I’m thrilled to have Rebecca Higgie, début novelist and winner of the 2019 Fogarty Literary Award, join me in the attic today. Oh gosh, I can’t tell you how much I related to her post. As I read, I was reminded of the years I wrote in secret, and of the many times other writers have told me of their own secret writing.
This piece is about more than that, too – it illustrates how perseverance, hard work and determination can pay off in the end.
Rebecca is a writer from Perth. Her whole life has been spent in the company of books, with careers in libraries and universities. Formerly an academic at Curtin University and Brunel University London, she has published research on satire and politics. She has worked in the stacks of the State Library of Western Australia and fostered childhood literacy as the Library Officer at Guildford Primary, WA’s oldest public school. Her creative work combines whimsy and play with extensive research and critical insights. Her novel The History of Mischief won the 2019 Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.
You can learn more about Rebecca from her website, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and buy a copy of her book, The History of Mischief, from Fremantle Press here.
Writing in Secret
For over a decade, I had a secret. That secret was a book.
As a child, my existence was understood through stories, those I read and those I told myself. Stories helped me narrate the things that happened to me; they helped me imagine the future. I would even tell myself particular stories to help me sleep.
When I was nine, my family rented a desktop computer. I suddenly found somewhere to deposit my stories. Borrowing a floppy disk, I punched away at the keyboard whenever I could. While I was very protective of my stories, only sharing them with a select few, I was something of a loud writer. Everyone knew I wrote. I churned out story after story, book after book, and felt proud.
As a teen though, I came to a realisation: I was a bad writer. This was confirmed at university, where my creative writing marks were pretty average. I was much better at theory and research, and went into the fields of cultural studies and politics. I wrote a PhD on satire and loved it.
But the stories kept going in my head, ones that blossomed from the whimsy of my research, others from the places I went and the people I met.
So what does a writer do when they’re a bad writer? What do they do when they’ve done the courses and found themselves wanting? They hide in the attic. They write in secret.
Aside from a few friends, no one knew I was writing The History of Mischief. Whenever I told someone about it, smirks would appear. I shared parts of it early on, but inevitably the feedback I received served to remind me that I wasn’t good at this creative writing thing. I tried to write while doing my PhD and teaching, but the knowledge that I was a bad writer made me stall.
Write in secret, abandon it, write in secret, abandon it. For years and years and years.
While doing postdoctoral research in London, an academic dream come true, I felt distraught that this novel was still with me. I had been writing for almost a decade, and hardly had anything to show for it. I had a choice to make: abandon it for good or do everything I could to finish it. I decided on the latter, leaving academia and finding a part-time job running a school library. The job appealed to me for many reasons, one of which was that it was in Guildford (WA), the main setting of my book.
Working in the place where my book was set, with more time to write, I now needed to be accountable. In the past when I’d abandoned the book, no one knew. As safe as it was to write in secret, it also meant I was accountable only to myself. And I clearly couldn’t be trusted.
Through setting up a deadline club with some friends, and with my husband’s enthusiastic support, I started to write, properly this time. While I still kept it largely secret, I became a loud writer again to those who knew. My deadlines were pinned to the wall, I talked to my writing friends often, and the phrase “I just need to finish the book” was uttered more than any other in my house.
Some colleagues knew I was writing but I was extremely shy and would deflect any mention of it. If someone brought it up, I felt embarrassed. Yes, I’m writing a book. No, I don’t think I’m the next J.K. Rowling. I sent chapters out for mentoring and publishing competitions, hoping to improve my work. I hoped also for a shot at publication, but knew it wasn’t likely. I thought The History of Mischief would be a story I told only to myself, much like the many tales I invented as a child.
My book went on to win the Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Suddenly, it wasn’t secret anymore. Overnight, I was welcomed into the local writing community, one I had avoided out of my embarrassment at being a bad writer. I discovered writers who were not yet published, those who proudly talked of their Work-In-Progress and were fully engaged in the community. I was in awe of these brave folk. It was heartening to see how they were cheered on by more established writers.
That being said, I think being a shy writer, hiding in the attic, helped me. I could tell the story I needed to tell without any fear of being labelled ‘the bad writer’.
Writing isn’t a secret anymore. I still feel shy, but I’m okay claiming the title of ‘writer’. My status as a ‘bad writer’ is up to the reader, but being out of the attic feels good. All my stories, the ones I tell myself, the ones I still use to narrate my world: they, however, remain secret.
Rebecca has donated a copy of her book, The History of Mischief, to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on the blog or any of my social media posts about Rebecca’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 10th September, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.
I love your persistence Rebecca. Or should I say the persistence of your book? Your story offers me hope and encouragement.
Lucky for us they both persisted! Thank you for reading and commenting, Leona. 🙂
This post buoys me in so many ways: ‘10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration,’ my Dad used to say. Here’s proof!! Heart felt congratulations!!!
Definitely proof of perspiration and perseverance! Thanks for reading, Carol. 🙂
Thanks Louise and Rebecca, what an encouraging post for those of us who write in secret (or, if not in secret, with our dreams and hopes for our work tucked away safely). I love the title of Rebecca’s book; I’m always fascinated by book titles and I think it’s a spark of genius to get it just right.
I love the title of this book, too! And, yes, so many of us toil away with secret hopes and dreams. Good luck with yours. 🙂
Oh boy, this hits me in the feels. Even after several years of sending my writing out into the world, I still have to fight against a sense of shame when writing drafts of stories – that embarrassment of being a ‘bad writer’. I think we’re all bad writers, or at least imperfect writers, and it’s only through bloody hard work that we get our prose into shape! (of course there are likely some freak geniuses who write well first go but thankfully I don’t know any!)
Congratulations Rebecca on The History of Mischief! And thanks so much for this post.
Thank you Louise for hosting! x
Firstly, congratulations on your win last week and on your book deal! You are the embodiment of this post, too—one who’s persevered and worked hard and it’s paid off!
Secondly, I loved: ‘it’s only through bloody hard work that we get our prose into shape’. So true! My early drafts are barely even fit for my own eyes to read, let alone anyone else’s! Sometimes a scene comes almost whole and doesn’t require much editing, but never two scenes in a row, and definitely not a whole book. All good writing is rewriting, and I don’t know if there are any freak geniuses out there—I don’t want to meet them if there are! 😉
I can totally relate to this Rebecca – for years I was simply a blogger, prolific, mildly successful, but a blogger. I wanted to be an author (still do) and the early hours spent hiding in my attic, bashing away at stories that inspired me were kept hidden, while all the other words I wrote publicly always felt so boring and impersonal. Your story gives me hope because it shows that we are never as terrible as we fear, that stories will eventually burst forth (no matter how long they take to marinate) and that yes – the WA writing community is one of the best!
So glad Rebecca’s story gave you hope, Shannon. You’re right: we’re never as terrible as we think. Keep plugging away—all writing is rewriting! 🙂
Thanks for introducing us to Rebecca, Louise! What an inspirational interview. We all have that secret little spot inside our writers mind, where we exist on the pendulum of despair and hope 🙂 Reading we are not alone in this journey always brings a brighter outlook to our day. Cheers, Jodie
I love, ‘pendulum of despair and hope’—so true! Don’t we, and not just before publication! And knowing you’re not alone is always comforting. 🙂
Sounds like her persistence paid off 😊.
Definitely! Thanks for reading, Kate. 🙂
I loved reading this! It also reminds me of myself and what i’m going through! Thanks for sharing.
Yes, it’s a very similar story! I think we all keep these very personal things private, until we have the confidence to show the world! 🙂
This was such a beautiful post! So relatable! The idea that there is shame in being creative is one that I’ve often felt, having to always proclaim an academic path or a plan A, where writing always takes the backseat. What an inspiration, and a writer to look forward to seeing more work from! I’ve just bought my copy of History of Mischief and can’t wait to read it!!
I’m glad you bought a copy of Rebecca’s book—that’s lovely to hear!
It’s hard to telling you write because it’s so personal. I kept my writing secret, not so much out of shame as embarrassment because I had no idea if I was good at it and thought everyone would laugh at the thought of me as a writer. But, I loved writing—it was such fun and I’d never felt so good. I think the love wins ultimately! 🙂
It is always so great to hear that other writers, successful writers, have shared a path similar to your own. It seeds hope that all is not lost with one’s own manuscript and reinforces the changes we need to make, the comfort zones we need to push through to get the stories we carry around with us for years, out into the world. I can’t wait to read this book. I have had my eye on it for a while, firstly because I love Guildford and secondly because I love mischief.
LOL! Don’t we all love mischief! 😉
You mention ‘comfort zones’, which is so relevant. Our brains love habit and it’s hard to learn something new. And good on us when we do! x
It was a lovely post.
Glad you liked it. 🙂
Well, this looked interesting, and I was hooked when I clicked on this post, I actually hadn’t read a post on your blog for a while to be honest so that’s a good thing! I’m the same, sometimes I feel I don’t “have” a story, even though I have blogged since 2015 and started my own novel. I think I will be buying this book when I get a chance (to support), or borrowing from the library if possible…..
Nice to hear from you, Emmalisa! I relate to your feeling that you don’t have a story worth telling—we all feel it, no matter what stage of the writing journey we’re at. I hope you tell it despite these feelings! And, yes, The History of Mischief sounds wonderful! 🙂
It certainly pays to persist! Thank you for sharing your story, Rebecca. While I do talk about my works in progress with family and friends, I do still feel a little embarrassed when I say that I’m a writer!
Thanks for reading and commenting, Lauren. Calling yourself a writer feels a little strange at first, but you do get used to it. Good luck to you. 🙂