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

NEW BEGINNINGS

HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope your year has started well, even amid the ongoing chaos of Covid 19. I hope you and your loved ones are well and safe. We’ve been fortunate here in Australia to have escaped the worst. I used to curse being born in Queensland, far from everything groovy, but it turns out it was very lucky indeed.

1996 Edwina’s English School -Sihanoukville Cambodia

Recently I was helping my mother clean out some cupboards and found this old photo from 25 years ago. In January 1996 I opened my very own English language school in Sihanoukville Cambodia. In 1994 I’d opened the Australian Centre for Education in Sihanoukville as part of an Australian Government aid program. But by 1996 I was ready to spread my wings and open my own school with a Khmer business partner. It was a brave new beginning.

Some of my lovely students

However, I’d also fallen head over heels with a rather odd, but exceedingly handsome young East German and, as luck and my misguided notions of natural family planning would have it, fell pregnant around the same time as I opened my school. UHOH! I was probably already pregnant in the photo. I suffered terrible morning – all day – sickness but had to continue teaching from six every morning until seven at night, travelling on bumpy buses up dangerous roads to Phnom Penh every Sunday, trying to find a replacement teacher.

Morning sickness and motherhood won. I returned to Australia in April, married my German in September and had our baby in October. That little baby will be 25 this year!

Backyard wedding in a beautiful borrowed dress

Another time, I’d just scored the perfect apartment in a much sought after inner-city suburb here in Brisbane. It was in a beautiful old building, my friend lived across the hall and my bedroom windows had birds painted on them. I’d just unpacked the final box, put the last book on the shelf, when the phone rang.

I had a new job!

In Sydney.

As the old saying goes, “Want to make God laugh? Tell her your plans!”

So HAPPY NEW BEGINNINGS to you. May the gods smile upon your endeavours and the road rise with you, wherever that road may take you.

And if it takes you in a different direction to the way you were planning, trust that it will all work out for the best in the end. It always does.

With lots of love and best wishes for a healthy, peaceful new year that brings us all together to work towards the healing of our precious world.

Edwina xxx

PS – If you are in need of comfort, reeling from losses you’ve incurred through Covid or otherwise, check out my Guide Through Grief- First Aid for Your Heart and Soul. I wrote it after the loss of my third child as a baby – another new beginning that sent me in a very different direction to the way I’d intended.