What we lost

My summer is all beach. Even now, with the kids back at school and kinder, we sneak away to the sea for weekends, swim in rivers in evenings pinked with cloud, don’t bother to brush the sand from the car, or put the camping gear away, pretending we can stretch it out forever.

Last year, for the first time, we started our annual summer holiday early and spent Christmas day at the beach. There were shells on red wool hung from trees, a fire stuffed full of camp ovens, after-lunch swims—it was raucous and sandy and nearly perfect. With no phone reception for the two weeks we are away, we slow, look up, listen. We exist in a bubble of river and salty skin, fire smoke and the sound of the waves to send us to sleep.

This year it was a protective bubble, and one we had prepared to fall apart in, because twenty-five days before Christmas, my father-in-law, G, died.

This is neither obituary nor eulogy—those words were written and spoken with elegance and heart and sorrow on the day we farewelled G. My mother-in-law asked if I wanted to speak and I said no—daughter-in-law is a strange role to play. But words are my currency and I find myself cracking a little at the edges, undone by all the words I didn’t say.

The aftermath of death is full of the practical. It’s easy to evade grief in the business of arranging funerals. Even before, the business of dying at home, merciful and beautiful in so many ways, is also a roster of logistics, of visits from the palliative care nurse, of medications, of vigil. Of balancing, with tenderness and compassion, those who wanted to visit and talk, with the quiet of the house, G’s exhaustion, that of all of us.

The end was both quicker and slower than any of us expected. Quick in that weeks were suddenly gone, time eaten up like the stretch of road between our place and Bendigo. And slow, unbearably so, in the gaps between an increase in pain and the relief of morphine, in the long seconds between his breaths in those last days. My mother-in-law, my husband and his sister all sat with him, reminisced with him. One day, on his request, my mother-in-law made him eggs just like his own mother had done, mashed in a cup with little squares of bread.

He’s never asked for them before, H said. He’s thinking of his mum. He’s getting ready to go.

We wept, were pleased when he ate, smiled at the boyishness of him, imagined the child in place of the dying man.

I was witness to the most tender of care: my mother-in-law gently shaving the pale skin of her husband’s face, You’re a good looking man, G, she’d say. My husband and his sister nursing their dad right up until the end—surely the hardest job, and the finest.

I am inept at grief. A pleaser, and a helper both, I struggle to be with sadness, my own and that of others. So I filled the space where I might have lain next to G in that bed in the room overlooking the gums and the cockies and the cloudless Bendigo sky. I filled it with iced water, cool face-washers, assembling chicken sandwiches, quietly making the arrangements the palliative care nurse gently told us to make. Now I wish I hadn’t filled it so.

Here are the things I might have said:

I wanted to impress you, G, sixteen years ago when I was pierced and dreadlocked and terrified and exhilarated at the idea of coming home with your son, the football jock, and what you all might think of me. You were funny, practical – a footy dad. I thought I’d be everything wrong.

You were so damn smart. I wish I’d asked you more.

Your hands on the fragile skulls of the girls after they were born. Your astonishment. Your pride. You couldn’t believe how beautiful they all were. It’s not fair that you won’t see Gracie’s long legs bounding down the basketball court, she’s just like you, Ad reckons. Your chest would’ve puffed up with pride to see Etta run out for her first Auskick session this April.

The sound of your truck in our driveway, more-so in those years when your depression bound you to a darkened room, but you’d somehow find a way to crank the truck down the highway and arrive, pale and wobbly, but there.

And I made Adam tell the story at the funeral – my favourite: when he and I were still new, sleeping in the van in the driveway of your friends’ place in Port Fairy. We all walked down to the festival together, and you disappeared for a bit then came back with your face painted like a tiger. There were no kids with us, you’d lined up by yourself, a moustached man in his fifties, and H was so cross, thought you were ridiculous, and that only made us laugh harder.

You were the proudest dad. Of course, that frustrated me at times, that your golden son could do no wrong, but I get it. I do. Like you said near the end, he was your best mate. He’s a bit lost without you, G. He’s ok, he laughs about things you might say, and he’s been building things and fixing things around the house, stuff he hasn’t got around to for years—you’d be impressed. But it’s an immense thing, you being gone, without edges, no way to gauge how deep or long or big the loss will be, how it will bruise, where it might end.

Each day is one further from November the 30th, or one closer to the day it will be your birthday, Father’s day, the anniversary of your death. I wonder if that is when it will feel real?

I’m learning that I can be assailed by tears. Sitting in the shallows with Etta last weekend on Norman Bay, watching Gracie on her new surfboard for the first time, I thought of you.

Poppy would have loved to be here watching this, I said.

Did he come here with us when I was a baby?

No, I said, and realised I didn’t know if you’d ever been.

The reaction was physical, a slap in the chest by a rogue wave.

Someone will remember, will have that fact to share and pass on. But what of all the things we never thought to ask you? What about all those tiny moments that are now lost?

Today, following threads for an essay I’m working on, I came across the writer, E.B. White. I remembered, and tears caught me again. On one of the last days, words were nearly past you then, Ad was lying with you, talking about your wonderful nurse, Charlotte. You just listened as he drifted to talk of Charlotte’s Web and he tried to remember the author’s name. You mumbled something as he spoke, and he soothed you, gave you ice cubes, could make no sense of the sounds you tried to form. Later, the forgotten name like a burr, he Googled it and laughed. You, to the end a bottomless pit of facts and dates and names and trivia, you were saying E.B. White. It was one of the last things you said.

Are you trying to point me in a direction, G? Ad reckons you’re not too subtle. That’s what he said when I had to pull over and text him as I headed back home to the kids on the night of the day that you died. He’d put me in the car, we’d held each other hard, and he’d fiddled with Spotify. It was a random mix, but the second song was Throw Your Arms Around Me, the only song you’d requested for your own funeral. I don’t think I even had tears yet, then. But I couldn’t drive for the force of it, heaving to pull air into my lungs.

The kids are better at it. They are practical and full of questions: where is Poppy now? Where is his brain? When will I die? When will you? We aim for honesty, openness—careful to dispel the slight misunderstandings that have occurred along the way, the result of little ears overhearing big conversations. For a time, Etta tells everyone that Poppy died because of a lump on his back, which is both true and not true, and we try and tease out the subtleties, then roll our eyes at our own ineptitude. They miss you, G.

It’s cooler this week, you’d be glad of the respite from the heat. Summer will be done soon. Eventually we’ll get on with the business of the house, and the move, how to do each new thing without you. We’ll be okay, we’re looking after each other, looking after H. But I know now that avoiding looking into the space that you left will not help. So I’m here now, and I’ll stay for a bit, sitting with you and all that we lost.

 

 

 

Bravery by increment.

It’s been a week since I arrived home, grotty and sleep deprived, from my adventure on the high seas. I’m yet to come down to earth.

Six months ago I was Googling possible sailing routes out of Australia as part of the research for my second novel. I should say for the record that I am not a sailor, and while I’ve been ably assisted by numerous helpful sailing souls who agreed to speak to me, my boating experience up until a fortnight ago consisted of a short jaunt out on the Bay on a gloriously fair day.

What caught my eye late that night was a website advertising the Spice Islands Darwin to Ambon Race. Before I could really think it through, and without a single expectation that it would come to anything, I shot off an email to the organiser, requesting my name be put down as crew.

Writer. No experience, I wrote. Very enthusiastic.

And then I went to bed, trying to think of other, less brave ways I might find my way on to boats.

The thing is, it was the smallest thing, sending that email. There was no angst, no self-doubt, no fear, and no courage required. All of that would come later. But in sending it, I started a chain of events.

The email got answered and lead me to the moment I was stepping aboard a 50 foot yacht in a marina in Darwin, with five blokes and one woman, none of whom I’d ever met before. It lead me to sailing across the Timor and Banda seas for four days until we reached Ambon harbour. Lead me to tying a bowline, enduring a night in my cabin while the spinnaker whipped and snapped and I thought I would die. Lead me to listening to stories that broke my heart and make me think and crunched my ethics around and spat them out again.

With the crew of Finally (them mostly, I just made the coffee and kept the midnight watch and squealed when I saw dolphins), I sailed six hundred nautical miles into Indonesia and the extraordinary island of Ambon where I made new friends, was blown away by the hospitality and danced the local dance wherever I could (once I wrapped by feet around it) including with police officers and the Vice-Mayor’s wife.

When I got home, tired and tender and porous (because don’t these experiences always make us thus?), I smashed out 5000 words in two days desperate to capture the feelings and the smells and the way the last of the sun hit the clouds over the sea so that I felt like I could reach up and put my hands in them and when I pulled them out they would taste of peaches and salt.

I have thousands of words of notes, 770 photos on my phone, new networks of sailors to call upon when I hit one of the gaps in the MS that requires expert knowledge (she reached for the …?, the …..? broke). The MS is mapped out to the end.

So it worked, for the book. An incredibly rich research experience that has served the work, and I hope, will make the book a better book, something close to the book I want it to be.

But it’s also been so much more than that.

We don’t have to feel brave to be brave. We might feel foolish, or curious, or terrified, or filled with doubt, but sometimes we only have to take one small tentative step in the direction of the thing, the thing that is asking to be done, shimmering just ahead of us on the horizon.

Earlier this year when I was at Varuna, working on the book, I took time out to see The Waifs at the Blue Mountains Folk Festival (another of those small, kind of brave things – buying a solo ticket to a music festival). I heard ‘Something’s Coming’ for the first time and I had a big weep and felt my chest open up with glorious anticipation of all the stuff that lay ahead, even though I had no idea what that might be.

Something’s comin round the bend
I don’t know what it is and I don’t know when
But something’s comin round

Ain’t nothing knowing it’s just a feeling inside
I carry no fear and I have nothing to hide

from ‘Something’s Coming‘ by Vikki Thorn, The Waifs

It’s kind of become my anthem this year – for life and for the book. For a person who likes to be in control, have everything planned out, lists written, goals set – it’s been a departure. A good one. A willingness to be open to whatever it is that is coming my way.

Baby steps to courage. Bravery by increment.

Let me just, for a moment, check my privilege here, too. Jumping on a boat so that I can write a better book is clearly not the epitome of braveness in today’s world. Not even close. Part of what I’m trying to explore is how far removed my experience is from the millions and millions of people for whom bravery is not a choice. The people who might not even consider the fight they engage in every day to live, love, survive, speak, be safe, to be anything but their normal. The thing I’ve just done terrified me. But it was an exercise. I got to come home to my dry, warm house and my family in a place where I am safe and free. It’s a vitally important difference.

So, what’s round the bend for you? Maybe you’ve already done that first thing, the small thing, the thing that doesn’t require so much bravery. Looking up the course you’ve always wanted to do. Doing the sums to work out how much the ticket out of here costs. A smile across the train. Maybe you’ve made the next step, too.

Or maybe you’re waiting. For the sign that will tell you to go for it.

Let this be it. Start with the small thing.

May the rest follow.

xx

 

Adventuring

I used to think that life would be easier with a regular 9-5 job, a steady wage, a routine. A stress-head from way back, I thought that this would take all the anxiety away, and that I’d be blissfully chilled out.

Not so, obviously. While I adored full time teaching, it did nearly kill me, and the past six years since I’ve had to combine work with kids has taught me that, actually, I’m not a regular 9-5 girl at all.

Sometimes I wonder at the general mayhem in our house, but despite the endless To Do lists, permanently open suitcases, and a ridiculous number of calendars that are never all quite in synch – I think we’ve decided we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tomorrow I’m getting on a plane with my family and heading to Cambodia for two weeks. We make this trip every couple of years, in part to do some volunteer teacher professional development with Teachers Across Borders, and in part to explore the crazy streets in tuk tuks and to sit by the pool drinking cocktails.

While I’m soaking up the humidity and coconut shakes in Kampong Thom, Skylarking will be released in the UK by Legend Press. This is all very exciting, and I can’t wait to hear how UK readers feel about Kate and Harriet’s story.

I’m only going to have to put up with Melbourne winter for a couple of weeks on our return from Cambodia, because then I’m heading off to Darwin to jump on a yacht heading for Ambon, Indonesia. Despite my TOTAL lack of experience, a skipper has been generous enough to allow me on board to join his crew as part of my research for my next novel. I’m completely terrified, but so excited to have this opportunity. Hit me up with your sailing tips, if you’re that way inclined…

But, before all of that, tonight I have the utter privilege of launching the wonderful Emily Brewin’s debut novel Hello, Goodbye. The story of May Callaghan, coming of age in country Victoria in 1968 against the backdrop of growing opposition to the Vietnam War, Emily’s novel explores the complexities of the political issues of the time, and pulls the reader in deep to deliver on all the big feels. I read it in two sittings over a single day, and felt bereft when I finished. I’m thrilled to celebrate this occasion with her.

Stay tuned for notes from various adventures. I’m hoping there’s a whole lot of stories to be unearthed…

 

 

 

 

 

A Bundanon Day

Partly because I imagine I will forget, and partly to illuminate this strange zone of how I write when I have all day to write – here is a day in my life at Bundanon, an artist’s retreat in a magnificent valley in Shoalhaven, where I’m currently lucky enough to have a week’s residency to work on my second novel.

6.45 Alarm goes off so I can jump out of bed and scoot through the cold to turn the heater on. (I imagine I could program it to come on, but so far such technicalities have escaped me.)

6.47 Back under the blankets. Avoid checking phone. Try and stay in the grey light space of waking. It’s such a treat to go straight to writing from here.

7am Coffee. (I drove up from Melbourne. So I brought my coffee machine. Wasn’t going to tell anyone. Now I have.) Write for an hour. Pink sun hitting the cliff across the river. Cows on the move. Write, then watch, make second coffee, write, watch. At the end of the hour I have 1000 words.

8am Walk. Up behind the cottages and into the bush. White pocked Eucalypt, mossy grey rock, heart-leaved vines. At the top of the hill, the sun lights it all up and I stand it it, look down on the next bend of the Shoalhaven river glittering in the light. Find a phone tower and good reception. Stand on a rock, too close to the edge and speak to the kids. I miss them. Take a picture of a grasstree that looks like Grug to send to them.

Coming down a steep gravelly road, I slip and fall. Shocked, flick my wrist back and forth to shake out the jar, imagine if I couldn’t type! Then I imagine a bit further and spook myself. I’ve got water and an apple but no whistle like they recommended in the walking track pamphlet. No phone reception at all now that I’m down the hill. Wonder how long it would take someone to realise I wasn’t in my little cottage. Tread more carefully (until I forget and, in glorious sun, nearly step on a red belly black snake). Stunned by the landscape. Stop and take pictures. Then, on the home straight, characters start talking to each other, fighting. Worried I’ll forget. Stop and take notes in my phone.

10.30 Back. Shower (still can’t get over the fact I can do this UNINTERRUPTED any time of the day I want). Eggs and avocado and lemon from mum and dad’s tree. Ravenous. Quiet. Feels wrong to stream breakfast radio, can’t handle the instant mood set of music, so I turn on random podcast while I am cooking and eating. Fills the quiet, feels like radio. Make tea.

11 Face the desk with Grandma Clare’s knitted rug on my knee to ward off the chill. Turn off wifi.

Watch cows.

IMG_4361

11.30 Check journal document. This is where I set out my tasks and word counts for the day and note down all the random thoughts and ideas and marvellous insights that won’t feel so insightful tomorrow. Word count on this doc alone is 25 000. Remember where I’m at. Check phone for notes from the walk. Resist urge to flick wifi back on.

11.45 Start on the scene and then I’m away.

1pm Need something. Food? Caffeine? Decide it’s coffee. Stretch, pace, make coffee. Sit back down and finish what I started. Another 1500 words down. Could cry with relief.

1.30 Heat soup. Congratulate self on being so wise as to squirrel away containers of soup from the last few weeks to freeze and bring. (Note: may not think this at end of week when I have only eaten soup. And sweet potato chips. And M+Ms). Read interview with writer whom I would like to be. Feel equally deflated and inspired.

2pm Write another scene. This is one I’ve already written chunks of, but a recent shift in character and plot means I’ve got to chuck a lot of it out. Think about cutting it all and starting again, but I feel like there’s some good lines in there, lines with energy that get right at the thing I’m trying to say. Plus I’m distraught at the thought of the word count slipping back so far. Go through paragraph by paragraph, dumping most of it into another document as I go. In the end, hardly any of the old words remain – it’s essentially the same scene, renewed. Feel vindicated that I know what this scene needs to be, having now written it two completely different ways. Then feel sapped of energy.

3pm Walk to the river. The way this valley is, the light changes by the minute. Much of it, where my little cottage is for instance, is in shadow most of the day. On the river beach, at this time, there are fingers of sun still there between the long shadows of the trees. I sit in one. Watch water birds (mum would know their names) swoop over the water, perfect mirror images in their reflection. So quiet I can hear the tiny schlock of the current against the rocks on the opposite side. I imagine Arthur Boyd and his family kicking back here on long afternoons. Then I think of mine. Heart aches a little. Think about quiet and space and what an incredible privilege it is to have this time. Kind of like knowing myself again. Wish my non-writer girlfriends could access this place, too. Wish everyone could.

4pm Beer o’clock. Have purposefully left new scene with old flame until now. It’s like arriving at happy hour, enjoying the drink and curious as to what these two are going to say. And do. Enjoy writing it, feels sexy and a little dangerous. Stop at a point I know will be easy to come back to. Have hit target 4000 words for the day. Do small dance.

6pm Phone call with the kids. 4yo tells me she is also writing a book. It’s about a poo and a fart. Heart sings. Girls tell me they are hugging me down the phone (can you feel it, mum, can you feel it?!). I tell them yes. Essential life admin with partner – he’s just handed in a massive essay, is dealing with the kids, the week, illness in the family. Feel guilty. Stop. Determined to be even more productive tomorrow.

IMG_4486

7pm Heat formally unidentified freezer stash. Some kind of stew. Delicious. Add many spinach leaves so as to feel somewhat virtuous. Eat while listening to RN books interview and checking twitter. Life goes on outside this valley, it seems. Feel a bit lonely, and a bit lucky. Get off before I’m stuck there.

7.30 Write to do list for tomorrow. Where I want to get from and to. When I’ll walk. Answer some emails. These prompt me to look in diary and suddenly realise everything I’ve got coming up once I get home. Panic.

7.45 Still panicking and now writing out daily To Do list for next two weeks.

8pm Realise I only have three more days without children or interruptions and I need to finish the draft. Breathe. Do dishes to calm myself down. Make tea.

8.10 Tea and mum’s fruit cake and reading a novel in advance of a panel I’m chairing in a week or so. Write notes and some questions.

9.10 Fill hot water bottle. More tea. Watch episode of Big Little Lies – tell myself this is both entertaining, a break for my brain, and professional development.

10pm Teeth. Turn off all the lights (running joke with my bloke that this is always his job). Feel decidedly independent and autonomous doing this one small thing. Bed. Read.IMG_4258

11pm Still reading. I can read all night if I want to.

11.30 Realise I won’t finish book tonight and need to sleep. Lights out. Think about my own characters as I drift off, in the hope that they’ll sort out the next scene for me and serve it to me as a dream.

11.45 Cows mooing. Didn’t realise they did that at night. Strange. Sleep.

What I’ve been reading

Every year I promise myself I’m going to be better at recording the books I read. I’ve tried the back of my diary and made one thwarted attempt at Goodreads, but still the task evades me.

Here’s an attempt at recollecting what I’ve been reading (and listening to) over the last couple of months.

In my ears

If you’re a writer and you’re not already listening to The Garret Podcast , you should be. Season Two includes fab episodes with Tony Birch, Jill and Andy Griffiths, Anita Heiss and more. I finish every episode with a list of reading and ideas, and eager to jump into a writing session.

S.Town. Like everybody else. Binge-listened on a long road trip. Laughed, wept. Managed to get my tickets to hear Brian Reed talk about it in Melbourne before it booked out!

There are some great conversations on First Draft: A dialogue on Writing, an American podcast featuring well-known writers and others I’ve been introduced to for the first time.

I’ve not yet listened to all of Season One of the  fabulous Sisteria podcast, but particularly loved Episode 6 with writer Julie Koh. Funny, clever, great ideas to think over.

From the shelf

Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance and The Return. I read these two books in preparation for seeing Matar speak at the Wheeler Centre next week. I’m so thankful for the Wheeler Centre for introducing me to writers I had not previously known (for my sins) and whose work has had such a profound impact on me.

The Art of Frugal Hedonism by Annie Raser-Rowland and Adam Grubb. Practical, funny and joyful read for those attempting to simplify.

The harrowing Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien – another introduction to a writer via a wonderful Wheeler Centre conversation (listen here)

Emily Perkin’s The Forrests – incredible. Loved this book and the ‘hot noticing’ it exemplifies.

Stella Prize Winner – Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. I thought this book was wonderful – it’s still with me – all those ideas about a creative life, and how one might live it.

The Writing Life – Annie Dillard. Second read after a particularly trying week in the world of my manuscript. Worked a treat. I got back on the horse.

Jane Rawson’s incredible From the Wreck. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Jane and with Anna Westbrook as part of the Emerging Writers Festival’s National Writers Conference. Read the books and come and join us!

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea – the story of Syrian refugee, Doaa Al Zamel, as told by the Chief Spokesperson for the UNHCR, Melissa Fleming.

I heard poet Andy Jackson in conversation with Sandy Jeffs at a new Writers Festival in Christmas Hills. His work is wonderful. I’m currently poring over his collections, Immune System and That Knocking.

On the TBR pile

Sally Abbot’s Closing Down, Anna Westbrook’s Dark Fires Shall Burn, the anthology They Cannot Take the Sky – Stories from Detention, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, China Matters, Courtney Collins’ The Burial, the UWA anthology Shaping the Fractured Self, Karen Andrews’ On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take and finally an early copy of Emily Brewin’s Hello, Goodbye which I have the honour of launching in June.

I’m delighted to be heading down the coast to Airey’s Inlet this weekend to appear with Lucy Treloar at Great Escape’s Literary Lunch, one of a series of fabulous events with Australian writers. Then I’m heading in the opposite direction, up the Hume to a residency at Bundanon where I’ll be hunkering down to continue work on my second novel. Stay tuned for notes from my adventures…

The Ladder Room

Today is my last in the Ladder Room at Varuna. thumb_IMG_2127_1024Thirteen days of watching the rain and cloud rolling in, the leaves begin to redden on the trees, the rosellas wheel and dive. I don’t know how many hours I’ve sat here. There’s no brain capacity left to work it out. I do know I’ve made an effort to leave each day – walked the edge of the gaping chasm, sloshed through puddles, wept and even danced a little at the Blue Mountains Music festival, tried a yoga class, the coffee, the pub.

I sometimes catch myself justifying why I need time to write. We all do it, maybe. But this past fortnight I’ve been reminded of why that time is so important, time when you’re not necessarily writing and watching the word count tick over, but also time for thinking, collecting, following a thought, reading, sorting, cutting, starting again.

There’s a lot of output at a place like this. In total, I’ve composed over 50 000 words on my little keyboard this past fortnight. That didn’t all go into the manuscript, of course (and what did may very well not stay). Some of it was about journalling the process, some of it character interviews, which I’ve never really done before but found so productive, an intimate back and forth with my characters in first person POV that were revealing and astonishing and helped so much in shaping the story.

At any rate – lots of words come out, and I can’t keep that up unless I have words going in.

thumb_IMG_2152_1024So I read, and googled, and took recommendations from the fabulous folk here. I read Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s ABR essay ‘Bad Writer’, and Annabel Smith’s musings on backstory. While I walked, I listened to Shelly Birse talk about screenwriting on the Australian Screenwriters Podcast and Tony Birch on The Garret podcast. I was struck by the synchronicity of reading Mark Tredinnick’s essay ‘A Storm and a Teacup‘ and revisiting Rufi Thorpe’s ‘Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid‘, each on exactly the day I needed them.

I dived in and out of some of the books and movies I had packed to bring along (The Refugees by Viet Than Nguyen, The World Beneath by Cate Kennedy, Snowden, The Perfect Storm – an eclectic mix, I know), but totally failed to read as much as I had planned.

I took notes in a fury of multi-tasking, simultaneously in long hand and typing as I read for the first time, The Creative Screenwriter by Zara Waldeback & Craig Batty. And as I read, again and again, what is fast becoming my favourite book on process – Wood’s The Writers Room.

I drew, made timelines and mindmaps and spreadsheets. I filled an entire notebook with scribbles I may not understand. I tested and angsted and cut swathes of words out. I learned over each night of fireside conversation with the other incredible writers here – about story, and writing, and some lessons for life.

I missed my kids. Felt a long way from home. As solace, read over the quote from Sue Monk Kidd that Annabel Smith mentions:

The job of the writer is to serve her work.

I served a past work too. thumb_IMG_2368_1024This week I met, for the first time, the great grandson of Kate Gibson, the real person on whom I based Kate in Skylarking.

He took me to visit Kate’s grave at South Head Cemetery, and shared stories of his family, and Kate’s. It’s another story, an amazing one, and I’ll share it when I’ve got my head around it. It felt a fitting thing to do, to be finding a new resolution for one book, while falling deeply, chaotically, obsessively into the next.

Brigid Delaney wrote about the gift of residencies to Australian artists in The Guardian this week, so I won’t repeat her sentiments here.

I will say, it is a gift to have time at Varuna. And to have a bloke, and family – a  village really –  back at home who keep everything clicking over even though life is mad, and busy and hard.

So, feeling grateful. And spent. And now, to packing, fitting all the books back in, one last night of Sheila’s magic dinners and listening to words of wisdom from new writing friends by the fire.

Preparation

In four more sleeps, I go to Varuna. IMG_2004There are books waiting to be sorted and packed or left behind, the final touches to be made to the colour coordinated spreadsheet I’m leaving behind to ensure the kids are where they are supposed to be, when they are supposed to be (they will be fine, I know, life goes on without me), and I keep swapping clothes out of the half-packed suitcase – what does seventeen degrees feel like again? What about if I need to escape to the pub? Can I write in the same jeans and t-shirt for a week without anyone noticing?

And, you see, these trivial To Do’s have a way of edging out my other anxieties; my fear that I will get there and suddenly be unable to dredge up any words, that I’ll miss the kids too much…or that I won’t.

The last time I had the fortune of spending time at the magnificent, monastic writer’s house that is Varuna, I had a very clear brief – I was going to finish my book. This time, things are different. It’s earlier in the process. Some things feel concrete, others are fragile – I feel like I might squash them if I prod too hard.

I’ve asked for advice from other writerly folk and I’ve got it:

Don’t expect as many words. 

Walks. Lots of walks.

Don’t be surprised if you spend an hour just looking out the window. That’s ok. That’s part of it.

This time, I’m packing more books. I’m loading movies on to my hard drive. Things that have links to what I’m working on in tenuous ways. Things that I know will push buttons, crack me open, set me spiralling off into new territory.

I’m still fixated on the processes of other writers. I got so much out of listening to Andy and Jill Griffiths on The Garret podcast, both reassured and invigorated by their discussion of rigorous writing practice, the importance of getting many words down. I’ve just finished reading an interview with Louise Erdich in The Paris Review , which, aside from being rather exquisite, reminded me of something I heard Helen Garner mention at an event; that one must write as if no one will ever read it – Erdich says as if it’s a secret – that this is the way to get to the truthiness, the essence of it.

Another podcast, First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing, was recommended to me recently, and I’ve been loving the short eps full of insights. I’m packing some of my favourite writing books, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Charlotte Wood’s The Writer’s Room, and I’m printing off Cheryl Strayed’s Write Like a Motherfucker to stick to the wall above my desk.

I’m preparing for walking. For sleeping. Ugg boots and long cardies for getting out of bed in the middle of the night to write whenever the words come – for the delicious privilege of that, to do it without bothering anyone, and then to sleep in the next morning. I’m preparing for digging. For listening – for that moment (please, please let there be this moment) when it is as though I am transcribing something that is already there, that is all laid out before me and I just have to find my way through to it. It’s happened before, that magic – is it greedy to expect it to happen again?

I’m determined not to set a total word count goal, although I know that little ones will work for me (200 more before you can go and make a cuppa, another 500 before a walk). I’m going to try and let go of my need for logic and plausibility at every moment, and let myself luxuriate a little in the time I have. Experiment. Go a little way, or a long way, in a direction that might not be the one I expected.

Writers – how do you prepare for allocated writing time? How do you make the most of it? Love to hear your thoughts. X

The Space Between

Late last year, at an event at RMIT, I heard Sophie Cunningham speak about the space between the ordinary and the extraordinary. She said that it was porous – or that it ‘had porousity’. An audience member asked if she could expand on it – what exactly was this space? “Well – I think it’s where story is,’ Cunningham replied.

I went on to read Cunningham’s 2015 Calibre prize winning essay ‘Staying With the Trouble’ on walking New York (among other things) where she wrote:

‘As I get older, I no longer try to find meaning in order so much as draw meaning from randomness. I feel this strongly: things are both random and connected, all the time. Leonard Woolf used to say ‘nothing matters’ by which he meant ‘everything matters’. All of it. The lot.’

I’ve been feeling porous lately. I’m in the early stages of a new project. Or not so early, really. I think I’ve been saying I’m in the early stages of a project for the last 6 months. And each early feels different. I’ve got words on the page, tens of thousands of them, I’ve even got various versions of those words. I’ve got writing residencies coming up. I’ve got characters whispering in my ear. My desk is covered in random jottings, my browser filled with strange searches. I’ve accepted an advance and have a due date. So, by some accounts – some yard sticks – it isn’t early. But it is that beginning place – a time Joan London described in an interview with Charlotte Wood in her excellent anthology The Writer’s Room: conversations about writing, as ‘slow and tentative and clumsy’ where everything is swirling around or ‘composting’ as Natalie Goldberg puts it in Writing Down the Bones. London says she doesn’t like it – she prefers when it all starts coming together, and of course, at some level, I suppose that is what I like too.

But there is magic in this part: where the randomness makes meaning, and all things feel connected, where every day there is that strange coincidence of someone repeating the thing that is just – so – for your new work.Where ordinary life and extraordinary happenings hum and fizz and crack at each other, fuelling the story.

I think maybe there are times in our lives too, where the boundaries between parts of our lives are more permeable; where our regular worlds collide with magnificent days, with moments of insight. Where emotion is always threatening, spilling, leaking. Where we find ourselves heartsick or sideswiped by tears or overcome by something akin to bliss. Where we are distracted, unfocussed, and for once this is as it should be.

I am in such a time now; aching for the end of a wonderful summer that was filled with the kids in rivers and ocean, and beaches and campfires and good company; unexpectedly overcome by the fact of my eldest daughter starting school; despairing and frightened and uplifted simultaneously by what is happening in the world; trying to embrace writing as work; resisting the urge to huddle back in where it is safe, but instead to take risks, to be brave. Everything feels huge.

Towards the end of the process of writing my last book, the boundaries between the outer and the inner became less transparent, more firm. I was hunkered down, separated from life in the isolation of the work, the clear purpose, the absolute focus. Such direction can not, perhaps, afford to take heed of emotion or random connections.

But now I am open, feeling loose and susceptible to any and every idea that passes me by: making connections, neurons firing to join the next idea and the next, a milky way of ideas across my brain, fuelling me and depleting me in equal measure.

I wonder if there is a ‘protective psychological construct’ – a phrase Elizabeth Gilbert uses in her famous TED talk on creativity and the muse  – that one should put in place to manage this liminal space?

How do we create distance from the rawness of feeling and experience – the blessed words that sometimes bubble up to the page – and the insight required to make sense of all this for ourselves, for a reader?

Or perhaps, right now, I don’t. And what is needed is to just sit in this porous space awhile. Soaking it all up, letting it swim and swirl and be.

A non-definitive list of the books I loved in 2016

random-selection-2016-books

There’s a lot of ‘best of’ lists going around at this time of year. They serve multiple purposes: reminding me of the many books I failed to read in the previous 12 months, guiding me with Christmas shopping and giving authors a much-needed psychological boost when they see their book on such a list (see Readings Top 10 Fiction Books of 2016).

This particular ‘best of’ list has a specific purpose – it’s for Heidi – the amazing kinder teacher who has nurtured our oldest child through the past two years of kinder, and who works so incredibly hard (as all pre-school teachers do!) and who will finally have some time to read over the summer break and has asked me to compile her a list. And because the books I would recommend to Heidi are all ones I have loved this year, and would recommend to anyone, I’ve decided to multi-task and roll it into one.

Books that made me cry

Between a Wolf and a Dog – Georgia Blain (the last book I read, which is still resonating deeply within me like a chime. So saddened to learn that Georgia Blain died just this week. What an extraordinary writer. And an incredible loss to the world.)

La Rose – Louise Eldrich

Wasted – Elspeth Muir

Books that will change the world

Fight like a girl – Clementine Ford

The Hate Race – Maxine Beneba Clarke

Books that I couldn’t put down

The Road to Winter – Mark Smith

The Dry – Jane Harper

Books that I want to read again

Ruins – Rajith Savanadasa

Swallow the Air – Tara June Winch (about 10 years after everyone else!)

And a whole lot more that defy my arbitrary categorisation

Goodwood – Holly Throsby

The Girls – Emma Cline

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

The Turner House – Angela Flournoy

The Good People – Hannah Kent

The Last Painting of Sara de Voss – Dominic Smith

Wild – Cheryl Strayed (also many years after everyone else!)

Everywhere I look – Helen Garner

My own Summer To Read list includes

Talking to my Country – Stan Grant

An Isolated Incident – Emily Maguire

Where the Trees Were – Inga Simpson

The Healing Party – Micheline Lee

Fine – Michelle Wright

Syrian dust – Francesca Borri

The Birdman’s Wife – Melissa Ashley

The World Without Us – Mireille Juchau

Gilgamesh – Joan London

The Blue Plateau – Mark Tredinnick (again – because I can not read this book enough)

The Boy Behind the Curtain – Tim Winton

Their Brilliant Careers – Ryan O’Neill

The Boundless Sublime – Lili Wilkinson

The Bone Sparrow – Zana Fraillon

And I’ve totally forgotten some. But that’s a start!

So there you go, Heidi, hope that you have a wonderful summer. Thank you for nurturing our girl through the last two years. I know she shares your love of play, and deep belief that good stories, told well, are one of the best things in the world.

For other readers, please do leave a comment and let us know the books you loved in 2016! xx

How it feels.

It’s been a big month. So big that the thought of even trying to sum it up, or write something pithy has had me avoiding my laptop altogether. But then a wise elder (thanks Grandmama) asked me if I had been writing it all down, and I, the writer, had to admit that no, I had not done any late night scrawling in my journal, had not even made voice memos in my phone at the traffic lights – I’d failed to record what has been one of the most frightening and rewarding and overwhelming things that has ever happened to me.

A month ago today, my first novel, Skylarking, hit the shelves of bookshops, hot on the heels of Harry Potter. My wonderful friends started sending me pics of my book on shelves around the city and I was ecstatic at each one I received. 13879388_654016364752444_75891017327949683_n

I had a radio interview that day with David Astle on 774 and so felt that I might avoid the ‘letdown’ I had read about in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, where she and a writer friend who both released books on the same day sent each other flowers to avoid the emptiness, the silence of the phone.

I didn’t have to worry about such things. My crew have kept me in champagne and flowers and my extraordinary publicist had a schedule crammed full of interviews, articles, podcasts and festivals. There were reviews in all the right places. The book was launched on a glittery Melbourne night to a full house at Hill of Content. Everyone, including my publisher, Aviva Tuffield, and the talented and generous Lucy Treloar, said very lovely things and I cried when I tried to thank everyone. It felt kind of enormous. Like a wedding, except that I couldn’t share the limelight and had to meet it head on.

A dear friend commissioned a beautiful necklace for me and on it hung a tiny book. My 5 yo cuddled up on my knee later that week, opened the book and began to speak. It took me a moment to realise that she was reciting lines from the first page of Skylarking, which I had never read to her. As I listened and my heart got all wobbly I realised that she had heard Lucy Treloar reading from the book at the launch and had memorised the words. I felt that if I never had anyone say another nice thing about me or my work for as long as I lived that I would have had my fill of emotion – I didn’t have space for any more.

Then I went back to my old high school for a local celebration supported by the excellent Eltham Bookshop where I chatted to the fabulous Toni Jordan. As the punters started to show up, I had to steal outside to try and quell the anxiety, the total overwhelm, that I was feeling. There were ex-teachers and old school friends and parents of old school friends and people I didn’t event know. I’m not scared of public speaking, in fact, it’s when I begin to speak on the stage that I begin to calm down. I can control that part. It’s listening to people say that they are proud of me, that they loved the book, that they were moved – it is this that makes me feel like I’m having a heart attack. I feel like I can’t possibly respond in the way that they might like me to, that I won’t live up to their expectation of me, or of myself.

Above my desk, there is a scribbled note to myself from a session with my cousellor just before this all began.

Not everyone has to like me.

I can’t cover all bases.

It’s ok to receive.

Anxiety and excitement, she explained to me, feel the same in the body. Physically, you experience the racing heart, the caught breath, the racy, spacey, uber-awareness. All it takes is a flip in the mind to convince yourself that, this time, it’s excitement that has your pulse frenzied, not anxiousness. Sometimes, that flip is easier to make. When I’ve got back up (in the form of my sister, my folks, my friends, alcohol), or when there has been little time to let it build (thank goodness for the all-encompassing work of small children on some days). And sometimes, the moment the anxiety catches me is not as I wait to head on to a stage or to an interview, but the night before, or the night after, when I curl up in a ball on the bed and heave out big messy sobs until I can laugh at myself (with a little help from my husband – a psych nurse…it helps.)

Releasing a book has been an immersive experience in exposure therapy for an anxious perfectionist like me. There are reviews, and as much as I hear the advice not to look, it’s impossible not to. There is GoodReads (best not to look). There is the astonishing fact of readers, out there, who are reading the book and responding in their own way, and some of them are being moved to tears, to grief, to contacting me. There is the imagined pressure that I should be always grateful and thankful coupled with the conflicting pressure to also be authentic, to say it’s been hard work. There are panels and interviews and conversations with incredibly talented and experienced writers who’ve done this before, who have PhDs, who seem to know what they are saying, how to say it, where to hook the battery pack for the microphone. And these writers are generous and lovely but when I searched, I could not find the article I wanted them to have written –  something like: How to survive the first month of publication. Or What to pack for your first writers festival. Or How to start writing again when the hoopla dies down. Or, mostly This is how it feels.

So I thought I’d write it myself. This is how it felt for me. One month down. I’m excited. And I’m anxious. And I’m everything else in between and around. And that’s ok. This is how it feels.

What I’m reading

One of the most delightful aspects of this whole publishing-a-book caper is meeting writers; new writers, experienced writers, writers with lovely new books you just want to sink into the couch with and consume in one go.

And then there’s the added bonus of preparing for panels at upcoming festivals by…reading more books.

Sure – this influx of new books on top of my previous book-acquiring habits and my long hold list at the local library have led to a bit of a book glut, but I’m not complaining, I just want to read them all NOW.

IMG_9862
The shelf I’ve called – ‘Must Read Immediately’ (as opposed to the six other overflowing shelves just called ‘Must Read’).

Those books that I have managed to get to most recently are:

  • Catherine Deveny’s Use Your Words – a fabulous writing how-to book I have already gifted to one writing friend.
  • Kate Tempest’s The Bricks That Built the Houses – incredible story, such memorable characters and language that made me weep – so damn good.
  • Jane Harper’s The Dry – compelling debut, already a bestseller. Murder, mystery, country town crackling with drought…definite page-turner.
  • Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm – shortlisted for the Stella and Miles Franklin’s Awards, this one’s been on my must read list for ages and it was worth the wait. Beautifully rendered characters, setting, story.
  • Myfanwy Jones’ Leap (also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin this year) and Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hourboth deal with grief and relationships and the lives of urban twenty-somethings. Very different books and enjoyed both for different reasons – Jones and Down are both enormously talented writers.

And because it’s not ALL about reading these days, I’m also listening to people TALK about reading. I’m loving Unladylike,the new podcast on women and writing from Kelly Gardiner and Adele Walsh. Have to give a special mention to the hilarious  Episode 5: On Swearing where Toni Jordan and Patricia Cornelius discuss the art of swearing well.

And I’ve spent the start of Melbourne’s literary season (when it’s cold and wet and we all want to be indoors in the company of excellent people and books and wine) heading out to lots of events:

  • Hanya Yanagihara in conversation with Jason Steger, which you can listen to here.
  • The Emerging Writers’ Festival, where I attended and was involved in a number of events. Amazing festival, great ideas, stellar line up of talent.
  • Launch of Michelle Wright’s debut collection of short stories Fine at Readings Hawthorn.
  • Rajith Savanadasa, in conversation with Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty, on his debut novel Ruins at Eltham Bookshop.

So you see, one can keep themselves very busy doing wonderfully bookish things and thus avoiding the new writing project, but that’s another story…

Presentness

I’m trying to get more ‘present’ (aren’t we all). I’ve nearly done my thirty days of morning meditation (not consecutive unfortunately – but my app doesn’t seem to mind). I’m a fan of the Slow Your Home podcast. I’ve read the books on Mindfulness. There are even great drifts of household refuse piled up in corners of my home, testament to the fact that today I read books with the kids under the doona while it poured, and then went and threw bark in the creek when it stopped, instead of sweeping and washing and tidying and cooking and sorting clothes.

And I’m reading Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down the Bones’, a most excellent book on writing that I picked up in an op shop years ago but only just opened. She enthuses about a certain ‘presentness’ that must be accessed to really get to the boneIMG_9050s, the truths of the writing. There are metaphors about cake baking and heat, about compost, about meditation. I am finding all of it incredibly useful. I was reading it on the train and got so inspired by her idea of being in the moment and bringing the writerly mind that I scribbled down a poem there and then – something I haven’t done in a long time (and lucky for all – indecipherable).

I am trying to write a novel. My second – so I thought that I might have some idea about how to do it. The first is here on the desk next to me, all of its pages nestled in the cover, yet to fully meet the world, but as done from my end as it possibly can be. I should have known I suppose, I’ve read other writers lament that one novel doesn’t make you an expert, in fact ten novels doesn’t. I thought at least I’d have a sense of what to do. But it’s such a different beast this one. Last time, I had a road map, a true event, characters, a time and a place: it was hard going yes – but it had a certain pressure, a force behind it which compelled me to write it down. Perhaps this particular story just hasn’t built enough of a head of steam on it yet.

I think I’m forcing it. Goldberg writes of ‘first thoughts…the way the mind first flashes on something’. Her list of rules for writing exercises includes:

  • Lose control.
  • Don’t think. Don’t go logical.
  • Go for the jugular.

There’s something I want to say, and a way I want to say it and I’m trying to control what can’t be controlled. I can’t find names for my characters – I keep leaving blanks or changing them, I don’t know the rules about this. Do I name them first? Give them ages? What about the scene that is so vivid, so intense that I can hear the characters whispering in the dense tropical air, feel the crackling friction and desire between them, sense the sleeping children in the room behind the door – how do I get them there? I’m so hamstrung by the thinking, the logic of it all, that it feels an impossible task.

Nevertheless. I’m going to try and take Goldberg’s advice. Try and find that place – like Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ or in the midst of my Varuna bliss – where the words feel like they come through me and not from me – as though I were channeling them from somewhere else entirely. Sounds a bit absurd, I’m the first to admit, but it really is something else when it’s all going right. It’s why we do it.

“When you are present,” Goldberg quotes in her book, “the world is truly alive.”

Here’s to that.

Getting your hands dirty

As I recover from a bout of a flu-like thing that was probably just a cold, my bloke encouraged me to get my hands in the soil and sun on my face. We made two wicking beds in old apple crates this summer, which gave us great tomatoes and spicy basil but they have been ready for replanting for a few weeks. My hand was forced when the rest of the family came home from a trip to the local nursery with a tray of seedlings.

As I weeded and dug and turned the compost into the earth, I remembered that it wasn’t so hard. There were fat worms in the new compost and the kids were delighted as we sunk our hands between them to plant out rows of carrots and bok choy and leeks. My head was still heavy and I could easily have stayed in bed but there was something about the sun and that verdant green against the black soil that was filling me up again.

And thus I was forced to confront that I have been neglecting my writing in much the same way as I had our garden. I’ve made excuses and set schedules that I don’t meet, told myself that I would start tomorrow, or when it felt right, or when I had thought it out some more. But the truth is, there’s a big, fat new idea simmering there, and I am terrified of putting words down lest they all turn out to be rubbish.

I remind myself that there’s another lesson I’ve learned through our veggie patches. I used to be the kind of person who rips out everything once the season is done; not caring if I destroyed the last ripening tomatoes, or the still going parsely, because all I wanted was a clean slate. I did the same with notebooks; incapable of looking at the pages of scribble that I had lain down only months before, I would ruthlessly tear out everything to start fresh.

But it doesn’t work that way. Those tomatoes will be sweet. The parsley will keep on keeping on. There might be a pearler of a line, the tiny seed of an idea in those pages I rip out. Writing the novel (and growing up and being a mum and losing some of the perfectionism) has taught me about the importance of being in the in-between state, a balance of the old and new, the good and the bad, that uncomfortable grey area.IMG_8642

There’s dirt under my fingernails tonight, and new seedlings among the established beetroot and the last of the eggplants, and it feels good. Tomorrow I’m going to face the blank page, and those other pages peppered with half lines and ideas and questions to myself. And I’m just going to dig in and start there, see what comes – not worry so much about that bigger thing I am trying to grow.

What I’m reading.

booksI have a new writing nook, cleverly created by my fella with the Ikea goods I brought home from an adventure I nearly aborted (why oh why do we always forget how tricky it is to fetch and bring home flat pack goods that are longer than we are tall while wrangling small humans?). I am overjoyed at my new space, and procrastinating by planning shelves that will help me organise my crazy world of books.

At this stage my categories are: In Progress, To Read When I Get a Moment (the To Read Immediately books continue to make a teetering pile on my bedside table), Recently Read, To Assist with New Project (which I am not writing because there is too much to read), To Lend, To Return, and the important – Just Bought Because I Had To But Not Likely To Read Until Next Summer… It’s a work in progress.

So, before I misplace those on my Most Recently Read list, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, Larissa Behrendt.

Aboriginal writer, Behrendt, explores the story of Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked on the island of the Butchulla people in 1836. She uses this story as an example of how Aboriginal people have been portrayed in the stories of colonisers throughout history. I found this enormously helpful as I grappled with editing the final stages of my own novel, and thinking about how, as a non-Aboriginal writer, I have written Aboriginal characters. Clever, thought-provoking – one I will read again.

The Light on the Water, Olga Lorenzo.

Such a pleasure to read this highly anticipated novel by Lorenzo, whom I am lucky enough to have had as a teacher at RMIT. In it, she tells the story of Anne, two years after she has lost her daughter while walking at Wilsons Prom. Anne is charged with her daughter’s murder and Lorenzo leads us through Anne’s inner world as she is shunned by her community, while she desperately tries to reconstruct what happened and uphold her remaining relationships. I found this taut and complicated and terrible territory to be taken to, but like Charlotte Wood has done in The Natural Way of Things, Lorenzo guides you through the oppressive anxiety and heat of the story until it’s well crafted resolution. Highly recommend.

On Immunity, Eula Biss.

This was recommended to me, and I initially resisted – I had no interest in getting myself worked over a topic that was already making me mad every time I encountered it on social media. But this is a clever, thoughtful, beautifully crafted exploration of the social and cultural history of immunity (along with the science), that Biss weaves through with her own narrative of new motherhood and the fear and confusion she encountered around vaccination. Meticulously researched and unexpected. Well worth a read, even for those who feel they have nothing more to learn on the subject.

Six Bedrooms, Tegan Bennett Daylight.

Stella shortlisted, this collection of ten short stories takes the reader into the lives of teenagers and those entering adulthood, in the most gentle and fierce of ways. Some of the early stories dragged me straight back to the awkward madness of the teenage years and the last story in the collection, ‘Together alone’, left me gasping. Add it to your To Read list if it isn’t there already.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion.

I am loathe to admit this was my first encounter with Joan Didion. I am now trying to ‘catch up’ on her extraordinary body of work. This is the memoir of the year after the unexpected death of her husband of over forty years. It is extraordinary. At times, Didion holds her grief at arm’s length to observe and analyse it, and then she takes the reader with her into her free fall into the ‘magical’ thinking, where she believes she can not get rid of her husband’s shoes, because he is coming back. Heartbreaking and intelligent. I’m so thankful I now have Didion in my reading arsenal.

 

Oh, summer.

And here we are. 2016. I’m a little late, in truth, in getting to the year because I have been hiding out at the beach with my family for three whole weeks. Three weeks of river and sea and sand and campfires and reading books in the hammock and NO phones and NO internet and NO manuscript.

thumb_IMG_6861_1024

So much bliss.

But now we’re back. And I have been hiding away again, in the local library this time, going through the copyedit on the book, and relishing that fresh, ‘start of the year’ feeling which has me exhilarated at the alarming drop in the word count as I cut and slash. It’s nearly there.

It spurred me on, to come back and see Skylarking mentioned in some lists of ‘What to Read in 2016’; in the Age, and in Arts Hub, and in another Age article about YA. That feels wonderful. And terrifying, but I’m focusing on the wonderful at the minute.

Those weeks at the beach gave me time to read. What a treat! I finally read:

Sally Piper – Grace’s Table. A wonderful character, great structure and beautiful take on friendship and ageing and family, amongst other things. Was so good to finally read Sally’s book after learning so much from her about the writing of it, and writing in general, at our shared week at Varuna last year.

Charlotte WoodThe Natural Way of Things. Everything they say is true. Magnificent. Must-read.

Debra Adelaide – The Women’s Pages. Interesting concept, complex character. I think Adelaide is a wonderful writer. Satisfying.

Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life. Devoured this. Had to scribble some of the passages down in my journal for their beauty. Wept. Big read – totally worth it.

Maya Linden, Christie Nieman, Maggie Scott, Natalie Kon-Yu and Miriam Sved – Just Between Us: Australian writers tell the truth about female friendship. Wow. Lots of the stories here rang true and lots didn’t – so many stories about terrible friendship break ups which I have been fortunate enough not to have had. But made me think lots about friendship and women and how we play it, and how important it is. Still thinking. And so very grateful for the women in my life.

James Bradley – CladeHarrowing look at the not too distant future through the story of one family. Terrifying and beautiful at times and somehow hopeful.

What was on your summer read list? And should I add those titles to mine?

 

Stone by stone

Listening to Geraldine Brooks on radio this week, I heard her say that writing was like ‘building a stone wall’ – just putting one stone on top of another. Thank you, Geraldine.

IMG_5979 sm
Our very own stone wall. A real one. Courtesy of my father-in-law who knows everything about doing things stone by stone.

Because this week, at a borrowed desk (thanks to Kelly Gardiner) and at cafes and libraries, on borrowed time (thanks to my husband and parents and the various wonderful people we pay to look after our children), I have been grappling with first taking apart my manuscript and then trying to piece it together again, word by word, stone by stone.

It hurts sometimes. And it is also exhilarating. The cutting – the letting go of words – sometimes feels the best. At times, it feels like it is absolutely the most important thing to be doing, and at others it feels frivolous and pointless and a waste of good time and money when I could be doing a thousand other things that might be more useful or worthwhile or make some kind of a difference to the world. (Every writer feels like that at some point, right?)

Half-listening, as I was, to Brooks speak, I caught her laughing at the ‘romanticisation’ of the life of the writer, and at risk of misquoting her, she said something along the lines of – there is absolutely nothing romantic about it. No. Not right now, there’s not. (And I say that, being mindful that previous posts have included the words ‘Varuna’ and ‘Ubud’ – and one wouldn’t want to come across as an ungrateful wanker. Sometimes it does live up to the dream.)

So, onwards. Stone by stone. I will stop looking at the whole unwieldy mass of notes and versions and deletions and additions and timelines and character lists and emails from my editor and her notes (sometime in red AND in bold) and take it a sentence at a time. Word by word when need be. Knowing that others, dear friends among them, are facing far greater and more significant challenges in their life (challenges that really are real and not writerly angst) in much the same manner – hour by hour, day by day, one stone at a time. This is easy, in comparison. I’ll take a leaf from their books.

Deep breath. Carry on.

Ubud – a postscript.

There is a draft of a post from Ubud. I started it as I looked out over the jungle from my little perch in our balinese villa. IMG_5424I would have been in my bathers, I might have had a cuppa, but more likely a g + t. The air would have been dense with heat and chattering of monkeys. I would have been able to smell the frangipani.

Needless to say, I never finished that post.

The view from here is not quite so satisfying. I am dashing this off before I pick the kids up from kinder and child care. It is a task in a list that includes dishes and washing and cooking and filling in kinder forms and dancing re-enrolment and uploading photos so I can start on the Christmas books. Thinking about Christmas obviously leads to a slight panic attack and frenzied online searching and list making… There is no room for writing today, I tell myself, but then I read Rowena Tuziak’s post about life getting in the way and putting the writing first, and I decide I have to make room. I have to choose to make room.

When I last wrote here I dangled the cliff hanger – will she or won’t she be able to finish the draft while she sits by the pool drinking cocktails in Bali?! The short answer is no. No, I didn’t finish the draft then, but I worked hard in the bits between classes and panels and nights under lanterns strung in garden jungles filled with interesting people and conversation and Bintang. I worked between listening and learning from writers like Brigid Delaney, Clem Ford, Liam Pieper, Deddy Arsya, Emily Bitto, Antonia Hayes, Sofie Laguna, Okky Madasari, Amanda Curtin, Nam Le and Isa Kamari. I could not work after People of Letters because I was so emotionally wrecked. It featured, among others, Chigozie Obioma, Ayelet Waldman, and Finegan Kruckemeyer, upon whom I developed an instant writerly crush both because his words were so perfectly crafted and because he spoke about cradling his baby when I was so missing mine. There were tears.

I worked, fuelled by the insights and conversations about writing as a political act, about how fiction can change minds, about how history can be viewed through different lenses, about friendship and feminism and corruption and writerly angst.

And I worked in a house filled with the most interesting and extraordinary group of women brought together for the masterclass. I was the baby. And gee – I’ve got so much more to learn. About writing and books and life and networking and parenting and business and grief and the things that scare us and the things that bring us joy. Also about how to break into a locked compound in Ubud when the door has been unexpectedly locked and it’s late and there have been beers involved (but that’s not my story to tell!)

I wish I had seen more of the panels, especially the local ones in the light of the censorship issues. I wish I had talked to more of the writers. I wish I had explored more, stayed out later, got up earlier, eaten less, drunk less, drunk more, even… Some part of me wishes I had got stuck by the fickle volcano dust so that I could have continued to write in the glorious surrounds of Ubud. But then I think of how my four year old daughter greeted me with the words ‘Mum, I was so excited to see you today that my eyeballs nearly popped out of their sockets!’, and I know I would have been frantic to be away from them for much longer.

I didn’t finish working on the draft in Ubud, but I did finish it when I got home (although I use the word ‘finish’ loosely). I have sent it off to my editor. And I nervously await her comments. What if it isn’t the thing she thought it would be, says the little voice of self-doubt. What if it isn’t any good after all? I know that voice now and know that nearly every writer carries it within them and they try and find ways to ignore it. Or they use it to push them forward and through the hard work of tearing apart their manuscript, building it back up again piece by piece, making it as good as it can be.

When asked ‘Why write?’ on one of the panels in Ubud, Liam Pieper quoted Hemingway’s advice (or not Hemingway’s – depending on who you listen to): ‘Write drunk, edit sober’. Ubud, and Varuna before it, have been part of the glorious ‘drunkness’ and uninhibited creativeness of the writing process of ‘Skylarking’ so far. Now for the editing, and some serious sobriety.

On letting the writing settle…

It’s now two weeks since I left the magic of Varuna.

I returned home to brilliant cuddles with my girls and full of energy for the manuscript, for being a calm and present mum for a while, for ‘resisting re-entry’ and trying to keep a sense of that Varuna quiet.

It didn’t last long. But madness is also wonderful. And it has been a mad, and delightful, fortnight including a weekend with dear friends in Bright, a smashed window in the lounge room due to an accidentally thumb_IMG_5208_1024but perfectly aimed Lightning McQueen, uni assignments, kinder excursions and a visiting duck who has made himself at home at our place.

But the writing must go on. And it has. In snippets and bursts and with the first edits back from my publisher on some extracts (terrifying and validating in equal measure).

I’m giving it a little time to sit, to let the new writing settle; new writing that seems so spot on when it comes spewing out, and then, a week later is so clunky and wrong. Knowing, as I now do, that the longer I let it sit, the more faults I find, I fear that perhaps I should have told the publisher to give me 6 years and not 6 months…alas, I don’t think they make those kinds of deals with first timers.

I’ve made a long list of questions to myself on each chapter: Does this fit with what I said earlier about this character? Match box or flint box? Would she really have said that? What does a whale feel like to touch? And I’ve been prodded to ask others from the wonderful readers in my writing group: how long can you leave a dead body before there is a smell, for instance. Not somewhere I really wanted to go I’ll admit, but go there I must.

It’s a slow process, a cathartic one. Less in more, is the instruction from my editor. I’m wielding the red pen (in the form of the delete button) with a kind of mania. It feels good. It’s a freedom of sorts, I suppose, letting go of that which I have sweated and toiled over. It’s all there, behind what is left, and the words that are left are the stronger for it.

So – on the home stretch now. The start of the home stretch at least. And just to really let the writing settle completely, I’m taking it on retreat. To Ubud. Because somehow I won a trip to the Writers Festival there, and time with other writers and a masterclass with The Guardian and space and quiet (and cocktails by the pool) where I can finish this thing – the next draft at least.

I’m banishing the mother-guilt (again) and packing my list of questions and notes and hoping that my ear and my nose for the rugged 1880s east coast of Australia will be heightened by the fact that I’m sitting next to a pool in Bali with a G+T. Hope so.

A room of one’s own at Varuna

thumb_IMG_4922_1024So here I am, on my last full day of a blissful week at Varuna. What a week. Beyond my computer, and half drunk cups of tea, piles of manuscript and well-thumbed books, is the window and the pink and white of the crab apple tree in blossom. It is windy up here today and the blossom is blowing off in drifts. There is purple wisteria winding up through the branches and it reminds me of the great arch of it going over the monkey bars at Millicent Street, where my grandparents lived for so long.

I have done what I came here to do. I wrote my 15 000 words (and then cut most of them away). I’ve read it through from start to end. I’ve done other things too; I’ve cried a bit. And walked. And drunk wine with the fine writers who occupy the other rooms. Been warmly looked after by Sheila and her amazing dinners. Slept. The sleep of a person who has not slept a night through without little calls in the night, and little arms and legs wrapped round head and body, for quite some time.

And oh, how I have missed my girls.

And yet, every morning and every night I have been so grateful for this time and known that there is no possible way I would have got this much done had I been at home in the rush and bubble of life. And, of course, they have all survived back home and had delightful times with swims and adventures and parties and glorious dad time. At times I have had to suppress the niggly doubt that perhaps I am not so indispensable and important as I thought to our little house…

The great gift of Varuna is not only the beauty, the quiet, the monastic rigour of writers doing their thing all day and then debriefing about it at  night. Not only the way you are  cared for, with good food and good company, and a break from the mind-numbing domesticity of normal life. thumb_IMG_4897_1024Not only the proximity to the edge – the walks and the views out to the abyss and the beautiful Blue Mountains (‘alarming’ as Lucinda said, and breathtaking).

It is the great respect and validation given to writing, and the writer doing the writing; that this is something important and legitimate and even, perhaps, a little brave.

Until now I have tended to churn out hunks of writing in stolen time (and time gifted by my wonderful partner and family I’ll admit), but it is piecemeal, often random. It does not connect from one session to the next, and I spend so much time scrabbling back into the world of the story that I scratch out a few hundred words and then have to leave it again. But here, here I have understood process. How all the pieces can suddenly pull together and start to resemble something that I can see will one day be whole and complete. How I can go to sleep with a problem of character or plot that seems unfixable and wake up in the morning with an answer. And have time to go and write that answer in. How it is work, hard work, to keep getting the words down and make them make sense, and then take them out again, and go up against the self-doubt and fear each day, that every word is rubbish and everyone will hate it.

I went through an entire tissue box as I wrote the last chapters. Partly in sheer relief that I had got there. And also, of course, because I love my characters and don’t quite know what I will do when they are not rattling around in my head. I cried too, because I still couldn’t quite believe the gift of being here, having the time and space to have that moment, to write ‘The End’ (a little dramatically and untruthfully even because it is so far from done) on the last page of this unwieldy document.

So, back to it. There are at least six more hours I can fill with writing and editing and reading and thinking. And even though it would be a crime to take any of it for granted, I might just sit and look out at the blossom.

thumb_IMG_4873_1024

An adventure

New blog. New adventure.

Tonight I attempted to resurrect a blog that had fallen into disrepair. Unloved, it had sent all its notifications to a long lost email account and sat there, unused and unread and a little cringeworthy really.

So, on the eve (or thereabouts) of flying out to Cambodia for some holiday time and some volunteer work with Khmer teachers and the amazing Teachers Across Borders Australia crew, I was convinced (shout out to you Cathy Hainstock!) to make a space where I could share some of my reflections on the experience for those who wanted to follow along, especially those who have given so generously to support our work in Kampong Thom.

So here goes. I’m a writer. Surely it’s just like getting back on a horse?