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Tales of a (Pre)- Emerging Writer

Sara Bannister has been writing for years. But, she asks, can she call herself an emerging writer yet?

Renewing a Writer’s Victoria membership, I was given three options to describe my writing status: early, emerging or published. Apart from a few short stories in a student publication, I wouldn’t be considered published. But emerging? That sounds like a writer who is starting to be seen and noticed. They’d have at least one short story out there in a worthy anthology, and a few competition wins. Again, that isn’t me right now.

I can honestly say that in my lifetime I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours writing fiction, including a novel, short stories and a three-act play. I devote at least five minutes every hour of the day thinking about writing, mostly feeling guilty for not doing enough of it.

I’m very fortunate to have had the support of a brilliant author and much-loved writers’ mentor, Antoni Jach, who continues to believe in me as a future author. I don’t want to prove him, or anyone else who has encouraged me, wrong. That’s why I keep my work tucked in a drawer. If I finish a project, I might discover what type of writer I am. It will almost certainly not be what I’m expecting.

Being an emerging writer is an exciting, intense, experimental time of great creativity when everything is possible. You can attend festivals, devour countless books, write multiple drafts, share your work at writing classes, reach out to favourite authors, enjoy those moments when your words delight or just connect with people. You can dream about the new space that will be created on bookshelves for your work.

But don’t let the fear of failing to live up to expectations trap you in the nothing-to-lose world of the early or pre-emerging writer.

I know about this. I quit a good full-time job in my late twenties to concentrate on writing fiction. I started a novel about a teenage girl doing Year 12 in a run-down, western suburbs school, based on my own experiences, and applied for professional writing and editing courses around Melbourne. I was thrilled when every institution offered me a place. This was an emerging writer’s heaven – a state of excitement to be creating stories and sharing them with others.

I chose RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course because they called me in for an interview and wanted to talk about the novel I was doing. It was about to get so much more interesting – and heartbreaking.

A year later, I started the advanced novel class with Antoni as teacher, and by then my novel was over fifty-thousand words. Through his intervention, the manuscript ended up on the desk of one of Australia’s most respected and important publishers of young adult fiction. I hadn’t yet handed in my work to be marked.

My head was spinning. One day, the publisher called me at home to give feedback. She said that this work showed ‘plenty of promise’ but was not yet ready for publication. The publisher was warm, positive and encouraging, never for a moment making me feel that this was a rejection. She went on to say she’d edited part of the manuscript ‘so you can see how to improve it’. Before she put the phone down I asked if I could re-write and send it back. The publisher said yes, but I never got that second draft back to her.

This is a perfect example of the fear I’m talking about. The fear of putting my own potential to the test. I thought the publisher was just being polite when she said I could send a revised draft back to her. I didn’t believe in myself. I’d forgotten the hours and effort I’d put into writing ever since I could remember – perhaps since the age of eight.

Today, it would be ludicrous to identify myself as an ‘early’ writer. It’s not as though I picked up a pen last week. It doesn’t feel right to call myself an emerging writer when I’m still safely wrapped up in a writing cave of my own making, with abandoned drafts in the cupboard.

So, I’m this other category. Pre-emerging?

How did I get to be this frustrated writer? They say every girl needs a spark – and mine was stories and creative writing. Other kids were into dancing, skateboarding, going to the movies, hanging out with friends, playing hula hoops, all of which I loved, too. I had many sparks. Any of them could have lead somewhere, except perhaps the hula hooping. One of my parents noticed some writing ability in me early on and intervened heavily, buying a typewriter for my tenth birthday. They wanted me to use it, and not be outside mucking around with other kids. The birthday card said:

‘To our little literary genius’. It may be one of the worst things anyone has said to me, and it had a terrible impact. I felt pressured to spend weekends and school holidays punching out thousands of words – a heavy burden for a ten-year-old – in a desperate effort to prove I was the talented child they wanted me to be.

Without realising it, I wasn’t writing for myself but to justify my existence in the household and to feel valued as a person.

From then on, nothing I did was enough. When I got my first job behind the counter at a service station in Taylors Lakes, they reminded me it was a ‘waste of your talent’. In reality, I had been a kid from St Albans who was good at English, happy to read a lot of books when my peers would rather be out doing tricks with yo-yos. If I’d been left alone, I’d have protected that spark. I’d be an author by now, able to click that description on the Writers Victoria website.

Now, this is all just another excuse for not writing. If your excuses start to have better characters, plot twists and emotional resonance than the work you’re avoiding, it’s time to act. You don’t have to be anyone’s genius, or brilliant, or a prize-winning writer.

What matters is that you allow your writing to emerge – not necessarily into the public domain, though that’s a good thing. I mean let it emerge from your own mind. Put words onto paper and finish every project so that it becomes this solid thing, not a bunch of ideas and stories floating off into space, and eventually out of your reach.

About Sara Bannister

Sara Bannister is a Melbourne writer and media advisor whose articles have appeared in the ‘Herald Sun’, ‘The Big Issue’, ‘Visible Ink’ and many others. Sara studied journalism, and professional writing and editing at RMIT. She is finally completing a novel based on her formative years in the western suburbs, which she began many years ago.

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