My Writing Journey

This is a story for all those who asked me, ‘why did you write a book’ and ‘how did you write a book.’

My life as a lecturer and researcher at university was a challenge I enjoyed but I struggled to write in the ‘academic tradition’. At my first writing course the teacher told me that my writing was like a painting, I threw ideas at the page and let them splatter and did not link them together so that my reader could follow my argument. My reply was that the links between the ideas were obvious, but that was my first lesson in understanding my reader needed to be guided through a logical sequence of thoughts and it was my job to make those links obvious. I needed to show my thought processes on paper. My readers could not read my mind!

Mastering the ‘academic tradition’ led to the publication of copious conference papers, journal articles, book chapters, and even two academic books, but as time passed, I wanted to start writing stories about my experiences in life. After two years in Fiji in 2000-2001, where a coup erupted, I had an even more urgent need to write to try and come to some understanding of what had happened and how it had affected me.

While living and working in Oxford I attended the Oxford University Continuing Education Department’s six-month evening class in Life Writing. I found that the stories flowed and the tutor, and the class seemed to enjoy my stories. At the end of the classes six of us formed a writing group to continue to share our writing and to give each other feedback. The group dwindled to three, and after some years I moved back to Australia, but we managed to sustain our support for each other over a number of years. One of the members agreed to read the first full draft of my book and gave detailed feedback, along with a new buddy who was an experienced editor and had not seen any of the stories beforehand. Support and quality feedback from people we trust is so important in our writing.

When I had written a number of short stories about my time in Fiji, I thought they might be more meaningful to a reader if I sat them in the political context of the coup. I had a lot of reference resources as I kept journals at the time and wrote long emails to family and friends. I had collected pages daily from the local newspapers that contained articles about the coup and had video-taped the local tv news each evening. It took an enormous amount of time to work through these resources, to tallyup dates with my own stories, and write about the coup. Halfway through the narrative I hit a brick wall not knowing where, or how, I was going to end the story. Deciding just to get the damn thing finished, I sat down and wrote and wrote every spare hour I could find, not stopping to check anything. My long-term reader thought my writing progressively improved in the second half of the book – a lesson there about getting into the grove and checking later.

After three months of intensive writing, I was tired of the whole venture, realising the book didn’t flow well, half being written in a journalistic style (reporting the coup) and half written as personal stories. I didn’t know how to blend these two styles to form a coherent whole so put the book aside for six months and took a ten-week intensive online course in Advanced Creative Writing. I needed a project for the course and wanted a rest from to the Fiji saga; instead, I worked on the bones of a novel for which I had evolved a setting, two lead characters and a very tragic ending. The course was exhausting; I wrote for 20-30 hours a week with five weekly tasks to achieve – two reading or web searching and three writing. We had to post our writing online, take feedback from the other course participants and constructively critique their writings. During the course I wrote about six chapter of the novel, expanded the characters and was persuaded that readers do not need a tragic Shakespearean ending, that they need to be left with some hope!

I returned to my Fiji saga totally refreshed and applied much new knowledge to its revision. I realised that my memoir entwined three themes; my life and how the experience affected me, my work, and the story of the coup, plus a vast array of characters. My two copy-readers felt that people would not be overly interested in my educational work, that the political story was far too detailed, and that there were too many characters.

Three lead characters are often cited as the best number so I decided on three for the each of the stories. My home set of characters were easy, my husband, my son and myself. My three for work were the Centre admin officer, and two of the tutors. The coup characters were more difficult as I was fascinated by the coup and many of the participants, so it was with reluctance that I removed some very colourful characters leaving; Commodore Bainimarama, the head of the Fiji military forces, George Speight the civilian coup leader, and Colonel Rabuka, military leader of the two coups in 1987, and subsequent leader of the country for 19 years.

Removing most of the writing about my work and my educational beliefs and practices, slashing the political detail, and keeping a strong focus on my own stories, reduced the hefty weight’ of the book and eased the reading content, but it still left me with one other feedback to address. I had to put myself in the story, l had to let people into my feelings, my thoughts, my emotional reactions. I had no idea how to do that. I could describe where I went, what I did, who was with me, but I couldn’t express how I felt about events or other people.

So I signed up for another ten-week, intensive online course, this time Advanced Writing Lives, with a firm focus on ourselves, our families, and our lives. This was both physically exhausting and emotionally draining – revealing all my raw emotions for others to read and comment on. But, I learnt how to do it and that I could do it, without the world collapsing.

I returned to my Fiji saga and ‘showed’ how I felt: my anger, my laughter, my lack of comprehension, my frustrations, my despair, my physical and emotional pain and my joy in the paradise of Fiji.

At last it was ready to be shown to the public.

Valerie Clifford