In March 1996, I started my creative writing course at the University of Wollongong (illuminated above). My parents weren’t entirely sure what they were doing in sending me there (‘We did wonder,’ my father once said to me), but the careers advisor had recommended it, and I liked his recommendation and so, marvellously, it came to be.
I was a young and naïve deaf girl from the country. I found university so stressful that I stopped eating and lost six kilos in six weeks, but I adored my course. Writing rapidly became my raison d'être: it was a balm for the isolation of deafness; crafting beautiful lines pleased my sense of aesthetics; and puzzling over the structure of a novel, essay or poem was immensely satisfying.
But the life of a writer is very difficult – I don’t think many understand just how hard it is when they set out (I sure didn’t). So below I’ve cobbled together a few things I’ve learnt over the last two decades, not as a road map to publication, but more as lamps in the darkness on the road.
1. Writing take a long, long, long time. You’ll need patience, patience and more patience. It’s not just the writing itself, but finding the agent and publisher, then working with the editor. Even then it’s usually not until you’re a few books in that you even gain any traction.
2. Find yourself a writing group. You'll feel less lonely and your writing will improve tremendously through constructive criticism and feedback.
3. If you want to get published, you need a track record, which you can establish through publications in litmags and by winning competitions. Find every opportunity you can – write and submit and repeat. The litmag market in Australia is small, but not impossible. Try overseas as well. There are many competitions around - Aerogramme Writers' Studio have good listings of these.
4. Subscribe to litmags (see #3). These are the life blood of Australian publishing and they are often how you get your foot in the door. If you can’t afford it, band together with some friends and get one subscription each, then share your copies.
5. Install an internet blocker such as Self Control. Use it.
6. Get a job. Most writers work like a dog for peanuts for a long time and it’s not enough to live on. A recent study from Macquarie University found that writers in Australia on average make $12,900 from their writing – and these are the more successful ones. T.S. Eliot was a banker and Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. I've found stability and a flexible boss to be more important than my pay rate.
7. Create an online presence through social media and/or a website. Not only will it help potential publishers work out who you are and what your writing is like, but social media can alleviate boredom, loneliness and shyness. Once you are published, it’s a good way to maintain contact with readers. If it gets out of control, resort to #5.
8. Read everything. First for enjoyment, then for craft. Take the piece apart to work out how the writer has achieved certain effects. If you can’t afford to buy books or don’t have enough space, join your local or state library.
9. Jealousy is okay and to be expected. What is not okay is when it stops you cheering for your fellow writers. Don’t be petty; they have worked as hard as you and they deserve buckets of good wishes.
10. Agents are not essential, but they are handy if you hate finance and fine print.
11. Conduct yourself with grace at all times, even if rejection feels like a slap in a face and you’re having a hard time managing #9. Publishing is a small and subjective business, and everyone in the industry wishes they could publish more.
12. Persist. If you get knocked down, it’s okay to sit in a puddle of tears for a while. Then get up and keep on going. The writers who get into print those who never give up. And if you love what do you, and you’d rather not be doing anything else, then of course you’ll get there.