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

5 FUN UPLIFTING ACTIVITIES FOR LOCKDOWN!

Here in Queensland we’ve been pretty lucky lockdown wise. But now, here we are, as the rest of the world parties again, finding ourselves shut in. This whole Covid business has dragged on so long. We’re all sick and tired of the whole thing. But we’re stuck inside, some of us with no one to play with. What to do?

Here are a few fun creative activities to help fill those hours – there’s only so much screen time you can take before you start getting crazy eyes.

  1. A MOMENT OF JOY! We’ve all had moments of pure happiness. This picture represents one of mine – a wonderful trip out to Moreton Island with my extended family, including my young nieces and nephew. We climbed all the way to the top of enormous sand dunes and slid and bumped and jumped and rolled our way back down again. Such fun. Remember your moment of joy, big or small, the birth of a child, a win at work or in a sport you love, the first time you clapped eyes on a true love, that moment of connection with a small creature, the delight of rain on your face at the end of a stinking hot day. If you can’t think of anything, make something up! We’d all like to win a lottery, right? Now put a timer on for 5 minutes and write about that moment covering all the five senses – sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Go deeper. What did that joy feel like in your body? You can do this as a poem, a list, a song, an essay, a story, a drawing even. Whatever you like. Whatever takes you back to that moment and helps you feel that joy again. When the timer goes off, you can stop if you like. But if you’re on a roll just keep going!

2. MOVE! Okay, okay we’re stuck at home and there’s not much room maybe, but if you’ve got room to stand you’ve got room to stretch right up and try to touch the ceiling! Then bend down as low as you can – bend your knees. Then see how far you can twist around. Put on music and do a jig. Roll around on the floor like a log. Have fun moving your body. Even just wriggling is lots of fun and good exercise too. I love to do a shimmy to wake myself up and shake my sillies out. If no one is watching, play some kids’ music and dance along. If you’ve got people at home you can all work out a dance routine – just for fun. It doesn’t have to end up on TikTok.

3. MAKE A CONSTRUCTION If you’re like me you may collect things, shells, feathers, odd toys or leaves or plastic toys. Gather a few of them together and see if you can make something from them, just a photo still life will do, or you could draw them or paint them or stick them all together with glue. Or write about one of them, where you found it, what it reminds you of, why you picked it up. Just handling those collected treasures will lift your spirits.

4. MAKE A COLLAGE! All you need is an old magazine or two, some scissors (or just rip pictures out) and glue and a piece piece of paper of cardboard – an old cereal box will do. Set a timer for 10 minutes and flick through the magazines or newspaper or old books that you don’t mind cutting up or whatever you have, looking for any images that appeal to you. Anything that makes you smile. Words too. Anything that draws you in, or “speaks” to you in some way. Don’t overthink it and don’t get stuck reading articles, just keep flicking and ripping out pictures of things that make your heart sing. When the timer goes off stick all the images onto your sheet of paper or cardboard, go outside the edges, do lift up flaps, do both sides, whatever you like! You could cover a shoebox to keep precious things in. Just have fun doing it. Use coloured pencils or felt pens or glittery stickers or stars to decorate it. When you’re done, pin it on your wall to remind you of all the things that make you smile.

5. WRITE A LIST! Not a shopping list. Not a list of pros and cons. This time write a list of all the small things that bring you joy. Roses or rain, or swimming in a waterfall, or walking along the beach, or hugging your kids, or playing with your dog, or red-backed wrens, or small stones gleaming under a stream, or a blue blue sky, or a friend’s laugh or grandma’s chocolate pudding or your favourite song. Try and get to fifty! Yes fifty! Fifty small things that bring you joy.

Last but not least, even if you can’t go outside, stick your head out the window and look up at the sky. Watch the clouds for a while, until your neck gets sore anyway.

The world is still a beautiful, magical place and it is good to be alive.

Try one of these activities or all of them. I hope they’ll lift your spirits.

With lots of love

Edwina xxx