Quote

“It’s not your expertise that counts [as a writer]; it’s the quality of your wondering.”
– Mark Tredinnick, The Little Red Writing Book

Made my day.

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Reading inspiration

This last weekend I’ve been in Canberra for my brother’s 21st (it was a dress-up party; I may put up some pictures when I get them from Mum — I did my usual trick of forgetting to take any). To get to Canberra from Sydney, there’s a three and a half hour bus trip each way, which I often look forward to. I love staring out the window, musing over things in my life, making plans or just playing make-believe. I also often use the time to catch up on my podcast listening.

I subscribe to a few, but hardly ever listen to them. I’ve probably got about fifty episodes of the Book Show left to listen to, for example.

So on the trip back yesterday I got through a couple of them. In one episode Ramona Koval was talking to Sarah Waters, who is known for her novels set in the Victorian era, usually with some kind of lesbian storyline. They were speaking about her then-new (the episode was six months old) book, The Little Stranger. I’ve not read the book, but its gothic nature appealed to me and I suddenly remembered the books I devoured as a teenager: Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, Northanger Abbey, Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I loved gothic literature. As Waters mentioned in the interview, the supernatural is a wonderful space to explore anxieties and uncertainties, dysfunction and, possibly, mental illness. Of course, these are things I am obsessed with in my own fiction, albeit in a more realist way.

But as a teen I wrote creepy little gothic stories, which were probably really very bad. Unexpectedly empty houses with all the lights on, stormy nights, taps turning on by themselves, steep hills to walk up in the dark, footsteps coming from nowhere. All these things appeared in my stories. And they were fun!

I feel a return to the gothic coming on, at least in my reading. Now if I could just find my copy of The Woman in White

Reading: And the Rat Laughed

I don’t normally have an urge to write about a book I’ve read. I’m not sure why that is — something to do with internalising the ideas, the atmosphere. Perhaps I’m a bit protective of the world a fiction book has created in my head (although my brother reminded me the other day that I used to constantly steal books he’d started, so I’m obviously not as concerned about other people maintaining those worlds in their own heads — sorry Tom!). I’m perfectly willing to talk endlessly about non-fiction, but I find it more difficult to articulate my feelings about fiction.

And so I was surprised when my reaction to Nava Semel’s ‘And the Rat Laughed’ was to write about it. It’s an unusual book. Essentially, it’s about remembering the Holocaust — how a story should be told, if it should be told, how to tell a story of trauma to a young family member without traumatising them too, how to avoid diluting the story so much that the essence of the experience is lost, how to then continue passing the story on without it turning into a warped game of Chinese whispers. Memory fascinates me, which is possibly why I loved this book so much, despite whole sections that simultaneously irritated me with their format or style.

The book is in five sections.

The first is the old woman’s story, told in bits and pieces, at times difficult to decipher among her wondering about the damage she might do to her granddaughter, to whom she is telling the story, her guilt about telling her granddaughter when she has never told her own daughter, and through the cloud of her own memory loss.

In the second section, the granddaughter apologetically tells her teacher that she failed to get a story from her grandmother, and could only elicit from her a seemingly meaningless legend about a rat that desperately wanted to laugh and a little girl in a pit who could not help him.

The third section is a series of poems. Short, simple. Devastating to the reader having already read sections one and two. They sound like poems written by children, and in a later section we discover that this is exactly what they are.

In part four I found myself skipping sections and forcing myself to go back and re-read them. It is set in 2099, in a time where people can communicate with one another through their dreams and send ‘b-mails’ (brain-mails, like emails). All the futuristic stuff was a bit far-fetched for me, but this section did serve to explore what can happen to a personal narrative once it’s removed from the person who had the experiences, and becomes a sort of myth.

The fifth and last section comes back to the original story, and shows us the diary of the priest who eventually saved the little girl (who became the grandmother) from the pit and tried to rehabilitate her.

At times I couldn’t help but feel that the Girl and Rat myth became a bit gimmicky, and took away from the devastating story of darkness and abuse, but then perhaps that’s the point. What does happen to our stories when they are told and retold in less and less accurate ways? Do the important parts disappear? Do they become myth? And if they become myth are they necessarily less emotionally potent?

And this, perhaps, is why I felt compelled to write about this book: it left me with questions.

Expectation

Last night on my way home from class, hyped up from talking about writing, ideas munching around my brain like little caterpillars, I realised that I’m only twenty-three. Well, for two more months anyway. I’m only twenty-three and it’s okay that I am still a bit of a novice writer, it’s okay that I haven’t read and re-read a lot of books that my class mates have. Like my Mum says, I don’t need to be quite so hard on myself.

See, I have these expectations of myself. I forget how old I am, and disregard how I’ve had relatively few years in which to get things done, and I wonder why I’m not more accomplished at certain things. People I meet think I’m older, because I almost think that of myself I guess, and treat me as such, and then I feel like a fraud because I haven’t read all the books they have so I don’t know what they’re talking about. Nor have I re-read my favourite books more than about once, so I have to sit silent as others talk about the different experiences they’ve had with different readings of the same stories.

Add to that the feeling of guilt that I have when I start reading, as if I should be working on, well, something, and you’ve got a very confused twenty-three-year-old hesitating to pick up a book. I’m not sure when this started.  The guilt is only a fairly recent thing. Silly really.

But in realising that I’m only twenty-three, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s stupid of me to think like that. I’ve got years and years ahead of me to read all sorts of things; I shouldn’t beat myself up about what I haven’t read. And I think I can give myself permission to enjoy a book! How liberating.

So I stayed up far too late last night reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ because it dawned on me last weekend that I’ve only ever read about it.  Wonderful to be reading before bed again, but I found it very difficult to get out of bed this morning…

Again, reading

I’ve only just realised that I didn’t actually hit, you know, ‘publish’ when I wrote this. I’m clearly a computer genius. This is a post I wrote about the Saturday of the National Young Writers’ Festival.

The first session I attended on Saturday was called ‘When You Were Young’ and featured a number of Young Adult (YA) writers talking about books they read as children, and how those books influenced their writing. Philip Gwynne, Margo Lanagan, James Phelan and Christine Hinwood made up the panel, with Bethany Jones facilitating.

Reading. It’s important to read. Read fiction. I left this session wanting again to get lost in a book, like I did as a child, to find another world. Childhood reading is something entirely different to reading as an adult. It’s less analytical, less cynical. No less thoughtful though, I think. Childhood reading is all about imagination, about questions and wonderment. I think that adult writing can be like that too. At least I want to think it can be like that. Perhaps that’s what I was nostalgic for when I watched that man reading a book on the train platform.

Discussion moved (probably inevitably) to the occasional tendency for young adult and children’s fiction towards being overly didactic. I actually think adult fiction can be like that too, and I find it incredibly irritating. I try (the operative word here) to remember when I’m writing that readers will expect to do some work themselves, and to be able to make their own decisions about whether a character or situation is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Children are capable of that too, and I sometimes wonder if people forget that.

The best books for me as a child were those that just presented a situation and the ideas that came along with that; presented multiple views on an event or person, and let me think about it myself. Possibly there were subtle pushes towards a particular conclusion, but they were just that: subtle. I loved stories that captured my imagination, and if they inadvertently taught me something about the world then great. It was interesting (though not surprising) to hear the writers on this panel say that, when they write, the story itself is what they think about, not its potential to teach someone something. Margo Lanagan in particular was quite passionate about the idea that children are capable of complicated thought and a story that encourages questions simply because it has presented an interesting (or disturbingly intriguing, as the case is with much of Lanagan’s writing) situation is not a bad thing.

James Phelan mentioned that reading to children when they are very young is important. Big tick for my parents. I remember Dad reading me The Hobbit as a five-year-old. I’m fairly certain that would not have been the starting point! My youngest brother is seven years younger than I am, so I got to see more of his coming to reading. ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’ and ‘Whose Legs Are These?’ were two favourites that I was able to revisit in reading to him.

My all-time favourite childhood book though was ‘The BFG’. I felt an affinity with the main character. No, I was not an orphan girl who was taken away by a friendly giant. But I was a seven-year-old girl with glasses named Sophie when I first read it (I haven’t changed my name, no, but I am a fair bit older than that now, and have invested in contact lenses). My year two teacher let me read parts of ‘The BFG’ out loud to the class.

I really must find an old copy of that book again.

What did everyone else read as a child?

Reading

I know my last post was about needing a break from reading and writing, and I stand by that, but the other day I was standing on the platform at the train station and really missed reading. It was as if I were somehow nostalgic about it, even though I really still read every day.

There was a guy standing next to me reading a book and something about the layout of the words on the page, the font, the colour of the paper, made me yearn for the experience of reading a book that looked like that. I didn’t want to read that particular book (I can’t even remember the title, it was obviously so important to me!), but it must have reminded me in some way of a book that I must have really enjoyed.

I love old books, like a lot of people. I love them for their smell, the slightly damp texture of their softened pages, the tiny text that sometimes bleeds a little, the beautiful fabric hard covers. But most of all I love them because they are someone else’s world. Someone else has lived through the experience of reading that book. Perhaps carrying it around with them, perhaps loving it, hating it, not even really remembering it. The characters and story world have formed a certain picture in their minds. The book might have moved them to tears or made them laugh.

But the man on the train platform was not reading an old book. The book was new, so it (probably) didn’t have that history. What it did have was a layout I’ve found common to new books coming out of small publishing houses. I’m not a typesetter, or a graphic designer, so I don’t know font names, but it’s a particular font, simple to look at but definitely computer-, rather than typewiter-generated. The page margins are wide. The spaces between lines are generous. Does anyone know the layout I mean?

I haven’t picked up a book yet this week. I’ve stuck to magazines. I think I’m trying to make myself really hungry for it. I’m sure this weekend at the National Young Writers’ Festival will help!