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).

Truth in fiction

There’s been plenty of talk lately about truth in fiction. Most recently in an article by Alexis Nowicki, in which she describes the experience of having very specific details and events from her life woven into a short story that went viral – ‘Cat Person’, by Kristen Roupenian. Roupenian has since apologised, and admits she could at least have changed the identifying details.

When I read books as a kid, and even as a young adult, I naively believed that all fiction was purely imagined, dreamed up by the writer. I was amazed at how authors could make something invented seem so true.

I was probably in my late thirties (and still a reader only) before I began to realise that writers often stole snippets or great swathes or even almost entire narratives from their own lives, or from lives around them. I discovered that one of my favourite novels around that time, The Spare Room, was actually written from a real-life experience, in which Helen Garner helped nurse a terminally ill friend until the friend passed away.

I can understand the attraction of using actual people or events in fiction. It’s a way of grounding the piece in reality, and can function as a jumping-off point. My first story written as an adult was in a workshop run by the fabulous Edwina Shaw. She urged us all to think of something important that had once happened (to us or someone close to us) then write that story. Next, she suggested, add something that didn’t ever happen.

Even then, though, I must have naturally steered away from my using my own life in fiction. Instead I wrote the story of a suicide attempt in my family’s history. I didn’t know many of the details, so even in writing this ‘real’ event, there was a great deal of fiction. I embellished on the event, as Edwina instructed. This approach definitely helped spark creativity, as well as helping me understand how horrific it must have been for everyone involved.

Now, as my short story collection nears being sent to print, I’ve been thinking about the elements of truth in my fiction – wondering what I’ve revealed of myself, or others.

There are very few straightforward truths in the narratives. I’ve never been thrown from a snowmobile. I’ve never been a teenage boy obsessed with playing guitar. I’ve never cheated on my husband. But there are realities in the smaller details, and in emotions. I have heard the sound of a goods train at night, for the past twenty-one years. Like the young girl, Lana, in Christmas Party, I was often taken to teachers’ parties as a kid in Canada, where even at the age of seven or eight, I was aware of the undercurrents of heavy flirting between adults. And like Nadine in Boxing Day, I was once in a relationship that came to feel increasingly wrong.

Despite my protestations of ‘it’s practically all fiction’, I’m sure there’s more of myself on the page than I think. Some of my attitudes or emotions or political views will have crept into stories, inevitably. It’s occurred to me that my female characters are probably better-behaved, overall, than the male characters, showing my female bias. And I’m definitely obsessed with parent-child relationships.

But I can honestly say that none of my characters are people I know. They are all completely themselves, doing good, bad and commonplace things. Their views are frequently different to mine. Their actions do not belong to me, or to anyone in my life. Part of what delights me most about writing fiction is how the characters build themselves, come to life, say and do things as if of their own accord. To me, they’re entirely new people.

Of course there are truths in fiction. But equally, from fiction comes truth.

Schooled

I’ve been thinking about teachers lately. How some of them affect us for the rest of our lives.

I know there are some ‘bad apple’ teachers, and I haven’t forgotten the teacher who mocked my seersucker dress at Grade 8 camp, not naming any names Mrs Nichols (who would now be at least eighty, so I guess I can forgive her; also in her defence it was an extremely ugly dress).

But there are so many excellent teachers to remember – teachers who day after day gave their time, their effort, their kindness. Teachers who stood out for their enthusiasm (Ms Yanardasis). For how they made us laugh (definitely Ms Sothman). For their faith in us (dear Mr Sole, who had no children of his own but treated all the Grade 8’s like his beloved children).

I have a real soft spot for teachers. Several friends are teachers. Our lovely neighbour is a teacher. And both my parents were teachers.

My mother taught in special education. She worked hard, focusing on what would benefit each student, rather than striving for an arbitrary standard. For some children, it was learning to chew and swallow solid food. For others, it was discovering how to make a sandwich, or how to take turns in conversation. Mum knew that acquiring important life skills trumped adding 3 plus 4 (though she’d teach that, too, if the child was ready). She often took students home overnight, or for the weekend, to give their parents respite (not something that would ever be allowed these days, but something I remember as typical of Mum’s giving nature).

My father taught high school for most of his career. He was a different kind of teacher – often given the ‘tough’ classes because he had such an air of authority that kids didn’t muck up. But my father was dedicated to his job, too, spending hours at the university library researching his subjects (Geography and Earth Science), so he could teach the latest developments in each field. And though he was strict, he understood that different students had various capabilities. He wanted students to achieve their personal best.

Now my daughter tutors high school students, and I love how she caters to the individual. For one child who is constantly restless and touching things on the desk, my daughter has worked in short breaks for them to dance, or do jumping jacks, and she bought a ‘fiddle toy’ for the student to hold. I’m proud of her innovation and commitment.

But the teacher I’ve been thinking about most of all is my Yr 11 and 12 English teacher, Ms B. She wasn’t one of those teachers everyone adores. She was quieter, and more reserved than most. She struggled with controlling the class sometimes, and would get stressed and annoyed (understandably). And many of us, myself included, were shocked when we received our marks for the first piece of assessment. They were quite low compared to other classes, and compared to what we’d been used to receiving. Although my mark was one of the higher ones, I received a 15 or 16 out of 20. At first, I was irritated. Didn’t Ms B know I was a good at this subject?

She was absolutely right. That piece deserved the lower mark, because it was decent but lazy, like all my writing to that point. So the next time I submitted, I spent more time on the assignment. I got half a mark more. I tried even harder with the next one, and my result bumped up again (but only a little). By the time I finished Grade 12, I’d made it to 18.5 out of 20 and I was jubilant! Not at the mark, but at how I’d improved, little by little, by not being satisfied with ‘adequate’ work, when it was within me to do better.

A good teacher leaves a lasting legacy, and that may not be evident for many years. I hadn’t thought about Ms B much since leaving high school, but these days I think of her often and with great appreciation.

When If You’re Happy comes out, I hope to send a copy to Ms B. I’d like to tell her in a card how – over thirty years down the track – she helped me write a better book.

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.

Blasting out of 2020

If you’re a writer, you’re probably only just now catching your breath (and for those living in countries badly affected by COVID-19, I send you much empathy, and hope you’re keeping well).

You’ve likely been working all year at your other job (yes, very few of us can survive on the scant amount of money writing provides). So, hopefully you have at least a few days off, and some time to put your feet up. But before you do, you might want to consider these submission possibilities.

The Stinging Fly is accepting fiction and pitches for non-fiction pieces until January 8, 2021. This prestigious Irish literary journal publishes fiction from around the world. No cost to submit.

Asimov’s Magazine is an acclaimed American sci-fi magazine with a fast response time of around 5 weeks, accepting international submissions. Submissions free.

Overland is accepting non-fiction and poetry submissions from Australian writers at the moment, and also is running the Kuracca Prize which ‘encourages excellent and original works of Australian literature’. Aussie writers can enter poetry (up to 88 lines), fiction, essay, creative non-fiction and memoir (up to 300 words), cartoon or graphic stories and digital or audio storytelling. Entry to the prize costs $20 AUD ($12 for subscribers) and is free for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers.

The Moth Poetry Prize closes December 31, and is open to submissions from around the world. Entry isn’t cheap but prizes are substantial.

You can also submit poetry and fiction to The Moth Magazine for free, any time from September to April.

For those of you who write short short fiction (maximum 1000 words), you may want to try the American Short(er) Fiction Contest which ends on Feb 2nd, 2021.

There’s also the Retreat West Flash Competition on the theme of ‘bridges’ due by December 30, for even shorter pieces (maximum 500 words). Cost is 8 pounds.

If you have a story of up to 2500 words relating to food and/or drink in some way, you might like to try the Mogford Prize, winner receiving 10,000 pounds. Entries due by Jan 13, 2021.

The Fiction Desk in the U.K. currently has 3 callouts due by Jan 31 – general short stories, ghost stories and stories about music. International submissions welcome. Word count 1000-20,000 words (preferred range 2000-7000 words). Fee for submission 4 pounds.

I hope at least one of these options provides a possible home for your work. Wishing you a wonderful break & a Merry Christmas (for those who celebrate), and a healthy and happy 2021!

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

keeping it fresh

pink tulip flowers under white clouds blue skies at daytime

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

On the weekend, I joined an online workshop run by Caoilinn Hughes (author of Gathering Evidence, Orchid and the Wasp & most recently The Wild Laughter) as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. It turned out all participants, myself included, were emerging writers at most; several participants hadn’t yet started writing, but were hoping the workshop would get them motivated. When I heard this, I thought perhaps the content would be too basic. I wondered if I would learn anything new, since I’ve been writing and attending workshops for several years now.

I was completely wrong. The workshop sparkled with new information and advice, and I found myself scrambling to write it all down. But one tip stood out above the others.

Avoid cliches.

I thought I’d learnt this already. But when Caoilinn gave a few examples, my toes curled in recognition (hmm, is this a cliche too?). She warned against the old, hackneyed ways of showing what our characters are feeling – he bit his lip, she clenched her fists, he raised his eyebrows. Caoilinn Hughes suggested we try something different. Steer away from familiar, well-worn phrases.

And I realised that eliminating cliches, as much as possible, is what I need to do next to become a better writer. And that after that, there will be something else that needs addressing. And then another way to progress. And though I’ve known this a long time, I was reminded yet again that the writing life will be a constant process of learning and levelling up.

I find that daunting in some respects. It’s exhausting to think of always striving, never quite reaching a goal. But in other ways, the thought is exhilarating. To know that writing is a lifelong pursuit, that there is no ending besides our own deaths, that we will forever be discovering, examining, imagining and improving. It seems a thrilling and remarkable way to spend our days.

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.