A tribute to the joy of going somewhere far away to write and little else.
I’ve been writing my book, Kiss Underwater, for over a year with varied interruptions including my consultancy business, travel, family, friends, life etcetera and was chomping at the bit to sit down and see where it was all going. October and early November were a write off with over a month of back to back events including the Australian Print Triennial, Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show and co facilitating the Willandra Lakes Area World Heritage Elders Council election as well as Indi’s graduation and Ben and Councillors Cupper’s joyous wedding the night before I left.
Locking down for 2 weeks of solid writing was everything I imagined multiplied by ten.
I needed to throw a decent slab of dedicated time towards finishing the story so I could get on with editing, proofing, fact checking and then giving it to a couple of trusted friends to read, then an editor friend and then maybe, just maybe, a publisher. It would be a beautiful thing to hold a book I had written in my hands but on that note, as my lead character is also a song writer and there are so many references to sound, I would love to produce an e book that includes all songs and sounds – but that is much further down the track.
A long, winding and wonderful road but first I needed to get this story finished.
HOW I GOT THE STONE COTTAGE
Q. Can I do this in my usual writing space? It was difficult to work in my usual gallery studio space as I had been taking care of marketing on a major project with the director and staff and the place where I had previously been so creative, became meshed with paid work and for a while was not conducive to finishing my book. Q. Can I do this at home? After 18 years of living in the same house and developing habits of interacting with my space, I was easily distracted by the cobwebs, the vacuum cleaner, the piano, the lawn needing mowing – not to mention easy access to friends and events.
I had been inspired by Amanda Palmers’ Ted talk and book, The Art of Asking, so a year ago I put out to my world that I was giving this my best shot and asked for support. It was a really tough ask as I was a thank-you-very-much-I’ll- do-it-myself-big-tough-independent kind of gal and showing the vulnerability required of asking for help had me shaking in my shoes. (I could go on about why, needless to say, it’s essentially about control and giving it up when it’s not needed.) So I was blown away, humbled, moved to tears (still am) by the outpouring of love, support, generosity that came my way. You can read a bit about it here: http://helenhealy.com/sweet-surrender.
Some people signed on to be Patreon supporters and others gave practical things like money, a lawn mower, coffees, meals, discounts on services and access to a stone cottage on the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia. So thanks to a generous supporter (oh how I love them all), I have discovered the joy of tucking myself away in a tired little fishing village in a stone cottage with the bare essentials and no objective other than to finish my book.
LET’S DO THIS
There was nothing to do but write. Although two blocks from the beach it was windy and quite cool the whole time I was there and the only day that was very hot was accompanied by 30 – 40kph gusts of wind. But inside the stone cottage I had the ugg boots, tracky daks and cups of tea variety of writing temperature. So the beach was for evening walks and chatting with fisherman on the jetty who, as I got to know them, often gave me a garfish or squid as we talked about recipes and too much water being in the sea on days when they did not catch much.
I kept my phone off but checked it every couple of hours for work emails, missed calls, texts and social media for a few minutes. A couple of times I had to throw and hour or so into pressing commitments but mostly I had organised my life to wind down to a focus on writing. I didn’t talk to many people apart from my son who was buying an apartment with his girlfriend, my daughter who was in countdown mode for her magazine launch and my Mum who is old and loves a daily chat with me. I spoke once or twice with a few important friends. Two who are writers with whom I shared the joy and caught up on community news including the funerals of two larger than life people we had lost. Also a joyous call from my dear friend who had wonderful and well deserved news that her father’s estate has been finalised and she now has funds to make her life, once so hard (I could fill a novel with that one) so much easier including buying a house. I also returned a call to my son because he heard that a 56 year old woman had died in South Australian fires. He knew it wasn’t me and that the fires were across the gulf, but he thought of me and called. When I returned to Adelaide and saw the smoke haze in the distance I said a little prayer for the woman’s family and all who had lost something, but more importantly, someone, in those fires.
WHERE AM I?
On the first day, I was exhausted after 6 weeks without a day off and focused on getting set up. The nearest supermarket was 11 km away and I explored the local area on the way. It was the Mallee meets the sea with harvest ready wheat crops and the biggest silos I’d ever seen backdropped by the Gulf St Vincent. There are over 200 salt lakes on the Peninsula and in times gone by Edithburgh was the departure point for South Australia’s salt.
I rearranged some furniture to set up a work space, stocked the fridge, made the bed and settled in. I had printed out the 40,000 words written so far and spent the first evening reading and making notes and getting to know my characters again. I averaged about 3000 words a day and decided to just keep going regardless of the quality of writing, I just wanted to get the story out. Most days I put in at least 8 hours and some days spent up to 10 hours writing. I was on fire and sometimes would be astounded at how many hours had gone by. I would get up at intervals and stretch in the long cool corridor, explore the fridge , go to the toilet, walk around the backyard and then back to it.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WORLD
After about 3 days I was living and breathing the story, I’d be walking and suddenly say ‘Yes, that’s the word I’m looking for’ or a beautiful grouping of words would pop into my head or I would stumble upon a perfect way to resolve a situation and develop a character. I even dreamt about the story and in the mornings it would fill my head upon waking. The world around me found its way to stimulate ideas – books I read, voices I heard in shops, discussions with people, newspaper articles, a song I played when cooking. It was as though my world had narrowed to a funnel pouring into my story.
SWAPPING RECIPES AND STEALING BEAUTY
After the discussion with the fisherman about cooking squid and using the black ink, my character walks to the nearby jetty in Malta and buys fish to cook for his friend; I read a story in a newspaper about Patrick Whites’ love of music with beautiful descriptions of rapture and soon after had two cheeky lovers sneaking into a church to listen to an organist play Bach; I went back and rewrote some passages regarding a toxic relationship after watching Sara Henderson’s ABC domestic violence special Hitting Home; in the latest edition of Victoria Writer magazine there was story about a candle maker that inspired me to introduce the lighting and blowing out of a candle to bookend the revealing of terrible family secrets; one night I went to the local pub and saw some live music and struck by the vigor of an elderly couple dancing, introduced a similar couple to a pub scene in London, I read Toni Morrison’s Sula and reviewed a section on who is bad and who is good and who is judging.
ON GETTING STUCK
‘Walk away and do something you love then come back’ said my friend and illustrator Ann Spudivilas. I would have thought that just walking away and doing ‘something else’ was enough. Like watching an afternoon movie or Ellen – I had never seen Ellen, in fact I’d never watched afternoon TV. But it was the ‘something you love’ part of her advice that led me in the right direction whenever the muse totally left the room.
I would read a book or go for a walk on the beach, or cook some food or sort glass. I had discovered a cove that was a former town rubbish dump (!!) and collected coloured sea glass for a friend who makes murals. I had spread them out on a table and would mindlessly, Zen like, sort them into shapes, into colours and sizes.
An hour here or there that’s all it took. If it still wasn’t happening when I arrived back at my desk, I would read my research documents or just sit and read a few chapters except the one I was stuck on. And if all that failed I would not give up, I would find ways to still be working on the book.
For instance I often found myself trying to find all instances where a character appeared or, as the work jumps around in time I was getting confused, not knowing what year or month it was etc. So on the day when I had a shocking headache that heralded an oncoming cold – I spent the next day sneezing and filled a shopping bag with snooty tissues but never stopped working – I developed a table ‘Kiss underwater – chapter breakdown’ with these headings:
Chapter/Word Count/Date/Location/Feature/ Key points /Stuff to fix
This was a little like sorting stones but a total game changer in understanding my story, characters and discovering holes. (PS I have since discovered Scrivener)
THE HIP BONE’S CONNECTED
My aim was 70,000 words. I got to 72,000 and I imagine that through the editing and beautification process, it will most likely end up between 80,000 and 100,000 words. I once had the bare bones of a story but now there is meat and muscle and some magic happening. The story now has the genetic material that gives it life, the deeper story that starts to make sense and give it colour and some individuality. Then there are the connections, nerve like, that throw people together and tear them apart, that make these bones ache with desire, rage with despair or settle into an unfamiliar calm. My aim is to one day give this story a pair of boots and tell it to start walking.
On the final day after putting in a few hours work finishing off what I’d started, I drove to Sultana Point and walked in the wind with an empty head. Everything had slowed down and I didn’t rush as I packed my things and cleaned the stone cottage. The last thing I did was pdf the word document and drop it into Natural Reader Pro. On the three hour drive into Adelaide I recorded ideas (voice memo on my iphone) and after seeing my daughter drove a further 5 hours home to Mildura. Once I got out of traffic, up the mountains and on the stretch to Murray Bridge, I pressed play on Natural Reader Pro and a voice read everything I had written over the past two weeks. Listening I could detect editing challenges in the timeline, characters and plot but was also at times was blown away by how much of it sounded half good. At least with the story completed I can now go back and fix issues, add ideas, make the language more beautiful, fact check etc.
THE MEANING OF HAPPINESS
As I drove away, taking the road less travelled, I was overcome with a deep sense of happiness and got a little teary. Not the yeehah, high fiving, break open the champagne variety of happiness – it was about feeling this is right. I have done well. I have overcome the fear. I am where I should be. and even more importantly that there is no ego about it. I don’t need validation and it’s not about the future of this book. This happiness came from an enormously fulfilled core of gratitude that I could even go away for 2 weeks to just write and finish the first stage of my book.
A friend who works as hard as I used to, said I was lucky when he heard I was going away for 2 weeks to write. As though it had all happened by chance and that luck had delivered this opportunity. I was surprised how I felt about his comment. I have made my own luck by living simply, planning well, showing my vulnerability and having a sharp focus on making things important to me happen. I am constantly in awe of how this focus, intent, dedication, (whatever it’s called), delivers the goods. I have got out of my own way, I roll with the punches, go with the flow and most importantly, am willing to work hard, give up stuff I don’t need and ask for help to make it happen. And if it doesn’t happen quite the way I intended, I strap myself in for another adventure because I am ready, willing and able whenever opportunity comes a’ knocking.
SHARING THE LOVE
The Yorke Peninsula Stone Cottage ‘Gert by Sea’ is available for a reasonable rent and is utterly conducive to locking your self away and getting shit done. It’s so quiet that I discovered I actually have a mild case of tinnitus! The walls are about 30cms thick the bedroom curtains render it dark in the middle of the day – good for those mornings after nights when you’ve slugged away until the wee hours. You need to take your own sheets, pillow cases and towels, there’s a few essentials in the cupboards and the kitchen is really well equipped. The beach and a fabulous sea pool is a few minutes walk as is the Glass Beach. Let me know if you are interested. I know Ill be going back.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life” Mary Oliver.
I invite you to join my mailing list to receive intermittent tidbits, chapter previews, exciting developments and one day, maybe one day, an email out of the blue telling how you can get a copy of your own. Now wouldn’t that be fun!