creative life

the emerging artist has a home

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I am thrilled to share with you that my short story “The Emerging Artist” has just been published in international online literary journal Queen Mob’s Teahouse!

I’m so excited that this quirky little story has finally found a home. If you like strange, satirical fiction with its tongue firmly in its cheek, then I think you might enjoy it.

You can read it here!

Writing this story was an interesting experience. As I explained in my cover letter to the journal, the idea first came to me after attending an in-conversation event with the artist Marina Abramovic at London’s Festival Hall a couple of years ago. I had just read Heather Rose’s novel The Museum of Modern Love so was desperate to go along!

But as interesting as Abramovic herself was to listen to, I found myself really frustrated with the audience. The second part of the evening was a Q&A and unlike an event I attended last year with Liz Gilbert where you had to email any questions for the Q&A session ahead of time (which I think worked much better, and not just because they picked mine! If you’re a newsletter subscriber you already know that story), this really wasn’t that interesting at all - there was a long queue at each microphone to ask questions which were all “this is more of a comment than a question” which frankly just makes you grumpy, doesn’t it? You didn’t come to hear these people witter on!

Anyway. At one point, after about six very long-winded questions about nothing in particular, a young woman got to the microphone who introduced herself as “an emerging artist” and proceeded to give a monologue about herself to Marina Abramovic, oblivious to the fact that a few audience members had audibly groaned at her introduction (the British tend to be very reserved and polite people - but this was just after the Brexit vote in 2016 and brazen public rudeness had started to become a thing. It’s got worse since). But she was so earnest, this emerging artist. She seemed completely unfazed by the fact that no one was that interested in what she had to say, but she was trying to seize her moment anyway. It was, in an odd way, inspiring.

I understand “emerging artist” is an accepted term in the art world. In fact, “emerging writer” is becoming more common too. But what does it mean exactly? And what are the connotations of being considered “emerging”? Is it a bit like the caterpillar waiting to be come a butterfly? When have you “emerged”? Who gets to decide? There are no Emerging Bankers, or Emerging Journalists, or Emerging Doctors. They just reach a point in their qualifications and experience where they have the right to call themselves that. Is it the same for artists? I’m not sure.

I’m also fascinated - and equally irritated - by what feels like a proliferation of pretension in that world. These days pretty much everything can be labelled as ‘art’. We have devices on us constantly that can be used to create images, audio and video. And, in theory, we can all reach an audience. But I think these things have meant we’ve lost a bit of reverence for art.

But, as David Walsh (he of MONA fame) has pointed out (and which I experienced for myself on my last visit to the gallery a few months ago), lack of reverence for art is also a response to it. And it is not an invalid one.

So, with all this swirling around in my head, a few days after the Festival Hall event, I wrote the first draft of what became The Emerging Artist.

And then I drafted, and re-drafted, and re-drafted. And then drafted some more. And around the time I began the story, my lovely friend Lisa and I began meeting up after work to workshop our various projects - she with her amazing epic play in progress, me with my short stories and various attempts at a novel. Our meetings usually ended up being at Padella Pasta in London Bridge, because one cannot write well if one has not dined well. So I was extremely fortunate that I had a kind and willing audience for the earliest incarnation of the story and her feedback was so very helpful. It’s by far a better story for her input!

But one never knows how one’s work is going to be received. This story was rejected by several other journals and I got very disheartened. While I wondered whether to keep my faith in the Emerging Artist and keep sending her out, I listened to an excellent interview with writer Kristen Roupenian, who wrote the short story “Cat Person” which went viral - she shared that that story was rejected several times before it was published. In fact, Kristen found rejection was the standard response to her work!

I had been submitting stories for five or six years and gotten, like, tiny little acceptances here and there….and Cat Person, like all my other stories, had gone out to several different magazines and been rejected by them, which is par for the course … but it was still sitting at The New Yorker at that point, and I just assumed they had forgotten to send me my rejection letter! … but I think by that point I had come to understand the failure that is built into the process. It doesn’t matter how good a story is or isn’t, it’s still not going to be the right story for 99% of people. So you just have to do whatever you can to give yourself the stamina to keep rolling the dice … keep going until it doesn’t feel like failure any more [but] it feels like the process.

So this gave me fresh courage to keep going. And I’m so glad I did! Thank you Kristen.

And thank you Queen Mob’s! What an honour to be published in a journal dedicated to “writing, art, criticism—weird, serious, gorgeous, cross genre, spell conjuring, rant inducing work.” To know they thought my story was even one of those things, that thrills me down to my toes. I will have a soft spot for this journal in my heart forever.

what kind of heart does it take - an evening with alison jean lester

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

On Thursday night at Daunt Books in Hampstead, I attended an author event by my friend Alison Jean Lester. We were greeted with shots of sake and Japanese rice crackers, and then the evening began, with an intimate and enthusiastic group of us gathered on a dark night in a gorgeous little bookshop. Alison is not only a very fine, observant and witty writer, she also used to work as a corporate communications coach so she knows how to work a room. I knew I was in for a fun evening!

sake-rice-crackers

Alison read an excerpt from her first novel Lillian on Life (one of my favourite reads of 2015) and then she sang us a Japanese folk song which she used to sing to her children, who were born in Japan. It was like a little meditation, the perfect bridge to the discussion of her latest novel, Yuki Means Happiness

A line from the song Alison sang was "what kind of heart does it take?" and she posed that as a question that fiction writers should ask themselves when starting the story they want to tell. What kind of heart does it take to endure/pursue what the story is asking? How will that heart be changed? Broken? Mended?

We talked a bit about the process of putting your real-life experiences into your fiction - something I am very familiar with (and didn't quite manage to pull off, hence why my book was a memoir in the end!). "The great thing about fiction is that you have control in a way you don't have in life," Alison said. "If someone fell under a train in real life, in fiction you can change that, you can save them. Or, you can let someone go under a train and save yourself!"

Alison also said she finds the whole "how autobiographical is this novel?" question that is often asked of women writers quite flattering - "because it means they think it really happened. It's a compliment to your writing." 

Ultimately, Alison advised us to "write about what haunts you". To ask questions of our characters that we might have asked of ourselves, once upon a time. To have a character take a path you did not. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

I thought deeply about this on my train home. The character in my novel is in a very similar situation to the one I found myself in 12 years ago and what she is doing to save the marriage is something I never, not for a split second, entertained - trying to have a child in the hope that it will heal the rift between them. I have been struggling with the novel lately, fearful that everything is a bit two-dimensional. I have done so much reading, so much research, and I know what I want to say and who these people are - I just haven't found the right way in yet. I have the key but it hasn't fit in any of the locks I've tried. Is this a way into the story, I wonder, to imagine an alternative future for myself, a path I might well have taken had a few things been different?

It was such an inspiring and wonderful evening, and it pumped me up in a way I hadn't realised I needed. I must make an effort to go to things like this more often because when I do, I feel like I'm among peers, among friends. I feel seen, heard and understood, even when I say very little and just listen. Writers are my people. And you can't help but feel uplifted when you're with your people. 

I'm currently reading Yuki Means Happiness and it's marvellous (as I thought it would be!). If you enjoy thoughtful and funny writing that makes you think about life, I highly recommend seeking out Alison's books!

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (final instalment)

I've been sharing the blog posts I wrote about my experience at an Arvon writing course, to mark seven years since the experience. Please see this post for background and parts 2 , 34 and 5 to catch up so far. This is the final instalment! 

This post originally appeared on my blog Green Ink in April 2010, and has been slightly edited.

And so I sat, as I let the enormity of the decision I was about to make sink in.

Did I want to keep going with The Memory of Us? At this very moment, the answer is no. I want to have a break from it. It isn't fun to write anymore. I have invested so much time and energy into it, and I know is a story that I will tell, that will be told. I just need to have a break from it. It just isn't inspiring me at the moment. The direction I have taken it in is definitely the wrong one, and I will need time to find my way again. I need to forget about all the bad influences on it, the doubts, the fear, the threats, the heavy weight of expectations. It needs to be free of those and find a new way through. I know I set the bar too high for myself, telling myself it could be nothing less than a masterpiece. It is no wonder I have struggled so much.

I want to write about what I have seen, done, felt and known. I want to be able to sit and write with authenticity, humour and vivacity. I want writing to be fun again. In those few hours of writing that other story, purely from my own imagination, I had a glimpse of my writing life as it could be, and I wanted to grab it with both hands.

It didn't hit me how bored I'd been with The Memory of Us until I'd finally admitted it out loud. I don't doubt that, eventually, the story will be told. But when - that is a question I don't have an answer for right now. I think the decision to focus on other things that are a bit more fun to write is a good one - and I also think it's been building for a while. I was just too afraid to admit it. The characters just weren't setting my imagination on fire. I've been frustrated and disillusioned for quite some time. But how could I admit this, after so much investment, so much work, over the past two and a half years - to say nothing of all the coincidences and twists of fate that led me to think yes, yes, yes, this is the story I've been waiting for.......

I've really let my pride get in the way here, I think. And I'm not short changing The Memory of Us, by any means. I just want to have a break from it. It did not prove to be stimulating or inspiring company in the near week I was with it constantly. When I talked to Morag about it on Wednesday, she seemed to think that this project had been weighing me down quite a bit, and it wouldn't be a tragedy if I put it aside for a while. 

"But what would be a tragedy," she cautioned me, "is if you stopped writing all together."

There's no danger of that! Now, it feels like the possibilities for me have grown a bit wider. With time and energy to devote to things I do want to write about I feel like there are wider waters for me to cast my net. Topics I might not have thought were really my thing now intrigue me. I want to give pleasure with my writing. And I think that will only happen if it is a pleasure for me to write.

There are so many things I want to write about. I want to write about relationships, friendships, parents and their children, about people chasing their dreams. I want to write about people transcending circumstance. I want to write about fear and desire and love. I want to write about my country, the cities I've lived in, why I love it, why I left it and why I might or might not go back. I want to write about the city I live in now, where my freedom and independence came of age. People have told me often over the years that my own life has a wealth of material - and maybe it's time I started listening.

I don't really know what expectations I had coming on this course really - there was part of me that thought I'd walk away with The Memory of Us virtually finished, and there was another part of me that knew it was crunch time, and there was another part of me that wanted it to be the start of something, the end of the beginning, as Churchill put it. 

So there you have it, my decision. Out in the open. I am free. I wonder what will happen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The last night of the course was excellent. Over dinner we were given the task of writing a poem about any aspect of our time at Moniack - I wrote a traditional Aussie ballad about "Donald", this enigma of a character who had started making an appearance in the group class work! It was fun to write, and I didn't struggle with the rhyme like I have done in the recent past, I felt like I did as a teenager, making up silly poems for school plays or to make my sisters laugh. We all read our poems aloud to laughter and applause. Then, just as we were being served dessert, we heard the strains of....bagpipes?!

Not unexpected, I suppose, seeing we were in the depths of Inverness, but it sounded like it was coming from the kitchen! Sure enough, the door was opened and there was one of the Moniack staff's daughters, in a kilt, playing "Happy Birthday" on the bagpipes! It was one of our group's birthday, and they had arranged a cake and a piper in her honour. After the birthday song finished, the piper launched into a traditional tune and we all started clapping and stamping - it was amazing! All I needed to make the evening complete was a dram of whisky :)

I then poured an enormous glass of Cabernet Syrah and settled in for the group reading, which was taking place in the main room in front of the roaring fire. Everyone read. It was wonderful to finally hear some people's work, having been curious about it all week. Some of it was exquisite. Everyone's work is so different. The voices were so unique, no story was the same. It was wonderful to feel, possibly for the first time in my life, completely unintimidated. It was impossible to compare our work to anyone else's, because all the projects really are so different. It was really nice to feel among peers. Happy that I'm doing my own thing, and they are doing theirs.

I read my short story with gusto and humour, and some exaggerated accents - I got laughs where I hoped I would get them, and I was pleased with the flow of the narrative. There were bits I was really pleased with, that I could hardly believe I had written at all. Morag came up to me afterwards, her eyes shining, and told me how pleased she was, and that my writing just "sparkled" in that story. That made me very happy.

When we'd all read, Morag and Tim spoke briefly about the week and what their advice was to us upon leaving and going back to our normal, busy lives. Morag's wish for us all was to have energy and courage. Tim said for us to keep the momentum going, to continue to make the time and space to write every day.

I have definitely come away with that feeling. To keep the energy going, now that it has been unlocked. The course description was about falling in love with your novel again. I went a bit deeper than that. I fell in love with writing again.

don't forget about poetry

“I wish to say that we will not be saved by poetry. But poetry is the type of creation in which we may live and which will save us.”

-  Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry

Typing before coffee a few days ago, my sleepy fingers felt this paper, caught under a wireless keyboard. It stopped me in my tracks.

I used to write a lot of poetry. At uni, I fillednotebook after notebook with poems, even sometimes in the margins of lecture notes, and most days after classes I'd scamper back to my car and scribble one down before driving home. In those days I was constantly flooded with impressions.

Everything seemed to catch my attention. The gang of students playing frisbee on the oval, the fraying protest posters clinging to the building walls, the empty stained coffee glasses outside the student cafe, a classmate's fluffy purple cardigan that looked like she'd plucked it from a cat's basket. All of this I captured, and reading them is like having a switch back to that time in my life, before things got too serious. I was not your typical uni student, and while I sometimes wish my uni days had also been filled with parties, backpacking and maybe even some cheap vodka here and there, I cannot regret that they were filled with poetry. 

In fact, the first piece of writing I ever had published was a poem. It was a few months after I moved to London, in a small literary journal, and I had written the poem itself in Hyde Park after a tumultuous few weeks in my new home, unsure if I should get on the next plane back to Australia, utterly beaten down by life, love and the city itself. That poem was my heart in 40-odd lines and having it published was one of the happiest experiences of my life. 

I haven't written a lot of poetry since, admittedly, but last year, stuck and frustrated and feeling very lost, I started writing poems again. Little snapshots of life that perhaps one day, decades from now, will transport me back. Lately it's all been about other writing but this little note from the universe has reminded me - don't forget about poetry. It is the seed, the base note, the tuning fork. It's where I came from.