Staying sane in the writing game – Fiona Higgins

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By Fiona Higgins

Unless you’re an international bestselling author – and even when you are – writing can be a crazy game. There’s the psychological solitude, the financial risk writers absorb by writing for months (or years) without any guarantee of publication, the apparent fickleness of publishers and the increasing requirement to ‘connect’ with readers/stalkers on social media.

With such pressures weighing heavily on the modern author, I consider myself fortunate that I never set out to be one. I didn’t pursue formal studies in creative writing – not even at a community college or weekender course – and I only considered writing for publication once I was the wrong side of thirty. Consequently, my husband justifiably calls me ‘The Accidental Author’.

Despite this lack of formal training, I always loved words – both reading and writing – and as a child, I was an avid diarist. I still remember, aged nine, the heady rush of winning $100 (which, in 1984, was loads) in a poetry competition. My slightly quirky entry, entitled ‘Ya Local Truckie’, explored the challenges and stigma endured by overnight drivers of road trains (multiple-carriage trucks used to freight goods across Australia). My poem evidently caught the judge’s eye, even though I wasn’t from a trucking family, nor had I any experience of traversing the highways on NoDoz.

This capacity to creatively engage with experiences beyond my own frame of reference turned out to be useful, many years later, for the vocation of a novelist. There are other things, too, that have helped me in this sometimes whacky industry.

Here are my top five tips for staying sane in the writing game:

1. Write what consumes you. While the injustices of the trucking life evidently consumed me in childhood, these days I’m elbow-deep in family life. It’s no surprise, then, that my novels are focused on what it’s like to be a new mother (The Mothers’ Group) and the perils of raising teenagers in the age of social media (Wife on the Run). My latest novel (Fearless) was written after three years living in Bali with my family. Writing about the context that’s consuming you is a sure-fire way of ensuring authenticity in your writing.

2. Don’t wait for the Muse. I’m not exactly sure where my Muse is, but she’s running very late. If I’d waited for the right moment to write – when Mercury was transiting Venus, when my children weren’t keeping me up at night, when I’d mastered mindfulness and the coffee was fabulous – then I’d never have written anything at all. I don’t even have a consistent space to write in at my home: usually I write on my bed (with the door locked, and my husband on duty beyond it) or perched on a stool in the dining room (when the children are at school, or asleep).

3. Embrace the trenches. Mostly, writing isn’t glamorous. The words don’t flow easily, the money isn’t great and, if you’re lucky enough to be published, there are plenty of critics. So it’s useful, I’ve found, to have low expectations or, at least, to be genuinely unattached to the outcome of your labours. If you focus on writing what’s consuming you, the outcome is superfluous. You’ll write irrespective of how hard it is, with a contented spirit that will serve you well.

4. When in doubt, cut it out. When you’ve worked on something for so long, often in solitary mode, it’s difficult to maintain perspective on your work. But instinct is useful where your mind can betray you: if there’s a phrase or sentence or scene that irks you, trust your gut and remove it. You can always collate your edits in another document, for recycling later. (Although in my experience, that almost never happens.)

5. Celebrate the achievement of others. Comparisons are odious, but it’s a common pastime among writers. It pays to remember that humans are story-telling animals: we are inspired, consoled and amused by stories. There are now seven billion of us, so there’s plenty of publication space on earth. Don’t be threatened by the success of others – instead, celebrate their compelling and unique stories, recognising that you couldn’t have told them. And your mother was right: if you don’t say have something nice to say about your fellow writers, say nothing at all.

Fiona Higgins is the author of three novels, Fearless, Wife on the Run and The Mothers’ Group, and a memoir, Love in the Age of Drought. Fiona has qualifications in the humanities and social sciences, and has worked in the philanthropy and not-for-profit sector in Australia for the past seventeen years. Having recently returned from three years in Indonesia, she lives in Sydney with her husband and three children.

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