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Last night I was drifting off to sleep, finally, when a thought pulled me suddenly back into the waking world: this weekend, I’ll be able to visit the bakery of my childhood.

This weekend, you see, I’m heading back to Forbes, the town I grew up in. It’s the first time I’ve been back in four years. My immediate family all live in Canberra now, and most of the people I still keep in touch with from school no longer live in Forbes. Family friends still live there, but somehow I’ve not found reason to visit.

I very rarely think about Forbes. I mean, I reminisce about high school, and childhood, but I hardly ever think about the place itself, and the impact it had on me. The last time I did, I wrote an essay, which ended up being published in issue 77* of Voiceworks.

But I do often think about the concept of ‘home’, and the places I associate with that word.

My brother and his girlfriend are in Forbes today. This morning they sent me a picture of a roundabout on the main street. I’m sentimental at the best of times, but my propensity for nostalgia has been higher lately. The instant I opened that picture file, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia, and I wondered how I could possibly have excluded Forbes from the list of places I call home.

Melbourne is home for me. Sydney is home for now; Canberra sometimes home. Forbes doesn’t even get a look in. But I think it should. I lived in Forbes for many more years than I’ve lived anywhere else.

I guess, being the home of my childhood, its impact on me is something subtler than those other places, part of my subconscious.

Last year sometime, I got in a cab to go home late one night, and was chatting to the driver.

“You’re a country girl, aren’t you?” he said, suddenly.

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as a country girl, but he guessed that I hadn’t grown up in a city because I got into the front seat of the cab and struck up a conversation. City girls, he said, sit in the back and avoid eye contact. Conversation? Ha.

Of course the cabbie’s guess is based on a huge generalisation about ‘city people’ and ‘country people’, but I did start wondering how many other aspects of my everyday behaviour might be related in some way to me having grown up in Forbes.

I’m not sure what to expect from myself this weekend. As I write this, more and more memories find their way into my thoughts. Sometimes it amazes me that one human being can have so many memories, so many that a whole period of your life can be tucked away somewhere safe. Sometimes so safe that those memories are never found again.

Judging by pensive mood, just anticipating the trip, it’s probably safe for me to assume there’ll be more of the same over the next two days. (I’m going back for a party though, so I’m sure there’ll also be plenty of plain ol’ fun.)

I get the feeling that some of this wistfulness will become writing. Fiction, maybe. Watch this space.

~

* Express Media’s website is down at the moment, so you might not be able to access that back issues link. I’ll keep an eye on it though, and update it when I can.

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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.

The social function of literature?

On Thursday I rushed (quite unnecessarily, as it turns out) from a lunchtime yoga class I teach at UNSW to get on a bus to Canberra to visit my family. I’ve written here before about how I like catching a bus or a train somewhere by myself. It means I get Thinking Time.

I’ve got a lot to think about at the moment. Exciting plans, not-yet-plans, writing, reading, family stuff, money (sigh). When I slumped back in the seat on the bus yesterday, I realised that it’s actually been quite some time since I’ve given myself a break to think. I mean, I think a whole lot as I travel all over the place to teach yoga and various forms of writing. But it’s really been ages since I’ve let myself just think. When you’re travelling to teach, there’s only so far you can let your thoughts wander, in case you end up missing the bus stop or distracting yourself so much that you end up referring to your students’ feet as their hands and inadvertently instructing them to tie themselves up in strange knots. (I frequently say things like, “Inhale, walk your feet forwards between your feet… I mean…”)

Anyway. That’s a (very) round about way of saying that I got some thinking time yesterday. I put my headphones in, found some thinking music and stared out the window.

One of the things that’s been on my mind lately is the social function of literature. In my ramblings on writing as activism I touched on the idea that my writing is often an attempt to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. I’m starting to try and unpack that idea bit by bit.

Allow me to be embarrassingly earnest here for a moment.

Essentially, for me, trying to put myself in other people’s shoes in writing is about compassion. Most of the things that anger me most about the world come down to other people’s lack of compassion. Human beings seem to have this innate ability to lose all compassion for other people. And then they’re jerks to one another. It drives me nuts. (Happily, I’m also often pleasantly surprised by people’s capacity — sometimes those very same people — for compassion.) I’m guilty of it too, of course, and I reserve my harshest judgement for myself.

One of things that interests me most about yogic philosophy is its teachings on compassion. Yoga teaches compassion for all living things, human or otherwise, because all those living things are really part of the same thing. Atman, Brahma, the Self, the Buddha Self, the Universe. A whole lot of names for the same idea. Whatever you want to call it, and whether or not you’re interested in identifying yourself as belonging to one of the traditions that teaches this stuff, the idea that we’re all connected to one another — all dependent on one another — is intriguing.

When I write, I certainly don’t sit down and think, “I know, I’m going to write a piece that teaches everybody that they’re equal to the homeless man they wouldn’t normally look at.” I’m not out to write didactically. But I don’t think it’s possible to write or read stories about human beings — particularly fiction — without being pushed in some small way to think about the world from another person’s perspective. Even if just for a moment. And hey, we might not always feel compassion for the people or characters that we’re reading about (especially if you’re not a bleeding heart, like I apparently am), but even just a glimpse into that perspective, I think, has the potential to shift something in the writer and the reader.

For me, this is what literature is all about: exploring and presenting different perspectives, suggestion and question. The word that I use to explain that process is compassion, because it makes sense to me. Compassion doesn’t mean agreeing with the person or character’s perspective, but it does mean attempting to understand it. Which of course means, for me, also attempting to understand the perspective of the people in the world who are jerks to each other.

Let me get down from my soapbox now. Pack away my pompous wanker pants.

Talking about compassion and linking it to the social function of literature is problematic, I think. I’m an eldest child, and was often accused of lecturing my younger brothers (most of the time the accusation was probably spot on). As a result, as an adult I’m really conscious of not lecturing people. Saying that literature teaches people compassion makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m advocating the kind of writing that’s overtly didactic, even patronising. Writing that lectures, in other words. That kind of writing, I think, actually creates obstacles in people’s thinking, rather than chipping away at the obstacles that are already there. I certainly observe that reaction in myself.

I’m not sure how to resolve this discomfort. I don’t know where the balance is. I don’t know if I even need to resolve it.

This is really the beginning of my thinking on this topic — it’s by no means an exhaustive exploration of what’s in my brain (although I do feel slightly exhausted after typing it all up). I feel like my thinking has a lot of room for development. Any thoughts on the matter (the social function of literature or the need for brain development on my part) would be most welcome.

Airports

I love airports. They always give me a little rush of excitement.

When I lived in Melbourne, being inside an airport usually meant I was on my way to spend time with my family, or had just done so. If not that, then being at an airport meant I was heading off on an overseas adventure, or picking up someone I had missed.

That’s part of it. The other part is the other worldly nature of airports. They’re like their own little universe. People are in transit in airports — on their way to somewhere or from somewhere, stuck in between two places. Planes are similar. But I guess airports still allow people to move around, and therefore be more interesting. I love it.

I get nervous when I travel — have I packed everything, will I get to the airport in time, will I be able to find my way? — but once I’m at the airport the nervousness is replaced by excitement. I’m always excited to be going somewhere. And, once the nervousness dies down, I’m thrilled to have (re)discovered that I’m capable of doing this on my own.

Overseas travel excepted, pretty much all my time in airports has been spent alone. And I like it that way. It’s a different kind of adventure when someone else is along for the ride.

Being on my own leaves me free to people watch, and to strike up conversations with strangers. I love talking to and observing strangers. People are so weird and entertaining. Especially when they’re between places, in the midst of a journey. An airport, after all, is not really a destination.

I’m writing all this because this weekend I’m spending time in various airports (being weird — and maybe entertaining — in the corner, furtively doing a few quick yoga poses to realign my spine after sitting in the slump-inducing plane chairs), as I make my way to and from Adelaide for the Academy of Words. I’ll be on a panel today, and hanging around at various other things all day. If you happen to be in Adelaide, come say hi.

Thinking time

I seem to spend a lot of time on my own these days. I only realised just the other day how much time I spend in my own company. Most of my work is in the evenings at the moment, and I’m not a late sleeper, so I spend a lot of time pottering around by myself during the day.

But by no means am I lonely. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy the time.

Most Mondays I get on a train and head up to Newcastle to visit friends up there and attend a production meeting for a creative collective I’m involved in. The trip is three hours long. At first, I thought of that three hours as a chance to get a little bit of writing done. Or some class planning. Work-time, that is.

As it turns out, I find it impossible to work when I’m in transit. I’ve tried, but I usually end up with two or three words on a page and frustration in the space between my eyebrows. I’ve found the same thing on the three-hour bus trip I sometimes take to and from Canberra when I visit my Ma, Pa and brothers.

So recently I stopped trying to force myself to work. When I did, an interesting thing happened: I started to think. Properly think. You know, about life, the universe and everything and nothing. I thought through the problems I was having with my writing and often came up with solutions — I thought through life problems and again, often came up with solutions. I also started to think bigger than myself, to think, dare I say it, philosophically about the world. No solutions there. But interesting nonetheless.

How often does one get a chance to just sit and think these days?

Now, when I travel alone, I call it Thinking Time, and I don’t understand how I ever did without it.

Here’s the view from my thinking seat on the train to Newcastle. Sigh.