My fiction teacher in my undergrad years was Gerald Murnane and I recall him saying that if a story we are drafting has got ‘something’, we won’t forget it – it keeps dogging us to go back to it.This might be another way of expressing the ‘delusion’ that we deserve publication…in my years of writing I have certainly found this to be true. I wrote a story in that undergrad class which I kept returning to and revising and sending out again only to be rejected, until finally at the end of 7 years it won the short story prize for a local writer within a national competition (but due to the vagaries of the council hosting it, it never actually ended up in print!).
I guess the point I’m making is that writing and the movement into publication is often a slow slow journey as I’m sure those who have tried are aware. Sometimes we can’t act on advice given to us straight away (indeed, sometimes it took a very long time to fully grasp the feedback I had been given on my stories in my undergrad course – and I was in my late twenties when I started). Sometimes we just need to make subtle changes which suddenly open up the possibility for publication, but often a substantial passage of time is needed for this to unfold. The following anecdote relates to the publication of a poem, but it highlights what I mean here:
In the early 2000s I listened to an amazing cassette tape – a loungeroom four track recording by the nephew of a good friend of mine – the only way I can describe it is a frenzied meeting between Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols. Wonderful lyrics, too, some ‘translating’ the musician’s then doctoral studies in literature and architecture…the pragmatist philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas gets his ‘attack’ in one of the songs. At any rate, this tape called ‘Screeching Jimmy Attacks’ became my soundtrack over the course of many days – I was in the early days of my PhD and really struggling to ‘academicize’ my brain and so this music was utter escape, and yet at the same time kept me connected with the painful formation of ideas. It’s hard to describe that state, but as I looked across my then rather huge backyard with its decaying outbuildings, the music entirely altered how I saw that ‘landscape’ – completely de-familiarising it.
I poured out some writing onto a page which soon became a poem. I called it ‘After the attack’ in dedication to the music, its subject matter my then dismay at John Howard’s second re-election. I duly started submitting it for publication, but the title (in retrospect) may well have been causing a throw off, because this was also the time of Sept 11 attack. One reason the poem didn’t work I think is because people expected it to be about 9/11, but then got confused when it seemed to be about something else entirely. I lost readers due to an initial confusion.
It took Howard’s third re-election for me to work it out. Even more dismayed, I returned to the poem, made slight revisions and restructured it, this time renaming it ‘Election Promise’. I sent it off in the aftermath of the election to The Age newspaper, where it found its home. So again, this poem lingered over the course of several years and finally found its time ..and home. But, of course, there are many, many stories and poems I’ve written that have met the underside of a coffin lid. I like to think that if there was ‘something’ in them, they’d still be niggling at me, and since they haven’t, perhaps they weren’t worth pursuing anyway.