Deakin University, and a lesson from a Holocaust Survivor

2018 has been an amazing year! Rocky at times, but utterly amazing right now. I’m excited to have been accepted into a postgraduate course in creative writing at Deakin University for 2019! It will be part-time over two years, and I can’t wait.

After my manuscript assessment in September, I decided to really rip my book apart and rebuild it from scratch. It was okay, but it wasn’t the story I really wanted to tell. It wasn’t the story that was whispering to me furiously at 3 AM, refusing to stay silent. I didn’t know that until I’d written it, though. So even though I’m a little frustrated to see so many thousands of words going down the drain, it’s bringing me closer to the true core of my real story.

I’m digging deeper, going in layer after layer, trying to give the legacies of the stories of the Holocaust survivors and victims the honour they deserve. And because it’s such an important legacy, I’m prepared to research harder, think harder, work harder, feel harder.

I am totally immersing myself in my character. One powerful thing I did recently was to watch the video testimony of a Hungarian Jewish underground resistance fighter, Judit, which was recorded as part of the University of Southern California Shoah Testimony Collection. I cried so many times throughout the two hour video, and can only hope my character is as brave, dignified, and courageous as Judit was. 

I am learning so much every day. At times my heart absolutely breaks at the horror of humanity, at times it sings with the beauty of how kind and strong some people were in times of terror.

Judit’s message to the world was: “Never Again let it be repeated.”

Never Again.

How to Title Your Book

Very helpful! My manuscript title has changed each draft!

Some authors find titling their book easy. Others struggle with the process. I’m definitely an “other.” Recently, I went through the surprisingly drawn out process of coming up with a title for my manuscript. Over the past four years, my manuscript has changed names three times; a book syndrome known as, Ye Old Identity Crisis. For two years it was called, Ghost Book, because that was literally the best I could do. Later, I realised all my characters were Haunted by mistakes made in their respective pasts. Get it? Haunted + ghosts = title that works on two levels? Yeah okay, I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me twice. That’s why I changed it.

In brainstorming a new title, I came up with the following method. Maybe it will be help for you too.

  1. Themes, keywords and symbols

    I know this step may seem obvious, but have…

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Honesty

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My focus in my life at the moment is honesty. With myself, and with others. Honesty is difficult. You are sharing a part of you that is most vulnerable and raw, and you don’t know how you will be received.

Our writing group starts every session with a five-minute sprint on a prompt word. I always find my subconscious takes over in this exercise. This was my response to the prompt ‘enough distance’.

Is there ever enough distance from your past?

Can you ever truly escape the shadows lurking in the back of your mind sometimes rearing at you, screaming furiously?

From which you have no sanctuary; it is hard to hide from your own mind, to disappear from yourself.

It exists in blackness, yet in blackness you still cannot completely erase your existence.

There is never enough distance between the difficult emotions of your past. So you must work to reconcile the distance, the difference. You must face the truth head-on and acknowledge it.

Only then can you create the space in which to grow and to heal.

I had been carrying a burden for over a year. I was devastatingly ashamed. But I respected someone too much to continue keeping it a secret. I was terrified, but I knew it was time to speak my truth, at the risk of a further traumatic response. But I was blessed with compassion, and in turn honesty back, which I completely respect. I took a risk. I released my burden I had been carrying for so long. I feel like a different person now. I feel a sense of freedom and courage.

I am being honest with myself as an aspiring author. It is hard work when you are learning, and being challenged every step of the way. It is a huge learning curve, at times you feel utterly despondent and confused. I have to be honest with myself and accept that what will be will be, and I will grow and learn from it, and hopefully improve as a writer.

In all honesty? This is extremely vulnerable to say, but I really want to be a published author. Not for accolades or success, but so I can share unspoken stories with readers, to give a voice to women who have not been heard for so long – if ever in history. To share their truth, the unheard honesty of their lived experience, to expose the ‘silent shame’ of war trauma which is not theirs to be ashamed of in any sense. That is what drives me. This is my passion.

Honesty makes you extremely vulnerable. It is a risk.

It is totally worth it.

It sets you free.

Tim Winton – ‘Tender Hearts, Sons of Brutes’

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I was lucky enough to hear Tim Winton speak about his new novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, at the Perth Festival writers week on Saturday night at UWA. It was the world premiere of Winton talking about his new book, to be released on March 12th 2018. We were given a  handout from Winton titled ‘Tender Hearts, Sons of Brutes. Tim Winton on lost boys and toxic masculinity’, and the following passage is from the inside page.

” ‘For the first time in me life I know what I want and have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you. But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.’

Jaxie Clackton is on a journey to adulthood. But he’s doing it all without a map. And in more ways than one. Like many young men, he’s over-armed and desperately underprepared. And the reason for that is no mystery.

Everything Jaxie’s learnt about being a man is corrupt. Not just defective, not simply incomplete or inadequate, but dangerously, poisonously wrong. Because the men in his life, the only people upon whom he’s been able to model himself, are brutes. They trade in force. They arm themselves against imagination and empathy and contemplation. Every man in Jaxie’s life up to this point has been a fortress. For these men, relationships are equations. Problems requiring mastery. In this airless universe there are no conversations, only declarations and fraught silences. Then men in Jaxie’s life are emotional infants.

I think we forget or simply don’t notice the ways in which men, too, are shackled by misogyny. It narrows their lives. Distorts them. And that sort of damage radiates; it travels, just as trauma is embedded and travels through families. Misogyny, like racism, is one of the great engines of intergenerational trauma.

                                                                                                 – Tim Winton”

The session was thought provoking, blunt, poignant, and full of swear words (for which Winton apologised to his mother in the audience – he told her Jaxie made him say it!)  The Shepherd’s Hut will be a challenging and confronting read, least due to Jaxie’s limited vocab, and Winton says that he expects some readers to dis-engage and not follow Jaxie’s journey through to the end as it is…very confronting. Brutal. Personally, I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Winton said he didn’t set out to write about masculinity or misogyny, he was just following the voice of a teenage boy in his head throughout the first draft (who swore a lot.)  It was when he had finished, and he had some perspective on what he had written, that he hoped it would spark awareness and further important conversations about boys and young men, and their relationship with themselves and with society. And what we, as a society, can do to help.

It was amazing to be a mere few metres away from this legendary writer for over an hour, his voice interspersed with music and pictures of boys and young men and the Western Australian landscape. He said he is just a bloke who loves a good surf, and being a husband, father, and grandfather. A son, brother, neighbour and a mate.

That night I walked away with the upmost respect and admiration for Tim Winton.  If the desire of the writer is to connect with readers, this writer connected with a whole theatre full of people through not only his literary prowess, but through his own, and his passion for, humanity.

My decision to not become a mother.

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I am publicly posting my private email that I sent to author Louise Allan (with her permission), on my personal emotional response to her newly published debut historical fiction novel, ‘The Sisters’ Song’. It has been a long journey towards my decision and acceptance about motherhood, my life, my future, and myself. And at long last, after reading ‘The Sisters’ Song’, I have finally found some peace.

“Hi Louise!

It is Tuesday evening and I am finally sitting down with a glass of wine to write you my promised essay on how special your book is to me. I may ramble and go all over the place, but the bottom line is that ‘The Sisters’ Song’ touched my heart so deeply that it has changed a part of me. It has touched me in so many ways.

I have struggled with the choice to have children. I will tell you why, and it is not because I am seeking sympathy, it is just as a doctor and primarily as a mother I know you will understand. I have always wanted children. I am very maternal, I have always envisioned holding my babies close in my arms, and I have lists of their every-changing planned names. I connect extremely well emotionally with children, and specialised as a child and adolescent psychologist.

I also have Bipolar Type Two.

Although undiagnosed until I was 19, I have always had, and always will have, a serious mood disorder, predominantly depressive swings. I am stable and under long-term professional care, but there is no doubt I will experience relapses into deep depression in the future. I know it will happen, my psychiatrist agrees it will happen. I have made lots of mistakes and have lost people and dreams that were very important to me as a result of my illness. I don’t want to keep making mistakes which then I sincerely regret, can’t change, haunt me, and I still struggle to deal with.

I really want children so much that I have decided not to have them because I know at times I would not be able to be the mother they truly deserve.

But I still really want them. I want the children that all my friends seem to have, that my younger sister may soon have. When I hold their sleeping infants, I snuggle them close to my breast and breathe in their scent, pretending they are mine. I buy tiny baby clothes and hide them. Especially onesies and little booties and socks. And always for a girl. Audrey. I bought Disney mini bandaids and placed them in a cross over where the heart would be on a pink onesie, trying to heal the pain of knowing what I would never have. What I would never be.

When Ida felt hollow with grief over not having children, I felt hollow with her. I finally permitted myself to grieve, to acknowledge I will never be the mother of a child. And I still yearn for one, as Ida yearned so deeply for Ted. But in Ted, I saw what the legacy of my mental health condition would have on my child. And I don’t want to break a child.

As Ida inhaled the scent of the infants she held against her empty breast, I did, as she bathed them, I did, as she dressed them, I did. And then, although she always wanted to do the very opposite, Ida gave them back. And in my heart, I let mine go, too. And I finally felt at peace. Before Ida, I had not felt that peace. You gave me such a wonderful gift, Louise.

And Nora. What a trapped fragile bird who just wanted to sing and fly. I am so grateful I have the choice to not have children, and she didn’t have that choice, as nearly all women didn’t have in those days. And even now, we are still expected to be mothers, especially by the previous generation of women. My Mum is repeatedly asked why she has no grandchildren. It frustrates her. She says to me she has absolutely no problem with my decision, agrees with it and the rationale underlying it, and believes she is under no requirement to justify her childrens’ personal life choices to nosy busybodies.

I will stop now. I no doubt have forgotten the majority of what I wanted to say. But thank you so much for bringing peace to my decision to not be a mother. You have achieved more in 100,000 words than a great deal of therapy would have.

You have a true gift, Louise. Thank you for blessing us all with ‘The Sisters’ Song’.

Rachael xx”

Note: My belief that my own mental health condition would negatively affect the life of my own child is my opinion regarding myself only. I know of many women with mental health conditions who are wonderful mothers, and I respect and admire them.

What happened to Manuscript #1?

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This is Matild, my strong female protagonist in my second historical fiction manuscript, a young Jewish woman living in Budapest in World War Two. It feels great at the moment. The ideas and words are flowing, I feel like I AM Matild, and it’s the most amazing experience. I’m loving it. What I didn’t end up loving, was manuscript #1.

I poured my heart and soul into it, for two solid years. It was also historical fiction, set in London in the last year of the Great War and the decade of the 1920s. My protagonist was named Violet. I worked so hard at it, researched so, so much, went through so much angst. And then I just threw the 100,000 word document away.

It was the biggest learning curve EVER. I learned how to write manuscript #2 by stuffing up and bumbling and failing and forcing – and ultimately learning from – manuscript #1. It was my training novel. It was full of empty words, void of emotion, written to research, instead of being enhanced by research. It was lifeless, as much as I tried to pour life into it.

I took some time off. Then I started listening to history podcasts again, which is where I get all my ideas, and a spark began to form. And then it just exploded.

I wrote 90,000 words in eight weeks straight, without research. It just poured out of me. It just felt RIGHT. After having a break, I am starting draft #2 at the beginning of February and I am SO excited. I have all these ideas running around inside my head keeping me awake at night, just ITCHING to be integrated. I think I’ll have to rewrite most of it, I’ve had so many new and exciting thoughts.

I think my lesson from writing then throwing away manuscript #1 was to trust myself and my gut instinct – to just become my character, not become the research. Now I know I don’t need to do months of research before I start, that my imagination is more powerful than anything. And even if I did put in years of solid work, it REALLY IS OKAY TO LET IT GO if it just doesn’t feel right. I’m not a failure. I let go of forcing words and fell in love with my subconscious imagination. I let myself be free. And damn does it feel good!