Tag Archives: Arts

What I’ve learnt so far (a list)

The model is writing postcards

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I’m not sure if it’s because I’m writing so much on my thesis that I have nothing left for my blog, but needless to say it’s been a while. I read somewhere that most new bloggers stop posting after about three months, and I was determined not to be one of those. So here’s my first post for the new year – a list. Part of why I write phd with kids is to create a small community of thesis writing parents who can support each other by sharing what works (and what doesn’t). The other part is harder to describe, but has something to do with connection, with me talking to you, and with the writing rest that blogging provides.

So here’s a list of what’s working for me (for a much more prosaic and beautiful list, check out Henry Miller’s work schedule from 1932-33). I spent much of my first six part-time months wandering in circles, learning Endnote and Scrivener, getting to know my faculty librarian, and working on publications. I now have a short story called ‘Dose’ in Polari Journal, a poem called ‘The Second Cup’ in a Melbourne Poets Union anthology titled “The Attitude of Cups”, and a critical essay coming up. But still I had the sense of having done very little. Except that when I started full-time (which for me is three child free days a week) on the first of January this year all that circling turned out was actually foundation building, and I was off. I’m not saying I’ll always be on such a productivity splurge, but right now the words are flowing, the reading makes sense, and I’m loving my life. Here’s my list (please feel free to add to it in the comments):

  • If I’m at my desk (and ready to go) at 9am then I have a good start to the day.
  • Writing for an hour without a break on each of my work mornings means I can spend the rest of the day reading, researching, editing, and rewriting. I got this idea from attending a seminar titled “The seven secrets of highly successful research students”. The chirpy self-help, you-can-do-it title meant I approached with extreme caution, but thanks to this particular technique I have nearly 12,000 words.
  • Working from home results in about thirty percent less productivity, and a gazillion more cups of tea.
  • Scrivener rocks. Seriously. If you don’t know what it is and you’re a writer (and even if you’re not), find out. The Thesis Whisperer will tell you why.
  • Getting to know my Faculty Librarian has been brilliant. Not only has she helped me work out which databases to search, how to set up alerts, and explained the mysteries of Endnote to me, but she’s a friendly face, and once she got twenty books off the shelves for me because I couldn’t get any child free time in the library.
  • Saying I’m going to work is the best way to describe what I’m doing. It means I only take a day off if I’m genuinely sick. It means I have a lunch break, but the rest of the time I stay at my desk. It also means that my loved ones and friends treat me like I’m working too.
  • Being paid to write and read and think is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me (after my kids).

Q& A with Emily Rodda (and trying very hard not to cry in front of hundreds of school kids)

Queue for Emily RoddaI am in the Edge Theatre, in a room full of primary school students, and I have tingles running over my scalp and hot tears in the corners of my eyes because I’m looking at a theatre full of school children and I can see more patiently raised hands than I can count. This is a question and answer session for Emily Rodda. I’m sorry, Emily, but I had never heard of you until a few weeks ago when I scanned the festival program to find sessions that I could attend within my child based time constraints. I’m twenty three minutes in and this is by far my favourite session.

Emily started the session with a story about picking up her three year old twins from preschool and the story they told her that went like this: “Tom’s granny fell in the freezer at the supermarket.” “Yeah and she got stuck in the ice.” “Yeah and then the supermarket man came and chopped her out.” “Yeah and then he chopped her all to bits.” And then they went inside and had afternoon tea.

For Emily the magic words are: what if? They’re the beginning of any good story. And I am entranced and the most comfortable I’ve been at the festival yet. The supermarket story could have been one of the stories that Monkey tells me every day. All day. From the moment he opens his eyes. His is a mind pulling narratives from the air, making his world literally new every day. I could have brought him to this session and he probably would have liked it (at the very least he wouldn’t have annoyed anyone).

“I’m very interested in doors I want to see what’s behind them. Books are like doors.” I remember The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. That one day whilst reading it my grandmother suddenly loomed over the top of the book. “Karina, answer me!” She had been calling my name for five minutes and I hadn’t heard. I was literally in the wardrobe, down the rabbit hole, discovering, finally, the safest place in the world. Words.

“When I was a child I wrote all the time and then I stopped. I thought there were too many wonderful writers in the world, which is a shame.” I’ll be thirty seven this month, and I’m only just able to call myself a writer. It is a shame, Emily, to be stopped by the critics in our heads. I wrote all the time too, and then stopped. I vow, now, to continue. There is a jittery excitement in me. You wouldn’t know from looking, but I could do a happy bum dance right now (these are usually reserved for Friday night family hallway dances to the Indigo Girls, Monkey’s favourite band). Because? Because a children’s author and a room full of enthralled kids has inspired me. This is exactly where I want to be. Emily is dispensing valuable advice for any writer, of any age.

How do you get publishers interested in your work?

“Some publishers won’t look at books that don’t come from an agent… With unsolicited manuscripts, what they’re looking for is a good, clean, typed manuscript… I have to say it’s very rare for a very young person to get published. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try… If you enter competitions and don’t win them, or try for publications and don’t get them, please keep trying. And do it for your own pleasure.”

“Write what you love to read.”

Why did you start writing books?

“Because I love to read so much… I write every day and I read every day, wherever I am, whatever’s happening. I think if you love reading, you often feel the urge to write as well.”

I’ve been to some amazing sessions so far at MWF, but they have sometimes felt a wee bit stuffy. Or cool. Or something. Not on the stage, but more in the audience. Like we were all aware of being an audience at a writers festival and must be intelligent and well turned out. So at the end of each session there’d be a call for questions, and out of that call a stifling silence. It was like pulling teeth to get anyone to speak. And when they did it was halting and self-conscious. So now, today, I look up from my keyboard and see all these hands. The child in front of me is wearing a blue jumper with ‘Grade 6 Stars’ printed on the back and the hair around his crown is sticking straight up. He’s had his hand up for so long that he’s getting fatigued and has to keep swapping arms. I would love to know what his question is. And is his heart beating rabbit-like against the bones of his chest with the anticipation of asking it?

“I always wanted to be a writer… and I hadn’t formed any other plan at all. And I wanted to have children. I ended up with four of them so I guess I succeeded in that.”

The boy is picked. “Um, were you good, when you were at school, when you started writing?” His voice is raspy but clear.

“I was always good at composition and creative writing and English. I also knew I was supposed to be good at it. I had a teacher who helped me because I used to use lots and lots of long words and lots of adjectives and she’d tell me to just pick the ones I really wanted. Mrs Williams her name was. She was a really good teacher.” Do all of us have that one English teacher that we can’t forget? Barbara Crawford, if you’re out there, thank you. You made me want to be better. You made me lose adjectives and adverbs, you asked me to write cleanly, to read with grace. You didn’t blanch when I handed you morbid and melancholic verses after class. You didn’t pay lip service to talent. You required improvement and striving. You invited me to your house with some other students and played us The Moonlight Sonata and served scones. You had permanent spittle in the corners of your mouth from chewing Nicorette gum, which you were addicted to. Occasionally you would seek me out at lunch time, down the back of the oval, and bum one of my menthol cigarettes. You let us call you by your first name. Barbara, if you’re out there, thank you.

Have you had any difficulties with your writing?

“Every author must get to some point in a novel where they wonder what they’re going to do… If all else fails, push through it. And even if you’re unhappy about it, go on. You’ll find that you’ll be able to go back, and you’ll fix that bit easily… If I don’t know how I’m going to start the book, I start in the second chapter and go back… The great thing is to get something down on paper so that your confidence will sweep you on.”

There is a huge, spine tingling clap, and cheers, and I’m having trouble holding back a sob. Thank you, you wonderful, enthusiastic, gorgeous, brave, bed-haired and blue-jumpered kids. I’m honoured to be amongst you. Write, and think, and play, and read, and write. I can’t wait to see what you do. Thank you.

PS: After I left the session, I thought I’d go and say hi to Emily. All the other author signings I’d seen so far had maybe four sheepish grownups with freshly bought books in their still hands. I had half an hour to the next session, but there was no way I’d have time to meet her. The line of kids waiting stretched through the Atrium, all of them holding dog-eared copies of her books. I sat, and grinned, and ate a late season tangelo, and took a photo of the line, and felt thrilled to have stumbled across the schools program.

The morning read (and a Weetbix smear)

Angel by Deborah Halpern, Birrarung Marr, Melb...

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Caren has Monkey and Sparrow safely strapped into the double pram. She walks with me to the foot of the stairs and then heads off, all intrepid, down the grassy hill towards Birrarung Marr. The playground there is amazing and Monkey (we both hope) will love it. Sparrow is due for a sleep, but he’s gazing around and waving at everyone and yelling to the morning. They’ll meet me at 11 so I can feed Sparrow before the next session.

I probably look impossibly cool (or pretentiously Melbourne) in my sneakers and jeans, a piece of curled bone through my right ear lobe, a MacBook Air settled on my lap. No one would guess that I had to pick a dried Weetbix smear off my neck and make sure both sides of my maternity bra were clicked up (I have been through entire mornings without realising I have one breast swaying) before heading in to the Cube for The Morning Read.

Jane Sullivan read from Little People. In 1870 four little people came to tour Australia and were treated like rock stars, they had groupies, this is based, she says, on truth. And this: “A soft voice, and clean hands, and the smell of peppermint”.

Abdulrazak Gurnah reading from The Last Gift. He stands and moves to the microphone and then speaks to the techs. “Would it be possible to turn the music off? There’s music coming out of the speaker here, the kind of music you hear when you call the bank.” His is a book about a man who is unable to speak, but wants to speak. The last gift is that he is finally able to speak. It is a story about secrets, and their corrosive nature in intimate settings. “This was in the days when Mogadishu was still a port, and not a slaughterhouse.” “It was the way he looked, like someone who had been places and done things.” “And when his eyes were open, she thought he was someone who liked peace.”

Marion Halligan reading from her short story collection “Reading the Fox”. She says it’s funny having to choose from short stories that are also short memoirs, trying to manage in advance what we’ll think of her. “She was sure she would recognise him. There was the photo, and he said he would carry violets.” “Edible wasn’t a word that came to mind.” “…the air was frostily sweet.” I thought we were hearing something from a long time ago, the description of the train station, meeting a stranger, mothers and children. Maybe it was the violets? I pictured wartime, lost people; I heard sepia. But suddenly there are emails and computers and I have to shift in my seat, to shift time. “Words through space, in emails and telephone calls.” “I like short stories. If you look at my novels, they are really bunches of short stories that serve one big story.”

Tess Gerritsen reading from The Silent Girl. A crime writer, her American accent and the way she reads and the noir story from the first sentence makes me feel like I’m listening to a voice over, instead of an actual, live, voice. “In San Francisco even summer nights are chilly.” “Cold and hunger eventually disperse the last of them, leaving only the girl who has nowhere to go.” “I hear the floor creaking, I smell burning candle wax.” “She has raw talent and she is fearless; two things that can’t be taught.”

Three seats down from me are a couple. They hold hands. There are bells pealing from the church across the road. They hold hands, hers on top, their fingers laced. His right thumb is tapping on her forearm. His eyes are closed but the lids are fluttering. He is listening blind, he is tapping a story into her body. I feel the relief of having no person, no body, pressing up against mine. I breathe in the space and words around me like the scent of something clean, like grass, like newly brewed lemongrass tea with cut ginger, like me.