A shot in the dark

(This piece I wrote about winning the 2014 Vogel's Literary Award was first published on The Wheeler Centre website.)

I got the email at five am. Four fifty-seven, to be precise. I had just returned home from a very long day at The Writers Room in New York, where I have a desk. An hour earlier, working alone in the vast room used by journalists, scriptwriters, memoirists, essayists, academics, poets, short story writers and novelists, I had finally completed the second draft of my novel. It was several weeks overdue, and I still had another two essays and an introduction to write before I could submit my Doctor of Creative Arts thesis to the University of Technology, Sydney. But I was happy with the novel, which was the most important part. Exhaustion and euphoria chased me as I took the lift downstairs, unchained my bike and began the twenty-minute journey home.

The streets of New York are never quiet, not even at four am. As I pedalled through the East Village, college kids stumbled along the road and barkeeps shuttered their premises before turning home. A mild September wind slicked over me. It was that perfect time of year when heat and humidity wane yet the nights are still warm.

I mounted the steep slope of Williamsburg Bridge. On my three-gear bike, I was panting and reduced to a crawl, while lithe-limbed hipsters on fixies sped past me. Just before I reached the crest of the bridge, I paused to look back. Manhattan, in all its shimmering glory. A city full of possibilities. My husband I had had moved to New York six weeks earlier, two more hopefuls chasing a dream. It was our second time trying. Six years earlier, we’d arrived in the Big Apple but had failed to establish ourselves. This time, I’d won a green card through the Diversity Visa lottery program, and my husband had arranged a job transfer. Our fortunes had changed.

The sky was the colour of slate by the time I arrived home. I showered and prepared for bed, looking forward to a long, rejuvenating sleep. Then I remembered an email I had to send. I crossed to the kitchen bench and flipped open my laptop, then noticed an unread email at the top of my inbox. From someone named Annette at Allen & Unwin. ‘I wonder if I could arrange a meeting with you to talk about your Vogel's entry?’ she wrote. I froze.

I first heard about The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award when the Helen Demidenko/Darville scandal hit the newspapers in 1995. I was sixteen at the time – a bookish Year 11 student with dreams of being a writer. I’d like to enter that award one day, I thought. Over the years, I read many of the winning titles, and they always reaffirmed my desire to enter. I took creative writing classes during my undergraduate degree, and wrote a novella for my honours project. Then I began working full time, and hardly ever found the time for creative writing.

Sometime during my late twenties, I realised that if I didn’t do something soon, I’d miss my chance to enter the award. Soon afterwards, I was accepted into a Doctor of Creative Arts degree at the University of Technology, Sydney, where I was mentored by Debra Adelaide and Delia Falconer. I began researching and writing a novel about the Japanese civilian internment experience in Australia – a topic I was interested in as my mother is Japanese (although no one in my family was interned). I thought I’d finish it within three years. Four at the most, giving me time to enter the award at least twice before I hit 35. After Darkness took me almost five years to create. When the May 2013 deadline drew near, I was midway through the second draft. I was 34. It was my last chance.

Despite my best intentions to deliver a polished second draft, in the weeks leading up to the deadline, I was feeling unwell and was unable to work on the manuscript as much as I’d hoped. I submitted it to The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award five minutes before midnight, utterly disappointed with what I’d done. ‘I’ve blown my one chance,’ I told my husband.

Then four months later, I got the email. A few minutes before five am. I didn’t get the long sleep I’d hoped for that morning – I didn’t sleep at all. The possibilities kept churning in my mind. Was I shortlisted? Had I won?

It was another two days before I finally talked to Annette, the publisher at Allen & Unwin, who confirmed that I had won. Several stressful, hectic months followed as I struggled to complete my thesis and then immediately began revising After Darkness for publication.

But I didn’t know that then, as I stood in the kitchen of our Williamsburg apartment, day breaking around me. All I knew was hope, and the joy of chasing dreams.

After Darkness is available from all good bookstores in Australia/New Zealand. See www.christinepiper.com/after-darkness/

Habits I wish I had a year ago

Now that I'm staring down the barrel of completing my doctorate/novel, I've developed several good habits that make me think: "Why, oh why, didn't I do these years ago?" For the sake of other writers, and as a memo to my future lazy self, I thought I'd share them here. Write every day, first thing in the morning

Last year I attended a workshop run by time management guru Hugh Kearns. At one point we split into small groups to discuss our approach to study and writing. Two women in my group were already academics, having completed their PhDs while working full-time and with several small children. I wanted to point out that I thought they were in the wrong workshop—the workshop for insanely driven high achievers was down the hall. The first woman said: "When I was finishing my PhD, I'd get up at 4 or 5am to do my writing, because with the kids it was the only time I had free." The other woman nodded sagely: "Sometimes even 3am." 3am?! Holy *#^@! While that's taking it a bit far in my books (I'm someone who'll happily sleep in till 10am), writers from different disciplines say the same thing: write every day, and write first thing in the morning. Why first thing? Because, not only will it mean you can't put it off, the quality of your writing will be freer and more creative then. Your thoughts are less likely to be fettered by what Julia Cameron calls your "internal censor". Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author Robert Olen Butler advises 1–2 hours of morning writing 6–7 days a week. "If you let two or three days go by [without writing], it's as if you've never written a word in your entire life," he writes in "From Where You Dream: The Process Of Writing Fiction". He even advises against reading the newspaper, watching TV news—allowing any sort of conceptual language to enter your head—until you've done your morning writing. In "Turbocharge Your Writing", Hugh Kearns and co-author Maria Gardener recommend setting aside "two golden hours" every morning. I take this approach. I get into uni (late, about 10.30am, but I'm working on that), and the first thing I'll do is set my SelfControl timer (see below) for two hours. I won't check emails, open an internet browser or eat lunch until I've done two hours of fresh writing. Sometimes, if I'm really itching to read my emails, I'll say to myself: "Just one hour." More often than not, I'm quite happy to extend that to two or even three.

Pomodoro Technique

I first heard about this anti-procrastination technique two years ago. It involves breaking down tasks into 25-minute blocks of time, or "Pomodoros", with a mandatory five-minute break in between. A timer rings when the 25 minutes is up, and you have to stop what you're doing and take a break. It's supposed to help you focus on the task at hand, and the regular breaks keep your mind fresh. I heard about it, and thought: That wouldn't work for creative writing, that wouldn't work for me. A year or so later, I came upon it again in the context of psychologist Robert Boice's research on effective writing habits. His research found that regular, planned writing sessions resulted in not only a greater output than "binge writing", but regular writing also resulted in more creative ideas. That got me thinking, and feeling guilty, because I'm all about binge writing. I'd convinced myself that pulling all-nighters was the best way to come up with truly creative ideas. Seems I was wrong! Boice believes inspiration is the result of habitual writing, rather than the idea that precedes it. Since then I've been a total Pomodoro convert, and I've written 65,000 words in 9 months. Sure, a lot of that won't end up in the final draft (and yes, I do occasionally write crap to fill the rest of the Pomodoro), but I still have a helluva lot more useful material than if I binge wrote. What I love about it most? It's free. Download the 45-page booklet here, and read it cover-to-cover. It'll teach you how to take charge of distractions, both internal (eg your urge to Google "tonsil stones") and external (phone calls, colleagues bugging you, birthday cakes in the office, etc). It will help you break down big tasks into achievable goals, and to accurately estimate how long it will take to achieve them. I use this great (and free) Focus Booster electronic timer to time the 25-minute blocks. If you do only one of the things I mention on this page, do this one! (Well, do this in combination with the first point about writing every day.)

SelfControl app

This is a simple app for Macs that doesn't require much explanation. And boy, is it a godsend. Best of all, it's free! To set it up, type in a "blacklist" of banned websites (my list includes every single Google-related page, eBay, Etsy, ShopStyle, news and social media websites). Then when you set the timer for anywhere between 15 minutes and 24 hours, you'll still have internet access (eg for Dropbox and other research-related activity) but you won't be able to access those tempting websites. Be careful, because once you set the timer, nothing—not even turning off the computer—will stop the block on those sites (that's where smartphones and outdated search engines such as Yahoo! and MSN come in handy). Kris commented the app is actually the opposite of exercising self control, but as Paul Silvia points out in "How To Write A Lot": "The best kind of self control is to avoid situations that require self control."

Scrivener

This is a sophisticated program that's perfect for working on longer pieces—novels, scripts and doctoral theses. It's US$45 from Literature & Latte, which I think's a bargain, given I use it every day. It's also very stable. I've been using it for eight months and have still only scratched the surface in terms of its features, but my three favourite functions are: snapshots, composition mode and corkboard. Snapshots allows you to easily save different versions of the same document, instantly cutting out the fifteen different Word docs I have for a single scene. In composition mode, you enter a full screen in which other open programs are hidden so that you can concentrate on your writing.  And corkboard gives you a macro view of your document, allowing you to move different scenes around.

Dropbox

Another great tool that needs little explanation. Working on both my computer at uni and my computer at home, I spent the first 2.5 years of my candidature emailing documents to myself and doing my head in in the process. I've found Dropbox especially useful to update reference entries on EndNote. I'm on a $100 per year storage plan, but it's free for smaller sizes. (Sign up to Dropbox for free using this link, and we both get extra space: http://db.tt/KA1khwMY)

Vedic meditation

I don't want to harp on about this too much for fear of sounding like the leader of a cult, but I started meditating earlier this year and it's helped me enormously—and in ways I didn't imagine. I became interested in vedic meditation (aka transcendental or mantra-based meditation) for the creative breakthrough it can provide. I heard about a friend's friend who's a musician and who often writes complete songs in one go after a vedic meditation session. Five months after doing a course, I'm not sure it's had a huge impact on my creativity—I'm still stuck on several plot holes (but it has allowed me to step back and make drastic changes I wouldn't have made as easily before). But there are two areas I have definitely reaped benefits: stress relief and maintaining focus. In regards to stress relief, I no longer sweat the small stuff—running 10 minutes late or forgetting someone's birthday doesn't bother me anymore. I have a slightly more positive outlook overall, too, which has in turn helped productivity. The second area it's helped me with is maintaining focus. When my meditation teacher told me: "You'll find that even though you're spending 40 minutes a day meditating, you'll have more free time than you did before," I thought: "What a load of bollocks." But, sure enough, in the first week of meditating I noticed I was finishing tasks quicker than usual, because I was less distracted overall.

There you go—hope that helps. And let me know what handy habits you've picked up to help your writing.

Stranded: the evolution of a story

Everyone remembers their first time. The first time a story they wrote is accepted for publication. Even though, as a journalist, I'd had fifty-odd articles already published, when my first short story was finally accepted for publication I felt a rush of emotion. Was I happy? Yes, because writing fiction is much more personal than writing a commissioned article. But most of all I was relieved. I finally had a publication to add to my pathetically brief literary CV, and I was now eligible to apply for all those grants and retreats only available to published authors. It immediately validated all the hours I had spent slaving at my desk. Because the sad truth is that no one (friends, family, colleagues) takes you seriously as a writer of fiction until you have something published. A book would be better, but I'm working on that!

Getting my first story, Stranded, published has not been easy. I first wrote it in 2008 when I enrolled in a Gotham Advanced Fiction Writing course while I was living in New York. I started with an image I'd had in my head for a while: while riding on a train in Sydney years earlier, I sat next to a young Asian man in a suit. He spread his hands across the briefcase on his lap, and I remember the beauty of those hands. They were delicate, manicured—a piano player's hands. I was struck by the intimacy I felt staring at his hands—a moment of intimacy between strangers in a public place (although he never acknowledged me, nor do I think he even realised the weirdo next to him was staring at his hands).

Even in its earliest stages, the story I wrote had very little to do with the real-life moment that sparked it—although the theme of intimacy between strangers remains. Stranded opens with a Japanese businessman discovering a blonde hair on his suit one day. He removes it, goes to work, and is surprised to find another (or the same?) blonde hair on him later that day. The second discovery causes the businessman to reflect on the affair he'd had with a young woman who'd prostituted herself for money and gifts (a phenomenon known as enjokosai in Japan), making him think about how the affair had abruptly ended.

I did a rough draft, got lots of helpful feedback from my Gotham classmates, did a revision that my teacher, Michael Backus, thought was a big improvement, but then I was stumped. A lot of people had a problem with the ending. I like story endings to be suggestive rather than didactic, but it's hard to achieve without coming off sounding vague and pointless.

I put it aside for several months, and over the next few years I went back to it again and again, reworked it and sent it to other people to read. The writing became clearer and more polished, and a lot of people thought it was good. But the problem of the ending and the significance of the hair in my story came up again and again. I wanted the repeated appearance of the hair in Stranded to allude to the randomness of life, but it seems that, even though life is random, in fiction, randomness doesn't work. I eventually put my artistic concerns aside, bit the bullet and added a plot line that explained the appearance of the blonde hair.

In 2011, I started to send it out to different publications and competitions in Australia. I thought I had a good shot at some of them, so was crestfallen when the rejections rolled in, one after another. Even though I'd heard from other now quite famous authors that they also had dozens of rejections before they were finally published, I was still crushed when it happened to me. The failures felt personal—it was as if they were rejecting me.

At the same time, I was editing the story and writing different endings. I started to keep a spreadsheet to keep track of all the publications/competitions I was sending it to. It seemed like I had sent it to twenty places before it was finally accepted, but in reality I only sent it to five:

The ending was a persistent problem, and I now realise it was because I wrote the story without a "message" in mind. I shied away from writing a short story with a message or moral, because it struck me as fake, and I wanted readers to make their own interpretation of the story. But now, after reading a lot of guidebooks on writing and critiquing a lot of stories, I realise that nearly all good stories have some sort of a message—but the best ones have a message that's hidden in the story and isn't obvious.

I finally decided to write an ending that cast a sort of moral judgement on the Japanese businessman, Mr Takeda. I personally preferred an earlier ending I'd written, and Kris agreed with me, but I decided to take a risk. I sent it the inaugural Margaret River Short Story competition minutes before the 5pm (in WA) deadline on New Year's Eve 2011, and didn't think about it for a while. I had toughened up as a writer, and no longer expected success. So I was delighted to get an email seven weeks later saying my short story had been shortlisted in the competition, and would be published in an anthology put out by Margaret River Press. A couple of weeks after that I received a phone call saying that I'd been awarded second place! Interestingly, the editor who chose the stories and awarded the prizes, author and Edith Cowan University academic Richard Rossiter, commented about my story that "in spite of the ending"... there is "little sense of moral judgement for Mr Takeda's transgression":

Set in Japan, Christine Piper’s Stranded is a tightly written account of an affair between an older man, Mr Takeda, and a (much) younger woman, Naoko. He pays her for both sex and company. They have little in common except for one thing. As Naoko says, ‘We’re two loners, aren’t we?’ The title brings together the erotic elements of the affair—a strand of blonde hair, representing the sort of woman who is probably not available to Mr Takeda—and the conclusion. Mr Takeda is on his way to see Naoko with an expensive Christmas gift, a Hermès bag. He is very excited by his purchase and the anticipation of seeing his young lover, but the world changes when he catches sight of himself in a display window: ‘a greying man holding a brightly wrapped gift’. This is a very economical story with a strong sense of character and place. It interrogates the values of appearance and surface, with little sense of moral judgement for Mr Takeda’s transgression—in spite of the ending.

READ IT

You can read my short story, Stranded, in the fiction anthology Things That Are Found In Trees and Other Stories (Margaret River Press, 2012). It's only $13.99 plus $2 shipping: www.margaretriverpress.com/catalogue/fiction/things-that-are-found-in-trees-and-other-stories

Or you can buy it in eBook format for $4.09: www.kobobooks.com/ebook/Things-that-found-trees-other/book-3J6kiRvkb06dLR5v9hh__g/page1.html?s=Dr9IM1dqb0KcFjoZyQpxEQ&r=1

LAUNCH

I'll be doing a short reading at the Sydney launch of Things That Are Found in Trees and Other Stories.
Where: Gleebooks (upstairs, 49 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe) When: Saturday July 7, from 4pm RSVP online: www.gleebooks.com.au/default.asp?p=events/2012/jul/Launch-A-Taste-of-Margaret-River-an-afternoon-of-food-and-wine-and-literature_htm or phone: 02 9660 2333 What: Double launch -- the fiction anthology Things That Are Found in Trees and Other Stories & the cookbook Chefs of the Margaret River Region... because fine fiction and fine food go so well together!

Inside the Iowa Writers' Workshop summer fiction course

Someone recently asked me to write about the "inner workings" of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the summer program in particular. As I recently wrote an acquittal report for the funding I received from the Copyright Agency Limited (www.copyright.com.au) to attend the special 3-week May session in fiction at Iowa, I thought it might be of interest to others thinking of applying for this course in the future. What I've written is fairly dry, but I have gone in to some detail about what goes down during class. I hope it's of some help:

Structure of the course: There were 10 students in the course, and during the three weeks we met as a group with our teacher twice a week (on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 2pm to 5pm). Our first group session was a general introduction session, but in the following five sessions we workshopped students’ stories. At each session we workshopped two students’ stories (up to 35 pages or 10,000 words each), meaning that each student only workshopped once over the three weeks, for a little more than an hour each (about 1 hour 10 min). The student handed out copies of their story in the session that preceded their scheduled workshop, and in that time we were required to read each story at least twice, then write a page of comments to give to the student. (I was happy with the feedback I received on the 8,300-word novel extract I workshopped—although I would have liked more detail in some cases, overall I thought everyone's observations were quite astute.) Each week, the teacher also handed out essays about the writing process that we then spent discussing for 20-30 minutes in the following class.

My favourite part of the course was the round-table discussions we had when workshopping students’ stories. Although I have since learned it is par for the course for creative writing workshops in the United States, it was the first time I had been in a creative writing group where the author has been a “fly on the wall” while others are analysing his or her story. (My experience at creative writing courses in Australia has been that participants direct questions at the author while discussing his or her story.) During the one hour in which we dissected each story, the author was not allowed to say or ask anything. This is an effective mode of operation as class participants are less likely to verbally censor themselves and more likely to enter into a deep discussion about the story’s themes. At the end of the hour, the author had about 10 minutes to ask specific questions.

My fellow students: One of the most rewarding aspects of attending the course was finding a like-minded group of writing peers. The 10 students in this year’s course were an impressive and diverse group of people, including: a New York Times journalist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2008 for investigations done in China; a New Zealander currently teaching at a university in Oman; a Vietnamese-American completing his PhD in English literature; a former Beijing journalist who immigrated to the United States 15 years earlier; a retired engineer; and a current student of the Master of Fine Arts (creative writing) course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Our teacher: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is known for the calibre of its teaching staff, and the teacher who taught our three-week course, Lan Samantha Chang, was no exception. Lan Samantha Chang is the author of two novels and one novella/short-story collection. She is also a 1993 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop since 2005—the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold the position.

The fact that Lan Samantha Chang was teaching this year’s Special May Summer fiction session was a huge drawcard for me, as she has written a historical fiction novel (Inheritance, 2004) loosely based on her family’s experience, and she is also well placed to advise about publishing opportunities, fellowships and further training in the US.

During the workshop sessions, Lan Samantha Chang was adept at leading the class into deep discussion about each student’s story. Although she was incredibly busy organising the Iowa Writers’ Workshop 75th Anniversary Reunion (to mark the 75th year since the start of the Workshop) on June 9 to 12, 2011 http://iww75th.uiowa.edu/reunion.html, Samantha Chang put aside time to meet each student in our course for a one-hour one-on-one session to discuss any problems or queries we had. During my meeting with her, we brainstormed possible plot ideas for my novel together. I also inquired about the value of me applying for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Master of Fine Arts degree in the future (after completing my doctorate at UTS). She said if I had published a book there would be no point in applying for the MFA at Iowa, adding that she thinks I will be able to publish my novel in a few years’ time.

Being part of a tradition: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the oldest creative writing course in the United States (it was established in 1936, although “verse-making” was taught at the University of Iowa as early as 1897) and possibly the oldest in the world. Because of the Workshop’s long history, during my three weeks studying at the Workshop I was buoyed by the knowledge that I was part of a creative writing tradition. I spent hours perusing the bookcase in the Glenn Schaeffer library that contains all 3,500 published books by former students of the course, included those written by esteemed alumni such as Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, John Cheever and Michael Cunningham.

I was also able to use the University of Iowa library facilities and borrowed Master of Fine Arts theses written by previous students, including Paul Harding (2010 Pulitzer Prize winner), Robert Olen Butler (1993 Pulitzer Prize winner), Jane Smiley (1991 Pulitzer Prize winner), Australian author Nam Le (2010 PEN/Malamud Award winner) and John Irving (author of The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules). The most impressive was Flannery O’Connor’s thesis, which she wrote in 1947 at the age of 22. O’Connor is widely regarded as one of America’s best short-story writers, and when I read the stories she wrote for her Masters thesis at Iowa I was astonished by the complexity and maturity of her voice, and the difficult themes (such as racial discrimination) she chose to tackle at such a young age. At 22, she had the voice of a much more mature, experienced writer—and this realisation both inspired and daunted me.

Literary tradition in Iowa City: Although I was slightly apprehensive about staying in what I thought would be a small Midwestern town, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Iowa City is a fairly cosmopolitan city of 70,000 residents with a vibrant literature and arts culture. It’s the sort of place where people read Penguin classics in the park and have The Wall Street Journal delivered to their homes. Iowa City is also one of four UNESCO “Cities of Literature” worldwide (the others are Edinburgh, Melbourne and Dublin), meaning literature, drama and/or poetry play an important role in the city (http://cityofliteratureusa.org). When I wasn’t in class, I attended readings at the famous Prairie Lights bookstore (www.prairielights.com), which opened 1978, and perused the shelves of the three second-hand bookstores located downtown.

Activities outside class time: As 70 per cent of the students in my course did not come from Iowa City or nearby, we spent a lot of time in each other’s company and continued the workshopping process outside of class. We also spent time at the grungy Fox Head Tavern, known as the favourite haunt of Writers’ Workshop students and teachers.

Negative experiences: It is difficult for me to name negative experiences that arose from my attendance at this course, but if any it is related to the inadequacy of information given to me before the start of the course. Despite calling the university a month before my arrival, I still encountered difficulty trying to discover information such as the cost of the course, the exact day the course would begin and end (I only discovered this after arriving in Iowa) and how many face-to-face hours the course involved—I was transferred to four different sections of the university during my phone call but was still unable to have all my questions answered.

I gratefully acknowledge the funding I received from the Copyright Agency Limited (www.copyright.com.au) that allowed me to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Graduate Summer Program Special May Session in Fiction.

Iowa Writers' Workshop

In creative writing circles, the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa is known as the writer's Mecca. Why? Because it's the top-ranked Master of Fine Arts (creative writing) program in the United States. Here, I talk about the process of applying and being accepted as an international student in the 3-week creative writing program.

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