Writing

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.

you have waited long enough

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Be brave enough to do what you really want.

You have waited long enough.

Humble yourself to really take on your true vocation.

Where you’ll work harder than you’ve ever worked before, be tested more than you’ve ever been tested, and where you’ll have to give everything you have, over and over again.

Where you’ll soar and fall, cry tears of joy and pain.

Where the counsel and support of others will help, but ultimately you’re on your own.

You have to crack open your own head and break your own heart.

You have so much to learn and then you’ll have to forget it all every time you meet the blank page or the blinking cursor.

Every time it will be like wading into cold water. The longer you wait to dive under, the harder and scarier it gets. You have to go under.

You have to do the work.

Not just the appearance of it. Not setting up your laptop and latte with a lovely view and curating a perfect Spotify playlist to write to.

Put your eyes where they need to be.

On the work.

Don’t let your talent and drive and ideas sit out for so long they get flat like sparkling water left in a glass.

Embrace it. Seize it. Fight for it.

Let go of your ego’s need to control everything and be prepared to get lost.

Get down on the floor, be of the earth.

Your voice matters. The stories you want to tell matter.

Give these women their voices, the voices they didn’t have while they lived.

Let go.

Lose yourself.

Who knows what you’ll find?

[poem] advice to myself by louise erdrich

A coffee I enjoyed in Bali last week.

A coffee I enjoyed in Bali last week.

Advice to Myself 

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons 
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

Poem: "Advice to Myself" by Louise Erdrich, from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. © Harper Collins Publishers, 2003.  Sourced from The Writer’s Almanac.

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!

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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!

white heart: my stella spark

white heart

A Stella Spark is the book by an Australian woman that struck a spark for you, igniting ideas, creativity and a passion for great writing.

That book for me is the novel White Heart by Heather Rose.

A year ago, whenever I mentioned Heather Rose as one of my favourite writers, I'd get a blank or curious look in return. Now, thanks to her most recent (and brilliant) novel winning last year's Stella Prize, her work has been getting some long overdue and much-deserved attention in Australia. I'm thrilled to hear it. I've been a Heather devotee since White Heart, her first novel.

It came out in 1999 and I read it in 2000, when I was 19. I have re-read every year since. I believe it's sadly no longer in print, which makes it all the more precious to me.

It’s a novel about a woman named Farley who grows up in Tasmania and who, in the face of a devastating loss (though we don’t realise exactly what this loss was until near the end), goes searching elsewhere - overseas and mainland Australia - for meaning, wholeness and love. 
It was one of the most beautifully written books I’d ever read and it still is. It was quiet in its beauty though, if that makes sense. It contained a wildness and a fiery spirit, yet was so gentle.

It sounds trite to say ‘it changed my life’ but it did. Before White Heart, the only glimpses of Tasmania I'd really seen in the literature I'd read was of a gothic, wild and quite oppressive place, but this novel had snapshots of the Tasmania that I actually knew and could relate to, as well as capturing its darker side. It made me realise that I could write about the Tasmania I knew as well.

It was also thanks to discovering White Heart that I started noticing other amazing Tasmanian women writers who had been somewhat unknown to me up to that point, and it opened up a completely new world for me. 

But in terms of actually changing my life…well, *I* had to do that. I was 19 when I first read White Heart and if you’ve read my own book, you’ll know that at that age, I really lost my way. It took a while for me to find my path. But it did spark something. 

And remembering that has reminded me, like Farley in White Heart, I too had to go on a soul-searching journey to heal and find my true self.

I love everything Heather Rose has ever written but I always, always come back to this one. If you ever see a copy, get it! You won’t regret it.

What's your Stella Spark?