Happy Anniversary, Darklings.

September 1, 2009 at 10:55 pm (Uncategorized)

The week’s getting away from me – here it is Wednesday morning already and I am two days behind. Sorry, chaps, no excuse really, I’m afraid I just didn’t post. No more to it than that. Monday I was out of the office without my laptop (feeling thoroughly radical about it, too), and yesterday I just got buried in Spill redrafting, after which Llew arrived home very much hoping for a 1950s welcome… not that I provided one. He “forgets” his key quite a lot, which is part of this Cleaver family fantasy of his. He loves making me greet him at the door. I, on the other hand, seethe and swear and shout rude things as I stalk down the hall, until his warm sepia bubble pops and dribbles and he almost starts backing away. He wants domestic goddess; he gets fire-breathing dragon. But still he persists, still he keeps the glimmer of hope alive that one day I will answer the door with perfect hair, perfect makeup, a perfect smile, perfect nails, the perfect dress, a crisp white apron around my waist and a gleaming spatula in my hand, artfully held aloft like a culinary wand. In your dreams, buddy, in your dreams.

So what have you missed? Well, yesterday was the Darklings’ first anniversary. We are one. Yes, it was on September 1 last year that we all landed on Varuna’s doorstep for our week-long Professional Development Residency. In some ways, it’s difficult believing it was a full twelve months ago. In other ways, I can feel each and every one of the 365 days in between. I certainly can’t imagine life without the four other Darklings now, they seem to have always been there, and it’s funny thinking it’s only a year we’ve known one another. It doesn’t feel that way at all.

There’s part of me that feels a bit wistful for that week, because Varuna’s creative director was so sure about my MS, so positive it was ready, so prepared to back his opinion that he sent it to a publisher on my behalf… all things I found absolutely impossible to believe but simultaneously very badly needed to hear. I needed someone to believe in it, and he did. It made all the difference in the world, because it meant I could do the work that really did and still does need doing without the crippling doubt about whether or not anyone would ever care. He definitely did care about what I had done, and that answered something critical for me, giving me permission to continue, in a way. It ought to be enough to give oneself permission, but it’s just a tougher game than that, a much tougher game, and I for one needed some positive reinforcement from The Outside World. Fortunately for me, I got it at the crucial juncture. It allowed me to keep going, and I’m not sure I could have otherwise.

It’s a very different MS now. I wonder what he would think of it. He wanted me to pitch it as creative non-fiction, if you recall, and was adamant, absolutely adamant about it even though I pointed out it was, in fact, fiction. While I have certainly drawn on reality (interestingly, less and less with each draft; each redraft I predominantly cull things written from my own experience), there’s far, far too much in there that’s entirely fictitious for me to be able to make any sort of claim about its truth. His response was that it didn’t matter that it wasn’t my story, the point was that it sounded like it could have been someone’s. And I tried to make it fit the shape he saw. I had a terrible time after Varuna, a real identity crisis. I tried making myself believe I could turn my MS into non-fiction. If Varuna’s creative director had so strong a vision for its placement, maybe I was wrong. Maybe those undeniable elements of the real meant my made-up story wasn’t made-up at all. But it nagged. Even as I write this, a knot of anxiety is tightening in the pit of my stomach. A year on, the feelings are no less potent. I was sick with confusion.

A couple of things happened. The first was that the editor to whom, unbeknownst to me, he sent the MS, passed, saying she would want to place it in fiction, but in order for it to work as fiction it needed a narrative arc (the bane of my existence). When she told me, “I know you and P don’t really consider it fiction in the normal sense,” I had to say, um, no, I always had, it was P who believed otherwise. Awkward, having someone do something so amazing and generous for you but in terms that aren’t actually your own. Fucking awkward. Really hard to navigate. And it was why I didn’t return home from Varuna and do as he suggested, which was sending it out en masse to agents and publishers. I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. I didn’t believe the MS was ready. And, in this instance, I was right. And I am so glad I trusted my gut, because it was so incredibly hard not trusting P’s. He is a very wise, very well-read, extremely well-respected and one might almost say revered person  – who’s still not the author of my book. The identity crisis ended the moment I knew that particular person was me. Of course I knew that all along in a naive sense, but I’m sure you know what I’m saying, because in a much larger sense, it’s a critical realisation for any writer to have. That’s when I gave myself permission and stopped looking for it elsewhere; perhaps I had to earn it.

The other thing that happened was a lightbulb moment, a vivid flash, over coffee with my unofficial mentor before we knew each other at all. In that moment, something that had always been embedded in the MS abruptly rose to the surface. Suddenly I could see it, know it, and use it. It changed everything. Now I had a story, and hell no, it was not mine.

This is a very different post to the one I thought I was writing, but I can’t think of a more appropriate way to mark the Darklings’ first anniversary than that.



  1. litlove said,

    This makes me think of that quotation from Cyril Connelly: ‘Better to write for oneself and have no audience than to write for one’s audience and have no self.’ At the end of the day, I think any writer has to figure out what’s unique and intrinsic about their approach, and then work at presenting that in the best way possible. It’s a long journey this, and I have every sympathy for you, being on it myself. And I have every faith in you too! The Darklings are a wonderful support group, I can see.

  2. Lilian Nattel said,

    Happy anniversary! I think you absolutely made the right choice with your ms.

    Trying to pass off fiction as creative non-fiction is a risky game.

    Although the agent knows his business, I disagree with him on that one. But the point isn’t my opinion it’s your gut. Abiding by your own truth is the only certainty you can have.

  3. doctordi said,

    Thanks, Litlove and Lilian. That’s exactly it. You just can’t compromise these essential things, or else it all falls down.

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