So I posted a little while ago about how nice Canadians are. Yes, they are generally lovely. Super helpful and polite, friendly and open.
After being here in Toronto three months now, I’ve had a tiny bit of experience with the negative aspects of Canadian politeness. Now, I’ll preface this by saying there’s no doubt my opinion differs greatly from others’ and what is annoying and stifling to me is the zenith of courtesy to others. So I’m not meaning to be judgmental, I’m just noticing my reactions to various things.
1. Lining up: they love a good queue, these Canadians. And for the most part, I appreciate an orderly line. It keeps things clear and fair. But it seems the threshold of ridiculousness resides in a different place for me. Lining up to order coffee? Sure. Lining up at a bus stop for a bus that is yet to arrive? Umm, no. I mean, seriously, why is this necessary? Obviously we want to be fair but this is Canada, where people don’t push ahead anyway! They excuse themselves and everyone takes turns. The line up to nowhere is just taking it too far!
2. And speaking of lining up to nowhere, what’s with the “form a line metres from the counter and wait patiently to be called forward to order your Tim’s”? I got so annoyed with a bunch of idiots in Timmy’s last week. It was like being in some country town circa 1955! Standing in a line that began seriously at least two metres from the counter where no one was being served! I had no idea it was even a line to order, I thought they must have been waiting for coffees. The old codger at the front says, “excuse me, ma’am, there is a line up here”. I apologised and went to stand at the back but couldn’t stop myself saying, “so why don’t you stand at the counter?” They ignored me. And I promptly left, it was taking forever. These people should try making proper coffee, they’re so slow!
3. The silly train. And public transport generally actually: don’t get me wrong, the actual system has got some positive elements. But wow, people just accept so much. There are some really ridiculous things going on. This is not so much about politeness but more an example of a fundamental problem in efficiency that exists at least across the GTA. I can’t speak about anywhere else. Here’s the silliness: after a train departs the station, and you’re looking at the monitor showing when the next train departs, the train you just missed is still displayed as having departed for minutes afterwards. Why?! It’s annoying because you think you haven’t missed it but the you see it says it’s departed and you realise you have missed it and it’s just taunting you. I could go on, about lack of integrated, well-priced, user-friendly ticketing systems, drivers who can’t stop at the platform properly or over heating but I’ll stop.
4. Cheques. They use them here, all the time! Our landlords want post-dated cheques for our rent for six months in advance. The bank want to charge us $50 for a chequebook too! What is this, 1989?!
5. The metric system: just frigging stick to one system already, please! It was introduced here in the 70s yet you’ll still see produce for sale by the pound. They can’t make their minds up, you’ll get a random mix of both systems in a grocery catalogue. You know what they thought would help? They wanted people to get a sense of how much a litre is so they started selling milk in one litre bags. What?! So if you want three litres of milk you can buy a big bag containing three single litre bags. And then you need a jug to put the bag in. So stupid. We only buy cartons, we hate the bags, so stupid.
Oh this post is such a silly rant. But it does illustrate how I’m feeling about being here. I’m starting to feel a little out of place, despite settling in a bit. Only time will tell how this pans out…
Over the last six months or so I’ve felt completely unemotional about Melbourne and then really sentimental about it. It’s been years since I’ve considered myself anywhere close to settling down in a place that’s really home. Melbourne was meant to be that, home.
I’d wanted to live here since my best friend and I came on the bus from Canberra at 16. It was about nine hours of stuffy cramped lurching and trying to resist using the on-board facilities for fear of passing out from the stench. We stayed at the YMCA in the city. Lord knows what the hell our parents were thinking letting us stay overnight alone in a strange city at that age. We shopped in Bourke Street mall and then spent much of the afternoon traipsing around Toorak (or was it Brighton?) trying to decipher which house might be Tommy Emmanuel’s based on a few glimpses of the driveway my friend got during an episode of Burke’s Backyard. (Gimme a home among the gum trees…) We speculated that we may well be walking past Darryl Sommers’ or Bert Newton’s place. And then we went home. Even then, 20 years ago, I knew Melbourne had something special to offer. I loved it. I wanted to move here as soon as I moved out of home when I was 18. Which didn’t happen of course. I was nearly 25 by the time I left home and by then my main focus was on my boyfriend.
Fast forward to 2009 and I was on a boat in London with a different boyfriend, a more serious one. The Tattershall Castle I think it was, one of those boats permanently moored along the Embankment with the whole thing decked out as a bar and nightclub. My boyfriend had just reluctantly agreed to move to Melbourne. I celebrated by doing shots with a new friend who happened to be from Melbourne.
Why didn’t I just go with it? Why did I relent and say, “okay fine, no, let’s go to Sydney. You’re moving across the other side of the world for me. We’ll go where you want.” Why?!
Because of that decision, we aren’t totally happy where we live. That boyfriend and I are now married with two kids. But we can’t settle down because we don’t feel totally at home here. Why not?
It’s strange but it comes down to climate for the most part. The older I get, the less tolerant of the heat I am. Seriously, if it never got hotter than about 27 I’d be totally happy. These summers of months of 30-something days are just not my bag. Same with Mr Chewbacca. And I want snow! Every winter! And green, proper green, not this washed out, tired, gumtree grey-brown excuse for green.
So what has changed? I’m not totally sure but I think I have. I never felt particularly comfortable being an Australian but I’m realising more now that I don’t belong here, despite the familiarity. I completely hate this feeling of not belonging, of not having a home, but try as I might there are just so many things about this country that just don’t fit me. I think if I’d moved to Melbourne when I was 18 or in my early 20s things would have turned out very differently. I would have done my stint here and known sooner where I belong.
I also hate not being settled. I want a home for our family now. But I have to be true to myself and aim for the best. How can I build a home when I don’t feel I belong here? And when I say “here” I mean Australia.
Melbourne, I’d like to scoop you up and plonk you down somewhere in the northern hemisphere where there’s snow in winter, mild summers and deciduous trees. I want your village hubs, your great cafés and shops, your eclectic mix of people, your many forms of transport, your grid system, your amenities and opportunities and your friendly drivers. I’ll even take your beaches.
So it’s been about three months since I last posted anything here. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the main one is that I’ve just been way too busy to even log on and write, let alone publish anything! So here’s a brief recap of the last three months:
We packed up our entire house in Canberra and after a very long day getting it all on the truck, cleaning and fitting all our remaining stuff into the car, we made our way to Melbourne to stay with some lovely friends way out on Mornington Peninsula while we hunted for a rental in the northern suburbs.
We got pregnant. Yep, that’s right, there’s another dude or dudette currently cooking away, due at the end of August. We’ve found our midwife at the lovely MAMA midwifery practice, and I’ve started yoga and I’m on the hunt for a good meditation/relaxation recording. It’s been a fairly easy pregnancy so far, with only one serious vomit incident resulting in paying $150 to get our car detailed. Aside from when drunk and not remembering, I’d say that’s the most I’ve ever thrown up in my life!
It only took a couple of weeks of driving the hour or so between our friends’ place and the area we were looking in Melbs for us to find something and we moved in early Feb. It’s only two bedrooms but fairly roomy, brand new and under 10km from the city about 15 mins walk from the tram. We like it, although yet again we’ve managed to end up with a barking dog next door. Granted, it’s not as annoying as the one in Sydney which I had fantasies about poisoning (oh god that sounds horrible doesn’t it, but seriously, this thing was a total menace! Actually the owners were the ones needing a good lesson…) but the owners don’t seem to care when it barks pointlessly, which is crap.
Dude is weaning. He is still having boobie but things have really shifted in that area, particularly since I told him that the milk might not be there or might change and that the new baby will have boobie and we need to ‘save’ the milk for the baby. This was my vague attempt at getting him to cut down as I’m increasingly over breastfeeding. He is three in May and although I know plenty of people who’ve fed children longer than that and I think it’s awesome to feed as long as you and the baby want, I personally am just really keen for a break. I’ve never enjoyed breastfeeding particularly, never experienced the bond or hormonal rush that other mums describe, and although I discovered a new fondness for it when Dude turned two, I still feel very touch-sensitive and would like to find other ways of comforting and relaxing him. Suffice it to say, daddy is suddenly all the rage and has to endure numerous readings of mindless, repetitive material, mainly by Dr Seuss, until Dude is satisfied and goes off to sleep.
Now that we’re in Melbs, we’re trying to settle, but it’s just SO hard! I’ve never felt so strange about being anywhere, and I think it’s because I planned to really settle here and it’s proving a little difficult. I don’t know if it’s Mr Chewbacca’s influence or me changing, but I’m finding it terribly hard to love my country of birth. Australia just means nothing to me culturally, and there’s so much about living in this country that has no cultural significance for me; in fact it is downright annoying! It’s early days here, and no matter what we plan to stick it out for a few years at least. I just can’t wait to find some friends and regularity here.
There’s been plenty more happening, but it’s all rather mundane and boring involving trips to Centrelink, buying clothes, looking for jobs and negotiating weird Melbourne traffic, so not really worth mentioning!
This third move in Australia is a huge achievement for us, more so for me actually, as I’ve had it in my head that Melbourne is the place for me since coming here for the first time nearly 20 years ago. It’s also a final move for us; if this doesn’t work, that’s it, we’ll be heading back over to the northern hemisphere, the UK, outer London probably. And to do that would not only cost a fair bit of money, it would need to be a really certain final move. We’d never move back here. So Melbourne, you’ve got a lot of work to do to get us really loving this country!
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, Mr Chewbacca and I have had a tough time fitting into life in Australia. He is British, so it makes sense that he’d struggle to identify with the change in culture. I grew up here, but I don’t feel very Aussie. In fact I never have.
Until I went to the UK at age 18, I always considered myself ‘European’. Both my parents were born in Europe and I wasn’t brought up in a very typically Australian household. My parents never owned a Barnsy or Farnsy album, or for that matter listened to the Skyhooks or Midnight Oil. We never watched Prisoner or The Sullivans or A Country Practice. We didn’t eat lamb chops; in fact we didn’t even own a barbeque. We never had a Holden or a Ford. And because we lived in Canberra, which is a couple of hours drive from the coast, I didn’t go to the beach much.
That’s not to say that all those things are requirements for being a real Aussie. Most of us are immigrants, after all. I’m sure that many of the immigrants escaping war-torn countries with political unrest and harsh social restrictions are just grateful to be somewhere like this, where anyone can be free to express whatever makes them tick, whatever makes sense to them. Every country has its discrimination, it’s human to judge, after all. But we’re pretty lucky here in Australia.
For me, though, being Australian is a confusing thing. While I agree that loving Barnsy and owning a ute does not an Aussie make, I still don’t feel Aussie. Being here feels just a tiny bit wrong. There’s so much about Aussie culture and life that makes no sense to me, doesn’t resonate. I really don’t like the Aussie accent; yes, I know, I have one, and it became dangerously occa* while living in London with two far north Queenslanders. I flick between a semi-dinky di twang and a neutral style of speaking that people whose first language isn’t English find much easier to understand. But overall, I find the Aussie accent a little harsh on the ears, and although our constant shortening of words is pretty funny (service station becomes servo, fire fighter becomes firey, electrician becomes sparky, and it goes on), there’s something inherently lazy about Australian expression which I find off-putting and I often feel uncomfortable and conflicted when I find myself speaking that way. Does that sound snobbish? It’s not meant to, it’s just an example of my inner cultural conflict and confusion.
Even the Australian landscape, the bush, the mountains, the trees, I find beautiful, but not in comparison to the northern hemisphere. The desert is amazing, that red dirt incredible, and I love the thought of driving across the Nullabor listening to Midnight Oil. But it doesn’t really grab me deep inside. There is no pull. And that’s what this post is getting at, that deep, gut-wrenching, persistent yearning for home and what makes sense. There is just something in me that forces me to feel I belong in a northern hemisphere setting. I belong somewhere where it snows in winter, somewhere with ancient stone walls and grass so green it rubs off on your shoes.
I have a massive amount of respect for the indigenous people of this land. I feel such sadness at the thought that their ancient and unique culture was so violently interrupted, and as someone who is desperately trying to find a sense of belonging and knowledge of and participation in my own culture, I feel such regret at the thought that indigenous Australians can never go back to their true culture and will always have to struggle forward with a hybrid mix, a watered-down substitute. But despite the decimation, there is a sense of envy in me. I wish I could feel such a link to this land, such an inherent love for it. I just don’t. There’s an appreciation, and a temporary sense of wonder, but there is no pull.
I am pulled to Europe. I don’t regret that my parents migrated here; after all, if they hadn’t, I would never have been born as they’d never have met. And I’m so grateful for the opportunities that growing up in this ‘lucky’ country has given me. I believe my life would have been a lot more difficult had I grown up in the context that my dad did in London, or my mum would have had her parents stayed in post-war Germany. The decisions each family made to migrate were right, I don’t dispute that. But I struggle to embrace this country as my own, despite having been born and grown up here.
So what to do? Do we go back? Mr C would go back to live in the UK in a heartbeat. But there’s something about it that doesn’t sit right with me. Perhaps I’d miss the space here; I’d probably miss my mum. Before leaving Canberra, I’d have said I miss the ease of driving everywhere, but in Sydney there’s nothing easy about it, this place is so badly planned and traffic and transport are abysmal. I think I might miss the summer. Not the whole summer, it’s too long and hot here for my liking, but I’d definitely miss a few weeks of hot, high 20s summer. I wouldn’t miss the pathetic excuse for winter here in Sydney. I’d really miss my friends, although I don’t see them that much as it is. In truth, there’s not much here for me. But there’s something more ‘easy’ about living in Australia that I can’t quite nail down. Or perhaps it’s that there’s a sense of ‘hardship’ about living in the UK. In addition, because things have been so difficult for us since we arrived, and life has felt stressed, unstable and like we’re not on the right path, there’s a curiosity in me: would life settle down if we moved back? Would the Universe show me that’s where I should have been all along? I wonder. I wonder if all the hardships and ups and downs and frustrations and arguments and stresses we’ve had since coming to Australia have all been signs that we don’t belong here.
Given our British passports, we could live anywhere in the EU, although Italy seems a smarter choice because I speak the language. I would dearly love to live somewhere else, but it’s such a huge risk, to move to a foreign country. We’re at a stage now where we still have that adventurous spark, we want to explore and see the world, but having a family and providing a stable environment for bringing up children is really the most important thing. We both have romantic notions of the Dude being able to walk to school, of a smooth and happy childhood for him where he can expect consistency in schooling and at home. So moving around the world, the upheaval it would create for us as a family, is a very daunting prospect. We both want a beautiful family home that we build up and establish more firmly over the years, somewhere our children know they can always come back to, somewhere we can relax and enjoy life together, somewhere we can really make our own. Moving around, especially across the other side of the world, and potentially back if it doesn’t work out, seems like too much.
I wonder, did my grandparents have this kind of dilemma? I can imagine my mother’s parents, living in an apartment in Augsburg, trying time and again to get a mortgage, buy a house, only to be rejected because of my grandfather’s Serbian nationality. It would have been the only real option, especially given the state of Germany at the time. America was ruled out because one of my grandfather’s relatives had gone and been unhappy or something. I’m not really sure why Australia was the choice, probably some good incentives and cheap passage for a family with four children. I can picture my dad’s parents, my grandmother reluctant to leave the familiarity of London, my grandfather itching for change, an adventure, a taste of the newness he’d glimpsed while in the military. They were ten pound poms and ended up in Melbourne. But life had other plans. There was a crucial event that changed the course of the family’s history and meant they went back to the UK. Now that was the wrong choice. But again, I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t made it.
These kinds of dilemmas, the urge to find myself conflicting with the urge to establish a simple, family home, are a constant source of conflict, both within myself and within our family. For now, we’re staying put, planning our future and ever so slightly excited the possibility of finally feeling settled in Australia.
*One of those ‘Aussie-isms’ – means very exaggerated Aussie I guess. Hard to explain. Perhaps the Urban Dictionary can do it better.
The new name has been chosen and changed. I don’t know if it makes any sense but I’m sticking with it! I’ve changed the name of this blog so many times, it’s ridiculous! So this was the last time.
I felt like Kat is curious was just too boring or something, I don’t know, and I decided it would be better to use my whole first name, as it’s fairly distinctive.
This blog is my time. My time to think, plan, idealise; my time for me. It’s a special way if travelling through time, something I’ve always been fascinated with, as I can go back and read about where I was at in any moment. My time to be who I am. My time to write.
I am trying to be a little more specific or deliberate about my theme or identity through this blog but, as luck would have it, I seem to be experiencing a serious case of writer’s block. I sat and stared at my WordPress dashboard for a whole minute today, then clicked over to Pinterest but even that wasn’t inspiring. I changed a few things, tried and failed to sort out my Facebook page, then just gother frustrated.
So instead I sent a long email to my friend KK. What a chick! A goddess really, that’s how I’d describe KK. And I’m not just saying that because she might read this; I know it to be true. The woman is the perfect combination of class and guts. Thin as a bloody rake without losing femininity, bronzed, angular, sparkly-eyed, KK is like some sort of Audrey Hepburn – Mae West amalgam with a 21st century attitude. She seriously knows how to put an outfit together from high street fashion mixed with vintage and she’s the only person I know who can make a velvet jumpsuit from 1977 look smoking hot. She once ordered a life-size Elvis cardboard cutout online but then had a massive freak out when she realised she’d ordered it to be delivered to our place of work (at the time we worked together for a UK government agency in a secure office building in Westminster). “How the hell are they going to deliver Elvis to me at work?” she lamented. She was even more concerned at the prospect of getting him home on the Tube. Luckily Elvis arrived folded in half, although I’m still not sure how she got him home.
At the moment I’m missing London big time. I miss the weather, the culture, the accents, the buildings, the pubs, even the public transport! I know I’ll never live as I once did there but I can’t help but think I belong in Europe and that one day I will end up living there again. Mr Chewbacca feels the same way. The difference is that I don’t complain about how backward Australia is all the time. Anyway that’s for another post. If you want to read some of his rants, check him out at Whodyanickabollockov. He might be a whinging pom but he’s a funny mofo.
So I’m now 27 weeks along and feeling just fine. It’s certainly been an interesting ride so far. Baby’s head is sitting firmly in my pelvis (not a pleasant feeling on the bladder) and feet and hands are moving almost constantly. Which is good, it’s what’s meant to be happening apparently. Despite being overweight, I’m healthy, blood pressure is normal, baby’s heart rate is normal and I feel good. Being pregnant hasn’t been hard yet, but I suspect as I venture into this third trimester I’ll start to feel a bit heavy.
I’m having the baby at home, not in a hospital, which has been my wish from before I even wanted to be pregnant (or had someone to get me pregnant!) and I’m really excited about it all. At first I was a bit apprehensive about giving birth in our loungeroom, as we live in a tiny one bedroom flat under a big mansion, so it’s not like I can dedicate a room as the birthing room, and baby won’t have his or her own room (not that it’s needed anyway early on). We’d talked about moving out to somewhere with two bedrooms before baby arrived, and I thought this was the plan until a couple of months ago my husband mentioned casually how he’d been telling people I was having the baby in our lounge in our current flat. I was surprised to hear this! Turns out he’d worked it all out in his own head but had forgotten to mention it to me. He said he thought it made sense – we live in one of the best suburbs in Sydney, right up on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s so beautiful that tourists come here from everywhere just to walk around across the road from our house, and it’s the perfect place – calm, natural, quiet, awe-inspiring – to bring a baby into the world and for him or her to spend the first few months of life. He commented yesterday that the lounge is such a peaceful room, not too bright but not too dark, large enough to fit a big pool in, wooden floors to help deal with any, erm, spills, and just a generally serene place, perfect for the arrival of our first baby. I soon realised that he was right and that we didn’t need to move.
And that brings me to the nesting part of this post. I still can’t get used to Sydney as my home. I don’t want to, the truth be told. I don’t want to be a part of this place. It’s like it bores into my soul, or strips something out of me every time I drive through the city. Just being in Sydney often makes me feel like my life is at an end! I feel hopeless here. We’ve made some lovely friends, good people, whose company I enjoy; but at some level it feels a bit like we’re trying too hard. It’s like Jerry Seinfeld says, you get to a point in your life where you have your friends, and you don’t need or want any more; you’ve only got a certain number of ‘slots’ to fill and those are all filled. I guess I’m also unique in this sense because I don’t ‘need’ friends as such, or at least I don’t have to socialise to feel complete. Socialising for me is an effort. Don’t get me wrong, I usually enjoy it once I’m doing it, but sometimes I just want me time, alone time. My husband is the opposite, and although he loves doing his own thing or just spending time with me, he really needs lots of people around him and lots of stuff happening constantly. He’s an extrovert and I’m an introvert, in the simplest sense.
I’m really over complaining about Sydney; I don’t like it, end of story, and I will never feel at home here. I want to move to Melbourne. At least the city has no negative affiliations for me, I can start fresh there, and I do have some good friends there who I’d like to see more often. More than anything, it’s about starting fresh and settling down properly, instead of this forced ‘plonking’ I’ve done in Sydney. I’m only here because husband wanted to come here, and I figured it wasn’t fair of me to make him move to a city that he, at the time, hated; he’s coming to live on the other side of the world with me, so I should at least give him the choice of city. Oh how I wish I hadn’t relented!
I’ll never forget that moment I chose my Sydney fate. We’d had a few drinks, more than a few really, having come from an annual rugby club dinner at the Houses of Parliament (London), and we were partying the night away at the after party which was on one of those permanently moored boats along the Embankment – Tattersall Castle? Or was it Queen Mary or whatever that other one is called…? I can’t remember. It was somewhere close to midnight, and we happened to coordinate our air (read: cigarette) breaks up on the deck outside. I wore a cheap, black cocktail dress I’d bought off eBay for 30 pounds and I was hot and sweaty from dancing downstairs in the nightclub.
“Okay. Let’s go to Melbourne then.” He looked at me with the most forlorn look on his face. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and asked him to repeat it, which he did. My reaction wasn’t what he or I expected; it was delayed, and not because I was utterly overjoyed at the prospect of moving to a city I’d wanted to live in for a good ten years. I couldn’t handle allowing him to make that sacrifice for me, to move to a city that, four years prior, he’d experienced as cold, unfriendly, and generally boring, when he knew Sydney a little, and had found it so friendly, warm, sunny, full of fun and beaches and pubs and his favourite rugby. I finally hugged him and said “thank you”. But I couldn’t feel happy; I felt deflated, like it was a bit of an anti-climax. And he was clearly miserable.
We went back downstairs and I told a friend from Melbourne that the decision had been made; needless to say she was very happy, as was her Kiwi boyfriend who was going to be moving down around the same time as us and knew no one in the city.
I really wish I’d ignored my man’s misery and ploughed ahead with the plan of Melbourne; but how would we have booked a wedding venue when neither of us really knew the city? How could we have moved there any way? We’d have had to organise every aspect of our wedding in the four months between arriving in January and getting married in April, and that’s ignoring the fact we’d need to find a place to live and get jobs. Could it have been done? I can’t answer that, because we never attempted it. Maybe there’s a parallel universe somewhere with a version of me living in Melbourne, buying a house there, decorating a room for this baby, planting vegies in the garden, working as a freelance editor for some awesome publishing house… Or maybe that other version of me is just as miserable as this one, knowing that Australia is the wrong place to be. Coming home has made me question why we ever did it, why we left London. I know it was because I wanted to bring my children up and settle down somewhere more family-friendly, slower-paced, with better weather and more social freedom. But that idealistic picture I had of Australia is slowly becoming eroded, as I realise more and more just how behind we are here, and how maybe being here doesn’t suit me as I thought. Maybe that realisation I had at 18 that I was actually Australian and not European is being turned on its head, and once again I struggle with my cultural and social identity. Time will tell…
Just reading an article from the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/books/review/Gates-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss about Janet Frame (NZ author, subject of Jane Campion’s film An Angel At My Table) and her book Towards Another Summer, which has been published posthumasly. It’s not arbitrary that the book came out after Frame’s death in 2004; she deliberately witheld it, saying it was ‘too personal’ to release during her life. I think this must have been done to protect the other subjects of the book, who are based closely on real people, as if you’re ever read Frame’s autobiography, you’ll know that she isn’t concerned in the least about being open and honest about her life.
So reading this article (which is brilliant, by the way, check it out), got me thinking about something I very often worry about. My English teacher in year 11 (second last year of highschool before university, if any non-Aussies are reading this) was instrumental in giving me confidence with my writing and showing me the correct path to follow to improve it. For some reason, I wrote a short piece about my grandparents and handed it in to Mr P (should I use his real name? Read on…) It was about visiting my grandparents, various conversations we had, just giving a snapshot of their life and surroundings, and I remember describing their ‘nicotine-stained hallway’ which I thought was nothing special (they were chain smokers) but which Mr P thought was fantastic. I said to him that I’d always wanted to write fantasy for young adults, but was always criticised for being to ‘cliche’. He said I should follow this lead, write from life, as exemplified in the story about my grandparents. Suddenly I realised, that’s it! Write about what you know! Why didn’t I take in that piece of wisdom when I watched that episode of Degrassi Junior High when Michelle has to make a presentation and she’s afraid, so Mr Raditch says, ‘just talk about what you know’. Genius advice!
I thought I was free and clear and would be a published novelist in no time… but sadly, another more fundamental problem arose. How do I write about what I know and the people I find fascinating without offending them? At first I thought the solution might be simply to change people’s names. But I realised very quickly that the detail with which I wanted to write about people was such that they would be identifiable without their names. I constantly struggle with this idea of how to make these characters known to others, how to show them for how interesting and entertaining they are, without defaming or exposing the living individuals. Even dead people are a struggle – I couldn’t write everything about, say, my grandmother, without a member of my family reading it and getting upset; the truth is painful, even if it’s not your own truth. Most people are more private than me, I’ve discovered, and everyone has their own truth which usually differs from mine – truth, after all, is often heavily influenced by perception. I toyed with this idea of just using bits and pieces from different characters to create new people, new lives, fictional ones. But the fact remains, at least in my head, that truth, reality is deeper, more interesting, more relevant and rather more entertaining than fiction. Why write about a fluffy, cliched fictional creature when the real one is right there in front of you for you to describe in complete detail, whose story you can tell in full, not having to make sloppy assumptions and guesses.
‘Interesting? Yes, of course, people LOVE interesting writing!’ exclaims Elaine Benes (Seinfeld), upon her sudden realisation that she can write product descriptions without help from her boss. As funny as it is, it’s so true: so many basic things are realised too late. So it’s the realisation that makes the impact, provides the impetus to act. Things are always there, have been there all along, it’s just up to us creators to realise them. I realised something just as obvious in deciding to write from my own life. Yet, as I say, I’m still at something of a standstill.
It’s odd though, now I think about it – I’ve been writing from life my entire life. From the age of 10, I’ve kept a diary. Not an everyday, ‘Dear Diary, Today I did something incredibly mundane which is of no interest even to me let alone others…’ No, it began as ‘Dear Diary…’ of course, because, at 10, you think this is how it’s supposed to be written, and I had this sort of obsessive idea in my head that made me want to organise my life, record every moment, no matter how seemingly mundane. I always knew at some level that I’d want to know when I got older, like a sociological experiment. That’s why I’d make so many different time capsules, write letters to myself in the future, include tiny fragments of my life at that point – a plastic Kinder Surprise toy, an old Yugoslav postage stamp, a silk scarf that used to sit around the neck of one of my small teddies, random keys for long lost locks… In my first year of uni, at art school, we were asked to complete a ‘cultural nexus’ project – something that represented our own personal culture, whatever that was. I made a life size bust with a long hooped skirt, all thin strands of metal wire welded together, and then the ‘dress’ itself consisted of layers of clear sticky tape running down the contours of the frame with various small objects embedded. Our old front door key made an appearance there, dwarfing everything else with it’s thick, four inch long body.
So the point is, I want to capture lives, people, how life unfolds through time and circumstance. I think it’s some sort of desire to prove that nothing is arbitrary, everything is connected and relevant. But without exposing people’s bare bones, I cannot really do this. Maybe I’ll write everything and, like Janet Frame, prevent its publication until after my death.