That’s (NOT) a dumb idea

Ever had a story idea, and then abandoned it after just a few lines? Ever had a surge of inspiration for a novel, but a few pages in, decided it wasn’t worth continuing? Ever discarded a project with scorn, telling yourself, That’s a dumb idea?

If the initial spark had lost all appeal, then fair enough. It probably wasn’t right for you.

But if you talked yourself out of continuing because you could hear the critical voices in your head – ‘Too mundane’… ‘Nothing new here’… ‘Clunky and dull’ – then you may have been experiencing a normal reaction to fresh, unedited work. It wasn’t good yet. It was only just beginning to figure out what it might be. What it could become.

Author & writing teacher Alan Watt says of early stage writing:

‘Everything we imagine either belongs in our story or is leading us to what ultimately belongs. We can’t do this wrong’. He advocates holding our stories loosely, and says, ‘We cannot make a mistake. It isn’t possible. We are simply investigating the possibilities that enter our imagination.’

After finishing edits on my story collection last year, I took a break from writing. I was tired and felt depleted, but I think I was also afraid. I’d seemingly pulled a rabbit out of a hat in getting published – now I felt like I might never manage that particular trick again.

The book came out on February 1st this year, and since then there have been book events, promotional pieces to write, a few writers festivals, and other things in my life taking up time. But my mind was ticking over, and kept returning to a particular idea – a scenario I’d like to explore.

It’s not a ground-breaking idea. It’s not new, though it’s hopefully a slight twist on an old story. It’s definitely not clever, or political, or earth-shattering. So I kept telling myself negative things, exactly like the ‘voice’ above. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t helpful! When I tried sketching out a few scenes, the writing made me mildly nauseous. In my free time, I’ve been avoiding writing, instead reading, walking, baking or patting my dog until she gets up and walks away (she actually does this! So rude).

the aforementioned dog

Today I’m determined to change my attitude. I’m going to let myself feel real enthusiasm for my idea, which I truly believe can be good, if done well. Writing it will take time, persistence and faith. I will probably have many crises. But if I just keep creating, I’ll keep learning – which means none of the work is ever wasted.

If you’ve been suffering doubt about something you’ve scarcely begun, I hope you too can take a moment to reassess. Maybe your idea isn’t dumb at all. Maybe it just scares you. Maybe you’re worrying too much (way too far in advance) about what others will think. Maybe you’re afraid you can’t pull it off. But none of these are reasons to quit.

So, we go on 💪

Connecting/Reconnecting

During a recent book event I was asked, What’s the best thing about being published? My response was to sit speechless for several seconds. I found it hard to narrow down to one thing, as there have been so many wonderful experiences (as well as a few stressful/upsetting times too – being completely honest here!).

My mind jumped to a month or so before publication, when my dad read a story in the collection. I wondered if he’d be able to relate to the main characters, or even find them interesting. But his comment showed me he’d settled inside their heads, and empathised with them both. Dad said, It’s really about two damaged people, finding solace in one another. His words proved to me (yet again) that stories hold great power.

Another highlight was when my writing group came to the book launch, all dressed in yellow (or with yellow accessories). Having them there, and especially seeing them decked out in the book’s cover colour, was something I won’t ever forget.

High school friends and work colleagues and uni mates and relatives and fellow writers also came to the book events at Avid Reader bookshop, including people I’d only ever chatted to on social media. My brother flew in from interstate, and friends drove from the Gold Coast. The bookstore even sold a cocktail named Fiona’s Fizz 😊 All this was such a demonstration of human kindness and it floored me.

I’ve loved hearing from family and friends about their favourite stories – often ones I worried wouldn’t have enough appeal. I think what thrills me most about this is not their story choices (though that does fascinate me) but simply the fact they’ve done me the huge honour of reading my work.

It’s been incredible to see If You’re Happy in bookstores around Australia, with friends and Twitter pals sending me photos of the book in shops and libraries, or in their homes.

A good friend sent me a gorgeous ‘book necklace’ which is one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received (thank you so much Louise).

And something truly magical has been reconnecting with my high school English teacher (who must by now be in her late seventies or even early eighties). I sent her a copy of the book a couple of weeks ago, with a note thanking her for what she taught us – which was not to accept lazy work, not to write something adequate and then expect a good mark. She pushed us to do better, to extend ourselves beyond what we thought was possible. That work ethic is still with me today, and it helped me write the book.

I received a lovely reply from my teacher last week. She thanked me for the card and gift, said she was healthy and enjoying life, and that she was looking forward to reading If You’re Happy. It was an amazing moment – to discover my high school English teacher was well, and to know I’d been able to thank her for a lesson never forgotten.

Now to nervously await my grade 😜

happy as you are

I’ve been preparing for questions about what my book title (If You’re Happy) means. Though the title comes from one of the stories, I also like the phrase because it lingers in possibility. Are you happy? What is happiness? Is it even something we should aim to achieve? Should we try to make others happy, too?

I’ve always wanted to make people happy (see pic of me with two childhood pals). It’s part of being human, I think, and helps us all get along. But at times I’ve cared too much about pleasing others.

I remember myself as an awkward, try-hard kid, wearing my heart on my sleeve. At uni, some of my college friends called me ‘the little mother’, since I would fuss over anyone sick or sad. Even now I sometimes tie myself in knots attempting to console, or trying to engage with people who aren’t keen on becoming friends.

I think some of this stems from childhood, from struggling to say and do the right thing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at deciding, I’ll do all I can to consider that person, but how they react is their business, not mine. Easy to decide of course, not so easy to feel. That child seeking approval is still curled inside.

The path to publication, while exciting on many levels, has intensified these people-pleasing traits. I fret that others are annoyed with me. I stress over small things, wonder if my tweets are silly, hope my Instagram posts aren’t lame. I imagine readers sneering at my book, pronouncing it not literary enough, too sentimental. And of course life is never smooth so there are other distractions and worries.

I’m reading The Daily Stoic* at the moment, and every morning I read the relevant piece for that date (the entries are around half a page, for each day of the year). While much of it is the type of wisdom I’ve read before, I find it soothing. It amazes me to realise these ideas were being considered and expressed thousands of years ago. The words of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca remind us to only concern ourselves with what we can control – our own judgements, expectations and behaviour.

I’ve written a book and it’s the best book I knew how to write. I worked hard on each of the stories. Not everyone will like them, and those that like the book may not like every story. These things are none of my concern.

I’ll probably always be a bit too invested in the happiness of others, always overly concerned about pleasing family, friends and colleagues. (And of course I’ll be hoping plenty of people do like If You’re Happy – I can’t change my personality altogether!) But remembering to choose my words and actions with care, then take a step back, helps maintain peace of mind.

May you be free from chasing validation. May you find peace of mind. May you be happy as you are.

* The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, 2016 (Portfolio).

The Best of 2020

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably been seeing a lot of those ‘best books of 2020’ lists, lately. I know I have. I read each list, looking for the titles of writers I know, feeling a twist of disappointment if their book doesn’t appear. I can only imagine what it must be like to peruse the lists as an author, and in many cases, not find the name of your book. A book is a piece of its creator, something personal and almost sacred. The term ‘book baby’ exists for good reason.

Not only published authors feel downhearted, of course. There are many of us submitting and getting knocked back in multiple ways. We check longlists and shortlists and don’t see our title. We receive emails that contain that fateful phrase, ‘Unfortunately your (story/poem/essay/piece) was not ….’. We have to pick ourselves up and carry on, having faith that our writing has worth, knowing that the only way to eventually receive acceptances is to keep writing and submitting. This writing game is not for the fainthearted!

So to anyone, anywhere, whose story didn’t win a competition in 2020, whose essay wasn’t accepted by that literary journal last year, whose poem was ignored by an anthology callout, who toiled over a manuscript yet to find a home, or who had an entire book published, not recognised by any ‘best of 2020’ lists ⎯ I hope you can be proud. You created, and you achieved something wonderful in furthering or completing that work, or in being published, especially in a year of worldwide disruption. Your words were chosen with care, and others have the privilege of reading them ⎯ whether friends and family, a feedback group, editors or the wider public.

To all writers who carry on, who keep producing work, who persist despite setbacks ⎯ especially to those writers in countries badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic ⎯ congratulations.

You absolutely are the best of 2020.

Sparks in the Dark

The Queensland Writing Centre kindly asked me to write an article for their WQ (Writing Queensland) magazine. The theme of the issue was ‘endurance’, and I was requested to provide a piece about having positive news in an otherwise challenging year.

I struggled a bit in writing this, not wanting to talk about myself when life has been so difficult for many people here (at the time of writing, Victoria was still in varying levels of lockdown) and of course in many countries overseas where the situation is much worse. At the same time, I wanted to show my appreciation and excitement, and to give other emerging writers hope for their eventual publication.

If you’d like to read what I wrote, the link is below (article on page 4, but lots of other reading you may enjoy, too, including essays by my lovely friend Edwina Shaw and Twitter pal Bianca Millroy).

https://fionahrobertson.files.wordpress.com/2020/12/ad983-wq271.pdf

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.

 

 

 

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.

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