TEN THINGS ABOUT

I know Joanne Harris mainly as the writer of Chocolat. But she’s written heaps of books, including this one, Ten Things About Writing, which began as part of a regular Twitter hashtag series. That last should be in quotes, actually – and here it is, ‘part of a regular Twitter hashtag series’ because I’m quoting from her introduction and I have no idea what a Twitter hashtag series is. But I’m guessing it’s, like, a series. On Twitter. Anyway, without further exposing my idiocy it’s now a book. Books I can understand.

And this one is a useful guide from an experienced writer of the aforementioned heaps of books. After thirteen books published, I guess I am also an experienced writer but I can always do with a little help. Sometimes there’s just the one little gem that makes sense; sometimes it’s more that reading about writing is a way of getting back in touch with my writerly self. Sparkling away in the section on Permission was this, at #4.

Stop comparing yourself to other writers. Compare your work to the last thing you wrote. If you’re improving (and you are), you’re doing fine.

As a perennial self-doubter and second-guesser, it’s a fine piece of advice. All I need to do is my personal best.

The ‘ten things’ format means it’s succinct and structured and decimal (or do I mean metric?) so that the ten parts divide neatly into ten sections. Why ten? Why not, I say. It’s not too many and not too few. I was delving into my filing cabinet the other day and found a series from the Guardian that I copied way back in 2015. It was Ten Rules for Writing Fiction from many famous novelists, the likes of Hilary Mantel and Ian Rankin and Sarah Waters. Some were generous and serious in their approach to these ‘rules’; others, like Phillip Pullman (‘My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work’) more or less said “Nick off.”

The book also made me think about my own Ten Things and Ten Rules. I spent years teaching creative writing in community settings and dishing out the advice, which was mostly not my own but synthesised from  other sources, like that article in the Guardian. These days I’d probably say that my Things About Writing  vary from day to day, depending on how the work is going. Today, I was at my laptop editing and formatting a short story and struggling with auto-correct and footers and headers so I’d probably emphasise the sheer slog and bum-on-seat and ‘do it when you don’t feel like it’ aspect of writing. But on Saturday, I was on a roll joyfully inventing and creating and making stuff up out of thin air, scribbling cryptic notes and ideas into an exercise book. Quite a different Thing.

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THE DOG RUNNER

The Red Fungus has devastated grain crops and grasses world-wide. In Australia, drought has added to the disaster and now, with food running out, society has broken down and it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. Ella and her older half-brother Emery are faced with a world that’s scary and dangerous, so they stay holed up in their city apartment with their three big dogs. When their father – gone to find Ella’s mum – doesn’t return, Emery and Ella are faced with a decision. Stay, as the city becomes more and more violent and dangerous, or leave to travel up-country to Emery’s mother?

They go. Across the dry, barren and desolate landscape, Ella and Emery travel with their three ‘doggos’ on a dry-land sled. It’s a dangerous journey – a bit like The Road for little ones – and McDibble keeps the pace break-neck and the suspense ratcheting. The pair have to evade desperate gangs who think nothing of killing for food and supplies; they have to find sustenance for themselves and the three doggos; they have to navigate an unforgiving land. When Emery is injured, Ella must find all the courage and ingenuity she can muster. This is a kid’s book, and so it doesn’t end in death and disaster (whew!); they reach Emery’s mum and the whole family is reunited.

And they get to eat a decent meal at last. I’ve long been the butt of (affectionate!) jokes in my family for my obsession with food. There was the camping trip where we were almost at starvation point because there was only one can of baked beans and some noodles when we packed up to go home. There’s my chirpy “What will we have for dinner?” at breakfast time. And my stern disapproval of the world-building in The Lord of the Rings because  – well, where are the market gardens of Rohan?

Emery’s mum farms mushrooms in caves and grows pumpkins. Emery is of Aboriginal and Afghan heritage and – in a nod to the work of Bruce Pascoe and others in educating Australians about the Aboriginal agricultural practices – Emery’s Ba (grandfather) experimented with growing, harvesting and storing native grass seeds. The Dog Runners ends on a hopeful note.

McDibble’s earlier book, How To Bee, also had a serious message about the effect of global environmental degradation on food security (what’s going to happen to the world’s food supply without bees to pollinate plants?). It was a great read as well.

 

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AMAZING HUMANS

Want to be entertained? Sit on the edge of your seat with suspense and tension? Squeal with joy? Tear up with emotion? See some incredible bodies and some amazing humans? Simply feel really, really happy? OK, watch reality TV. No, not The Bachelor. The Paralympics.

The competition wasn’t even on our radar, but one evening in changing channels we stumbled across the wheelchair rugby and were hooked. For ten days, we looked forward to the evening and our nightly fix.

The Tokyo Paralympics ended on Sunday evening, and we even sat up and watched the closing ceremony. Those zany Japanese! No cherry-blossoms, no Zen aesthetics; there were crazy-colourful dancers and giant puppets and pop musicians and lights and magical technology – with an underlying message about accepting the diversity of our human family. Despite so many old men in dark suits handing out the gongs, this celebration was youthful and full of joy. Swimmer Ellie Cole carried out our flag, but sadly, the team could not attend.

I say ‘sadly’, and I mean sad for us – because after ten days we’d got to have our favourites among the athletes. Madi de Rozario, Isis Holt, Tiffany Thomas-Kane, Dylan Allcott, Ryley Batt, Angela Ballard, Isabella Vincent…what the hell, why choose? They’re all my favourites! In this, I can echo Kurt Fearnley, past Paralympian and – with Johanna Griggs – commentator for Channel 7’s coverage. He was such an unabashed enthusiast, brimming over with sympathetic joy like a proud parent; he just wanted to give everyone a hug. He and Johanna Griggs were perfect guides for the  newbie viewer, with insights into the broader story of the Paralympic movement as well as profiles and backstories of individual athletes.
You could feel the love.

There were so many memorable moments. Our female swimmers slithering over their lane markers to embrace at the finish like a school of lovely mermaids. Madi de Rozario, so fierce and strong, rocketing along to victory. The teary post-competition interview when tennis star Dylan Allcott said, holding his gold medal, that now he felt loved, he felt worthy.

Many of the Paralympian reflected on their journeys. Allcott spoke of how as a fat little disabled kid with no friends, last picked for everything, he was astonished to meet a group of disabled male athletes for the first time. They were having a beer with friends! They had jobs, they drove cars, they had wives or girlfriends, they had kids! All of these things, he’d thought, were not for him but the Paralympian movement changed his life.

I am sure many of the athletes could say the same thing. But as one of the sponsor’s slogans put it, you don’t have to be amazing to start, but you have to start to be amazing. And all of the Paralympians are amazing. They’ve had the courage and determination to somehow start the journey. Now, in elite competition in Tokyo, such grace and humility, such gratitude and joy.

And it’s all real; this is reality TV, but in a good way. That’s why we got hooked on the Paralympics, have become supporters of the movement and feel like we’ve been enriched and educated and inspired by these amazing human beings.

Bizarrely for me – so not a sports person – I am already thinking, Bring on Paris 2024!

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MODERN NATURE

 

Spring came in with sunshine and warmth. Yesterday in the late afternoon I stood with my husband in the courtyard at the front of our house. A grey shrike thrush flew to a blossoming plum tree, perched on the crown for all to see and sang his little heart out. We watched, thrilled, as his throat and chest vibrated with the effort; according to my bird book, The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst et al, this little grey bird has a pure, ringing, rhythmic voice, and a liquid five-note song. All that, and more; his voice is audible joy. After broadcasting to the neighbourhood, he rushed around from bush to shrub, perching to flirt and pose and add a note or two, quite un-shy and seeming actually happy to be in our presence. Eventually we heard an answering bird – just a short, sharp single note, which the book describes as a ‘contact call’ – and our thrush flew away.

We were out there to survey the results of my recent planting spree –  violas, pink and purple and yellow; a germander bush, silvery leaved with pale lavender flowers; two different heucheras (lime green and deep purple), low and sprawling, which I hope will want to become ground covers; a hellebore or winter rose, with palest green flowers; and two plants I’ve never grown before, bought to see how they turn out, a penstemon, dark green strappy leaves and blue flowers; and a saxifrage, which looks like a tiny squashed cabbage and is supposed to erupt with little pink flowers on stems. We shall see.

That’s the great thing about gardening; you wait, and then you see.
We were seeing how unpromising looking bulbs turn into absolute stunners. My little crocus (crocuses? crocii?) are nearly finished but now it’s time for the big guns; tulips. They are trembling on the brink. After going for the deep reds, purples and nearly-blacks in the past, with a not-to-be-repeated diversion into frilly weird pinkness last year, I have gone for orange and ginger this time. Stupidly, I put the tags in the pots but they were made of card and so I have no idea what my beauties are. But it doesn’t matter. I know that some gardeners are systematic about such things, so that they can repeat a success and avoid a failure, but somehow I am trusting that next year when I’m looking at the bulb catalogue, I’ll remember. And maybe, anyway, I will choose another colour.

My last post was inspired by the traffic essay of Rachel Cusk; this one, by reading Derek Jarman’s diaries from 1989-90, Modern Nature. The book is a nice, cheap Vintage reprint with an introductory essay by Olivia Laing, who is my new girl crush. I’m not sure that many young people would know who Jarman was; he died of AIDS-related illness in 1990.  He was a writer and gay activist, an artist, stage designer and perhaps most famously, a film director. As a young art student in the late 1970’s, I went to see his angry, sad, violent Jubilee. I remember not liking it, but then I didn’t ‘get’ punk. I was more David Bowie than the Sex Pistols. What I have never forgotten was his spellbinding version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The final sequence, where a crew of uniformed sailors dance and jazz singer Elisabeth Welch sings ‘Stormy Weather’ is utterly magical.
And he was a gardener. At Prospect Cottage, his retreat on the beach at Dungeness in the shadow of the nuclear power station, the odds were stacked against him. Wind, exposure, salt, shingle and stones and sand for soil  – nevertheless, he persisted.

Modern Nature takes in all of these strands. Sometimes the contrast is jarring. He makes lists of plant names that sound like incantations –  loosestrife, bugloss, buckthorn – and then, back to London, goes cruising on Hampstead Heath. This:
There is the suspicion of rain in the air, but a dry wind blows. The downy seeds of the willow herb float by. The back seed pods of the broom split with a crackling sound.
At the end of the garden the sloes are turning purple, and the blackberries are ripe. My wild pear tree wilts in the drought, and the nettles are dead and rattle in the wind.
And this:
Finding sexual partners was difficult and they were often transitory   – hardly bothered to take their pants down before buttoning up. And the police might raid, send the prettiest ones in as agents provocateurs. They had hard-ons but didn’t come. Just arrested you.
But now, halfway through the book, I’m loving the juxtaposition. Olivia Laing says in her introduction that her adult life was founded in the pages of this book.
It was here I developed a sense of what it meant to be an artist, to be political, even how to plant a garden (playfully, stubbornly, ignoring boundaries, collaborating freely).

Ignoring boundaries. Exactly. It’s what he does here. I guess that’s the beauty of the diary form. You can recount your daily life, you can reminisce and gossip. You can talk to yourself about sex and death (in those far-off days, being diagnosed as HIV-positive usually was a death sentence) and art and memory. And you can name the plants that you nurture and grow  –  wild fig, sempervivum, dead-nettle, night-scented stock – as you submit yourself to the eternal rhythm of the seasons.

www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jul/21/derek-jarman-prospect-cottage-dungeness-kent-garden-museum-london

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REAR WINDOW

I pause, waiting for the kettle to boil, standing at the kitchen window and looking out into the gathering dusk. This part of the house is set up high on stumps so that it’s almost at second storey height; I can overlook our unruly garden right to the back of our neighbour’s house. Homing birds zoom between the shrubs and trees across my line of sight but my eye is drawn to a brilliant rectangle of light within a dark frame. It’s Joe’s* kitchen window; I can see from mine into his.

And now as I pour boiling water into my cup, I see him. He’s there, maybe fifty metres away, all lit up but unaware, and he’s bobbing up and down and then twisting sideways in what could be an odd kind of dance or exercise routine but probably isn’t. I stare, fascinated. What is he doing? I have to know, I have to make sense of these movements of his – in spite of my uneasy feeling that I am about to enter voyeuristic Rear Window territory. Though I don’t know for sure, with my lifetime knowledge of kitchen floorplans I think I can safely assume the window is in front of the kitchen sink. So it’s got to be something sink-related. Or undersink-related. I keep watching. Then I see the flash of metal and he stops the weird dance and turns away. My brain works furiously and then it all falls into place. He’s been looking for an oven tray. He’s been sorting through a low cupboard, taking out non-tray items, putting them on the bench and then going back in again until he finds the right one. A kind of relief floods through me. Puzzle solved.

And I think about artificial intelligence, about robot brains. I know they can look at CCTV footage of every person who passes every camera in a city and put a name to each face. But could they interpret the data – the time of day, the weird movements, the flash of metal – and make up the story, as I did?  Creativity does not depend on rules or algorithms – it’s a leap into the dark, informed by personal, lived, felt experience. A computer can’t know what it’s like to grow increasingly more frustrated as you clash and bang through piles of irrelevant bakeware in an inconveniently low cupboard, but I do.

My neighbour Joe, leisurely now, puts something onto the tray and places it in the oven. He goes to the fridge but his back is to me, so I can’t see whether he’s reaching for a lettuce or the butter or a jar of pickled onions. Ah, yes, here he is, pouring liquid into a stemmed glass. A glass of wine is a good guess. Red or white? I’m not close enough to tell.

“And that’s enough now, Susan,” I say out loud. I’m starting to feel bad even though my neighbour has no idea he’s been spied upon. Everyone deserves to drink their pre-dinner wine in peace, I decide, drawing the blinds and reaching for my lukewarm tea.

But now, I start to wonder…what’s Joe having for dinner?

*Not his real name!

https://mindmatters.ai/2020/08/six-limitations-of-artificial-intelligence-as-we-know-it/

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SPRING

First day of Spring!

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ESSAY IN HONESTY

I’m either reading less fiction, or more non-fiction – I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to get my teeth into any novels lately, and at tomorrow’s Book Group Zoom meeting I am going to have to confess, yet again, that I have not read the book.

But I have been reading. Lately, essays and memoirs: Feel Free by Zadie Smith, More Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing and now Coventry by Rachel Cusk.

This was my introduction to Cusk’s writing, although I’d been aware of her fiction for a few years and her Outline trilogy has been strongly recommended to me (as in, “Susan, you’d love Rachel Cusk!”). I’m not so sure that ‘love’ is the right word; I don’t feel an incipient girl crush of the kind I have for Rebecca Solnit or, more recently, Olivia Laing.  Coventry reveals a detached and occasionally rather spiky sensibility and indeed the first essay I read, Driving as Metaphor, seemed deliberately off-putting.

The village where I live is on the coast road, and there is much talk among the residents about how to control the speed at which people drive through it. The slowness that frustrates and impedes us when we are trying to drive on the roads outside our villages becomes immaterial from our perspective as homeowners; from this angle, it appears that  people around here drive not too slowly but too fast. This might seems merely a good example of the corrosion of truth by point of view. Equally, a person travelling by bicycle feels an antipathy towards cars, and yet once inside a car can immediately become irritated by cyclists, and as a pedestrian could dislike them both, sometimes all in the course of a single day.

I persisted through the traffic flow, and finally I ‘got it’, although the ‘it’ I got is maybe not what Cusk intended. I thought, This is what it’s like to pay attention and report back with as much clarity as you can; this is taking a small slice of existence, examining it minutely and then seeing where it leads. This is what thinking is like. Which is hopefully on to broader and unexpected perspectives.

After I read a couple of articles and interviews online, I realised that the other aspect of her writing is honesty; she’s not concerned about seeming likeable or relateable. Her commitment to honesty in an earlier memoir, Aftermath, where she wrote about her marriage breakdown, apparently caused such media and personal hostility that the experience left her, for a time, broken. In an interview in The Guardian, she said, “Without wishing to sound melodramatic, it was creative death after Aftermath. That was the end. I was heading into total silence – an interesting place to find yourself when you are quite developed as an artist.” www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/24/rachel-cusk-interview-aftermath-outline

The essays in Coventry are divided between memoir and literary/artistic/ cultural criticism and for my money the first category is the most compelling. By the time I’d read Cusk on traffic, civility, home-making, teenagers and fractured relationships with spouses and parents I did not want her for my new best friend, but I certainly wanted to read more and more of her cool, intelligent and unsparing commentary.

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WILD/DOMESTIC

We went for a walk yesterday afternoon. It was sunny and lovely and the bush is springing to life after all the winter rains we’ve had. Much of my childhood was spent living near the beach; I spent hours searching for shells and crabs and odd treasures washed up on the tide. If I may boast, I’m very good at spotting little things and my theory is that those days on the shore trained me to look down. (Alternatively, it’s just short sightedness!)

Yesterday’s wild treasures in the bush were Early Nancy and Nodding Greenhoods. In a tiny, quiet, un-flashy way – aren’t they spectacular? And on the domestic front, these gorgeous crocus. For years I’ve planted pots of tulips and grape hyacinth to cheer us up in the early spring; this year I branched out with Snow Crocus and Crocus ‘Pickwick’. They’re just tiny little things but when you bob down and look, they’re spectacular too.

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REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

The world seems full of pain and distress right now. Mainly, it’s the pandemic, rolling on and on like a juggernaut, crushing lives and hopes and dreams. And I don’t mean the Bali holiday, the anniversary cruise, the gap-year spent backpacking. I mean school, interrupted. Careers, smashed. Whole industries and sectors of our communities – small businesses of all kinds, cafes, professional and community sports, theatre, live music, arts, universities, and more – on hold or wiped out. The rise in family violence, in depression and anxiety. We are doing better at protecting vulnerable people in aged care, but my friend who works at a local facility says that without volunteers and visitors, many residents are under-stimulated and lonely.

Add to that the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The steady stream of reports on government incompetence (vaccine rollout) and downright corruption (sports rorts, car parks). State sanctioned (and funded) bigotry in religious schools. The rise of neo-Nazis in our own backyard. Anti-vaxxers. The heartbreaking situation in Afghanistan, and our shameful abandonment of vulnerable civilians who worked with our troops. In response to all these and more, our Prime Minister shows himself to be gutless, clueless and – basically – pointless.

So much to be sad and angry about. The case for despair is strong. During the first long lockdown in 2020, I was OK. When I read about the mental health harms that so many were experiencing, I felt somewhat insulated. I’m a raging introvert in any case, so the enforced calm was quite acceptable. I wasn’t sick or broke or homeless, nor was anyone close or dear to me, so my knowledge was second-hand, from the news. Digital news, mainly; I’ve never had the TV news habit.

But now, like so many others, I’m fatigued. I had been thinking there would be an ‘after time’ when this ended, when we would all go back to normal. But I see that we won’t be able to do that. Our lives have been changed and I often wonder what my parents would think. It happened to them; their generation went through a world war.

But – reasons to be cheerful.

#1 Babies.

Babies unselfconsciously elicit adoration when they go out in public; they just do. It worries me that we are all masked and they can’t see the smiles any more. Yesterday in line at the chemist, a masked elderly lady and a 16-month-old had a mutually satisfying game of peek-a-boo while his mother looked on. I could only see the baby smiling but that was enough.

#2 Libraries.

I am reading up a storm, and taking home armfuls of books and magazines. For free! How splendid.

#3 Writing.

Last week, I decided to get back on the horse after a few falls – fails – and write a short story. I find I can still do it. Amazement, astonishment, gratitude! It’s a wonderful thing, to sit down at the computer, start work… and then think about a cup of tea, and look at the time, and realise that my goodness, two hours have passed and I didn’t even know it.

#4. Spring Gardens.

I quote from Monty Don’s The Ivington Diaries, because he says it better than I could.

Sometimes you just want to say, Look – here we are again. Yes, I know it is exactly where we were last year, and yes, I know that these particular flowers or plants did pretty much the same kind of thing then and every preceding year before that, but if that is not a miracle then I genuinely don’t know what is. One of the joys of gardening is the process of doing the same thing year after  year and even day after day. Instead of being boring, this constant and subtle repetition is actually the most fascinating part of it.

#5. My husband.

Just because.

 

 

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TO THE RIVER

The Ouse is a small English river, only 84 kilometres long (and for comparison, the Thames is 346 kilometres and here in Australia, the Murray is 2,508 kilometres long). To those who are interested in literary lives, it is most famous as the river into which Virginia Woolf waded, with stones in the pocket of her coat, and drowned. One midsummer day in 2009,  in the aftermath of losing  her job and her relationship with the man she loved, Olivia Laing set out to walk the length of the Ouse.

I wanted to clear out, in all senses of the phrase, and I felt somewhere deep inside me that the river was where I needed to be. I began to buy maps compulsively, though I’ve always been map-shy. Some I pinned on my wall; one, a geological chart of the underlying ground, was so beautiful I kept it by my bed. What I had in mind was a survey or sounding, a way of catching and logging what a little patch of England looked like one midsummer week at the beginning of the twenty-first century. That’s what I told people, anyway. The truth was less easy to explain. I wanted somehow to get beneath the surface of the daily world, as a sleeper shrugs off the ordinary air and crests towards dreams.

So, here is another woman walking, along a meandering path beside the Ouse, from its rising-place in a muddy paddock to its exit at the coast. There is nothing spectacular in this journey, no sublime landscapes or scary wild creatures or blizzards or floods.  She doesn’t sleep rough – she spends her nights sleeping at inns along the way, or in the houses of friends – and nothing is more gruelling, really, than the occasional hot day. But that’s not the point; Laing hasn’t set out to challenge herself to feats of physical endurance; she is walking and thinking and feeling and looking and  –  I imagine  – writing, if only in her head.

And the writing is the thing. Poetic, attentive, hypnotic in its accumulation of detail.

It was just after sunset and everything had stilled, the sky shot faintly with rose. The reflections in the lake seemed sunk very deep. The water pleated as carp sank and climbed, occasionally breaking the water as shivers. Beneath them, the clouds made their way east. At the far side of the lake the trees were reflected in sooty green and when the fish jumped there the ripples ran in white concentric circles. On the near side, where there was only pale sky on the skin of the water, the ripples flashed dark, a trick of the light I’d never seen before.

Her sensitivity to landscape, to the details of birds and plants and animals that inhabit the landscape, make this a slow and meditative summer journey, with the writing and the structure of the book as meandering as its subject. Subjects, plural. For Laing weaves in all sorts of topics; biography, literature, mythology, science, history.  Neolithic settlers, Saxon villages, Norman castles, Tudor sewage works; farmers and fossil-hunters and medieval soldiery. Other writers apart from Woolf make an appearance on her journey. There’s Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, and Iris Murdoch.

A book like this is probably not for every reader, but then what book is? It doesn’t fit neatly into a category (memoir? biography? nature?); it’s not a self-help book exhorting us to get out into nature, nor is it inspirational (challenges overcome!) or spill-your guts confessional. I’m not really sure what it is. Beautiful, I suppose.

 

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