Materialism and minimalism

Drafted at the end of May this year. Two months until we flew to Canada.

So the latest thing we have to confront in our quest for a possible home in the northern hemisphere where it snows in winter is the cost of relocating our goods. To move everything across, excluding electrical appliances as the voltage differs too greatly, is simply not financially viable. We need to cull.
Now this shouldn’t be such an issue for us given we don’t have a lot of stuff as it is and the majority of what we do have was either free or cheap, but this isn’t just a matter of leaving out a few things we don’t really care about. This cull sees us leaving behind three quarters of our worldly possessions. These are things we’ve had not just since we first met but things that belonged to each of us years before, as children, even things that belonged to our parents and grandparents.
The bookshelf is the hardest piece of furniture to give up, even though we were given it free. It was blue, purple and pink and missing a shelf but we recognised it as a solid piece of furniture with style and we sanded it down, bought a new shelf, and painted it a chalky, off-white gloss. It wasn’t long before our then-toddler smashed the rocking chair into its base on many occasions and chipped off bits of paint. But we stood him against its side every six months and marked his height and the date with a felt tip pen. It was to be a portable height chart. When our daughter arrived we marked her length at birth on the other side. It was almost as good as owning our own family home and marking heights on a doorframe. But now, will even the bookshelf need to find a new home? And the books it holds?

Today I chucked out some books I truly don’t like or want but it was just a handful. In truth, I love our collection of books, from Mr Chewbacca’s extensive Ian Ranking collection and the thick one about South African history that he assures me he’s actually read to all those Steiner ones ill probably never read and old favourites like Atonement or the Anthony Keidis autobiography or the Star Wars almanac. I’m struggling to come to terms with the possibility of leaving them behind to pursue an avenue that may actually prove wrong.
Everything is riding on this. It has to be right. But I’ve never felt so uncertain.

The writing of a book: part 2

I don’t think there was a time in my life when I didn’t want to write a book. I vaguely remember learning to write, although it feels like I’ve always known letters and words. I remember learning to form the letters, but at some level I’ve always recognised meaning in letters and words. It’s the most innate way of communicating for me, which sounds totally bizarre, but it’s true; speaking is fun and often fluid but doesn’t feel as natural as writing for me.

I’ve had ‘the idea’ running around in my head for about five years now. It has morphed a bit, but it’s been there waiting to be written. There are some other ideas that have been hanging around for longer than this one, but I know this is ‘the one’ for the moment. I’ve known for a while.

Recently, after getting a copy of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent to review, I was reading up on Hannah and her journey to becoming a published author (and apparently securing a kick arse publishing deal!). I found a fantastic piece on the Kill Your Darlings literary journal where she talks in detail about the process, from the time she first stumbled upon the idea for the book ten years ago on an exchange program in Iceland, to the days she spent holed up in her writing room despairing at ever getting this thing done. She seems to have read the same ‘How to write a book in 30 days’ series from the Guardian that I’d been poring over for a while. Oh how inspiring to read this honest account of writing a first novel! She is clearly a very talented writer and has been working on her craft for a number of years, given the book is part of her PhD in creative writing. Her promise to herself to write 1000 words every day really struck me; while I can’t realistically do the same, I can get pretty close to it. After all, most blog posts I write (this isn’t one of them, by the way) just flood out and suddenly I look down to the discover I’ve written 800 words without even blinking. I’m not saying they’re ‘good’ words, but it proves I can churn the writing out when I knuckle down, which is essentially the way one writes a book.

So I began. I plotted a bit of an outline, although I’m not referring to this at all. It became a way of organising my thoughts, or sort of releasing some of the rubbish that was clogging up my head. And then I began writing. I did my best not to second guess myself or edit along the way and I tried not to think about how awful the writing was in some parts. As I progressed beyond a measly 2,000 words, I started to feel disillusioned. The writing was getting worse! I couldn’t even continue much beyond that, so I left it for a day. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. The only reason I didn’t give up on the spot is that I have been here before; I know my inner critic very well, and I know she likes to find ways to stop me. My high school English teacher, Mr P, used to say it was good practice to get up earlier than you normally would and write while you’re half asleep; the inner critic isn’t a morning person. Of course, I never managed this as I’m definitely not a morning person, and now I have become one through becoming a mum, I never get a chance to get up early enough to beat my son to it and have any time alone to write.

As it was whirling around in my head depressing me, I mentioned to Mr Chewbacca what had happened to my writing. We’d spent a few minutes in a coffee shop the week before having a thoroughly enjoyable and motivating conversation about my future book and how I might structure it, and although he’s not a writer, he is highly intelligent and very good at ideas and concepts. He also gives excellent feedback. This time, when I complained about stalling so early on, he hardly said anything. Just by talking about it, I realised that I needed to keep going. I realised that all the crappy writing needed to come out before I could get to the good stuff. It had to come out sometime, why not now? It’s seriously so awful. But in amongst it, there is some lovely stuff.

So I’m going to have faith that the crap will eventually be cleared out and it will make way for some goodness. I’m going to keep writing. My goal is an arbitrary 100,000 words, although I suspect, like Hannah Kent, I might just stop one day and realise that the book is finished.

I’ll be writing many more parts to this ongoing saga until the book is actually finished. Given I’m only on about 3,000 words now and most of it is utter garbage, there will be a few more posts yet…

Phew! Books aren’t dead after all

Lately my son has begun actually ‘going down’ for sleeps during the day and I’m actually able to put him to bed like a regular little baby – it’s great!*  Gone are the days of pacing round the loungeroom with him in the Ergobaby trying to rock him to sleep, or waiting for him to pass out in my arms and then debating whether to sit still for two hours or try and transfer him to bed.  The latter was never a success!  Anyway, as I’m now feeding him in bed while he goes off to sleep, I have a lot of time to read blogs on my trusty iPhone.**

I’m absolutely loving keeping up to date with the latest news, and I’ve totally shunned my pregnancy/parenting/baby blogs now and I’m right into the books/reading/writing ones.  I especially enjoy the updates from the Guardian, and from the wonderful Allen & Unwin blog Alien Onion, all class.

So I’m happily reading away, getting all inspired, occasionally making little notes to myself about ideas for the books I’m writing (yes, there’s more than one), and all of a sudden I realise all may not be well in the land of publishing!  It seems the printed book as we know it is doomed.  Say what now?  Yes, that’s right.  When my son is at uni, he’ll be reading all his books on his hand-held device apparently, and they’ll all be e-books that have never been published in hard copy.  And he’ll probably not have to pay for them.  That scares the crap out of me!  Books are so important!

At first when I read a couple of articles about the demise of the printed word, I thought, meh, what do they know, it’s all speculation, just like the millennium bug or some such garbage.  But then I read this article from the Guardian and I really began to worry.  I began to believe it.  In 25 years there will be no more books.  No more bookshelves.  No more pages.  No more bookmarks.  No more margins to scribble in. No more folding and crinkling and spilling and bending and feeling all those chunky good words in the thickness of the leaves.  This is scary, not just because I intend to be a published novelist at some point, but because books are important to me.  I’m sentimental about books, and I think even if I didn’t like them much I’d have trouble throwing them out or giving them away.  My mum isn’t sentimental about books and there have been many occasions where I’ve ‘saved’ books from being given to charity for no particular reason.  Saved for no reason, that is… my mum constantly gives things to charity, on the premise of having ‘a clear out’, although she buys so much from second-hand shops that it all evens out in the end.

After reading all this doom and gloom about books, I began to imagine how that sentimentality about books will just dwindle.  Once we loved our records; we’d await the release of a new and wonderful album and look forward to seeing the image in its centre, holding that vinyl up to blow the dust off and squint across the grooves.  The joy of having the right touch, placing that needle at the right point, or watching the automatic turntable do it at the touch of a button.  I loved turning the record over on the little stories I had on records.  Tapes were so compact and seemed so efficient, and you could salvage one when the ribbon got caught in the tape player and you had to wind it back into the plastic case with a pencil.  Something satisfying about that.  My first tape was Roxette – Look Sharp.  Or actually I think it was Billy Joel – Glass Houses.  CDs were once exciting too.  I’d love to sit and listen to a new album, sometimes right through, but usually just the tracks I’d already heard, and then pore over the album artwork, the lyrics or imagery in the little booklet.  I got the best of The Eurythmics with my first CD player.  I remember the moment of surprise and delight when I was distracted for long enough to leave the CD playing and after a few minutes of nothing, Mystify began at the end of The CranberriesNo Need To Argue… a hidden track!  No such thing now really, is there?  Does dad download Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and put it on his daughter’s iPod now?  Or does she never get to hear the brilliance because people don’t listen to albums any more?  Books will be going in the same direction, cheaply produced digital word fodder for consumption by a mass audience of average Joes who just want to skip to the ‘good’ bit.

Today I read this article which made me breathe a sigh of relief.  It was all just a bad dream.  At least I hope so.  Maybe I’m showing my age but I can’t imagine a world without books.

*Slight exaggeration – he does go to sleep, eventually, but it’s not for very long, and it takes just as long to actually get him to sleep and creep away without him stirring and waking! Ah the joys of new parenting.  Surely this gets easier.  I swear I have a really full on baby, they can’t all be this hard to calm down!

**Actually, it’s not that trusty.  It’s a 3G that I bought in October 2008, so it’s had a good run, but bloody hell is it slow!  And the latest update from Apple?  Nope, doesn’t apply to the 3G.  It seems Apple think no one owns one any more.  Or, more realistically, they think everyone has a spare thousand bucks to shell out for their latest product!  I’m so not buying another iPhone, I’m going with something generic next time…

I can’t believe this is for real

Okay, so I’m all for ‘out there’ writing, experimentation, real dense crazy stuff.  I can’t say I’m the biggest erotica fan, although I did once enjoy some Anais Nin and I thought Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City was great stuff.  But I just read an article in the Guardian about Nicholson Baker‘s new book House of Holes.  Oh. My. God.  Or to be more specific: What. The. Fuck.  Seriously.  Is this for real?  The article is lengthy and well-written, and Baker can obviously write (and obviously earns money from it if he can afford to work from home and live wherever he likes on the east coast of America, alright for some).  But my God, this book sounds utterly ridiculous!  I guess maybe I just don’t get books about sex and fantasies.  I always thought Jilly Cooper was total crap, and I can’t believe so many people love the Clan of the Cave Bear series – what good were they but to skip to the sex scenes and read as a fascinated teen?

It reminded me of when my flatmate in London and I began exchanging books to read and she lent me Chuck Palahniuk‘s Invisible Monsters.  I couldn’t finish it.  What a load of shit!  I hated the writing, most of all.  The style seemed lazy, almost sticking it to the grammar man, like, screw you English, I’m going to write however I like, damn it!  Which is cool, but the arrogance of it just pissed me right off.  It wasn’t pleasurable writing to read.  Unlike The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, which was full of loathsome characters that just make me screw my nose up, and those I didn’t hate just seemed unconvincing (what kind of a teenage girl refers to her vagina as a cunt, for Christ’s sake, yeesh).  But despite all that, the writing in that book is bloody fantastic, real quality.  The storyline is painful, and really doesn’t resonate with me personally, but it still cuts me to the bone, it impacts with a force, and anything it lacks is made up for in the quality of the writing.  So yeah, I wouldn’t read anything else Tsiolkas writes because I find his style, or rather his subject matter, a bit crude, but I bow down to him for his writing.  Palahniuk, on the other hand… I’d rather read bloody TV Week for the rest of my life than read another book by him.

I wonder, what is it that attracts people to this kind of writing?  Why do they love it?  My flatmate who leant me Invisible Monsters absolutely loved it, and she read a number of his other books too.  I couldn’t for the life of me work out what she found so appealing.  And believe me, we did discuss it at length, why she loved it and why I hated it.  I can’t remember the details (it was three years ago) but I think we just agreed to disagree.  If someone gave me a copy of Baker’s new sex book, I’d definitely give it a go (pardon the pun) and I’d do so with an open mind, really.  I just can’t promise I won’t rant on forever about how shite I thought it was… sexual utopia?  Give me a break!

The reading journey of a desperate writer

This post has been sitting in drafts for ages, four months actually, so now I have a few moments I decided to finish it; but when I went to do so, I realised I’d only written a title and nothing else!  That’s so typical of my writing.  As a kid I used to beg my parents for a nice new exercise book (the thickest one in the newsagent, a while 320 blank pages to fill, oh how fantastic that fresh thickness is!)  I’d go home, having been thinking long and hard about the title of my new book, and finally I’d open that book to the first page, find a good pen, and write my title.  Usually something along the lines of, ‘The Adventures of Isabelle Bentley’ or some such childish thing, fantasy character included.  I’d calculate that, as there were 320 pages, and I wanted to make 16 chapters in my book, each chapter would be 20 pages long.  So I’d draw up a nice contents page, showing those chapters, and then I’d go through the entire exercise book, writing ‘Chapter 1’ and ongoing, every 20 pages.  Finally my book was ready.  Problem is, I didn’t really have a story to write!

Anyway, I digress.  This post is meant to be about what I read.  At the moment I don’t get to read a lot, because a three-month-old baby doesn’t give you much opportunity to read, or at least this one doesn’t.  At the moment I’m reading Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall, which is brilliant, but I knew it would be.  Prior to that I was reading a self-published work by Elizabeth Egan called The Sun on Distant Hills, only because I’d agreed to review it for the NSW Writers’ Centre and they’d kindly sent me the copy to review.  Aside from the other books for review, before I had my son I read a lot of interesting things.  The most recent of these was Portia de Rossi‘s Unbearable Lightness.

When I had my baby shower thing, the friend who organised it asked that everyone bring a children’s book for the baby, which I thought was a brilliant idea, so I’ve got lots of different ones to choose from.  It was interesting to note who gave which book too.  The one that stands out most (aside from the Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book – can’t wait to make those cakes!) is Roald Dahl‘s The BFG.  What a classic!  My mum hated Dahl, I think because she thought his stuff was a bit inappropriate for children, with its witches and man-eating giants.  There’s always something a little grizzly about his books, it’s true, but I absolutely adored them as a kid, and I borrowed them from the library and read them whether she liked it or not!  I distinctly remember the first line of The BFG: ‘Sophie couldn’t sleep.’  As I was rocking my son to sleep in the Ergobaby the other day, I thought of that book, so I grabbed the fresh copy off the shelf and began reading.  What sheer brilliance!  There are no wasted words in Dahl’s writing, it’s so fantastic.  Even as an adult, and having read it a hundred times as a child, I found it very hard to put down.

It reminds me, I was thinking the other day, should I be writing for children or young adults?  That’s the kind of stuff I enjoy.  Even in highschool I found a lot of adult literature difficult to get into and I would happily re-read Alice in Wonderland over and over than try anything for my age group.  Despite the amount of cliché and the ordinary quality of the writing, I really enjoyed the Twilight series, although I know that the author is just lucky to have decided to write on the topic at the right time.  It’s all about timing and marketing, after all.  One book that really got to me was Ruth Park’s Playing Beattie Bow, I think because it involved one of my favourite things: time travel.

I think I’ll talk more about things I read when I’m in the right head space.  For now, I’m going to ponder on writing for children and young adults…

Anguish and writing

Thinking about the things I want to write, I realise I need to focus on what interests me most: but what is that?  Lots of stuff is interesting to me, and I’m always coming up with ideas, but finding something really compelling is quite difficult it seems.  I was reading bits and pieces from some RSS feeds I subscribe to, mainly the New York Times, The New Yorker and The Guardian books sections, and stumbled across an article about Alexei Sayle, the British comedian who apparently invented what’s deemed ‘alternative’ comedy (I guess The Young Ones is classed as ‘alternative’, to give you an idea).  He’s just released his memoirs, Stalin Ate My Homework, which talks about his childhood and what sounds like a pretty extraordinary upbringing with die-hard commie parents.  Way to create passion,  I say!  There’s no doubt this clever kid, growing up when he did, and where he did, surrounded by who he was born to could have been anything other than pretty bloody intensely passionate.  I wonder, was it pretty clear to Alexei what his life was about, because of these extreme influences?

I looked up some stuff about Nick Hornby, as I like his style and he seems like a ‘real’ person (not like some authors who are either disembodied voices or too clever to be real).  He seems like he used to be a regular person at one stage, who just happened to be astute enough to find his way to awesomeness.  I need to know his secret.  I think I like that he has no airs and graces and just does his thing which happens to be great.  He got to write book reviews for a living – damn it, that’s what I want to do!  But where do you begin with all this?  Oh shit, actually it’s too late, I should have begun a long time ago, I’m 32 years old, too old to be beginning surely!  Or maybe, just maybe, I’ve already begun.  Maybe when I wrote all that stuff as a kid, maybe that was my beginning.  Maybe I’ve been on this literary journey for a long time… but that’s even scarier.

I now realise I’m kind of angry that, despite the obvious talent, no one in my family has shown themselves worthy or produced anything real.  Even my dad’s book, which he is still writing, was meant to have happened already – ‘end of June’, he said… yeah.  And then I’m scared I’m destined for the same fate. I can feel it slipping through my fingers and it’s all my fault.  We seem to write invisible things in my family.  Granddad’s book did exist, at one stage, I know it did, because I saw it; or at least I saw a thick stack of paper with typewriter words on each sheet; or the top sheet at least.  I saw my granddad two-finger typing on that old typewriter from the Salvo’s.  And I know he got that computer working, because he insisted on saving everything to floppy disks, having no understanding of a computer’s internal memory.  What about nany’s writing?  Again, invisible.  She apparently published an article posthumously, in a women’s magazine of some sort, but I’ve never seen it, just heard about it.  So it’s all invisible, our writing.  Where is my writing, for that matter?  I have some, I’ve written a lot, and I always refer back to having written 12,000 words in a night; yeah, 12,000 shit words, mainly because they were written in one single night because I couldn’t get my act together during the six months I had to write them and actually produce some quality!  But I love writing, don’t I?  It’s what I want to do. I want to do my masters in writing.  Shit, now that really IS scary!

Having a baby is a great excuse not to do stuff, yeah, and truthfully there aren’t many moments when I get a chance to sit down and write like I am now.  He’s asleep, strapped to me, and it’s been about an hour and a half, so who knows, he could wake at any moment.  And by using this time to walk to the coffee shop for a decent coffee and then sit down and write for half an hour, I’m neglecting other stuff, like darning my husband’s rugby socks, doing the loads of washing piling up in the bedroom, finishing the edges of the baby’s cot blanket, starting to piece together his cot quilt, fixing the hole in my  husband’s nice work shirt, reading the wonderful Wolf Hall that I’ve been trying to get through since I went into labour over three months ago…

My brain works so mysteriously; it tricks me.  It makes me think that if things were different in my life, if I didn’t live in shitty Sydney, if I had a kick arse work-at-home job writing or editing a few days a week, if I were thinner and happy with my body, or even if I didn’t have a baby, then I’d be this great writer.  I’d be able to sit down and focus on all my ideas, one at a time, and churn out these brilliant books that are stuck inside me.  It’s an utter lie, of course, as Blackadder would say.  If I’m supposed to do it, I’ll do it.  So perhaps I’m not meant to do it at all.  Perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree.  And there you have it, my brain, the neurotic freakazoid pile of pointless grey matter.  I’m off to read more before I really get depressed…

Giving, receiving and understanding criticism

Replicated from my SheWrites blog, 14 February 2011.

I loved fantasy as a child. My favourite books were by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl (regardless of my mum’s disapproval), and my early stories were all centred on magic kingdoms and special abilities, mysteries to be discovered and ‘perfect’ heroines. I was writing to define myself, to escape from the negative of reality and to create a fantasy into which I would fit.  Now I think back, there was always a strong feminine element in my early writing, always a female central character, child or adult, and she was always tough, clever and strong.

I loved reading and writing in primary school (prior to age 12) and none of my creative efforts were ever critiqued or questioned. I learnt myths and legends of every culture throughout history as part of my early schooling, and this helped me feel confident in remaining in the fantasy world, however contrived. It was in high school that I was faced with a harsh truth; my writing couldn’t only be about me in isolation of reality. In other words, my little fantasy world was to be slowly eroded as my writing came into contact with others. The urge to write and have others ‘get’ me through my writing was stronger than the urge to write for myself alone. I sought understanding and connection through my writing without even being aware.

So it was a rude shock when at age 13 I submitted what I thought was the first chapter of an epic fantasy that would evolve into well-loved volumes akin to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings collection, and was told by a young, intelligent, challenging English teacher: ‘Your writing is full of cliches and needs a lot of work.” What? How dare you! Oh the injustice! How dare she dismiss such greatness in one sentence! I was utterly shattered, which turned into disillusionment. I didn’t know how to take the criticism, probably because it was the first time anyone had ever been so up front with me about my writing, about the truth of it. I’d had no idea how naive I was and I wasn’t used to challenges. I was an all-rounder – I put in minimal effort and was rewarded with maximum results, so why try to improve? I was angry at first, then upset, then began to doubt myself.

I did very badly in English after that, just scraped past, until a shining light of an English teacher at age 16 gave me a moment of pure inspiration to produce something ‘real’ and the encouragement to keep it going…

Inspiring book spines and high standards

Replicated from my SheWrites blog, 19 January 2011.

Apart from the records my dad played on Saturday afternoons, one vivid and early memory that sticks with me is the background ‘wallpaper’ of my parents’ bookshelves.  I remember when learning to read, browsing the spines of the books, noticing the colours, their thickness, which ones stood out and which ones I suddenly noticed for the first time. I was particularly intrigued by a book I assumed was some sort of thriller or mystery (judging by the need to use only the author’s surname on the cover) about a prehistoric dinosaur type creature with perhaps metaphysical or psychological overtones: Roget’s Thesaurus (The Saurus – get it?)

To this day, some 25 years later, I can picture the book spines: Colin Wilson – a thick magenta book with green block writing; Xavier Herbert – Poor Fellow, My Country; Franz Kafka – MetamorphosisThomas Mann – Death in Venice (I think?); Germaine Greer – The Female EunuchAlex Haley – RootsJames Joyce – Ulysses… the list goes on.  I rarely pulled the books out of their shelves, as the spines alone were enough, their colours and designs, fonts and styles either pleasing to my eye or putting me off, and their titles often like tongue-twisters for my young brain (The Aquarian Conspiracy was one – I used to repeat this over and over in my head).  Strangely enough, of those books I’ve named, I only ever read one, and that was the Kafka.  But I feel like the influence of all this prolific writing somehow seeped into me over time, and I wish I could go back and look over those shelves again, but sadly they will never be what they once were as my parents divorced when I was nine and the books were broken up into piles, moved about, lost, thrown away, left in boxes in garages…

I know that my writing is stalled by my lack of motivation and my inability to complete a story.  But I think there is also still this element of not putting it out there.  So I always mean to enter competitions or submit articles or stories for publication, even in free ezines or obscure sites, but I never manage it.  The one time when I did successfully write and publish pieces online was when a very creative and motivated film phd student friend pushed me to do it.  In fact she gave me little choice in the matter.  The deadline was set – and the faster I wrote, the more I’d be published.  I ended up writing, I think, six film reviews in the space of about a week, and it was the most fantastic experience.  Not only did I get to review some amazing documentaries for the LIDF, but I even got to meet some of the directors of the films in person who actually praised me formy reviews!  Can you imagine!  They were grateful for what I’d written and felt happy I’d understood what they were trying to achieve.  I was bowled over.  I knew I didn’t necessarily belong in the ‘film world’, but I lapped up the praise.  My friend who got me into it in the first place kept remarking how amazed she was at the quality of the writing and how quickly I churned out the reviews, given I’d never reviewed a film in my life.  I certainly was on a roll at the time, just pumping out chunks of writing, refining as I went.  I did watch the films and do most of the writing while I was meant to be working though…

This all leads me to believe that there is something about doing ‘unimportant’ writing that is easier.  I didn’t worry about how these reviews reflected on me – I was just interested in providing something of quality for the benefit of the directors and for the audience to read before they saw the films.  It was external to me.  So perhaps that’s where the motivation is, in writing with an external focus.