Friday, 13 May 2016

Three more days of this

Three more days of this. 159 pages to go and I can't renew it because there's reservations and I can't stand library fines so I'm sorry, I don't think I can go to the movies tonight and I might not make yoga in the morning which is funny because I can't even say that I'm loving it. I'm on p. 562 and I don't want to return it unfinished but there have been plenty of times, particularly in the last 150 pages or so, when I've thought Okay, okay I know this, I've either worked it out or you've already told me and yet I'm compelled to read it. Not because it's a Classic that I Should read, not because of the In Conversation with Hanya Yanagihara and Jason Steger in a couple of weeks or because my best friend nodded her head very slowly and pointed her right index finger at her copy and then at me when I said that I was reading A Little Life. I can't wait to talk to you about it she said and I want to but I feel like the further into it I get the more my comments might head along the lines of it could have been half as long which is an awful thing to think and reminds me of how I can almost try to ruin things for other people when I feel really strongly - like when I interrupted Empire of the Sun so much a friend hit pause after 27 minutes and we made tea and talked on the verandah until I was tired and wanted to go to bed; like when I shut down a friend who has introduced me to so much great music but somehow is a fierce Ryan Adams fan - so now while I'm reading I'm also trying to reflect on the positives of the book. Because it is an incredible feat. Sometimes, when we're given another ream of minutiae about an art installation/movie script and setting/architectural design/litigation proceeding I think wow can you imagine the walls of post-its she must have just to keep track of who works where for what client, of the streets and states they've lived and holidayed in and whose Anglo/Asian names should be nicknames or initials and apart from the protagonist, whose name is almost too convenient, even though that itself is explained and validated, what was the process for selecting the names for all of these characters? Which isn't really something that I would be thinking about in the middle of reading a book - when I'm on my bike or the tram or reading the paper maybe, but not while I'm actually open book in hands.
Three more days of this and I might be the 33,213rd person to rate the book on Goodreads but I'm not sure what my star count will end up at. According to My Books I've written 78 reviews and rated 154 books with an average of 3.68 stars and it's interesting to see that apparently in the 133 days of 2016 I haven't read a single book which isn't true because I can tell you that I devoured Everywhere I Look (Helen Garner) and A Loving, Faithful Animal (Josephine Rowe) and they were only published recently so My Books just shows that I haven't bothered to track any of the reading that I've done this year but it will soon. I'll make my small contribution to the (now it's already 33,214 ratings that have A Little Life at 4.26 stars) in just three more days.

* * * * *
Written in response to the 'Story Is a State of Mind School' Story Dare: 8th May

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Sitting In - Myf Warhurst in conversation with Carrie Brownstein

Sometimes I take my job as an usher for The Wheeler Centre for granted. Usually I'll make sure I've researched the feature guest, if it's someone I'm not already familiar with, but sometimes, like last night, I'll just read the event details and bio note beforehand. Yesterday I could have just logged in to Spotify or youtube and loaded some music or a clip to play in the background while I was working - I think my main project was writing some blog posts for a wedding dress designer - but I didn't. I checked the details of the event and in hindsight think I might have stopped when I read the opening line in the description:
"Rising to riot grrrl fame with pioneering 90s punk trio Sleater-Kinney..."
I was discovering new music yesterday. I was listening to The Cave Singers and didn't want to go anywhere near punk when I was in "twangy, roots folk." And thinking about the 90s makes me feel old, so while Myf tweeted, "Melbourne, who left the oven on?" I caught the train to Flinders St in my comfy Ecco lace up shoes and turned up to Melbourne Town Hall ready to marshall the many people who did know a lot about Carrie Brownstein.

My role was to prepare the queue, which means I walked up and down Swanston Street calling out to people, "please have your tickets ready to be scanned at the top of the stairs." I don't know how many times I said, "If you have phone tickets make sure it's big and bright and landscape, the barcode that is," or awkward variations of that, and you know what? I got smiles. I got laughs and as a really mixed crowd of people filed by I even got some thank yous.

I started getting very curious about this Carrie chick. I mean who/what is the common denominator in this mix? There were twenty-somethings helloing each other with hugs and little jumps of happy joy, but there were women, older birds like me, and a healthy number of blokes too.

Snaking around the front portico was loads of red lipstick, polka dots and Peter Pan collars along with plenty of androgynous fashion and arty ink. It was a bit like some sort of mashup of Melbourne Fashion Festival and Golden Plains, that would somehow have something for everyone.

When a tourist approached me to ask what we were putting on I gave a quick run down that included a spruik for the Wheeler Centre, but really I couldn't wait to get everyone inside and get to the back of the hall to have a listen myself. I was still thinking, "a punk rocker and giggling ladies - how does that work?" I mean Myf, well Myf's got one of the best laughs on radio and I nearly giggled like a fan when she came running up the stairs in heels I wouldn't trust myself in, so I could see how she'd draw a wide range of people, but I needed to find out more about this other woman on the stage.

Sometimes it's great to go to an event knowing nothing about the person or their book or their music and just listen, without preconceptions or specific things you want to be covered.

I was so lucky to be able to do that last night. I stood at the back of the full hall and listened to Carrie Brownstein talk and was quickly spellbound myself. She's composed, eloquent, gutsy and introverted. I don't know the details of her story, of the challenges she faced growing up and has apparently talked about in her recently published memoir, but what I did hear last night made me want to look into her a lot more.

So I know that Carrie Brownstein is a musician, writer and actor. You can see her in the award winning shows, 'Portlandia' and 'Transparent' and in the Golden Globe nominated film, 'Carol'. But because I was there last night I also know that she's someone who loves nature, who loves hiking and time to think as much as she loves teaming up with women who "have teeth".
"I like people that know they're going to be underestimated - and then claw their way right through you."
She started performing to put off going to bed or leaving a friend's house and belted out 'Life in the Fast Lane' before she had any idea what she was singing about. Now, at an age that is closer to mine than I'd realised, she still loves getting on stage and chasing emotions to their extreme, but also looks forward to the home times when Sunday mornings are spent reading The New York Times.

After last night's event I've got new music to listen to, new shows to watch and a new book to read. If, like me, you weren't already familiar with Carrie Brownstein then I reckon 'Modern Girl' (Live) is a pretty fine place to start. And if you're one of those with a ticket for this weeks' soldout Sleater-Kinney shows, then you're definitely up for some fun.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

What I Loved: 'Artful' by Ali Smith

Monday night
It's been so long since I've sat up late, unable, or unwilling, to put down a book, but tonight I'm firmly in 'Artful' by Ali Smith.
I've got my reading lamp clipped to the back centimetre of pages - it's the one I bought in Readings, Malvern, after the manager and I inspected and compared the two brands they had available. We were two amateurs reading attributes on the back of boxes - they could have been 14 letter ingredients for drugs for all we knew - and I don't know why the decision took so long when they were both the same price ($19.95) but it was quiet in the shop and eventually I chose one brand over the other. And I chose pink - pink! and now, in the thoughts, quotes and fantasy of Ali Smith not only am I a Reader again, but while my lover, who wakes for work at 5.15am, snores lightly beside me - a sound I find comforting because I know how much he needs rest to get through the hours he spends on his feet - I'm slipping in and out of our bed, my LED light flicking shapes across the shoes and shorts that he's left on the floor. I'm a thief on her first mission, a nervous accomplice. I dropped a pencil on my desk and it rolled into a handbag, colliding with something hard - who knew a pencil could clash so loudly? My frustration at dropping a sharpened pencil in the dark, at having to take a break from 'Artful' because it seems that not only am I alert and keen for Smith's words, it seems that also for the first time in a long time I feel the urgent need to write. But my words these days are never my stories. They're ways to share others' writing, to promote the skills of others and yet there, there are the side page notes, those jots that make little sense until you pick through many filled notebooks and somehow find lines that can be related to each other and form the basis of a paragraph or an idea to explore. So there's some hope for me, Writer.
But for now it's 10.13pm on a Monday. It's time to put away this notebook and the blunt, second choice pencil and go to sleep. I've finished 'On time' and in the morning, if I'm awake early enough and have the time, I might bring a cup of coffee to bed and read the next section, 'On form,' before the day of writing for others begins.

Tuesday morning
After handwriting that note I kept reading. I finished 'On form' at 10.47pm and I liked turning off my pink light at that point because my alarm goes off at 6.27am and somehow after reading 92 pages in one sitting the idea of exactly 7.5 hours sleep seemed sound. Of course that required starting my slumber at that very minute.
I should have known that because I'd started reading something that is "part fiction, part essay" and "a revelation of what writing can do," there was no chance of falling asleep quickly. Or, as I felt at 2.07am, if at all.
At which point I tried listening to a podcast to put me to sleep, but Kevin Barry talking with Debra Treisman and reading 'The Saucer of Larks' by Brian Friel in noise cancellation headphones was a poor choice. Both the conversation and the story are entertaining - Irish accents and insight, the Atlantic coast of Ireland - and saw me through until 2.58am.
At some point I fell asleep, then woke with our first alarm at 5.15am and went back to sleep. I woke again at 7.33am (I had reset my own alarm) and made coffee. I kept the blinds closed, pretending I wasn't skiving when I should be working, and went back to bed with Ali Smith. I read the next section, 'On edge,' and have forced myself to put it down and get to my desk. But only so far as to think and write about the work by this author who is, as said by Alain de Botton
"a genius, genuinely modern in the heroic, glorious sense."
The final section is 'On offer and on reflection.' I can't wait to go to bed tonight.

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.