On my corkboard I have a postcard of a woman in evening gown, musing with a cigarette, ‘She could hardly wait to be back in the saddle again’. I pinned it there to remind myself that, when I get knocked off, I need to brush down my gown and get back on the horse.
The past eighteen months have been obscenely busy: I’ve edited and published a novel under intense pressure; travelled to New Zealand for a conference; fallen in love with a man and had my heart broken; travelled to India for another conference; done book publicity; thought I had patched things up with the man until he turned up with his new woman at a bar and sat her across the table from me; fallen apart; met innumerable deadlines for book proposals, essays, residency applications and postdoc applications; travelled to Hobart for a residency; travelled to Wagga for another conference; didn’t get the residency in Paris; fell apart again; didn’t have any luck with postdocs; despaired; then struggled on for another two months without a day off to get down a draft of my third novel. Doing all this with a 75% hearing loss, and my body telling me to slow down with repeated bouts of flu and cold, hasn’t helped much either.
After the Griffith Review lecture by George Megalogenis a few months ago, in which I had to strain incredibly hard to hear because the loop system didn’t work where I was sitting (in the front row, and I sat there because loop systems generally don’t work and I needed to be near the front in case it didn’t), I bumped into a friend who is also deaf but raised as hearing, and is the only person in the world who makes me feel normal. I found myself downloading my exhaustion and woes onto my poor friend until she said, ‘Jessica, you need to take a break!’
Halfway home I ended up in a flood of tears, which didn’t stop until a few days later, and I realised something was quite wrong. The exhaustion of trying to hear in that lecture in a room with shitty acoustics had pushed me over the edge.
On top of this, it’s been roughly a year since the publication of Entitlement, and it’s been what one might call a learning curve. I never had second novel syndrome with writing this book, as I had the idea for it while writing A Curious Intimacy and had been wanting to get it onto paper for ten years. However, I might have in its reception, as I wasn’t able to build on the momentum of A Curious Intimacy as I’d been in England doing my doctorate. Also, once you publish a novel, the goal posts suddenly shift: instead of the wonder and surprise of a first novel, you realise exactly how far you have to go, and how hard you have to work, to be not just a good writer, but a successful writer as well (Chris Currie, author of The Ottoman Motel, talks about this on his blog Furious Horses).
In addition, literary fiction is doing badly in general. Annabel Smith, WA author of Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot, bravely spoke out about what many of us think but do not say: our sales are poor, we don’t get paid enough, readers don’t value us, a conversation she continued at the Wheeler Centre’s site.
As I’ve been overseas, and generally taken a long time to build up a network of writerly friends in Brisbane since my return to Australia, to realise this was quite a shock. So what I had hoped might be a diversion from the mounting pressures of the year instead began to contribute to them.
However, I took myself to my GP to find a psychologist and had the very good fortune to be referred to one who suited me from the start, a practical woman who introduced me to Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul which, with its emphasis on storytelling, and on interpreting Greek myths as a means to understanding human motivations, was a helpful book for a writer to read. And, like a skilled masseuse, she loosened the knot into which so much of my stress had been tied, and I calmed down almost immediately. I also went on a much-needed holiday and research trip with H to Far North Queensland for my third novel, which is set in a tropical town up there and is about sea creatures.
Annabel, and the other authors she mentions (and the many more who are out there), are of course quite right to be upset at how little authors are paid. It goes without saying that I too would like to earn more for my work, but the stress occasioned by trying to get to this point has been so awful that I’ve just taken money out of the equation. I write because it’s as necessary as breathing, and it’s the reason why I’m on this earth.
During the year, I found myself writing a short story titled ‘Black Soil’, about a woman who has a messy, unresolved history. At the end of the story she takes some soil from a riverbank and, sitting at her potter’s wheel, moulds it into a vase. While workshopping the story, it was pointed out that the girl had taken her distress and formed something from it, and I realised this is exactly what has happened to me this year. Although many of the events have been scarring, they’ve also made me tougher. Now I’ve leapt back onto my steed, and I’m galloping towards the next goalposts with wind-tossed hair, in my silk gown and pearls.