Writing the Rainbow – My Musing about Why I Write.
Writers wait. I learnt that years ago, long before my first novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This?, was published. We wait for doors to open to us – doors that will take us into the “published” world, doors that will affirm us as writers. But, writers who desire publication cannot afford to passively wait. We must use our time of waiting to hone and polish our writing – until it becomes the key to unlock that publishing door.
Years of persevering to find a publisher for my first novel taught me well about patience, persistence and waiting. But I really honed my waiting skills in 2007, the year when I felt ready to submit my second completed manuscript. It became the year of writing disappointments, painful disappointments, and the year I discovered why I write and why I must write – no matter what.
Writing a second novel is said to be more difficult than the first. For me, this proved very true. Dear Heart, How Like You This? took two years to research and write, ten years of rejections and more editing and rewrites before it found its publisher in 2002. At last, I wore the mantle of author, a mantle I had wanted to own since I was a child. I believed then my world had turned to my heart’s yearning; finally, I had proved myself and would be free to write full-time.
I soon discovered the harsh reality about how little most writers earn through the publication of their first book. I have a family and, at that time, I had a hefty mortgage. With a very heavy heart, I faced the necessity of returning to teaching, what my family termed my “real job” – a “real job” that paid our bills, put food onto the table and kept us in a suburb and home we love.
This is not an unusual situation for writers. I am luckier than most because my husband was more or less willing to be the full-time wage earner, while I worked as a part-time teacher at a local primary school. And please don’t get me wrong – I was very privileged to be a primary teacher, but teaching and writing are both demanding, challenging callings. In 2015, I finally resigned from primary teaching because of a chronic health condition. I haven’t stopped teaching; I now work as a writing tutor at Swinburne University. It is a job I love because I get to share my writing passion with students of writing.
But back to my story. I started my second completed manuscript shortly after the publication of my novel. Please note, “completed manuscript.” Like I said, achieving that second novel was hard. Time after time, I couldn’t keep up the writing momentum, perhaps, simply, because I was trying to write novels marketable to the Australian reader, ones that had nothing to do with the Tudors.
Why am I, an Australian writer, so obsessed about the Tudors?
You see what happens is this, in trying to write I seem to start from one word, from one little picture, a few more words, ideas so slender they hardly seem to matter and then, suddenly, I am exploring human feelings and reasons. Perhaps one day in this exploration I shall step across a hitherto unknown threshold into some deeper understanding (Jolly, 1992 p. 174).
My father looked like Henry VIII. He was tall, broad and possessed a Renaissance king’s appetite for food. He also had a ferocious temper and a strange, too often terrifying style of raising children.
Dad came from the slums of London. Growing up for him was a constant struggle against adversity and deprivation. He believed he did his children no favours by showing them love or kindness. But Dad was a born storyteller; his occasional bedtime story was one of the best times of my childhood. Until I was nine and deemed too old for his stories, his vivid retelling of history, folklore and family stories fed my imagination, and built the first stones to my writerly self.
Through making sense of life through writing, I started to understand my father. Poor, damaged, frustrated Dad; he created a battlefield for a home, but wanted his children tough enough to survive the harshness of life. Not able to change it, I have chosen to be thankful for my past, agreeing with Graham Green, who once said “an unhappy childhood is a writer’s goldmine” (Goldman, 2000, p 151). It taught me a lot.
I knew I wanted to write by eight. At ten, I won my first poetry competition. I was also ten when a friend gave me a child’s book of English history. I read the story of Elizabeth I, another unwanted and seemingly unloved daughter. Watching my bearded, scowling father behead another one of our chooks for the Sunday roast, it seemed I watched Henry VIII, a man also good at putting an axe to a bloody use. I thought, Elizabeth triumphed over her dark times, why can’t I? That book changed my life and began my lifelong desire to learn and then write about the Tudors.
In blithe innocence, I started drafting my first novel, seizing hold of a poem that first ‘spoke’ to me in my teenage years. This poem gave me a voice of a long dead Tudor poet who told the tragic story of Anne Boleyn. The Greek chorus of a lifetime of doubters only added more fire to my belly to prove to myself that I could do it – and, by a lot of hard work, I ended up with a published novel.
Dear Heart’s publication gave me the impetus and encouragement I needed to write another Tudor novel. I imagined Sir Thomas Wyatt, the man and poet recounting the story of Anne Boleyn in my first novel, saying this about Katherine of Aragon:
I thought the Queen a very gracious lady, for whom I once was given the pleasure and honour of composing poems. And I, despite all the conflicts the future would bring, always thought most highly of the Queen, believing with all my heart that this saintly woman was great and noble. She did not deserve the terrible, most cruel future the fates held in store for her.
Researching Anne Boleyn’s story left me equally sympathetic to Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, as to his second. This sympathy turned into a passion to tell Katherine’s story for my next Tudor novel.
I had a mountain of research to surmount to do justice to Katherine’s story – and I ended up planning to write a trilogy. Unfortunately, the first novel never found a publisher. While its rejections hit hard at the time, I realised the first book should have been written in another character’s point of view. I have done that now – and Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters was finally published last year. But I learnt a powerful lesson when my first vision of the work did not find a publisher.
Writing could never be a hobby to me – it had proven itself over and over to be necessary to the construction of my real life.
By writing I confronted myself – hammer and tongs. I determined the meanings of my life through the act of writing – I became more and more my perfect reader as I wrote and learned to know myself. I say like Hélène Cixous:
I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst.
Life, that glass darkly, became less dark and clearer because I write. I mirror myself to others through text and grow, learning to recognise a deeper sense of self, identity. By writing I construct a deconstruction of how I see my world – for “human beings require the mediation of consciousness, or the mirror of language, in order to know themselves and the world” (Derrida).
Writing creates a prism. We create this prism for ourselves and our reader, breaking apart what we think we know to gain something new in its stead, in the words of Ulmer:
To approach knowledge from the side of not knowing what is, from the side of one who is learning, not that of one who already knows, is to do a mystory. What is the experience of knowing, of coming to or arriving at an understanding, characterized as following a path or criss-crossing a field, if not a narrative experience, the experience of following a narrative? (Ulmer cited by Arnold 1989: 106)
My writing is mystory. I stand in front of my prism I create through writing, looking into the text birthed via my imagination. Writer, reader, the energy between text and mind continually exchanges the power of creativity – the possibility of connection, reverberation, of no longer hearing babbling from another human-being but the song they really sing.
What I create through my imagination feels very real to me. And this is the paradox – fiction is illusion, yet exists because we create it. It is life changing. Creating this prism and communicating it makes magicians of those who write.
It is miraculous when writers succeed in this creation, for then the prism breaks apart all the colours of the rainbow and we walk towards understanding. This is what writing means to me – it’s my rainbow bridge. Kristeva, says, “I believe in words. There is only one resurrection for me and that is in words.” That is exactly how I feel, too.
I hold close to my heart certain strong beliefs. There is a purpose to this life of ours. All of us are on a pilgrimage up the mountain, the quest to really know ourselves, discovering the things we must tap into for a complete life.
Via life’s choices, we sometimes stumble, getting lost along the way. We take trails away from the main road, dropping back on the lower tracks or become very stuck, for a time, on seemingly safe plateaus. But these detours, taken in the right ways, return us to the road only richer.
I am no longer an innocent writer – just laden with knowledge of the mountain climb I must conquer everyday of my writing life. Excepting for those days when I let those dogs of doubt pull down my confidence, I’m old enough now to feel a sense of gratitude to all the people who said it wasn’t worth me trying to aim high or try to achieve my dreams. I hold the truth in my own hands; it’s up to me. I have to be willing to work hard at making my dreams come true. And life experience has taught me working hard to attain my dreams equals cause and effect – the agony and ecstasy of achievement – the realisation of true inner joy. Once you’ve found that in life it is so very difficult to lose.
Let me end by sharing one of my most favourite sayings, ‘Aim at the sun, and you may not reach it, but your arrow will fly far higher than if aimed at an object on a level with yourself.’
Goldman, W. (2000). What Lie Did I Tell? New York, Pantheon
Lispector, C, Giovanni Pontiero, (Translator1992), The Hour of the Star, New Directions Publishing Corporation
Unpublished short story extract; If You Ask Me; Wendy J. Dunn, 2000
Falling Pomegranate Seeds, unpublished novel, Wendy J. Dunn, 2007
Dunn, W. J. (2002). Dear Heart, How Like You This? Yarnell, AZ, Metropolis Ink, page 50
Goldman, W. (2000). What Lie Did I Tell? New York, Pantheon.
Jolley, E., Ed. (1992). Central Mischief. Ringwood, Viking.
Josie Arnold. 2007. Text Vol 11 No 2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/oct07/arnold.htm. [Accessed 12 August 12].
Jacques Derrida Assessed online:
Excerpt from Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of Medusa,” 1971