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It seems that often my random reading continues a kind of conversation in my head. After writing my last post, on Tim Parks’ book, I’ve been thinking about thinking. The problem of too much thinking. Thinking when I’d rather not.
Let’s take yesterday – a sunny day, an hour or two in the garden pulling weeds, enjoyable exercise rather than a chore – and yet I just could not stop that voice in my head. It wasn’t all bad. Sometimes it was just a commentary interspersed with memories, to-do lists, future plans. There were the odd instants of delight and wonder (the green of new grass, the toughness of some weed roots, scarlet parrots in a bare tree). But also much perplexity and discontent (Donald Trump, how to not buy anything in plastic, can I project-manage the new kitchen and work on the new book at the same time?). Gradually a kind of non-stop, nagging, argumenative chatter took over. I had to speak to myself sternly. It’s a beautiful day. You’re alive and not in pain or distress. Pull weeds. Stop thinking.
And then, when I went inside for a cup of tea and propped my book – Mary Swann by Carol Shields, Flamingo, 1993 – up on the teapot, after a few pages I read this:
…I’ve never been able to see the point of emptying one’s mind of thought. Our thoughts are all we have. I love my thoughts, even when they take me up and down sour-smelling byways where I’d rather not venture. Whatever flickers on in my head is mine and I want it, all the blinking impulses and inclinations and connections and weirdness, and especially those bright purple flares that come streaming out of nowhere, announcing that you’re at some mystic juncture or turning point and that you’d better pay attention.
I love my thoughts, too. Mostly. Wandering, discursive, curious; linking and connecting; interpreting and inventing and basically making stuff up, gold from straw, like the spinning maiden in Rumpelstilstkin – where would I be if my mind was empty? I wouldn’t be a writer, that’s certain. For years I’ve wondered if I could write and at the same time achieve that possibly mythical but much desired state of ‘living in the moment’. I’d be happier, perhaps. But maybe I wouldn’t be able to write. And that would make me unhappy. It’s a matter of balance – like everything, I suppose – and patience. I get stuck – enmired is Tim Parks’ word – in kitchen renovation and Donald Trump and general discontent, and then get jolted out of it by a parrot or a blade of new grass.
PS. Does anyone read Carol Shields any more? She was a terrific writer. I read The Stone Diaries (shortlisted for the Booker in 1993, it won Shields the Pulitzer in 1995) when it came out, and was amazed at how wonderful and deep and engrossing and illuminating she’d made an ‘ordinary’ woman’s life. This year I’ve found The Republic of Love, Larry’s Party and Unless in various Opportunity Shops. Mary Swann was in the library’s shelf at the railway station. So random! Shields’ books are sophisticated and ingenious, funny as well as dark, and particularly good on ‘domesticity – the shaggy beast that eats up 50 percent of our lives’. She died too young, in 2003, at 68.
Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From is a collection of articles originally written for the New York Review of Books between 2010 and 2014.
The introduction starts with a fusillade of questions.
It’s time to rethink everything. Everything. What it means to write and what it means to write for a public – and which public? What do I want from this writing? Money? A career? Recognition? A place in the community? A change in the government? Is it an artifice, is it therapy? Is it therapy because it is an artifice, or in spite of that? Does it have to do with constructing an identity, a position in society? Or simply with entertaining others? Will I still write if they don’t pay me?
Questions, questions, questions.
And the kind that I am asking myself at the moment, in the breathing space between finishing a first draft and waiting for the editor’s response (let’s not even think about all the work to come). I thought I would enjoy this break a little more, for it’s been a hard slog, with two books on the go, since early 2016. I could blame the weather – which is gloomy and cold – and say it’s a case of mid-winter blues, but it’s more likely the case that I am so used to having a project on the go, I feel at a loss without one. Where am I writing from? After this children’s book is all done and dusted, what will I do next?
Does copyright matter? Why finish books? Does money make us better writers?
Parks is well qualified to ask and to answer – in a long career, he’s written non-fiction, novels, essays; he’s also a translator and teacher. I read two early books, Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education, twenty odd years ago; they were a clear-eyed corrective to the “Living in Tuscany” fantasy genre. And I’ve read and re-read his memoir of chronic pain and meditation, Teach Me To Sit Still, and enjoyed the meditation retreat novel, Sex is Forbidden.
Do we need stories?
Parks thinks, not really.
He writes that just as the reader imagines that he or she is a “self”, so the character in a novel is a “self” too, and his or her story reinforces the reader’s own process of self-creation. In trying to understand what he means, I remember myself (there’s that word again) as a young girl reading novels like Jane Eyre, and discovering an intense, passionate, inner world that both echoed and helped me create my own. Parks asks whether we really need this “intensification of self”, when it is the separate self that often makes us (in Westernised countries, at any rate) so miserable.
Having read my fair share of Buddhist literature, I get where he’s coming from, but I’ve always wondered – if I really detached from my particular invented self, with all of its stories, loves and hates and joys and (often pointless and self-inflicted) suffering, would I still write? And if I didn’t, would it matter?
Parks ends by admitting that he’s in too far – ‘enmired in narrative and self-narrative” – and that he loves a novel. He’s just not sure if he actually needs it.
Where I’m Reading From Tim Parks, Harvill Secker, London, 2014
I read Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour over an afternoon and evening; I literally couldn’t put it down.
It wasn’t because of suspense; there was no ‘how will this story turn out’; there was never any doubt about the ending. Nina Riggs, a 38-year-old poet and teacher, with a husband and two young sons, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years before she died in February this year. A ‘little spot’ turned into an extremely aggressive cancer – and her lovely memoir is about that time, living in the shadow of illness and death, but still, living. It’s full of the beauty of the everyday – there’s no ‘bucket list’ of amazing adventures in exotic places, just life.
The title is taken from a piece by Riggs’ ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that he was “cheered with the moist, warm, glittering, budding and melodious hour that takes down the narrow walls of my soul and extends its pulsation and life to the very horizon. That is morning; to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body, and to become as large as the World.”
There were many ‘bright hours’ – spent with her father, her mother (also dying of cancer), her husband and two young sons. The boys are beautiful individual portraits and I especially loved the black humour of the jokes Riggs shared with friend who was also going through cancer treatment. The ‘casserole bitches’ made me laugh out loud.
There was much in her life that was warm, glittering, budding and melodious; when her husband talked about things ‘getting back to normal’, she responded that this was her normal now, and she must love it.
I cried a little, though the memoir was never maudlin. Mostly I was simply moved and occasionally sobered (for there’s always the thought, what would I do in her situation?) by her truthfulness and courage.
There’s a ‘bright’ in the title of my new book, too.
How Bright Are All Things Here is my first for adults, published by Pan Macmillan, and released in September. The title, too, is part of something else, a quotation; it’s from a poem called Wonder by Thomas Traherne, an English mystical poet of the 17th century.
How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
The novel is all about Bliss, a dying woman in her her late 70’s, who’s reviewing her life and loves and relationships. Time twists and curls and loops back; she reflects on her past and she relives it, while her three step-children hover. I chose the poem because I’ve always loved it; it takes me back to a very early memory, of lying on my bed watching glittering motes of dust whirling and spinning in the air, not knowing that they were dust, entranced by the glitter and the spin.
It’s taken close to ten years to get to this point and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. Excited and happy, naturally – I wouldn’t have pressed on for years with this novel if I didn’t want it published. So there’s a great sense of satisfaction.
But I’m also having to get used to an odd feeling of loss, a bit like I felt when my son left home. The book was always there, to work on and think about, and now it’s finished and gone. There’s an absence. I’m not quite ready yet to fill it with something else; though there is another novel quietly percolating away, it’s too soon to do anything with it and I’m a great believer in leaving well alone. We shall see.
Just finished Sally Abbott’s Closing Down.
I was at a dinner party here in Castlemaine a couple of years ago when I met Sally for the first time. She was still finishing the book, with chapters flying to and fro between her and her editor at Hachette; I could sense her excitement at the opportunity (the manuscript was the winner of the inaugural Richell Prize for Emerging Writers) and her commitment to the hard, hard work that was involved. So it was a thrill to go as the bookseller to the launch a couple of months ago, and see the pile of novels diminishing as happy punters paid for their copies.
It’s an engrossing read, set in a future that’s maybe not so far away. As a result of climate change and geopolitical shifts, the Australian government is closing down rural towns and communities. Under the all-too-believable program, “A New ERA: Energising Rural Australia”, residents are forcibly relocated and provided with only the barest of essentials. It’s a soul-destroying business; many people simply take the the roads and become ‘walkers’; others suicide.
When Clare loses her run-down rental property, it looks as if her hard-won security will vanish. Here the gritty dystopian world turns a little strange; magical, in fact. With the aid of cat and mysterious town matriarch Granna Adams, Clare manages a kind of happy ending.
Outside Australia, giant refugee camps have sprung up to process millions of desperate people. Granna’s grandson Roberto and his lover Ella are the other protagonists; Ella works at a high level in the aid sector; Roberto is a journalist. Their jobs mean travel, money, a kind of freedom; these can insulate their lives, but can’t block out the surreal disaster unfolding across the planet.
It’s an engrossing read; dystopian fiction, certainly, but there’s hope in there too. Human kindness and goodness can, sometimes, prevail.
I especially loved the teasing suspicion that harmless-seeming old ladies may, just possibly, be able to save the world.
Continuing the stationery theme from my last post…
End of financial year always has me scrabbling around for receipts and invoices. In general, they’re properly filed away but occasionally not. That’s when I go looking, and in looking find all sorts of things I wasn’t seeking. Over the weekend, it was my scrapbooks.
I started keeping scrapbooks about five years ago. Before that, it was folders filled with – well, with scraps. I could have thrown everything out – but no, I couldn’t bear to.
Instead, I chose to buy a couple of cheap stapled scrapbooks, the ones little kids used to use (maybe they still do) at school. Mine had dinosaurs on the covers, but I soon covered them over with pictures from old calendars. I went through a lot of gluesticks.
They get very bulgy, those cheap books. A couple of years ago, I switched to spiral bound Visual Diaries. I’ve got a couple of those, A4 size, and then I decided they weren’t big enough (there was a lot of folding of newspaper articles) so my current book is A3.
This assortment looked very scrappy on the shelf. The thought occurred to me that if I had a standard format, there would eventually be a whole row of beautifully matching scrapbooks. And if I indexed them – imagine, both matching AND indexed – how splendid that would be – a shelf to be proud of. And I could be diligent, instead of slack, and keep up with the clippings and the pasting and the indexing, and print out stuff off the Internet as well…
Quite the project, eh?
That’s it, though, isn’t it? Quite the project, and do I really need any more of those? Like I need a hole in the head.
Like lots of us (women more than men? I’m not sure) I’m drawn to the lure of the new start, the perfect system; quite simply, perfection. A new calendar, notebook, journal, diary or scrapbook signals an opportunity to be more organised, more disciplined, more systematic – in a word, better.
And how will this betterness actually improve my life – my writing life, in particular? Not all that much, really. The matchy-matchy spines on a shelf would simply please my eye. Though, come to think of it, an index would be wonderful. A grand project (like sorting the photo albums) which I will get stuck into if ever I break a leg or have to recuperate from an operation. Index-less, there is however a lucky dip quality to the scrapbooks, a happy randomness. The first few pages contain cuttings on the following:
‘late style’ in literature
losing one’s notebook
creepy 19th century photographs of dead children and babies
It’s rather like reading an old copy of Susan magazine. If there was such a thing as Susan magazine. I still have folders of clippings – they’re just waiting for a session with the glue stick – however, I’ve just bought a book on artist’s journals (pictured). It’s a fabulous trove of images and ideas and I think – when I’ve got the time – I’ll try to make some art out of the clippings file. Another project…
That’s my son, Lachie, at the top of the photograph, holding this big cardboard key and looking bewildered. It was taken 14 years ago, when he was in Grade 1. What 6-year-old even knows the meaning of ‘organisation’? Not my poor little pet, that’s for sure. I’m nearly 60 and I’m still learning.
Generally, I think I do a reasonable job – manage to pay bills on time, keep documents more or less filed and know where the passports are. But, faced with the imminent NFY (that’s New Financial Year, in case you didn’t know) and the purchase of a yet another financial year diary, I looked at last year’s and realised that I scarcely used it. Clearly, another form of organisation tool is required.
Intrigued by an article in one of the weekend magazines, I went online to find out about the Bullet Journal. I found a delightful young Asian-American woman called Wendy doing a show-and-tell. I just love stationery, and so does Wendy, so I enjoyed this every much. She uses a special journal with dots instead of lines, however some people like squared paper, and others make do with old-school lines. You can use this one book as a journal, a diary for appointments, a goal-setter, to-do list and scrapbook. You number the pages, you make lists, you make an index. You have a little system of symbols to add to your notes – for instance, if you missed making that call to Sandro today, you can “migrate” that task to tomorrow. A useful tool indeed, and – amazingly, in this world of so many apps – the revolutionary thing about it is that it’s ANALOG.
Yes, I am having a go. It’s a notebook. I was less than amazed (sorry, Wendy) but actually, funnily enough, inspired. Every year, for the past 10 years, I’ve bought the same Collins Vanessa diary. This year, I’ve got a spiral bound student notebook from Typo and I’m experimenting. The simple act of sitting down at the start of the week and listing the things I have to do and the things I want to do – finish the novel, buy carrots, apples and a litre of milk – is proving helpful. Crossing jobs off as I complete them is almost joyful.
I got the carrots, apples and milk. The novel…
That’s another story.
To be released in December (a Christmas gift for brave girls) is Vasilisa the Wise, with stories retold by Kate Forsyth and illustrated by Lorena Carrington, published by Serenity Press. It includes my second-favourite fairy tale (the first is Beauty and the Beast) which is The Toy Princess, a literary fairy tale by Mary de Morgan from 1877 . The cover art looks exquisite; I have seen Lorena’s work over the years, and I am sure all the illustrations will be wonderful. Can’t wait!
Once upon a time, there were lots of really popular, really exciting tough-guy action thrillers by Robert Ludlum. Some on them were made into films, and they were really exciting and really popular too.
The titles? The Bourne Identity. The Matarese Circle. The Janson Directive. The Bourne Supremacy. The Lazarus Vendetta. The Sigma Protocol…
There’s a bit of a pattern, isn’t there?
A name – for instance, Bourne – and another word, preferably something serious and mysterious that made you think of guns and assassins and documents and top-secret plans for world domination. I remember Howard and I fooling around one evening around making up silly titles; what if you paired the serious, mysterious word with Banana – (why not?) – then you would have the following bestsellers:
The Banana Protocol
The Banana Inheritance
The Banana Intervention
The Banana Paradigm
The Banana Dispensation
The Banana Palimpsest
The Banana Termination
The Banana Occurrence
The Banana Conundrum
The Banana Tapes
The Banana Conspiracy….
and so on and so on and so on.
I think we had a list of about 50 titles. We probably thought it was all funnier than it was, but I remember laughing so much my jaw ached.
I’ve lost that list, but in tidying up some papers came on another. We were thinking of ‘cosies’ – those (typically) English village murder mysteries with titles like The Body in the Library. So how about these?
A Death on the Heath
A Corpse in the Copse
A Kill on the Hill
A Grave in the Grove
A Ghoul By the Pool
The End Round the Bend
Strangulation at the Station (though Howard really liked the rather more arcane Defenestration at Paddington Station)
A Stranger in the Ranges
A Beheading at Reading
Spent Shells at Tunbridge Wells
Stone Cold at the Willoughby Wold
Not many posts lately – “Blogday,” usually Sunday, has come and gone and come and gone. Time to start posting again.
I’ve been sick – just a cold, but the worst I’ve had for many years. No mucking around with sore throats or a runny nose, it went straight to the chest. And the worst thing was, it descended the minute I arrived at Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. This was a long awaited, much anticipated camping trip. And I felt utterly miserable.
But still. Even with lungs full of phlegm, I couldn’t fail to notice the landscapes like Namatjira paintings – red soil, sage-green vegetation, white tree trunks and that combination of pale purple ranges and blue, blue sky – and the wild creatures and birds of all kinds from emus to eagles to parrots. On a six-hour drive in a very comfortable late-model car (I lolled in the back-seat like some kind of consumptive queen) I saw kangaroos, euros, wallabies, wild goats and horses; wide dry riverbeds; ghost gums and rocky outcrops like castles and algae-green pools and dramatic gorges.
I couldn’t do all the walking I’d hoped for, but as an officially sick person, I did a great deal of reading by the campfire. A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee, a lovely junior novel about a reluctant witch, whiled away the time beautifully as I coughed and hacked under a blue sky, with kangaroos investigating the campsite and groups of noisy grey birds (Apostle birds, they’re sometimes called, or CWA birds) chattering and scolding and sweeping around.
Back home, and still sick, I read Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten, How to Read a Graveyard by Peter Stanford and on the weekend finished Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education: A Biographical Novel by Sybille Bedford. Published first in 1989, shortlisted for the Booker, it’s a strange reading experience – messing, just a little, with the mind – making me think about how my feelings, my sympathy, sense of outrage, even protectiveness, are readily engaged for a real young Sybille… Does it make a difference if some of it is fiction?
Bedford describes a dislocated childhood and adolescence in the 1920s. Sybille’s German parents divorce; her father dies; she moves from Germany and then rackets between her mother and much younger Italian husband and a series of makeshift living arrangements in England, finally spending much of her time in the South of France. From the age of 15 she’s more or less on her own; she educates herself, through books and study and observation; she makes friends, falls under the spell of various strong personalities, witnesses the adults making messes of their lives.
Much of Sybille’s ‘unsentimental education’ comes from her friendship with sisters, Toni and Rosie; they’re cultured German Jews living in London; Toni is married to an Englishman and Rosie is carrying on a long-term, secret affair with a judge. Young Sybille watches their lives. Her self-appointed task is to learn from them.
The important thing, what I longed to penetrate, was what went on between this man and this woman- the perennial mystery of what there is between two people – that eluded me. How often does one not wonder what thoughts accompany the talk, what is said – thrice quicker than speech – inside the head and what goes on beneath those thoughts, at the back of the mind: who has not strained to listen to that composition of the said/thought/felt played inside another human being? All I seemed to be able to do was watch the surface while sounding my own feelings.
I remember having thoughts a little like this at the same age. I suppose it’s how you know that you’re going to be a writer.