Last month I had the privilege of speaking at the opening night of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. This is a transcript of my speech.
Thank you Izzy and congratulations Christian, you have a wonderful ride ahead of you. First and foremost I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we have gathered tonight. I pay my respects to Elders past and present and I extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are in attendance tonight.
It’s hard to believe it’s been one year since I stood on this stage and accepted my award. If you had told me in early 2016 that I would have a book coming out in 2017, I never would have believed you. But I never would have believed that Donald Trump would be president of the United States either. Real life can be unpredictable.
I hate the word journey—reality television has ruined it for me. But I can’t really find a better term to describe my path to publication. Like most journeys it has been a series of highs and lows. I have had rejections, more rejections, an occasional shortlisting, followed by more rejections. There have been weddings and births and funerals along the way. And then last year, after a decade of missing out on the top prize, I finally won something—the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. And it was worth the wait. You only have to look at recent winners: Graeme Simsion, Maxine Beneba-Clarke and Jane Harper to know that this is a serious prize. I can only hope for a fraction of their success.
Thanks to the prize, I now have an agent, in the form of the lovely Clare Forster from Curtis Brown, and a publisher, in the form of the magnificent team at Text. When I was an unpublished writer I had the impression that agents and publishers were brutal gatekeepers who wore black and never smiled, and yet everyone I have met thus far in the literary world has been eminently kind and generous. A few of them wear black, but they smile frequently and some even sign off their emails with a kiss.
I have gone from complete obscurity to slightly less obscurity and—as minor as this change sounds—it has been life altering. For the first time in my life I have had editors of literary journals approaching me for pitches, which is disorienting after years of submitting to them only to be rewarded with months of silence. I, like perhaps some of you, have spent many a night staring at my Submittable homepage willing the status of a story to change from an ambiguous in-progress blue to a glorious green.
I’m the same person. I’m writing the same stuff, but suddenly people want to read it. Have I emerged? I’m not so sure. For me, coming from a medical background, the word emerging conjures images of a newly formed being, still wet from the birth canal, blinking in bright lights. But the truth is, most of us so-called emerging writers are not new or even young and have been doing this for a long time. In some cases, a bloody long time. As I already alluded to, I had been writing and submitting stories for ten years before I won the unpublished manuscript award. To butcher my own metaphor, we emerging writers spend an extraordinarily long time in that cramped, dark, airless birth canal. But this is how success begins. Heather Rose, this year’s winner of the Stella Prize, joked that she liked to think of her winning book, which took eleven years to write, as an overnight success. Now I understand that this long painful period of silence and empty email boxes is, in fact, a rite of passage. More than that, it is essential, it is necessary. For me, it was during this period that I was actually developing the skills to write—getting rid of adverbs, supressing the urge to overwrite, learning to omit my first and last paragraphs.
Writing is hard. George Orwell described it as a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. Success does not come easily. As the Stella count attests, it comes less easily to women, and, we suspect, even less easily to people from culturally diverse backgrounds, those with a disability and the LGBTI community. But success does come. And often to those who, for whatever reason—delusions of grandeur, a desire to make sense of the world, or, as in my case, a compulsion—refuse to give up. I’m sure there are some extremely talented writers out there who never got published because they were put off by their first couple of rejection letters, just as I’m sure there are less talented writers, perhaps like myself, who grew a thick skin and kept writing and submitting in spite of the silence.
It was the great Maya Angelou who said: we may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated. She also said: Life’s a bitch, you’ve got to go out and kick ass. In a post-truth era, in a world addicted to outrage, it is more important than ever that we tell our stories. What the world needs is empathy and if, as the writer Malorie Blackman claims, reading is an exercise in empathy, then writers are the personal trainers. We need to make our readers sweat and tremble and cry until they see the world from a different point of view. It is important work that we do. We can’t afford to quit. So my advice to you, as one emerging writer to many other emerging writers, on this, the opening night of the emerging writers festival, is to enjoy yourselves, celebrate each others successes, no matter how small they may be, and whatever you do, don’t give up. Keep punching that wall because one day, I promise, you will break through.