RESURRECTING THE DEAD – Opening the Bottom Drawer

I don’t know about you, but I have a bottom drawer full of old manuscripts. Actually, I have a whole chest full. The first novel I ever wrote, “A Lesson in Darkness” will never see the light of day, it was my real training ground. It’s never even had a second draft. But I have three other projects that were precious book babies at some point but then, because of rejections real or imagined, became too hard to look at and were relegated to the bottom drawer.

What I’ve learnt over my twenty years of writing practice is never ever to give up on a piece of writing. Short pieces that were rejected for years, even decades, suddenly find the prefect home in better places than I’d ever dreamed of. “Mrs Sunshine” had done the rounds of many literary journals and competitions and then finally found a place in Best Australian Stories 2014. Other stories too, battle worn and bruised have risen to be published and paid for.

Even Thrill Seekers was resurrected from the dead after Barbara Mobbs, my then agent, told me to forget about it, put it in the bottom drawer and move on, after it was rejected by only one publisher. I wasn’t going to give up on it that easily. I submitted it to a worldwide call out and scored a contract with Ransom Publishing UK. It then went on to be shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Awards. It wouldn’t have, if I’d taken Barbara’s advice and let it perish unseen.

It takes courage to resurrect old writing, especially when it’s done the rounds a few times and faced a lot of rejection. “Remember,” I have to tell myself, “rejection doesn’t mean the work is bad, only that it hasn’t found the right home, or the right shape yet.”

I am not short on courage. I feel the fear and do things anyway. You have to be a risk taker to be a writer. But reviving “Dear Madman” and starting to work on it again after a break of some years has taken all my strength. When a book has been rejected, it’s not just the book that’s bruised, but the writer (actually, the book probably feels okay!). Sometimes you’ll have a loving spouse to drag the manuscript out of the rubbish bin, as Stephen King’s wife famously did for Carrie, his first breakthrough hit. But sometimes you have to be your own loving friend and do the same.

I have been working on “Dear Madman” on and off for over ten years. Yes, that long. This project is dear to, and deep inside, my heart. It began life as a memoir about the murder of my maternal grandmother’s sister as a child in the Lockyer Valley in 1912 but then evolved into a novel. The characters demanded it. I couldn’t shut them up. Besides, I felt the story was best portrayed as I saw it playing out in my mind – in scenes. I thought it worked well, but publishers didn’t agree. My agent at that time, Zeitgeist Media Group, were tireless in their efforts but couldn’t get it over the line. The rejection of this manuscript broke my heart. I started to believe it was cursed. That I was. And that’s never a good idea.

Recently, I attended Kris Olsson’s Memoir Bootcamp at the QLD Writers Centre with more recent memoir projects on my mind. However, once I started doing some of the preliminary exercises, I knew that the ghost of “Dear Madman” had called me there. Kris inspired me to take another look, to redo it as the memoir I’d originally intended, keeping the novelistic scenes if I wanted. That was weeks ago.

It took those weeks for me to gird my loins in order to tackle what seemed like a monumental task, the most difficult puzzle of my writing career. How to do it? The question loomed in my mind larger than the book itself. “Just do it!” I told myself like a sportswear commercial. “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

I dug up the old files, the original memoir strand of 24 000 words, journal extracts from the time of my researching and writing, and the novel it all morphed into. Then I started fresh. I opened a new document and called it, “Dear Madman 2022” (I know, I know, we’re not there yet, but I’ll still be working on it then I know). Most importantly I added ROUGH DRAFT in very big letters. “Just muck around with it and play,” I intoned like a mantra.

So I played. I’m still playing. Anything goes. I’m shoving bits in, weaving things together. Writing new bits, writing about the process. Talking to the reader as if they know how tricky it is to braid these disparate strands. And guess what? It’s fun! I’m enjoying myself. After the first few days of timidity and self-criticism, noticing where I’d overwritten and made things worse, I’ve reached a stage where I’ve regained my creative confidence and my belief in the project. YAY! It’s all a huge schmozzle right now, but I have faith that it is becoming more like it is intended to be. It’s finding it’s shape at last and I’m enjoying the challenge.

And, quite literally, I’m resurrecting the dead as I write, or at least giving them another life on the page. Through writing, I’ve given that little murdered girl the chance to laugh and play with her sisters one more time.

If you have stories or novels or memoirs clogging up that bottom drawer, especially those that hurt to look at, especially them, dig them out and expose them to the air. Gird your loins, put on your grown-up pants, and tell yourself you’re just going to play and see what happens. Start a new document and dive right on in. Anything and everything goes. You can do no wrong.

Repeat after me, “I am confident and capable in my creative work.” You can do it! Who knows? You may even have fun. 

What projects have you buried that deserve a second chance at life? What projects have you resurrected? Any success stories out there? I’d love to hear them!

Come and get it!

Lots of love,

Edwina xx

THE BENEFIT OF HINDSIGHT – Layers of Time in Memoir

Reflections

Recently I attended Kristina Olsson‘s excellent Memoir Bootcamp at the Queensland Writers Centre. How wonderful it was to be a student again and to learn from one of Queensland’s most celebrated writers. Kris’s book Boy Lost about the loss of her elder brother, has been a model for my own memoir in progress – “Dear Madman” – for many years. Kris has a workshop series coming up at the fabulous Avid Reader bookstore next year – keep an eye on their events.

During the course, I realised I have been trying to avoid an important and necessary element of successful memoir writing, reflection with hindsight.

Kris put us onto Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir and Vivian Gornick’s Situation and the Story which are packed with useful ideas and examples of memoir writing, including the concept of the Situation and the Story.

There are at least these two layers of time in memoir: the Situation which fleshes out in scenes the events from the past, key events in the section of life we are exploring, and: the Story, the author’s reflection with the benefit of hindsight, seeing patterns and creating meaning from these events.

As Kris told us, “Put your struggle on the page.” The reader needs to see the writer grappling with meaning making, in order for these personal events to resonate with the reader’s own story, their struggles. I now realise I’ve been trying to avoid this, hoping that, as with fiction, the scenes of key events alone would be enough. They’re not.

Much as we like to avoid it, the writer herself is the protagonist in her memoir. A raw and honest portrayal of self is necessary, reflecting on past actions and the meanings we’ve created through a compelling narrative. Helen Garner is a master of self representation in her non-fiction and thinly disguised fiction as well. She shows herself warts and all and we love her for it.

Be brave and put yourself on the page. I worried that my hippy trippy, out-there side may not be palatable to the literary community but Kris and my classmates assured me that they too all had secret inner hippies, and I should not try to hide this part of myself. Perhaps this is what will resonate most with others.

Excerpt from The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts

As the above excerpt tells us, it is by sharing the most deeply personal, our own inner journey of meaning-making, that we create the universal. And isn’t that what we all want? To reach for a kind of truth all readers will understand, a special wisdom that is beyond individual experience but applies to us all?

To do this, within a compelling narrative that keeps readers turning pages, is the memoirists’ challenge. Perhaps the most demanding of all genres, memoir requires great courage and honesty, exposing our inner selves in the hope that by sharing our personal battles we can create a work of art, a thing of beauty from all that pain.

Go deep memoirists. Go hard or go home. Uncover those buried secrets and bring them to the light. Show us how it’s done.

Are you writing a memoir? Have you been avoiding putting yourself in, like I have? Any hints and tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Take care, keep smiling and write like a fury!

Lots of love

Edwina xx