Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Wall

In 2007 I trained for and finished a marathon. At the start of that year I'd never run more than 5km and on Sunday 7th October I crossed the 42.195km finish line on the MCG turf with the broadest smile I was physically capable of.

It felt incredible, the most powerful demonstration of how rewarding effort and commitment can be. But the training was a complicated journey of many feelings: pride, frustration, dread and incredible satisfaction.

I learned how to break down a daunting goal into achievable goals and I celebrated each of them. I also tried not to punish myself when, because of illness or injury or occasionally just utter disinterest, I missed a run. 

About four weeks before The Day I experienced something that until then had been an athletes' concept I'd heard of but more like an urban myth, like an evil woman in a fable that is present as a threat in a story but not actually real.

The Wall is real.

I did my long runs on Sunday mornings. As they got longer I started earlier, often in the dark. I included parts of the actual route on my training runs so that there wouldn't be any major surprises on The Day. I wanted familiarity to cultivate calm and settle me in to The Zone, another very real state.

The longest run in my program was 30km and I did this two weeks in a row. The first time was surprisingly comfortable and I hit the home straight, the track beside the Yarra from Swanston St to Chapel St, smiling at the rowers and the cyclists, trying to keep a lid on the fact that I was actually going to make it. The next week was a physical and mental hell. When I turned on to St Kilda Road, a stretch I'd enjoyed the week before, I was overwhelmed by its straight, relentless monotony.

None of my techniques worked. I couldn't tell myself that I was a gazelle or that I loved to run; I couldn't care less about what I'd achieved so far and my most powerful mantra, spoken to the rhythm of so many of my footfalls - big, strong, wo, man - seemed utterly ridiculous.

At an intersection I ate my last three jelly beans and sucked in desperation on each of my four empty Powerade grenade bottles. I thought that people in their cars were looking at me, laughing at me. A marathoner? Don't be absurd. Go enjoy a comfortable Sunday and leave the training for tall, lean women. Real runners. 

The pedestrian light turned green and my brain tried to tell my legs to move, but they refused. I was locked, rooted to the ground like a terrified woman faced with a psychopath in a horror movie. I was incredulous and furious. How could my body let me down like this? The green man started flashing red. The cars may as well have been revving their engines and lining me up like a target because I felt them as a terrible pressure that I had to escape.

I cupped my hands underneath my right knee, lifted it and dropped my right foot a pace forward. I did the same thing with my left leg, again with my right, again my left. When I made it across the street I had enough confidence to try to take some unsupported steps. I tried to slow down the thoughts, fears and anger, anything that was going to threaten my only objective: make it home.

I don't know how long it took but I did it. The two flights of stairs to my flat were agony. My cat lifted her head when I came in, looked at me and then closed her eyes again. My legs and arms shook as I looked in the fridge for a cold drink. I was exhausted, but I'd done it. 

The next day I couldn't get to work. Instructed by my massage therapist I went to the service station for four bags of ice and prepared an ice bath. For the first time in months, against so much of what I'd read, I poured a glass of wine. I thought I could trick my body into thinking I was going to enjoy one of the long, hot soaks I often take. Maybe I lasted 10 minutes but I doubt it. 

That week I missed two of the four runs, but a few weeks later I finished The Marathon. 

It's a long story but every detail of that experience came to me during a restless night last week as a parallel to what I've been defeated by for months. 

Of course I've heard of Writers' Block but I've only recently understood it, or at least my version of it.

For months I've barely written. Anything. I've tried writing about what I'm not writing about; tried writing a journal, just to write something; jotted notes about people in cafes, sat in libraries trying to read, written out passages from books that I liked, but nothing got me back on course. Every paragraph, sentence, note, email, everything that I produced, I loathed. I read so many great works and then despaired of my own attempts even more.

Finally I've set my life up to give me time to dedicate to the only job I've ever wanted and I can't make any progress.

But remembering my running experience has helped me to feel that I may be able to work through it. Unlike a marathon I can't set a major writing goal. I've always written short fiction based on a person I've seen or a comment I've overheard. It's a painful construction on a flimsy foundation, but I've always wanted to have the imagination, the creativity to write something that is separate to my own stories.

Lately, however, I've been thinking about Lee Kofman's answer when I asked her what inspires her writing. She said it's an exploration of something she's been thinking about. She knows that when questions around a theme or an issue occupy her a few times, then something will come out of researching and working with it.

I've been starting to write notes on things I'm interested in and would usually try to incorporate into a short story, into fiction. Now I'm looking at them a bit differently and writing down what I think. It looks a lot like mind mapping but it's helping to re-establish the writing habit.

For a long time after the marathon I found running very difficult, almost futile. Do a half marathon? I'd done plenty of them in training. I lost interest. I got lazy. Then I didn't like my body and what it could no longer do. But after a while I missed running too much and so I got back on the track. I blended in yoga and swimming with runs that I could enjoy. I joined a running group and for the first time felt part of that community.

I'm trying to see that it's the same with writing. I'm not someone with a novel I'm trying to complete, but I need to apply the same diligence. I'm very lucky with the friends I've made in Melbourne's writing community but instead of thinking of them as the real writers, I need to be more involved. I don't know if I can "make it" because I don't know what "it" is, but I know how rewarding it is when I'm writing, when I'm balancing it with other responsibilities but making sure it does get the time it deserves.

My marathon day was actually just one part of what had become a project, a habit with lots of commitment and lots of rewards. To remind myself to just enjoy the run I wrote, in black texta, on my hands: 'proud' on the left, 'happy' on the right. Maybe as writers taking up our positions for dedicated writing time, maybe we should have those words on our hands to acknowledge just turning up and trying, having a little faith and helping us to settle in to the zone, enjoying whatever it is that we achieve.

In the pink - the start of the 2007 Melbourne marathon

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Sitting In - The Next Big Thing

Last night I was at the final 2015 'Next Big Thing' at The Wheeler Centre. After weeks, no months really, of not writing much and fighting it with prompts and recriminations, listening to these five writers seems to have been the restorative that I needed.

While outside a spring northerly picked up to almost 100 kmh, listeners, actors, family members and friends were crowded into the front room in The Moat. Each work, and writer, is very different, but the one that got me thinking and had me scribbling at 5.30 this morning was Sam van Zweeden, reading from her project, 'Eating With My Mouth Open'.

Exploring the relationship between food and memory, from both a personal and investigative approach, Sam shared some of her intelligent and honest stories. She's weaving research into her reflections and making a beautiful collection, one I hope that we'll all hear more from soon.

Today I've been thinking about my own food memories.

My grandma is jersey caramels and butterfly cakes - also Promite on Sao biscuits, but I think of the sweet stuff first - and strawberry Freddos are Sunday mornings sitting in the car wagging youth group. A chicken kiev means birthday dinner in high school when the idea of a curry or a casserole made me gag. So did eggs, silverside and cheese, although I was pretty fond of the old "Toast Hawaii" when mum was tired after a long day at work and a hot drive home in the Torana.

A very dear friend is the first time I had churros con chocolate, in Madrid, and it can never be that amazing again. Wrapping spring rolls in fresh herbs and lettuce sets me on a child's stool travelling on my own in Vietnam in the mid-90s and if I could have another hot poulet baguette on the coast in Wimereux with a glass of sparkling from the Loire I'd be a pretty happy woman.

Most of my food memories are good, until I say that and suddenly think of the cockroach halfway through the tajine in Marrakech, the violent nausea throughout India and the disappointment of my first pub meal in London. I remember an awful plate of squid mess sitting at a table on my own, reading, amongst massive extended families watching football and feasting on shared plates in Monopoli and a dreary selection of cold, pickled items in a dinner buffet in Copenhagen in winter.

What I crave and what I make can show me how I'm feeling - if it's hummus and Vitaweets because I can't be bothered cooking, that might be heading to bad. If it's nachos it's probably not good and if it's nothing, or savoury then sweet then savoury everything, that's definitely a bad sign.

My homemade food doesn't have to be gourmet or take a lot of effort to show me that I'm all right - a simple linguine with garlic, chilli, eggplant and rocket is good; instant miso with fresh ginger and enoki mushrooms? I'm good. Looking up recipes to find something new to make? I'm definitely in good form.

Last year I met my man in a cafe, his cafe, and we've fallen for each other making and sharing many meals. Chilli, hard core chilli in a good Larb Gai will always take me street-side in Thailand with him, with locals looking on and laughing as we sweated and fire-breathed and still spooned on more chilli oil, both of us crying joyful tears, sniffing and coughing, grabbing paper square after paper square to wipe our foreheads and noses, loving being on our first overseas holiday together, speaking our few Thai words and using lots of facial expressions and hand gestures to talk with the women and men who cooked for us, laughed at us and waved to us when we left.

We're going overseas again after Christmas, this time to Malaysia. We've watched Rick Stein in Georgetown and know there'll be plenty of roti and murtabak when we're there and here I am, excited about food, my holiday and, most importantly, about being back at my keyboard.

Last night Sam van Zweeden read stories that are far more insightful and poignant than these few paragraphs and they inspired me. Thanks to Sam I've got my hunger back, just in time: tonight I'm going out for a Vietnamese meal and tomorrow I'm going away for a few days. To write.

*  *  *
The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship is generously supported by The Readings Foundation.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

What I Loved - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Sometime last week I looked at the state of my room and decided something really needed to be done. The various notebooks, recycled paper impromptu to do lists and post-its are immune. There’s no way of changing how I work so that just needs to be overlooked - that said it’s been a disturbing interval between real output that perhaps I should be looking at shaking the work approach up a bit. But the immediate “issue” was the towers of books. 

I’d been using some sort of logic to look like I was organising or categorising them but I couldn’t even stack them neatly anymore. I’d started a pile on a stool on my partner’s side of the bed, even though he’s probably read about 6 books in our 14 months together, and most of those when we've been on holidays. 

If a tidy room = a tidy mind, and vice versa, I was due for a thorough reconfiguration.

So I decided that the most effective and immediate strategy was simple: cut off the major supply. I’m sorry Stonnington library service – if there is any correlation between your funding and the volume of loans, I’m about to register a wee dip on your weekly report. Until I have finished all of the books I own/have on loan from my mum, I am not going to borrow any more books.

It’s so refreshing when you make a powerful decision, one you know will bring immediate benefits. Especially when you get home from returning all of the offenders you really want to read, only to realise that one has managed to endure.
I was packing to come away for a quiet long weekend and saw one spine with a sticker on it, FIC FOW, and what a one to escape the sweep up: ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’.

Everyone should read this. Readers, thinkers, animal lovers, humanists, sisters, parents, students…if the population was a Venn diagram of demographics this book could be one where they all overlap. It’s such a compelling story in utterly remarkable hands.
I don’t ‘review’ books here, I only share stories that have really meant something to me, either as a reader or as a writer. Often both, definitely both in this case. 

As a reader? 
The ultimate tribute is when you can’t put a book down, will surrender sleep in order to finish, and can’t do much else for a while once you have. I sat in the swivel chair by the window looking out on the steady rain that is probably ruining many people’s long weekend plans and enjoyed my tears’ trail. It’s a beautiful experience, to be moved to tears, or laughter, or in this rare case, both, by words on a page.

As a writer? 
Here is a case study of acknowledging and throwing out the rules of structure-
“Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.” (end of Prologue)
“And I’ve reached a point here…where I don’t see how to go further forward without going back…Which also happens to be the exact moment when the part I know how to tell ends and the part I’ve never told before begins.”
“I’ve told you the middle of my story now. I’ve told you the end of the beginning and I’ve told you the beginning of the end. As luck would have it, there is considerable overlap between the only two parts that remain.” (p. 284 of 308)

Voice. Do you need any more than the paragraphs above? If you do, or just so that I can share more-
“So now it’s 1979. Year of the Goat. The Earth Goat.
Here are some things you might remember. Margaret Thatcher had just been elected Prime Minister. Idi Amin had fled Uganda. Jimmy Carter would soon be facing the Iran hostage crisis. In the meantime, he was the first and last president ever to be attacked by a swamp rabbit. That man could not catch a break...
...The only part of this I was aware of at the time was the ‘Breaking Away' part. In 1979 I was five years old, and I had problems of my own. But that’s how exciting Bloomington was – even the suffering children could not miss the white-hot heat of Hollywood.”

One of my favourite bit parts is Ezra, the caretaker of the student apartment building.
“We sat around our own table, an island of sad refelction in an ocean of merry din. We drank Todd’s Sudwerk beers, and shook our heads over Ezra, who’d once wanted to join the CIA but hadn’t managed in his first (as far as we knew) commando operation, to free a single monkey.”
“The secret to a good life, “ he told me once, “is to bring your A game to everything you do. Even if all you’re doing is taking out the garbage, you do that with excellence.”

As a person? 
Like the other components I can’t express this without quoting directly from the text about which I’ve been trying to write.
What I’ve tried to describe before when calling myself (as a character) an unreliable witness, with “The fiction we use to make fact fit,” is better addressed by Fowler with, “Language does this to our memories – simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”

“In everyone’s life there are people who stay and people who go and people who are taken away against their will.”

And for anyone who’s ever sat in that dreadful mute hospital hiatus-
“I remember an aquarium in the waiting room. I remember fish whose beating hearts were visible inside their bodies, whose scales were the colour of glass. I remember a snail that dragged itself along the sides, the mouth in its foot expanding and contracting endlessly as it moved. The doctor came out and my mother stood to meet him. “I’m afraid we’ve lost him this time,” he said, as if there would be a next time.”
Deep breath.

Anyone who’s read my ‘reviews’ knows how much I love reading the acknowledgements and it’s not surprising that Karen Joy Fowler opens hers with, “Many, many thanks are due here.”

Right back at you Fowler, for giving us this book, which I’ll be okay about returning to the library as I know they have a waiting list for it and it’ll be in someone else’s hands soon so there’ll be one more person who will “…see so much of America today.”

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Time Out Track: The Love of a Bad Man

Usually my Time Out Track is a clip that goes for at least a few minutes, but today seems to be a general showcase of less is more.

Article by: Madeleine Dore
image from Arts Hub website

The Chart Collective project, 'I Was Here', is now live, so for this (sunny and hot) week we can read more than 50 anonymous true stories of 300 characters or less on posters around Melbourne's CBD. If you're not a "flasher", or don't yet know that you are, have a look at the examples on Arts Hub here

Short. Melbourne. Impact.

And while catching up on some news from Scribe Publications, I read that they have "just signed the exceptionally talented Laura Elizabeth Woollen in a two-book deal for her short-story collection, 'The Love of a Bad Man', and her novel-in-progress, 'Beautiful Revolutionary'."

The 1:33 trailer for her short story collection is a gorgeous production - much more teaser than trailer - and definitely makes me want to read more.

Creative and clever Melbourne, you're struttin' your short stuff today, and it looks goooood.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Feeling old thanks frankie

Reading a recent issue of 'frankie' was my latest experience of "I'm definitely getting older". Like being excited that there's another series of 'Rake' in the making and often sharing Greg Sheridan's opinions.

I browsed this good-looking, good print quality journal that celebrates a very interesting and diverse range of individuals and small businesses, which I know that I should enjoy reading about. But I kept wandering off - looking at the mix of people in the library and the quiet school holiday street outside.
I can appreciate that there is good writing in the articles - there's hooks, narrative arcs and unique voices - but terms like "upcycling textiles" and "up-skilling communities", which sound like such positive activities, actually served as expressions that distanced me.

It's similar to how I felt when I joined a management consultancy firm and was told to "touch base" with a client. I didn't actually get what they were asking me to do, and when I did find out I vowed that it was a term I would never use.

I'm not a complete colloquial social purist. I started dropping 'like' into sentences as a pause or a placeholder after everyone esle did, and when I bought a pair of skinny jeans I realised I should never say I'll never do something. But for me, reading 'frankie' has gone from enjoying a new publication (which it was when I first read it 18 months ago) to something more like sociological research.

I'm pretty sure I'll never use the headline 'Tattoorary' or study at The College of Event Management - that said, the DIY Terrarium course at the CAE did get my attention - and my reaction to these reminded me of the first time I was called lady, when a young mother on a tram told her 5 year-old to give up their seat for me. I was surprised and a little offended before I thought of the 25 minute journey ahead of me and thanked them as I sat down.

I was respectful as I placed the issue of 'frankie' I hadn't finished back on the library shelf. It had reminded me of not being cool when I was younger, but not in a bad way. Now, comfortable in this period that is technically middle-age but feels like too much fun to be called something I always imagined to be dour, I could see that 'frankie' is fun, and funny, and something that I would have loved to have found when I was awkwardly trying to find my look and my place in a community far more diverse than my suburban experience of growing up.

And just to reinforce feeling old, I went back to a frankie that I enjoyed during those awkward years.


Friday, 4 September 2015

Time Out Track: City Calm Down

I heard this song on Triple R last week and jumped out of bed to Shazam it, just in case I missed the attribution, because hearing Jack Bourke's voice for the first time was like stumbling across Interpol. And that's saying something.

This Melbourne group have been working away for 2 years on their new LP and 'Wandering' is the second single they've released. In this clip, directed by Timothy O'Keefe, the band were trying to capture "that awkward anxiety one feels when they believe they're being misunderstood and disrespected." They child actor they've chosen does an amazing job of conveying this in his expressions and movements as he mouths Jack's powerful baritone vocals.

City Calm Down are kicking off a national tour in Melbourne on Sat 3rd October (aka Grand Final Day) at Howler. If I don't make it to the gig I'll definitely be picking up the album, and I'm pretty sure this track is going to get a few runs in my headphones today.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Melbourne Writers Festival - Artist Transport

I'm excited. Yes, it's sunny and mild enough not to need a heavy jacket, very good reasons to be happy, but more importantly it's on. #MWF15 officially kicked off this morning.

Last year I was a front-of-house volunteer, collecting tickets at the door, politely asking people to move up so that we could fill all the seats in a room, checking writers were comfortable in Green Rooms and steering them to the signing table.

Of course one of the (many) perks was then getting to sit in and listen to the conversations, readings and panel discussions.

This year I decided to put my hand up for Artist Transport instead, and I cannot believe the people I'm going to picking up and taking to the airport. It's a little bit amazing, exciting, intimidating and just bizarre to think that I will be the one who welcomes guests from pretty much every continent. Poets, performance artists and politicians...I will be their first contact with #MWF15.

Okay, now I'm making myself nervous. But mostly, I can't wait!

I do feel as though I shouldn't announce the details of my upcoming passengers. I'm not sure why but it doesn't seem right to broadcast, or brag, so for now I'll just say that my first trip is tonight, to an event, so, if you check the program, you might be able to work out who is going to be in Car #1 with me at the wheel.

Deep breath.