It took Jenny Ackland half a century to publish her first novel, but the years leading up to that point were her inspiration. With her second novel set to be published this month, Jenny reflects on the life– the juggle– that led her to feel the most creatively powerful she ever has.
When I was 18 or 19 my grandfather paid for me to do a creative writing course. You know the ones. They are held in an innocuous space in the CBD, run for eight weeks and are filled with ahem, a certain type.
‘They’re all really old,’ I told my mother after that first class. I don’t remember what she said, something gently diplomatic no doubt. I do remember being disappointed, feeling I had nothing in common with my classmates. If I’d been able to tap myself on the shoulder and have a word, I would have said ‘Don’t be so callous, bucko. You aren’t even going to get to it for some decades yet, this writing thing.’
For novel-writing, some of the work can be done while you are living your life. You think about incidents and people, make notes of observations and details. As you are putting yourself together, trying to form an adult whole who can manage work, friends, family and love adequately enough; you are also noticing your larger world.
You realise how other relationships and people operate. You find out truths about yourself and not all of them are positive. Things go wrong and things go right. Loving and leaving, achieving and mucking it all up beyond salvage. But for some of us, this is all material for later. Whether it’s visual art, sculpture, dance, music, or something with words like poetry, essays, fiction.
Even while heaving a child out of your body, this same work can be going on– a silently-spinning cog in your brain that is gathering material. We women are serious multi-taskers.
As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book Big Magic we don’t have to be big A artists to be creative. We can do ‘whatever brings us to life’ and helps us find joy. For women who want a family life though, creativity is often put to the side to be brought out later, with a sheepish flourish: ‘Here’s something I prepared earlier.’ We can be changing nappies and heating bottles, cutting chewing gum out of hair, resentfully pushing a vacuum around, making those goddamn school lunches, and surely I can’t be the only person who rage-cleans. We juggle petting zoos, supermarkets, coffee shops, playgrounds, trips to the beach, swimming lessons, the netball court, the footy oval–all of it. For years.
I put my creativity to the side like many other women and then with a snap of the fingers found myself on the other side of 40. I went back to university to do my post-graduate year in education and then a Masters where I had tutors telling me I was a perfect candidate to do a PhD.
I decided against a doctorate knowing that if I took that path I wouldn’t have enough juice to pursue my creative writing, so after marrying again I began to carve out serious space to do this. My reading changed from novels alone to novels and creative writing ‘how-to’ books. I began to take writing workshops and somehow moved from ‘aspirational and pottering’ to ‘bloody doing it.’ I started going to literary festivals and events, I enrolled in writing workshops, I found community, I submitted short stories and was rightly rejected– I reworked, I resubmitted. One got published and then another. I was listed in prizes and awards. I finished a novel manuscript and found an agent willing to take me on. I was building something.
My first novel was published in 2015 when I was 52. My second novel is being published in April this year. In a world where ageism snaps at the heels of sexism, (or indeed crosses over), where women are not taught to think about power, and girls not really socialised to take risks, I can’t be alone in thinking that if a woman wants something she has to do it for herself. Make it for herself, take it for herself because no one is going to do it for you.
Publishing book-length works of fiction is a long game. There are disappointments and delays. There are also so many gatekeepers and the chance that you won’t get it done. It’s a long game and yes, you need stamina, fire and endurance. You have to be tough, persistent and above all patient. Good work does not co-exist with impatience. Professional working relationships do not thrive with impatience.
At a social event recently, I made a comment about how I felt I was the most powerful I’d ever been. The other women didn’t know what to make of that. I said it in the context of ageing, they were younger and their faces showed that they were surprised, even amused. But ten years ago, as if holding my nose and jumping into a deep body of water, I went for it. I will never be on a Best 30 Writers Under 30 list, nor a 40 Under 40. But maybe there is a chance for a 50 Over 50 or a 60 Over 60 and I really like the sound of that.