how’s the writing?

If you’re a writer, do you get asked by friends and family for writing news? When they see you, do they ask So, how’s the book/poetry/play coming along? and then Any news?

I’m lucky enough to have friends and family who ask, and I often wish I did have news to share, but mostly when they ask How’s the writing? I reply – Well, I’m doing it. I’m writing. They look at me kindly like I’m not very bright and they say to me gently, Well, that’s good.

Every time I hear this question, as thoughtful and well-intentioned as it is, I feel a little at a loss. Because I rarely have any news. Now and then something exciting happens, but it can be months from one small success to the next. And logically I know this is part of being a writer, that doing the work is what it’s really about, that getting published or winning competitions is great, but it isn’t going to happen every week. Most weeks we’re just doing it, just writing, trying to translate something funny, or tragic, or magical into words. Yet in my upbringing there was a focus on ‘achieving’, or perhaps it’s the influence of our culture, too – telling us we’re not really a ‘success’ unless we’re lining up trophies on the shelf. Sometimes I feel silly saying Well, I’m doing it. (Especially when the other person laughs!)

So today I’m here to offer comfort and company to all the other writers out there, especially those feeling weighed down, weary or short on faith. It’s tough, I know. Don’t feel silly if you don’t have a thrilling answer lately when asked about your writing. We’re here. We’re putting words on the page. And all the very best things take time.

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Filed under the writing life, writing angst

listening

I met a friend’s new partner, Julie*, a few weeks back and she was solidly drunk. That’s not the point of the story, but I’m sure she would have been less forthcoming without the wine.

This sweet, slurring lady had no sooner figured out who I was married to (my husband has the same stressful job as this lady) than she began quizzing me—”What’s it like being married to him? How do you cope with listening to him when he gets home from work?”

At first, I tried answering her briefly and laughingly—”Oh, he doesn’t say much about his day anyway—his usual answer is ‘Standard’.” But Julie persisted. “No, seriously.” She was all eyes. “Don’t you find it draining, listening to him?” After awhile, I realised Julie was worried about her own need to discuss work, her own need to de-brief after a stressful day, and whether it was too much for her partner.

So I told Julie that sometimes when my husband has a tough day and comes home wired and tired, he’ll talk a bit about it and I’ll listen. I’ll give him a hug, make him food or tea. But I reassured Julie that my husband does the same for me if I have a rough day (rarely due to work these days), and I think that’s normal in a relationship. I told her I don’t think one person’s bad day is something for the other to ‘cope with’, it’s part and parcel of being supportive. She seemed unconvinced, and said she hates how she needs to talk about work, hates burdening her partner.

The whole conversation struck me as odd. It made me realise that listening is often seen as a favour performed. And I feel this too sometimes—a profound gratitude if someone simply listens intently. Yet focussing on others when they speak, especially our friends and family, should be the most basic courtesy.

I’m often guilty of drifting off during conversations. My son tells me all about his bike ride and how coming down this specific hill his speed reached blah-de-blah-de-blah and I tune out and realise I’ve missed a chance to connect. My mother calls me and tells me something about a neighbour and I switch off and start planning dinner in my head. But I want to do better. I know when someone listens well, I feel the gift of it all day, the pleasure of being heard, maybe even understood. And it is no small thing.

After my talk with Julie, I am reminded to listen more closely. To pay attention. To give others that fundamental care.

*not her real name. Obviously 🙂

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a letter home

ANZAC Day has prompted me to write about a letter I found amongst a pile of my grandmother’s papers passed on to me. This letter still brings tears to my eyes, even after multiple readings. When I collected it from the framing shop, I had to blink rapidly as I thanked them for their work. The letter now hangs in our living room.

The letter is from my great-grandfather, James Trickett, to his two sons, one of whom was my Papa (my mother’s father). James wrote a long and loving five-page letter, filled with life advice for his boys. The tone is hopeful for his return and yet the instructions prepare his sons for his possible death.

This is the first page:

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James did survive to travel to France, but according to a letter from his commanding officer, in late January, 1917, he complained of a headache, and then suffered a ‘bilious attack’. He became very unwell, and eventually was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with ‘spinal meningitis’. He died in early February, 1917.

Here is the last page of his letter:

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Here is the entire letter on the wall:

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Lest we forget.

*Just in case anyone is concerned, the letter is framed with archival matting and tape, and has maximum UV protection glass. The letter is also hung on a wall which is not touched by any direct sunlight, and which receives only muted daylight.

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Filed under personal

small and vital details

A story I was writing left me cold. I couldn’t figure out why. The plot was decent, the characters seemed plausible, the setting intriguing. But the whole thing was flat and lifeless.

I tried the usual things — asking myself questions about the characters so I could know them better. Getting rid of redundant phrases and adjectives. Powering up the verbs.

The story was still not right.

So I started adding details.

Instead of the character complaining that her husband ‘wanted the same foods every day’, the wife despaired that her husband wanted ‘steak or fried chicken day after day’.

Instead of the woman buying the cat ‘expensive toys’, I wrote she bought the cat ‘mouse toys and a plush bed he ignored, preferring to sleep in the armchair’.

Instead of a boy fearing ‘bugs and spiderwebs’ in a cellar, he feared ‘spiderwebs and bugs as long as his boy fingers’.

And suddenly the story was real. I believed it. I could see the plush cat bed that Elvis the cat ignored, I could picture the husband chewing through his steak (or fried chicken) night after night, and I could see those long, black bugs, scuttling away.

I realised how details can make a story true. As readers, we buy into a story, (or a poem, a screenplay, a play) if these ‘facts’ give it the ring of truth. They are small and vital details.

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Filed under the writing life

A few good things

Good things have been happening.

In November I went to the Brisbane book launch of The Art of Disappearing by Elisabeth Hanscombe, and met Elisabeth for the first time. Here we are, admiring her book together!IMG_3812 2

It was a real thrill to meet her, and I realised later I’d already read and admired her work in Meanjin. The book is wonderful – the writing so effortless, honest, heartbreakingly good.

My friend Karen Hollands was chosen for a Hachette Manuscript development program.  My writing group buddies Warren Ward and Nikki Mottram won Katharine Susannah Prichard Fellowships for 2018, and Warren came runner-up in the latest New Philosopher writing competition. And my lovely friend Edwina Shaw was selected by Screen Qld to develop her Dear Madman manuscript as a screenplay, won a Katharine Susannah Prichard Residency, and has other projects in the pipeline too.

Fellow medico-turned-writer, my friend Louise Allan, has released her beautiful book The Sisters’ Song to widespread acclaim (I’m halfway through and I am spellbound).

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And in my neck of the woods, late last year I received a couple of rejection emails from well-regarded Australian literary journals, with warm, helpful feedback and suggestions to submit further work. I tried to be pleased, as I knew that might be the only encouragement I’d get for awhile. The last acceptance I’d received was December 2016, the last competition news (a shortlisting) was in March of last year.

Then early this month, a message arrived from a writer friend asking me to read some of my writing at their upcoming book launch. I was so touched and of course excited, too! I was still buzzing from that piece of news when two days later an email arrived saying a submission I’d sent to the Quart Short Literary Readings (in Adelaide) had been accepted, and that my story would be read by a professional actor at the Summer Shorts evening – next Tuesday January 16th, at the Bibliotheca Bar and Bookstore. I’ve never had anything I’ve written read aloud, nor have I ever read my stories for an audience. These new and wondrous experiences await!

If you’ve got some writing news to share, I’d love to hear it. (And if you don’t, hopefully your news is coming very soon!)

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Filed under the writing life

Inspiring, inspired: ‘Home is Nearby’ by Magdalena McGuire

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Home is Nearby, the debut novel of Magdalena McGuire, is a book rich with themes of love, loss, home, inspiration, freedom and truth. I closed the final pages with the deep satisfaction that comes at the end of a good book. My heart was full.

This fascinating and emotional story follows the life of Ania, a young woman sculptor living in Poland in the early 1980’s. We meet her friends and boyfriend Dominik in Wroclaw, and her beloved father back in her home village. Poland falls under martial law, and conditions become dangerous. Houses are searched by militiamen, and citizens are thrown in prison without charge.

On a personal level, Ania wrestles with her own feelings of inadequacy as an artist, and experiences jealousy towards a talented artist friend who she suspects once was intimate with Dominik.

Home is Nearby has a freshness and an originality that makes you eager to read on. The entrancing characters live vibrant lives yet also deal with fear, hardship and grief in places and circumstances that are intriguing.

Ania’s passion for her art was especially moving, and her doubts and indecision were relatable. And although this book was very much about love and where we call home, the most powerful thread for me was about our inner creative lives and finding the truth in what we create. It was an inspiring read for any artist, or in fact anyone who likes to express their creativity.

If you’ve struggled lately to find a book that excites you, one that is different and beautifully-written, I can highly recommend Home is Nearby.

 

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Filed under book reviews

roaring to the finish

lioness

It’s not the end. Not yet it isn’t. 2017 still has thirty-three days to go, not counting what’s left of today. So if you’re a writer and you’re winding down, telling yourself not to bother because, well, it’s almost the end of the year, I’m here to tell you it’s not over until December 31st! Which is not for thirty-three days!

Whether you’re a novelist or a short story writer, an essayist, a poet or a flash fiction specialist, there’s nothing like the allure of cash prizes. So let me tempt you to keep writing with a few competitions closing this month or the next:

Fish Publishing Short Story Prize – ends November 30, maximum 5000 words, cost 20 pounds

Ink Tears Short Story Contest – ends November 30, 1000-3500 words, cost 7.5 pounds

Baltimore Review Winter Contest– ends November 30, maximum 5000 words, theme of food, cost $10 US

Hamlin Garland Award – ends December 10, maximum 7000 words, cost $20 US

Hal Porter Short Story Competition – ends December 15, maximum 2500 words, cost $10

The Moth Poetry Prize – ends December 31, cost 12 pounds

The River Styx MicroFiction Contest – ends Dec 31, cost $10 US for up to 3 entries, max 500 words

Boulevard Short Fiction Contest – ends December 31, maximum 8000 words, cost $16 US

If you’re strapped for cash or would rather submit to a journal, you could try:

The prestigious UK-based Granta literary magazine, which costs nothing for poetry submissions, or 3 pounds to submit fiction or non-fiction (but hurry as submissions close by January 4th).

The highly-regarded Australian literary journal Meanjin – still accepting submissions of poetry and essays.

The always hip lit mag Overland – accepting submissions of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and asks for pitches for other types of writing (see website).

If you write sci-fi, fantasy, horror or spec fic, Andromeda Spaceways – currently open for submissions, as is Clarkesworld, for the very best sci-fi and fantasy.

Southerly – open for themed submissions (see website for details).

And if you’d like to win $10,000 for no entry fee, you could try this:
The Hope Prize – short stories 2000-5000 words exploring theme of hope and resilience in the face of poverty of disadvantage, ends Jan 31 (see website for full details).

Happy writing!

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Filed under the writing life, writing opportunities