The Inaugural Sub-Committee: Method, Madness and the Importance of Authenticity
It’s ten pm and I should really be in bed.
I started the day at 6.45 am. I took a cab out to Burwood, presented a lecture at Deakin University, and then flew on a plane from Melbourne to Perth, having just been a panellist at the 2011 Emerging Writers Festival. On the plane I wrote a book review and the second draft of an article I’ve not yet pitched; in the drive from the airport I sat in the passenger seat making Facebook friends, tweeting and retweeting standout posts and then, when I got home, I slept for around twenty minutes before heading for the study.
And when I wake tomorrow, I’ll return to my biggest assignment.
I am talking about the sub-committee, an online group of dedicated writing professionals who’ve set themselves anywhere from three to six writing deadlines. Said deadlines all occur before June 30. Since starting I have added a review, this article, and another non-fiction article to my six existing submission goals.
I know what you’re thinking; this is an excellent idea. How could it possibly go wrong? I say this: when dealing with the sub-committee, there is no right, or wrong; there are writers stretching their comfort zones, hoping they might find a better way to go about their craft.
The idea for the subcommittee came not in a seedy Melbourne bar, but online, as so many things do these days. On March 31st, writer Phill English was posting on Twitter. He wanted to get stuck in to some writing but was struggling to find motivation. I suggested he set some submission goals. In truth, I dared him to do it, because I can be really juvenile at times and I also like using the word “dare” as much as possible. Phill not only accepted my dare but also dared me back. Moments later, writer and editor Tiggy Johnson was on board. By the end of the day I had promised to submit to three Australian journals, two comps, and you guessed it, The New Yorker.
It’s now late May and the sub committee has thirteen members of different ages, background, and areas of expertise. These include Melbourne writers Stephanie Convery, Mark Welker, Bel Woods, Benjamin Solah and Karen Andrews, WA-based writers Phill English and Anthony Panygeres, and Tiggy Johnson, who lives in Queensland.
I have a month to go before our June 30th deadline, the group’s first cut-off date. I have yet to complete four of my six submission goals and still have a Creative Writing PhD that desperately needs my undivided attention.
The rate of progression has varied. Some are submitting often, others carefully crafting one or two in the hope they will stand out from the pack. Almost everyone is finding it more difficult than they initially thought.
I have found a particular problem, one making me question my fundamental approach to writing, or more specifically the role I play as a writer, editor, and publishing professional.
In layman’s terms, I am having a midlife writing crisis.
After arriving in Melbourne, I dedicated myself to being a writer, not knowing exactly what that entailed. Since then I have said yes to pretty much everything I’ve been offered; I’ve edited one non-fiction book and two literary journals; I have reviewed books for Readings Monthly, The Big Issue, Australian Book Review, Writing Queensland and Bookseller and Publisher; I’ve completed my Publishing Masters degree, attended, reported from, and spoken at various literary festivals and seminars around the country, not to mention lecturing post grad students at Monash University.
Unfortunately, not all of this is writing. A fair chunk of it is is building a profile.
So why am I building a profile? What, exactly is it that I am trying to sell? You could argue it’s my writing, and indeed I’ve had a pretty good publication run, but what exactly would I say to readers keen to read more of my work? Go buy The Age from January 8th? Grab the Meanjin before the one that’s currently out in shops?
Some would argue I’m building a career rather than a profile, and indeed said editing, speaking, and assessing gigs are great for paying the bills while writing my articles and short stories. But are they making me a better writer, or is it simply stroking my ego to know I’m fulfilling such a role in Australia’s literary community?
I ask because like me, the sub-committee seems unfocused in terms of its goals and aspirations. In starting from such an arbitrary point (the need to submit more writing), we’ve created a runaway train of goals and aspirations. Are we using the committee to harness our collective creativity, to give structure to what’s often an unstructured writing practice? Do some of us see accepted submissions as a green light to being established, and others see wish only for their voice to be heard? Are there any short cuts to literary respect? And should we be so focused on journal submissions when so many of us are still learning how to produce great writing?
For writer Don Delillo, the divide is simple. He states:
“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some under-culture, but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”
That’s all when and good when you’re Don DeLillo, but what about those writers emerged, emerging, or in a perpetual state of learning? Are we writing for ourselves but hoping for publication by luck, fate or circumstance? By writing for ourselves, can we instil an authenticity far more compelling than if we were to actively court publication or readership?
Publication seems to be an end, but is often the start of a different type of process. There’s nothing comparable, no experience more valuable then sending off what you think is a finished piece of work and having it accepted subject to editorial work. It doesn’t matter if the work is fiction, or non-fiction, editorial guidance will flesh out aspects of the work you had not even considered. An editor knows the emotions, cues, and symbols they are looking for. More importantly, they know how to direct you towards uncovering them.
I’m talking authenticity and emotion, a voice that separates you from every other writer in this country. But with publication, I’m also talking about a compromise, the merging of your voice with one that meets a book, journal, or publisher’s editorial guidelines.
My published fiction has undoubtedly been my most authentic work, however uncomfortable it was to write. My published non-fiction was also carefully considered and conveyed deeper emotions…but only when they fitted into an accessible and publishable format.
Emotion is present in both styles, however. What’s strange is that regardless of the genre, the modern Australian writer seems torn between two completely different sets of priorities; the need to be “out there”; to be familiar, to be known in the industry, and have sufficient knowledge of the craft to be able to teach, assess or discuss writing in paid professional forums. The other priority is far more transient but ultimately, it’s what draws us to the page; that insatiable, ever present need to speak, and be heard; to prove our truths exist outside of other shared truths, perspectives and manipulations of our past memories, our present disillusionment and future fears.
I often consider this balance when talking to the various members of The Subcommittee. I wonder how we’ll fare in the wash up of our best-laid plans, if we’ll foster excellence rather than ego when rejections come in, as some invariably will.
When they do, I suggest we pass our work around, get considered feedback and then revise, hoping none of us are so defeated that we begin and end our stories according to an editor’s approval.
The Subcommittee, our experiment, has ultimately raised more questions than it’s answered. But these are undoubtedly important questions: as writers, how do we get the best result from both our time and energy? Does profile matter more than publication? Can one achieve both at the same time, thereby satisfying career goals while not sacrificing the writing? Can we hold on to those beautiful moments when a story comes together, and it’s you and the page, and the coffee is cold, but you are alive, writing, revising and crafting something unforgettable?
I’m proud to be part of this group. I’m happy to have taken this journey with so many other talented writers, and I’m particularly glad that on an otherwise busy day I took a break. In doing so, I found first Phill, then Tiggy, and eventually a whole group of supportive, passionate writers all keen to develop their craft.
This article was originally published in The Victorian Writer, as published by Writers Victoria, a non-profit organisation that assists writers through all stages of their development, providing high-quality information and professional development for aspiring and established writers.