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 Her novel The History of Mischief won the 2019 Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.
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.