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…

The ‘tooff’ and the truth

Replicated from my SheWrites blog, 23 January 2011.

One of the first stories I remember writing was called ‘The Tooth’ or in my then-childish scrawl, ‘The Tooff’.  I think I would have been about six.  I still have the story, written in green crayon, with my own corrections in pencil a few years later.  As you can probably guess, it was about losing my first tooth.  It was a bottom tooth, and had been wobbly for some time.  Around the time, I had tried my first ever piece of chicken, having been brought up a vegetarian, and so had just discovered chicken drumsticks and eating meat off a bone.  The story, all true, went that I was sitting eating a banana during morning tea and my tooth came out and stuck in the banana.  I mistook it for a bone, or something not edible in my banana, and, being the impulsive mess-maker I was, I picked it out and threw it across the classroom!  As I looked across at my flying tooth’s trajectory, I realised what it was, but too late – plop, it fell straight into the bowl of soup that a boy in my class was eating.  Upon finishing my banana, I asked the boy if he’d found my tooth in his soup, and he showed me an empty bowl, saying he must have eaten it!  So I didn’t have anything to leave out for the tooth fairy.  My mum wrote her a note which we left on my dressing table, and lo and behold the next morning there was a shiny 50 cent piece waiting for me in its place.  After the tooth came a contribution from my granddad – ‘When Father Papered the Parlour’…

This was my first story, and it was a true story.  I didn’t know it then, but I would struggle forever with the concept of the truth in my writing.  Can you tell the truth?  Can you write about other people?  Surely even if you change their names it’s pretty obvious who you’re writing about.  What if they’re offended?  What if they sue you?  Doesn’t truth depend on perspective/perception anyway?  All these questions continue to plague me, but I realise that there isn’t a piece of writing out there that doesn’t have some sort of autobiographical element in it.  I think I’m interesting in people, interactions between them, and concepts around this are explored by way of rehashing the truth.  And after all, it’s my truth, it’s what I think is real and interesting.  I wonder though, would I get offended if someone wrote about me and I felt I was misrepresented?  Even if they changed my name so as not to identify me?  I think I might.  My most recent conclusion about how to combat this problem is to write about dead people.  The longer someone has been dead, the less possibility there is of someone getting upset about the representation.  And the more opportunity there is to make things up!  Fiction is an odd thing; on the one hand, it’s defined as ‘make believe’, yet on the other fiction writers are doing their best to make their writing ‘believable’.  So what is it, true or not?  Is all fiction true?  What is truth?  How can we establish a clear line between fiction and non-fiction?  And is there the same between truth and fairy stories?

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.