Recently, a friend asked me if I won all the awards I ever entered.
“I wish!” I replied, and then, when I had stopped laughing and then crying and then laughing again, I added: “You should see my submission spreadsheet.”
For reasons unknown, my friend wasn’t that eager to see my submission spreadsheet. But if he had seen it, he may have noticed the long streaks of grey in the STATUS column.
‘Wow,’ he might have then said. ‘You would never have guessed that from Instagram.’
And he would have been right.
Pictured: me, receiving a short story award, smiling so much that my cheekbones are on the verge of crushing my eyeballs.
Not pictured: me, sitting in front of my computer, my chest slowly collapsing in on itself, because I only have a fifteen minute window to write and the words Simply. Won’t. Come and NOBODY WILL EVER PUBLISH ME ANYWAY.
Pictured: me, wearing the same smile described above but dialled up to 11, about to walk into a fancy hotel to receive a major prize.
Not pictured: me, obsessively checking my email on my phone for an email that will never come.
Pictured: me, signing my first book contract as my partner opens a fancy bottle of champagne in the background.
Not pictured: me, receiving another ‘Dear Valued Writer’ rejection email and then drinking a bottle of Passion Pop with a curly straw.
So for all you onlookers and struggling writers out there, remember this: behind every win is a spreadsheet’s worth of rejection. Behind every smile are buckets of spent tears. Behind every published word are a hundred thousand unpublished words.
Unless, of course, you’re like that writer I once saw on a panel whose first book was written on a whim, shortlisted for the only thing she entered it into and published by the first publisher who read it. But even then that writer must have bad hair days, right? RIGHT??
Pictured: me, having a bad hair day AND receiving a short story award.
Some time in late August 2018, I bought a water bottle. Almost anyone who has spoken to me in the last five months can tell you how much I love that water bottle. I talk about it frequently and with unbridled joy. I even bought every member of my household one, although none of them quite share my enthusiasm.
‘It’s just a water bottle,’ they say. ‘Calm down’.
‘But what a water bottle,’ I reply.
Then one day, while gleefully availing myself of the free WiFi on the bus to the airport, I decided to send a note of appreciation to the manufacturers of my water bottle. But when I went to their website, I discovered that their online feedback form was designed to receive complaints.
Surely, I thought to myself, I can’t be the first person to have ever sent them a note of appreciation. But by their rather dazed response a few days later, it seemed I might have been.
This got me thinking about how most people only speak up to complain. They don’t take the time to give appreciation for an ergonomic grip or easy-to-clean lid. They wouldn’t think to let the shopkeeper know that the window display made their heart swell or to thank the bus driver for waiting patiently for that elderly woman struggling to catch the bus. There is so much good and beauty and kindness in the world that goes unacknowledged.
Which brings me ever-so-self-consciously to the topic of my writing. (*ahem*).
In 2018, I put my work ‘out there’ 37 times, mostly award submissions and residency applications, with a light smattering of agent and publisher queries. Out of those 37 times, I had two definite ‘wins’ (You can read about those wins at imbineeme.com/news and even see a photo where I’m smiling so much it looks like my face has imploded). I also had one short-listing, one long-listing and an honourable mention.
Otherwise, I experienced a whole lot of rejection.
Mostly, I’m okay with this. I know these awards and residency programs are not like modern day pass-the-parcel where everybody is apparently a winner. And I know they must follow the Highlander model: there can only be one. But I also know this means there are plenty of writers whose stories or manuscripts were totes awesome sauce (and most likely don’t include the term ‘totes awesome sauce’) that weren’t awarded the prize or shortlisted and who received the same rejection email as everyone else without ever knowing how close they got or how much their words might have resonated with one of the readers during the judging process.
Luckily for me, I experienced two exceptions to this norm in 2018. The judges for one mentorship/residency program took the time and care to let me know I’d made the top 10% of a very large submission pool. And a judge from another prize contacted me via the prize’s organisers to let me know they loved my submission and to encourage me to keep going.
So to all the literary awards organisers and judges out there: the wording of that rejection email matters. Long lists matter. And although it’s not always practical or possible, occasionally reaching out from behind that veil (you all wear veils, right?) can make a huge, huge difference.
And look, while I’m at it, to all the readers out there: when you truly love a book or a story or an article, please consider reaching out to the writer in some way to let them know. Don’t be creepy about it and try and be their new best friend and offer to weave a brooch from a lock of their hair. Just let them know their words mattered.
Writing is such a lonely and difficult pursuit, we all need small acts of encouragement to keep going.
And, for the record, I will keep going (*she says, as she takes an enthusiastic swig from her beloved water bottle*).
Almost two years ago, I made a bold proposal to my dear writerly friend Emilie Collyer: if we both got publishing contracts within the next year, we should get matching tattoos.
Next to the microwave in the office of the small arts organisation we both worked for, we shook hands. A pact was made.
Over the weeks that followed, we wondered aloud what kind of tattoo we might get. It should be something symbolic, we said. Something writerly. I casually mentioned that I had always liked the ‘&’ symbol. Emilie mused how ‘&’ denoted the word ‘and’ but also had its own word (‘ampersand’). Those layers of meaning felt pretty damn writerly. We also liked how open-ended the ampersand was. It said: ‘Sure, we’ve had a book published but there’s more to come, bitches!’. It said: ‘And… and… and…’.
Of course, I should note here that, much like a bride planning a wedding before she’s even found herself a fiancé(e), we were a little ahead of ourselves. There was still the small matter of getting our manuscripts published… Pfft! Mere tish tosh! The power of ampersand compelled us! In fact, at the very moment we stood next to that microwave and shook hands, the full manuscript for my first book was with half a dozen major publishers. Surely, it was just a matter of time! I mean, ampersand!
As the weeks and months passed, however, two of those major publishers passed on my manuscript and the others eventually fell into the kind of long silence where no words are spoken but the meaning is very, very clear. My manuscript and I had entered a World of No.
Meanwhile, Emilie had entered an even darker place. Only a few weeks after we made our pact, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her focus quickly shifted from her writing to her health, and her trajectory was no longer towards triumphant publication, but instead towards surgery, chemo and radiotherapy. In the middle of her treatment, Emilie confided that she wasn’t sure she would ever return to writing. I supported her, of course, but secretly, I despaired for her and it led me to a very important realisation. All this time I had been thinking a writer who wasn’t published wasn’t really a proper writer. But the truth was that a writer who didn’t write was a person living half a life.
Thankfully, Emilie came back to writing. Slowly at first, and then with great force. She wrote an article about her cancer treatment and then started working on a novel and then a play and then another play and… and… and… Last month, I saw her wonderful play Contest at the Northcote Town Hall. She is now working towards getting a new play up next year and has an idea for another novel.
As for me, I stopped fretting about whether or not I was going to get published and finished a second manuscript and embarked on a third. I started writing short stories.
And… and… and…
You see, the true meaning of ampersand was not about getting published. It was about making a commitment to writing, and to ourselves as writers.
With this in mind and heart, last Friday Emilie and I went together to Vic Market Tattoo in North Melbourne and let a man called Pablo indelibly mark us.
Because we are ampersand. Ampersand is us. We are writers. And we will always write.
Sometimes, when you read something you have written, the words dance for you on the page. You are dazzled by their beauty and their music and you feel quietly pleased. You are a wordsmith! A sculptor of sentences! A god!
And then other times, when you read those very same words, they are lifeless and tuneless. Misshapen and clumsy. Ill-formed. You feel embarrassed by them and for yourself. You wonder why you even bothered.
But don’t worry.
Your words are like a strong white light and, every time they are read, they enter a prism and emerge as one of a million different colours — for you and for every other reader, whether a friend, an editor, a publisher or a stranger.
Your words are like a strong white light.
Remember this and keep writing.
This post is for Emilie.
The ferret tutted as she counted the night’s takings.
“If business keeps going at this rate, Noah will have himself a bunch of hippogriffs and ophiotaurusses by the time we reach land,” she said.
“I think you mean ophiotaurii,” the flamingo yawned. “Anyway, you have to admit this place is a much better option than murder-suicide.”
She was referring to the nasty incident on Day 2 of the Flood where the female unicorn had speared her partner and then turned her horn on herself. Noah had been quick to set up ‘The Ark Angels Brothel’ after that, hoping to ease the tensions between the pairs of animals.
The ferret shrugged. “How was your shift?”
“More of the same,” the flamingo replied, shifting her weight to her other leg. “That rattlesnake was in again, moaning that his wife never listens to him. I pointed out that it’s because rattlesnakes are deaf but I don’t think he heard me.
“And then a praying mantis came in and just cried for an hour because his wife keeps seasoning his head while he’s sleeping.
“And after that, a horse came wanting to saddle and whip me… “
The flamingo’s story was interrupted by two swans tumbling through the door in a flurry of feathers and angry words.
“I thought we were supposed to mate for life!” Mr Swan was honking.
“That was before you took me on the worst cruise ever. You said there would be games! And a smorgasbord!” Mrs Swan was honking back.
“But think of the alternative! All that rain! All those rising waters!”
“We’re swans! We float!” Mrs Swan barked, before turning to the flamingo with a smile. “Oh goody. You’re still here.”
The flamingo tried not to groan. The last time Mrs Swan had come in, she’d just wanted to hiss and grunt for the whole session. It had been extremely wearing on the flamingo’s delicate vocal chords.
“We’re closed,” she said. “I’ve got fifty bucks that says you’re open,“ Mrs Swan said, lifting her wing to reveal the crisp fifty dollar note tucked underneath.
“Okay,” the flamingo sighed.
“Can I at least watch?” Mr Swan whimpered.
“No!” the flamingo and Mrs Swan snapped in unison.
As she lead Mrs Swan through to the back room, the flamingo thought of the jar full of cash she and her husband had saved for the new life ahead. And then she thought of her poor husband working a double-shift in the animal restrooms, shovelling faeces with his beak.
This could be worse, she decided. She cleared her throat, ready to start hissing and grunting. But Mrs Swan had other ideas.
“Would you mind burying your head in that bucket of sand?” she asked coyly. “I’ve always had a thing for ostriches…”
The flamingo closed her eyes as she pressed her head into the cold sand.
Yes, this could be worse, she thought again. But it could also be a whole lot better.
When I wrote my last post, I honestly thought my list would have end up having just one name on it and one name alone: my own.
But then the list started to grow. Some people put their own names forward. Other people put forward the names of deserving friends.
Without further ado, here is a list of writers who were unlisted in 2017 but who continued to find joy in the act of writing and do it anyway:
Elizabeth Jane Corbett
Even if this is the only list I make in 2018, I’ll be glad. This list is good company.
If you or anyone you know deserves to be on this list, please let me know before December 31st 2017 via email firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments below.