Taking a writing break

Are we there yet?

I had a week off last week and went surfing with some friends and a couple of hounds. It was also an intentional week off from writing, so I prepared last weeks blog post in advance and wrote this one after I got home. Having subscribed to a ‘write every day,’ or at lease most days philosophy for the last four years, it was an interesting exercise.

Point Roadknight

Of course there is a good reason for writing every day. The practice, like developing an exercise routine, drives momentum, improves your writing technique and keeps you connected to the story you are working on. The flip side is that stopping (like stopping exercise) makes me worry I may lose my writing muscle and struggle to get back into it. It’s a bizarre bind. When I’m writing I often worry about the other things, like domestic chores, that I should be doing, yet when I’m not writing I worry that I’m not – in case I lose momentum. Despite my contrary feelings, the week off was refreshing and fun.

Main beach
Main beach

Anglesea is about 115 kilometres west of Melbourne at the northern end of the Great Ocean Road on the Anglesea River. It has a resident population of about 2,500 people and retains the feel of a sleepy village. We stayed at a house close to a bushland reserve and the local golf course which is home to a mob of kangaroos. It was quite lovely to hear the thud of kangaroos hopping through the garden in the night and to be woken by early morning bird calls each day.

Who’s got the ball?

The locale is a great spot to get away and relax, walk parts of the 44km coastal walk or through the beautiful wetlands at the head of the river, surf the long rolling waves, eat fresh fish and produce from one of the many local farmers markets, or simply read a book and gaze out over the bushland. And I did all of those things.

Yippee!

One day a friend who is the chef at a local cafe dropped by with fresh caught tuna which was delicious barbequed and served with fresh salads and overcooked potatoe chips. On another night we ate at Captain Moonlite, an eatery jutting out over the main beach in the surf lifesaving club restaurant that serves up coastal views and a fresh modern seaside inspired menu that is updated daily. A must for a night out in Anglesea.

Rest time

One afternoon we made the half hour drive to Lorne along the Great Ocean Road. It’s a drive that makes you realise just how beautiful the Australian coastline is – who needs Greece! Lorne is home to an old Art Deco theatre built in 1937 to cater to tourism after the completion of the Great Ocean Road. The cinema has terrazzo floors and is one of the few single screen theatres left in Australia. We saw the movie Little Women, which I enjoyed but found a bit long. The theatre is worth a visit, just remember to take cash as there’s no credit card facilities.

Raining Roo

The complete change of scenery felt much longer than a week and I feel quite refreshed. I’ll start to get back into the swing of writing this week and expect to get my manuscript assessment back soon so I can make what changes I need to, start querying in earnest and get on with my next book, which cogitated quietly in the background while I was away.

Morning glory

Book review: Into the Woods by Anna Krien

Deep down in our bones we must know – we must know that nothing we do is done in isolation. Cause and effect: how did it get so noisy in between?

Into the Woods

It’s hard not to talk about the climate and weather when it’s so in your face, and you spend a significant amount of your spare time cleaning up after it. We had a hailstorm with the ferocity of a tempest last weekend. One moment I was in the vegetable garden doing a bit of weeding, the next I was running for cover as hailstones the size of golf balls were hurled from the sky. Water tanks overflowed, gutters strained under the weight of the ice, paths washed away and torrents of water formed creeks where none had run before.

It was another of those moments, increasing in their frequency, where I marvelled at the awe inspiring ferocity of nature as she strives to demonstrate for humanity that climate change is real. Meanwhile many of our political leaders still grasp desperately to denial and the power bestowed on them by lobbyists, the powerful elites in the mining industry, and the likes of the Murdoch Press.

…those that have the power to change the situation are too scared to do anything in case they lose that power.

Into the Woods

I am half way through reading Anna Krien’s beautifully written narrative non-fiction book Into the Woods about the struggle over Tasmania’s wilderness areas, the people who exploit them and the people who try and protect them. Krien’s work is an exploration of the polarised and conflicting convictions, motives, emotions, power dynamics and allegiances of those involved in the struggles over the forests.

On the rear window of almost half the cars I see, there are stickers in eternal argument with on another. ‘Tasmania: The Corrupt State’ and ’Save the Styx’ versus ‘Greens tell lies,’ ‘Greens Cost Jobs’ or simply ‘Green Scum’ – slightly tamer versions of older stickers that read ‘Keep Warm This Winter: Burn a Greenie.’ It is said each glut of car stickers in Tasmania signals a new chapter in this intense and deeply personal debate that has been going for forty years.

Into the Woods

Krien speaks to everyone on her investigative search for information and understanding: activists, greenies, loggers, politicians, resident citizens. The only obviously absent voice, because they refused to speak to her, is Gunns who hold the economic monopoly over the logging and wood chipping industry in the state.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that deforestation and forest degradation contribute 17% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions

Into the Woods

Reading Into the Woods has echoes of the debates that happen all over the world in places where natural heritage and human greed come into conflict. Big companies chasing profits by selling products for humanities insatiable appetite for consumption of oil, coal, gas, timber, minerals, and land. Big public companies motivated by shareholder profits that have significant influence over the politicians they lobby and fund, stand in opposition to the passionate defence of forests and rivers and oceans by activists and environmentalists, with politicians riling the camps to maintain conflict in order to further their own agendas. Because conflict demands taking sides and creating allegiances, and allegiance translates into votes.

The activists tread a fine line between drawing attention to threatened areas and provoking resentment that can ultimately backfire against the forest.

Into the Woods

We are all complicit in the supply chain that leads to the destruction of our environment. We influence it in the day to day decisions we make about consumption, by how we vote, what we will tolerate, and what actions we are prepared to take to preserve the natural environment that sustains us. Krien’s work meditates on the world we have made and the complexity of the choices we must make. Into the Woods has astonishing resonance for the current re-ignition of the climate change debate in Australia as bushfires continue to rage across the country.

Most people travelling through Tasmania will never know of the long-running game of hide-and-seek taking place in the labyrinth of logging roads beyond the bitumen.

Into the Woods

It is often not until something impacts us in a direct and personal way that we take notice. This summer it seems that Australia is getting a taste of the future. It is an experience that has bought the issue of climate change into the fore again, while politicians of the day continue to try and smooth the way for them to get back to doing very little about it.

If anything there appears to be an indignant kind of mateship here, a loyalty that precludes empathy

Into the Woods

As I have been reading Into the Woods and Krien’s struggle to understand Tasmania’s relationship with the wilderness I had been pondering our current governments stance on climate change. Is it some kind of misinformed ideology? Religious beliefs? Naivety? Ignorance? Shape-shifting party power dynamics that mean being bold would result in loss of power, possibly being knifed by your own colleagues with the help of the Murdoch Press?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a logger or a greenie,’ she says, ‘it’s the fact that our government thinks its electorate are a bunch of dimwits.’

Into the Woods

The rhetoric about maintaining the coal industry is about jobs, but I am reminded of a section in Into the Woods where Krien notes the primary argument for logging in Tasmania was jobs. Then she goes on to write that in reality machines may be a bigger threat to timber jobs than ‘any greenie’. I suspect the same applies to the coal industry, which is increasingly automated. Then I saw a piece of Michael West’s investigative journalism called Dirty Power made for Greenpeace. It’s a social network analysis of connections between the Coalition and the Coal Industry, and is fascinating viewing. After seeing it I concluded the primary motivations to maintain the status quo must be a particular blend of allegiances, greed and power.

Standing on a lookout with the maps spread out around us, I can imagine how easily deals might be done in boardrooms, where wilderness is reduced to abstract numbers of hectares and its fate sealed with a handshake.

Into the Woods

While Krien was writing her book, I was studying climate change at university; reading Thoreau, studying bushfire behaviour with Kevin Tolhorst, and reading documents like the Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change reports predicting would happen without action to reduce greenhouse emissions. I am sad to say it all appears to be starting to come to fruition in a much more obvious way.

Why Tasmania?’ Barry Chipman once asked me. He’s right–in the greater scheme of things, the island is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But its story is universal–and what goes on in Tasmania goes on in the mainland, goes on in the Pacific islands, in other continents, until it comes straight back over the ice to Tasmania again. You can follow its story like a ball of wool, get tangled in it and unravel it.

Into the Woods

Once the summer is over and the fires are out, when the smoke has cleared and the first green shoots start to appear in the charred remains of Australia’s forests I can’t help wonder what will happen. Will we all breathe out a sigh and go back to doing what we’ve always done as our memory of what happened fades? Or will our collective shock at what we have done to our planet, and its consequences maintain enough rage to motivate citizens to drive our coal loving, climate change denying political leaders and their allies to take steps to make the changes we need to at least try to get a different outcome?

Some scientists are beginning to describe the modern geological era as the Anthropocene, the sixth in a series of mass extinctions, all said to be caused by extreme phenomena, in this case the harmful activities of humans. Perhaps even more poignant is biologist Edward O. Wilson’s description of the period that will follow. Wilson says it will be ‘the Age of Loneliness’–a planet inhabited by us and not much else. In his version of the future there is no apocalypse, no doom, no gates of hell, no wrath of god or mass hysteria, only sadness. I wonder if perhaps the Age of Loneliness has already begun, its effects far more complicated than we realise.

Into the Woods

I highly recommend reading Into the Woods, for its insights into Tasmania, the politics of forestry, its resonance with the global debate about climate change and for the beauty of its writing.

Our beds are burning…

Happy New Year! This is not a writing post. It is another rant about some of the things I thought about whilst enjoying a beautiful evening in a bushland setting on the Yarra River on new year’s eve. Feel free to turn away, normal writing programming will resume next week.

I had mixed feelings about celebrating new year’s eve when catastrophic bushfires were raging across the country destroying some of Australia’s most precious bushland, decimating wildlife populations and ravaging human communities in their path. Despite the valiant efforts of underfunded volunteer fire fighters, Australia’s east coast has been burning since September 2019. Many of the fires remain out of control and will likely continue that way throughout the summer unless significant rain falls on the fire grounds.

Canberra was rated to have the worst air quality in the world on Wednesday due to smoke, killing one elderly woman on Thursday.  Meanwhile Scotty from Marketing (aka PM Scott Morrison) kept up his ‘nothing new to see here’ stance over champagne at Kirribilli house and entertaining the Australian and New Zealand cricket teams. On Thursday he delivered a press conference, and was on the back foot.

Of course Scotty from Marketing’s claims that climate change doesn’t cause bushfires, and Australia has always had droughts are technically correct, but incomplete and misleading. Suggesting the best way to respond to natural disasters is by ‘doing what we’ve always done’ sounds like a commitment to kick back and allow the problem to perpetuate. And saying Australia cutting emissions will make no difference globally is shirking responsibility. I bet he’s thanking his lucky stars that the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide released by the current fires don’t count toward the countries emissions footprint or he’d have to do a lot more creative accounting than he is already to meet our Paris targets..

Climate variability does influence fire and the changes we are experiencing will make fire management more complicated because it alters ecosystems function. Fire is a physiochemical process that can be represented by a simple equation: fuel + oxygen + heat. Remove one from the equation and fire cannot take hold, turn up the volume of the elements and the frequency and intensity of bushfires increases.

Climate change contributes to creating the perfect weather conditions for dangerous bushfires. CO2 concentration impacts the amount and composition of fuel loads because it alters the growth rate of plants, and thus the frequency and intensity of fires when they occur. Increased and more extreme temperatures reduce humidity and moisture content, compounding drought conditions caused by diminished rainfall. Drier conditions bring vegetation closer to its ignition point and ensures it burns hotter and faster once ignited. Extended drought reduces fires intervals and the wild winds caused by changes in air pressure create perfect conditions to drive wildfires to their most dangerous conflations. Wildfires themselves then contribute to perpetuating climate change because they release a lot of greenhouse gas.

We are fast heading toward a new normal of longer, hotter, drier fire seasons and more intense fires. In Gippsland, rainforest that has never burnt are being engulfed. It’s likely that some plant and animal species may not recover because available habitats for some organisms will be diminished and shorter fire intervals may not allow time for even fire adapted plant species to mature. The result could be local extinctions due to an absence of seeds.

Contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth…reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Darwin, The Origin of Species

We do not survive in isolation from our environment. We are like the frog, who when placed in a pan of tepid water that is slowly bought to boil, does not perceive the danger of its situation, does not attempt to jump out and gets cooked. We are blind to our own growing vulnerability. Despite the scientific evidence, the Australian government has no credible policies to address climate change – either to reduce our greenhouse gas pollution and transition to clean energy, or to invest in disaster management and adaptation to build resilience to cope with the new normal. Thoughts and prayers and patience will not solve this wicked problem and I suspect history will reflect poorly on many of the current world leaders.

In the absence of political leadership we place our hopes in the likes of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg to remind us of our collective failings and inspire action by uniting young and old to tackle contemporary environmental issue. Scott called for patience on Thursday, but it’s time to stop being patient and force the hand of the global political elite who prefer denial and maintenance of their ties with fossil fuel industries to carefully considered policies to a more sustainable way of living. My hope is that this bushfire season will spur more citizens into action. That we demand our governments take climate change seriously, start to think long term about minimising our contribution to emissions and begin to make the structural adjustments we need to build climate resilient communities.

Images: contemplating all that could be lost

Burnt stumps and smoke after control burn, Warrandyte

God, fire and politics

I was going to do a bookish Christmas post, but have concluded that Christmas is a bit overrated. Besides, a few things have got my goat this week, so a pre-Christmas rant is in order.

On a day of 44 degrees in Melbourne, when half the coastline of the country is ablaze, and NSW is in a state of emergency, my dystopian fantasy of our future world is right on my doorstep and plastered all over the media. Meanwhile, our political leaders continue to bury their heads in the sand about climate change and the environment. I use the term leader loosely as it’s an attribute I feel is sorely lacking among our current political class. The best Scott Morrison seems prepared to offer is thoughts and prayers in its place.

You may be wondering why a fiction writer is having a rant about politics on a blog about writing? As it happens the crime fiction manuscript that I will start querying in the new year has political hypocrisy as one of its central themes, and it is something I am both fascinated and repelled by in the real world as well.

Morrison has gone to some lengths to avoid engaging in discussion about climate change and has pushed his perverse nothing to see here stance while communities are raised, flora and fauna are decimated, and city populations choke on the smoke. Earlier this month the man determined holding a press conference about his controversial Religious Freedoms Bills was more important than showing leadership about the bushfires. The first version of the bills had been heavily criticised by faith and secular groups alike, and I can tell you the second version is no better.

While Sydneysiders were gasping on smoke, Morrison was touting a package of legislation with potential to significantly change Australia. It may prevent many individuals accessing services such as medical, education, employment, aged care, and some commercial services on the basis of their otherness. Not to mention the Isreal Falau clause about how we can interact on social media. It is the most hateful piece of legislation to be tabled in some time.

I find it curious that institutions that were called out on poor governance, lack of transparency, and accountability in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse should now be deemed in need of the types of protections that will enable them to be even more closed and secretive by excluding anyone they view as other from their ranks. It strikes me as a recipe for more festering problems and institutional failure.

The religious freedoms debate started as a knee-jerk reaction to a small group of ultra conservatives railing against a secular state and afraid that allowing gays to marry would cause the sky to fall. After years of preventing progress in this area these conservatives were over ruled by the Australian public who voted in favour of same sex marriage. The religious right were offered a review to assess the state of religious liberty in Australia by the government as a consolation prize for the postal vote on same sex marriage to keep them sweet. Phillip Ruddock was tasked with overseeing the review. The first airing of the reviews outcomes was in the form of leaks of key findings around the time of Malcolm Turnbull’s demise. The leaks exposed the fact existing law already exempted religious groups from discrimination laws and enabled them to discriminate against teachers and students. They could sack teachers and expel students of diverse sexualities already if they chose to – it caused a moment of outrage, that many may have forgotten.

Subsequently Attorney-General Christian Porter was tasked with turning Ruddock’s review into legislation. It took an extraordinarily long time because ultra conservatives did not just want anti-discrimination laws for religious groups, they wanted a positive right to discriminate. Any reasonable person would agree that an individual should not be discriminated against on the basis of their faith, but what the religious right wanted was a weapon to strike out at people they deemed unworthy, like the LGBTI community, not just a shield to protect their faith. The laws are not about freedom to speak ones religion, but freedom for institutions to hire, fire, deny service, insult and humiliate based on an individuals personal characteristics. The cynic in me can’t help thinking Morrison may have chosen that moment on 10th December to announce the bills, with Australia burning in the background, to invoke some kind of symbolic fire and brimstone moment. But in reality who knows what Morrison really thinks about anything (he abstained from voting on same sex marriage)? He appears to be a man who will go wherever the favourable winds of power blow.

On the same day as focussing on a bill few deemed necessary, Morrison insulted volunteer firefighters by downplaying their work. Two CFA volunteers died fighting fires yesterday, and three more were injured. I wonder if Scott still thinks they really want to be doing this job?

…they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities…

Scott Morrison

All the volunteers were, foregoing income and time with their families to risk their lives fighting fires with often substandard equipment, yet Morrison was more interested in announcing legislation that has never been needed, and has the potential to create great divisions in society.

The wife of a firefighter wrote a heartfelt response to Morrison’s insensitive comments about our volunteer fire fighters that touched on another of Morrison’s blind spots – climate change. The blog has had over 80,000 views in a week. Remember Morrison is the guy who loves coal so much, he took a piece (which had been cleaned) into parliament in order to demonstrate his committment to a carbon-intensive economy and mock those concerned about climate change.

In November Morrison declared the bushfires had nothing to do with climate change and has been actively and publicly trying to shut down climate protesters because he doesn’t like their message, and clearly struggles to understand the science. He’s since made some concessional comments that climate change may be a factor, though I suspect that’s because he’s afraid of losing public support, he must have felt the winds changing. One wonders if he is confusing his own beliefs with science. He’s a Pentecostal. The evangelic religion emphasises the idea of the Rapture – that when it arrives, the chosen will ascend to heaven while the rest of us suffer the Tribulation – fires, floods and famines that will kill most of us, while he and his fellow chosen believers wait for the Second Coming.

Meanwhile, Scott has packed up his family and gone off on holidays. I don’t actually resent Scott having a holiday, we all need one now and then after all, but the act does expose a nasty element in his makeup and a big hypocritical black hole in the mans psyche. You might think that comment a bit harsh, but let me take you back to the Black Saturday fires that started on 7 February 2009 in Victoria.

I remember the day well as I was at home and could see the red orb thrown by the fires over the King Lake Ranges from my house. Apparently my town was spared by ten minutes and a wind change, my cousin wasn’t so lucky – her place burnt to the ground. In the aftermath, when people were looking for answers, and perhaps a few scapegoats, an ambitious young politician called Scott Morrison made an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program and had a few things to say about the fact that Police Chief Christine Nixon left the incident room and went out to dinner that night.

“She’s clearly made a bad judgement call. That happens to people from time to time, but this was a very serious issue…I think there are very serious concerns in the community about exercising judgement, and it’s incumbent on all of us in public life to make decisions following that in the best interests of the ongoing nature of the program.”

Scott Morrison, Q&A 2010

Christine Nixon ultimately lost her job over the dinner decision. The comments then, and Morrison’s actions now, are an indication of the shallowness of the mans convictions. Ultimately he’s simply playing the politician, but his actions in recent weeks also call his judgement into questions based on his own benchmark. The image I have of Morrison lands somewhere between a crazed religious zealot determined to impose his beliefs on all of us, and Nero fiddling while Rome burns. The BBC delivered an interesting summary on Australia’s leadership failure on climate this week.

He’s not my Prime Minister, never was, never will be. I just hope the rest of Australia wakes up to his disastrous Prime Ministership soon and vote someone in capable of real leadership on the big challenges of our time.

Creating Characters: the Archibald Prize

JF Archibald (1856-1919) was a Victorian journalist and founder of the Bulletin magazine. He served as a trustee for the Art Gallery of NSW and during that time commissioned portrait artist John Longstaff to paint poet Henry Lawson. He was so enamoured with the work that he left money in his will for an annual portrait prize.

Painting, like writing has genres. Portrait painting became a thing in the thirteenth century and its roots are in memorialising the rich and powerful. The word means to show a likeness. A portrait is an intimate character sketch that seeks to capture the inner essence of its subject, in much the same way as a novel aims to express the inner world of its characters.

The history of the Archibald presents something of a cultural snapshot of Australian society – up until recent years all winners were caucasian males, usually from Victoria or NSW, who painted caucasian male subjects – a mirror of our societies discrimination in education, opportunities and social views of the times. The first woman to win the Archibald was Nora Heyson for her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman in 1938.

Today, both the subjects and artists are much more representative of Australia’s diversity. This years Archibald finalists include portraits of women of color, Aboriginal Australians, a subject with a disability, queer and elderly subjects. There was in fact a noticeable absence of old white suited men in armchairs and politicians. As I walked around the gallery, I couldn’t help wondering, what were the characters thinking in the moment captured, what is their life like, and what kind of relationship they have to the artist. Each tells a story.

Main image: Sarah Peirse as Miss Docker in Patrick Whites ‘A cheery soul’, Jude Rae

The voices inside our heads

This week I went to see Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. It’s the story of a scientist who trades his soul for electric light, obliterating the difference between night and day. It was an experience that required letting go – letting go of expectations of what to expect from a stage play. There was no neat plot to carry us through, and no temporal logic.

They are the ink that gives the white page meaning - artwork, Guggenheim museum, New York City;
Guggenheim, New York

The piece was a beautifully executed avant-garde romp with ambiguous and fractured identities that transitioned through a struggle between good and evil, and grappled with the notion of the individual. The script was poetic with looping lines that were deliberately repetitive and sprinkled with short acidic words that blurred the boundaries between dialogue and narrative. I was left for much of the production with a sensation of hearing the voices inside someone’s head.

I am not talking about the terrifying voices that haunt the sufferers of severe mental illness and render them lost to themselves for periods of time, I am talking about the quieter voices that chatter away in our heads. The voices that self sooth or offer observations, instructions, praise or admonishments in a way that we understand them to be part of ourselves, or that spill out of us onto a blank page in a controlled way to tell our stories. The inner voices that can speak the unspeakable, threaten, challenge, or desire in ways we believe our true selves never would in real life. The voices that take us deep within ourselves whilst simultaneously suspending us from our own realities. The ones that cause me to look up from a page and wonder where the words have come from.

Museum of Contemporary Art, NSW

The conversations of the brain were once seen as mythic – the rumblings of gods or shamans, but in reality our inner voice is the stream of consciousness that speaks when no one is listening but us. For most of us it is rarely shared with anyone, except when it erupts in moments of stress, or we lay on the couch and expose it to a therapist in an effort to understand, tame, or change it.

Look around you at the people walking down the street in silence and imagine their inner worlds teeming with chatter, or notice them trying to drown it out by plugging their ears with music that carries them to other places. Imagine the anarchy if all that chatter and noise was unleashed on the world uncensored.

In fiction we often talk about finding our unique voice, the one that can tell a tale in a way that no other can, that leaps off the page and turns words into three dimensional characters. Fiction is a realm in which we seek the unfettered and extraordinary. The more outlandish, edgy or strange our voice the better, as we try to take our readers to the edges of believability or to interrogate matters we may not dare to in real life. In fiction the inner voice can put a characters humour on display in serious situations such as in Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton:

Watch my language? Watch my language? This is what really shits me, when the clandestine heroin operation truth meets the Von Trapp family values mirage we’ve built for ourselves.

Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In fiction inner dialogue is like the voice within the voice. It is a mechanism that defines character in a way that dialogue and narrative cannot. It exposes our characters inner dilemmas, self perceptions, contradictions, humour and fears, making them available to the reader even though they are kept hidden from other characters. Inner dialogue invites us into stream of consciousness to bare witness to the fragmented, messy reality of what it means to be human.

Jack nodded vaguely. Merry was only recounting what she’d overheard, what she’d read, what she’d imagined down the years. He wondered suddenly if that’s how everyone constructed their own past – with the experiences of others, and photos, and headlines and snatches of reality, all mashed together into memories that they claimed as their own. For the first time he thought that the photo of them all, happy and with the wind in their hair, might never have existed either. Maybe it was all in his head and he’d only imagined it on the fridge, and the little frame he’d stolen from HomeFayre would be empty for ever.

Snap, Belinda Bauer
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Inner dialogue is commonly used in written fiction and sometimes on stage, such as in Hamlet’s well known soliloquy which opens with the words ‘to be or not to be’. The mechanism is rarely seen on the screen, though one exception is the television show Offpring in which the main character’s inner world is put on display in all its anxiety ridden psychedelic glory in a way that blurs Nina’s inner and out worlds. It is the use of that technique more than the plot itself that has drawn me to the show. I love the way her inner world looms up and threatens to derail her with the suddenness of a gusty wind.

Of course the original story of the erudite Faust is that he was highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life as a scholar. He made a pact with the devil to exchange his soul for unlimited worldly pleasures and knowledge and surrendered his moral integrity for power and success. The devils representative was Mephistopheles who helped Foust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl called Gretchen who’s life was destroyed when she gave birth to Faust’s bastard son and drowned the child. One can’t help wonder if both Faust and Gretchen where victims of their own inner dialogues rather than some external other worldly force though.

Image: What are they thinking?

Respect Matters

There are a lot of ordinary people in the world who do extraordinary things. Most of them pass through life unnoticed by all except those whose lives they touch. A small number become immortalised when their contribution is recognised by the media, awards, or writers who become fascinated enough in their stories to commit them to paper, but most often the extent of a person’s contribution to society, only becomes apparent when we hear others tell stories about them.

Last week I went to a living wake for a woman called Katrina Leason, a long-term friend of my partner, and someone I have come to love and admire through that association.

Zelda’s Place Collective

In the mid-eighties when feminist activists began to challenge dominant discourses about violence against women, a group of young women in Melbourne got together and formed a collective to set up Zelda’s Place which provided support and accommodation to young women who were victims of incest. Katrina was one of the founding collective members.

The collective named Zelda’s Place after Zelda D’Aprano, a staunch feminist, labour unionist and pay justice advocate. Zelda was an unstoppable force in the women’s movement and the labour movement. She got sacked from factory jobs for speaking out about unfair condition for women, organised pub crawls with groups of women to drink in bars that banned women from entering, and chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth bank in 1969 to protest the dismissal of an arbitration of an equal pay case with the meat industry union. On another occasion she chained herself to the doors of parliament house, only to have her chains cut and removed by a police officer. When the officer suggested she should be embarrassed by her behaviour, Zelda responded she was not because soon there would be more women joining her. Sure enough they did, and Zelda formed the Women’s Action Committee and the Women’s Liberation Centre with them, and the women’s liberation movement was born.

Outdoor glamour

Zelda’s spirit inspired the young women’s collective who formed Zelda’s Place, five of whom were at Katrina’s living wake. The five have taken varies trajectories in their careers, but Katrina, like Zelda, and the in the spirit of that first collective, dedicated her professional life to ending violence against women.

On sighting Katrina from a distance you would not immediately pick her as a staunch feminist, she doesn’t fit the stereotype. She is glamorous. Tall, blonde, immaculately dressed and always made up. It is not until you speak to her that you realise she is a woman not to be taken lightly.

I had known for some time that Katrina had done quite a lot of work with the Australian Football League (AFL) around reducing violence against women. What had not dawned on me was that she was one of the drivers behind the professionalisation of women’s football, which emerged as a national competition backed by the AFL in 2017.

Gathering

Katrina had realised some time ago that Australian’s love of sport could be a vehicle for change and bought her more than twenty-five years of working to create more inclusive environments to the male dominated world of football.  She believed that increasing the participation of women in football was key to the cultural change needed in community football clubs to prevent violence against women and girls, and pursued that belief with the same strength and determination that she pursued all her years of working to eliminate violence against women. I imagine that many of the blokes in the football world would have been surprised by Katrina.  As my partner pointed out; Katrina Leason never shies from a fight, but always turns up dressed for a ball.

Katrina has approached her illness with the same pragmatism she has applied to her life.  Meditation has given her inner strength to withstand many challenges and to stand tall with dignity and pride in the face of opposition and adversity, along with her connection with family and close friends.

We live in a society that is largely afraid of death, and where talking about it is often taboo. Katrina chose to take a different path and engaged a Buddhist death doula to provide non-medical support to her and her family through her end of life journey. Doula’s can help us to lean into death, to steer away from the socialised silence that most commonly surrounds dying and that brings disconnection rather than that which we most crave – connection.

A Splash of Gold

The theme for Katrina’s living wake was semi-formal with a splash of gold and she looked ever glamorous in a long dress with gold braid. The gathering took place over a sit-down dinner at the same place Katrina and her husband, Peter, had married, but the main event was the family and friends who spoke.

Katrina gave those who knew her the opportunity to tell her, and for her to hear their words that she would not have experienced had they been spoken at her funeral. It was a beautiful evening to be part of.

I sprayed my hair gold and shed quite a few tears at the beautiful speeches.  The final speaker presented Katrina with a well-deserved Zelda D’Aprano Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of her tireless work to contribute to the elimination of violence against women. Afterwards I felt I knew Katrina a little better and had a deep sense of gratitude for the woman in who’s honour I was there, for showing us what it means to strive not only for a good life, but for a good death as well.

Recycling Books

Guggenheim, New York

In 2015 on a trip to New York I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman who worked at the University Club in Manhattan. It’s an elite private club established in 1861. Its purpose now is to promote Literature and Art and it’s based in a Mediterranean-Revival-Italian Renaissance palazzo-style purpose built building constructed in 1899 on West 54th Street. The Club hosts one of New York’s greatest private art collections which includes works by American artists Gilbert Stuart and Childe Hassam. It also has an extraordinary reading room with ceiling murals by H. Siddons Mowbray that were modeled after the Vatican Apartments (unfortunately I couldn’t take photos).

The gentleman gave us a tour of the building, library and rare book collection and it was one of the greatest book highlights of my life so far. Some of the rare books we were shown included:

‎⁨Strahov Monastery and Library⁩, ⁨Prague⁩, ⁨Czech Republic⁩
  • Ptolemy Geographical (1511): an early publication of geographical maps pre-dating knowledge of Australia’s existence, which does not appear in any of the drawings.
  • Domenico Fontana Architecture (1590): which described and illustrated the removal of the Vatican Obelisk from its old location behind the sacristy of St. Peter’s, where it had been since the reign of Caligula, to its present location in the center of the Piazza of St. Peter.
  • The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands 3rd edition, Mark Catesby (1771): which contained drawing of the figures of fish, snakes, turtles, etc.
  • Handwritten Patent of Nobility, King Ferdinand to Don Pedro Jacinta Elantra (1750): a royal manuscript printed on velum (goat/sheep skin).
  • Trattato del giuoco della palla (1555), Antonio Scanio: the first book ever written on the rules of tennis.
  • Book of Common prayer (1770’s): which had a fore edge painting, a painting on the edge of pages that can only be viewed from a certain angle.
Guggenheim, New York

I set about reviewing and rationalising my own book collection for the first time in about ten years last week, and while it may not contain any valuable or rare books it was an interesting trip through my own history, because a book collection can tell us a lot about ourselves. They put on display an intimate insight into our intellectual lives, inspirations, influences and escapes. I remember the last time we did this exercise and took a big load of books to our local second hand bookshop. It was after a youthful phase of reading loads of self-help and personal growth books.

The shop owner foraged through the boxes, turned to us and said, “I hope you feel better now.”

Guggenheim, New York

This time the throw out pile, about eight boxes, includes an eclectic mix of mainly literary and genre fiction. There are also a small number of management, cooking and personal development books.

What we chose to keep on our bookshelves is as interesting as what we discarded. The unread; favourite reference books (cooking and gardening); the books we loved and reread with the bent spines and creased pages (like Tracks by Robin Davidson; The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger; poetry books; and anything by Jeanette Winterson); the nostalgic volumes that hold some fond memory from childhood that we cart from house to house even though we may never read them again (James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl; The Black Stallion Walter Farley; Midnight by Rutherford Montgomery); and the ones we read as adults that hold some historical meaning and we might revisit one day (Equus by Peter Schaffer; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance and all those tomes on the art of classical dressage written by the greats like François Robichon de La Guérinière and my own teacher Master Nuno Oliviera – even though I no longer ride)

Book Art, Adelaide

Of course when I mentioned discarding books, I didn’t mean throwing them away, that would be sacrilegious, there are many options to consider, disposal being the last resort. I have seen some amazing creative uses of old books from art installations to turning them into a bed base. I will attempt to find homes for as many as possible with friends, at second hand bookshops or by donating them to the local library, or op-shop, or one of the places around Melbourne listed below. Then I’ll set about filling up those empty shelves again.

Aboriginal Literacy Foundation: accepts donations of new and used children’s books. Refer to the criteria on their website before sending or delivering books.

Australian Books for Children of Africa (ABCA): appreciate good quality kindergarten to year seven books, both fiction and non fiction, new and second hand, including story books, dictionaries and atlases.

Lifeline: raise over 80% of their operational costs through retail activities such as Lifeline Shops and has drop off points around the country that accept books

National Prison Book Program: is run by teh The Australian Prison Foundation and has collection points in Melbourne

Street Library, Berlin

Street Library: Community home’s for books in the street where people can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends. The website shows drop off points

Brotherhood books: When you donate or purchase a book from Brotherhood Books, you are supporting the Brotherhood of St Laurence in working for an Australia free of poverty. All the proceeds of these book sales are reinvested back into the charitable operations

Vinnies: accept donations of quality books – fiction, non-fiction, childrens

Do you ever clear out your book shelves? What do you do with your second hand books?

Free Wheeling

It’s the end of the day, of the end of my second week back at work and as may become evident from this stream of consciousness blog, my brain is a little tired and addled. Yesterday it was Bohemian Rhapsody, but ten minutes ago I had the song The Wheels on the Bus going around in a loop in my head, when the wheels on the actual bus made an abrupt stop. As I write this I’m sitting on said bus, and it ain’t going nowhere, having broken down ten kilometres from home when the door jammed open. I’m reframing the experience as an opportunity for more writing time, very Buddhist of me considering what I want most, is to get home, eat dinner and put my feet up.

Buddha Walk, Crystal Castle, NSW

Speaking of Buddhism, as I understand it, the second noble truth is that suffering is due to attachments and expectations, to grasping and clinging. The idea of letting go makes me think about writing practice, when we need to hold on, and when we need to surrender.

I remember when I wrote my first draft, how chuffed I was to complete it, and how attached I was to those 60,000 odd words, little realising the lessons I was about to understand. Learning to edit was about coming to terms with letting go, to absorb feedback and use it to improve technique, to apply critical non-attachment.

It’s a funny thing that us writers can become so attached to those tiny squiggles on the page, invest so much of ourselves in them as if they were a living part of us and we will become less if we let them go.

A Public Practice, Vienna

I often think of writers as being most akin to musicians. When a musician wants to perfect their craft they will spend hours practicing. They study music theory, receive tutoring from a professional instructor, and develop a work ethic that gives them the grit to keep plugging away at it. They can’t afford to get attached to all those notes, to hoard them all and try to prevent them from floating away as they leave their instruments. They don’t think all their notes played in practice are wasted either. I wonder if writers would benefit from thinking of words more like musicians think of notes, embrace our practice as practice, know that not all our words are necessarily destined for the world, and that the cutting and pruning is about honing and perfecting our craft.

A Long Road Home, Nevada

My commute is a long journey, but hey, so is writing a book right? I’ve been editing for a long time now, and it occurred to me this week how my approach to the task has changed over time. It was a hard lesson, well learnt, when I did a structural edit of an early draft and realised I had to cut and rewrite all of the first five chapters. I think I put down my manuscript for a full week, fuming over the realisation, before I could bring myself to do it. Now after much application, I have become detached and carefree about editing, happy to cut and slash and relegate large chunks of text to the bin. I enjoy allowing fresh ideas to surface as I rewrite and rework, and apply what I have learnt to improve my manuscript.

…Oh, here comes another bus, and I must get on it.

Main image: London Bus, Esperanto Museum, Berlin

The writer’s brain

I’ve been listening to The First Time podcasts recently about the first time you publish a book. Fortuitously, one I listened to this week was an interview with counselor and coach Alison Manning who described part of her work as ‘helping writers with their minds’. She assist writers to understand themselves and their relationship to their writing in a way that aims to overcome roadblocks and self defeating thought patterns.

Objects of Desire

The interview included an interesting discussion about some of the myths, from both reader and writer perspectives (particularly first time novel writers), about how beautiful writing is produced. Manning said there is a common lack of understanding of the effort involved in completing a book – that it doesn’t just flow out as the finished product. Writers who are the most resilient operate from a growth mindset. That is that rather than focus on the outcome (getting published, being successful, etc) their emphasis is on valuing effort, development of effective strategies, hard work and learning from whatever happens – regardless of achieving outward success, or what might be perceived as failure. Their interest is primarily in exploring their potential.

Manning quoted research that says one of the five most powerful elements of well-being is achievement for its own sake, doing something that matters a lot to us and doing it because it’s interesting and enjoyable just to see how well we can do it.

Searching for Self

The interview also discussed the importance of focusing on the things we can control, rather than those we can’t. That to find out what’s possible we need to develop the flexibility to allow ourselves to work with what we’ve got, even if it’s not our ideal, and focus on doing what we can.

I thought her advice was useful in a whole range of contexts but the reason I found the discussion so interesting right now was that I had been grappling with feeling a bit disappointed at not completing more of my project during my year off, and wondering how/if I would find the time to finish it once I returned to my busy job. It’s the kind of thinking that can really erode motivation and become self defeating if you give into it. The interview gave me some ideas about managing my own expectations and changing circumstances to help keep up momentum on my project. It could also prove to be valuable advice in the workplace.

Just five more minutes

This week I’ve been adjusting to a new routine after returning to work, as has the hound. We’re up at 5am for the dog walk/run and I’m on the way to the office by 7.30am. My commute is loooong, about 1.5 hours one way, so that is now my writing time – on the bus on an iPad. I’m lucky to always get a seat because I get on at the first stop and off at the last. There will be some days, no doubt, that I will be too tired or full from my day to write and will just sit on the bus and read a book or listen to a podcast, activities related to developing my writing practice, even if not actually writing.

Manning has also done a podcast series called A Mind of One’s Own with novelist Charlotte Wood (The Natural Way of Things) in which they discuss many of the struggles that plague emerging writers, and how you might address them, so I shall also add those to my listening list also. I will add links to both podcasts to my resources page.

Main image: Brain like a Jellyfish