creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, PhD completion, post submission blues, Time management, Writing strategies

Spinning a yarn: don’t ask for permission

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I have always been a writer. My path from an undergraduate studying drawing, painting and metal work to my recently submitted doctorate in creative writing may seem a meandering academic journey, but it is all about observation and communication.

I spent a great deal of my time as an undergraduate working on the student newspaper as well as co-editing a literary magazine. I learned the secret early on – that you might not get paid, but you can have a fascinating life as a writer. Just don’t ask for permission. Because chances are, no one will give it to you.

I got to review films, plays, interview authors, celebrities, theatre directors, I got to go through the door marked ‘closed’ – all with a notebook and pen in my hand and an insatiable curiosity about people. I just turned up in the student newspaper office and stayed there until I found something to do, or someone to interview. In those days, well before blogs and the Internet, publicists were only too happy to have student writers ready to promote their clients.

It was probably no surprise that with my bulging portfolio – having interviewed the likes of celebrated South African writer André Brink when I was just 18 – I walked into my first job as a cadet journalist on a newspaper as soon as I left university. Suddenly, I was writing – with a regular wage coming in. I never did teach art. And I never did ask permission to be called a journalist or a writer – I just did it.

Along the way – and especially since starting the doctorate – I have been asked what is the best way to become a writer. My answer is always the same. Write – and read – obsessively. No one is going to tap you on the shoulder and give you permission. In fact, writing is a vocation where people actively discourage you from pursuing your dream. So – do it anyway.

When I was a little girl, I listened to those voices of the adults around me and this is what they said – “you’ll never make any money from it”, or “it’s too competitive”.  Or “no one can be a writer in Australia – there is no audience.” I listened – but thankfully I didn’t let it stop me doing what I wanted.

Ah – I hear the doubters say. “You can’t make money from writing fiction.” Or “try poetry” or indeed “screenwriting – a joke!” Well, okay then, especially in a country like Australia, where there is a small population, it is harder to make a living by writing in these categories exclusively– and still be able to pay the rent.

But who said life was as black and white as an old film clip by The Animals, anyway? What I was never, ever told as an aspiring writer was that you can actually have your cake and eat it too.

You can have a wonderful, interesting and creative life as a writer, and at some level, you can make a living as a writer – you just need to supplement it with other things. Most writers I know do this; they work in an area that demands good writing and communication skills, and they spend their evenings and weekends and holidays writing fiction. I spent 15 years working on newspapers and magazines and now work in arts communications. And I have always written what I wanted to in my own time.

You can actually carve up a decent chunk of time out of your life to write, even if you have children and a paid job – and even doctoral study – if you really want to. Just toss aside the things that don’t matter, starting with watching television, and then other trivial time wasters, in a descending order of priorities (for me it’s cooking and housework).

Never give up, either. Depending on your genre, you may win the popularity jackpot with your work, and find a big audience – and decent royalties. Or, maybe you’ll win the literary fiction prizes and critical acclaim. Either way, it’s still rare enough in Australia for this to be sustainable without supplementing your income with other work.

Melbourne based author Carrie Tiffany, who recently won The Stella Prize, the inaugural Australia literary award for women writers, works as an agricultural journalist while also writing her fiction. Her novel Mateship for Birds is set in rural Australia, something she is familiar with in her work as an agricultural writer.

Yes, Tiffany admits the AU$50,000 prize money (AU$10,000 of which she graciously shared with the others on the shortlist) will buy her time to write, but she also added she hoped it would be a ‘blessing not a curse’. She has juggled freelance writing and children and fiction writing.

She’s a great example of someone who carved out time to write while doing something else – that still involved writing – for a living. Her first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (2005) was shortlisted for numerous prestigious awards, but it has taken eight years for her to publish her second novel Mateship with Birds. Time and commitment – that’s also what’s needed to write.

The conundrum of the doctorate in creative writing is that although it is four years of focus on your writing, it is a balancing act as well – time must be spent on the exegesis and the research, the academic writing, and the novel has to fit in between.

Now that I have submitted, and am slowly rising out of the daze of exhaustion, the one thing that’s keeping me focused again is my writing. Unlike giving up many other careers, a vocation in the arts means that you never retire. One creative project simply rolls into the next.

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As I have never made a living from my fiction, the money is never a driving factor. I am not waiting for a grant, a publisher, or anyone to give me the go-ahead to start the next book.

I just get on with it. Since submitting the doctorate six weeks ago, I have been asked to join a writing group and presented 5000 words of a new chapter of a  novel (a supernatural literary horror) that languished as I completed the doctorate. It’s getting its much needed revision. I am also co-writing books with another two authors and have a collaborative artist book and short story collection I am about to start on.

I can see all the characters from these books sitting across from me, bidding me to return to them and make them whole. They are all my creations, and have been patient, but now they are calling out to me – “It’s my turn!” they say. I can hear them as they struggle with plots about necromancy, the occult, revenants and aliens.

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It wasn’t until a friend suggested I explore the darkness of the human condition that I realized the link between these very different novels. This is best explained by writer-director Jennifer Lynch, who says of her own films; “I didn’t want to make a horror film in the traditional sense of the word. It is a film about horrific acts and pains. To me, it is a different thing.”

As improbable as it might seem, my varied writing projects are in some way about my own life; not necessarily about what I have experienced, but what I observe in some small way, and what I have felt. As Carrie Tiffany writes, ‘art starts with noticing.’

A friend who submitted her doctorate more than 15 years ago proposed that the post submission blues is actually about loss – “We like the security of our routines. We like having a purpose and knowing why to get up in the morning.”

Perhaps there is truth to this. And if so, the routine of writing, and the next project – is the reason to get up in the morning.

For a writer – that’s always the reason.

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