I was born in Sydney. My parents moved us to Adelaide before I could walk. Our east-coast roots meant that despite growing up in an Aussie Rules town, I was raised on a steady diet of rugby. When I started school, a kid in a Crows scarf was asked which team I barracked for. “The Wallabies,” I replied. It took me a while to live that down.
Now I experience the same feeling when I say I’m a writer.
Some people nod and smile queasily, as if they’re worried I’m going to jam them in a corner and bang on about Tolstoy for an hour. Even worse are those that launch into some version of: “Oh, you’re a writer? How many books have you had published? I haven’t seen anything with your name on it at Big W. Do you write the same sort of stuff as Dan Brown? I’m not much of a reader but I loved the Da Vinci Code.” Etc etc.
And really, that’s fair enough. I embark on similarly inane patter when I’m introduced to, say, a truck driver, or a tax accountant, fields of human endeavour about which I know almost nothing.
The difference with writing is that in addition to no one really understanding what you do, there is often little evidence that you’re making any progress at all. It’s positively Sisyphean when you’re starting out. There is an idea that one day someone might publish a book you’ve written. But for a new writer, that’s like hearing a rumour about a lost city full of treasure: it’s nice to think about, but it can’t sustain you. And in the meantime, there isn’t much validation. A steady stream of submissions of short pieces might yield the occasional acceptance. Depending on your outlook, that might offset all of the rejections, or it might not. But while you wait, and write, and submit, and wait, you’ll have conversations like this with your family members:
“When will your book come out?”
“I haven’t found a publisher yet.”
“Why not? You write beautifully.”
“Yes, well, thank you, but there are lots of good writers out there. And they all have work they’re trying to find a home for.”
“You’ve written two things now. They should publish one of them, at least.”
“They’re idiots if they don’t publish you.”
“…Excuse me, I’d better check on the rugby score.”
There’s lots of advice out there about needing to love the work itself. Not worrying about outcome. And if you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said that was a load of dingo’s kidneys. But now I’ve changed my mind. I’ve written more, and more consistently. I’ve had a few successes, and success feels great, but it’s fleeting. And when the feeling departs, all that’s left is the work, and the grind.
So now I think: writing is like barracking for the current Australian rugby union team. You must possess deep reserves of patience. You need to gird yourself for frustration and disappointment (even disgust: hi, Izzy!) You’ve got to love the moments of engagement, of fruitless struggle, in order to cope with the long, dark times when nothing good happens.
It helps to have a few others in gold jerseys nearby when you’re watching the national team get demolished, again, by the All-Blacks. And so too with writing: if you can find peers who get it, who share the same insecurities and dreams, that’s huge a comfort. Last week, Alec Patric and Ryan O’Neill talked about how important this is, given how alienating the practice of writing can be.
The best I’ve felt about my own work was during a residency I undertook recently. I used that time to write a 10,000 word story that I’m really happy with. This is a story that might never be published—there aren’t too many Australian outlets (any?) that will consider piece of that length. No one else but me has even read it. But, perhaps for the first time, I really don’t care. I’m proud of what I’ve created, and I had a great time doing it.
I still have days where the writing gets me down. I get a rejection (in fact, I got one last night that really stung!) Or I feel like I’m stuck on a treadmill. I still want success, outcomes, praise. I still get frustrated when nothing happens.
But I’m getting better.
This is my last post for now as a guest blogger on this site, I’d like to thank everyone at Margaret River Press for the opportunity. Winning the MRP short story competition and having my story published as part of the Pigface & Other Stories anthology has been a fantastic ride, and it isn’t over yet! From June 1 to 3 I will be at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival. If you’re attending, please come and say hello, and if you’d like to share your thoughts on anything I’ve written over the last few weeks, you can find me on twitter or here.
Andrew Roff is a writer based in Adelaide. His work has appeared in Overland and Antithesis Journal, among others, and his first novel was shortlisted for the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award at the 2016 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. In March 2018 he undertook a residential fellowship at Varuna House to work on a short story collection. He tweets at @roffwrites and you can read more of his work at www.roffwrites.com.