Not all my first drafts have won awards, but all my awards have been won with first drafts.
As I write this blog post a week before its due, I am forced to thinking about my propensity for uncovering last-minute gems. I have been entering prose and poem contests since I could write but, like most of us, I find my work hit and miss. It has been only recently that I have realised that the prizes I have won have been for work written sometimes only hours before the deadline.
In 2017, as an undergraduate, I won The Talus Prize for Prose. ‘Good Boy’ won for its visceral plot twist in the story of an inner-city old lady and her closely guarded pet. The win with my fast-typed horror story inspired me to enter two stories in 2019. One, titled ‘The Lake’s Collection’ which I was convinced would win, was written weeks before but didn’t even place. My second entry ‘The Hive in Carriage Three’, a post-apocalyptic story about a girl and a hive of bees was written the day before during my lunch break at work and won first prize.
My poetry prizes have likewise only been won by last-minute first draft poems. Two winning poems ‘The Stick Game’ and ‘Cherry Red Daihatsu Hatchback’ both came about in truck rest-stops the day before submissions closed.
Does the last-minute deadline strip something back from the self-consciousness of my writing? These pieces are going to be read by nameless, faceless judges that don’t know me. They have no idea formed about who I am or what I should be writing about. If it wins, then I can show it to my family, my peers, because that means it is good.
None of my prize-winning stories or poems have been read by anyone else but me before they go in to judging. In 2018 I won the South West Prize in the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition with a story about dealing with grief called ‘The Chopping Block’. I wrote and submitted the story to the competition before bringing it to a workshop in class where it was picked apart by my peers and improved over several re-writes. ‘The Chopping Block’ was published in the 2018 anthology Pigface, but it wasn’t my new polished version we produced in the university workshop it is that raw first draft that now sits in print, gently edited by the wonderful Ryan O’Neil.
This theme of my last-minute work being superior to my much-drafted work, stretches into my academic life as well. In year six my teacher accused me of plagiarism on a short story I wrote in the car on the way to school, my mother was called in and had to assure him that she watched me write it. In high school an essay I wrote during the bus ride to school on the due date was so good the teacher photocopied it, handed it out to every English student and lead a class on how I perfected the literature essay format. In both classes I worked on other projects for months pouring my heart and creative soul into them, only to be bitterly disappointed with my average marks.
University has produced the same results with my best marks always for the essays and creative works I’ve written the night before deadline, while the pieces I work on for weeks or months score less.
My ideas come in different ways. Sometimes, like a flash of noise, a phrase, or an image, sometimes a character, sometimes it’s just a title. Often, I let them percolate in my mind, for weeks or months before I get my head around the idea and where it is going. Once the story has a vivid presence in my head, I commit it to physical words. When I have a deadline, I am denied this luxury of time. The idea that springs into my mind the day or hour before grows faster, takes physical shape under my panic. It’s like a shadow on a wall. When I am far away from a deadline-wall, I can only get a fuzzy image, a blurred outline of what I could write about. But then the deadline-wall looms right in front of me and my shadow against it is clear cut and undeniable and I have to write it down before I thud straight into the wall and lose sight of the shadow story all together.
Is my deadline writing more adventurous? Less conscious? Do I feel freer when writing under constraints? Or is it my editing that kills my work? I do agonise over work if left too long, changing a tiny word here or a phrase there that really doesn’t change the work overall. Sometimes I change the entire format, chopping and changing, autopsying the body of work, and putting it back together as an entirely new creature. But is this benefitting the story? Or is this polishing the work or is it congealing, losing the rawness that spans my winning pieces?
I don’t meet all my deadlines. And there is a metric ton of anxiety and stress involved in writing last minute that I do not enjoy. The hammering of my chest, the light-headiness of adrenaline that I will never grow to love. But is that a necessary ingredient to make my stories pop? And if so, can I keep it up? History tells me I will continue to write like this, and, though I do not advocate it for everyone it clearly works on one level for me. I do long to be organised rather than panic-submitting. To find an audience for my longer thought-out pieces that never win. Can I find a way to conjure the raw diction and adventurous themes of my last-minute writing in my everyday work or do my past experiences indicate that is too ambitious an aim for a panic writer such as me?
Tiffany Hastie recently graduated with First Class Honours in a BA in Writing and Children’s Literature, receiving the Plantation Award on graduation. A two-time winner of the Talus Prize in 2017 and 2019, Tiffany’s focus on speculative fiction explores futuristic worlds and hidden private lives revealing the dark underbelly of the id. Published as a winner in the Margaret River Press anthology Pigface,Tiffany has been a featured author on stage at both the Margaret River Writer’s Festival and The Australian Short Story Festival, reading excerpts from her stories and talking about her writing process.