After two-and-a-half years writing a memoir about my childhood and adolescence, I had what I can only describe as a ‘creative meltdown’. A sort of short-lived nervous breakdown induced by artistic failure. It happened during the Easter long-weekend in 2018 and not long after the end of my ten-year relationship.
At the time, I felt I needed a win. I needed for the manuscript to come to an end. I needed the feeling of having accomplished something at a point in my life when I felt as if everything was falling apart. But I was teaching an introductory writing course to first year university students then and, because of my teaching load, I hadn’t touched the memoir in a little while. So over the break I set down to read the manuscript with fresh eyes before resuming work on it.
I knew straightaway that something was very wrong. Nothing held together. The writing was a mess tonally – stiff at times, and usually where it counted most, and then ranging into lengthy, indulgent diatribes where I had played up what seemed a false image of my teenage self. On the page, I was an arrogant, swaggering rebel, and I kind of detested this person, though at the time of drafting I’d thought this was the ‘real’ me, or at least the ‘me’ I wanted readers to know. Plus, the work wasn’t that entertaining: it was a collection of fragmented remembrances, and it didn’t settle any of the old scores it seemed to want to, too obviously – I’d thought I could right some wrongs, correct the past, by writing about it. It’d been a bad idea. Worst of all, the manuscript simply didn’t feel true. It didn’t have a heart.
The work was in such a shape, because my motivations were all wrong for starters – I was trying to cash in. I was feeling the pressure of having not been published yet. I needed publication, desperately. Not only in the way of validation, but also for my career and livelihood. Without publication, the life I’d been building as a writer and academic couldn’t work; my employment prospects would be in jeopardy. You need a strong history of publications to stay viable in the precarious world of freelance writing and casual employment within academia. Importantly, you need publications in order to stop feeling like a fraud. It’s why the saying publish or perish exists.
After reading my memoir draft, I collapsed in a heap on my living room floor, angry and despairing, and then tore the manuscript to pieces. My most profound emotion was one of grief. I had lost a significant amount of time, and it was time I didn’t have to waste, and I had lost a book.
When after a few days I calmed down, I decided to take stock. I realised then that the problem, fundamentally, was not only my panicked need for publication, but also the genre I’d chosen. I’d only ever desired, and written, fiction before, so what was I doing writing a memoir? In fact, in a diary I’d kept when I’d first started the project, I discovered a handful of notes which said, in summary: ‘Write the book as nonfiction first and then convert to fiction.’
It was a shock to find these notes, and yet not an utter surprise. The way I’ve always worked is I write comprehensive notes about my life then later shape them into fiction. Only in this instance I’d gotten fixated on what was essentially my note-taking process – the compiling of material stage – and thought I could take a shortcut. I’d done so for three reasons: the pressure I felt to publish as soon as possible; my impression that nonfiction titles did well commercially; and a desire to avoid the terrible sadness I was feeling at the time at a dawning realisation that I had, in fact, wasted a significant portion of my life in a relationship I wasn’t all that happy in. My twenties were coming to an end and there were no memories of freer, easier times, no travel or dating stories, and not as much sex as I’d hoped. I was angry about my life and, honestly, I just didn’t want to continue massaging material that made me vulnerable and so often left me feeling emotionally exhausted and defeated. But, I now realised, if I truly wanted to see the book through, and if I stood any chance at publication, I would have to keep on going and persist with shaping what I had into what it needed to be – a novel.
As a memoir, my story was in desperate need of characters, plot and strong themes. My nonfiction seemed dead on the page, and this was perhaps because the material was so personal and I didn’t have enough distance from it to shape it into a compelling narrative. If I wrote a negative portrayal of someone in my life, I’d then exhaust the following page attempting to absolve them, to justify that person to a reader. But once rendered as a ‘character’, I felt no need to defend them, because they weren’t ‘real’ anymore. And because I wasn’t writing about myself, or so I told myself, my protagonist could do and say what he liked; I was no longer sabotaging the manuscript with petty attempts to come over as cool or tough, or whatever it was I wanted the reader to think of me. And I was no longer beholden to every minute detail of my life either once I converted my material into fiction. Writing nonfiction had been overwhelming as I would compulsively add unnecessary detail after unnecessary detail until it had become a documentation not literature.
For me, writing memoir felt like being in an especially popular restaurant during a Friday night dinner service, packed out and with the kind of harsh interiors that bounce every sound off the walls and floor. I couldn’t hear myself think. Me, my life, the people in it, crowded the book and it was so noisy that I couldn’t think my way clear to a streamlined narrative telling of events.
When I sat down to write, now committed to the novel, I realised I could salvage the first few chapters of the memoir, but the rest would need to be thrown away, and I’d have to build a clear outline from there. I normally don’t care so much about plot, but now I needed one to find my way out of the material’s chaos. I came up with what I call a ‘domino effect’ structure and hung onto the style of writing chapters of roughly equivalent length that could be read in isolation, almost like a series of short stories which, when read in sequence, tipped into the next, like dominoes after they have been stood up and lined up, knocking on one after the other. And of the many themes my memoir had addressed, I selected the most important three to focus on: class, love and sexuality.
It might seem that surely I could’ve done any of these things in memoir too, and I would agree that perhaps one could have. Only, I couldn’t. I wasn’t this kind of a writer … Just as a writer needs to work out their style, perhaps some of us also need to consider what writing genres are best for us.
Tobias McCorkell is the author of the novel Everything in its Right Place (Transit Lounge), the forthcoming monograph Transgressive Fiction (ibidem Press, 2021), and is the editor of a forthcoming anthology on social class in Australia, Cop This Lot (Scribe, 2021). Tobias has appeared at the Melbourne Emerging Writer’s Festival and has received a University of Melbourne/Affirm Press Prize for Creative Writing, a Varuna Residency Fellowship and a Leighton Artists Studios Residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Melbourne.