When life gives you lemons
by Tina Cartwright
Trying to establish yourself as a writer in Australia can occasionally feel like a series of doors slamming in your face. Various opportunities like Varuna The National Writers’ House Residential Fellowships can provide a chance to push those doors open, meeting with publishers and like-minded writers among the dramatic vistas of the Blue Mountains.
In 2022 I finally sent off my first application to Varuna. Within a few months the rejection email popped into my inbox. I wasn’t disappointed. Writing was hard. It was competitive. I had tried.
Through Twitter, I’d met another writer, Katelin Farnsworth, who was also negotiating the ‘emerging writer’ scene. A mutually inexhaustible love of writing and an honesty about the challenges involved cemented our friendship. Unfortunately, this time around Katelin was unsuccessful in her application too.
‘We’ll do our own retreat!’ she said on the phone. Instantly, a missed opportunity transformed into a new opportunity. Neither of us could afford to take a substantial amount of time off work so late in January 2023, we took off for our self-made mini writer’s retreat over three days at an Airbnb in Phillip Island.
When the day came to depart I’d been suffering from debilitating insomnia. My fuzzy, over- tiredness meant the small acts of preparation—packing and food planning—took on a deliberate slowness that required a peaceful attention. Red swimmers squeezed in next to a copy of Michelle de Kretser’s A Question of Travel, a phenomenal novel I wanted to use to talk about beginnings and endings.
On the road I instantly got stuck behind a garbage truck. Putrid fumes floated in my window. My tired mind thought the garbage might be an omen. But when I drove through Footscray bells jangled and a red-and-gold Chinese dragon danced on the street to celebrate Chinese New Year. My mind opened to possibility once more.
My yellow car drove under dazzling blue sky. Grasslands and vast skies swept by. Country! I exclaimed to Katelin who glanced sceptically at me out the corner of her eye. On Phillip Island we pulled into a gravel drive leading to a two-storey beach house with a spa, a pool table and a sun-drenched deck, perfect for writing. Owing to my insomnia on the first day I was too thick-headed to write. That evening, I made spritzes and we relaxed in the spa talking favourite books, pivotal moments and the power of literature. Katelin had been shortlisted for a major prize twice and was still to be published. We talked industry. We talked character and process and the long haul of heaving ideas into a interesting narrative. The warm, dark night was punctuated by our talking and the burbling of the spa. I was struck by the idea that we had made our own luck; that writing, art even, was about making your own luck. And if we could do it once—we could again.
by Katelin Farnsworth
Blue everywhere, the sky, the sea. I’m overcome by the blueness, submerged in it. I take a breath, feel the sun on my back, and stretch. This feels good. This is what I’ve needed.
Writing is such a solitary pursuit. This is an obvious thing to say and yet I feel the need to say it anyway, to remind myself. Because sometimes I forget how solitary, I forget how much time I spend by myself, alone with my thoughts, daydreams, words. But sometimes you meet someone who simply gets you, a fellow writer you can share the journey with, the ups and downs, the pathway to publication.
Tina is a like-minded writer I feel a strong connection with. Connection, she says, it may just be everything. Tina is always thinking about connection, how it manifests on and off the page. She is drawn to writing about connection, exploring the ties between landscape, nature, people, unpicking what connection is, what it looks like, the psychology behind it and within it. Listening to Tina talk about what drives her writing inspires me. Sometimes it’s so easy to lose myself in my own work and it’s a relief to hear about someone else’s process, to hear what motivates them, and why.
I’ve been writing seriously for about seven years. I’ve completed three manuscripts, with others in the works, abandoned or set aside for another time. Two of my manuscripts have been shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize (2020 and 2022) but neither of these books have been picked up by a publisher. I won’t lie, it’s hard to keep going sometimes. It can feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle, that my words aren’t enough, that my stories aren’t of any interest to anyone. At times I wonder why I keep going. But deep down I know. I love writing, I love the way words fit together, I love stories. I love exploring characters, places, ideas. I love transformation, pushing characters to the edge, and seeing what they will do next.
Writing is full of rejection. It’s never personal but somehow knowing this doesn’t soften the blow. In 2022 Tina and I both applied for a writing residency. We were both unsuccessful but we formulated a plan. We would go on our own writing residency. Down by the beach. We would write, think, dream, discuss; we would do writing exercises together, practice reading our writing aloud, craft our own little creative weekend. So what if nobody picked us? We would pick ourselves.
Sometimes, when you don’t get the opportunity you desperately want, you can either wallow in self-pity or make your own luck. We decided to take matters into our hands, and I’m glad we did.
I step out into the blueness of the day, Tina next to me. Blue-green waves beckon us forward. I inhale, exhale, laugh. Connection, I think, as Tina slips off her sandals and walks into the water. I think she might be onto something when she says connection may just be everything.