One of my favourite things about working in the corporate world was going for coffee with my colleagues. Don’t get me wrong, we worked long hours and delivered a helluva lot, but taking time out together is still a really important part of being a team.
Now that I am my own team of one, I take myself out for coffee in the morning. The same rules apply . . . talk of what happened on the weekend, what’s on for the day, something to be proud of, some help needed. Only now, I have that chat with myself. Does that sound mad? Maybe . . .
This morning’s coffee was at Fleetwood Macchiato, on Erskineville Road.
The cafe’s pun name lured me in, Bowie and his China Girl made me feel at home.
It’s busy here, even on a Tuesday morning. I find a perch – one of four stools gathered under a floating shelf. From here I can see it all. The barista and her machine in constant motion. Tara Byrne, the owner, winding food and drink between Melamine tabletops and vinyl chairs, her Irish lilt still audible over the clank of cutlery. A little girl dances along the floorboards which run perpendicular to the bar, before settling down to a babycino and a few pages of ‘See Spot Run’. A dreadlocked dog pokes his head in the door, to be pulled away by his man-bunned owner. It is hipster-central here, but there’s nothing pretentious about this place.
I pour myself some water from a recycled long neck beer bottle, into a glass made from a wine bottle (the punt in the base giving the clue to its former life).
Coffee comes in a mug – and you have the choice of white, black and espresso. Byrne didn’t correct me when I ordered a latte, and I didn’t quibble when I got the coffee in a mug. No room for pettiness here. If it were a hot day I could order one of the house-made sodas: rhubarb and ginger shrub, lime, cola, ruby grapefruit, lemon verbena and blackcurrant. As it is, the roast they use for the coffee warms me like an Irish whiskey after an hour tramping across the moors.
The all-day menu is tempting with winter warmers like a sandwich of house-smoked beef brisket, cheddar, Chinese cabbage and pickled watermelon. Vegans are treated like first-class citizens with an avocado toast that would have Bernard Salt handing over his cash for a taste of the mint, parsley, lemon, smoked chipotle oil and nori trimmings. On their website, they say ‘Example menu only (but pretty close)’. I like this place, it’s just no fuss.
In my new incarnation as a full-time freelancer, I have my team meeting for one. I plan the day ahead, knock back the coffee, sling my backpack over my shoulder and head to the refuge of my writing den.
Eight lessons learned while studying a Master of Arts
From 2013 to 2015 I studied a Master of Arts in Non-Fiction writing at UTS, while working full time. Here are the eight main lessons I learned:
Lesson 1 – Practice and discipline. 150,000 words in three years. For three years I simply put one foot in front of the other. I didn’t really know where I was headed or what each semester would bring. I lurched from weekly classes to quarterly deadlines, shook off all the pressure in the breaks between semesters, and returned to do it all again, six times. A novel is usually around 80,000 – 100,000 words. Over the course of the Masters I submitted 50,000 final words, but had re-written those at least three times. If it weren’t for the discipline of the course I know I definitely would not have written this much.
Lesson 2 – There’s room for everyone. Across the nine classes I probably worked alongside 250 different writers. There were cross-overs, of course, the reappearance of familiar faces in classrooms where I thought I would find none. The first class of our Memoir & Life Writing class was like a reunion, with seven of us having been in the same foundation ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ class together in the previous semester. But across all those writers, so many styles, voices, perspectives and truly wonderful talent, I found no-one who wrote just like me. And that was both comforting and a relief. The worst thing I could think to be is a cliché. That my style and voice is common and can be replicated anywhere. But it can’t. Only I can do it the way I do it. For beginner writers or any creative person, finding that clarity of personal vision, vitally drives the creative life.
Lesson 3 – Not to compare myself to others Comparison truly is the thief of joy. It’s hard to remember that when someone else writes something so beautiful that it brings you to tears or leaves you gasping for breath at the end of their story. There are spectacular writers out there. And ones who can sit down and write out 10,000 words without any effort. Then others for whom each word, or story, is like blood from a stone. Those for whom you can see the story trying to break through, restrained by their self-doubt, or the lessons they haven’t learned yet about language or they just don’t have the natural ability to write a flowing narrative. Amidst all that I have learned not to compare myself to others.
I usually write in three drafts:
1) a lightning, ‘get it all out’ draft;
2) a second draft a week later (where I ask myself whether I am expressing myself clearly),
3) a final (restructure, rephrase, reframe) draft a week or more after that. Sometimes I’ll write another draft.
This is the way I work now, but may not do the same in the future. Some people write one perfect draft initially, then a painstaking second ‘perfection’ final draft. Others write seven drafts. But everyone is different, and there is simply no point comparing myself to them.
Lesson 4 – It’s worth the money, for me. Postgraduate study is not cheap. The Masters cost me AUS$20,000. The cost was one of the reasons it took me almost 20 years to finally start. I wanted to do it as soon as I graduated from my undergrad degree in 1996. My boyfriend at the time, who had a TAFE qualification, was intimidated by my having any degree at all, so dissuaded me from doing so. I left him, travelled and when I came back to Sydney I flirted with the idea of doing the Masters. I went to two UTS open days, to discuss the cost and process . . . and found answers so unhelpful that I couldn’t commit to doing it. I thought that, for the cost, I could find a writer I admired and pay them to mentor me. I was working in advertising at the time and could not see a way through. There’s a clear divide between the creative and suits in advertising, never the line shall be crossed. I’d been freelance travel writing for years, but not taken either my writing or myself too seriously. But when I got a corporate job, with better work life balance, a less ruthless work environment, I saw my opportunity. I had more time than before, and it all seemed more possible. So I enrolled.
My only objective was to take myself seriously as a writer. It’s how I describe myself now. It’s the way I’ve positioned myself, and as I’ve gone from one corporate contract to another it’s one of my key skills that I sell. Doing the Masters has built my confidence in my ability as a writer. It almost feels that I have always been a writer, but in legitimising myself to myself I’ve unlocked strengths that were always there, but just hidden under the shroud of seeing my value as being anywhere other than the written word. I am proud to say that I now see that once hidden value as the one with which I lead.
Lesson 5 – Found my genre I realised that I didn’t like writing fiction only when I had to write some. In my non-fiction work, before enrolling in the Fiction Writing module, I liked taking a non-linear approach to telling stories in order to create tension or a compelling narrative arc. I liked calling it a ‘tenuous relationship with the truth’. I enjoyed toeing the line and trying to work out how to structure the work to make it most interesting. When it came to writing fiction I was able to play up, to act without any responsibility to the truth, and I went too far. I gorged on details and characters and implausible events until the story was so tightly wound that there was no space left for the reader. I found it exhausting, so I dread to think what a chore it was for those who had to read it. At the end of the semester I ran back into the familiar embrace of non-fiction, glad to re-connect with truth-telling.
Lesson 6 – Have faith in the process. It’s not always about the end result. Sometimes there’s a story inside that needs to come out. It just wants to breathe and be alive amongst others. This doesn’t mean that the story needs to have a long life, or travel far. Sometimes this trapped story is blocking the way for another to come out. I only realised in the last semester of the Masters that not every word I write needs to be in the final version of anything. Sometimes stories will only exist for the first draft. A writer can pour 10,000 words into an idea which never gets beyond the first few drafts, and that’s ok because it’s the next 2,000 words that really matter.
Lesson 7 – Someone’s opinion is still only their opinion Before doing the Masters I did not know how to take criticism of my work. It can be hard to hear someone say that the precious part of yourself you have chosen to show ‘isn’t working for them’. Not only does it feel shameful, but there’s nothing constructive in that. It’s a cheap shot. The way that UTS nurture the workshop environments means that feedback is both subjective and articulate. There’s no recourse against someone saying that they ‘don’t like your work’, but if they say ‘I don’t believe that this character would do this’ or ‘I need more of a backstory here’ or ‘you started exploring some emotion here, but then shifted to the next emotion too quickly’ then there is something you can do with that. The course has made me a more compassionate, supportive critic. And helped me understand that someone’s opinion is only their opinion. I’ve now had about 250 people review and provide feedback on my work. For everyone who disliked some part of my work, the same was defended by others in the room. I have had to ‘kill some darlings’ at the bequest of lecturers, but I’ve never truly killed any of my ideas, just tucked them away to be looked at later. Because even if someone is a many times published writer, that doesn’t mean they are right about everything they say. I’ve learned to take other’s opinions with a grain of salt and know that I am the writer, I am the author and I get final say.
Lesson 8 – Finding a community I’m one of the lucky ones who made great friendships throughout my Masters. Writing attracts introverts and I know people who studied for the whole three years and didn’t work closely with anyone. It happens. Making friends with other writers was an important aspect of my studies. One friend in particular has been a great source of support. We met when we caught the bus together home on the first night, and we have worked together through every semester and the breaks in between. She’s an incredible creative support and motivator. There are other writers who I have met throughout the course who have provided great support as well. Those relationships are vital to creativity and need nurturing too. Writing can be a lonely business, and it’s important to have an active community to cheer you on, point out recurring themes in your work or stop you from beating yourself up or making the same mistakes again and again. I was happy to have found that during the Masters. Again, I doubt I would have found such a community, who have read so much of my work and seen its development.
So . . . . what next?
I finished the Masters in November 2015. I get to wear the mortarboard and gown in May 2016. I have a corporate job where I get to work with words every single day.
I still meet regularly with my writing group regularly. I want to write blog posts about my research, and anything else I like, each week. I don’t want to write for anyone but me. No publisher. No lecturer. Just me, just for a while. I’m worried about losing momentum, and losing the project I started. I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of research I have to do, but if I can maintain the momentum I can keep on track with it. I don’t have to have all the answers, but I do have a good idea of where I want to go.
The details. Here’s a list of the subjects I studied, who taught them and the major assessments I submitted. Numbers in brackets are the final word count submissions for the subjects.
YEAR 1 Semester 1 – March – June 2013
Subject 1. Creative non-fiction – Gabrielle Carey. First class. Wrote about a Bathhouse & Miss Chu. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500) Semester 2 – July – Nov 2013
Subject 2. Memoir & life writing – Paula Hamilton. Persepolis review. History of Glebe house. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
Subject 3. Freelance writing – Tony Maniaty. Critical essay – Scorcese’s Life Lessons (loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler). Critical essay on Minimalism. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
YEAR 2 Semester 3 – March – June 2014
Subject 4. Professional editing – Alexandra Nahlous – Line edit. Developmental editing. Structural editing. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
Subject 5. Writing Project 1 – Paula Hamilton – 11,000 words memoir work for smell. (11,000) Semester 4 – July – Nov 2014
Subject 6. Writing seminar – Tony Macris – Joan Didion – Year of Magical Thinking. Travel chapter for Smell.3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
Subject 7. Journalism – Sandra Symons – Perfume research story/profile.3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
YEAR 3 Semester 5 – March – June 2015
Subject 8. Narrative writing (fiction) – Ronnith Morris
Critical essay – Perfume. ‘Death Dog’ fiction short story. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500) Semester 6 – July – November 2015
Subject 9. Writing Project Two– Debra Adelaide (7,500)
A few minutes before the end of her talk, Miranda July told us to do something.
All 1500 hundred of us had sat, mostly passively, sometimes laughing, sometimes completely silent and holding our breaths, for the past 80 minutes or so. Then she told us to do this.
‘Take hold of the person next to you, if they’re a stranger. If you know the person you’re next to, find someone else to hold. Not their hand, because that might get weird, and besides, who knows where that’s been. But grab hold of the top of their arm.’
I was sitting next to my friend Ash, who was sitting between her fiance and I, so we all turned to the people around us. The theatre filled with arms crossing over rows and crossing over each other until everyone had someone to hold.
The girl sitting next to me was having none of it. She wore a black shirt with tiny white spots and had her hair in a ponytail so it was possible for me to grab her arm without catching her hair or touching her skin at all. She kept her arms folded and her hands tucked into her waist but suddenly found herself grasped by the bicep by a stranger on either side.
‘One day you might see the son or daughter of this person, as you pass them in a restaurant, although you probably won’t know, because it’s unlikely to come up in conversation.’
‘Or you could be in that same restaurant and behind you there’s a very noisy table and someone is laughing with a very loud laugh, so annoying that you want to punch them in the face.’ The audience laughed, the sudden burst of energy in the previously tense theatre launching people forward and back in their chairs and into each other, but the spotted girl next to me remained frozen. ‘And you summon up the courage to go over and make that loud laugher be quiet and they turn around and it is the person you’re holding on to right now.’
‘Or maybe you might never see this person again, and one day they will be laying dying. And you won’t be there to hold them and tell that it will be ok.’
The spotted girl next to me exhaled. ‘Oh.’ And I felt her hand brush mine before it fell again to her lap. A split second of intentional, unguarded intimacy with a complete stranger.
This is why we need artists like Miranda July, for those milliseconds of connection. I felt like that when I had to hold eye contact with a colleague for 30 seconds at a work training event. I felt like that when I went to Marina Abramovic In Residence at Pier 2/3 last year and wore sound-cancelling headphones and was tucked into an army cot in a bank of a hundred other of other army cots filled other people wearing sound cancelling headphones and together we all looked up at the reflections of sunlight bouncing on Sydney Harbour all around us and the steel girders above us. It is these split seconds of connection that lift us out of the grind of everyday existence.
It’s not unusual for Elizabeth Gilbert to be in Australia. In fact, I saw her at the All About Women day last year at the Opera House, presenting with her friend Rayya Elias (whose memoir Harley Loco is an excellent read). She also told the audience tonight that she has step-grandkids in Australia. She has connections here, that’s for sure.
She’s also one of the favourites of the Sydney Writers’ Festival scene and spoke tonight as one of four speakers invited for a ‘mini march’ writers’ festival.
But really she’s also here to promote her latest book ‘Big Magic’, which MC Rebecca Huntley recommended we buy three copies of (Huntley never told us why we needed three copies, but I suspect it’s so we have one for us, one to give away and one to keep to give away because it’s the sort of book you just want to give away.
At first Gilbert sounded just like her book. I’d listened to the audiobook before buying a hard copy, so it all sounded very familiar. But Huntley asked some good questions and Gilbert was able to wax lyrical off script a bit.
However, it was during the audience questions that the Big Magic started to happen. Please bear in mind that the following is not a transcript of what was said, and should not be used as attributed quotes, it’s just what I wrote down as quickly as I could:
Q: ‘How do you cope with it when your loved ones are mean or hate what you’re doing?’
A: ‘As soon as you try to make someone feel a certain way about you, you’re in a bad neighbourhood, where you’re going to get mugged. You’re on a bad highway. And you have to know “Which highway am I meant to be on?”‘
Q: ‘How do you remain supportive of creative friends when they’re working on really bad ideas?’
A: ‘The less you worry about what other people are doing, and focus more on what you’re doing, the better off you’ll be. Again, which highway are you on? Which one are you meant to be on?” Gilbert’s comment reminded me of a story she told earlier in the hour about an Irish journalist asking her whether she worried that her book would mean that a whole lot more mediocre writers producing a whole load of more mediocre work. She dismissed the comment outright as it is such an anathema to her idea about just producing the work and working hard at it.
Q: ‘How do you deal with it when an idea has left you but you keep trying to plug away at it?’
A: ‘This comes down to accountability. You need to work out whether you’re quitting (you’ll get a horrible empty feeling and it’s because you know you just need to do the work and you’re quitting the idea. It will feel bad like when you quit people or projects before their time.) or whether you’re surrendering (which will feel positive, gentle, like a release).
Q: ‘Do you find meditation helps with flow?’
A: ‘Anything I do that is good for me ie more sleep, eating properly, exercise, is all good for my writing. I don’t meditate, but I do have ‘silence baths’ where I just switch everything off. Some would call it a nap, but I call it a silence bath.’
Q: ‘How do you remain interested in the work?’
A: Most fascinating things in life are 90% boring. Travel? Mostly sitting around, waiting, sitting alone in hotel rooms feeling lonely, wishing you were at home watching Netflix. But then something amazing happens. You step outside and have an experience you could only have in Singapore, or whereever you are. Marriage is the same – 90% boring. People seem to think you have ‘life’ and ‘creativity’ like they’re mutually exclusive. But they’re the same thing. You just have to keep turning up day after day, put in your 30 minutes each day, and it may not get interesting until the 29th minute on the fourth day but you won’t find out unless you start.
Q:’How do you choose who you’re writing for? (this question was from a girl who did activist/social consciousness art and music)
A: I choose one person. I always have just one person. For example, Eat Pray Love, was for a close friend. I find that without that you lose the pulse, the human connection. If you’re writing for everyone, you’re writing for no-one.
Gilbert has strict rules around Q&A’s and even though it got a bit off-agenda at the end ie people making statements instead of questions. Overall I thought both Elizabeth Gilbert and Rebecca Huntley did a great job as quest and interviewer respectively.
Finally made it to Hemingways today, on a cold wet rainy Sunday. I had the best plans to practice catching waves before meeting up with E, but a glance out the window meant more pillow time than wave action.
Thankfully there was a table available. I cosied into a corner and browsed through a couple of very old books, including a funny Scottish poem that looked like it came from the waistcoat pocket of a chap from about 1910, and a lovely old copy of Treasure Island (perfect sea side reading).
Old, vintage and authentic is the theme of the place. Along one side is a creaking dark wood book case, loaded with vintage books. A singer sewing machine sits at the end of a bar, an old porcelain Hendricks gin bottle decorates a table. Aside from the dark wood, it’s mostly white with touches of red. Behind the counter is an impressive array of bottles – E tells me that the place is very busy at nights and may, to some extent be a victim of it’s own success in that some of the charm may get lost in the crowds and busy-ness.
I venture up a wooden stairwell lined with old mirrors, to the second floor which has lot of little tables covered in black cloth, and a couple of old brown leather coaches huddled around a fireplace and facing windows which look straight out to sea. A couple have just arrived and are making themselves at home. I suggest it’s a great place to spend an afternoon and they agree, but one of the staff comes to tell them there’s a private function in this upstairs room starting soon – this is a very busy place indeed. There’s another bar here too, although not as well stocked as the one downstairs. Pictures of Hemingway line the walls – he and his cats; Hemingway in spar position, wearing boxing gloves; chatting with Fidel Castro; shirtless and drinking whisky with an attractive blonde woman. Bathrooms are painted in Florida hues – fuchsia for girls, cobalt for boys. In the girls bathroom there’s another old singer sewing machine and I had a vision of a dedicated sewer never needing to leave the room.
Menus are printed onto plain paper and stapled into books. Ours comes in a Dr Seuss style kids book titled ‘Ten Apples on Top’ and between the pages of lunch and breakfast menus I see the adventures of a cat-like creature balancing apples on its head. Coffee is good, sadly not to die for, but I’m glad because it is a bit of an adventure coming across the sea from the east to see E and I’m not sure I could handle finding coffee I’d be addicted to. E orders tea, and the soy milk she asked for comes in a glass science beaker. We both order avocado on sourdough toast ($5) – the avocado is perfect and ripe, and is lovely in its simplicity with only salt, pepper and some herbs as a garnish. The other breakfasts look good – in particular the egg & bacon roll ($10).
People come in and out, the tables are always full, but we don’t feel rushed. A storm which we spied on the horizon rolls in, bikini-clad girls and surfboard-clutching guys run past the windows and it’s time to go.
Would Hemingway like it here? I don’t know as much as I would like to about the author, but I reckon he probably would like the avocado toast, vintage books and relaxed feel as much as I do. And if I were an author and a local I could easily sit by one of those windows and work away with the inspiration of the Pacific Ocean just 20 metres or so away.
48 North Steyne Manly NSW 2095, Australia (02) 9976 3030
7 days a week from 8am to midnight (10pm on sundays)