photograph of an old manuscript

- February 2006 -

Writing has always been a tricky business, and many successful writers have set down their advice to those just starting out.

Thomas Keneally urges beginners to be calm about who they are and to have courage, while Colette advised looking long and hard at the things that pain and please, paying particular attention to the pain. Hemingway left enough thoughts on writing to make a book, ( Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), while Stephen King has published his insights in On Writing .

For my money the most astute observation on writing that I know of comes from Jean Rhys, who insisted that every problem could be resolved by cutting. To read her spare yet vivid prose is to be converted to her point of view, and luckily the computer is the perfect tool for painless cutting; unlike taking an eraser to handwritten pencilled prose, cutting and pasting takes the angst out of 'killing off the pretty babies'.

Although I work best on a laptop, I have long suspected that people who laboriously produce a first draft in longhand are somehow the real writers. But lately I read an interview with Kate Atkinson ( Mslexia, Issue 27) and immediately felt better. Kate was trained to type and thinks effortlessly on a keyboard, as I do; she rewrites as she goes, which means that the work proceeds slowly and there is never a first 'draft'. Mornings are best, she said, a time most writers seem to favour, except for certain exceptional beings like the fine Canadian author Ann Michaels whose first novel, Fugitive Pieces, grew in the dark between midnight and 4 am each night while her family slept.

The interview with Kate Atkinson also reassured me that a reluctance to seek feedback on work in progress is neither dumb nor unusual. Like me, she believes that the opinions of others at a formative stage can be destructive. In Writers on Writing, (Penguin Books Australia 2002) Hilary Mantel urges writers to maintain their self-belief and resist the desire to solicit approval from anyone who comes along. Reading this, I breathed another sigh of relief: for a long time now I have avoided asking friends or family to read work in progress, sharing Mantel's view that that it is better to toil on patiently and alone until the writing is ready to show.

And now at last, after three years of mostly solitary work, my novel is ready to be sent out to those who matter in the world of publishing. It is a more complex work than I imagined when I started, but I hope that I have followed the advice of Colette and Keneally and especially of the severe Ms Rhys. It was her voice that I had in mind when I found the courage to cut a number of my favourite scenes. They live on in the short story Flying Towards Thankfulness, but for the remaining words, only time will reveal their fate.