Back in 2005, around the same time as the Australian Writers’ Centre was first opening its doors, Gwen Wilson, then 50, was making the first scribblings for what would become her debut memoir, I Belong to No One.
“I can trace its beginning to 2005, and it evolved through numerous stops and starts,” recalls Gwen. “Then in 2008 I quit my corporate career in Sydney and moved to Wollongong … just as the GFC hit, taking with it my promised replacement role.” For Gwen, looking for another job turned into full-time work in itself and it wasn’t long before she realised that she needed to change the script.
She decided to go to university for the first time in her life, and in 2012 graduated, at age 57, with a Master’s Degree in Electronic Commerce. “I was back in the corporate world, running between Sydney and Victoria, only home on weekends – not so great. Worse still, the job folded after four months!”
Gwen admits that it was as if life was trying to tell her that yes, she was in fact “retired”. So she decided to embrace it and act like a “baby-boomer retiree”, taking off to Europe for three months. Upon her return to Australia, the workforce simply didn’t appeal anymore. Her writing muscle was slowly flexing.
“I did the Travel Memoir course [at the Australian Writers' Centre] about six months [after graduating],” says Gwen. “I had no training or background as a writer when I began I Belong to No One. I had no idea about the concepts of voice, point of view, time of telling or any of those guidelines. I just wrote . . . and wrote.”
Writing and writing
After university, she had also discovered blogging. “I started a blog called The Reluctant Retiree by Garrulous Gwendoline, in which I described myself as a novice blogger, aspiring writer, occasional job-seeker, mature-aged uni graduate, traveller and baby boomer!”
But always in the background was her memoir. Gwen has 20 versions of I Belong to No One on her laptop, charting the progression of her writing style – beginning with what reads like a family history journal to the final novel-like approach.
It was a labour of love. She admits there were times when she never wanted to see the story again. “It requires much persistence and patience.”
Paris and publication
By 2013, she could edit and hone no more. She handed I Belong to No One over for a manuscript appraisal. More rewrites and editing followed, and another manuscript appraisal to get it into shape for recommending to an agent.
Meanwhile, she had signed up for the Australian Writers' Centre's Writing in Paris tour – 17 days living and learning about life writing in one of the world’s most inspiring cities. “I imagined myself attending the daily workshops, then, after sipping absinthe, invoking the spirits of all those authors who found their inspiration in Paris. I expected to work into the early hours every night, feverishly fine-tuning I Belong to No One.” But one phone call changed all that.
“Imagine my shock when on the way to the pre-departure briefing I received a call that Hachette Australia was making me a publication offer!” The agent had taken her on and secured a deal with Hachette Australia.
Gwen still went to Paris, albeit now with a little more time free in her evenings. “I was extraordinarily lucky, I feel. At the same time though, I know I worked extraordinarily hard.”
Of course, in a way, it was just the beginning. Two further rounds of editing followed with Hachette Australia, plus proof-reading. “There were months of waiting, followed by months of frenzied re-writes, to get it across the line. I tell everyone I Belong to No One took 30 years – 20 to live it, and 10 to write it!”
I Belong to No One was released in June 2015, and this reluctant retiree celebrated its launch in style.
Tools of the trade
Gwen felt that her inherent writing ability was there all along, but believes the courses she took at the Australian Writers' Centre helped fill in some vital knowledge gaps.
“It is helpful to learn the ‘rules’, if only so you realise when you are breaking them. Also, it teaches you the jargon of the industry, which is just as important to know as in any other job. For example, the first time I was asked to ‘outline the narrative arc of my memoir’ I had no idea what that meant!”
She also enjoyed being in the company of other writers and the stimulation of the course facilitators. “It is interesting to hear how different people approach the same exercise, because our styles are all so different.”
“The course material provided in the Travel Memoir course is concise and a ready reference, while the two textbooks from Writing in Paris are comprehensive and full of examples, so all these resources form part of my ‘toolbox’.”
Reluctant no more
As for what’s next for Gwen, in early 2015 she did the Writing Australian History course here at Australian Writers’ Centre to assist her in her next project – a historical novel based on her great-grandmother. In particular it traces her ancestor’s experiences arriving in Australia as a single woman in the late 1800s.
“If there is anyone out there with information on the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society, I’d be delighted to hear from them!”