I recently discovered my high school yearbook. In it, I found my eighteen-year-old self’s life goals: to become a paediatrician, to marry a Spaniard (I was madly in love with Antonio Banderas at the time) and to pen a novel. They were tongue-in-cheek aspirations. Some were more so than others. At the time, I was applying for medicine at university, and the first goal seemed realistic. The fact that I had applied for universities in Australia rather than Europe significantly reduced my chances of crossing paths with a Spaniard, but it was not completely impossible. It was the third goal, penning a novel, which always seemed the most ridiculous to me—even back in 1997, as an idealistic adolescent.
Writing was a big part of my high school life. Poetry mainly. The school published an annual writing magazine, and I prided myself on having a few of my poems featured in it. During the summer holidays when I wasn’t reading, I was writing poems or starting an epic novel. Like my sequel to Gone With The Wind with Scarlett O’Hara’s mixed race granddaughter as the protagonist. (My mum—bless her—still keeps this half-finished manuscript in a picnic basket she affectionately calls her “treasure box.”)
Once I started university, there was little time for writing. The focus was on parties and travelling and passing exams. I was so busy and hungover; I hardly missed it. But then I graduated and started working as a junior doctor in a public hospital. I watched people die as their loved ones wept and prayed at their bedsides. I helped shackle demented patients to their beds so they wouldn’t pull out the drips delivering their life-saving antibiotics. I cared for babies who were bleeding into their eyes and brains because one of their sleep-deprived parents had violently shaken them. Some days I could hardly bear it. Finally, while doing volunteer medical work in Cambodia, it struck me that the only way to process the injustice and the pain was to write about it, which I did. When an editor from the Medical Journal of Australia called to say they loved the piece I had written about Cambodia, I immediately knew that I wanted to write, and not just as a hobby, but seriously. I wanted to make a career of it. I wanted to be a published author.
That was more than ten years ago. Since then I’ve been writing intermittently but consistently. I’ve had some success but many more rejections. Until last year I had never won a writing prize. But I kept competing—with myself more than anyone—propelled by a belief that next time I could and would write something better.
My hopes were not high when I entered the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript last year. I looked at previous winners—authors like Jane Harper and Maxine Beneba-Clarke and Graeme Simsion and felt immediately intimidated. But I had a collection of stories that was almost-but-not-quite the length of a book, and I was sick of looking at them, so I threw my hat into the ring. As the date of the announcement neared, my email inbox remained empty. I took this to be a bad sign. In my experience with other prizes, shortlisted authors were informed well in advance of announcements—there were bios and photos that needed to be arranged. But then one afternoon as I was driving my two children to a play date, I received a call from an unidentified number. When the person at the end of the line introduced themselves as Amita from the Wheeler Centre, I pulled over, my hands shaking on the steering wheel. My children, with their animal-like sensibilities, were unusually quiet.
Had I known, back then, just how many opportunities such a shortlisting would bring, I would have been even more nervous. As it was, I had no idea. Within days of the shortlist being announced, I was receiving emails from publishers and agents. It was wonderful and disorienting and terrifying all at once. After years of endless submissions and empty inboxes, people were approaching me and asked to read my work. The pressure was enormous. Every so often I felt a creep of self-doubt and the beginnings of imposter syndrome, but fortunately, I was so distracted that it never really took hold. I thank my children for this. They are masters of distraction.
It’s been a tumultuous ride since then. Only recently, since completing the final edit of the book, have I had some space to reflect on my eighteen-year-old self’s life goals. I didn’t become a paediatrician; I became a GP. My husband isn’t Spanish; he’s Lebanese. I haven’t penned a novel, I’ve written a short story collection. Things may not have turned out exactly as my teenage self-envisaged, but the passions that drove me back at school are the same passions that drive me now, and it’s been a more gruelling and crazy and exhilarating experience than I ever imagined it could be.
Melanie_Cheng is a writer of fiction and non-fiction from Melbourne. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Overland, Sleepers Almanac and Seizure, among other publications, and her story, ‘White Sparrow’, was published in Shibboleth and other stories, published by Margaret River Press. In 2016 she won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript for her collection of short fiction, Australia Day, to be published in 2017 by Text Publishing.