Monday 5 September 2016

Out and about

Sunday morning session

I have been out and about at the Melbourne Writers Festival. My highlight was Hannah Kent interviewing Anna Funder on The Art of Fiction. This was a fascinating discussion about where the boundary lies between fact and fiction. There is a space to tell the emotional truth where events are not on the public record, are not available or have been destroyed. An alternative is to take what you know and put it in another context. The decisions a writer makes about how the material is perceived relate to the contract with the reader. Being clear about what is based on information and interviews, what is interpreted and what is imagined goes a long way to honouring the truth. I love that she used one of my favourite phrases – pieces of the puzzle – to discuss how the narrative comes together from a pile of research material.

All around the world
I also enjoyed Publishing Now with Henry Rosenbloom, the founder of Scribe, one of his authors, Cate Kennedy and Louise Ryan from Penguin Random House. It was an insightful conversation about the role and state of large and small publishing houses in Australia. Commercial realities influence all companies, but it was noted that a smaller house is more likely to publish a book that matters - they are often more willing to take a risk on something which doesn’t fit the mainstream. There was a heated discussion about the threat to remove copyright by allowing parallel importation. This is seen as a pebble in the shoe of economic rationalists who see it as a form of protectionism which needs to be eliminated. The reality is that exclusive copyright could be sacrificed on the altar of exchange rate fluctuations. There was frustration that decision-makers and readers don’t seem to understand or care.

Mix your ingredients
A couple of weeks ago I went to a Writers Victoria event called What Judges Want, hosted by Toni Jordan. My take-away was in a short piece consider deleting the first three paragraphs and in a long piece consider deleting the first three chapters. The rationale is that the writer has to write themselves into the piece, whereas the reader can simply drop straight in to where the action starts. I understood it intuitively for the long piece because I have struggled with how much of the back story to include in the early chapters. I was more sceptical of how true it would be for a short story where every word and sentence should already be working hard. As soon as I got home I found my most recent effort and applied a critical eye. I can certainly ditch the first two paragraphs but the third is a bit more of a line ball. It could be done, however I may need to recycle some of the content to support the later developments.

Part of the community
So with the whirlwind of events over, it is time to get back to the desk – to take all that I have absorbed and use it to improve my own writing. I may not be able to distil it to discreet ideas or to apply them directly or any time soon, but I do feel that I am part of a community of people who are all grappling with similar challenges  - getting characters and ideas onto paper and out to an audience. And it is a really very nice feeling of belonging.

Saturday 30 July 2016

Making a sacrifice

How big?

It is hard for me to write in the cracks. I can snatch time to capture and sketch ideas, but when it comes to writing up I need a decent chunk of time. I need time in which to breathe, without the pressure of an appointment or engagement later in the day. Sometimes I need to feel on top of the housework and other times I just shut the door. So the obvious thing is to make more time, but in order to do that something else has to give.

Clear the decks

My small but radical solution is – drum roll – I have changed my work hours. I have dropped from full-time to a nine-day fortnight. So, every second Monday I will be at my desk at home making progress on pieces which matter to me. I have the room for my writing, and now I am creating the time for it. It does feel quite decadent, but it also feels better balanced.
Wood, trees, fire, smoke

The reasoning for this decision has slipped and slid around a bit, and in the end it was probably more of an intuitive leap. My original argument was that it would help manage my uni work. But I am back to one subject because I couldn’t get into the evening class for my other choice. So my only subject this semester is Copyediting and Proofreading. As the bulk of the assessment is tests there is not the same pressure to come up with lots of new material. Of course I need to study, but that is different in my mind to creative writing.

Then I thought perhaps it was a good opportunity to do the Artist’s Way program. I started reading the book and then sped out of the house for some very necessary stationary supplies. I also might have picked up some new knitting yarns, my rationale being that this almost qualified as an artist date! Later that week I shared my plan with another writer and was pulled up very short when her response was “So you’re taking a pay cut to write and you’re telling me that you’re not going to write.” I was shocked, it sounded so blunt. My bluff had been called, lucky for me in very short sharp time.

Get into it!
So, it is back to solid creative writing activities for me. With competition deadlines at the end of July and the end of August I have mapped out timeframes for drafting, workshopping, polishing and submitting. Having only done one competition piece previously I hadn’t realised that actually making the submission takes time – time to write a cover letter, a short bio and check the font/line spacing requirements. The good news is I now have a 40 word bio and a 50 word bio which can simply be cut and pasted in next time. Even with the extra Mondays I need to be sensible about how much I can fit in, allowing enough time for the whole process to unfold. Last week I put in two pieces, which is one more than I managed in the whole of last year, so the only way from here is up!

Saturday 25 June 2016

Where I need to be

Wind blown progress
My focus has shifted. I am no longer looking over the horizon, plotting and planning my next overseas trip. Instead I am settling in, getting comfortable in my everyday routines. At the recent Jean-Christophe Rufin event a woman asked him whether he had another walk planned. He replied that writing the book had been a journey in itself, in essence an opportunity to do the walk all over again. My world seems to be moving in a similar direction. I need to get more serious about exploring my writing. I have been on this path for a while, but I haven’t fully acknowledged it and have continued to make excuses. This last semester I have scraped by on the minimum requirements. Assignments were started with time to spare, but were finished just in time. In my last piece I didn’t leave enough room for a final edit and made a POV mistake that I like to think I could have prevented if I had had clearer head space.

Where's the goal?
Uni assignments do give me some scope to carve out time for writing. But I do feel a lot of pressure to still be present for others and I am not good at refusing invitations to come out and play. I want to find my creative rhythm again. I need to gather up some of my scattered energy and direct it into my writing. I know that when I am writing – well or badly – I feel better about the world. I have a sense of achievement just in turning up at the desk. Seriously, there is really not too much competition for my time at 7am on a Sunday morning, just my own resistance!

Collecting pieces
So I have been looking for external compulsions like having a uni assignment due to prod me along and have discovered the wondrous world of writing competitions. On my pin board I have three lined up in order of due dates. One is on a theme – Pushing Boundaries, the second seeks a response to I once dreamed of being a… and the third is completely open. The word limits are also diverse – 2,000, 500 and 3,000. So I have a draft for the first and ideas for the second and third ones. Although this morning I discovered that whilst I have an idea for the third one I do not have a strong sense about the central character, so that will need a bit more percolation.

The bare bones
The other very helpful element is my new writing group, made up of some of the Melbourne ladies from last year’s Hardcopy program. The first time we met I put in an old piece from the travel memoir. I got some useful feedback, but I’m just not sure where the memoir is going right now. The second time I didn’t submit anything and felt a bit of a fraud. The third time will be next week and I will be offering the Pushing Boundaries draft, a totally new piece. And the following time I plan to have a draft of the 3,000 word piece. I am just a little bit excited to be on the front foot again. It has felt really good to sit at my desk (aka the dining room table) and commit to being here. I am feeling more organised and in charge of what I am planning and doing, gathering up my scattered energies and starting to channel them onto the page. I am where I need to be for the journey that I am on – so let’s see what I can deliver.

Saturday 14 May 2016

Falling into place

Floor length flowers
Hanging curtains at my flat has changed my world. A big statement I know. The curtains are a triumph of beauty over function. The flowery blossoms add warmth, light and love to the rooms. The blinds work fine, but they just aren’t that pretty. More than this, the curtains have provided me with a greater sense of privacy. I can close them against the sights and sounds of the world. Retreating to a quiet corner and keeping company with my books and craft projects.

For a short time the curtains also created chaos. I had to move the sofa from under the window. I shifted one bookcase into the hall and then had to tackle the piles of books which had accumulated nearby. This also meant looking through the stack by my bed. The coffee table has acquired some of the overflow and there has been a minor cull. A small corner is playing host to books which are on their way to being donated.

More piles
The consequence of this series of rearrangements means that I am now writing at the dining room table. The screen is perched on top of some books and my writing boxes are balanced on a chair. I have some new stationary to help me get organised, blue manilla folders, dark turquoise post it notes and green paper for ideas sketching. Do I need to admit that I chose these items to complement the curtains? I certainly didn’t want them to clash.

Cleansing time
I like my new writing space. It feels more defined. This is the place where I write. It will need to double as a dining room when friends and family come over. But the reality is that most of the time it can be my writing place. I can spread my stuff out. Put material that belongs to the same project together in a pile. There is something quite powerful in this – think on the salutary advice and inspiration of Virginia Woolf. It is all part of the enabling mechanisms. I need some constancy for my writing – a sprinkle of good habits, some solid commitment and a good dose of organisation. This all feels like very familiar territory, so what is different now? Perhaps it is simply a well-timed internal prompt to accompany the movement of scenery.

Toe dipping in waves
The ripples of change are even reaching as far as the kitchen. I sorted the tea towel collection. Some have been allocated to bathroom duties, some are on top of the fridge for taking my lunch to work, a couple were donated, and I have reserved my favourites for display and use. It seems that things are finding their homes. This week I even got my knives professionally sharpened. This has been on my list of things to do for so long. It is a simple recipe - wrap knives in several tea towels, deposit at local store and then remember to collect. Thinly sliced tomato anyone?

Sunday 13 March 2016

Getting some perspective

What's underneath?
My first uni assignment for this year is done. Not quite dusted yet as it involves a five minute presentation, which I can still spend time sweating over. I chose to write about first person point of view so I could explore the challenges I will have with my travel memoir. The critical aspects are the reliability of the character and the limitations this puts on how the story can be told. 

An ‘I’ character invites us into their unique way of seeing the world, but readers have to work harder to understand what the character is telling and hiding, or not revealing for the moment. From a writing angle using first person means that I will need to use devices such as memories, flashbacks or diary notes to cover some of the background. Creating scenes with conversations and actions will help flesh out the limited view.

Another angle
First person makes it easier to identify with one character, to wear and walk in their shoes. So I have been trying on the shoes of people in my life and trying to see the world from their perspective. This small exercise has triggered a series of sympathetic incidents in my world. It has allowed me to step back from my view, recognise the uniqueness of where I and others stand, as well as to feel for others in their situations.

First picks

At one of the seminars the lecturer recommended keeping a reading journal – a notebook of whatever degree of fanciness you choose - where you keep track of your responses to what you are reading and can record all the books you want to read in the future. After much mulling and wandering around the stationary stores, I decided that I wanted something a bit special. I am now the happy owner of a turquoise A5 moleskin plain page reading journal. I am going to use this to help me see more in what I am reading, more of the technique behind the story. 

More decorations
A quick check-in, how is my creative resolution going? What have I been up to lately? This weekend I have been making Easter decorations – similar to the Christmas ones with felt shapes glued onto ribbons which are draped on the furnishings. I found cookie cutters of a chick, an egg, a rabbit and a duck to use as templates. I also bought a pattern and some wool to start a small project for the newest member of our family, a baby boy called Jack – a son for my sister. I have been to two sessions at the French Film Festival, with a couple more next weekend. I still have intentions to develop the snippets we write in class, hang the curtains, make Easter buns, finish the winter scarf, paint the kitchen stools, fix a skirt hem. Sigh, so many fun things to do and not enough time!

Sunday 21 February 2016

Carving out time and space

Year of the Monkey
I am never quite ready to make resolutions at the start of the year. I need mulling time; which is often hard to find in the tumult of festive activities. But when Lunar New Year arrives a month or so later I am usually feeling much more sorted. And this has proved to be the case again. My percolated resolution is that every weekend should involve some creative activity. As usual, my definition includes anything and everything – trying my hand at a complicated recipe, planting a herb box, sanding back the paint on a chair or visiting an art gallery. I don’t want to set myself up to fail. So using the last few weeks as a test, have I passed? There has been lots of knitting for a newly arrived baby, batches of lime curd and plum syrup, pastry trials, exhibition outings and plenty of photography. Not a bad start! Can I keep going? Do I want to? Absolutely, it is a wonderful excuse to put on my maker’s hat and have some fun. I am keen to make a dotty blouse for work, hang the curtains, find some healthy lunch recipes and knit a wintry scarf.

Recommended reading

My writing will get a bit of a kick along too now that uni has started back. This semester is fiction, which I have never really written before, but which I rather think I am going to enjoy. There is so much freedom to let go and just write what comes, it is one big experiment. The set novel text is The Eye of the Sheep by Sophie Laguna, which is fabulous. The story is told through the eyes of Jimmy, a strange kid in a messy family situation. His voice is strong, clear and unique. The ebbs and flows of tension had me climbing into bed early each night, keen to keep turning the pages. Every week we also read one piece from The Best Australian Short Stories 2015.

Writing every day

As well as reading, each class involves writing a few short paragraphs, sharing with others and getting their feedback. At the end of the semester I will have more than a dozen snippets. And if I do the same exercise myself at home each week then I will double my chances of finding an idea, a voice, a character, a theme that I can develop into a more substantive piece. My first in class piece was about grief and the second about an accident. My extra practices have yielded scenes about being trapped and waiting.
Homemade mini quiches

Being creative gives me an excuse to slow down and become absorbed, losing track of my surroundings, of time, of myself. I am an introvert; I need quiet time to recover from my interactions with the world. My creative practice helps me function in my daily life. When I don’t have a project underway life seems so much harder and not half as much fun. It is not so much a treat, as a necessity.

Saturday 16 January 2016

Practice always

Summer fun
I haven’t been turning up at my desk often enough lately – not the work desk, that has its own rhythms and strictures. I mean the home desk, my creative world. I have lost the habit. What can I blame it on - change of job, the festive season, summer days – all of the above or none of the above? No doubt the answer lies somewhere in between, and really it doesn’t matter. The point is to break out, strike out in the direction I want to go. There are reasons, and there will always be reasons and musing on them doesn’t change the situation.

A quiet mind
But other shifts that I have been trying to make have flowered. Several months ago I signed up to a mind/body studio. I pay a weekly fee and can go to as many classes as I like. After a rocky start I am averaging two classes a week – one pilates and one yoga. I’d like to get it up to three but sometimes there just isn’t enough time or inclination. The change which is less easy to articulate is that I am not fighting with myself half so much to get there. It is like having set the benchmark, and having had a bit of practice at meeting it, and missing it, I am settling into it.

A new park
The job change has also meant a route change for my walk to work. I am now walking all the way – not walking to the Vic market and jumping on the free tram for the rest of the journey. My new route means I don’t have to traverse the city at all. I skirt round the edges of a park, walk through the university grounds, along fashionable streets to another park and then arrive at my building. A gentle stroll of 4km, done five mornings a week is good for me and easy unintentional exercise.

Growing time

All this body work is good for my mental health. The walking helps warm up my mind in the morning. I can’t be doing anything else, just looking at the world around me and moving leaves me with space to think. In the evenings the yoga/pilates helps clear my head. I have to focus on what the instructor is saying and then try and arrange my limbs and core into the required position – always remembering to breathe.

Light in the dark

The challenge still remains how to get all this lovely clarity and creativity to my desk. I know that when I do sit down something has to happen, because that’s what happens at work. But it doesn’t happen in isolation. At work there are a lot of external drivers – expectations, plans, requests. At my home desk this is not the case, in my own room I have to set these parameters myself. I need a plan. A plan with sufficient detail that I feel I am not starting with a blank page - a plan that will lead me to the next milestone, a sense of what the milestones are and a sketch of where the milestones will lead. Interestingly this is usually how my blog posts come about. I have an idea, I make an outline of what I want to cover and a few days later I come back and do a longer write up. The drafting doesn’t take much time or thinking because the basic concepts and structure are already there. So I guess I already have my answer – and some practice at using it!