Category Archives: writing angst

some thoughts on rejection

I once dated a wonderful guy.  He was funny, smart and good-looking. Generous. A great listener. My family loved him. And I loved him, too, except not in the way I wanted to. For some reason, he wasn’t quite right for me.

I once was dumped by a guy. He told me he wanted space, which since we were both independent and spent lots of time apart, was really code for ‘I’m over you’. It hurt, absolutely. And for awhile there I thought ‘I’m obviously way too boring/emotional/freckly/fat’. But that breakup wasn’t the end of my dating life. Other people found me tolerable, even delightful 😜. I just wasn’t right for that person.

And I’ve realised that rejection in the writing world is often the same. The work might be great, but there’s a mismatch.

When we receive a rejection, it’s easy to blame ourselves. To spiral into thoughts of ‘my writing is shit’ (which reminds me of the time I accidentally called my manuscript a manushit) and ‘I’ll never get anywhere’ and ‘where’s the chocolate?’ And sure, there must be times when the submission wasn’t up to scratch. It was rushed out, not proofread well, or it’s an early career submission. It has good elements but needs some work.

But over time, as we improve, other factors come into play. The journal already commissioned an essay on belly button lint. We sent a dark story and they’re looking for a funny piece (or vice versa). The style doesn’t resonate with the competition judge (even though another judge will love it).

On Monday, I had dinner with two writer friends. Both women are very talented. One writes screenplays, memoir, novels, short stories, essays and more. The other writes plays, short stories and essays and is an accomplished actor. Both have won awards and fellowships. Both have been published, one in book form. These women are dynamos. And yet, as we ate our yellow curry, they spoke about the rejection emails they’d received the past few days. I chimed in to say I’d had recent rejections, too. We commiserated over pieces we thought were strong, yet were not accepted or didn’t place in competitions. And as we whined and laughed and wined, I had a minor epiphany (can an epiphany be minor?) —

Rejections don’t mean our work isn’t good.

Turns out, the writing world is like the dating world. Not everyone will fall in love with our work (and we won’t fall in love with everything we read, either). As with dating, we shouldn’t try to be who we’re not, to please someone else. They’ll like us or they won’t. We’ll be rejected for sure, but acceptances will come when we least expect it.

And in the meantime, we can write.

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writer’s block – causes and treatment

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Let me preface this by saying I just liked the medical sound of that title. I’m not a writing doctor. However, I am an expert in getting writer’s block.

Writer’s block seems to arrive on my doorstep with such regularity that I’m much calmer about it these days. Instead of freaking out and thinking ‘I’ll never write another decent story again’, I now sigh with recognition and say ‘Heyyy, maaaate’ as writer’s block pushes past me and into the house.

I’m currently stuck mid-story (what a surprise and how unusual), so I decided to brainstorm all the reasons I know for writer’s block. I hope you’ll find something here that helps.

Reasons for writer’s block/Possible solutions:

Our health needs attention.
We need sleep, food, exercise, or fresh air. We need to take time off until we’re over an illness or injury. We need to slow down because of a chronic illness or disability. We need interaction with others, for our mental health. We crave the comfort of writers who understand and can suggest solutions.

We’re distracted.
We’re scrolling this, skim reading that. We sit to write and then get up two minutes later for a snack, a toilet break, anything but keeping bum on chair. If we don’t focus on our work for a decent amount of time, we can’t explore the work in depth.

We’re too impatient.
We want the entire chapter/poem/story/essay to emerge in two or three sittings. But our minds don’t always work like this (mine almost never works like this). A piece must unfold at its own pace. It might reveal itself day by day—as we shower, walk, sweep the kitchen floor. Contemplation is writing.

We’re trying to shove a pumpkin into a cocktail glass.
The fit isn’t right between idea and form. That powerful blast of emotion might be a poem, not an opinion piece. The space station comedy might be a novella not a short story. A painful memory might be best expressed through fiction.

The idea needs more.
It needs strengthening, modifying, layering. We’re writing about an older woman who keeps 33 cats and plays Elvis Presley all day but it’s lacking something. We haven’t revealed her hidden past, or introduced the young neighbour blasting Amyl and the Sniffers, or sent a flood that isolates the woman and her cats.
I sometimes use paper and pen to write a question in big letters, then draw arrows from the question, spouting multiple answers. Outrageous, sensible and plainly stupid answers. Just lots of them is key. One will often point the way forward. (Credit for this strategy goes to Jaclyn Moriarty, who described it in a workshop I attended a few years ago)

We don’t know our characters well.
What are their quirks, how old are they? What’s their occupation? Who are their loved ones? And of course the big questions—What’s their secret fear? and What do they desperately want?

We don’t know the setting well.
This is one is easy to neglect. When I need clarity, I use Google Earth, read about the place, look at images online. For places that exist in my imagination, I might draw mud maps and sketch floor plans so I can ‘see’ the places as my characters move about.

Our self-critics are poking up their ugly heads.
It’s important to banish that tall, sneery, pasty-faced inner critic (okay that’s my inner critic, feel free to picture your own) as our first draft emerges. We need to tell our inner critics to piss off (a technique I first heard from Edwina Shaw at a QWC workshop). For now, we’re just getting down words. We can add, cut, rearrange and refine later.

Forgetting joy.
We write because we love it. We choose and order words and ta-da!—we’ve created a poem, an essay, a novel, a play. A short story, screenplay, memoir piece or work of non-fiction. What a magical and powerful act.
It helps to remember joy. ❤️

 

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Oh writers, what have we done?

If you’ve been feeling, like I have, that you’ve failed to achieve all you hoped to this year, it’s worth looking back, just for a moment. Adding up all you’ve written, all you’ve applied for, all the work you’ve done towards achieving your goals. Maybe you’ve placed or been shortlisted in a competition, or had work published. Maybe you’ve written something that makes your heart race, something you know is good. Our milestones are so easily forgotten, as we constantly shift the goalposts.

Just now, I tallied up what I’ve written this year. Before looking, I would have guessed 3 or 4 stories. It feels like I’ve struggled to write, with more paid work, my kids needing time, a health issue, and life’s up and downs. I’ve been frustrated lately, thinking how little I’ve progressed.

And yet … I’ve actually completed 8 stories in the past 11 months. I’ve applied for writing fellowships. I’ve sent work to several journals, and entered a number of competitions. I’ve received lots of form rejections, a few lovely personal rejections, a highly commended in the Newcastle Short Story Award. I recently had work accepted for an anthology I’m really excited about. I finished a full manuscript. And I did 3 readings—2 for Amanda O’Callaghan’s book launches of This Taste for Silence (an absolute must-read), and one for Anna Krien’s Brisbane launch of Act of Grace (another wonderful book). None of this is astounding, but it’s decent. I’ve done plenty in 2019.

You’ve probably done way more than you realise, too, if you check. It’s so easy to forget our accomplishments and stew on disappointments.

And if you’re still unhappy with your ‘progress’, remember we’re all living with different demands. Some work longer hours, some have very small children, or lots of children! Some of us are carers. Some of us struggle with mental health issues, chronic illness or disability. We’re all doing our best, given our circumstance. And for that, we deserve to feel proud as 2019 comes to a close.

Congratulations to you — for everything you’ve written, for all you’ve endured, and for anything that has brought you joy.

 

 

 

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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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Dear Writing Gods

So, Writing Gods, I’m still here. Just in case you’d forgotten. I mean, I’m sure you hadn’t, because you’re the all-seeing, all-knowing Writing Gods, but maybe you got a bit distracted by a brilliant, funny writer or a writer who wears way cooler clothes than I do or maybe a writer who actually spends more time at their desk than baking. And I’d understand that, really I would. But I haven’t given up. I’m still here in my ugg boots with my copy of ‘How Not to Suck at Writing’ and I’m still making up stories and sending them away. But it’s been quiet. Eerie.

Here’s something I wonder – do you ever think the acceptances and awards we writers get could be spaced out a little better? As Writing Gods, do you ever consider using your influence to drip-feed our successes throughout the year? Why must we get all our good news close together, then nothing for months? Writing Gods, it’s cruel.

So anyway, if you’re not too busy, maybe fling something my way? Anything would be fine. A longlist, an honourable mention. Hell, I’d take a personal rejection note at this point. Just a sign from above not to open a bakery.

Also, Writing Gods, sorry for whining. I appreciate the thrills of the Writing Life, I really do. I know I’m so fortunate. I thank you for your bounty and I grovel humbly before you.

Yours in readiness,

Fiona

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the importance of play

IMG_2686The past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing and writing. Sure, I’ve wasted time here and there, but I’ve also worked at my desk for hours.

Except, what I’ve written has been awful. Flat, uninspired, dull. I revised 3 stories in the past ten days and became thoroughly sick of each piece. Not because they were finished, either. They were just so terrible I couldn’t stand to read another word.

So I’ve been feeling sorry for myself and bemoaning my uselessness and wondering for the zillionth time why I thought I had any aptitude for this. And then last night something occurred to me.

Maybe doggedness can be a bad thing.

I’m not saying I’m about to give up, or that I don’t believe in hard work. But I realised that lately, my approach has been all wrong. It’s joyless. I’m showing up at my desk as if I’m sitting an exam. I’m not getting outside enough, not walking enough. I’m thinking about where I’ll submit a story before it’s even finished, instead of losing myself in the tale I’ve created. I’m as playful as a back brace.

I know writing isn’t all fun and games. I know it involves hard work, showing up, putting the words together. But surely that can still be done with a sense of fun, with an attitude that brings a lightness of spirit, creating prose that sparks and surprises.

Maybe my defensiveness over hearing criticism of ‘earnest’ writing was not just because I write emotionally, but because I sensed I was writing without enough playfulness in my heart. Which is not to say that story content should be always be humorous – just that the approach shouldn’t be so stompy.

Maybe I’ve had my gumboots on when I needed to skip around in a pair of sandals.

Or even barefoot, across the grass.

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Earnestly, yes

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I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction lately. Short fiction and commentary about short fiction. And I’ve been feeling unsettled. Not by the short fiction, which has been varied and fresh and intriguing. It’s the talk about the Australian short fiction scene that has been bothering me.

A couple of writers have made remarks to the effect that Australia short fiction tends to be boring and bland. One gave the example of too many stories set in rural Australia where not much happens. I’m sure I read an interview where another writer said he hated writing that was too earnest. And right away that comment made me defensive and squirmy. Is that me? It might be me.

I actually agree that some stories struggle to excite. They try too hard to be ‘literary’. Farmers’ wives gaze out over fields and farmers’ brows crease and the fly-blown sheep carcass is a metaphor. Clouds gather and it looks like rain but then it doesn’t and the story ends.

However. People in glass houses and all. Because I can’t help it, my stories are a bit earnest, they’re really not funny in any ha-ha way, I don’t write satire or fantasy, my characters frown a bit too. But I write the only way I can. It’s the only thing I know – people and what’s in their deepest hearts, what secretly moves them, what makes them cry at night, what they fear and what they hope for. What they can’t forget. Who they’ll always love.

I don’t believe that stories in traditional narrative form are boring if the content is good. I don’t believe a short story has to be humorous, or satirical, or contain magical elements to be entertaining. I believe there is a place for every kind of story, done well.

I like trying new things, within my capabilities. I’ve written dystopian fiction, magic realism, a dialogue-only story and crime fiction. I try to learn and to stretch myself. I read widely. But ultimately I am developing my own voice, and that voice is emotional and I guess it’s a bit earnest too. I need to own that without shame.

 

 

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Gotta be in it

brick-wall-free-textures-01It’s interesting, the way we writers repeatedly bang our heads against brick walls. Do we have really tough skulls? High pain thresholds? Masochistic urges? I think we do it because we’re stoic (not stupid – stoic!). We feel the pain but we want to succeed.

Today I applied for a writing residency, knowing my chances are very slim. Not only am I competing against more experienced, more talented authors, I’m also applying with a short story collection. I checked the previous winners of this residency, and found that of all the most recent finalists, only one was writing short fiction. Hmmm, I said to myself. And yet if I don’t apply at all, my chance of acceptance is zero. If I don’t enter the fray, I can’t possibly succeed.

To all those awaiting writing results and responses, to anyone who sometimes feels the bruises from the brick wall – I’m with you. I’m doing the same. We’re putting ourselves out there, getting amongst it.

Wishing you the best of luck!

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Smackdown

So I guess I deserved this. What did I think would happen when I declared myself practically immune to writing rejection? Ha! Karma swung around and bit me on the butt.

It turns out I am totally fine with receiving writing rejections … sometimes. Those times include – when I don’t expect to get accepted anyway, when the rejections are spaced far apart, and possibly also when there’s something else exciting going on in my life.

On the other hand it seems I am not remotely good with rejection when I get three knockbacks in just over 24 hours. In fact I am a sulky, sooky baby (yes, I know, first world problems). I’ve tried eating a hell of a lot of ice-cream but that has been unsuccessful. So I thought I’d ‘write it out’. Verbally pout and gnash my teeth. I feel a bit better already 🙂

If you’d like to add to my complaints with some of your own, feel free. It doesn’t have to be about writing – any whining is welcome. There will be no judgement, only empathy!

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On days like this.

On days like this I compose reviews of my (non-existent) short story collection in my mind. I caught myself doing this just now, as I lugged wet washing to the line. The reviews aren’t harsh – they’re tepid, like milk left out too long. They say things like: While the stories are generally well-written, they are also stolid and unsurprising.

I realised what I was doing and stopped. I looked for the silver lining and congratulated myself for at least imagining a published anthology. But I know those negative thoughts are there, I know the limp reviewer hasn’t gone very far.

It’s a mug’s game, this writing gig. We write and re-write, edit and edit some more, send out our precious baby (manuscript/story/poem), and often don’t even hear back at all. Nothing. Not even a form rejection. Who would do this to themselves?!

And yet there’s that world we inhabit when we write, the places we create exactly as we please. We play with words and mix them up and tumble them into sentences. We bring characters, places, stories to life. It’s an enormous joy and I truly love to write.

Fellow writers, may your week be free of negativity and filled with writing bliss!

 

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