Rebecca Higgie: Wild Bees and Burnout - The two-week adventure of a writer in residence
When I arrived at KSP, I was ready.
I had done the research, I had a giant board full of post-it notes that detailed my novel’s structure, and I had enough food to last two weeks. I was to be working on my second novel, a speculative/historical fiction that features multiple point of view characters and converging plotlines. The characters and scenes range from Mesopotamia over 4000 years ago to a near-future Australia battling fires and crisis.
I was ready, I was burning, to write.
So I settled into the Aldridge cabin, gently nestled in the hills, and began.
I started first with a historical figure steeped in mythology. In her chapter, I blurred the lines between this women’s life and what history has made of her. Nature and gods were woven into her vague memories of exile, sex, birth and death. There were wild bees swarming in apple trees, a man who whispered words to her that would be repeated over millennia, and the distant click-clack of a typewriter that told her story.
Then, I discovered, there were bees and typewriters at KSP too.
To my right sat a tree swarming with wild bees; to my left was a cottage where Katharine Susannah Prichard filled the air with the noise of a typewriter. In my cabin on the hill, I spied the city in the distance. The view blurred sometimes, like a mirage. It twinkled in the dark. It felt as intangible as memory.
I meandered my way through history. I went for one 40-hour stretch without even leaving my cabin.
I wrote 42,113 words in twelve days.
I never thought writers could burn out. But towards the end of the residency, the words had to be pulled like teeth. It was painful, the words were stilted and broken, and a great swarm of doubt enveloped me.
Here, other writers came to my rescue. I visited four KSP writing groups during my visit. Each one was very different, but it was lovely to engage with other people’s worlds. I also ran a workshop on multiple POV characters and plotlines, spending a Saturday afternoon playing with complex storytelling with twenty other people. Through the groups and workshop, I found so many fellow writers experienced what I did: passion for craft coupled with doubt and burnout.
Beyond the tree swarming with wild bees, KSP Fellow Mona Farrokhi was staying in the Phillips cabin. We both worked intensely, Mona powering through edits on her first novel, but we still regularly met for dinner up at Katharine’s main house. We went for a long walk in John Forrest National Park, discussing all things life and writing. We shared our doubts with one another.
“Take a walk,” she told me when I was feeling most exhausted. “Visit the bees, hun.”
So I did. I went and said hello to the bees. My characters whispered to me in between the light hum of their wings zooming over my head.
At KSP, writing is not something done in between work, family or chores. It is not an indulgence. It is a requirement. I had always felt that to be a writer all I needed was time and space. But the sudden terrible burnout I experienced after writing so much, with such intensity, made me realise that actually, we writers need to be other things in order to write well. We need to be parents, partners and friends. We need to connect to nature and engage in other types of work. Writers need time and space, yes, but we also need connection. KSP gave me that. I returned home with my post-it note board and many lessons:
Write tenaciously, push on.
But take a walk.
Visit the bees.
Rebecca’s ‘Top 10 Tips’:
1. When writing, keep daily word counts to track your progress. Only record them on days when you actually write (we don’t need to see zeros for days when you don’t write!). Celebrate every word.
2. Break your project into small, manageable goals (e.g. a chapter, a single poem, etc). A whole book can be overwhelming. Breaking it down into pieces makes it feel doable.
3. Even if you aren’t a big ‘plotter’, knowing the end of your story and your characters’ motivations will guide you whenever you’re feeling stuck.
4. Set yourself deadlines and share them with trusted friends who can help keep you accountable.
5. The first draft is like vomiting clay. Let it be messy. Let it be bad. You can sculpt it into a masterpiece at the editing phase.
6. If you’re stuck, go visual. Map out each chapter with coloured post-it notes, sketch mind-maps on a whiteboard, or gather photos of places or objects that speak to your work.
7. If you are very limited on time, consider flash fiction, short poems, or even just sentences and paragraphs typed out on your phone in the dead of night. Still write! Keep going!
8. Be tenacious in carving out time to write. Even if you only get ten minutes a day, claim this time proudly. Don’t accept that you have to ‘wait’ until life if less hectic in order to write.
9. Connect with other writers. We all write different things but our concerns and fears are often the same. Writing groups and events are key here.
10. Listen to nature. Be still. Have moments where you tune into the wind between trees. When words won’t come, this is where you may find them.
Rebecca Higgie - Emerging Writer in Residence, July 2023