Philippa Moore: Becoming a Marathon Writer
How does something manage to be both restorative and one of the most physically and mentally challenging things you’ve ever done?
My two weeks at KSP reminded me a great deal of training for and running the London Marathon some 12 years ago (and not just because I broke up writing sessions with runs in the beautiful John Forrest and Greenmount National Parks nearby). On this Fellowship, I became a marathon writer! I dug deep and found reserves of courage and fortitude I didn’t know I still had. I proved to myself that I could push through and keep going when self-belief and energy ran low. I learned, not for the first time, that getting the job done is not just about inspiration, but a matter of stamina and mental strength.
To be honest, I am still processing the revelations and lessons of my time as a Residential Fellow at KSP and its profound impact on my creative practice. It was a transformative experience in so many ways. I emerged from the Fellowship a different writer and, significantly, a more resilient one. I returned to Hobart with a stronger, more coherent novel compared to the one I arrived in Perth with, and feel very excited about its direction as I work towards a final draft.
“So much of writing is holding your nerve,” said Miles Franklin winner Amanda Lohrey in a workshop I did with her last year. I have found that to be very true about many things in life, both running long distances and the 14 days and nights I spent in the Clarke cabin at KSP. Here are some things I learned, that I found helpful, and that I’m glad to pass on in the hope it inspires you with your own writing marathon if you’re lucky enough to come to KSP.
1. Set some intentions.
Before I left for Perth, I wrote down my intentions for my Fellowship in my journal. I found them, leafing through my notebooks on the night I arrived. I decided to write them out, in thick black pen on A4 paper, and affix them to the corkboard above the microwave and kettle, where I’d see them constantly. If I found the familiar itch of procrastination prickling my skin, all I’d have to do is look over at the corkboard and see the words I am here to write. Everything else can wait and like magic, my focus and resolve would be back. Remind yourself why you’re at KSP, why you’re doing this. It helps!
2. You can’t be brilliant every day and every day can’t be brilliant.
This was something British running legend and my marathon buddy Martin Yelling said to me back in the day, and I think about those words of wisdom often when it comes to my writing practice. It is especially true when you’re taking up a Residential Fellowship at KSP, because two weeks is a long time! You are very lucky if you have a perfect residency with no interruptions to your flow, no crises back at home that require your input, no anxieties gnawing at the back of your mind, no self-doubt or imposter syndrome making its presence known. If you’re just not feeling it one day, make a conscious choice – either push through (it can be done) or use that time to refill the well. Spend time in the wild gardens of KSP, borrow some books from the main house library, chat to others who might be visiting that day. Whatever you do, don’t stay in the in-between bit where you get nothing achieved.
3. Remember, it’s not meant to be easy.
A self-contained cabin in the Perth Hills, surrounded by beautiful gardens, birdlife, wild bees and infused with the spirit of one of Australia’s most fascinating writers? It sounds idyllic, and it is. But then you have to get to work. I reminded myself constantly – whether by reading books on writing craft or listening to podcast interviews with writers – that writing a novel is a huge act of self-belief, of stamina, and of graft. If you’re not finding it easy, that doesn’t mean you’re failing – if anything, it means you’re probably getting fitter (metaphorically) and pushing your craft to the next level. Remember, this is something that is engaging all of your intelligence. It is meant to be hard. Whether it’s an actual marathon or a two-week writing marathon, this is not for the faint of heart or the easily put off. Be proud of yourself for being brave enough to do this work.
4. Have a checklist or a plan of some kind.
Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time... The wait is simply too long. —Leonard Bernstein
This probably applies more to novelists but either before you arrive or on your first day, compile a list of scenes from your novel that still need writing (or rewriting). On days where you’re not sure where to start, if your novel draft is a bit jumbled and unwieldy like mine, turn to your list and pick one! It always helped get the ball rolling for me. I found it immensely satisfying to have checked off all the scenes by the last day.
5. Listening to your inner critic is a luxury you can’t afford.
Running and writing are so similar in that they are very much mental activities – the mind will convince your body of its capabilities. In writing’s case, your inner critic’s job is to stop you from leaving your comfort zone and keep your fingers away from the keyboard. I had to remind myself that I always had a choice – to listen to my inner critic and get derailed, or to get on with the job I was there to do. In fact, I often looked at the bee tree outside my cabin and was inspired by their diligence. Were they worried that they weren’t the best bee in the colony, that they weren’t good enough to be there? No. They were getting on with it. So I did the same.
6. Journal to get into the flow.
I started each day at KSP by switching on the kettle, making a black coffee and sitting at the lovely big desk to do my Morning Pages, which is three pages of free writing. Once I moved on to my novel, I kept my journal close to hand so I could jot down any random thoughts about the project, or anything really, while I was writing. If the creative work isn’t flowing, I recommend moving to your journal instead. You might find something unlocks or energy shifts. If nothing else, you’ll have a record of your thoughts and process during this time. It’s a journey worth recording.
I find running or writing are both more pleasurable with something to listen to. My husband had made me some (virtual) mixtapes to listen to while I worked – two weeks was the longest we’ve been apart since we were married 13 years ago and the song choices sometimes made me cry at my desk, both from how perfectly the music summed up my character’s journey (like most people married to a writer, he knows my novel’s characters almost as well as I do) and from missing him. Music might not be part of your process, but anything that gets emotions stirred up is gold dust while you’re at KSP, fuelling your own engine. Even listening to the birds’ raucous songs in the morning and the possums at night was inspiring – I imagined my protagonist, newly arrived in Australia in the early nineteenth century, hearing them too and what her reaction would be.
8. Use the whiteboard.
I was sceptical about this at first but everyone mentioned it in the guestbook and on this blog, so I figured it was worth giving it a try. It ended up being transformative. It helped me visualise my novel’s two timelines, and how they would fit together. It got a lot of information out of my head and into a format where I could start to make sense of it. I now have a whiteboard in my office and highly recommend everyone staying at KSP to make use of their cabin’s whiteboard. Even if it’s just to write your intentions on (see tip 1).
9. Making it to the finish line is what matters.
This was probably the biggest revelation of the Fellowship for me. On a dark(ish) night of the soul, as the possums hissed outside my window, I realised that, subconsciously, I had been aiming very high, expecting that every problem with my novel would be magically resolved by the time it came for me to leave KSP. I realised I needed to let go of any hopes or ideas about whether what I was writing was any good, because that was not my business. I simply had to surrender to the process and get it written. I would remember my marathon training all those years ago and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, take it one mile at a time. That was sometimes easier said than done. I realised, without the distractions of my everyday life and the things I thought I needed to be away from to do my work, that I, with all my lofty ideals and unhealthy attachment to outcomes beyond my control, was actually my biggest obstacle. I needed to get out of my own way. Much like with the marathon, making it to the finish line would have to be reward enough.
You might have similar revelations – it is often the way once you’re removed from your daily life and you suddenly have time to spend on the thing that matters so much to you. These realisations can sting, but sit with them. Journal about them. Let them feed your resolve and help you find fresh courage to press on.
10. Allow yourself to feel pleasure, joy and gratitude.
Allow yourself to be present and really enjoy every moment. What you are doing is amazing. Being here is a privilege. Having this time to focus on your writing is such a gift. Do your best to use your time well and when you find yourself pinching yourself that you’re here, it’s happening and you’re really doing this, savour it. Whatever guilt or anxiety you might feel at being away from your loved ones, your job, or any other aspect of your daily life, try to use it as fuel. Pour it all on to the page. Soak it all up. You’re here. You did it.
And enjoy the KSP property as much as you can – as a Tasmanian, Perth in August was blissfully warm to me (!) so I sat outside for lunch some days, inhaling the heavenly smells of geraniums and dormant just-trimmed honeysuckle hedges, and listening to the bracing, wild laughter of kookaburras, a sound that never fails to make me smile.
This period of focused, immersive work on my novel I was able to do thanks to the KSP Fellowship program was priceless. When my two weeks was up, I felt more resilient, had a stronger creative practice and a novel I felt confident about, and a renewed resolve to simply do whatever it takes to get the work done. My running shoes, stained red with earth, were also pretty worn out!
KSP is a very special place, run by very special people. I am so grateful to have had this incredible opportunity, not just to focus deeply on my work but to learn so much about myself as a writer and as a human being. I will remember my time here forever. There’s even a wild bee tree in my novel now…
Philippa Moore, KSP Fellow 2023