YESTERDAY, AT THE races, someone I was making small talk with asked if I missed journalism. Two champagnes into the day, I was in an honest mood. ‘What I miss,' I said, ‘is getting published. I used to write four or five thousand words a week and every word made it into the paper. With what I'm doing now, there are a lot more rejections than acceptances.'
‘What I'm doing now' is writing fiction and creative non-fiction. I still write four or five thousand words a week, but each short story or essay can go out in the mail ten times before it finds a home, or I consign it to the hopeless-case bin. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing thirty yo-yos at once: in; out; underway; on the way back again. Some pieces have been bouncing back and forth for years; others are snapped up on their first outing, like juicy flies thrown to hungry trout. Most are not – a statistical probability as each piece can be rejected many times, but accepted only once. The word ‘congratulations' in my email inbox, is a good sign. These occasional ‘yeses' in a thicket of ‘nos' have engendered a gambler's response in me – the very rarity keeps me trying, it feels as much like luck as anything.
The email I got last Tuesday scared the hell out of me. After four years of working at my writing essentially for free – getting paid is another thing I miss about journalism – I scored an Australia Council grant.
The application was just one of many I'd sent out – to mentoring programs, library grant schemes and to the Australia Council for a novel and a book of short stories. None succeeded. On this round, I'd been strategic. I chose a project I was in love with. But I also chose it because it was classified as ‘literary non-fiction' and I reasoned there might be less competition, and I might have a better chance. On paper, I'd done all the right things – established a record of publication, written a strong first chapter (thanks to my creative writing classes at the University of Melbourne) and submitted a confident application. I ticked all the boxes and there it was: congratulations.
I IMMEDIATELY PRINTED out my project outline, to see what I'd actually promised to do. ‘I am developing a book-length project ...' Essentially an extension of a long essay I'd written, about Melbourne's iconic street directory, the Melway, and also about representation and how we experience a sense of place.
‘Developing' I thought: one chapter written; lots of ideas in various notebooks and a clear plastic tub filled with clippings, notes and a couple of dog-eared street directories. Possibly ‘developing' was stretching it a bit. My eye fell to the end of the third paragraph: ‘8-10 chapters of 5-7,000 words each.' Forty to seventy thousand words. I checked the timeframe: six months, beginning in three weeks.
The rest of the application was chapter outlines. I'd listed chapters about ways of moving through the city, about the representation of Melbourne in literature, about the way bays, creeks and rivers have shaped the city. There was a chapter heading on electronic mapping. I hadn't mentioned film and song in the application, but I know the final book will need to include them. And what about painting? And what's this bit about the theories of Foucault and Korzybski?
My next move was something to which I possibly should not admit. I sat on the bed, staring out of the window at a typical inner-northern Melbourne street, through leadlight glass, dim porch, bright garden, across the fence to the footpath, under the street trees to the parked cars, over the road to the green corrugated-iron roof of the house opposite, up to the very tips of the city towers just visible between the roof and the blue sky and I swore: a string of unprintable words in between ‘this' and ‘city'.
I'd never been so frightened, and apart from the moment I discovered I was pregnant, I've never been so excited – overwhelmed by a sense of diving headfirst into deep water.
The email from the director of the Literature Board, with its offer of $10,000 has defined my work for me. The project This is not a map was one of several I had running in parallel, like racehorses. I'd just begun a degree in creative writing; I had a long list of publishers to bother with my novel manuscript; a collection of short stories; a schedule of deadlines for writing competitions and magazine submission dates to meet.
Now, apart from submitting something to my uni lecturer, all that will be put aside. I'll defer my studies and reluctantly set aside my fiction projects. All bets, as they say, are off – and to stretch the metaphor, my writing life is now a one-horse race.
IN JUST A few days, my desk has grown new piles of paper. The box labelled ‘Melways' – already a bookend for a row of Melbourne-related books – is now overflowing on to my reading chair. My notebook is filling with lists of libraries to visit, appointments to make, field trips to take and questions.
This is, as Frank Moorhouse put it recently, what Australia Council grants do: decide what gets written. I could, in theory, have made the decision myself to choose this project above all others. I could have saved my bikkies, cleared the diary and got on with it. It's called backing yourself, and it's not always as easy to do as it sounds.
Re-reading my application, I find small typos and start to wonder what they saw in it. Here's another part of the creative process that isn't always admitted to – a drop in confidence that feels like the floorboards turning to water beneath you, or the casual shake with which a horse removes a rider it no longer wants on its back. I am amazed at my gall – to say I can come up with anything new about Melbourne – a city I adore, a city which also happens to be highly self-conscious in a funky-crafty-laneways kind of way, a UNESCO City of Literature no less – and that I want to write about its writers. I should be pleased. I should be feeling like I've won the trifecta, and I am pleased: I'm pleased this book will get written. I'm just not sure how I'll do it.
On my wall hangs the poster used to spruik the essay when it ran in The Age: a big red heart criss-crossed by streets and tramlines. I look at it and hope that whatever I did right, I can do again. I tell myself that although I am not worthy, the work just might be. Approving application #133398 may turn out to be a mistake. It may not. But as I learned in riding school, when you've been thrown, you have to get straight back on the horse. It's time to saddle up.