Highlights from The Emerging Writer’s Festival – 5×5 Rules of Writing

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In quite possibly the most inspirational (and most tweeted) event to date, each of the five Emerging Writers’ Festival ambassadors shared five rules of writing they wish they had known when they were emerging writers. The session was hosted by the Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Sam Twyford-Moore. Here are a few highlights from the session.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

“When others around us rise up, we rise up.”

1. Write what you know to be true

Tell the truth as you know it to be.

2. Use your failures

The common perception is that life intrudes on writing, but there are short stories everywhere. Do you work in retail? Write a poem about a shopping receipt.

3. Throw your hat in the ring

You never know what might happen! Maxine submitted Foreign Soil on the very last day of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.

4. Stay in the sweet spot

It took Maxine a long time to find the style and type of content that she was happy with. You will know what the sweet spot is when you’ve reached it. Hang on to it. Trust in it. Write for that sweet spot, not for success.

5. Community

Writing is such a solitary thing. Make connections. Join a writers’ group. Attend festivals. Maxine discovered writers who share her interests and enrich her own writing through her involvement at the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

Felix Nobis

“The writing must always win out.”

1. Publishing doesn’t always happen with the written word

Success can be achieved through recordings and performance. Felix’s writing emerged through spoken word poetry scene.

2.  Avoid tension between writing and publishability

The writing must always win out. Felix abandoned projects because he felt they weren’t publishable. If the writing is good and you let it be what it wants to be, then the right form of publishing will emerge.

3. Be a good manager to yourself

Get informed about everything – local, state and international grants, commissions, competitions.

3. A grant application is never a place to demonstrate one’s creative writing skills

Take your writer’s hat off and put your manager’s hat on. Meet all of the criteria.

4. Know what you are asking, when asking someone to read your work

Know why you are asking someone to read your work. Be clear in why and what you are hoping to hear from them. If you give your work to someone you respect, then respect the feedback they give you.

5. Be aware of how you write best and then make time for it

Felix does the best writing on the train from Melbourne to Sydney. Find the time and place that works best for you, and write – it’s the only way we can beat the notion that writing is something we do on the side.

Krissy Kneen

“Fuck everyone else. Now it’s personal.”

1. It’s easier to write a bad first draft and make it better than to face a blank page

You’re going to hit a rough patch. Your novel will fall apart. This tends to happen around the 20,000 word mark – the story and characters have been set up and something has to happen to steer the story in a different direction. You will be tempted to ditch your manuscript and start on other ideas, but these other stories will also fall apart.

2. Be careful what you read

Books can feed our souls or suck us dry. ‘Read up’. Read books that stretch beyond your reach; these books will open new possibilities for your own writing.

3. Develop a split personality

Half of you needs to be business and the other half needs to be the writer. The business person needs to be aware of what is being published and winning awards. Be informed and realistic – 2,000 copies are decent sales in the Australian market, but they won’t make you rich. Know all this and then forget about it when you write. As the writer, the only contact is between you and the words on the page – you are a market of one. ‘Fuck everyone else, now it’s personal’.

4. ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise’

Be nice to everyone! Australia is a tiny industry. Buy all your books that your friends write, and they will buy yours. Buy your books at your local bookseller – Amazon doesn’t care what books you buy, but Readings does.

5. Step away from Goodreads

Everyone is on Goodreads and everyone is a critic. Fine. Just don’t read reviews about your work. Free-for-all review sites are filled with illiterate trolls. Krissy read out examples of an everyman critic, including the following review of The Tempest by William Shakespeare: ‘The Tempest is an outdated attempt at a sci-fi story’. Krissy quoted The Guardian journalist, Van Badham: ‘comments are what chronic pig masturbators do with their other hand’.

 Benjamin Law

“All writing is vomiting, then cleaning it up.”

1. Break your goal down

The life of a writer is not conducive to mental health. Set weekly, daily and hourly goals. You need to be able to congratulate yourself at the end of each day.

2. Never be without ideas

Your ideas are your currency. Generate your ideas. Join a book club. Carry a notebook. Put your ideas down, otherwise you’ll forget them.

3. Exercise

There is strong correspondence between moving your body and moving your brain. Whenever you have writers’ block, move!

4. Get an accountant

Know your rights as an artist, and what you can claim. Put a percentage of money earned away for tax purposes. Seek out and meet with an arts accountant – it will cost you in the short term, but will help you save in the long term.

5. Choose your projects wisely

When just starting out, we try to do everything. Work for free knowing what you want to get out of it, then get out. Keep moving forward. Benjamin referenced Laurie Anderson, an American composer and musician, who believes you should only pursue a writing venture if you can say yes to at least two of the following questions: is it fun? Is it interesting? Will it make money?

Hannah Kent 

“Write from the soul.”

 1. To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader

Ask yourself why you love a particular book, and then read it again. Read everything. Before you work out what you like, you need to work out what you don’t like. The more words you know, the greater control you have over your own language. Buy books. If you can’t afford new books, buy second-hand. If you can’t afford second-hand books, get a library card. Get a library card, anyway. If Hannah is struggling with her writing and needs some inspiration, she reads.

2. Cultivate empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share with others. Empathetic people have keener insight into the human heart. Empathy will help you forget yourself, so you can write about others.  An empathetic writer will be able to create character motivation and background. ‘Every person is the protagonist in their own life’. Every person wants something. People watch. Conflict arises when these desires cannot be met.

3. Work hard

Raw talent doesn’t count for much without hard work. If you want to write, you have to be disciplined. You have to learn to write even when you are completely uninspired. Maintain a professional attitude. Hold yourself accountable. Be respectful, considered and well-mannered. Be diligent. Be industrious.

4. Don’t wait until you feel ready to write – start now

Expect writing to be difficult. Understand that writing is solitary and plagued with self-doubt. So much of writing is necessarily uncertain and unexplained. Be patient with yourself, and accept difficulties as part of the writing process. Be brave and do it anyway. It is actually writings difficulty which makes it beautiful.

5. Write from the soul

A place that is wholly yourself. Write from a place which moves you. Write about something that means something to you, or write about a meaning that you’re searching for. You’ll know that you’re writing from the soul, because writing will become the reward.

Reproduced with permission from Emerging Writer's Festival

Fear and Loathing – living and writing with depression and anxiety

Every time I rest my fingers on the keyboard, poised to type, a negative rationale tells me that my venture will end in one of the following ways:

Like this:

Used with permission from Microsoft

Used with permission from Microsoft

Or this:

Used with permission from Microsoft

Used with permission from Microsoft

Or, one and then the other.

Inability to put words on a page, or keep them there long enough to turn words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into manuscript drafts, drafts into redrafts and redrafts into a world-dominating kick-assery of a novel, plagued me for over a year. With no end in sight, I reassured myself that I was merely experiencing a rather extended episode of writer’s block.

I’ve been to various writing seminars over the years, and the Q&A section invariably resulted in panellists being asked how they overcome writer’s block. Responses ranged from ‘I don’t suffer from writer’s block’ (which left me marvelling at their wondrous brains) to ‘there’s no such thing as writer’s block (which…just…let’s move on…) to ‘just write’. Although the irony of the last response had me grinding my teeth, it left me with the only practical option—I had to slug it out. The secret of mastering this mad-capped approach seemed to lie in establishing a ritual, so every night after work I turned on my computer, cleared some desk space, cleaned my room, made a hot chocolate, watched one episode of Buffy (sometimes one and a half episodes, sometimes two), sat back in front of my computer, checked the time, turned off my computer and went to bed feeling excited and assured that a good night’s sleep would result in the following evening being a mind-blowing success. GUESS WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN?!

After coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t immerse myself in my own work, I decided to make it my mission to become immersed in the Melbourne literary scene. Among other things, I attended the 2013 Reading Matters conference, a two-day professional development conference hosted by the State Library of Victoria and RMIT, which focused on ‘crucial and emerging issues and trends in youth literature’ (Want to find out more about the conference? Check out http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/event/reading-matters.). Two things resonated with me long after the conference finished. The first was my awkwardly pathetic conversation with Garth Nix. He asked me whether I was a teacher or a librarian. Searching for a response, I became what I can only describe as disconnected from myself; my critical self stood beside Nix and laughed silently as I tried to explain that I was a YA fiction writer, but that I hadn’t written anything in a while, well, a year, but that I really was a writer, but not a published author. After asking for my name, Garth told me it was great that I was a writer, he was looking to seeing my novel published in the near future, and that I should keep writing. He handed me my signed copy and I hurried away.

Look at it, isn't it glorious? Well, autograph, not my photography skills.

Look at it, isn’t it glorious? Well, the autograph, not my photography skills.

The second thing that struck a chord occurred during one of the Q&A’s. I can’t remember which panel it was, but, as per usual, an audience member asked the panellists how they dealt with writer’s block. One of the panellists made reference to the writer and depression, but said it was separate from writer’s block and the conversation moved on. I was not ready to move on.

I have endured bouts of depression and anxiety since my early teens. For most of my young adult life I assumed that was the way things were—I was and would forever be a paranoid pessimist whose mind was often flooded with so many layers of unending and undecipherable self-loathing thoughts that they became indecipherable, leaving me with nothing but a heavy numbness in my head. Writing allowed me to immerse myself in characters and stories far removed from my own reality. But, in 2010 my mother died and the grief process turned into a bleak and intensely paranoid state of being that endured long after the first anniversary of her death, and in the midst of it all my writing stopped. Completely. I assumed that I was experiencing grief that would pass at some point, but still made an appointment with my GP. She gently pointed out my family history of anxiety and depression (putting a name to what I previously assumed were aspects of my personality) and then she said something that blew my mind—‘you shouldn’t have to feel like this’. I saw a hypnotherapist, counsellor, psychologist and psychiatrist, all of whom helped me realise (well, maybe not the hypnotherapist) that what I had been experiencing all these years, even prior to my mother dying, was not, and did not have to be, a part of my personality. I learned to identify when I was on the verge of a high anxiety episode, or when I was falling into a state of depression. With their assistance, I put tools in place to combat negative thoughts with positive, rational self-talk. This doesn’t mean I always win. I am a work in progress. What it does mean, is that while depression and anxiety do not define who I am, I have accepted that depression and anxiety will always be a part of my life that I need to manage.

So, when the Reading Matters panellist brought up the writer and depression, separating it from writer’s block, I could do nothing but fantasise about racing up onto the stage, hugging the panellist and then shaking them until they validated my state of being by sharing their experiences of writing and depression (On 02 March, 2014, one of the most captivating and engaging panellists from the Reading Matters conference, Libba Bray, blogged about her ongoing battle with depression, which can be found at http://libbabray.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/miles-and-miles-of-no-mans-land/). As weird as this sounds, hearing a writer talking about depression, even though it was only a mere sound bite, was intensely rejuvenating. I walked away from the conference with a renewed sense of hope. Then I procrastinated for a few months. Then I took part in NANOWRIMO 2013 (every novelist should do this. Find out more, and sign up for 2014 at http://nanowrimo.org/), which was much more exhausting than I had prepared for, involved less wine than I expected, and resulted in a re-write of my YA manuscript that was more fulfilling, enjoyable and rewarding than I could have imagined (it also included an insane number of typos and repetitions of phrases like ‘he scratched his head’ and ‘she sighed’, but shut up). More importantly, it was an opportunity for me to be part of the writing community. I shared tales of trials and triumphs with fellow co-workers who were taking part in NANOWRIMO, and I even dipped into discussions in online forums (I didn’t attend any of social events, but aim to work up to it this year). In February I attended The Rag and Bone Man Press ‘What a novel idea’ salon (find out more about their amazing publications at http://www.ragandboneman.org/), where I listened while an eclectic array of artists read their articles or novel excerpts to the group.

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Taking it all in at the ‘What a novel idea’ salon. Image reproduced with permission from The Rag and Bone Man Press.

It was inspiring being in a room with creative folks, but the thought of reading my own work was terrifying. Once I finished reading an excerpt from my YA manuscript I celebrated by making a quick exit and, after suppressing the urge to vomit on the train on the way home, met my husband at the train station and promptly burst into tears the second after he asked, ‘So, how was it?’

While not easy, getting actively involved in the writing community is the best thing I can do for my own writing and my ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. Listening to artists talk about their hardships proved equally as inspiring to me as listening to them talk about their successes. Maybe I won’t ever be a published novelist, but I’ve benefited greatly from hearing the ups and downs of other writers, and I hope that blogging about my own journey as a writer fumbling through (and hopefully, at some point, thriving in) the Melbourne literary scene will help other like-minded artists (I promise my posts won’t all be as dreary as this!).

 

Anyone who is struggling with depression or an anxiety condition can talk to a trained professional at beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.