I’ve been throwing a lot of literary seeds to the wind lately in the hope that a few will germinate into something fruitful. In a happy coincidence it appears that many national short story competitions have a May deadline and these have given me a much needed push to get cultivating. When I find checking my emails and Submittable account becoming a five-times-a-day compulsion – much like watching grass grow – it has been helpful to instead turn my attention to growing and pruning my entries. Remember, I don’t drink coffee so the small entry fees are my happy little vice.
You see, I had a smug start to this writing adventure because the first two stories I ever submitted received either a prize or were included in the competition shortlist. I also had a few articles happily accepted in years gone past when I wasn't really serious about this writing gig. Buoyed on with dreams of hitting it big in the literary world I then suffered the indignity of thirty rejections for my first novel manuscript, forked out a terrible amount of money to an editor who did a fantastic job and taught me how to be ruthless with both words and commas, and the terminable worry of whether I’d ever get published again. Through this roller coaster of rising hope and swooping ego there is one thing I have decided to do in my quest to be a successful author and that is continue to write. Oh, and not give up my day job.
As a result I find myself delighted to have now developed a regular writing discipline. Much like the couch potato who reluctantly signs up to run a charity half marathon I, too, have experienced procrastination, self doubt and injuries from inadequate warm-ups. However, now I look forward to the adrenaline surge of getting stuck into the zone and knowing what I’m doing is ultimately good for me in so many ways. It’s starting to pay off.
For my second manuscript I knew I was getting closer. Instead of form rejection letters dropping into my inbox after six months of impatiently waiting, agents were actually agreeing to read my script… before giving me rejection letters offering constructive feedback for improvement. Rather than being too disappointed, I’ve used these interactions to finesse my stories before sending them back into the hemisphere for another shot. A recent email received advised me one of my short stories is still in contention for inclusion in an upcoming anthology. A different message from an agent said she thought I had talent but my protagonist was basically a bitch (it’s true, she does have some character flaws but that’s because she’s just trying to make the best of things after a less than perfect start to life!) Although they may not look like much, I’m counting these milestones as progress.
I’m actually being fearless now and not holding back with what I want to say in my stories about things that we all relate to but no one wants to say out loud for fear of being judged. I love that fiction is a form of escape yet connects us with the human condition. I want the reader to resonate with the experience because they know all about it and will be nodding their heads throughout. I’m trying not to seethe with envy when I find myself standing in a bookshop in front of the Top 20 shelf and, while not smothering my dream of having a novel with my name on it, I’m not making that the focus of why I’m writing either because that’s a lot of unnecessary pressure for a reforming perfectionist. Who knows what Chapter Two or Three or Four will bring next but the imperfect protagonist needs to overcome great adversity so their true strength of character can be revealed. I don't know about you but I’ve always been a great fan of the page turner.
When I was a child I used to cringe whenever adults asked me that question because I was embarrassed about the answer I really wanted to give, one that still stands true today; live in a cottage beside the sea and write fiction novels all day long. When I turned fifteen and fell in love with my art classroom this answer expanded to ‘and paint pictures as well!’
Now, these are the types of answers that sensible adults with obligations such as bills to pay and mouths to feed will do their best not to scoff at. They’ll shrug their shoulders, heavy with the burden of reality while all the while thinking ‘those aren’t real jobs.’ I was smart enough to know that. I used to wonder what was wrong with me: why couldn’t I be good at maths or more athletic? Less dreamy and more focussed. So instead my answer to that regularly asked loaded question became ‘I don’t know, yet.’
A couple of years ago at school I had the experience of sitting down with Year 10 students for their Senior Education and Training planning interviews. In our ever-competitive global job market the pressure is certainly felt by young people to have their whole future mapped out in front of them. At fifteen years old they must choose their preferred subjects and lock them in for the next two years, with a view to set them up for their chosen tertiary course. While there are definitely some students who have always known what they want to be when they grow up there are still a great number who are not sure or, like me, do know yet the path seems far too risky to stake their future financial stability. I have met the boy who wants to be a computer animation expert yet stuck with Legal Studies to lead them into a law degree, and the exceptional drama student who was going to study Hospitality instead.
Many teachers I know also moonlight as writers, actors, musicians, fishermen, builders, samba dancers, photographers and the list goes on. Some are actually teachers because that is what they have always wanted to be and that is, of course, fantastic, too. Teaching is an interesting profession in its own right but the truth is you are giving of yourself most days until there is nothing left in reserve (thank god for the holidays!) which can be anathema to other creative pursuits.
When I was trying to figure out what was wrong with my headspace a number of years ago a psychologist asked me ‘Who is Jo?’ I replied with ‘I’m a teacher, a wife and a mother.’ She said, ‘That’s not what I asked.’ I got annoyed and said ‘I don’t understand the question.’ She then explained ‘You’ve listed what you do, not who you are. You’re a human being, not a human doing. So, let me ask the question again, ‘Who is Jo?’ The lightbulb went on! ‘I’m a person who loves time alone just to think. A person who values painting, writing and reading. A person who enjoys new experiences and places.’ And the list goes on…
I’m still grateful for that guided conversation. As a result I always make an effort now not to ask teenagers what they want to do when they grow up. I get a better response when I ask them to tell me about their favourite subject or extra-curricular hobbies, or even just to name the highlight of their day. The answers to these questions are more interesting and telling about who they’ll be instead. I hope they’ll take a chance on themselves when it comes time to stepping out into the real world.
Likewise, I can keep my dream about becoming a successful writer to myself all I want but unless I make time to put words onto the screen and keep surrendering them to an audience then that’s all I’ll ever have, a dream. At times it’s a scary proposition but I want to model to those young minds that it’s worth taking a chance on yourself and your true dreams. We only have one life!
This past week at school the staff have been dropping like flies. The Ekka winds are blowing and everyone in South East Queensland know this heralds not only the arrival of fairy floss, carnival rides and agricultural awards but also a huge dose of winter ailments. In my staffroom six of us lost our voices. I’m starting to suspect some sort of biological warfare: If you want to plot a successful takedown at a school what better way to do it than silencing the teachers?
The symptoms of laryngitis are more of an irritant than a miserable I-can’t-function type of illness. Despite the complete absence of sound I was optimistically foolish enough on Tuesday to think I could keep calm and carry on teaching. A well-modulated voice is our most important teaching tool but it is certainly not the only one. I saw this vocal setback as an opportunity to bring the others out and sharpen them up. Tools like pausing, using facial expressions, monitoring, using the board and making gestures.
This winter break our family decided to have a short getaway to Seventeen-Seventy and Agnes Water, a manageable five and a half hour drive north of Brisbane. The trip started innocently enough as we followed the tried-and-true ritual of each packing our own bags and then leaving the husband to Tetris everything into the back of the car. It wasn’t until we made a pit-stop at Gympie that I discovered a catastrophe had occurred. Where the heck was my bright red you-can't-miss it backpack?
There has been yet another round in the media of negativity directed at teachers, thanks to politician Andrew Laming’s comments about our working hours and super long holidays. I sometimes like to read the comments beneath the articles to see where the general public falls on the issue. It’s really heartening to know so many understand that as a group, teachers are valued for the work they do put in.
I used to be a sentimental hoarder of many precious treasures. As a child everything, as far as I was concerned, had feelings and certainly invoked memories and strong emotions in me. I come from families, as I’m sure many others do, where certain objects have been bestowed at different milestones on the next generation. A passing of the baton, if you will. Whether attachment to objects was a result of early childhood loss, boarding school years, or just my love of stories, it is true to say that sometimes bearing so many ‘things’ has weighed me down. It doesn’t help that in my adult life I have lived in three countries, five cities and eleven houses to date! So, now, every school holidays I take the opportunity for a big clear out. This means at our house there’s a spring clean, an autumn clean, a summer clean and a winter clean!
It dawned on me this week that my living arrangements are feeling less like a family home and suspiciously more like a student flat lately. Teenagers are awesome and all that, but one downside is that they can’t afford to pay rent or bills. Indeed, they even expect to be paid for doing chores. Wouldn’t it be nice if at least they could bring their plates out of their rooms and put them in the dishwasher from time to time?
San Francisco, Marin County and the Sierra Nevada.
Viva Las Vegas...
Road Trippin' Across Arizona - South West Basins, Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon!