I’m sure many of you who read this will have experienced the discouragement of rejection, when you have tried to publish your writing. Some of you may have been lucky and had early success. But so many writers I meet have been through the cycle: applying for awards and writing residencies or mentorships, submitting to agents and publishers, perhaps being shortlisted, but not making it to the finishing line …
I”ve done it all too, over the last twelve years, since I finished my Master of Creative Arts degree. I had the illusion that an autobiographical novel that received an unconditional pass for the degree would get published easily. Not so. I rewrote it several times, separated the childhood memoir from the adult one and completely restructured it. I was successful in getting a non-residential Varuna Longlines mentorship for my childhood memoir, and after nearly a year, they found me a mentor. In fact, she had not published her own memoir. She was very helpful and supportive, and I worked with her for over a year, because I was also finishing my PhD thesis at the time, and dealing with a family crisis. But in the end, we parted company. She was pushing me to develop the story in a certain way, which was not my sense of the truth of the story, and when I refused, she said she could not work with me any longer. Then, the following year, after some more revision I submitted it for a Varuna residency. I was not successful. The director at the time, Peter Bishop, posted a general letter of feedback on the website, saying that many of the mss showed ‘disturbing signs of being over-mentored’! I wrote back pointing out what had happened in my case. I note that they ceased offering mentorships around this time. This taught me a lesson:
Never work with someone who is pushing you to do something in your writing that doesn’t feel true.
Certainly, an editor or reader can make suggestions, and you can follow them if you choose. Often an outsider’s response is valuable, because it shows you gaps or inconsistencies that you have not noticed. But don’t let their voice take over.
Since then, I’ve made other steps towards publication. I submitted my childhood memoir for the Finch memoir prize 2012. It was shortlisted, but I didn’t become a finalist. Disappointment ++. It would have meant $10,000 and publication. I then submitted it to an agent, who very kindly read it and gave me feedback, without charging me. But much of her feedback was critical. So I revised it again, though I held back on some things she suggested. By this time, I was close to giving up. But I submitted it again last year for a Varuna residency and a Byron Bay writer’s award, and didn’t get selected. Damn it, I thought, I”m over it. But I have a dear friend, Marian Edmunds, who was in the same writer’s group as me. We both quit the group when It ceased to be helpful for us, and continued to meet, sometimes with another friend, share our writing, give constructive criticism and encouragement. This gave me a new lease of life. So I revised it yet again and renamed it (about the 15th title since it began life), and considered submitting it again to the Finch prize. But although it was changed considerably since my last submission, I decided instead to try a different tack. I reopened my second, adult memoir, did some more work on it, with Marian’s encouragement, and submitted it for the Finch. Still waiting to hear about that, probably won’t hear anything till next year. I am hopeful, but…. disappointment always lurks in the wings.
Now, I’ve turned back to my childhood memoir, which I feel is, at last, finished, and have decided to self-publish. I will probably order a small print run, have a local launch, and have a website etc., set up by the publisher, where I can advertise it and sell copies. It will cost me a bit, but no more than I spent on a new laptop this year, and an iMac last year. I’ve given up ideas of a mainstream publisher and big print run. that could still happen, but so too pigs might fly. I don’t really care any more. I just want to get it published. So many people who have read it have given me warm feedback, and I know it is a story many will enjoy.
The title will be This Place You Know. It is set, for the most part, in outback NSW, on a small sheep farm. My parents went through years of drought and the Great Depression; my mother bore 5 children, of whom I was the last, ‘a mistake’. My father abandoned the farm and his family when I was about seven, and my mother and I ran the farm as best we could, with help from my brothers when they were home in the holidays. My father came back when I was aged 14, away at boarding school, and my mother was on her own. He threw her off the property and sold it. This is a bare outline. The title is inspired by the strong bond that my mother and I felt with the place, and our grief and regret at losing it. It is also inspired by a print I have of an etching, titled ‘This Place You Know’. It is a bare scene in off white, water and sky, with dark scraggy bush bordering the water, and the suggestion of a hill behind. Not the place we knew, but so like it, in its starkness and sense of space, of timeless water and sky, that it takes me home.
The last piece of my memoir is a coda. Here it is. It speaks for both my mother and me.
Your mind is an outback landscape, washed almost white in the glaring summer sun, with bare, flat plains and a faint line separating the land from the sky. The only vertical marks on this horizontal world are a line of fence posts, trailing off into the distance, a lone tree etched against the bleak sky, and, if you look behind, the straggly trees, dark grey-green-black, curling along the line of the life-giving river, mysterious in its depths and shallows, a presence you cannot see unless you approach it, but you can smell it, and when you are lying still at night, or resting in the afternoon, you can hear it, whispering its ancient song as it wanders through the land, knowing its way, carved out over thousands of years. This is not your country, but you dwell in it, and it is in your blood, your bones, your nerves, and it will never leave you, wherever you live, whatever you do, and when you die, it will always be this place, this place you know.