Today’s guest in the attic, Jacqui Brown, is warm, vivacious and humorous, all of which is evident in her writing. Jacqui’s one of the group of writers I met while at Varuna who helped make my stay so special.
I hope you enjoy her post—there’s nothing better than wisdom served with a good dose of humour!
Jacqui is a freelance writer and cat lover from the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia. She has a Master of Creative Writing from Macquarie University and was awarded the Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship for 2019. Recently, she put the final sentence on her first children’s manuscript, a ghostly detective story for middle-grade readers.
Screw You, Mrs Bennett: A Dedication to my Sixth Grade Teacher
I’m not sure when I lost my dream to write. Somewhere between my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs Bennett, who crushed the souls of children (no doubt to cast into her cauldron after the three-thirty bell), and my last year of high school, when putting pretend conversations between pretend people on paper wasn’t considered a serious career option.
I didn’t flirt with pen on page again until my early thirties, in diaries I filled with daily angst, and a couple of rambling, half-drafted manuscripts that didn’t quite reach the three-generation-epics I’d foreseen in my mind.
But it wasn’t until I woke up on my forty-second birthday (yes, the magical age at which the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is revealed) that I realized an important truth: I’d die one day, disappointed that I’d wasted my life because I’d never done the one thing I truly wanted, which was to be a writer. But then, I’d never really tried.
I got serious. I embarked on a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, began writing every day, and joined a writers’ group on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Since I live near the beach, I wish I could tell you that’s where I write, inspired by beachy clichés – the endless blue ocean, the bright blue sky, the salty air. But I have a full-time job, and my best writing is done in pyjamas in bed before work. Usually I’m battling Softie, who, like all cats, believes it’s her right to squeeze between me and my laptop. I can write 825 words a day, less if Softie is feeling particularly nippy. She doesn’t like it when the arms of her human-cushion move.
I don’t hear my husband leave for work through my headphones, big over-the-head ear-huggers that I’ve recently discovered help me focus if they’re pounding heavy metal or hard rock. He says when I’m writing I’m in Jacqui-Land, that I lose track of time and forget the other things I’m meant to do (like showering and going to work). And he’s right.
Writing is a kind of meditation. It’s clarity. It’s pure focus. Nothing matters but the words on a page, and the satisfaction of rearranging the words and feeling how their meaning changes. It’s the joy that comes as the story emerges. Time slows down. The body relaxes. Everything in the world is okay.
Mostly. On days when the words are unyielding, or that perfectly curated sentence you wrote has suddenly curdled, it’s utterly crap.
My first taste of success came in the form of the Eleanor Dark Fellowship from Varuna House for a Young Adult manuscript I began writing at university. I didn’t want to write YA, but I’d enrolled in a unit called Writing Young Adult Fiction, and had to producea 2,500 word creative piece with darkness, tension and romance. After a minor tantrum about the unreasonableness of having to write a YA piece in a YA subject, I determined the easiest way to pass the assignment was to avoid the short story form altogether, opting for the first chapter of a novel instead. That way I could make up anything I wanted, and never need resolve a thing! In a personal protest to being told my story titles were too generic, I named it The Nodding Donkeys of Cannon, and pressed submit. The thing was, I knew it was good. When a second assignment came around, I wasn’t going to begin something new. I wrote chapter two.
Only, after I’d written it, it felt more like chapter three. So, I wrote a different chapter two for the assignment. By then I had ideas for chapter four and jotted them down. Maybe they belonged in chapter five? You see where I’m going with this…
But what had made this story work? Why were these sentences uncurdled? There was only one answer: I’d stopped worrying about what other people might think and written for me. And that’s when I finally found my voice. Who knew I had the inner voice of a pissed off teenage boy?
To find your voice, you must take chances. You must try different styles, write for different ages, dip into other genres. I couldn’t foresee (as I planned those three-decade-long epic romances) that my stories and voice were going to fit middle grade and YA, that realism doesn’t work for me, but a bit of magical realism and a good dose of creepy stuff does. I had no idea that the voice for the next manuscript would be that of a sassy invisible ghost cat.
If I could start over, I’d start younger. I’d believe in myself earlier. I’d write more. I’d try every class and every course until I found what worked for me. I wouldn’t listen to that teacher. Isn’t that the advice we’d all like to give our younger selves, if we could?
Meanwhile, my sixth-grade teacher may still be crushing children’s souls, but I got back my dream to write, and I won’t lose it again. So, Mrs Bennett, screw you.