Between the Awful Noise and this Terrible Silence
ALUMNI FEATURE – NOVEMBER 2017
By Features Editor Diana Jenkins
Recently I’ve been dreaming about my neighbour. Two of them lived in the apartment – a couple – but I never dream about him. Only her. The most recent dream was two nights ago, in which she materialised in my apartment’s private courtyard, behaving as though it were hers. The thing you need to understand about my dreams is that they are always childishly literal: I dreamt of her trespassing on my property because she spent the past year systematically invading my family’s privacy. Imagining her taking over our private outdoor area was merely the extension of a situation in which the sanctity of our home was already compromised on a daily basis.
And the thing is, this isn’t only where I live with my husband and children. It’s also where I read and write. It’s my safe place, my favourite place. It’s my creative, intellectual and emotional sanctuary from a world in all sorts of ugly chaos. It’s my home.
October was the Month of Tears. Bad news started raining down on me like boxes tipping out the back of a speeding van.
This couple, who lived upstairs – whom we dubbed the Angry Hippies – suddenly went from several screaming matches a week to slinging abuse at each other more or less non-stop. My children and I were forced by close proximity to overhear three doozies in 36 hours. These arguments occurred at top volume at all hours of the day and night. And it didn’t matter that no one else sharing this unit block with the Angry Hippies wanted to be drawn into their toxic orbit; there was a performative element to their dysfunctional pairing that meant their doors were always open, windows always wide.
When things abruptly escalated, I was deeply troubled by the sheer awfulness of their fights: the swearing, the abuse and the relentless aggression. It was all so loud and so foul. This contrasted rather starkly with the total, increasingly peculiar silence accompanying the writing-related effort I was undertaking in tandem, throughout which there was only a protracted and dead, dead silence.
My psychic soundtrack oscillated wildly between these two extremes, like some sort of caricature of a work/life balance.
Then, on 4 October, I alerted the letting agent to the escalation of the Angry Hippies’ fighting. At around 2 am that morning, woken by the sound of yet another barney in full swing upstairs, I phoned the police. The next day, I contacted the owner of their apartment and she delivered a shocking blow, indicating that she intended to renew their lease despite our and our gorgeous French neighbours’ written pleas not to. I was so stunned and distressed by the decision I couldn’t even think straight – I couldn’t contemplate continuing to live alongside these people without welling up. I couldn’t discuss the situation with anyone else without becoming completely choked. I could think of nothing else, at least not until the writing-related silence was broken five days later: on 10 October, I learned the memoir essay mentioned a few features back failed to make the anthology’s cut. I gave that essay everything I’ve got to give, and it didn’t make it. It was a dark day of crippling doubt.
But then, just a day later, unexpected jubilation: there were definite stirrings in the block; perhaps the Angry Hippies’ lease wasn’t being renewed after all? It seemed too much to hope for, so I just tried keeping out of their way.
Then came the crashing despondency of 18 October, exactly one week later, when another silence was broken by yet more bad writing news: UQP passed on the YA manuscript they chose for a Varuna PIP Fellowship last year.
I cried my heart out.
There’s no other way to put it. It wasn’t pretty. I was stoic and philosophical for about five minutes, because I’d been preparing myself for this very call, but as soon as my voice cracked, it was all over: the dam burst. I hurried off the phone, sank into the nearest chair, shoved my balled fists hard into my eye sockets and wept – at least until I had to pull myself together and go collect my kids from day-care and school. Always a great whack up the arse, pick up. You just have to get on with it. But inside I was wretched for days, and in truth I still haven’t recovered my writing mojo. In fact, my lousy run continued unabated, because there’s nothing the universe finds more sporting than repeatedly kicking a writer when they’re down. I am far from the first and I won’t be the last. It’s just the way it goes sometimes.
(I must hasten to point out that while all this was happening, I was exchanging emails with Taryn Bashford, who also won a Varuna PIP fellowship with a YA manuscript last year. Her story has a far happier ending than mine: Pan Macmillan is publishing Taryn’s YA debut The Harper Effect in January, and you can read all about her PIP triumph right here next February. It does happen, so don’t lose heart!)
Meanwhile, I have so many fresh horrors to share with you, including a second rejection of the memoir essay (albeit a very nice one, of the, ‘Not quite right for us, but please try again’ variety), from an American non-fiction journal I admire. Next, an agent I know declined to even look at my YA manuscript. Yes, the agency’s website states clearly – as so many do – that they aren’t currently accepting submissions, but jeez…people always say you have to use your contacts in this business (and, I suspect, any other), but my first blatant attempt to do that instantly backfired. Note to self.
After that, I decided to try my luck querying a couple of American agents. I might as well. I have nothing to lose. My YA manuscript is a strange little hybrid; I already know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m starting to think I may have a better chance in a larger market. Australia’s is very limited, and the small pool of publishers and agents are already doing it quite tough, so there’s probably a lower risk appetite. A project like mine was always going to struggle to find its natural home, which was why winning the PIP and having UQP select it for development was so profoundly validating, but I’m starting to think its prospects are even worse than I thought.
After just two weeks, the first American agent – whose website stipulates a sample of just five pages – declined to see more of the manuscript. Seriously? Five pages and I can’t entice you to read more? Wow! A new low! At the same time, I fielded first emails and then a phone call from friends from the Faber Academy novel writing course I did last year. One friend was letting us know she’d signed with an Australian agent in an American agency – mazel tov! The second friend emailed that she too had an offer of representation, before phoning me to confess she actually had two. What should she do now?
“I don’t know,” I said. “But what a fantastic result. I’m not sure what the problem is – just follow your gut.”
“But I’m full of anxiety,” she cried.
To which, I’m sure you’ll agree, there is one response and one response only: “Yes, but why aren’t you full of champagne?”
My friends’ breakthroughs are slightly shocking for the apparent ease with which both casually strolled through the process. Instant pick up. Instant offers of representation. It was especially cruel hearing their wonderful announcements – which make me thrilled and proud – right in the thick of my own news cycle, which – ever on trend – currently consists of round-the-clock reporting of one disaster after another.
There have been such odd contiguities between my home and writing life the past little while. A fortnight ago, I came home to find Male Angry Hippie being unceremoniously escorted from the premises. Police officers dragged him backwards down the internal stairwell by his handcuffed wrists, shortly followed by the managing agent, who told another owner and me that Female Angry Hippie had already left and was too scared to come back.
‘Oh great,’ I wanted to say. ‘What about the rest of us? There are two small children and a six-month-old baby living in this block – what are we all supposed to do now?’
Sure enough, Angry Male Hippie returned later in the day with a mate and a case of beer. Terrific. But it was mercifully all too late: their notice was served and I am delighted – actually euphoric – to report that their fraught tenancy ended on Halloween. Yes, the ironies runneth over.
So the ugly noise of the neighbours’ sick schtick has finally ceased, but the truly terrible silence in my writing life continues, currently concentrated specifically in my ongoing job search. It became painfully obvious a few months ago that I need some regularity around my income and hours now my freelance career has officially flat-lined, and especially since my husband’s role was made redundant in another industry entirely, but… I’m not even getting through the door. I haven’t been invited to a single interview. I haven’t even been informed that my application didn’t make it that far. There’s just the same eerie, confounding, damning silence.
I started the process feeling pretty good about my prospects. I’ve been writing for newspapers and magazines for about 12 years, for a start. But so have plenty of other people. I am eminently qualified. But so are plenty of other people. Nonetheless, I’m not even getting polite emails explaining the position’s been filled. There’s just the yawning silence of total rejection. Far from being an attractive candidate, brimful of employability, I’m apparently not even worthy of a form response to applications that take hours to complete each time. Hours I could and would spend writing, were it not for that old chestnut of not earning a dime.
I suspect the culprit is itself another delicious irony: the silence is a reproach. No, since you ask, I don’t know how to nimbly use every single social media program that’s out there (the latest job I’m applying for lists at least 8 – I don’t know any of them). All this endless chatter – god, it’s so wearying, and I am duly exhausted by it – is that the reason for the deafening silence greeting my every job application? Are they so resolutely mute because I’m not sufficiently up-skilled in social media forums and digital communication platforms?
Well, I guess they’ve got me there, because I do feel completely worn out by social media’s hostile takeover of the world. (Fails to stifle a meaty yawn.) There. I’ve said it. It was nice knowing you, Civilisation. Maybe I’ll ‘un-friend’ you right back – and by the way, THAT’S NOT EVEN A WORD.
Sure, I’m invisible and comprehensively ignored, but there is a bright spot, my friends. In amongst the violent lurching between silence and bad news there has been one little flicker. I’m very fortunate that the first reader of that memoir essay was Peter Bishop, Varuna’s former creative director. Peter’s a trusted friend and mentor of mine, and he greeted news of the essay’s two rejections with something entirely unexpected: relief. Peter’s new adventure in supporting Australian writers is taking root at Ventura Press; it’s early days, but the mere fact that he was sufficiently affected by the essay to want to help do something with it, something to help it one day find a reader, is really all I need to know. Just that. It turns out that the faith of a single reader really is more than enough to enable me to go one better than poor old Humpty and put myself together again.
Catherine Lee, author of the Dark series of crime novels and a member of my Varuna-formed writing group, the Darklings, was quick to respond when I emailed her the American’s agent’s pre-emptive pass:
Keep at it. Think of every rejection as one step closer to the acceptance. I believe!
Oh, how those final two words will always make me want to bawl (I told you it was the Month of Tears!). I thanked Catherine for believing – it means the world to me, because I know she really does. She’s not one of many people I know who are now simply embarrassed for me. Catherine added:
Just because it’s not what she’s looking for doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. You’ve just got to find the right fit for your work. I suspect it will take quite a few of these, but you need to keep going. All the best sellers had multiple rejections before finding the person who was looking for their particular style. You’ll get there!
Are you working on something else in the meantime? I think that’s really important.
Well, not only are Catherine’s words an enormous comfort to a girl in a fairly severe slump, she also happens to be right. Stories of rejection through the ages are legend – the most famous example of recent decades being JK Rowling. The good news is, once you’re in the No Zone, rejections become oddly easier to bear. And it is really important to work on something else while the rejections roll. And I was – right up until my bound and gagged job search began. Sigh. I have to get back to it. Not writing really isn’t helping.
So where does that leave me? Well, pressing ever onwards, my friends.