writing it for someone (sometimes if that’s a secret even from yourself) but of course it will not keep them warm on those chilly days.
Knitting can be meditative. Hands find a rhythm that sustains itself – the raveled sleeve of care stitched up again. Knitting can allow periods of ‘flow’ when the mind travels about through its own recesses and time is held with the gentle click of needle against needle and the ebb and flow of the yarn.
Can writing ever be meditative? Perhaps that ‘flow’ cannot occur because you will be there struggling with sentence structure and syntax and adverbs…and that might be true, but once your hands have found the rhythm and perhaps after you’ve mastered moss stitch you’ll be able to focus less on each individual stitch while keeping your eye on a wider idea for your work.
There are times when writing can be quite soothing – say for instance when writing a letter to someone or making a poem and arranging the words in exact order to create the pattern. Writing to explain something in that exact way that writing allows, working and reworking the idea to perfection. Writing it allows a clear way to look at these ideas from a distance, they sit there on paper, separate from the writer. As if the ideas could drape over you, as if you would wear them out in public.
With knitting you find a dropped stitch, one that is out of alignment and throws out the entire pattern and you have to undo vast tracts of your nearly finished vest. With writing you find a dropped word and track back to find the space for a new one…
With knitting you are expressing patience and dexterity. The pattern you have chosen to follow makes way for the form of your work and you adapt this to your needs, to what you envisage the final piece to be like.
It’s different with writing. There, you use words to express yourself, the quicker you type the more words appear at thought-pace, but there is rarely a pattern until the piece of work comes together and can be examined from several angles and stitched together. You go back over and over writing, checking for irregularities, changes in the tension. Looking over the colour and weave, making sure it makes sense and flows like yarn does over needles.
When the final stitch has been taken and the last loose thread tied in, the knitting is complete, it is recommended to wash it, dry it, and when it is not being worn or used, it should be folded and kept in a drawer.
When the final word is written, the sentences ironed, the content masterfully tied up and tethered your piece of writing, when it’s not being read, should be folded neatly up into cyberspace, or printed and clipped together and put into a drawer.
When you knit, in general, it’s a quirky craft activity that is personal in nature and shared with friends and family. Knitting carries little prestige. You don’t knit a page-turner. You don’t knit a celebrity author (well, you could, but it would be quite tricky). You knit because you love it, it’s a release and you make something at the end.
With writing, in the back of your mind – admit it – you’re hoping one day some talent scout will hunt you out for those poems you wrote half a decade ago, for the blog you co-authored, for the novel that’s been sitting in the drawer (how do they know about it?) you hope that the writing will take you somewhere you are not already… Do you hope that with your stocking stitch? Do you?
Those black stitches between the margins come loaded with all the world’s expectations.