Adelaide Writers Week 2020

Adelaide Writers Week (#AdlWW) remains one of the best writers festivals I’ve attended. Year after year it doesn’t disappoint, and attendance is free. This year showcased a lot more non-fiction than fiction and it was an intellectual feast.

My plane landed at 3pm last Sunday and I got to #AdlWW in time for the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. If you want to get your reading groove on with some award winners keep an eye out for these:

Children’s Literature Award and Premiers AwardNevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (Hachette Australia) – An enchanting series by debut Australian author Jessica Townsend, about a cursed girl who escapes death and finds herself in a magical world, but is then tested beyond her wildest imagination.

Young Adult Fiction Award Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein (Walker Books Australia). Tash Carmody has been traumatised since childhood when she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure young Mallory Fisher away from a carnival.

Fiction AwardThe Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones (The Text Publishing Company) The art historian Noah Glass, having just returned from a trip to Sicily, is discovered floating face down in the swimming pool at his Sydney apartment block. But a sculpture has gone missing from a museum in Palermo, and Noah is a suspect. The police are investigating.

Natalie Harkin

John Bray Poetry AwardArchival-Poetics by Natalie Harkin (Vagabond Press) an embodied reckoning with the State’s colonial archive and those traumatic, contested and buried episodes of history that inevitably return to haunt.

Non Fiction AwardThe Bible in Australia: A cultural history by Meredith Lake (NewSouth Publishing) explores how in the hands of Bible-bashers, immigrants, suffragists, evangelists, unionists, writers, artists and Indigenous Australians, the Bible has played a contested but defining role in Australia.

After four and a half days of listening to many fabulous writers, here are some snippets from the ones that most captured my attention:

Fiction

Fiction writers I really enjoyed listening to included Charlotte Wood (The Weekend); Tash Aw (We, the Survivors); Alice Robinson (The Glad Shout); Lucy Treloar (Wolfe Island); Felicity McLean (The Van Appel Girls are Gone); and Michael Robotham (Good Girl, Bad Girl).

The imagination is so private, fiction writers worry about what people think about what’s coming out of our heads… you don’t want to be Andrew Bolt but you don’t want to self sensor before you put words on the page…if you have some talent you are obliged to use it.

Charlotte Wood

Non fiction

Meredith Lake, author of The Bible in Australia had a discussion with Christos Tsiolkas, fiction author of Damascus and Tim Costello author of memoir A Lot with a Little (Christianity’s Crossroads) on ethics and the culture of Christianity at a time when faith is in decline and church institutions have been in crisis. The three interpret the words in the bible in a way that is a world away from the likes of Israel Falou and the cherry picked words that spill from the venomous mouths of the more conservative religious leaders. Their interpretations speak of tolerance and justice and equality and attempt to grapple with the contradictions of faith, including the weaponisation of the bible and the churches as custodians of as much evil as good in Australia’s history. The discussion was far reaching across subjects such as Indigenous and LGBTI rights, child sexual abuse, refugees, science and climate change and was one of the most thought provoking discussions I have heard in some time, which is saying something for a secular non-believer.

Meredith Lake, Christos Tsiolkas and Tim Costello

I want the best of faith to defeat the worst of religion

Tim Costello

Ross Garnaut author of Superpower: Australia’s Low Carbon Opportunity had a conversation with Tim Flannery author of Life Selected Writings on climate change. Garnaut pointed out there was a brief optimistic moment in 2007-08 when all Australian governments were behind a positive climate policy move. This ended when Abbott wrested power from Turnbull then got rid of the climate council and carbon pricing and set about discrediting the science.

In 2016 a cyclonic weather event had a significant impact on South Australia’s power supply after destroying some pylons that were in the main supply line. The Commonwealth Government blamed the weather event on renewable energy. In another world the reality of a cyclonic event occurring in a non cyclonic region would have been seen as an example of the problem of climate change. As the speakers noted, governments have a loud megaphone, and when they lie, they get traction. A situation we see playing out more and more with politicians peddling fake news. The risk is they open themselves up to being vulnerable themselves to being tossed out by the next, better liar.

The shining light in the climate debate is that the state parliaments are in pretty good shape and delivering positive results in the climate change space. The federal parliament is pretty weak and bleak, aside from outlier, Zali Stephen. The price of successive government failures and our failure to change policy earlier is that we now need to cut emissions by 7% per year, every year from now on. It seems there are twenty five people in the Federal parliament holding twenty five million Australians to ransom. The electorate needs to force politicians to act.

The Cut Out Girl, a biography by Bart Van Es. The story was drawn from Barts family in the Netherlands during WWII. His grandparents were one of many families who hid Jewish children from the Nazis during the war. Bart tells the story of Lien, who was hidden for some time by his grandparents.

The degree to which we dehumanise others reflects how disconnected we are from our own humanity…mainstream acts of intolerance in the middle enable extreme acts at the fringe…compassion has to be married to healthy boundaries and consequences…

Tony McAleer

Other non-fiction writers I really enjoyed listening to included Long Litt Woon (Mushrooming and Mourning); Jamie Susskind (Future politics); Sophie Cunningham (City of Trees); Chike Frankie Edozien (Lives of Great Men); Dennis Altman (Unrequited Love); Tony McAleer (The Cure for Hate); Yanis Varoufakis (And the Weak Suffer What They Must?); Margaret Simons (Penny Wong Biography); Angela Woolacott (Don Dunstan biography); and the delightful, thoughtful and funny Vicki Laveau-Hardie who’s debut memoir The Erratics was published when she was in her seventies and won the Stella Prize.

Book review: Circe by Madeline Miller

They say that writers should read widely, so not all my book reviews will be crime, though bloodshed may prove to be a common theme. Recently I dived into Greek Mythology. Madeline Miller’s Circe is a feminist spin on the epic tale of the immortal nymph sea witch by that name. Circe appeared as a minor character in the Homeric poem, The Odyssey.

Circe, the protagonist is the daughter of Helios, the sun god. As a child she is made brutally aware of her inferior status by her family. She was not born a god, is plain to the eye, and has the voice of a mortal. In her youth she was tormented by her siblings and barely seen by her parents.

I asked her how she did it once, how she understood the world so clearly. She told me that it was a matter of keeping very still and showing no emotions, leaving room for others to reveal themselves.

In coming to know love, jealousy and rage, Circe discovers her sorcerer powers, which she unleashes on her sister, a beautiful sea nymph, and the object of her envy. As punishment she is exiled to a picturesque, unpeopled island called Aiaia by her father.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

Circe eventually comes to revel in her solitude and spends her time developing her occult arts and witchcraft, and taming the animals of Aiaia for company.

This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.

It is on the island, surrounded by tame wolves and lions and pigs – the latter formerly sailors who she turned to swine after they tried to attack her – that Odysseus comes across Circe. He becomes her lover and she bares his child.

I was captured by Miller’s lush poetic prose, which is like reading a song. Her reimagining of the myth brings one of the women from the original tale into the light. Her work was criticised by a few crusty old blokes for historical inaccuracy, perhaps because they prefer the original misogynist fantasy, but I found a beautiful remake of Homers epic poem in Circe. The novel gives a nod to other myths as well, including Daedalus and Icarus; Medea and Jason with the Golden Fleece.

I loved Circe’s chutzpah, she is a woman who will not be silenced and turns an ancient tale of female subjugation into one that is teeming with contemporary reverberations of empowerment and courage. Circe is Miller’s second novel and rivals her first, The Song of Achilles, a stirring reimagining of another of Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad. The Song of Achilles received the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012.

I highly recommend Circe, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. It’s a particularly good read for writers who seek inspiration, and to broaden their writing technique, style, and craft skills.

No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while, I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail.

Storytelling and editing

Storytelling existed long before the printed page came into existence. The earliest known discovery dates back to around 14,000 B.C. to the Lascaux Caves in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. The story drawn on the walls of a cave in pictures depicted the hunting practices and rituals in the area. The first printed word story was the epic of Gilgamesh carved on stone pillars thousands of years later in 700 B.C.

Rock Art, Utah

Of course oral storytelling has been a central part of human cultures for thousands of years, but dating it exactly, like dating when humans first began to speak, is impossible because words leave no trace in the archaeological record. Over time stories have been used to preserve cultures across generations, to teach social norms and transmit knowledge, to create community cohesion, and to entertain. Storytellers were the healers, the spiritual guides, leaders, keepers of culture, entertainers or jesters, and they transmitted their tales in the form of songs, poetry, orations and chants.

In some senses humans are stories because we are made up of the narrative constructs of our lives. Stories are how we are remembered, and how we remember others. A narrative is a powerful tool, and lives can literally be changed by them. Remember the books that influenced you as a child and moulded the way you think today? Stories give children access to their rich imaginations and deep fantasy lives and build emotional literacy. They help us to make sense of our world as well as challenge us to think about the world beyond our own narrow limits.

Telling Tales, Lamen Island, Epi, Vanuatu

For writers who subject themselves to the monkish like isolation required to create stories, writing is an activity that takes us deep within ourselves and draws us out all at the same time. An idea is often seeded by something that happens in the world around us, but when I look at what I have written retrospectively I usually wonder where it came from.

While I edit I have been thinking quite a bit about the difference between the written and oral forms of storytelling, because I use reading my work out loud to help with editing. Reading out loud allows me to hear the cadence, pacing and rhythm of my work. It puts my writing on display in a way that the written word does not.

An editor I know recently suggested I actually get someone else to read my work back to me as part of the editing process. She says how you hear your work is different again coming from another person and the exercise can help to further improve it. Getting someone else to read your work is particularly useful for grammar as it makes your realise that commas are far from meaningless markers. They cause a pause, or a breathe in vocalisation that you would not always pick up in silent reading. Punctuation alters the tone of the words they punctuate by indicating a change of idea, an increase in detail, or a change of speaker. Used incorrectly punctuation can confuse the reader, and when we confuse readers we throw them out of our stories.

DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague

I have been listening to a few audio books recently – and I do love an audiobook. They mean I read more because I can listen to them gardening, driving, walking, or when my eyes are too tired for the page. Though you do have to be wary of listening when you go to bed, because whilst it’s a lovely reminder of being read to sleep as a kid, there’s the risk of missing half the tale if you start snoring and the book keeps playing.

Well narrated audio books are an immersive experience that pulls you into the story when the reader infuses it with emotion. They can manipulate the pace by reading faster or slower, and vary tone and pitch for different characters to bring them to three dimensional life. You can’t skim an audiobook the way you can the printed word and in listening you can focus on the bricks of detail to notice how the writer has constructed the story. You can hear how they grab your attention and draw you deeper in, or do something that pushes you away, such as using large slabs of narrative that create distance.

I’ve been listening to Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton this week. It was named book of the year at the Australian book industry award and won audiobook of the year as well as a string of other acclamations. The story is based on Dalton’s own childhood growing up in a suburban Brisbane housing commission amongst drug dealers and criminals. Dalton’s use of dialogue is often hilarious, and his prose is evocative. He uses colorful details and wordplay to describe the minutiae of life and the deepest inner thoughts of Eli, drawing out the young narrators surreal imagination and philosophical meanderings. I’m only about half way though the audiobook but suspect I may want to turn around the read the written version as well when I’ve finished to see what I can learn there.

Main image: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague

How time flies…

Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist, anthropologist and writer who studied myths and legends. He identified a common thread in story structure that he named the ‘hero’s journey,’ (also known as the monomyth) and noticed that all heroes and heroines took the same journey within stories.

Hero’s cape

The hero’s journey begins with a departure, the call to adventure where the hero departs from the world they know to enter the unknown. Sometimes the hero seeks out the call and sometimes something unexpected happens and pushes them to it. On the journey they face a series of adventures, trials and tribulations that test them (the initiation), they meet allies, enemies and mentors that guide them on their journey and experience an internal transformation that matures them before they returns home changed.

An example of the classic hero’s journey in film is Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was living an ordinary life in Kanzas and dreaming of excitement when a tornado hit (the call to adventure). Dorothy, our hero enters into the new world of Oz and goes on an adventure. She meets new people (the lion, tin man, and straw man), mentors (Glinda the Good Witch) and enemies (the Wicked Witch of the West). She overcomes challenges like learning Oz is a fraud (the trials) and develops new skills like discovering clicking her heels together will return her home. When our hero returns to her old world she has undergone an inner transformation that furnishes her with a new appreciation for her own life.

Forest for the trees

Examples of the hero’s journey can also be found in Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Ishmael in Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, Max in Where the Wild Things Are, and Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

Many say that the adventures and misadventures of our own lives follow the same pattern – we are the heroes of our own journeys and Campbell’s advice was ‘to follow your bliss.’ What he meant by this was that if you do things you are passionate about, you’ll feel fully alive and doors will open up for you.

I am due to return to work on Monday after taking twelve months off to focus on my writing practice and have been reflecting on what I have done and learnt during this past year on my own little hero’s journey. It has been fantastic to have the time off to fully connect with my creative self and focus on my writing practice. I have learnt a lot about plot and character development, story structure, point of view and dialogue, show and tell, exposition, and editing – not to mention procrastination and perseverance.

Adventure awaits

I have learnt that a practice that returns you to the page again and again, even if you don’t feel like it is valuable, and that it’s ok to allow yourself to write crap because that’s where the gems are hidden. I discovered that sometimes writing feels like wading through mud, and at other times you find a state of flow and become so immersed in your work that real world time and space recede. At these times the depths of your subconscious is revealed in surprising and exciting ways and it’s those moments that make you return again and again to the page.

During the year I attended four writers festivals (Melbourne, Emerging, Clunes Booktown and Adelaide Writers Week), completed four creative writing workshops/short courses, a weeks writing retreat, and have almost completed a creative writing course which I commenced in 2016.

Happy Hound

I joined a writers group in my local community and met some fabulous writers via social media – some of whom I have also met in the flesh.

I have written over 200,000 words comprising 63 blog posts, eight short stories and what is now the almost completed fourth draft of my novel. I entered pieces in a number of competitions with mixed results, though for most I am still waiting to hear the outcome, and I took part in a spoken word event reading one of my flash fiction pieces to a crowd of about fifty. Alongside the writing activities I have completed some long awaited garden projects, grieved the loss of my old dog and wrangled a new puppy.

Wishing tree

I am spending my last few days of leave at the beach and as I walk along the foreshore I promise to myself that whilst the shape and speed of my hero’s journey may change, it will continue. I will write on the bus on the way to work and on weekends and continue to develop my craft and learn from the amazing people I have met along the way, and eventually I will finish this damn book so I can unleash some of the other ideas fermenting in my head.

Main image: Shoreham Beach

Ducking into Adelaide Writers Week

Literary Koala

Adelaide comes alive with festivals in Autumn; The Fringe, Adelaide Festival, Adelaide Writers Week and WOMADelaide, and I am on my annual pilgrimage and arts binge this week.

The city is surrounded by parklands that encase it in a figure eight of open green space of bushland, parkland and the Torrens River. I am fortunate to have a place to stay at St Peters, a north eastern suburb very close to the Torrens River parklands with access to walk all the way to the city through the green corridor that abuts the river.

Each morning this week I have walked the three kilometres along the flood plains of the Torrens River through the traditional lands of the Kaurna people, who’s country includes the Adelaide Plains. The walk takes me from St Peters to the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden where Adelaide Writers Week is held .

Casuarinas

The trail winds along the Torrens watercourses lined by sedges and rushes, past remnant river redgums, SA Blue Gums and through silent stands of Allocasuarinas. I disturb a large flock of Galahs feasting in the grasses, skinks scurry out of my way, and a young koala, stunned by this strange person invading its home, trots along the ground and up a eucalyptus trunk out of harms way. As I approach the city, just past the outskirts of the Adelaide Zoo, the bush land gives way to landscaped, manicured riverside gardens dotted by sculptures, sleeping Pacific Black Ducks, signs warning citizens not to feed the pelicans, which bite, or to touch the bodies of bats fallen from trees in case they carry the deadly Calicivirus.

I have attended three Adelaide Festival events this week (Out of Chaos…Gravity and Other Myths; By Heart; and Sarah Blasko) and spent most of my days at Adelaide Writers Week listening to authors and commentators talk on a range of fiction and non-fiction books in the shade of large poplars. The trees were chosen by the designer Elsie Cornish to represent: protection and love (the holly oak and myrtle); love, generosity and devotion (honeysuckle); and memory, protection, youth and tenderness (lilac); for the gardens developed as a tribute to pioneer women. I watched and listened and jotted down reflections and quotes that caught my attention…

…muscle and sinew find order in the sweat of chaos and a physical flight of fancy…

…sex is not an intellectual event…

…Bitcoin is the cash currency of Silk Road, the eBay for drug dealers on the dark web…Nimbin online…

…truth is stranger than fiction…

Rebecca Makkai

…Dread Pirate Roberts ran Silk Road. It was his Utopian dream. Until dealers started to blackmail him, threatening to release the personal details of their customers. Dread Pirate Roberts started putting out hits on them, got a taste for it and the Utopia ideal started to unravel…

…some boffin in the tax department stumbled across Dread Pirate Roberts email and he was tracked down by authorities who nabbed him working in the library …

…you can hire a hitman on the dark web for bitcoin, but most of them are scams…

…despite humorous elements there is real evil on dark web…it has created a safe place for bad people to meet and talk and normalise one another’s behaviour…

…complexity needs to be digested in its entirety and then filtered to make it digestible for the lay person…

…there’s nothing more vivid than a human being, but vivid writing is not a substitute for lack of substance…

…Humour makes things more accessible, particularly difficult subjects…

…if you’re writing about things that need to be fixed in the world you need to have a sense of social responsibility and be prepared to talk about taboos…

…sciences writers can bring in information that scientists can’t to help understand issues. For example to solve sanitation issues that cause diarrhoea, the biggest killer of children, we need roads. Without roads we cannot build sanitation’s infrastructure or get soap into communities…

…if you want to grow up to be a science writer, get a job as a fact checker…

…non-fiction: defining a writer by what they are not…

….the last thing to leave our dying lips may very well be a poem…As though it were aware of the fragility and treachery of man’s faculties, the poem aims at the target of human memory, because memory is usually the last thing to disappear, even when our whole existence crumbles around us…

Torrens Parkland

…a Portuguese man teaches ten strangers Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 by heart while he laments the loss of an old woman who taught him that words once held inside our hearts can never be lost…

…when writing characters different from yourself you need to write a fully formed human being, you need a soul…don’t try too hard…ask yourself am I doing good by writing this book? If the answer is yes, it’s more likely books on similar diverse topics will be published in the future…

…a novel is an entry way into certain uncomfortable topics for people and a pathway to empathy…We’re not telling these stories as often as we should be…

…is a person with an intellectual disability culpable? What about electricity companies that failed to maintain infrastructure?…Huge number of people with intellectuals disabilities in the legal system…what does this say about our society?…Was the Arsonist a product of systemic failure to provide adequate supports for a child with a disability?…This fire unleashed evil, but we have to do better in our society for kids at risk of creating harm Chloe Cooper…

…it’s getting warmer and more fire prone every year, fires burning hotter and longer all around world. Coal contributes to the systemic problems that create these conditions…It will not be the last time we have to deal with devastating fires resulting in loss of life…We have evolved alongside fire…it will outlast us as a species…

…writers look for character…interesting people to inhabit your books…

…the power of the words unspoken become the power of a book…it’s the definition of show don’t tell…

…language is magical…

Taking flight

…grief is dangerous and tenacious, it appears unexpectedly and tips you over…

…art stills the whole world in an image…forward time stops and cools around you…you are intercepted by something beautiful…the collapse of time…

…writing is about encounters…disturbing encounters that seed the need to make sense…reading and writing are not propositional…they do not explain the world…they are about an imaginative encounter…to be lost in the beautiful and the terrible…

…writing is an act of composition…reading and writing tutors our lives to notice things…to make our hearts open…

Books I will add to my reading list after listening to the authors:

  • Call Me Evie, J.P. Pomare
  • Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko
  • The Darkest Web: Drugs, Death and Destroyed Lives, Eileen Ormsby
  • The Girl Without Skin, Mads Peder Nordbo
  • The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai
  • The Arsonist, Chloe Hooper
  • Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton
  • The Death of Noah Glass, Gail Jones

I have been filled with ideas, and inspiration from other people’s creative journeys through life and am thankful for these opportunities to stimulate my own thinking. I am also looking forward to four days of the magical mystery tour that is WOMADelaide this weekend.

Main image: Literary Duck

#Writers dog

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.

Come on human

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.”

Making ripples

“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.”

Writers dog

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?

Main image: Harper in contemplation mode

Is writing fiction a political act?

“…our stories influence what we see and what we believe is possible or impossible in the world.” – Ethan Miller

My post last week was a response to events in Australian politics that I found exasperating. The political circus continued to get my goat so much I wrote a letter to The Age. unspecifiedMy week of political writing got me thinking about the role of fiction in relation to politics.

When we consider politics and writing we generally think of journalists. If a journalist fabricates content it is a betrayal of public trust, but making stuff up is the very purpose of creative fiction so does it have a role in politics? Is there such a thing as fiction that is not political? Is writing fiction a political act?

Many say they are not political (or not interested in politics), but the sociopolitical environment in which we reside shapes our entire lives. Politics determines the haves and have-nots.  It tells us who’s experience is legitimate. For example governments determine whether IMG_4092medical facilities exist to ensure we survive childbirth, dictates if we get the opportunity to learn to write at all, the price of milk, who we can and cannot love, and the type of death we can have. Our very existence is enmeshed in, and shaped by the political environment(s) we live in and are exposed to.

Work of the creative imagination, be it fiction, poetry, art or drama, is shaped by our own experience and our views of the world – in other words our own sociopolitical lens. The world shapes us, and then as writers we try to shape the world. We question or bend reality, invent new worlds and invite readers to consider a new perspective. To understand the other. We pick out themes and create personalities that we sew together into a plot to show, magnify or transform how a particular set of circumstances can impact on the world now, or in the future.

What reader would not be able to name a book that had a significant influence on their lives? Writers, story tellers and poets have been holding a mirror up to reality for centuries. They often say what would otherwise be considered unsay-able in public.

The threat writers pose is evident when we study the history of censured, banned or IMG_4359burned books. Examples of fiction works that have been subject to some kind of censorship or ban at one time or another include Dr Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Catch-22, The Da Vinci Code, Doctor Zhivago, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Satanic Verses, Sophie’s Choice, The Well of Loneliness and Ulysses. The more restrictive a political regime, the more likely it is to see text as a threat. Over 25,000 books were burnt in Munich four months into Hitler’s regime for being ‘unGerman’.

A lesser known but poignant example of how literature can threaten and intersect with politics was a book called New Portuguese Letters (Novas Cartas Portuguesas) by Muria Isabel Barreno, Muria Teresa Horta and Maria Vento da Costa. The book, published in 1972, was a post-modern collage of fiction, personal letters, poetry, and erotica inspired by the original letters of a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado to her lover, the Chevalier de Chailly, at the time of Portugal’s struggle for independence against Spain. When New Portuguese Letters was written the Portuguese had been living under a dictatorship for almost fifty years and the book exposed the tyrannical relations that existed between the sexes.

The authorities banned New Portuguese Letters soon after its release – though not before a copy was smuggled to French feminists in Paris who arranged for its translation. The three Marias were arrested and allegedly tortured by the regimes secret police. They were charged with ‘abuse of the freedom of the press’ and ‘outrage to public decency’ by a censorship committee. The three women were criticized because they wrote like men. They were sexually explicit, frank about their desires, fantasies, sexuality and bodies.  They critiqued patriarchal structures, family violence and political repression.

The trial dragged on for two years, made worldwide headlines and gave rise to protests IMG_1892outside Portuguese embassies in Europe, the United States and Brazil. On 25 April 1974 a bloodless coup overthrew the regime. It was called the Carnation Revolution because red carnations were put in the ends of soldiers’ gun barrels. Soon after the coup the case against the three Marias was dismissed, the women freed and the book became a literary symbol of women’s liberation, erotic art, and the Portuguese revolution.

At its essence politics is about power and the rules we impose on society as a way of maintaining order. Do all authors strive to effect change in the world through their writing? If we don’t, why do we hope to be published and read?

What about genre fiction? Is romance gender politics at work? The genre is often dismissed as unworthy. Is that not itself political? Is to disregard romance a dismissal of women (the main consumers of romance), their views on relationships and their sexuality?

Is mystery fiction social justice at work? It often explores and gives voice to the fringes of society – drugs, prostitution, the dispossessed, or the underdog taking on the powerful elite. The very essence of a mystery is about who holds power, who abuses power and how the imbalance can be redressed. That is political. Mystery authors often use their writing to bring to light the concerns of minority groups and to provide commentary on a societies moral issues – Val McDermid’s lesbian protagonist, Lindsay Gordon; Emma Viskic’s deaf character, Caleb; Barry Maitland’s Aboriginal protagonist in the Belltree trilogy.

Reading a novel uncouples us from our ordinary lives and transports us to a self-created world through our interaction with a work of fiction. We read fiction to get ‘lost in a book’ or to ‘escape from our own existence’. Reading is an opportunity for some kind of small transformation.

DSC02842Writing is a way to contribute to the development of a liberal and democratic society. We implant meaning and messages in our plots that we hope will influence how our readers think, not only entertain them.

We judge and unpack what we read and ascribe a value to books. That is political – just read any book review or go to a book club meeting and listen to the debate about a novel to see how a single story can take on different contours and unique significance for individual readers.

How do you hope to influence your readers?

Main image: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague;

Inset images in order: Letter to The Age; Street Art, San Francisco; Guggenheim museum, New York City; Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane; Threat and Sanctuary, Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Library Way street name sign, New York

Reading for writing

Do you read for your writing?

I’ve  invested quite a bit of time in the last year into reading books and listening to podcasts about writing to expand my thinking about technique and style and see what I could glean to improve my own skills.

I try to work on my novel every day even if there is only have a small window of time. Writing this blog itself is an experiment in developing my own voice, a way to track my progress and share random ideas about writing and other interests. As I made a promise to myself (and more publicly on this site) that I would post to this blog once a week it has become a great vehicle to make sure I think about writing (and write) every week, even if I don’t feel like it. It was the only writing I did when I was on holidays, but it was writing! I also hope the blog will contribute to firing my motivation to keep working until I complete my book.

There is selection of the reading about writing I have been doing on my Books on Writing page and links to the podcasts I listen to.  There is also a page dedicated to crime fiction related links on my crime page.  I update these resource pages when I find a new reference that inspires me.

What books on writing would you recommend?

I have noticed that how I read fiction changes the more I write and my own creative skills develop. Though not generally a fast reader, I do read as much fiction as possible and try to analyse it to help improve my own practice. When I do read at speed I know I have been gripped by a story and try to understand what it is that I love about it. These days books that do not hold my interest are discarded (often after skipping to the last chapter just to find out what happened).

Most of the books I read are in the genre in which I am writing (mystery) but I do try to read more widely as I think reviewing work outside of your genre also expands your skills, thinking and approach to how you write.

I am currently about 100 pages from the end of Belinda Bauer’s Snap which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize this year and could barely tear myself away from it to write this blog post. Yesterday I caught the bus to the city just so I could sit for an hour each way and read it uninterrupted.

Snap is without a doubt one of the best novels I have read in a while from any genre and reading it has excited me.  I feel there is so much to learn between its pages about writing as well as being a ripping read. The characters all have their own unique, if at times unsavoury, but believable quirks and I cannot  help but be fascinated by what motivates each of them.  The sentence structure and use of words are beautiful and drive me forward as much as the plot, and the short chapters have me simultaneously hungry to read one but disappointed as it feels like the book will end too soon.

I am doing a major structural edit of my own novel at the moment which at times has my mind spinning, but reading Bauer’s book has injected a new enthusiasm to get stuck into my own work with gusto…as soon as I finish reading Snap.

What fiction you have read has inspired your writing?

 

Image: Library Way, New York

Pinnochio floating face down in water at the Guggeheim New York

Post-holiday writing re-boot

I gave myself a leave-pass on holidays and did very little work on my novel.  Time I would spend writing was taken up with lie-ins, reading, surfing, eating, long walks on the beach and lazing about with friends. Now I am back at home and the break from reality is over.  Getting back into writing after time off does require some intentional effort.  After all your imagination was on holidays as well if you weren’t exercising it.

What happens when you try to get back to writing again after time away from it?  Do you stare awkwardly at the computer unable to access your imagination through the fog in your head? When you do manage to put down words are they crap? Do your characters seem distant? Do you wonder what happened to your flow?  Is there is a temptation to give up?

I am almost half way through the twelve months I took off work to focus on writing and all those unfinished projects in the garden. Despite being a disciplined and organized person, I do not feel that I have accomplished as much as I expected to when I started my break.  The main reason is that (as usual) my plans were too ambitious for my timeframes when life and day-to-day responsibilities are factored in. At times there is a temptation to focus on what is not done and abandon all plans. Why not just kick back and enjoy the rest of the time off? It’s a sophisticated form of procrastination. Nothing is stopping me getting started again except myself. So, this week has been dedicated to some writer wrangling. At its core is re-creating a routine, discipline and patience. Here are my five tips to get your writing mojo back after a break.

Set aside some uninterrupted time to write on as many days as possible each week IMG_0992(even 15 minutes): During your writing time remove distractions like social media. Do not allow yourself to indulge in your favorite procrastination activities like attending to the washing or the weeds that need to be pulled in the garden – whatever it is that draws you away from your computer (or pen).  I am at my best in the morning so I set the alarm for 6am, get up, make coffee and stand at my computer until at least 8am. When I was doing my day job my uninterrupted time was the hour on the bus on the way to work. I would put ear buds in to discourage others from interacting with me and write on my iPad. During that time read over some completed material, reacquaint yourself with your characters and give yourself permission to write crap.  Expect it to take some time for your writing to return to your expectations.

Schedule in space for procrastination and life commitments: There are things that you have to do and things other than writing that you want to do.  Attend to them when you are not at your best for writing.  For me this is toward the end of the day. I try to book appointments, check social media, read or weed in the afternoon.

IMG_0980(1)Exercise: In my view this is one of the most effective activities to jolt you back into a routine.  Aerobic exercise facilitates information processing, thinking and memory functions, stimulates the growth of new connections and is protective against getting down on yourself or anxious if you are finding getting back into a routine difficult. If you exercise out in nature there is the added benefit of the environment providing stimulation for your imagination and you can use your movement time to think about writing.  You’d be surprised how often activity will provide inspiration and boost your flow.  Destructo dog is now six months old so I’ve started to teach her to come running with me which is great fun for both of us and afterward she makes an excellent writing companion.

IMG_0978Immerse yourself in some writing related activities: Go to a literary event or a writer’s group, and read. In the evenings I am reading The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid, a fiction work in the genre I am writing my own novel in, and How Fiction Works by James Wood a book about the main elements of fiction. I managed to catch a couple of events at the tail end of the Melbourne Writers Festival and have planned with a fellow writer friend to organize our own writing retreat for a week in November.

Be patient: It takes a bit of time to get back into the flow after a break.  Expect that, and don’t give yourself a hard time about it.  When you get distracted, keep returning to your routine, until it becomes your routine.  Just like it was before you took a break.

 

Main image: The Guggenheim Museum, New York

Inset images in order: Writing Supervisors; Destructo dog after a run; A Toast: Judith Lucy’s Dream Dinner Party, Melbourne Writers Festival.

Books on shelf at Guggenheim, New York

Getting started

I’d been toying with the idea of writing a book about the two years I spent living in Portugal riding horses in my early twenties. I was lucky to become a working pupil of Maesto Nuno Oliveira, considered to be one of the last great masters of classical dressage (think Spanish Riding School if that term leaves you wondering). I started writing and developed quite a bit of material, but soon realised I didn’t really know what I was doing. How do I structure my ideas to craft them into an engaging story on the page?

I am practical and pragmatic about what I don’t know and love learning, so I sought out some help. I looked into a range of courses. I didn’t really want to do another university degree and soon found myself at the virtual door of The Writers Studio signing up for their introductory online course. It was great fun and I learnt a lot. That was in January 2016.

The second problem was that I kept experiencing an overwhelming urge to kill off characters. One of the questions the tutor asked was what type of books we liked to read. I like to read widely, but in reality mystery and crime fiction dominate my bookshelves. Start by writing what you like to read was the best piece of advice to really kick start my writing. My Portugal book went into a virtual drawer and I commenced a journey to write a crime fiction novel under the tutelage of The Writers Studio.

The first draft commenced in March 2016. I work full time in a fairly demanding job and commute for three hours each day, usually one way on a bus, one way on a bicycle. That meant about an hour and a half in transit each day on a bus with my iPad working through course notes and writing. I’d also snatch a few hours over the weekends in between other commitments.

I discovered Scrivener early on, which I love, I’m a bit of a tech geek and it allows me to work on the iPad or the laptop and sync between the two. I rarely write with a pen as my handwriting is almost illegible and I can type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. When I do hand write it’s because I’ve become stuck and the switch to a pen can get the creative brain flowing again.

I started my third draft in February 2018. Reflecting on the last two years, the key things I have learnt:

• it takes more than a good imagination to produce a good story. It has to be harnessed by a sound, well planned structure to make it really engaging

• develop a writing habit, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day, it adds up

• grammar matters a lot, if you missed out go and learn it

• seek outside objective feedback, it makes a world of difference

• practice patience – it’s a journey, settle in, enjoy the process and don’t worry about the destination

This is to be the year of writing for me. I will start long service leave from my job in April and take the rest of the year off to work on my novel and my craft. I have set up this website as part of my writing project and plan to post a blog post each Friday.  It’s a place to share some of my work and pondering about life – initially the blog will alternate between writing topics and garden/food topics (one of my other passions). What are you working on?

Image: Guggenheim, New York