At the risk of repeating what everyone else is saying, I’m pretty sure most of us will be waving a hearty good riddance to 2020 at midnight tonight, booting it over the nearest horizon and hoping for a kinder 2021. A year without a new pandemic is high on my priority list, and one without bushfires would be good, too. Oh, and I’d be happy never to see an orange-faced narcissist try to subvert American democracy again. (I believe I may get my third wish.)
What a scary, strange and surreal year it’s been. This time last year we had no idea what was about to hit us. During the course of the year, my resilience has been tested and then some, but—and I hesitate to say this because here in Western Australia we’ve dodged the long lockdowns and massive loss of life of other parts of the country and globe—this year, for me, has had some nice moments. I’m healthy, my family are healthy and I’ve had the best writing year I’ve had since, well, probably ever. Covid-19 necessitated some changes to daily life and routine that proved good for my writing, and I’ll keep them going into 2021 and beyond.
Not only that, I’ve relearnt how to read exponential graphs, developed a serious respect for our premier and become a tiny bit smitten by a certain CHO (along with half the country). I’ve discovered there’s a lot to see in our own wonderful backyard, and I’ve felt the love of neighbours and communities as we bonded to help each other through this. As an added bonus, Covid gave introverts like me a legit reason to bunker down at home.
Before you read any further, I’ll issue a CW: this post contains a fair bit about Zoom along with Zoom photos, so don’t read any further if you’re completely over that medium.
Authors for Fireys
I began the year housesitting for a friend in the southwest of WA and looking after their pet dragon, Mango. Surrounded by bush and birds, two of my favourite writing muses, I wrote whenever I wasn’t reading news of the bushfires ravaging our eastern states. I was part of the Authors for Fireys auction that raised over half a million dollars for bushfire relief. My donation played only a small part but it felt good to do something. I donated a 25-page manuscript assessment, which was won by Shannon Meyerkort, and it was a joy to read her story.
Mentoring Groups and Write Nights
This year I also dipped my toes into the business side of writing. I assessed manuscripts and started mentoring writers, privately and in groups. I’m thrilled that one of my mentees has already landed an agent. (Go, Holly!)
The original plan for the mentoring groups was for monthly meetings in which we discussed the progress of our books, any issues that had arisen during the month, and did a writing exercise.
However, Covid intervened after only one meeting and, like everyone else, we shifted our meetings online. Thus, I discovered the gift of Zoom! It wasn’t quite the same as being in the same room, but there were advantages: no traffic, no braving the cold or rain, and I could dress five minutes before the meeting started.
Life before Covid feels long ago now and looking back it’s hard to believe how much and how rapidly everything changed. Until I sat to write this post, I’d forgotten the fear and anxiety of those initial days, how little we knew about the virus or what the future held.
My husband is head of respiratory medicine at a Perth hospital and was very much involved in planning for Covid. His work hours blew out, especially after thirty-three Covid patients from a German cruise ship were admitted under him in one day. (I wrote a bit about this time here.) Our son was also doing Year 12 and when his lessons went online, my attic became his classroom.
My writing was forced onto the backburner and I get antsy at the best of times when I can’t write, let alone on top of Covid, which felt so all-consuming at the time. I realised I had to claw back time to write, so I began weekly ‘Write Nights’. The sessions were, ostensibly, for my mentees but really they were as much for me as for them—a couple of hours of devoted writing time, away from any thought or talk of Covid. They were life-saving and the sessions became, I think, the best part about the mentoring groups. We concentrated on different technical skills each week and used the sessions to experiment and explore. We’d only met in-person once, but via these sessions and our writing we connected perhaps even more than we would have otherwise. (I’ll be continuing mentoring in 2021. If you’re interested, you can read more here.)
Around the same time, I took over from Rosemary Stevens as facilitator of another writing group. This was online initially, too, and then in-person once restrictions eased. (I’ll also be continuing these sessions again in 2021 and you can read more here.)
The writing from these sessions added up—I wrote over forty pieces. Some went straight in the novel; some contributed by allowing me to explore a character or backstory; and others were just for playing around or writing what was on my mind.
In April, a few friends and I formed a #6amwritersclub that’s ongoing although we’re on a holiday hiatus at the moment. We meet at 6am via Zoom each weekday, always in our PJs and with our bed hair. (Hi Jess, Holden and Rai!) With all the chaos swirling around us, these became a touchstone, something that kept my writing front and centre. Knowing I’d let my friends down if I didn’t front up forced me to get out of bed each morning. Together with the Write Nights, they were a means of chiselling writing time into my day and maintaining a routine. It didn’t matter what happened for the rest of the day, at least I had those two hours each morning. And pyjamas and ‘bed hair’ are perfect writing attire.
I managed a couple of online writing retreats, one with Varuna and another with Kathryn Heyman and Jill Dawson. They’re not quite the same as actually going to Varuna or Bali, but still nourishing for a writer’s soul.
I managed to slip in a few self-organised writing retreats, too:
– a retreat on the NSW Central Coast (pre-Covid) with friends from Varuna (Hi Morna! Hi Jacqui!)
– a week in a rustic farmhouse on the Frankland River with my friend, Jess
– a week in Busselton with my daughter—I didn’t write many words because she talks too much (I’ll blame her)
– a pre-Christmas escape to Walpole
Another thing I learnt this year: nothing beats nature and solitude for writing. Even better if there’s a river.
Things I Didn’t Do in 2020
Now for the list of things I didn’t do in 2020. I could mention the travel I didn’t do, some of which was booked and paid for, the concerts I didn’t attend, the things my kids missed out on. But, to be honest, I can cope with all of that—the time for that will come. But there was one thing I didn’t do in 2020 that I’d hoped I would:
I didn’t finish my novel.
At various times throughout the year I was convinced I was close to finishing and told people it would be done by *insert date here*. I thought I just needed to sit and bash the damn words out. But, I’ve realised, I can’t just sit and bash out words. Whenever I do that, my writing is clichéd and unoriginal and I end up binning it. (I should have realised this in 2010 when I did NaNoWriMo and although I reached the 50,000 word target, I never looked at a single word of what I wrote because it was horrendous.)
I’m the type of writer who sits and stares, writes a sentence, stares some more, deletes what they wrote, writes something else, stares again. Rinse and repeat for days, weeks, even years, on end.
I’ve wondered if I’m too critical of my own writing, too perfectionist, if I should try to become one of those fast and furious writers I’m so envious of. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt writing this second book, it’s how I write. I’ve tried but I just can’t bang out a shitty first draft. I have to edit as I go and I can only move on once I’m happy with a scene. Some scenes have taken me weeks to write, going over and over each line, filling in gaps, deleting and adding in again, writing better words, better sentences. But when I re-read those scenes now, I’m still happy with them.
Because—and this is the thing—I want to write a better book this time. Not because I don’t believe my first book was good (I do—I still like it!), and not for better sales or to make awards lists, but because I want to improve as a writer. I want to get better at this authoring gig. I want each book to be better than the last.
Because—and this is the other thing—I don’t want to write a book that doesn’t change me. Writing The Sisters’ Song changed me as a person. As I wrote, I learnt and understood things about myself, things I didn’t even realise were important at the time I wrote them, and only came to understand their significance when editing or even after the book was published. And these writing-inspired revelations changed me for the better. Understanding myself helped me understand others, made me more empathic and compassionate.
When I first finished The Sisters’ Song, I thought I’d said all I had to say. It was all there, on those pages. Strangely enough, I’ve discovered I have more to say. I feel like this is probably a whole other blog post so I won’t go on, except to say that to write a novel that changes you takes time. Hence, I’ve quit setting unrealistic deadlines and given myself one I can meet. I’m sick of letting people down and, even more than that, sick of letting myself down. So this deadline is generous, and I will make it.
I’m close to finishing this book, just don’t hold your breath. I’ll get there and I know it will be worth taking the extra time.
Looking Towards 2021
Until I wrote this post, I hadn’t realised how productive I’d been in 2020. It felt busy, but because I hadn’t achieved Goal #1: Finish my novel, it felt a bit deflating too. I can see now that I’ve actually achieved a lot.
I’ve set a few goals for 2021, one of which is to write a blog post once a month, and I’ll continue to share posts for Writers in the Attic.
So, that’s curtains for 2020. Thank you for your support throughout the year. If nothing else, I think 2020 has shown us that big challenges are easier if we do it together.
Happy New Year and wishing us all a softer 2021.