Yesterday, I had this small chink of a realisation. The life of sitting in my garret, feeling like I’m not doing anything, getting anywhere or achieving anything is THE WRITER’s LIFE.
The writer’s life is lonely, unforgiving, tedious, boring, sporadic, moody, uncertain, disconnected, unfocussed and I could go on. All of these become so much stronger when I think it shouldn’t be this way. The writer’s life is also reflective, contemplative, connecting, solitary, breathtaking, simple, beautiful, mindful, deep and free. And these become amplified when I accept the reality, in full.
My battle to not accept what I perceive as the down-sides has been relentless. I have been fighting very hard and it too often ends in tears. I have always thought describing the feelings writers suffer as ‘self-loathing’ was a little melodramatic, but I now understand it perfectly and would say this pretty well sums it up.
Instead, yesterday I realised what I have been battling and how hard I have fought with the reality that is writing and I decided (and fully expect to have to keep deciding), that I don’t want this fight with myself any longer. I want to get on with the work, not complain about the reality of it.
I chose to be compassionate with myself, and realised that my problem is that all of the invisible work of writing requires great patience and resilience and is completely different yet enveloped in the joy of an outcome. Much of it isn’t actually writing, but simply living – being, observing, absorbing and becoming. It requires sitting in the uncertainty, even doubt sometimes, and just accepting this is all there is and yet this is what it takes. The growing, developing, changing, opening, allowing and surrendering require trust and faith that the outcome will come. And rather than resistance, what will help is constant self-encouragement.
So today, just now, I re-read some post-it notes I’d shoved in Anne Lamott’s, Bird by Bird including her noting of Geneen Roth’s sage observation,
“Awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage.” p. 31
Lamott says it herself,
“The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings.” p. 178
I read Bird by Bird back in January and wrote this post-it only two months ago, and yet it has taken this amount of time for my sub-conscious to bring it to the attention of my consciousness. How could writing be any different. This is the time it takes.
How then can I not treat myself with great compassion in this time when it feels like nothing is going on, but when actually the writer in me is incubating and needs my warmth, love and appreciation.
Maybe this small realisation, this chink, is how the light gets in.
… or why choosing a diary is the most important decision I make each year.
People don’t usually get gushy about their diary, however mine has always been very important to me, and selecting my partner in crime each year is a case for careful consideration. I hold my potential suitor in my hands, imagining my year panning out and vacillate about what colour to get. Last year I found out for the first time what choosing the wrong one feels like, and it strengthened my resolve to not let that happen again!
The other diary
I went out on a limb in 2017, leaving aside my usual Moleskine to buy a small, but chunky peppermint-green leather-bound diary from Kikki-K, because I thought it looked cute. My new crush. Well, the branch broke. Not only did the weeks not ‘run’ the way my usual Moleskins had (resulting in me messing up ticket bookings for Saul at the Adelaide Festival), but I also couldn’t see to write in it without my glasses. This partner was cute but it sent me confusing messages.
The weekly quotes would’ve been great, but I didn’t even realise they were there until half-way through the year because they were so tiny I couldn’t read them. This little book completely discombobulated me! I could even go so far as to say, it stuffed up 2017 good and proper (well, it’s a good excuse). What amazed me was that I stuck with it, being the loyal diarist I am, and limped on with a substandard item for the whole year, not even considering separation, divorce or even an affair with a more inspiring squeeze.
So when a discussion on a Facebook group began in earnest amongst business-minded misfits centring around people’s choice of non-digital planning tools, I pricked up my eyes. One little gem that was mentioned and seconded by many on the thread was a Passion Planner. Users sounded delighted with their significant other. I googled, watched YouTubes, downloaded the templates, tested them out, and purchased one that day!
Organising time is one of those things that is crucial for someone like me with days of unstructured time stretching before me like a magic carpet. It is easy to get carried off to some crevice of the internet and get stuck down there for hours, so any tool that assists one to keep on track is really important. A central place to keep all of one’s intentions, personal and business, is key. Like a friend who constantly asks you about your latest pet project, I am finding that a Passion Planner is really keeping me honest. I haven’t been able to stop raving about this little bible since I received it in the new year, and two friends have already gone ahead and bought one after they’d seen mine.
When I’ve told people about my new flame, they’ve told me it seems a little like a bullet journal – the first time I’d heard of one of those was at a Melbourne Writers Week Moleskin Coffee and Create session in 2017. Madeleine Dore of Extraordinary Routines hosted Sam van Zweden and Karen Andrews to discuss their creative routines. Even after that conversation I was none the wiser about a bullet journal, and besides, I think I’ve found my perfect match, so I’m not too sure I’d even want to contemplate another. I’m sure though that their conversation left me ripe for a change of heart from my little peppermint brick to my light blue dreamweaver!
How do you use a Passion Planner?
Well, the premise is: writing down one’s goals is the first step to achieving them. You begin by setting out your Passion Roadmap – your wish-list for today, 3 months, one year, 3 years and lifetime goals. Then you create from this a passion plan and then insert these steps into your monthly and weekly openings.
Each month, there is an opening for the month-long planner. There are boxes allocated to define the month’s focus, the people you want to see, the places to go and the most important thing for me so far – the ‘Not to do list’. Also there are personal and work project spaces in addition to the month-long planner. Finally there is a space for a mind-map of this month’s game-changer. I’m using this space to use some cute little ship stickers I bought in France. They symbolise 2018 – full steam ahead!
Passion Planner Monthly Opening
Heading into the weekly openings, once again you can choose a focus, fill in Personal and Work ‘to do’ lists, let your creative drawing run wild in the Space of Infinite Possibility and progressively list the good things that happen. An extra bonus is the inspirational quote for the week plus a little activity to do based on the quote. Mine last week was Maya Angelou’s, just when I needed to hear it!!
“When someone shows you who they are believe them the first time”.
If this isn’t amazing enough, each day’s column is headed by a box for the day’s focus, and then proceeds in half hour increments from 6am – 10.30pm. And this goes every day. For freelancers like myself, this is vital. A diary that only considers you work on weekdays is like a boyfriend who gets grumpy when you catch up with your girlfriends – problematic and it cramps your style! And while on the topic of girlfriends, I have noticed a new and helpful capacity for tracking my monthly catch-ups and social outings. I have been grateful for the way this diary is showing me what wonderful women I know and what a rich social life I have – all through the process of listing good things and taking stock of each week. A Passion Planner is much nicer company than a grumpy boyfriend.
Passion Planner Weekly Opening
There is lots of space to give your Passion Planner your own special creative touch. A friend looked on Etsy for stickers she could use, but instead of buying the stickers, she copied the little icons, and it looks just the same, giving her pages an arty/graphic designer kind of feel. You can get lots of wonderful ideas on YouTube from expert and passionate planners who go to town with Japanese washi tape, fluoro markers, stamps, stickers etc. There are so many ideas for tracking new habits, lists, holiday planning etc. And one of the things that tells me I’ve got my mojo back, is that I’ve re-discovered my penchant for decorating my planner with cute or pertinent cut-outs from magazines – something I began doing in the 1990s! So here are some of my pages to give you an idea.
Once you’ve had your month, there is an opening devoted to your Monthly Reflection. You look back and note the most memorable aspects, biggest lessons, how you are different this month to last and what you’re grateful for. You take stock of your priorities, and note the things you want to improve and the concrete steps you’ll take to get there during the coming month.
Passion Planner Monthly Reflection
Then once you get past the diary itself, you’re into 20 blank pages followed by 23 pages of graph paper. There are no maps, no holiday calendars, no world holidays, no international dialling lists, no international paper sizes, no conversion tables, no weights and measures table, no Staff Leave charts (who has staff???), within cooee of this little gem of a book. Nothing exists in this diary/journal that you don’t either need, or design yourself.
I have been using blank pages to write lists – 2018 Books I’ve read, 2018 Books I want to read, Things to Remember about 2017 etc. The whole reason for writing this post though, was to celebrate one of my pages – Year of Firsts. There have only been six weeks so far, but I have delivered a Webinar, began aqua-aerobics and presented at an outside broadcast on radio for 3MBS Bach Marathon at the Melbourne Recital Centre. What a great way to celebrate my passionate firsts.
Another useful tip the planner suggests is to share your passions. Find that in-real-life friend who will keep you honest about your goals and tasks for the week. This has been a great source of inspiration, motivation and solidarity. We talk by phone once a week for much longer than our allocated 20 minutes, but that’s the nature of good, supportive friendships, isn’t it!
Just to keep it real, there is one drawback for me. Just as your steady, sweetie pie or darling might have a few things you’d like to improve, the Passion Planner is no exception. Although, unlike the real version, this little dreamboat has only one. I’d love it to have the beautiful cream-coloured pages of my ex, the Moleskin. But I’m willing to compromise, as is important in any ongoing relationship.
What version of diary is your beloved for 2018?
PS: I haven’t been given anything by Passion Planner for spruiking how great they are … YET! If anyone wants to purchase one, if you mention you heard about it from me, I might get a free one next year. Just saying.
For years and years, I have kept a box of cards and letters that I have received from my friend Helen. The cards began before the letters: birthdays, Christmas and just ‘cos exchanges, that morphed into longer letters when Helen got her first job in the country, 400kms from Adelaide.
They tell of a time where we were both testing our ideas, becoming adults with opinions, sharing jokes and quotes, extending and showing off our vocabularies, and of course revealing the inevitable love stories. Here I’d found a friend that ‘got me’ and while I missed her not being in Adelaide, our friendship via correspondence was always a source of great joy and continues, albeit less frequently, until today.
One of the cards we exchanged (I can’t remember whether I gave it to her, or she to me or whether I’m making it up completely) was by Judy Horacek, Woman with Altitude. Judy’s work was always appealing – it charted our conversations, the personal and the political. It acknowledged the inequalities women faced, with sometimes a not-so-gentle, cheeky, raised middle finger to patriarchy.
In the intervening years Judy has also been skilfully creating art for children’s books and worked with Mem Fox (coincidentally Helen’s university lecturer, and mother of Chloë, whom I sat next to in Year 9) on her books Where is the Green Sheep, This and That and Ducks Away.
This history all came together one chilly day in 2017 when I decided to visit Judy Horacek’s exhibit in the Melbourne Rare Book Week.
One of the welcome additions to the week-long rare-book fest is the celebration of art in books. Mini exhibitions have been hosted by the Melbourne Athenaeum Library (worth a visit if you’ve never been there).
So it was a serendipitous moment when I pushed through the wooden framed, glass doors of the old reading room, and walked up to a spritely woman who greeted me enthusiastically,
“Hello, I’m Judy”
So we had a writerly exchange and she did as all authorpreneurial authors should – encouraged me to buy her book, Random Life. How could I resist with all that history, an autograph and a very poignant foreword by John Clarke? Actually I couldn’t and I bought a couple.
Where is the Green Sheep?
Where is the Green Sheep? toy
The exhibit was small, consisting of a few limited edition prints and two displays in glass cabinets, of books and ephemera, but I was on top of the world, so size didn’t matter.
Going back in time, this classic, multi-BAFTA award-winning film, based on a true story, reminds us that sending parcels half way around the globe was not invented by the age of online-shopping. It is about loving old books and the people who sell and collect them.
Being unable to find rare and collectible books in New York, a sassy Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft), writes letters all the way to Marks & Co bookshop in London where Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins) and his fellow staff work. Their correspondence ranges widely about books but also progresses to gifts for the manager and his colleagues. Not only are the great and rare gems of literature noted and discussed, but the story takes one through the realities of post-WW2 London where food such as eggs were rarer than old books. Judy Dench makes brief appearances as Frank’s wife, Nora. In a poignant twist, despite communicating from 1949 – 1976, the book lovers never met, Helene only visiting the closed shop in 1971. And what is a classic film without classical music? Rach 2 and Handel’s Messiah provide a fitting background. This is the total package.
This is a fitting review to introduce Melbourne’s Rare Book Week. I went along to several sessions in 2016, and can highly recommend it. The week culminates in the ANZAAB Melbourne Rare Book Fair, now in its sixth year. If you enjoy walking amongst limited edition prints, leather bound books and antiquities of the paper variety, you’ll be in book-nerd heaven here. And its ALL FREE!
Melbourne Rare Book Week 30th June – 9th July PROGRAM
45th ANZAAB Australian Antiquarian Book Fair (Melbourne Rare Book Fair) – 7th – 9th July at University of Melbourne’s Wilson Hall.
Yesterday I took a very fast train between Basel and Den Haag. I would like to share with you what came to me on that journey …
I am taking a very fast train from Basel to Den Haag to pursue my cello dreams. I closed my eyes listening to Kate Bush singing Big Stripey Lie from her Red Shoes album. Some words jumped out at me,
”your name is being called by sacred things that are not addressed or listened to, sometimes they blow trumpets”
and my thoughts wandered to the voices in our lives – the useful ones and the disturbing ones. Then to people who have difficulty with the voices that disturb their thoughts and that have a grip they can’t seem to break. I think of the voice in my life that affirms me. I thought about Michael’s work. (I had the privilege, even pleasure, of sharing a 5 day intensive with Michael White in November, 2007).
I contemplated my life and the other voices that have affirmed me and was taken back to the discussion we had on Imaginary Friends. The topic in the course facscinated me. I remember Michael asking who had Imaginary Friends and many of us put up our hands. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was along the lines of Imaginary Friends have been marginalised in our society. Their usefulness is suspect, their role possibly destabilising and existance certainly questionable.
I thought of my Imaginary Friends, Peter, Paul and yes, Porgets who I used to greet at the front door and invite inside to play with me when I was a child. I wondered what role they were playing? I like to think they were urging me to keep my light alive, to trust myself, to be confident in myself, to believe that I am worth it.
I have read the contributions of all of you who have generously shared your sadness, musings, wistful yearnings and at times anger about the sad news of Michael’s death. I haven’t had anything to say until now. But I must share this, because his voice rekindled my flagging spirit and encouraged me to never accept when the still, small voice of hope, joy and love is not addressed or listened to.
As I write this, the tears are streaming with the words and these are finally tears for Michael – the first after a month. This seems like slow-acting grief. But the ache that the loss of such a committed human being, carer and activist, is deep. As I depart Bonn, I know that I will be bonny again and I know that he would be touched that it was a song with poignant words that brought his memory and meaning to me in my life, back to life. I re-listened to Kate’s song so I could write down the words, and more jumped out at me
“all young, gentle dreams drowning in life’s grief, can you hang on to me?”
I honour my young gentle dreams and I hang on to them tightly. As the grip gets stronger, the confidence to follow them gets stronger too. These words, by Kate Bush, great wordsmith, remind me of the wistfulness and curiosity that were rekindled in me during the course, and that Michael had this amazing way of looking at things, with a gentle curiosity, almost amusement.
Quotations provide such a great inspiration to me, and two of my favourite come to mind:
“Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light”. Albert Schweitzer
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born”. Anaïs Nin
I believe that Michael was saying, and is still saying, let us all nuture gentle dreams and sacred things in our own lives and in the lives of others.
With deepest thanks Michael, for your example, your encouragement, and your patience.
Greetings to you all from Den Haag, let us keep Michael’s voice alive in our activities and relationships – work and personal.
The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, is an international best-seller that contains “a course in discovering and recovering your creative self.”
I have been working with Julia Cameron’s wonderful books for five years now, and continue to write morning pages as she recommends, each morning. The practice of writing three long-hand pages every morning, first thing, is a great gift. I’m lucky, as I have rarely found that I don’t want to do them, more that just sometimes it is hard to make time (they have been known to get done at 10pm at night on occasion). It is revealing, healing, enlightening, moderating, assuring and it has brought to light so many ideas, directions, pieces of advice and comfort that I couldn’t even begin to count them. I love sharing how successful they’ve been for me, and have decided to start hosting/facilitating sessions for others to find out how useful The Artist’s Way is.
There is a beautiful little shop in the next suburb that I fell in love with the first time I walked past it. (It has always been a dream of mine to own a shop with a dwelling behind/above it and I’m always looking out for them). When I was thinking about running these workshops, I thought it would be a perfect venue. It is intimate, yet spacious, it is a print-maker’s studio and it has the most awesome north/eastern facing windows. So I plucked up the courage to contact the print-maker who has encouraged me with my ideas. The result is The Artist’s Way in May.
This 6 week workshop series offers you the space to work through weekly activities contained in The Artist’s Way in a supportive small group setting. It covers the first half of the book as a form of discovery. This course will help you to listen to your inner voice and discover your talents whether your medium be writing, painting or singing (or something else you are yet to discover). The emphasis of the course is to feel safe while exploring your path to creativity.
Each workshop will last for around 2 1/2 hours with tea/coffee and morning tea provided (please advise any dietary requests by email).
Let the north/east facing windows and the arty interior of the gorgeous Merri Creek Studio light your creative fire in Artist’s Way in May.
In the chapters of the book of my life, there are a number of leit motifs – common little elements that appear again and again. Some are musical, some are experiential and others are books. Sometimes all it takes is for one unsuspecting radio program to remind me of one.
It happened again on the 22nd December while listening to the Radio National Summer School program. Zoe Norton Lodge and Mark Sutton went in search of the definition of The Novel, then in pursuit of the earliest example.
The classics were noted, experts consulted, much conjecture ensued and the centuries slowly wound back before the conversation turned to the obscure (to some), The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu.
I have never read the tome, but it has been in my consciousness since 1992, when it began to sit on the shelf of a long-term relationship, beckoning to be read along with Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Emily Bronte’s, Wuthering Heights. The Bronte I got to, but the others not so much.
I continued to fail to understand the significance of the The Tale of Genji but it made its presence felt again when I moved to Sydney in 2006. I couldn’t help but notice, and was fascinated by, a fellow Stanmore station commuter’s familiar brick-like choice each morning. It was the most unlikely work commute book I could imagine – it is around 1,100 pages long. I was always tempted to strike up a conversation about it for this fact alone.
When I visited Japan in 2012 for a Suzuki music conference in Matsumoto and had the opportunity to add on another few days in Kyoto, I was looking for things to see. The little river-side town of Uji caught my attention, not only as the centre of the Japanese green tea universe and its World Heritage-listed shrines and temples, but also because it was the scene of several of the chapters, the last ten to be precise, of The Tale of Genji. There it was again, that book!
According to the travel guides, Uji is also home to a museum dedicated to the story, two monuments on the edge of the river and a discovery trail (I’m ever so fond of a treasure hunt). So, still having never read the book, I set out to educate myself about this significant story and possibly sample the green tea.
I’d made quite a late start, having dropped in to some other shrines and temples on the way to Uji that morning. I’d caught the train, and I knew I was in the right place given the sign greeting me near the station. Now I just needed to find the start of the trail.
However, I needed an ice-cream refresh first. When in Uji, do as they do and eat their green tea icecream. After giving myself brain freeze, I found the trail and set off across the Kisen-bashi Bridge to To-no-shima Island, then continued to the other side of the river via the Asagiri-bashi Bridge, following the little brass plates in the pavement.
Just on the other side of the river, there is a monument to the chapters of the book that are set in Uji. Here the lovers, Ukifune (meaning floating boat – or maybe floats my boat) and Prince Niou-no-Miya, are shown in a boat on the Uji-gawa River. Hikaru Genji has long-since died, but his son Kaoru and the Prince vie for Ukifune’s affections and she eventually jumps into the river to escape. This is clearly 11th century high romantic drama of epic proportions.
Walking along small shady pathways past more shrines and temples, away from the main food and commerce area of the town, in time you arrive at the The Tale of Genji Museum. It provides a multi-media experience of the story and the “glamourous world of the Heian imperial dynasty”. It also has a great Japanese cafeteria and gift shop all housed in a modern building, set in well manicured Zen-like gardens. Throughout the complex, every opportunity is made to reference the story, from the lunch trays to the lamps. The quality of the museum equals the apparent reputation of the book which Royall Tyler (interviewed on the program and one of the many translators of the book) described as a being a ‘flagship’ or ’emblem’ in Japanese literature.
Arcing back around into the town, you re-cross the river again via the Uji-bashi Bridge and a monument to the author, Murasaki Shikibu. Until I went to Japan, despite bumping into it a number of times, I never realised that ‘the first novel’ was written by a woman.
Murasaki was a born into a previously aristocratic family, and descended from a family line of notable poets. She wrote a diary, a volume of poetry and The Tale of Genji while a noblewoman in Kyoto.
Uji has a beautiful name and during sakura (cherry blossom) season, its vistas certainly match it. From the overgrown, bonsai-shaped trees to the narrow streets lined with gift-shops, tea houses and restaurants, there is plenty to see here, and it could easily fill two days or a lazy three days in your Japanese itinerary. I felt a little rushed and it was hot in the afternoon, so I’d recommend wandering the trail early and taking in the shrines and temples in the afternoon. Whilst the area is quite traditional looking, it was still hard to imagine what this place may have been to the courtly writer or her protagonist.
In the late afternoon, I availed myself of a sweet ginger drink – a kind of ‘still’ ginger beer which was beautifully refreshing. I had a brief shop in a gift-shop where I bought the most exquisite threaded earrings (that’s a blast from the past – I wonder if that craze swept 80s Japan too) and in the evening, went back to a little restaurant in the middle of the ‘suburb’, surrounded by houses. I was early for dinner and I sat at the bar watching the chef assemble my little tray of delights. The food (as most is in Japan) was perfectly presented and of elegant sufficiency.
It is interesting to note that my latest little bump into the The Tale of Genji just confirmed what Royall Tyler said of it – “The Tale of Genji is more discussed, than read”. While I was listening to the radio conversation unfolding, I thought to myself, I wonder when it will next make its way into my life!
Uji is 20-30 minutes (depending on which train you take) from Kyoto on the JR Nara line. Cherry blossom season is around the first week of April in Kyoto – but check the internet for the forecast for each year.
I know it is probably sacrilegious, but I almost like listening to writers talk about their books more than reading them. Am I just strange, or is there some powerful chemistry going on when a story-teller re-tells their story interwoven with their personal lived experience?
In late February, early March, 2016 I spent a gorgeous ten days in my home town, Adelaide, attending one of the pre-eminent (so I’ve heard, as I haven’t attended any others) writers’ weeks in the world. There is a sense of pure indulgence, sitting under those beautiful trees, listening to very wise and patient human beings, speak about the books they have birthed in recent times, and not-so-recent times. It is a profound experience which I might yet be processing for a couple more weeks, if not months, now I’m back in my Melbourne stomping ground.
There are many facets that make up the diamond of Adelaide Writer’s Week, an integral part of the Adelaide Festival program, begun all those decades ago during the time of Don Dunstan.
As I was reminded by a number of people I sat with in the audience, it is one of the only free events in the world. The ability to be able to flexibly drift between the tents of speakers, without having had to have decided on who you want to hear, and booked, and paid ahead, is absolutely unique.
So too, I think, is the Adelaide audience’s capacity to engage deeply with writers, and theprocess of writing. This ability is matched by their propensity to look out for one another, and connect with complete strangers over books and ideas. I had lovely conversations about trees and travel, publishing and patriarchy in the warm embrace of an Adelaide summer.
Another aspect is how finely curated the program is, flipping between paired authors talking on themes and solo authors more closely with their work and lives under the spotlight, the directors skills at being able to anticipate and even create, thought-provoking combinations of writers and interviewers is simply poetry in motion.
To wander through the list of books I read each year, is to chart a course through ideas and themes that I myself deal with in my life. There seems to be a happy convergence of those themes, perhaps because that is the way of things – after all we see what we want to see.
I thought I might recount some of the ideas/issues I have been grappling with or that struck me when listening to the wonderful insights these authors shared. The wonderful part for me, is that one cuts out one’s own pattern from a shared experience. A bit like a snowflake cut-out exercise. Even though I shared this experience with thousands of others, my resulting snowflake of ideas, characters and experience from the six days on the grass will be unique – just like everyone else’s.
I must declare my leanings. I’m interested in writing historical fiction in colonial settings, fascinated by biography and French culture so I chose to visit the places where this would be discussed. As you will see from this blog, I am also exploring the concept of travelling and the journey of the soul, so this was another theme I looked out for in the offerings.
A place called winter.Patrick Gale has a beautiful voice and an eloquent way of putting things. I connected with his exploration of where fault-lines start in the patterns that are carried through generations and digging for the reasons why things come to be. As happened a number of times his talk was punctuated by the noisy flock of galahs that were the other resident artists for the week. He spoke of the myth and reality of the new colonies. The romanticised ‘new frontier’ and ideas of empire being sold as a lie. As with many authors, there was a deep acknowledgement of the displacement of indigenous people and I found much food for thought about how we write ‘the other’ in story. From a technical viewpoint, his description of writing drafts of the story first by chronology, then re-ordering, then from the reader’s perspective, to be really helpful.
One Life.Kate Grenville raised an issue I have thought about for a while now. Once you hear a story, whose story is it? What rights does another have over it? In her discussion of her previous work, The Secret River, Kate was emphatic that there is a line to be drawn about what stories we are ‘entitled’ to tell. The discussion ranged widely through creativity, choice, women’s lives and loneliness, but a pretty strong theme came across, that ‘ordinary stories’ have just as much right to be heard as ‘heroic’ ones.
Legacy. The conversation between Magda Szubanski and Leah Kaminsky about the legacy of war in their families and their writing was rivetting. In my experience of the stories told by my family, I related to the way they identified war traumas transferred down through generations. This seemed to be compounded by the experience of being second generation Australians. Magda summarised her experience of her father’s trauma and the way that it effected her, “He was the gong that was struck and I’m the one stuck in the reverberation”. There was a sense of helplessness in this idea, which Magda acknowledged and it is fascinating to me that while these traumas can have such an impact on people’s lives, they achieve greatly, whether in spite of it or because of it who could tell. Another aspect of this that seemed to be present for both writers was that there is a magnetism to telling this story, the drama of it. What is the place within us that resonates with the trauma and tragedy of war?
A Golden Age. Whereas I felt quite personally involved in the other sessions of the day, for this session, I felt like a spectator. I was absolutely fascinated by the characters holding the stage and felt that their stories and the story of their interplay on this stage would actually be far more fascinating that those of their chosen heroines. Laura Thompson has written about the Mitford sisters and Robert Wainwright about Rose Porteous, both stories, that of privilege and the world of the movers and shakers. It seemed a long way from my seat. It also seemed somehow titillating to be talking about these women, in a way akin to a Woman’s Day expose. I haven’t read either book, so I can’t comment on the angle that these writers were taking, however it always interests me what draws people to write about certain characters, or in fact whether stories choose their author.
Keating. The afternoon sun was beginning its westerly escape as a huge crowd assembled to listen to a commentary by arguably two of Australia’s most significant journalists about one of Australia’s most significant Prime Ministers, Paul Keating. The place was packed to the rafters to hear Kerry O’Brien taking the interviewee seat to Laura Tingle and they didn’t disappoint. The session could have easily spilled well into the evening, as Kerry loves talking about this topic and it was so interesting to his side of the Keating TV series. The ideas that stayed with me were that Keating had curiosity, imagination and was a warrior, but Kerry also pointed out whilst these things clearly had him ahead of the pack, Keating despised the idea of being “too far ahead of the mob”. This period in Australian political history will always hold a special significance for me as I was just starting out in my first job, and at that stage lapped up most things political. Now, not so much, but it was great to hear the period retold so skilfully.
Plain speaking Jane. I’m glad that Richard Dawkins couldn’t attend because when he was still on the list, I had decided (despite wanting to see Jane Caro more) that I should go and see what this man was on about. “There are no right ways to be a woman, only wrong ways, so be as wrong as you like”. It came in the first few minutes, but really it is Jane’s mantra. I ended the day, quite convinced that the value to me of Writer’s Week, is in the writers, not just their books. Jane reminds us that we needn’t apologise for being different any longer.
A Marriage. Lauren Groff and Virginia Reeves had a lovely discussion dove-tailing the stories of their respective books, looking at the theme of marriage. Is marriage possible? Is it desirable? Is silence malignant or benign? All big questions. The work of Gillian Rose was mentioned and quoted – “In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a fundamental change in the terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change . . . There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy.” Love’s Work.
Traveller’s Tails. For a traveller, this session was appealling, and Fran Bryson and Beth Yahp explored faraway places but not surprisingly questioned where is home? Does travel enable in the traveller, an exploration of the concept of home. Fran’s vivid descriptions of her travels in Brazil, and Beth’s portrayal of her family’s history and the spiritual, unseen world was mesmerising.
Political Women. The second session hearing Jane Caro, but this time joined by Annabel Crabb. These two women have impeccable credentials in terms of social and political commentary and their insights into Australian society are candid and often a sad reflection of the struggles women undergo in order to be taken seriously in the world full-stop, and the world of work and politics in particular. In outlining the current climate, it reminded me of a book that I read a long time ago, Rhonda Mahoney’s, Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies and Bargaining Power. I’m not so sure I did get any answers, but I suppose it is always good to illuminate the issues.
The Life of Elves. The lilt of a French accent under the shady trees of Adelaide Writer’s Week was always going to be a magnet for me, but the combination of a wise, contemplative and humble writer speaking about her writing held me there. It was only part-way through the session, that I realised I knew Muriel Barbery’s, The Elegance of a Hedgehog, but not the book. It was a film I had watched in the past year in a flurry of video-shop movie binges of French films. I was so impressed with it as a film and I can’t wait to read the book. Muriel feels in her writing she gets the chance to build understanding where as in her work as a academic philosopher she was occupied with explaining. It was an insightful session.
Fairy Tale. Again making my way to see Muriel Barbery, this time in a lovingly curated session, paired for a magical discussion with Patrick Dewitt. Perhaps it was these authors, perhaps because they were discussing fairly tales, or perhaps it was just happenstance, but this session was a goldmine of beautiful ideas to me. The meaning and etymology of words is fascinating to me, but even more so through the lens of a French speaker. Because the languages share so many common words, the exploration of the different meanings held in the two languages, or the discovery of old English words that are still used in French with the same meanings is one of the things that most enchants me about speaking with French speakers. In what ways is a virtuoso virtuous for instance? The conversation roamed far, looking at the intertwined relationship of nature and art: the creativity of people and it’s connection with nature. Patrick’s book exploring two people communicating confusion/unrealised desire, Muriel’s two little girls who understand stuff (reminiscent of the sensitive ones in Annie Proulx’s TheShipping News). Not only were the stories discussed, but the life of a writer was considered. A writer can’t control the thoughts: in a way they are a follower. Following, listening and observing – all key skills that need to be cultivated in the craft of writing. A writer wouldn’t want to force their point – arguing, convincing or being the purpose of the writing is not the aim. An enchanting time.
The Making of a Writer. Bill Manhire and Max Porter, witty and intelligent with salient advice for budding writers. The nuts and bolts of being a writer with an elegant sufficiency of words. I can’t remember if it was this session or the other that Max spoke at, but at some point he said something about it not being so useful reflecting too much on the life and character of the author as he didn’t feel it was helpful in reading the book. I beg to differ, and on later reading his Grief is the Thing with Feathers, I was struck at how economic is his use of words, a feature of his elegant spoken word during the sessions. In this session he mentioned that he the author must make the book the most ‘itself’ it can be, however once it is finished and in the possession of the audience, it assumes a life of it’s own, and the life that the reader gives to it. He said that ‘finding the singleness’ never worked for him. It was interesting to hear the writers speak of the location where they write – shutting the door on the family and sitting down for allocated slots of stolen time. Bill said “It is the job of every writer to find their voice and speak in it”. In this way writing becomes the playful search for the voice. The importance of editing was mentioned – asking the hard questions in the 1st edit. What makes a good writer? Reading. Ideas books – don’t throw away anything. I understand this, and have accumulated many notebooks already. A most helpful session.
Ocean of the Future. I could listen to Simon Winchester all day. The combination of his voice, his knowledge, his journalistic/storytelling style make for a wonderful session. His book, The Map that Changed the World, has sat on my shelf waiting for me to read it for many years and in the months following the festival, I had the pleasure of reading The Surgeon of Crowthorn but before I heard him speak I hadn’t read his books. He felt that his secret to success is to have a good idea, a good structure and good writing. I would add to that, write often. He has published over twenty books. I liked the ideas for providing structure to his books Atlantic – the seven ages of man, and the five classical elements used for The Men Who United the States. I have always appreciated this in books and hope to employ it in my own. Another reason I could listen to Simon all day is that I appreciate his observations, such as the United States “seeing the Pacific as their own private lake”. Seeing this in light of the current TPP negotiations is a very interesting observation, and one which aligns with my view of the world. It is always easy to appreciate your own ideas mirrored in another isn’t it – especially when so fluently and intelligently presented!
Undermajordomo Minor. Patrick Dewitt and Max Porter. These two had the benefit of a pre-existing relationship so the session felt like phone tapping this dynamic – an editor and one of his authors. Patrick, with dry humour notes “I don’t necessarily turn my back on the world … but my interest is waning”, while Max quips about cross-dressing, “I come from a country where the people that run it, do that kind of shit every Friday night”. I haven’t noted much else about the discussion, but remember being amused and fascinated at the same time.
The Crow. Jonathan Bate and Max Porter with Michael Cathcart talking Ted Hughes. Despite the confluence of subject matter, the discussion was a little disjointed, and was plagued by a few technical hitches, and the session was also being broadcast to Radio National. However, it was a fascinating wander over the life and works of Ted Hughes, the intertwined story of Sylvia Plath and two authors views on the phenomenon. The highlight was a recording of Ted Hughes reading his poems at the same Writers’ Week, in it’s infancy in the 1970s under these same trees. A revealing session.
Salt Creek. Having been researching my own interesting family history in colonial Western Victoria, I was really excited to hear Lucy Treloar talking about her experience writing her book, Salt Creek. In addition, the book is set in my home state, South Australia in an area that I frequently travelled through to visit my aunt and uncle on a farm north of Kingston during my childhood, so this session held a special interest for me. How does one adequately deal with the subject of dispossession and the ‘obliviousness of the colonial attitude’ – partly a religious Victorian attitude of dominion, mingled with concepts of empire. On one hand the pride exhibited by Darwin, “impossible to behold the far colonies without high pride and satisfaction” and on the other the reality that “death follows the indigenous wherever the European goes”. It was a session where the realities of that time were treated with sensitivity and encouraged me to read the book.
The Natural Way of Things. The galahs visited again during this session advertising their breakfast arrival in the park. I came part-way through this session, and it wasn’t one that I had on my list, but part of the discussion I caught was about the difference between marketing aimed at men and women, the former being about augmenting their power, the latter being to make up a perceived deficit. Charlotte Wood has since been numerous awards for this book, and I need to put it on my reading list.
Archipelago of Souls. A reflective session in which Gregory Day asked, “What do we do with the darkness (inside ourselves) when we want to love each other”. An interesting look at the effects of war; fear and defensiveness. Observing people choosing to be away from other people because they don’t know how to bring the ‘awful thing’ (their trauma), with them to the relationship. One thing I found useful was the idea that ‘if it sounds like writing, throw it out’.
Chance Developments. It would be an interesting exercise to survey readers about which Alexander McCall Smith books they prefer. I myself, have never been attracted to the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, however once I started the 44 Scotland Street series, I became hooked. I’ve also dabbled in the Sunday Philosophy Club series, but haven’t got as far with them. Alexander’s whimsical, quirky and funny view of life is not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but he draws the crowds and I really enjoyed hearing from him in person. His nature spills into his books, and he is an author that regularly has me laughing out loud – which can be disconcerting for other passengers on public transport. A lovely session.
Outsiders. Given the large number of Aboriginal writers in Australia, I was a little surprised by how few make it into the program of Adelaide Writers’ Week – outsiders indeed. One exception was the wonderful discussion between Tony Birch and Paddy O’Reilly. Tony’s extensive experience as a writer and teacher of the technique of writing was evident in the discussion, but especially in answering the questions posed by several writers at the end of the session. He writes to the character until it becomes a part of him. He also brought a strong sense of place in his descriptions of Birrarung (the Yarra River in Melbourne) of his youth, and the distinction between land rights and the rights of the land, the agency of the river. The river is the backdrop for his novel, Ghost River and in it he deals with kids faced with challenges which they are resilient enough to survive. The idea that learning to listen and learning to write are intertwined brought up again the themes that had come up earlier in the week. The discussion covered the importance of observing land and place and making this the subject of research – detailing noise, smell, image and texture. Finding out what a place isn’t is just as important, and this sense of bringing the story into relief was also a technique used in writing stories. Both authors encouraged writers to give their stories space after writing, reading again at a distance and getting other people to read, joining writers groups for critique and also suggestion. It is important to find the method for you, of letting the character unfold. For the technicalities of writing, this was an excellent session and it brought forth many more questions from the audience than there was time for them to be answered.
Adelaide Writers’ Week 2016
On a couple of occasions in the early 2000s, before I moved away from Adelaide, I managed to drop in to AWW for a couple of sessions in between lectures of my Bachelor of Music at Adelaide University. 2016 was the first time I have made the time to attend for the whole week and immerse myself in the atmosphere. It is for me indulgent yet indispensable in its inspiration. The space it creates for practising listening and being open to the wisdom of experienced writers is a true blessing, and over the past year I have found myself reflecting on the ideas it has raised for me more than once. The impetus it creates for an aspiring writer is palpable, and I would classify it now as a must-do for my professional development.
I’ve booked my trip back to Adelaide for the 2017 version and I await it eagerly!