Back to fiction?

This makes me want to write fiction again, even though it actually comes from non-fiction. Or the pseudo-fiction section of a non-fiction essay…

If the opinions upon any of these matters had been chalked on the pavement, nobody would have stooped to read them. The nonchalance of the hurrying feet would have rubbed them out in half an hour. Here came an errand-boy; here a woman with a dog on a lead. The fascination of the London street is that no two people are ever alike; each seems bound on some private affair of his own. There were the business-like, with their little bags; there were the drifters rattling sticks upon area railings; there were affable characters to whom the streets serve for club-room, hailing men in carts and giving information withouth being asked for it. Also there were funerals to which mean, thus suddenly reminded of the passing of their own bodies, lifted their hats. And then a very distinguished gentlemean came slowly down a doorstep and paused to avoid a collision with a bustling lady who had, by some means or other, acquired a splended fur coat and a bunch of Parma violets. They all seemed separate, self-absorbed, on business of their own.

    ~ Virginia Woolf, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, page 94

People are so interesting.

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Theme: An agent for change | the monday project

In case you missed the new Monday Project theme yesterday, here it is. Responses to this theme will be due Monday 4 July.

Theme: An agent for change | the monday project.

An Agent for change

I’m really not sure where I’m going to go with this one… I’ve used the last couple of themes to explore some characters I’ve had kicking around in my head for a while now. I guess I’ll probably find myself doing the same thing for this month’s theme.

Come play along. You know know want to.

Post-EWF blues

Last weekend I went down to Melbourne for the Emerging Writers’ Festival, a festival that really is a writer’s writers’ festival. To borrow from the EWF’s ‘about’ page, “Each year the Emerging Writers’ Festival brings writers, editors, publishers and literary performers together with the reading public for a festival that is fast becoming an essential part of Australia’s literary calendar.”

It’s hard for me to know where to start describing my experience of the festival. I tweeted over the weekend that I felt like the conversations I was taking part in, and the panels I was attending, meant I was collecting thoughts in an in-tray, to be processed later. I feel like I’m still working through that in-tray. This, I think, is at least in part a reluctance on my part to ‘finish’ with EWF for the year — the logic being that if I process Thought In-Tray, I’ll have to face the fact that it’s over and deal with the post-festival blues I’ve just managed to keep at bay all week. (So basically, I had a good time, and I’m not ready for it to be over, even though it already is.)

Yogic philosophy would tell me that everything is impermanent, and that holding onto it like this is just going to make eventually letting it go more painful. So here I go, whisking the band-aid off. I’ll try to express some of the major points I took from the conversations and sessions I found myself in.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights I found myself at bars and restaurants, talking through the problems of the world (literary and otherwise) with various emerging writers. I think we solved a few of them, at least in theory. On Sunday evening I also found myself sitting on a futon with my three hosts (A, G and S) flicking through art history and mythology books, wishing I had enough time in my life and space in my head to pursue these minor interests of mine with more gusto.

On Saturday and Sunday I went into the city for the Town Hall Writers’ Conference. When I bought my weekend pass for this I really wasn’t sure what I’d attend. I found myself in sessions about writing and health, blogging, typecasting and different voices. I wish now that I’d gone along to a few other things as well, but I’m actually not sure that I would have been able to contain all the thoughts safely inside my head.

I’ll try to give you a snapshot of each session.

Writing and health: If you’re a writer with health problems, chances are it will have an impact on your writing — sometimes good, sometimes bad. Sam Twyford-Moore, whose brilliant essay on writing and mental health can be found here, made an excellent point about the treatment for health problems (mental or physical) having a negative impact on your writing: if you don’t seek treatment, especially for serious health problems, your death is going to have a very negative impact on your writing indeed — to risk avoiding treatment because it might dampen our ability to write is not really worth it.

Blogging: This ‘in conversation’ was fun, because it was run by a blogger who blogs only for fun, and a blogger who also blogs for money. They both agreed that blogs need to have a personal voice, or they’ll not find readers, but didn’t necessarily agree on whether bloggers should be paid. Philip Thiel blogs because writing about himself forces him to actually do interesting things, and feels like the experiences he has as a result are payment enough; Jessica Au used to contribute to Meanjin’s blog, Spike, and thinks bloggers who write for organisations should be paid, and that perhaps it is the origin of blogs as (sometimes very personal) online journals that means this financial arrangement between organisations and their bloggers hasn’t quite been worked out.

Typecasting: I feel like I’m not going to do this session justice, despite having taken pages of notes during it. (Just in case I don’t, Angela Meyer and panellist Ryan Paine have both blogged about this session.) The panel included Anita Heiss (the ‘indigenous writer’), Julian Leyre (the ‘gay writer’), Ryan Paine (the ‘young writer’) and Karen Pickering (the ‘feminist writer’), and was chaired by Dan Ducrou (a ‘young adult fiction writer’). Each panellist discussed the benefits and pitfalls of stereotypes. Anita said that “being in a category called ‘chicklit’ somehow devalues your work. It says that your stories don’t have value… if the work of a chicklit writer is devalued, then so too are the lives of the women I write about.” Julian spoke about the freedom he has in the ‘queer writing’, because that category hasn’t been properly defined, so he’s able to bring into his writing other things he’s interested in, like cross-cultural issues and racism. Ryan addressed the problematic idea that young writers are less qualified to write about the world because of their inexperience (in life and writing), and said that he’s found that maybe the opposite is true, because young writers are far more likely to consider new ideas, perhaps because of their inexperience. He warned though, that even young writers need to be vigilant in questioning commonly-held beliefs, saying, “By pedalling the same opinions to one another because we’re too timid to question our friends we are actually inhibiting the very progress of human thought we claim to advocate.” Karen sees writing mainly as an idea delivery system, but hopes “to reach out beyond [her] natural allies and engage”.

The ideas from this panel in particular are hanging around in my head. I’ve always found it really grating to be typecast as anything, but I can see there are advantages to finding a particular niche. With all the changes I’ve made in my life in the last year or so, I sometimes think that being typecast might actually help me work something things out about myself. I’d just like to be able to shed that stereotype when it was no longer useful to me — and perhaps that’s exactly where the problem lies: shedding the stereotype is really difficult to do.

Different voices: I think perhaps I’ve written here before about the people that live in my head. I have fiction characters sitting in there, and occasionally they pop into my thoughts as if they’re real people. Sometimes I wonder whether I have the right to write from the perspective of an elderly man with dementia, or a young boy whose brother has drowned, so I was interested to know what other writers thought. Perhaps I will elaborate on my thoughts from this panel at some point over the next few weeks (I have pages and pages of notes), but for now I’ll leave you with the summary agreed on in the question time: to write from the perspective of someone who is not like you, you need a healthy curiosity (which might mean lots of research) and a genuine feeling of empathy for that character — only then will you write with a voice that sounds authentic and avoids condescension.

I also want to write a little about the TwitterFEST discussion I hosted on Tuesday (when I was, sadly, back in Sydney), but this post is already far too long. I’ll try to get to writing about that discussion later this week.

Now excuse me while I go off to nurse myself through my post-festival blues.

Monday Project Theme: Beach Baths

The water on the cement is cool between her toes. She tries not to think about the temperature of the water in the pool as she pulls her goggles down over her eyes. The suction on these goggles isn’t great, and the last few mornings water has seeped through; when she gets out out of the water her eyes feel as though she is still mostly submerged, peering along the water line. In at attempt to avoid this today, she pushes the goggles firmly into her eye sockets, then steps up onto number six.

This moment, before she dives in, is her favourite part of the day. Looking around at the world she’s about to forget for an hour, anticipating the shock of the cold water.

She stands up tall, her spine long, chin tucked in slightly. Her arms come up over her head, palms touching. She chuckles at her own drama, drops her arms and dives in casually. Her arms and legs feel it first — the tingle. Then her scalp, as her limbs grow numb to it. Even with her tied back the cold manages to find its way in and around every hair folicle. Some days she can still feel the scalp-tingle several hours later, post-shower, post-breakfast.

The first few laps she swims quickly, more quickly than usual. With each new stroke comes a new thought. There is barely room for pause, and she realises she is forgetting to let herself breathe. A breath. A snippet of sound from the world outside, then back to the muted heaviness of underwater.

After lap five, she slows down, allows herself to feel the frustration rather than swimming away from it. She doesn’t know where it’s coming from, and that somehow makes it worse. With her next inhale — a big one — she realises her lungs feel trapped by her ribs, like she could breathe deeper if only her skeleton would get out of the way.

Another breath. Later, she will recognise the sound as a scream, but now it only registers as something harsh; she notices the relief when her ears are blocked with water again.

~

This is my response to this month’s Monday Project theme. The next theme went up yesterday — you can have a look here.

I cruelly forced my writers’ group to respond to the theme on Sunday, when we all got together. I’m hoping some of them will send me what they wrote. We did share with each other on the day, but it might take a little more prodding to get some of their words here.

Monday Project submission: Redux

For my response to this month’s theme, I returned to some of short pieces I wrote last time I made a big move. Since most of my energy in February seemed to be taken up with moving house, it seemed appropriate somehow.

Unfortunately I was unable to get it together enough to actually put the story together into something that made sense. But then perhaps that’s okay, since it’s really about the chaos of packing up a life. I thought I’d type out what’s in my writing journal pretty much verbatim. I’d love to hear if you think this is going anywhere.

~

Her fingers were dry from handling all the cardboard and she had a collection of bruises on her legs. But before her stood a pile of brown cardboard. It sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by the absence of her furniture and the trails of dust and cobwebs that had been hidden beneath it.

The curtains were freshly washed, still a little damp and slightly crushed. The space around the box mountain looked smaller than it had when the contents of the boxes had been spread around it.

You stand next to her in the doorway as she looks around again and sighs.

“Why do I own so much crap?” She doesn’t want an answer.

Another box marked ‘books’. There have been thousands of these already, you think. Your daughter’s reading habit doesn’t quite keep up with her book-buying one. She sighs again, running her fingers over her own handwriting on yet another box of books, then follows you downstairs with it.

~

You worried vaguely about having an accident as you drove through the city, thought maybe you should pull over until the tears subsided. But then you knew you’d only turn around if you stopped, and that wouldn’t help anyone.

She’d looked small in the rear vision mirror as you drove away. Not at all grown up. You knew she was probably crying too – and that her ridiculous new boyfriend would have no idea how to handle it. He’d helped her find the dingy flat that was to be her first home away from home, and in doing so had proved to you that he had no idea what your daughter might need.

The place was filthy, for starters. Your daughter’s new housemates had layers of newspaper on the dining table so they could just throw away the top one after a meal, rather than wipe down the table; the drain in the bathroom was full of hair; everything was covered in grimy dust. Your daughter’s bedroom was full of someone else’s furniture. Even with some of the knick knacks and books of hers that you’d brought down with the rest of her clothes, she looked out of place in the room.

You told yourself, as you continued to drive away from her, that you’d only thought all that because you were being overprotective – that probably also explained why you thought her boyfriend was an idiot. The thought wasn’t comforting though. It only made you cry more – you felt sorry for yourself. And it wasn’t true anyway.

~

In your garage there are three boxes with her name on them, and several bags that aren’t labelled but that you know are hers. About once every six months – or more often if you haven’t heard from her in a while – you wake up early, pad down the internal stairs and stand in front of the small pile of her things. Both you and her mother are guilty of reminding her a little too often that these things are taking up space in your garage, but if she came to take them away you’d be upset.

The boxes are labelled in her neat handwriting – their contents described in brief detail on the masking tape that keeps them shut. They are mostly full of old things: high school and university books, photo albums, knick knacks, CDs. One box is simply labelled “special things”. Many times, as you’ve stood in front of her boxes and bags, you’ve wondered what constitutes “special” to your daughter. What would she pull out of that box? Undoubtedly it would be a collection of things that mean nothing to you, and whose story you will never know – trinkets from old friends and boyfriends, from far-flung places; letters from people you’ve never known, photos of people you’ve never met.

One day she’ll come back for these boxes – she might even open the “special things” box. The extra space in the garage would be good, certainly, but you’re not sure you could bear watching her going through them. You like the idea that you have a part of her here, neatly contained and labelled, and somehow mysterious.

Often, as you look at the boxes and run your fingers over her handwriting, you wonder what she is doing now, all those plane-hours away. You like to imagine that she is sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea, or reading to her own small daughter.

~

You don’t understand why, but she feels she needs to do it. She’s packing up again – this time leaving him, when it’s always been him leaving her. The him has changed over the years, but it’s been pretty much the same story every time. Being in a relationship with your daughter, you imagine, is very intense.

But no, this time she’s leaving him, and that’s at least half the reason why you think maybe he’s the right one. She’s determined though; packing boxes, taking things that are definitely his, leaving things that are definitely hers because she’s unsure in her frenzy. As she packs she babbles at you, her voice so close to tears. You should really be packing in another room, to speed the process up, but you can’t bear to leave her alone when she’s like this.

Even a little girl she was prone to working herself into a frenzy. Never over nothing, but always over something that didn’t really deserve all the energy she was giving it.

And there is the other half of the reason you think he’s the right one. Determined as she says she is, every part of her seems to be fighting against her own decision. Her hands shake, as if saying no to the words that are coming out of her mouth.