2011 was my annus horribilis. It kicked off with massive floods in Queensland. Though we were spared, my time, energy and focus were ploughed into 100 Stories for Queensland, cramming it between two existing anthology projects, both with early 2011 deadlines. It was really the start of the end. As the earth’s crust broke, seas rose and crashed, and a nuclear reactor went into melt down, I felt my grasp on the world slide and in April I tumbled into the first of two debilitating periods of depression.
In a year where I published five paperbacks, won my first literary award, worked with a humbling, dedicated group of authors, had my first commissioned story published and made my print debut in an Australian anthology… I watched it all from a distance. Now I barely remember any of it, let alone feel it: like someone took a thick, black marker and blotted everything (good and bad) from 2011.
In Search of Passion and Reconnection
2011 became 2012.
I was still incredibly fragile, but I knew I wanted a different year. A year where I: fell in love with writing again; said ‘no’ more often; did projects for the passion, rather than the obligation; finished the unfinished; and lived, where possible, a stress-free existence.
To find the roots of my passion for writing, I went back to the beginning—my obsession with letter writing. But it wasn’t enough. I knew I also needed to come in from the cold and write with someone again. Until I could believe in myself—felt strong, solid and confident—I needed someone else to believe in me and help me find my feet.*
Out of this soul searching, an idea—to collaboratively pen a series of letters, hand-written and posted in real time—surfaced. It was actually an old idea, breathed life into by need, (perhaps a little desperation) and the serendipity of meeting the right person, at the right time. I tell people (whenever the opportunity presents) that the timing is always perfect, even when it appears to be totally off. You just have to trust!
Since the first week in January I’ve been handwriting letters with my writing partner Adam Byatt. I pitched** the seed idea for Post Marked: Pipers Reach in the ocean at Brunswick Heads as our kids swam and splashed, (less than a week after Adam and I met in person for the first time). That afternoon we brainstormed a very basic premise: teenage best friends, reconnecting via letters after twenty years of silence.
Several hours later I drove back to Brisbane—salty and sunburned—but in a better head, heart and creative space than I’d been for a very long time.
Somewhere around Helensvale (the suburb of the big theme parks Movie World and Dream World) a character slipped into my passenger seat, her mountainous baggage deposited in the boot. By the time I arrived home, I knew she was my letter-writing POV.
It took half a year to realise just how broken Ella-Louise was in those early letters (in fact, most of the first season). I knew, quite early on, she’d taken a sea change of epic proportion and had returned to the coast to rebuild her life, (though not to Pipers Reach where she’d spent her final years of high school). Burned out, jaded and looking to reconnect with the one great love of her life, she reaches out to find her old best friend, Jude Smith. In retrospect, I can see she was grabbing for a lifeline, and so was I!
The Rise of the Phoenix
I would have refused to see myself reflected in Ella-Louise in January, even as late as July. Now I can see us on opposite sides of the same pane, fingers pressed into the glass, shadowing each other.
In September I closed the final door on the dark period of my life, just as Ella-Louise was stepping through the final door on hers.
Several weeks later, I was climbing 180 vertical metres of switch-backs (what my partner told me would be a pleasant bush walk). I’d just completed my first set of panels at Conflux8 in Canberra, held our first book launch in a bookstore and read my work aloud for the first time in public. I felt like I’d finally stepped up to claim my professional space.
As I climbed, Ella-Louise swirled in my head: an ongoing two-week conundrum of reconciling where she’d come from with where she was going, in the context of her current predicament. Just when I thought I couldn’t make it any higher and the Ella-Louise’s transition was all too hard, a phoenix flared in my mind’s eye.
For so many month’s she’d unknowingly been my strength and, in her ‘dark night of the soul’, the phoenix became my gift to her.
We’ve both been incinerated by the choices we’ve made in life and raised ourselves from the ashes. The process of putting Ella-Louise back together has been a metaphorical process of doing it for myself. There has never been a stronger experience in my life of writer heal thy self.
We’re on the Road to Somewhere
When Ella-Louise slipped into the car on January 5th, I had no idea the wonderful creative adventures and opportunities writing her letters would birth, or the richness and depth she’d bring to my life. Much less the structure she and Jude would build, to enable Adam and I to work together across an entire year.
The momentum born of writing letters again, the enthusiasm to explore the world through Ella-Louise’s eyes and my interest in her backstory, spawned What I Left to Forget, the first short story I’d written in a long time. And like the proverbial rolling stone, I kept on rolling. I’ve been prolific: written poetry, a novella, short stories, vignettes, short film scripts and a box full of letters from Ella-Louise. I’ve taken risks and experimented and in doing so, seen more of my work enter the public realm.
I understand now the power of one small step, some faith and trust, and a tiny spark of wonder. How they reignited my passion; allowed me to fall in love with writing again. But more so, let me step back out into the light.
This is why, I encourage every creative person out there—writer, musician, visual artist, quilter, cook … whatever the creative bent—to have at least one project you do just for love, and work on it with someone you love.
Whatever you need or whatever you want will follow.
* Thank you, Adam! I feel as though I will never be able to say thank you enough.
**This is known as the infamous ‘the bikini pitch’.