“…the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.“
I have an embarrassing little secret. Let me tell you about it.
The scene: an office at the university, me perched on the edge of a visitor’s chair. After completing a Masters in creative writing, I’m applying to study for the Doctor of Arts. One of my teachers, a terrific tutor and a published author, is advising me on what to include in my application. The office is spacious and pleasantly shabby, with the suggestive atmosphere possible inside a nineteenth-century sandstone building in gentle decay. The shelves are stuffed with books and the desktop overflows with papers, giving a writerly, scholarly feel to the space. Watery daylight filters through tall windows looking out onto a secret courtyard where no one ever ventures. Possibly there’s no door into it.
Towards the end of the consultation, blurting it out before caution can prevent me, I admit to my self-published works. I ask if I should include them in my publication credits, a list that would otherwise only include two hard-won short stories in obscure literary journals. My tutor gazes at me for a quiet moment. I try to interpret her expression—is that amusement? Condescension? Pity? A vague regret that I’d ever been admitted into the university’s courses at all? After a long minute, she advises, with a slight smile, that I leave those books off the publications list. I nod, lower my eyes, and give a small grunt of understanding. It’s confirmed, then—I should keep my little secret. Those books don’t count, and what’s more, their existence might even, possibly, harm my chances of acceptance. It isn’t clear exactly how—would a scholar somewhere in the department laugh? Might I be categorized in some way that would count against me as a serious doctoral candidate? Or is it just that such meagre things as self-published books are irrelevant to the project at hand, that of serious creative writing? Obviously, I kept the whole thing quiet, and hushed it up.
From time to time, those reviled self-published books (a small store of which live in the cupboard in my spare bedroom) seem to rustle, to assert their existence, and I think of them. Occasionally, in a tiny surge of affection for them, I hand out copies to people I trust: members of my writing group, friends, family. They thank me and accept my offering, but as far as I know, few have actually read the books I gift from the spare bedroom and my heart. Or perhaps they’ve dipped into the stories and found they have nothing good to say, and so say nothing. Once or twice, in moments I treasure, someone tells me they gave the novel to their mother who found it “the funniest thing she’s ever read” or a cousin assures me my memoir was “interesting”.
As I made my way through the Masters degree in creative writing, I never spoke of those books in the cupboard. They do have a chequered past, involving a vanity publisher, followed by print-on-demand services, then a half-hearted Goodreads profile which no one reads. Let me offer a small defense of those books. All four were professionally edited and designed. The vanity publisher did have a distribution network and copies did sell. When the first book (a memoir about opening a bookshop café) was launched, sales were quite brisk, I thought. The second (about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro) also sold quite well. The remaining two—one a travel memoir of a trip to the Arctic, and the other a novel about a young actor living in London—both languish in the print-on-demand virtual universe. You can buy them if you wish, but please don’t feel obliged.
See how I almost apologize for the existence of my books? It’s as if I’ve done a fraudulent thing by deciding they were good enough for publication without the imprimatur of ‘the industry’, without them being selected as worthy by someone-in-the-know, someone qualified to decide. It’s not as if I didn’t try to attract the interest of a traditional agent or publisher. I studied submission guidelines and sent off hopeful inquiries and sample chapters, but to no avail.
The novel, in particular, is close to my heart. I wrote it in a rush over about nine months, just after I left London where I’d lived for two and a half years. It’s full of all the angst and misery of an Australian ex-pat amongst English people prone to laugh at Australians, though it’s meant to be funny. Satirical. Readers—that one friend’s mother, for example—have laughed when reading it, so I’m told. The story concerns an Australian émigré, a twenty-something male acting student trying to break into the London stage (his name is Charlie Brightman and he always looks on the bright side of life). I have wondered why I transmogrified my experiences into such a character, and why I chose a male protagonist. Perhaps I had some sixth sense about avoiding the label “women’s fiction”. Maybe there’s something psychologically telling about Charlie being an actor.
Possibly these books of mine are not very good. After all, they’ve been out in the world for years and haven’t set anything on fire. When a book is published via the traditional route of an agent or in-house publishing editor, someone who knows their business has declared the book good, or at least good enough. If I couldn’t get anyone to make that assessment, then it’s natural to assume my books are not, in fact, good enough. Perhaps, that’s why I rarely mention them, especially to other writers. Perhaps that’s why the university English Department is uninterested in them. Self-published, in many equations, equals not good enough. However, to “become a writer” I have to find ways to go on, to convince myself those books were valuable stepping stones, important way-markers in my writing journey.
My first published story ever was, as it happens, accepted by an editor of sorts—it appeared in the student magazine at my high school. The piece is short but resonant. The years of high school and adolescence were not kind to me (are they kind to anyone, ever?) My homemade uniform never fitted properly, I wore spectacles with Dame Edna wings, and my pimples sprouted more lushly than on any other adolescent in the history of time. I did well in English but failed miserably at Physics and Chemistry and Maths. The town I lived in had terrible weather, with stiff winds often blowing in from Bass Strait. This first published story was entitled “Assembly in Winter” and was probably written at the behest of my English teacher, Mrs. Betty Viney. It reflected my teenaged life: “The sky was grey and overcast. Only a few weak fingers of sunlight filtered through the dark blanket of clouds which covered everything.” The piece has a certain Dostoyevskian grimness: “A light breeze was beginning to blow around the legs of the children as they stood in solemn rows, their grey uniforms adding to the bleakness of the morning scene.” All it needs is some passion and drama and a few grammatical tweaks. It could go places. I should’ve considered including it in my list of publication credits: Aranda School Magazine, 1971.
Following this effort, my creative writing activities were limited to a few poems in strict sonnet form, composed to assuage the pangs of unrequited teenaged love (those I will not quote for you). Despite, or perhaps because of, a major in English Literature in my Arts degree, I confined myself to reading rather than writing. And yet—perhaps it was all those novels my parents bought from door-to-door salesmen, read avidly; perhaps, it was the influence of the excellent Mrs. Viney—at some point, many years post-high school, I began writing a novel. It was an attempt to capture the voice of my grandfather. His name was Fred. In his later life, after he’d remarried the widow of a Baptist missionary, he became caught up in the Pentecostal church movement. During a family visit to Melbourne when I was about fourteen, we all attended the morning service at Grandpa’s church. I remember it as a wild scene—singing and chanting, and women swaying in trances and making the gurgling sounds of glossolalia. Grandpa’s most frequent expression was: ‘Praise the Lord!’
I can only assume this experience made a deep impression on me since I’ve been trying for about twenty years now to capture his voice in a story. That old draft novel opens with the line: ‘My name is Fred. If I were alive today, I’d be 125 years old. Praise the Lord!’ I was completely enamored of this first line. But it was obvious, even to me, that the draft novel about Fred and his life was badly written, terrible in fact. There was no pace to it, no narrative arc, and no life in the prose, no matter how many times Fred exclaimed “Praise the Lord!” This depressing realization was the impetus to seek some instruction in creative writing. I wanted to learn how to fix Fred’s story.
When I enrolled in the Masters course, I resurrected Fred (again), beginning with a short story. Actually, at first, I left him out of my class submission. I was nervous. I thought a dead narrator with such a strange voice might seem ridiculous. Then I received this feedback: “Hmm. Historical fiction. What are you going to do with the genre that’s different, interesting?” So I put the dead narrator with the extreme voice back in and reinstated my beloved first line.
It’s bold of me to compose an essay about why I write, following in the footsteps of so many greats, including the inimitable Joan Didion and the amazing Zadie Smith. I also need to confront why I choose to write historical fiction. Didion said she wrote to find out what she was thinking, looking at, and “what it means”. If anyone asks me about choosing historical fiction (and I do receive a few puzzled enquiries) I assert that I want to write about Fred because of his voice. It does seem to me as if I can hear him. All I have to do is listen and write it down. That’s my idea. I don’t want him to be forgotten—the obvious correlation being that I don’t want to be forgotten either. This, surely, is a universal theme. That’s what I tell myself, on the not-infrequent occasions when I consider giving up.
Before I became enmeshed in the murky waters of historical fiction, I made a daring foray into travel writing. I was fired up for this adventure by a short course taught by a writer who made a living writing travel pieces for weekend newspapers. This was in the days when the weekend edition of the Sydney Morning Herald included a multi-page travel supplement, full of alluring articles that brought exotic destinations to the Saturday morning café tables of Herald readers. Hey, I traveled—I could write about it. Perhaps I could even write long, interesting books about far-flung places.
Having learned to pitch an article, success came my way with a commission from a glossy magazine to write about the Treehotel in Sweden, a place I already had plans to visit (at my own expense, of course). It would be a terrific opportunity to try out the travel writing life. At the Treehotel, which is well north of the Arctic Circle and consists of half-a-dozen eclectic rooms built in the treetops, I announced to the couple who owned it, Britta and Kent, that I was a travel writer with a confirmed commission. This turned out to be a miraculous pass into a fascinating behind-the-scenes world. I was granted a long interview with Britta, and Kent took me on a tour of all the ‘tree rooms’. Then, when my night in the Treehotel was over, they passed me along to the PR person at the Ice Hotel, farther up the road. My Ice Room there was upgraded, from bare blocks cut from the winter river to a sculpted ice Art Room (the whole thing melts every season and is rebuilt each year). I impersonated a real interviewer, had dinner with the co-founder of the Ice Hotel, and glimpsed the northern lights as I walked back to my sculpted Ice Room. The words “travel writer” were as good as “open sesame” in the icy north of Sweden. It was intoxicating.
I was proud of the opening of my article on the Treehotel, on which I lavished much thought and effort: ‘Near the Arctic Circle, deep in Lapland, is a hotel hanging in the trees. Sweden’s Treehotel taps the silence of the forest and humankind’s elemental connection to trees and combines it with the childish joy of hiding in a treehouse.’ I was particularly proud of humankind’s elemental connection to trees. Unfortunately, the magazine editor was less impressed and changed my opening to read: “Deep in the forests of Lapland, near the Arctic Circle, you’ll find a hotel perched up in the trees”. Perhaps, I reasoned, this was a vital lesson in magazine style, something a budding travel writer should take on board for future gigs. Or perhaps the editor was a soulless, inept, know-nothing who didn’t understand my artistic vision.
Around this time, the travel writer Colin Thubron was offering a class at a writers’ festival. I signed up. I’m a big Thubron fan: The Shadow of the Silk Road, The Lost Heart of Asia. I love his smooth, engaging storytelling, the erudition behind it and the vividly-described interactions with people. Here was a great travel-writing role model. Thubron’s main piece of advice to the class was this: learn the language before you go. In his case, he was fluent in Russian, useful throughout Central Asia. We aspiring travel writers nodded thoughtfully as he emphasized the importance of this. Mentally, I drew a line through my career as a serious writer of book-length travel.
I have another secret—actually, if you know me, or if you noted the year I wrote that high school magazine story—it’s not really a secret. I’m old to be beginning a writing career (if that’s what I’m doing). As I scroll the social media feeds of writers and agents and publishers and fiction fans, it’s pretty easy to discern a certain reaction to middle-aged women who take up writing late in life in order to tell the story of their family. No one thinks these women are going to write the next Booker winner. Some well-meaning folk might gently recommend self-publishing to such an author, or else suggest a class in writing genre fiction. All that interesting historical research could find a happy home in a boy-meets-girl plot, set in olden times, marketed with a book cover showing an attractive young woman in a colonial dress or a WWI uniform. Actually, I shouldn’t be so dismissive—there’s potential money to be made in genre historical fiction. As I heard an author say candidly at a historical fiction writers’ conference: ‘Be careful. If you get too creative, you’ll be classified as “literary fiction” and that’s the kiss of death.’
Writers on Twitter often post stirring words of encouragement for each other. I read one recently which honored writers who are misfits, who are scribbling after their babies go to sleep, who are writing in their cars, who are living in their cars. Who are poor, sick, or marginalized. And: “retiree writers who feel too old to start”. While I acknowledge the good heart that posted those words, I recoiled from them. The word ‘retiree’—the R-word as I call it—always reverberates within me like the kiss of death (even more than the words ‘literary fiction’). Ever since I left my office career, I’ve been dashing about trying to fill my days, with travel and classes and living overseas and more travel and more classes. I’ve taken classes in philosophy and Italian language and ballroom dancing and singing and life drawing and—oh yes, creative writing. Are the writing classes I’m taking at university any different from the ballroom dancing and the Italian and the travel writing? Are they more than a time-filler for a ‘retiree’?
Sometimes when I meet new people in classes or campus groups, I can see the cogs of their thoughts turning over as they note my age and generation. When I tell people I’m at university or ask an Uber driver to take me to campus, I’m commonly asked what I teach. To say I’m a student sounds vaguely ludicrous as if I’m taking up space that would be better and more profitably occupied by a young person, someone who needs a career and has a life of writing and contribution ahead of them. In fact, I’ve found myself assuring academics that no, I’m not aiming at a job in the university system; that no, I won’t be applying for precious grants; that all I’m here for is to learn what I can and be part of a literary-minded community and write stuff. I make myself small and take up as little of this precious space as possible. I try to write as well as I can to justify being admitted to that space.
But here’s what my wily heart sometimes reminds me: Annie Proulx published The Shipping News when she was 59 and won the Pulitzer at the age of 60. Her story Brokeback Mountain was published when she was 63, and the film based on it was released when she was 70. I could be Australia’s Annie Proulx, says my wily heart.
Although I find the R-word repugnant, I’ll use it to explain how I got to this point. I retired from a career as an intellectual property lawyer when I was 52 years old, sold out of the partnership and left the office. My career was rather a dream run really, though if you read a short story I wrote entitled “A Seething Hotbed of Lust and Betrayal” you’ll have an idea of why I quit. I left at the height of my career—partnership, an impressive client base, supervision of a team of young lawyers, teaching my subject to post-graduates, co-authoring a seminal textbook (I often overlook that publishing credit). My reason for regaling you with this picture of success (except for the lust and betrayal) is to contrast it with the person surreptitiously self-publishing books and hiding them in the cupboard, the learner-writer who submits short stories to hundreds of literary journals and stoically faces all the rejections, the student who feels like an imposter taking up space. The writer who doesn’t know if her work is good enough. Knowing if you were good enough was straightforward in the legal game: if you did the job properly, you were paid; if you stuffed it up, you were sued.
You might be wondering how the bookshop-café fitted in. It was called Tea In The Library, and I opened it while I was still a partner in the firm. The shop, my great indulgence, was a divine little haven in the center of Sydney with a fireplace and a liquor license, and whatever books my bookshop staff and I liked. We held author talks every Thursday evening and had music and poetry and adventure travel books and beautifully-bound editions of the classics. The shop operated for about a year and a half, and I like to say it was successful in every way except financially. You can read all about it in my memoir. The experience confirmed something I already knew: there’s nothing I like better than to be surrounded by books, and to talk about books, and to get to know writers. Reading has always seemed to me such a worthwhile pleasure.
Changing life-streams from lawyer to writing student involved abandoning thirty years of a career during which I moved through the stages of a law student, trainee, mid-career lawyer, partner, to mentor and wise elder. Writing-wise, I’m still only up to “student” and I have to get used to what that means. No longer do young people come to ask for my guidance, no longer do important clients pay me for my advice, no longer do I receive the daily validation of being a senior partner and a respected practitioner in my field. Validation is hard to come by in the writing game, especially for the unpublished.
Leaving the office and my circle of professional friends also meant that I banished myself from my tribe. Bravely (I like to think), I set out on the Hero’s Journey to see what’s beyond the dark night of the soul and farther ahead on the sunlit uplands (to mix a few clichés). Enrolling as a full-time university student was partly an attempt to find a new tribe. As with any such tribal shift, it takes a while to learn the new rules, the standard by which good enough is judged in the new tribe. Apart from liking books (don’t we all?), what reasons do I have for choosing to undergo such a seismic shift? For trying, seriously, to become a writer?
Alexander Chee has a theory about a writer’s first novel: ‘it must be something you care about enough to see through to the end.’ Here, we’ve stepped beyond the wily, cagey heart, beyond tricking ourselves into forging on in the face of stumbles and disappointments. Here, we’ve come to the nub. Something you care about. I’m pleased to report that I was accepted into the Doctor of Arts, on the strength of a proposal to write—wait for it—historical fiction. Hmm. What am I going to do with the genre that’s different, interesting?Do I care about it enough to see it through to the end? Why do I want to write, anyway?
I copy another of Chee’s comments into my writing journal: ‘What seems to separate those who write from those who don’t is being able to stand it,’ he says. I contemplate my draft historical novel: its structural problems, its insipid characters, its bland realist prose, none of which says what I thought I wanted it to say. Can I stand to go on? Why do I need to go on? I have to admit that there are some privileges attached to being “retired”—such as financial independence, if you’re lucky—and those privileges can mitigate against standing it. The insidious thought often worms its way in: you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to show your work to teachers and workshop colleagues and have your mistakes discussed publicly. You don’t have to be examined and assessed. You don’t actually have to set yourself up for the editorial rejections, for the knowledge that your novel, after three years of work and soul-searching, will likely be read only by your supervisors and examiners, paid to read it.
The writer Vivian Gornick has a question for her students: ‘What is it about?’ I feel sure she’d never accept the answer that my novel is about a family of nineteenth-century settlers in the Tasmanian bush. ‘Why are you writing?’ Gornick demands. ‘What,’ she asks, ‘is the larger preoccupation here? The true experience? The real subject?’
What is it about? What is it about? And so I reach this: perhaps the resurrection of the dead from their historical context is my project: a kind of elegy as I explore my relation to these long-dead people. I assumed they were speaking to me, but am I, instead, speaking to them? Chee again: ‘Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story.’ Perhaps I have something to tell them and something to learn in the process.
‘Praise the Lord!’ says Fred.