I laughed in shock and wobbly excitement when Nigel Featherstone’s email dropped into my inbox, offering me a placement at Hardcopy 2018.
If you haven’t heard of it, Hardcopy is a professional development program for Australian writers, run by the ACT Writers Centre at the National Library of Australia. The program is held yearly (alternating between fiction and non-fiction) and consists of three long weekends in Canberra, stretching from May to November. This year is fiction.
Surviving my usual stress-head apprehension of just getting out of the house and into the airport for a glass of nerve-calming cider, I attended the first session — three days of intensive master classes on the craft of writing, presented by the amazingly knowledgeable Nadine Davidoff.
For someone who suffers from social anxiety (you’d never know because I’m so blabby on-line and have been a professional singer for years), being thrown into a room of thirty-six strangers (including several digital attendees watching from afar — a first for the program this year) was intense, confronting and invigorating. Yet, by lunchtime on the first day, I knew I was breaking literary bread with a group of welcoming, kind and talented writers. Of course I was.
The masterclass itself, as with most programs of this kind, commenced with an open group exchange — who we were, what we were working on — before diving into Nadine’s presentation. The first hour of discussion was filled by those more cleverly articulate and less introverted than the rest of us. I’m sure my eyes weren’t the only ones averted as Nadine asked for input. But as the day progressed, Nadine encouraged each of us to share. (Nadine has an amazing memory for names. I’m so jealous. I’ll remember a face, but name? Forget it. I have trouble remembering my own.)
The room held respect: everybody listened, nobody spoke over another and all mobile devices were out of sight. This class was gold, we didn’t want to miss a second of it.
Prior to the weekend, Nigel Featherstone (a softly spoken, generous individual who administers the program) had divided us into on-line workshop groups of five, with whom we swapped extracts of our manuscripts. This was a clever icebreaker and meant we had four people we could gravitate to on arrival. Although networking is touted as a feature of the program, from the outset I knew I wasn’t going to connect with every writer — that was never my intention; it takes me time to let my guard down, though I could see others had a set agenda of ferocious networking. Kudos to them.
Apart from touching base with my workshop group, I chose to take a step back, yet be open and trusting that I would connect with those I was meant to. My focus was on the work itself. I chose to spend my first lunch break wandering off on my own, taking fresh air, sunshine and snapshots around lake Burley Griffin. However, we were encouraged to socialise, so Saturday night a large group of us went to a local pub. I’m glad we did. Apart from getting to know half a dozen writers a little more intimately, I met a gorgeous unicorn of a writer — someone unique, colourful and sweet.
Is it wrong to say it was a relief to see so many writers, who seemed to have their shit together, still suffering from imposter syndrome?
Sleep was caught between bursts of insight and inspiration. When I woke, I wondered if it was time to get up for the next class. Nope. Still dark. Oh, come on already! One morning, I had a pre-sunrise Netflix binge to coerce my mind into letting my body relax. I’d fallen in love again, with story, words, nuance and not wasting a moment of this opportunity. I found myself missing session breaks to share ideas, insecurities and thoughts with other writers — thoughts that developed overnight and became obsessive.
Coming from a background of study in professional writing and editing, I found a lot of material we covered was, of course, familiar ground for me. But, as I had anticipated, now that I’ve had a few years’ hands-on experience, become an accredited editor and worked heavily on clients’ manuscripts, as well as my own, the information held more depth of meaning for me — light bulb realisations and confirmations were sweet, like the plates of rainbow mini jellybeans on our tables, which everyone, including myself, stared at longingly but didn’t touch until late afternoon. Sigh.
Some of Nadine’s truths were confidence boosting, settling gut instincts or prior learning into concrete foundations. Others windexed dust-crusted windows I’d been peering through, unable to quite grasp the techniques or philosophies I’d been glimpsing, and perhaps framing misinformed opinions on.
My biggest takeaway? The ‘Question’. We were asked to make a list of questions our stories might be asking. Aha! Easy. I’m already an expert on this. Over the past four and a half years, I’ve worked out a million questions my manuscript is asking. Deciding which mother is ‘the’ question is the hard part. But I found it. I freaking found it! Or maybe it found me — it exploded into my head. Just like that. God. Sweet relief. I’m hanging onto that little cherry until I’m ready to jump on the horrid marketing wagon.
I’m sure, now that the shock of being jerked out of my comfort zone has passed, being marinated in such a rich and rewarding program has seasoned my writing and editing chops. I’ve made a commitment, a promise to myself, to stop neglecting my own writing, to stop de-prioritising myself, to stop letting my cups of tea or coffee go cold, and to make a daily appointment with myself and my manuscript, or at the very least a blog, and to never again lose my love of writing. A big ask. Life is life. I know I’ll not stringently keep the promise; creativity is shitty like that when you have to earn a living, but the intention will hopefully stay fired up until September, when we’ll do it all again with industry workshops.
For now, I’ll not think about November and whether I’ll be amongst those brave enough to submit their manuscripts and souls, only to be culled from thirty-six to ten. Those final ten, like valiant lemmings, will follow each other over the excruciating cliff face of publisher and agent critiques. Fly lemmings, fly.
*Mass suicide of lemmings is an urban myth.
*Thank you to Deb Flemming, Malini Devadas and David Lole for welcoming me to your stunningly fresh, spare city, with car rides, delicious food and company. And to my Chris for never questioning.