Alumni Feature August 2013

The Anatomy of Effort

By Diana Jenkins

Lately I’ve been thinking about how hard writers work – in particular how hard and for how long so many of us must work without any success at all to sustain us. It’s a pleasurable sort of pain – writers set the gold standard in masochism – but in my experience it’s neither leisurely nor lofty. There’s too much struggle involved for that. Too much terror.

To better illustrate my sense that writers mostly work like dogs, I’m going to describe my computer’s desktop and the content of some of its folders. When I sit back and dispassionately appraise the current state of my desktop, I’m astonished to realise how closely it resembles a physical, literal ancestor – the surface of a well-used work desk – look how messy it is! Look at that greasy screen! And what’s that sticky...oh, biscuit crumbs lodged between the keys...Is that a coffee mark? Probably. And look how crowded it is with folders...I’m stunned by the amount of work I’ve done on this device alone (my last died a worthy, heroic death after surviving the doctorate). If only success were determined by one’s ability to compulsively spew words – I’d be a household name by now! Alas. Still an ass.

The laptop I’m writing on now – a MacBook Air – was an early birthday gift from my husband in 2008, purchased in time for my very first Varuna residency (ahhh... such happy memories). Two months shy of its 5th birthday, it’s showing alarming signs of wanting to flatline – of really, really wanting the end to come – but I’m in denial. I’m hopelessly sentimental about everything we’ve been through together, for a start, but I also resent the living shit out of its (pre-programmed?) desire to self-destruct when it’s only ever been used as a glorified typewriter. Besides which, it was expensive and I can’t afford a new one.

So. Let’s take a closer look while we still can. Oh yes, here’s a good one: the folder named for my only “finished” fiction manuscript, currently abandoned. It’s got 97 items in it. There’s the 2008 version. 2009. 2010. There’s landfill documents aplenty, full of things I’ve cut and dumped, dating from 2008 as well. There’s a good deal of documents with ‘new’ in the title:, newbeginnings.doc, newstart.doc, new.20000.doc – can’t you feel the optimism and energy draining from this manuscript with my every attempt to resuscitate it? I started naming versions in line with my next birthday, always aiming to give myself a strict deadline for the next draft’s completion. Here’s 37.doc,, 38.doc and my personal favourite: 39.falsestart.doc.

I turn 41 in September. Sigh.

There are over 15 drafts of the synopsis and a number of versions of a cover letter ambitiously dispatched to two Sydney-based literary agents. They passed.

I had a baby in November 2010 and haven’t touched this particular project since. Since this little excursion down memory lane hasn’t caused me to fall to my knees and weep (not today, anyway), we may deduce that I now have enough distance to be more fascinated than distressed by this graveyard of the soul.

Charlie Brown It’s just interesting, don’t you think, to look at all this toil – and to consider the toll. You must have your own projects like this, most writers do – so I hope you’ll join me in stopping for a moment to truly apprehend your own industry, all your robust attempts to get a single story right. It requires so much work, so much diligence. You probably don’t hear this often enough, so let me say WELL DONE YOU. I respect everything you’re trying to do. I’m trying to do it too, believe me I am, but so far I haven’t quite managed it...Despite 97 items in the folder, I’m yet to crack the proper telling of this one, small tale. It’s upsetting, failing to deliver, but no one could ever accuse me of failing to try.

research Let’s take a peek into my freelance folder. That’s where I keep all the stories I’ve written for cold, hard cash. It’s got 131 items in it. Stories on everything from European art galleries to Canberra’s Floriade Festival. Indigenous health. Travelling in Papua New Guinea. One Word doc is called brains.doc – que?! Ah yes, ‘The Brains Behind the Breakthroughs,’ a 2011 special report on advances in medical research.

The folder reveals quite an eclectic portfolio. Casting today’s rather jaundiced eye down this varied collection of articles, stories that have largely run in the national press, I realise I’m quietly proud of my professional writing. I just wish there were more of it.

And look, here’s a folder jauntily entitled ‘New Writing’ – I can’t get away from making these bold claims, can I? I’m guilty of so much over-promising and under-delivering on this desktop, I really am. Take a look at this Word doc in the New Writing folder: enticingly called ‘Art Crush’ (I’d pick up a novel called Art Crush, wouldn’t you?!), I’m fairly certain we’ll find it wanting. Opening, opening, and’s...oh wow, it’s even worse than I thought! It’s blank. No, really: entirely blank. Which is odd. I could have sworn I started that one. I must have just hit upon the title and saved it, worried I’d forget about it later. Which is fine, except I neglected to write a single word after that. Genius.

Jakarta There’s a document in the ‘New Writing’ folder that really ought to be moved to a ‘Bad Writing’ folder. In my profound and misguided egotism, I don’t have one of those yet. The document in question is an aborted group writing exercise, spawned during an outrageously boozy 2009 press junket in Jakarta.

Some ideas should never leave the hotel bar. The project abruptly fell apart when one of my fellow imbibers bravely sent her 1,000 words to add to mine and the other participating journo’s. It was all licking and thrusting, biting and bucking – suddenly the main character’s arch flirtation with an old flame exploded into raunchy and explicit fucking... I nearly died. I know I’m a total prude, but I was so embarrassed I called off the whole thing. Which is my loss. Clearly.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a few signs of life in the New Writing folder. One is a short story I wrote in 2010. I submitted it for consideration in a respected anthology and received a very lovely note in response. The story came very close, but in the end it wasn’t selected because (and I’ll never forget this phrase) it just ‘didn’t suit the emerging shape of the collection.’ The shape of the collection, the shape of the edition: since that 2010 submission, several short stories of mine have been rejected in practically identical terms.

coyote Which leads me to wonder: what shape does all the years of effort finally take? What shape does my writing have that it continually fails to fit the competitions, journals and anthologies I persist in submitting it to? It makes me feel like Wile. E. Coyote, running into the side of yet another canyon in his doomed pursuit of the Roadrunner.

I ask myself often – probably with unhealthy frequency – if my writing is just plain bad, but I’m not sure editors would bother sending lovely notes of encouragement if that were the case. At least, I doubt it’s always the case. The unbroken stream of rejection aside, I’ve written two stories – definitely two in amongst the many – that I regard as publishable. Deep down, where all the doubt usually lives, I believe they make the grade, even though I haven’t found anyone who’ll publish them.


drawingboard The problem – well, one of the problems – is that personally I think one fails to learn as much as one otherwise might through these instances of only having ‘the wrong shape.’ It’s like shopping for clothes, or worse: swimming costumes. You know the instant the cut isn’t right, you can see it’s unflattering, feel that it’s pinching or that the fabric is a terrible colour on you, but the exact same costume may be perfectly suited to somebody else’s body type and skin tone. The manufacturer shouldn’t necessarily discontinue a line just because it does nothing for a particular customer. It would be better if the costume were poorly made and simply fell apart on the first wear: then the correction would be clear. In some ways, being told you’ve done a good job but you’re still not getting published is worse than being told that your story sucks. I’ve had both experiences, and I definitely learn more when the criticisms are clear and the work’s many faults bluntly articulated. It’s not flattering, and it’s no fun, but at least the next steps are clear.

Along with countless others, I submitted one of my two short stories to a well-known national competition earlier in the year, using the closing date as my deadline for completion. As happens every year with this award, the winner was announced four months later, and the judges declined to say a single word about the rest of the field. I can deduce from available facts that the anatomy of my story sadly didn’t pair with the anatomy of their award, the two beasts did not come together and make sweet, sweet love, but... that’s about all I know. I always read the winning entry – out of interest but also out of a sincere effort to educate myself about my story’s shortcomings, so that I might improve – but hungrily reading someone else’s short fiction for clues about one’s own is an exercise in futility. It feels much better reading and enjoying other people’s writing for its own sake – and I suspect removing one’s own efforts from the picture is needed if ever there’s to be sufficient space to learn.

surrender Which brings me back to the overcrowding issue on my desktop. God, it’s so oppressive just looking at all these Word documents, littering the screen like so many white flags of surrender. Enough! Please! I quit!

But I won’t quit, will I? I can’t. And I bet you can’t stop writing either. Writers are mostly lifers. Which means we’re all destined to become word hoarders. No wonder I feel so suffocated. Do you ever feel like your old files are sucking the air from the room? I do. Even though I stopped printing hardcopies years ago, I still feel the weight of all that expended effort bearing down on me. All the same, I can’t quite bring myself to trash all the items in the folder marked Miscellaneous Writing – documents that in some cases haven’t been opened in years. Here’s one – 16,000 words of it – I imported from my previous computer: it’s 13 years old! I wrote it in London in 2000 and here it is, unchanged, unfinished, unimproved, unappealing. And it’s far from alone.

papermountain Rationally I know such files are dusty for a reason, but the scavenging hoarder in me insists there’s always the possibility that something good is buried beneath all that verbal rubble. Something worth panning for: a little smidgen of gold. What did writers do before computers made this shameful practice more discreet? I shouldn’t like to have all this in hard copy; it would be a monstrous reminder of my failure to convert.


Now, we must finish this little tour of the desktop on a high, mustn’t we? I don’t want any of you to go off and start eyeing your own screen with the antipathy I’m currently directing toward mine. So let’s find something to smile about in amidst this chaos. Let’s throw caution to the wind and give some of these poor, undernourished scraps a brief moment in the sun.

Have you got a couple of hundred words that never went anywhere, that never amounted to anything more after that first flurry of typing? Please – think about posting a few paragraphs (with a brief explanation about their genesis) in the comment field below, or, if we get a good number of them, let’s talk about these stunted efforts in a later feature dedicated to the theme. Let’s try to find a future for some of these word wisps.

(Gulp: moment of sick panic imagining I am all alone with my stash of crumbs and the rest of you only operate in fully realised, discrete and perfect parcels of prose.)

I’ll start (by way of ending). Here’s 400 words I wrote after travelling beside a very funny, very talkative woman on a 2008 international flight. I wish I’d taped her entire monologue. I wish I had every word she's ever said at my fingertips. I hope you enjoy this tiny glimpse into her world – I do hope one day to do something glorious with this wonderful, funnier-than-fiction character in mind. She was that elusive, magical, precious metal: solid gold.

I’m originally from a Perth backwater,” she began. “The Blacktown of Perth. The ends of the Earth. Tumbleweeds. Westie-ville. My parents used to hit us, but that was the way it was back then. It was for our own good. There was no joy in my house. They’re not joyful people. They didn’t see what anyone had to be so happy about.

My best friend’s brother was in a bikie gang and went to gaol. But before he went to gaol, he had to look after my friend after school sometimes. My friend’s gay, but there he was after school, being babysat by this bikie gang who were doing drugs and shooting up and polishing their weapons and having sex orgies. Well, maybe not sex orgies. But they would have killed him in normal circumstances. He didn’t really have much going for him. Neither did I. We were the big fat losers in a place full of losers. He was sickly and walked with a limp. I still see him when I go home to Perth. He’s had a pretty hard time.

I got addicted to infomercials when I was breastfeeding. Do you watch infomercials? I watch infomercials. I once spent $180 on ‘Memory Tapes.’ I told myself, you’d better hide those from your husband. So I did. And then I forgot where the hell I’d put them. You can see why I need Memory Tapes. When I finally stumbled across them a year later, I gave up partway through the first tape because it was just so boring. I thought to myself, well, if you’re lucky you’ll be able to forget all about this. It only occurred to me a very long time later that all those amazing feats of memory may have been rehearsed over and over and over.

Then another time, I nearly bought some diet thing that claimed to neutralise appetite by scent. They produced their World Famous Sniff Test at a fast-food queue, and one by one all these obese people obediently claimed that right then and there, well, they’d just lost the urge for that Big Mac Meal after all, just as soon as they had a big whiff. Just like that! No more junk food! But later on I thought that maybe all those fat sniffers might have been paid to pretend. ‘Just go around the block for us, that’s the way, you’ll get your Quarter Pounder in a minute.’ I can see it all really clearly now.


Fly away, fallow Word file – be free.



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New Work, Work News

If you missed the Australian launch of 5x15 as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, never fear! The internationally acclaimed unscripted storytelling event went down a treat at Sydney Theatre and thanks to the ABC you can now watch the whole thing here. Featuring bestselling authors Jackie Kay and Kate Mosse; renowned cosmologist Lawrence Krauss; hip hop artist and manager Urthboy and former managing editor of the New Yorker, Amelia Lester. Presented by Varuna’s news editor, Diana Jenkins.

Varuna alumna Jennifer Scoullar’s latest rural romance is out now.

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Jack falls in love with Currawong’s animals, and Clare falls in love with Tom and the life of a country vet. But trouble is coming, in the form of the Pyramid mining company. A vast coal seam gas field lies beneath the picturesque town of Merriang. This discovery threatens to not only destroy Clare’s new-found happiness, but also the peace and beauty of the land she loves.

Read all about new release Alumni titles and more at Alumni Books.

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  • Dear Diana, thank you for all the work you put into the monthly features. I can often see so much of my own experience in them. They remind me that I am part of a writing community, not just an individual toiling away on my own. This month's piece spoke to me too. Praise be to our computers, however temperamental, that we don't have to have all that stuff on our desks - there's too much there already!

    Mary Ryan Thursday, 01 August 2013 09:29 Comment Link
  • Di, not an ass at all, but a generous, generative, intensely fel, honest, sparky gem of a writer. I loved reading your desk xx I've been away oseas on a road trip with the family, gorging at the literary banquet in NYork ( Sharon Olds reading beneath the Brooklyn Bridge - Martin Amis and Ian McEwan in convo with Salman Rushdie. ) so i've just caught up with your last few features. Thank you for all of them, for the kindly mention in your Festival wrap up, it was a priveldge to participate as you said and see so many Varunaites in the prgramme. The Varuna/ Carrington leg was so beautifully curated by Madeleine Dignam and the team, session after session of rousing writers and cosy fire side discussions in between. I took my husband this year ( who's an avid reader but has his fill of writers et al living with me ) and he loved it all; came home and pulled from my bookcase, Jessie Blackadder, Cate Kennedy, Yvette Walker, Jessie Cole, Hugh Mackay. Claire Messud was one of my many highlights, I've just read and loved her Woman Upstairs and am ducking off to the library to source her backlist. Thank you again Di for all the time, talent and effort you put into our monthly feature. Your voice in my inbox is always cherished X CT

    Catherine Therese Thursday, 01 August 2013 11:09 Comment Link
  • I absolutely love this post; its honesty, wit and courage. You give me hope. I have a memoir (shortlisted for Finch Memoir Prize 2011) that has been through at least 8 rewrites, and which I have shelved after uncounted rejections by publishers and agents, most of whom, as you say, give little or no feedback. I did get very good feedback from a literary agent after I'd failed to be shortlisted for the memoir prize, and rewrote it yet again after that. I'm thinking about another resurrection. Here is the opening para of my current rewrite, of what I'm now calling This Place You Know:
    "Your mind is an outback landscape, washed almost white in the glaring summer sun, with bare, flat plains, and a faint line separating the land from the sky. The only vertical marks on this horizontal world are a line of fence posts, trailing off into the distance, a lone tree etched against the bleak sky, and, if you look behind, the straggly trees, dark grey-green-black, curling along the line of the life-giving river, mysterious in its depths and shallows, a presence you cannot see unless you approach it, but you can smell it, and when you are lying still at night, or resting in the afternoon, you can hear it, whispering its ancient song as it wanders through the land, knowing its way, carved out over thousands of years. This is not your country, but you dwell in it, and it is in your blood, your bones, your nerves, and it will never leave you, wherever you live, whatever you do, and when you die, it will always be this place, this place you know."

    Christina Houen Thursday, 01 August 2013 14:01 Comment Link
  • Well, how lovely - I feel a bit emotional reading your comments, ladies! As with any writing, I never know if these features will resonate with anyone else, I just desperately hope so, so it's extremely gratifying to get this sort of (very generous) feedback. Thanks, Mary, Catherine and Christina - you have really made my month.

    Catherine, wow, NYC sounds amazing. We were there last year (second stop on the Grand Tour) and as always I didn't want to leave! It'll be lovely when my son is a bit older and I can start dragging him to literary events (Amis, McEwan and Rushdie?! Get out of town!). He attended his first Sydney Writers' Festival in May so we're heading in the right direction! I was really disappointed that everything conspired to keep me from getting up to Katoomba for at least a few of the Varuna events - I am making it my sworn mission for 2014. Thrilled it sounds so perfect!

    Christina, I have read your lyrical opening paragraph twice now, the second time aloud to my husband. We were both struck by its poetic cadence, and wondered if, in fact, it might not be more effective *as* a poem - or perhaps as a prologue...? It has a beautiful, haunting quality, but one thing it didn't do for me at least was locate me in the memoir itself. It certainly places the reader in a landscape, very powerfully, but I remain curious about the world outside 'the mind' you introduce at the beginning - whose mind? Why theirs? Where are they and what's happened to them? I don't know if that's helpful - I hope so. It's fantastic that you progressed to the shortlist of the Finch Memoir Prize - I'd be enormously encouraged by that.

    Diana Jenkins Friday, 02 August 2013 09:53 Comment Link
  • Hello again Diana

    Thanks for your lovely feedback. It is in fact a prologue (though the literary agent who gave me feedback suggested I get rid of the prologue I had at the time (not this one) and said she doesn't like prologues. But I think they have their place. I actually wrote this as the prologue to a fictional memoir of my mother, who married a farmer and lived on a small marginal sheep farm in the outback of NSW for 25 over 30 years. Then I thought of using it as the prologue to my own memoir. Now I'm not sure; I stopped writing my mother's memoir about 3months ago; I was happy with what I'd written so far, but decided to take a sabbatical from writing. so I have a much rewritten memoir of my own (the one that was shortlisted) and a part-finished fictional one of my Mum. As for whose the mind is, it is both her mind and mine, since the place we knew haunts my memory (in a good way). We lost it and could never go back, hence its haunting. I might keep it in my mother's story.
    As for being shortlisted, I was enormously encouraged, but very discouraged when that led to nothing.
    I'm considering the next step!

    Christina Houen Saturday, 03 August 2013 16:37 Comment Link
  • Oh please go get that golden traveller Diana!! And thanks for the follow on Twitter.

    Genevieve Tucker Sunday, 04 August 2013 22:30 Comment Link
  • Hi Christina
    I'm with you - prologues certainly have their place. Much as I think all feedback is worthwhile considering - especially when it's in such scant supply - you can't take on every single piece of advice or you'll go mad and lose your MS in the process and no matter how high you're prepared to jump, or how often, you still can't please everyone. Time away from a project is so vital, I'm finding, and I hope you find it instructive too. Try not to be discouraged. Or at least not so much that it stays the pen for too long. There's nothing else for it, really: at a certain point we all need to just dust off and crack on.

    Genevieve - hello! How nice of you to call in here. Yeah, she was pretty awesome. I wonder where she is now...I wish I could remember more of the conversation but my mind's gone. I guess I'll just have to fill in the blanks!

    Diana Jenkins Wednesday, 07 August 2013 15:50 Comment Link
  • Di, your written voice always has such a clever and unique sound to it. I hate that good writers find it so difficult to get published. And, to make matters more depressing, I hear that the author of a particularly bad trilogy (whose name has mercifully escaped me) has earned $95 million. Could it be that the author actually meant the books to be awful? So awful that they could not possibly be overlooked by a publisher? I am not a writer, but I am a reader who appreciates good writing of the sort found right here on this page. Press on!
    P.S. Also, Christina Houen's paragraph was magical. Pure magic.

    Grad Wednesday, 14 August 2013 00:36 Comment Link
  • Grad, outside my husband, I honestly think you are the most unwavering cheerleader I've got. I defy anyone to claim they've got anyone in their corner who can shake a pom pom like you. We've never met, but you've been such a positive force in my life and I hope one day to vindicate your astonishing faith in me. Thank you, as always, for being here and for always reading on.

    Diana Jenkins Friday, 16 August 2013 13:50 Comment Link

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