How to Become a Writer: Imbi Neeme

This series is based on an early short-story by Lorrie Moore called ‘How to Become a Writer’, a wry account of all the seemingly random events, choices and missteps that led a young woman to dedicate herself to a life of putting words on paper. This is a subject I’m fascinated by. Whenever I talk to authors, read their interviews or hear them speak, I’m struck by the enormous variety of routes there are to the same end-point.

There are those who come to writing through study, others are self-taught; some begin early while others are ‘late-bloomers’; some are lucky enough to find mentors, others go it alone; some begin as teachers, editors or in other word-related professions, others come from lives as accountants or sheep shearers. I take tremendous comfort in knowing there’s more than one way to pack a sack; that just because you haven’t done certain things (like gone to university), doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer; we must each find our own path to the writing life.

Imbi Neeme is a recovering blogger, impending novelist and compulsive short story writer. Her manuscript The Spill was awarded the 2019 Penguin Literary Prize. She was also the recipient of the 2019 Henry Handel Richardson Fellowship at Varuna for excellence in Short Story Writing. Her short fiction has won prizes in the 2019 Newcastle Short Story Awards, the 2018 Boroondara Literary Awards, and has been shortlisted for the 2018 Peter Carey Short Story Award. Her first manuscript, The Hidden Drawer, made the judges’ commended list in the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Awards and was selected for the 2015 Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program. She blogged for many years at Not Drowning, Mothering, which won the 2010 Bloggies award for best Australian/New Zealand Weblog. She lives in Melbourne with her partner, kids and largely indifferent pets.

Imbi Neeme

New Girl &

“My parents are theatre-makers so we were always having to move to where the work was when I was growing up. As a result, I ended up going to eight different schools. Always the New Girl, I quickly learned to pay attention. I noticed how people were wearing their hair and their socks and which words they were using. I became very good at quickly assessing who was mean, who was nice, and who was actually cool. I also always carried a book with me. You’re never alone at lunchtime if you have a good book.

What didn’t exactly make for a great childhood has really helped me in my writing. There’s a part of me that always remains the New Girl, watching and observing.

Novella &

Straight out of university, I took a job teaching English in Japan. I was the only gaijin woman in a town of 50,000 people and I never once stopped feeling like the New Girl for the whole two years I was there. Elderly ladies would literally gasp and shuffle away when they saw me in the supermarket. I bought my first computer (a Powerbook 150 that was more house brick than machine) and spent my evenings alone in my flat, feverishly writing an earnest and quite terrible novella. It didn’t matter how lonely I was feeling, I always had a place to retreat to at the end of each day. Writing has continued to be a safe haven for me ever since.

The Hidden Drawer &

In the late 1990s, I was having breakfast in a café when I found a hidden drawer in the table I was sitting at, filled with handwritten notes. I wrote my own note and slipped it inside the drawer, and in that moment, a seed for a novel was planted. That seed grew incredibly slowly, however.

It took me thirteen years to finally start writing it and then a further three years before it was completed.

This was my first manuscript, The Hidden Drawer.

Blogging &

In 2008, when my youngest child was finally sleeping through the night, a friend suggested that I start a blog. After I’d googled ‘What is a blog”, I opened a WordPress account and started Not Drowning, Mothering where I ended up writing 270,000 words in over 500 posts in the space of three years. I’d rise every morning at 5am, write while the kids were still sleeping, edit while they were eating breakfast and then hit ‘publish’ as we left on the school run. I’ll be eternally grateful for the gifts that blogging gave me.

Not only did blogging connect me with my first ever writing community, it also helped me develop my writing muscle. I apply the same discipline to my longform writing practice, making the very most of whatever small windows of opportunity I get to write.

Spreadsheet &

By 2013, I’d finally broken up with blogging and had slowly started writing longform fiction. Around this time, I became aware of the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award (in my defence, I’d been living under a very large rock called My Children’s Early Childhood) and I thought that it might be a good thing to aim for. Two years later, I submitted The Hidden Drawer and it ended up making the judges’ commended list.

From then on, I kept using prizes and competitions as a way of setting deadlines for myself.

Soon, I’d made myself a huge spreadsheet to track my submissions to prizes, agents and publishers, along with upcoming opportunities. Whenever another rejection came in, I’d let myself wallow for twenty-four hours and then I’d update my Submissions Log and plan my next step. In that way, any rejection just became another cell in a spreadsheet and I was able to keep going.

Pause &

In early 2016, I received some feedback for The Hidden Drawer from a publishing professional that stopped me in my tracks. The feedback essentially proclaimed the manuscript to be “miserable” and “a downer” and concluded that nobody would ever want to read it. At the time, I was writing the first draft of my second manuscript, Out of Water, which was arguably even more miserable than my first. Even though I tried to laugh off the feedback with my writing friends, I soon found myself completely stalled at the thirty thousand word mark.

Two things saved me. Firstly, Jane Rawson reminded me of some advice she’d already given me but I’d somehow managed to forget:

“Write the kind of book that you yourself want to read.”

Jane Rawson

And secondly, I signed up for one of Antoni Jach’s Masterclasses here in Melbourne which resulted in a “spin off” writing group called The Prologues. By submitting chapters for our monthly meetings, I found another way of setting myself deadlines and before I knew it, I had completed Out of Water. And then, when I started receiving rejections for that manuscript, I started a third “miserable” one called The Spill.

Imbi Neeme’s ‘miserable’ novel; winner of the Penguin Literary Prize!

Tattoo &

By late 2016, I was feeling closer to getting published than I ever had. In a moment of optimism, I made a pact with my friend, the playwright and poet Emilie Collyer: if we both achieved certain writing goals within the next year, we would get matching tattoos of an ampersand. Three weeks later, Emilie found out she had breast cancer and her focus naturally turned away from her writing goal and towards her treatment. At one point, she told me she wasn’t sure she would return to writing even after her treatment had ended. I was supportive, of course, but secretly, I despaired for her and it led me to a very important realisation:

All this time I had been thinking a writer who wasn’t published was somehow not a proper writer. But the truth was that a writer who didn’t write at all was a person living half a life.

Thankfully, Emile is now in remission. And through writing about her diagnosis and treatment, she returned to feeling like a writer. We concluded that the ampersand tattoo was not a symbol of a particular achievement, but about our commitment to writing: to the writing we had done and the writing we would always do. So, in September 2018, almost two years after we made that initial pact, we went to a tattoo shop in North Melbourne to be indelibly marked by a man called Pablo.

The very next day, I found out I had been awarded a fellowship in Varuna and five months later, I found myself in Adelaide, accepting the Penguin Literary Prize. Now, I’m not saying Pablo’s ink work directly caused either of those things…. but if you want his telephone number, I’m happy to give it to you, for a small price.”

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Annabel Smith is the author of US bestseller Whiskey & Charlie (published in Australia as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot), digital interactive novel/app The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. I am currently working on Monkey See, an epic quest with a sci-fi twist featuring a monkey, an evil priestess and the mother of all tsunamis.

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