The hound started to get restless at about nine o’clock this morning. Thirty-eight and a half kilograms of restlessness does not make for a relaxing lie in, so I am sitting on the banks of the Birrarung writing this post while Harper contemplates the meaning of life after a walk and a swim.
I started this blog to create a record of the twelve months I took off
my day job to focus on writing, the sands of which are destined to trickle out
in early April. What I have found interesting is that writing about writing has
also acted as a mechanism to unravel the knots that sometimes emerge, solidify
my practice, and act as a catalyst to resolve some of the frustrations I have
encountered along the way.
There was a day last week I was tempted by another shiny idea, to
abandon my editing and move on. The internal dialogue went something like this.
“Hey I have an excellent idea for the opening scene of another project I want to do.”
“Yea, but you need to finish this one first.”
“The new one would be loads more fun though.”
“You know they say the best way to avoid becoming an author is to never
finish writing a book…”
“But editing is sooo boring and first drafts are such fun.”
“It would be a shame to abandon 65,000 words without finishing the project, how about you try to stick with it a bit longer?”
“The other idea is better.”
“Only if you finish it, rather than quit when the edit gets boring.”
“But I don’t want to lose this amazing idea, I should get started on it.”
“Ok, how about you take a break and write the idea down – one scene only though. Then re-read that blog you wrote about editing and get back to, well, editing.”
So I took my own advice and wrote that scene so I wouldn’t lose the idea, then I re-read my editing hell blog and hey presto! After I cleared the decks and revisited my editing process, it seemed easier. I had cleared away some of the self-imposed confusion and might even have enjoyed some of the edit work of filling in the blank where I had noted write something about x here or re-write this scene. It was a valuable lesson in self strategizing to stick with it.
The draft I am working on now (I would probably call it my third) bares only a shadow of resemblance to the original draft, and I suspect I will still be working on the project when I return to work, but damn, I think I’m going to finish the thing.
What do you do to maintain your discipline to the end?
Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in three weeks to earn aquick buck and Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in a few days when he was broke and desperate due to his compulsive gambling habits. But these books are the freaks, the anomalies driven by some kind of demon writing force. At the other end of the spectrum, J.R.R. Tolkien took twelve years to complete Lord of the Rings.
It was Ernest Hemingway who said the first draft of anything is shit. Some famous writers have completely trashed their first drafts and rewritten them, the published work unrecognizable from the original draft – think William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
I have listened to many writers being asked how long it takes to write a book in interviews. Most published authors seem to answer somewhere between one and ten years and they may produce as many as fifteen drafts (though the most I’ve heard quoted was 30).
There is endless advice available on how many drafts it takes to write a book – the three-draft method, the five-draft plan, the seven-draft process. But the more you listen and read, the more it becomes clear that there are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers.
What most writers seem to agree on is that the first draft is the vomit draft – your writing is focused only on extracting your imagination to get a version of your story on the page. It’s great fun to write and terrible to read. After that all bets are off. One thing is certain, you have to learn to love editing, and be prepared to kill your darlings, because you will probably go through many more erasers than you will pencils.
How people edit depends on how they write their first draft. For example I have noticed that I find dialogue relatively easy, but tend to leave out the protagonists internal emotional life in a first draft which I have to go back and write it in later. I also have some pet words I like to repeat over and over which I go back to and delete or change.
I have started work on a checklist for my editing to try and make it more efficient and have included it below. It is not exhaustive and I will continue to work on my ‘cheat sheet’ as I learn more about the editing process. I also think about editing at the microlevel of the scene, the mid-level of the chapter and the macrolevel of the overall story. Most of the following list is drawn from the works on my links page Books on writing, particularly the text Self-editing for fiction writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Openings: are they clear, engaging and connected to emotion? Do they raise a questions or hook that makes you want to keep reading? Was there a hint of conflict?
Character: are the characters unique and interesting? Do you care about them (or hate them), do they have believable weaknesses, motivations and challenges?
Characterization and exposition: let readers get to know your characters gradually by showing who they are. Look for where you have too much exposition – describing characters or their history – how much do readers need to know to understand the story and when do they need to know it? Take out what isn’t critical.
Emotion and narrative voice: Read each main characters dialogue aloud – do you detect a unique voice for each, does what they say fit them? Do you feel like you get inside the main characters head? Are you emotionally connected to them?
Drama and story: Is there tension in every scene? Is the story well-paced and does it have forward momentum? Are the stakes high enough? What could be cut/shortened? Are there gaps that need to be expanded?
Themes, subtext and moral dilemmas: what themes and moral dilemmas emerge? Can you see subtext?
World: is the world created unique and interesting? Have you told your reader enough, or too much about it?
Prose: do the story and the characters feel believable? Is it easy to read? Is anything confusing? Is there a strong and consistent point of view? Does it make you want to read on?
Dialogue: is there too much, or too little? Does it reveal character? Is there subtext? Check for emotions mentioned outside of dialogue – they are probably explanations – cut them and see how the dialogue reads – if it’s worse re-write it; are there any verbs other than said? Minimize benign verbs like replied or answered as they are obtrusive to the reader – where possible get rid of speaker attributions all together if it’s clear without them; Have you referred to a character more than one way in a scene ? – it’s confusing be consistent. Do you have the right balance of dialogue and beats (the action interspersed through a scene) to keep you reader grounded? Are your beats too repetitive? Do they show your characters?
Dialogue sound: Read out loud. When you are tempted to change a word – do; does your dialogue sound realistic with enough contractions, fragments, run-on sentences? If your dialogue sounds stiff – is it exposition in disguise? How well do your characters understand one another? Do they mislead one another?
Show and tell: Have you got the right balance between narrative summary and enough real time action? If there’s too much narrative summary can you convert sections into scenes? Do you describe or show your characters feelings? Cut all explanations of feelings (angry, sad, happy) and show them instead.
Be proportionate: Are the characters you develop most fully the important ones throughout the story? Are the descriptive details you provide those your viewpoint character would notice? Do all the subplots and tangents advance the plot? If there aren’t any, should there be? Have you got on your hobby horse and spent too much time on a pet interest?
White space: are your paragraphs too long or are there scenes with no longer paragraphs – Have you got the right balance?
Rude bits: do you use too much swearing? If you have sex scenes, how much do you leave to your readers imagination (you don’t want to win the bad sex award, do you)?
Words – remove unintentional word repeats (I have tendency to use realized and looked way too much) Word hippo is a great resource for synonyms; search and find ‘ly’ adverb – most of them are probably superfluous particularly if they are based on adjectives describing an emotion; minimize ‘ing’ words and ‘as’ phrases; remove extra words; sentences that don’t make sense; if you have lots of short sentences, would they be better strung together with commas? Minimize exclamation points and italics.
Check spelling and grammar.
I recommend focusing on each of the editing elements separately.
I’ve heard Mark Brandi talk at a few writers festivals and enjoyed listening to him, so finally got around to picking up his book Wimmera.
It’s a story about two boys who grew up together in western Victoria in the 1980’s and it exposes dark secrets harboured in a small country town at a time when young adolescents had a lot of freedom and people trusted one another, sometimes a little too much. It shows how kids struggle with how to deal with their own emotions and those of adults who behave badly.
One of the things I found most interesting about this story was how Brandi used his characters change of voice through the work to show the boys at different ages. The first part is told in the voice of young Ben and provides a fascinating insight into the inner workings of adolescent country boys as they navigate growing up. I found the boys fascination with tits and body parts as their hormones raged mildly annoying but admired its realism.
Brandi takes us through the story at a pace akin to how life in the country moves and meanders his way to a slow reveal. He uses great restraint in his writing and while he holds back many details, he provides enough of a sense of what’s going to make you wish it wasn’t.
In the second part of the story the two main characters Ben and Fab are in their early twenties and Fab is the narrator. He works at the supermarket, longs after a barmaid married to a man who doesn’t treat her well, and yearns for better things in life.
Ben and Fab meet up again just when Fab has decided to take a risk and try to make a go of moving to the city. The dark sinister secret that has been lurking in the background of the story is revealed when a body is found in the river, and before Fab leaves for the big smoke the boys find themselves caught up in a police investigation.
Brandi handles the subject of child sexual abuse delicately, exposes the power relationship between children and adults from a child’s point of view and the lasting scars that can change the course of a child’s life. He provides enough information to know things are wrong but leaves the graphic details to the imagination of the reader. It took me a while to read the first part of the book, but it’s a compelling read and the change of pace in the second half had me racing to the end. I notice he has a new book out called The Rip, so will have to read that one also.
Fahrenheit Press is fast becoming my go-to for crime fiction reads, my latest conquest being The Eternity Fund by Liz Monument.
The Eternity Fund is set in a dystopian future world after some kind of cataclysmic event has laid waste much of what we know, and it’s a tough place to exist for most. The population eat cloned food (except for the very wealthy), vegetation is fake, some people are part human-part animal and others have had their memories, eyes and body parts enhanced with cybernetics.
Ex-sex worker Jess Green gets recruited by the Unit that governs the world to work for Department Thirteen (Crime Solutions) because she’s an empath who can sense peoples movement and thoughts. Mo, her handler is a man of few words with a chip on his shoulders, who is serious about his job and won’t let Jess out of his sight – she’s not supposed to go anywhere without him, but of course she does.
Something is going on in the dead zone known as the Cinderlands, the epicentre of the cataclysm that occurred, and when a sinister brotherhood starts snap freezing large groups of people to harvest their organs, Jess and Mo get put on the case.
The duo investigate the crimes at the same time as Jess’s past starts to haunt her – the two things collide in a dramatic climax, but you’ll have to read the book to find out that part!
I don’t usually ready science fiction, but this futuristic noir thriller hooked me right in and I really enjoyed it.
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry Thoreau–
Imagine a place that holds significant meaning or
memories for you. What emotions does it evoke? How does it smell, sound, look?
What stands out? How do you and others interact with it? Are there historical
or contemporary narratives associated with this place?
I took a break from working on my novel last week and wrote an essay to enter a Writing of Place competition, the aim of which is to explore the writers relationship with some aspect of the Australian landscape. One of the interesting things about writing an essay is that it draws on your personal lived experience but also opens the writing to historical perspectives, artistic works, science and philosophy. My research has been wide ranging and I have had to refresh my memory for referencing!
But I’m a fiction writer, so why am I bothering with this you might ask? Because place is such an important element of writing fiction (often referred to as world building) that I think it’s worth some focused practice.
In fiction, we incorporate a characters interactions with the environment, what they see, how they see it and what emotional impact it has on them to help develop the character and plot. Understanding our own responses to a place can help to develop our skills for writing place in our fiction.
The idea of place is an elastic and subjective one, constructed through our personal perspective, our cultural lens and the values we attribute to it. Suburban Melbourne beats in the heart of many of Peter Temple’s novels and he uses place to capture the socioeconomic and cultural tone succinctly, as in this excerpt from Shooting Star. On reading this I imagine a working class suburb in the west of Melbourne filled with small houses in disrepair as the owners cannot afford the maintenance.
“The house was in a street running off Ballarat Road.
Doomed weatherboard dwellings with rusting roofs and mangy little patches of
lawn faced each other across a pocked tarmac strip. At the end of the street,
by the feeble light of a streetlamp, two boys kicking a football to each other,
uttering feral cries as they lost sight of it against the almost-dark sky.”
Place can be natural or man-made environments and it can be about the minutiae of a particular tree in a forest, or an ant hill, or a room, or extend to the grand scale of a planet, or the universe. Writing about place incorporates our sensory experience of it and aims to open it up and bring it alive in a way that enables a reader to feel, see and understand it in the same way as we (or our characters) experience it.
In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde uses the senses to immerse us in the location of the opening scene and evoke a sense of how the character feels about their environment. I am transported to an English summer country garden and the overwhelming perfume of flowers drifting in through casement doors thrown open to the warm day by this passage.
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of
roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden,
there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more
delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
In writing about place, detail matters and the language we select to etch the detail on the readers mind will determine the resonance left with our audience. Too much detail might be accurate, but it can also be bland. Being selective about descriptive details, but making use of all the senses, creates a feeling of intimacy and mood that immerses the reader in our stories.
In the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood uses the detail of Offred’s room to generate a powerful, disturbing and dark world. Her use of simile induces a sense of desolation and loss for the character observing the room. And the staccato sentences ooze desperation.
“A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white
ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a
blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been
taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you
could tie a rope to.”
A strong sense of place transports the reader into the world of your story. Practicing how a location looks, feels, smells and sounds, and trying to give it a voice helps us to understand how we can use it in our fiction and give place a living voice.
What do you do to develop your skills in writing about place?
It takes six bottles of bleach to clean a dead body.
A lonely insomniac in a dysfunctional marriage with a wine guzzling wife who compulsively watches crap TV seeks late night comfort in the sympathetic ear of strangers plucked from the phone book at random.
A promiscuous misunderstood woman with several failed relationships and suicide attempts finally meets someone who accepts her for who she is, listens and understands her.
A man traumatised by the suicide of his childhood friend who he found hanging on the back of a door whilst they were traveling overseas together tries to assuage his guilt by dedicating his life to saving others and developing a few obsessive compulsive behaviours.
The character’s flaws are exposed like festering wounds via the short chapters which build suspense and unveil plot twists at every turn switching from one characters bizarre view of the world to another.
The unlikable characters trudge through life in dysfunctional relationships rife with unhealthy sexual practices and violence while they grapple with dark thoughts and obsessions bought to light via crossed wires. Dark, sick, twisted, quirky contemporary domestic noir set in a dull suburban backdrop.
Thrillers are meant to suck you in, elevate your heart rate and totally freak you out. Will Carver does all these things with Good Samaritans. I could not put it down despite being disturbed and disgusted by the tortured souls and their cat and mouse antics. Even the contrary title made me cringe.
I was expecting a quiet new years eve with a couple of friends and made a delicious mushroom pie that went very nicely with a freekeh and pomegranate salad made by my partner (I’ve included the recipes below). Despite there being only four of us (and two hounds) to celebrate we did turn the evening into a party and danced till midnight. We had a small ritual as the year turned that involved writing on two pieces of paper – one for something we wanted to let go of and leave behind in 2018, and one for something we wanted in 2019. Said paper was burnt over a bowl of water (for fire safety) whilst drinking my friends home made limoncello over ice.
Needless to say, finishing my book was my wish for 2019. The madness of the festive season has subsided and today was the first day this year I have sat down to write. I’m hoping for a productive day, as at 42 degrees Celsius it’s going to be too hot to do anything else.
Last week was filled with helping my partner build a new kennel for the hound who has grown to big to fit in the house built for her predecessor. She seems to like the new abode and has been hanging out in it during the day.
When the hound came to live with us as a puppy one of the first things she did was walk out onto the reeds in the pond and pee. I was unable to curb this habit so ended up having to fence it off and get a dog pool for the water obsessed beast. The pond lilies and reeds have grown uncontrollably since the fence went up and I have avoided the inevitable task of cleaning it out for some months. Yesterday the weather was perfect for working outside and getting wet so the day to do the deed arrived. The hound was not happy with being prevented from ‘helping’ but once she understood I would not let her climb the fence and get into the pond with me she contented herself playing with the detritus I tossed over to her.
I did make the fatal mistake of not shutting the back door properly and when I threw one particularly large bundle of sludge from the bottom of the pond over the fence, the hound grabbed it with glee and bounded inside whilst I yelled a futile “NO!” after her.
When I went in it was evident the hound has shaken the offending bundle as she entered and plastered the walls and kitchen cabinets with muddy blobs, left a couple of large sludge puddles on the floor where she dropped it a few times, then landed content on her bed with what was left making another muddy pool. I spent half an hour cleaning up then locked the dog outside and returned to my task. The pond and the house now sparkle, there is a fresh water supply for any thirsty birds that visit today in the heat and I can get back to working on my novel and see if I can make that new year wish come to fruition.
Oh, and here are the recipes for the fabulous Ottolenghi’s mushroom and tarragon pithivier (published in his book Plenty More and the Guardian online) and the freekeh salad (from BBC food recipes). Both are fairly easy to make and look and taste sensational.
Mushroom and Tarragon Pithivier (serves 6) Ingredients:
3 tbsp olive oil
400g shallots, peeled
50g dried porcini mushrooms
200g chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
150g shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and halved
150g oyster mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
150g buna shimeji mushrooms, divided into clusters
300ml vegetable stock
Salt and black pepper
200g crème fraîche
2 tbsp ouzo (or Pernod)
1½ tbsp chopped tarragon
1½ tbsp chopped parsley
900g all-butter puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
Notes on ingredient substitutes: Mushrooms: I was not able to find all the different types of mushrooms, so just increased the amounts of those I could find to make up the quantity. Ouzo: I couldn’t find ouzo in mini bottles and didn’t want to buy a large one, so I substituted two tablespoons of vodka with 1/4 teaspoon of ground star anise for the ouzo.
Method: Bring the stock to a simmer and add the porcini mushrooms. Remove from the heat and set aside to soften.
Heat a large, heavy-based pan with a third of the oil and butter, add the shallots and cook on high heat for 10 minutes, stirring, until soft and brown. Transfer to a bowl. Add another third of the oil and butter to the pan, and cook the chestnut and shiitake mushrooms on medium-high heat for a minute without stirring. Stir, cook for a minute, then add to the bowl. Repeat with the oyster and buna shimeji mushrooms
Tip everything back in the pan, add the porcini mushrooms and stock and lots of salt and pepper, and simmer vigorously for eight minutes, until reduced by two-thirds. Reduce the heat to low, add the crème fraîche and cook for another eight minutes. Once a relatively small amount of thick sauce is left, add the ouzo and stir through the herbs, adjust the seasoning to taste then set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, cut the pastry in two and roll both blocks into 4mm-thick squares. Rest in the fridge for 20 minutes, then cut into circles, one 27cm in diameter, the other 29cm. Leave to rest in the fridge again for at least 10 minutes.
Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Place the smaller circle on a baking sheet lined with grease-proof paper, spread the mushroom filling on top, leaving a 2cm border all around. Brush the edge with egg, lay the other circle on top and seal the edges. Use a fork to make decorative parallel lines around the edge. Brush with egg and use the blunt edge of a small knife to create circular lines running from the centre to the edge, just scoring the pastry but not cutting through it.
Bake for 35 minutes, until golden on top and cooked underneath. Allow to rest for ten minutes then serve.
Freekeh and pomegranate salad Ingredients:
200g/7oz freekeh, pearled spelt or pearled barley
5 tbsp olive oil
4 spring onions, finely chopped (leave these out if you don’t like them)
1 pomegranate, seeds only
handful flatleaf parsley, roughly chopped
handful mint, roughly chopped
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
2 tbsp pistachios, roughly crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the freekeh and 1 litre/1¾ pint water in a pan together with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes until just tender. Drain and allow to cool
When cool, mix together the freekeh with the spring onions, pomegranate seeds and herbs. Season with salt and pepper.
Whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and the pomegranate molasses with a pinch of salt, and dress the salad with it, mixing gently. Serve topped with pistachios.
I hope you all survived the Christmas madness and are having some downtime in the hiatus before the new year. I’m not a big fan of new years resolutions but have been pondering what I hope to get out of 2019 (other than a magical retirement fund) as I enter the final quarter of my year long sabbatical. In the three months leave I have left I hope to near completion of my mystery novel and sign off on a few of those unfinished landscape projects on my list.
Last week I weeded the patch and can now actually find the vegetables (had some delicious zucchini fitters last night) and submitted entries for a couple of short story competitions. I’ve also started to schedule into my calendar the short story competitions I’m interested in entering in 2019. I tend to write short stories as a bit of light relief from, and motivation for, my longer form project and thought I would focus on short stories for this blog post.
What is a short story?
Whilst a novel is a complex journey, a short story is more of an intensely focused experience and usually between 1,000 and 20,000 words in length. Anything less than 1,000 words is considered flash fiction, over 20,000 words is a novella.
Flash fiction writer Sherrie Flick analogises flash fiction to shoving an angry black bear into a lunch bag, without ripping the bag.
T.C. Boyle compares a short story to a toothache that you drill and fill in one sitting and it’s done. He says a novel is more like bridge work, it takes time – and you know what you will be doing when you get up tomorrow. A short story is a sprint, a novel a marathon.
A novel has a series of climaxes that lead a reader down a path with twists and turns that build tension and accumulate to a final payoff. A short story has a tight plot that moves forward from the opening line and usually leads to a single climax. A novel explores a range of emotions whilst a short story usually hones in on one emotion or theme. The opening paragraph must create a vivid image of the setting, capture the readers attention, introduce a conflict, create tension and start as close to the conclusion as possible. All using show, not tell. Phew! That’s a lot, and it means that every single word has to count.
What’s the point of writing short stories?
Unlike a novel you can write a whole short story in one sitting. There’s a sense of almost immediate completion and achievement in the writing and short stories can help to develop your writing craft.
Writing a novel is a long game. Short stories provide some relief and can give your long form fiction writing a jolt when you are frustrated by it.
Writing short stories is a way to expel those ideas that are unrelated to your main project but keep bugging you.
They are an economical way to explore writing outside the genre of your main project or to experiment in your writing.
It’s an art form that takes time to develop, but is a great way to explore new writing ideas and approaches.
What’s the point of entering short story competitions?
Short story competitions can help you learn to work to rules and deadlines. This is great practice if you struggle with word counts and finishing projects.
Success in short story competitions can provide an excellent boost to your motivation to keep writing.
Not receiving a prize is good for writing resilience – we all need to learn to graciously accept feedback and appreciate that not everyone will like our writing – and to keep writing anyway.
Being placed in a competition can help you get noticed by publishers and spruik your long form novel. I happened to be sitting next to a publisher at a prize event last year who suggested I get in touch when I finish my novel.
Some competitions (like NYC Midnight) give feedback to all entrants.
Tips for writing and entering short story competitions
Plan ahead and schedule the years writing competitions in your diary.
Always read the guidelines and stick to them. Read previous years winning stories if available to get a sense of the types of stories that succeed in the competition. The guidelines can help you decide if it’s the right competition for you and might inspire ideas (many have prompts or themes).
Make every word count. Use a strong opening that includes the crucial incident that drives the story in the first paragraph. Drop the reader straight in and engage them and end the first section with a note of suspense to incite them to keep reading.
Limit the number of characters – there’s not a lot of room in a short story for character development, so stick to a small number and make them plausible.
A short story, like a novel, is a journey with an ending. This does not exclude ambiguity but it must be clear that you have taken your reader on a voyage and the tale has ended – there needs to be a clear arc.
Short stories benefit from some time to breathe and edit, just like long form fiction.
Don’t always wait till the final deadline to enter if possible. Most competitions get the bulk of their entries at the last minute. Getting in early can sometimes get your story noticed in the crowd.
Writing fresh stories is important but you can also dig out old stuff and re-enter in new competitions or enter stories in more than one competition simultaneously (if the rules allow). The process takes a long time and if you wait to hear back from a competition before you re-use your story you could be very old before you have success. The more competitions you enter, the more likely your story will get picked up.
Have fun. Approach short story competitions as a game – try different techniques, obscure or unusual ideas. It might be the one that wakes up the judges and captures their attention.
Don’t be put off if you can’t afford to enter competitions, not all of them have entry fees
Websites that list short story competitions in Australia and overseas
A friend of mine has a special Christmas tradition. Every year she posts a selection of photos for what she calls the Twelve days of Creepsmas on Facebook. This post about alarming Christmas traditions is inspired by those photos of creepy Santa’s with terrified children.
A half-goat, half-demon and his band of ill tempered elves haunt the Tyrolean mountains in the Austrian Alps during the festive season on the hunt for children . Krampus, with his furry body, disfigured face inset with red eyes below big curled horns terrorizes the streets with wild jangling bells, animal like growls and fierce dancing as he beats people with birch branches.
Good children get presents from Santa, bad children (as well as drunks and laggards) got Krampus who whips or abducts them, stuffs them in a sack and drags them off through the snow to the underworld. His roots are in pre-Germanic paganism and he is believed the be the son of the Norse god of the underworld, Hel. His legend has such force that it survived attempts by the Catholic Church to banish his celebrations in the 12th century. Krampus is a perfect antidote to the overly commercial, cheer filled version of Christmas.
Mari Lwyn (Y Fari Lwyd)
Dead horses are more in fashion than goats in Wales. Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare) is a horses skull wrapped with a white sheet, empty eye sockets and ear holes decorated and the figure draped with colourful reins, ribbons and bells. Despite her macabre appearance Mari Lwyd is supposed to bring good luck.
She and her entourage go door knocking and sing rhyming insults in Welsh to occupants to try and gain access. In the ritual the occupants of the house must respond with their own verse to try to outwit Mari and prevent her and her gang from entry. Eventually she is let in. Apparently Mari’s entry scares off unwanted problems from the closing year and brings the household luck for the new. She also drinks all the liquor, eats all the food and generally causes mayhem (including chasing any young women she takes a fancy to around the house). You can view an example of the doorstep exchange here.
Yule Cat (Jólakötturin)
In Iceland if you don’t have some swanky new clothes to wear at Christmas you could be eaten up by a giant vicious cat. It’s unclear where the cat idea originated from but the clothing part of the myth is thought to have begun as a mechanism to urge farm workers to be more productive in the lead up to Christmas when hard workers were given new clothes to wear by their employers.
Icelanders don’t just have to worry about giant cats at Christmas either. Thirteen trolls with names like Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Window Peeper and Doorway Sniffer; along with a many headed, child eating, husband murdering ogress called Grýla come down from the mountains in December. Naughty children are taken back to Grýla’s lair to be devoured.
Witches and broomsticks
In Eastern Europe the Christmas witch Frau Perchta, a shape-shifter, creeps into homes and leaves a piece of silver in the shoes of children and servants who have been good. The naughty ones have their stomachs split open and after being disembowelled their organs are replaced with pebbles and straw. She’s also a bit of a stickler for domestic neatness and lazy ladies get the same treatment as naughty children if their housekeeping standards don’t measure up.
The Norwegians worry about evil spirits and witches that appear on Christmas eve and steal their brooms to go joy riding. Households take preventative measures and hide all the household brooms so they have the equipment needed to clean up after the festivities are over. In some households the men go outside and fire shotguns for good measure to scare the bad spirits away.
I’m anticipating my own Christmas celebrations to be far less dramatic, with a focus on the company of friends and family and the devouring of good food under the watchful eye of the giant hound who will hopefully protect us against any evil visitations. May your season be peaceful and your traditions bring good will. See you on the other side.
How do (or don’t) you celebrate the festive season?
I started to watch The Sopranos last night. From the beginning again. Psychoanalysis anyone? It’s almost twenty years since Tony Soprano, violent mobster and family man, landed in Dr. Melfi’s therapy office after a panic attack and started his own personal search for meaning.
The show is at its heart a study in existentialism. We all look for and crave a sense of meaning in our lives. Some find it in god, love, money, or the pursuit of social justice. We expend a lot of energy seeking purpose.
Existentialism tells us that life has no meaning except for that which we ascribe to it. In the words of Dr Melfi: “When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road they can be overcome by intense dread.”
Existentialism demands we are responsible for what we do, who we are, the way we face and deal with the world, and collectively we are ultimately responsible for how the world is. We cannot abdicate that responsibility to a god that only exists because we choose to believe in them.
As Satre said we are condemned to be free and we suffer from an abundance of freedom. Each of us must design our own moral code to live by, even if it is the template offered to us by our parents or our church. It is a template we choose to inherit. To live authentically we must take responsibility for all our actions as they are freely chosen.
The Sopranos showcases the impossibility of attempts to compartmentalise evil acts, and separate them from the rest of our life. In Tony Soprano’s case maintaining a real family life and a Mafia life without the latter corrupting and threatening the former is impossible. He’s convinced he’s created a church and state separation between his two lives and somehow justifies his criminal activity by the fact that he provides for his family. His wife Carmella lives in her own orbit of self deceit and turns a blind eye to the reality of her husbands ‘business’ in order to enjoy the comfort of her Mafia funded princess lifestyle. Being his accomplice means she is constantly haunted by feelings of guilt and shame herself.
This morning I woke up to news from the USA in an article on Facebook reporting George Pell’s conviction on historical sexual abuse charges. It had not been reported in the Australian press due to suppression orders as there is another trial yet to take place. The article made me think of The Sopranos. Like Tony Soprano, Pell’s life choices have come back to haunt him and his actions have been shown to be inconsistent with the view of himself he had promoted to the world.
The clerical hero of some of this countries most senior politicians has fallen, and it makes me wonder what it says about the judgement of our political leaders who have sworn by Pell’s counsel. What is their role, like Carmella, as accomplices in Pells deceit? Have they all chosen religion as a moral code to hide behind, rather than live by? Do they use it to justify themselves as inherently good?
Secrets and lies are at the heart of a good mystery but they do not make for a happy life. In the Sopranos there is a scene were Tony sees an abridged quote from The Scarlet Letter displayed on the wall at his daughters college: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” To find happiness we must organise some kind of harmony between all the parts of ourselves. We need to create an internal attuned unity that is consistent with our actions to avoid the kind of existential crisis Tony Soprano faced. Public figures and prominent people cannot be exempt from the consequences of their failure to live authentically.
The Sopranos ends in ten seconds of black silence. An ending that bewildered viewers. Messy and contradictory. Did Tony die or not? Was he taken out without seeing it coming as he himself predicted? Does it matter? The ending is ambiguous, but we all know that eventually everything ends in death – the truth of human morality. A truth that must be faced to live authentically and grasp our full potential.