Tag Archives: Children


On success, and over-achieving, and the salvaging of a life

English: Pennisetum clandestinum (with Mynah e...

Almost two weeks ago I wrote a post on rejection and disappointment. I was suffering, and weepy, and exhausted. Writing it made me feel better, as did the love of my partner and friends, performing some of my work outside of academia, and some very strong cups of tea.

And then I received this comment, from ‘S’.

OMG, sorry I realise you are going through a tough time but I find it hard to empathise with you- you’ve listed all your achievements in your Phd and it reads like a list of an over-achiever….how do you manage all this with kids? I’m pleased if I even make it to campus on a good day. I’d be dancing if I managed to achieve 1/2 of what you’ve achieved and so would many people that don’t have kids.

And I was kind of thrown back there all over again. I admit, after I’d listed all the things that had gone well in the last six months, I failed to show sufficient gratitude/amazement/humble joy. I was too tired. What I said, after that long list, was that it “was ok”. I probably should have said it was spectacular and I could hardly believe how fantastically lucky and blessed I was, but I didn’t have it in me. Also, I often find success much harder than failure. I have failed, often and well, for most of my life. When someone actually wants to publish some of my work, or better yet, someone reads some of my work, and then talks to me about it, I am often besieged with a kind of pre-emptive, gut-wrenching grief laced with shame. Where does this particular feeling that really has no word to describe it come from? It comes from a life aching towards writing, and wanting to be read, and not being. Nearly always. It comes from knowing that this brief, shining, wren’s egg moment, all blue and translucent and lighter than nearly everything I’ve ever held, is about to break; that success is a quick bright thing, that will always be replaced with a return to the slog.

So yes, at that moment, all I could say was that the journal, and the publications, and the teaching experience, and the international conference, were ok. Because they were. And because they took a great toll. And because I was completely and utterly spent. And because as well as managing all of those varied, thrilling (but kind of empty) moments, I was struggling with asthma that was so bad I spent one afternoon in emergency, canulated, unable to say more than two words without gasping. And because every other member of my family was also struggling with their health (and not just in a I-have-a-head-cold kind of way).

I read that comment and got it again. That rush of grief and shame. But not from success this time. This rush (the tingling in my scalp, the clenching stomach, my burning cheeks) was from being torn down. I’ve felt it before; I know it well. I couldn’t work out where the tearing was though, so I gave this reply, and tried to leave it alone.

I guess everything’s relative. Yes it’s a big list of achievements, and I manage it because I have to. I’ll be 39 this year, I’m facing a job market at the end of my PhD that has slim offerings at best, I’ve been either unemployed or a casual employee for most of my adult life (the joys of being a writer), and this is my shot at a career. So yes, I take it seriously, and work my guts out. Those achievements don’t mean I don’t suffer when I hit bumps in the road…

I couldn’t leave it alone. I felt angry, and wronged, but couldn’t work out why. It was something to do with that term: over-achiever (and in this case, the three ellipses that spooled out after it; oh that pause). I niggled at it, because it’s a term that’s been applied to me before, and one that I’ve never liked. But why? What’s wrong with it? And then a friend said this:

“You’re not an over-achiever, Karina. You’re a high achiever. There’s a difference.”

And suddenly it made sense. He was right. It was the word ‘over’ that I took umbrage to, and deeply. And also the sense that I was being told that I had no right to my hurts and disappointments in the face of so much achievement.

Yes, I’m a high achiever. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel battered when I don’t hit the mark. And what is it about those achievements that makes others want to pull me down? I don’t do what I do to make others feel badly about what they don’t do. I do what I do because I must. Because I spent most of my adult life in severe untreatable depression, in a melancholy so deep I could barely move. And there was no writing. No text spooling from these fingers. Just a vague memory of having wanted to write.

Occasionally that vague memory would turn razor sharp and slice me open. I remember very clearly watching the movie Iris one day. It came on the telly and I was still in my pyjamas, comatose on the couch. I watched, and saw a woman writing, fairly up to her elbows in words, and I sobbed with the deep and sudden grief of having lost more than I could ever quantify.

Yes, I’m a high achiever. I’ve got so much lost time to make up for it’s ridiculous. And this life I’ve had, of mental illness, and wrenching pain, and oblivion-seeking, and then the love of my life (who is patience, and depth, and the smell of sun on skin) and those children of mine (button-bright, back-jumping, monkey-screeching, banshee-hugging) have made me. And now, finally, I write.

So this is what I think. I’m new at all this. I’m learning how to deal with rejection, and rejection is spectacular. Rejection means I’ve written something, that went into the world, to be rejected. I’m also learning that if I put my stuff out there, some people will want to bring me, or my work, down. And that’s how it is. I especially like this little pearl of internet advice-for-writers goodness that landed on my screen tonight out of sheer serendipity:

…on mean commenters: Don’t internalize the crackpottery of others; on grad school: You’re not loving grad school? It might be just that you need to give it time. It might be that it’s not a fit, and you should leave. You can’t really know which it is yet, most likely; on success: You are not supposed to have success. You’re supposed to have a life.

And I have a life. An amazingly good one, that most days, I’m incredibly grateful for.

PS: if you’re going to comment on this, please remember that there is a real person reading your words, and if you wouldn’t say to me in person what you’re about to write, then please, refrain.



I finished my chapter (for now) on breastfeeding three weeks ago and, let’s be honest, have written no new work since. I’ve read, I’ve copied down quotes, I’ve printed things out and looked at them and tried to rearrange them for a seminar and an article I need to have finished soon, I’ve thought about writing, but I haven’t actually written. This is a habitual and painful process that goes like this: write, complete something I actually like, then cease to write out of fear I’ll never be able to write well again. So I write this, as a herald to the end of fear and frozen-ness. I write this to say be gone. I write this to prove that I write.

In the last three weeks I added guilt to the fear, just so I could be really tortured. The dream of being away from my children five days a week has hovered just out of my line of sight for some time. I adore them and want them off me at exactly the same time. They are not fun, and nor am I right now. We rail at each other in the early morning, having already breakfasted, dressed, and done playdoh, tv, trampoline, and a walk before 7.30am. The second cup of tea does not touch the sides. Sparrow grabs at my legs and makes sure I cannot move. Monkey thinks this is funny and does the same thing. I stand, with my cup of tea, and take furious sips, and dream of my desk in that tall grey building crammed in with four other desks in a room with a window, and my books, and an absence of small bodies.

I am still unsure about my ability to do this thing, to write and to have children at exactly the same time. But I also know this: I can’t not write, and I can’t not have my children. So it will be done, because there is no other way.

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.

MWF here I come

Federation Square Theatre (BMW Edge)

Image via Wikipedia

The Melbourne Writer’s Festival has selected me as one of their five ‘UNbloggers’. I’m a bit in awe I have to say, being such a brand new blogger and all. My first response was excitement, and my next was more along the lines of what-was-I-thinking-I-can’t-take-an-8-month-old-baby-to-a-writer’s-festival. But I’ve just decided that I can, and that it’ll be ok. There’s plenty of couches scattered in that big undercover bit at Fed Square (perfect for breastfeeding), there’ll be a change table somewhere, and Sparrow will magically sleep through each of the minimum ten sessions I attend. Ah. Sleep.

I’m guessing that writers and audience alike may not feel particularly warm to either a crying, squirming, squealing, or singing baby. I wouldn’t have been, pre-baby. Note to self: paranoia and doing other people’s thinking for them whilst attending the festival will not be conducive to the kind of relaxed and inquiring state of mind I’d like to cultivate. More notes to self: everyone there was a baby who interrupted a grownup at some point. Sometimes childcare is a hard thing to get and babies need to travel with their Mamas. Sparrow might magically sleep through the sessions (yeah right). Even if every post ends up saying something like “the first five minutes of this session was amazing, and then I had to leave because…” that’s ok.

I’ve downloaded the app and made a must see list. It’s twenty-one sessions long, and that’s only because I couldn’t include anything after dark (Sparrow’s not so crash hot at going to sleep for the night without me).

Essential items (please feel free to add to this list in the comments): pram, ergo, cruskits, pear slices, blanket, quiet toys, food and water for me, all the other stuff that goes in a nappy bag, laptop, iPhone so I can dictate my posts as I think of them in case I can’t type, pen and paper for old school moments, a brave face, and the serenity prayer. No I’m not religious, but the serenity prayer is gold.

A photocopy code and a pigeon hole


Image by FancyShots via Flickr

Sparrow and I had our second visit to uni yesterday. It was another cold day, but clear. We were there so I could meet my supervisor, and to get a desk. The guy in the gatehouse, the controller of cars, gave me a hot tip on a broken ticket machine in car park three, so I saved five dollars. Sparrow was so tired his core muscles were failing and he kept lurching forwards to stare at the ground. I held him on my shoulder while I dragged the pram from the boot. He vomited. White on black. Got him into the pram, found a nappy wipe, scrubbed at the chuck, and headed towards Humanities. Despite the vomit, and Sparrow’s extreme tiredness (this baby will not sleep in the day, well not the way those babies in books do) the afternoon felt smooth, and good, and the cold scrubbed at my cheeks and I found my way without a map.

I met the admin person first, who was lovely. And who gave me a key to a room with a desk in it. More than one desk, but one of those desks is for me. And then she gave me a photocopy code, and a pigeon hole, and showed me to a couch so I could feed Sparrow. So I sat, and Sparrow sucked. He’s stopped biting for now, which is good, but he now likes to pinch the soft skin on the underside of my upper arm as he drinks. I had a moment where I wanted to push him off. I don’t. I moved his hand away from my already bruising skin and held it so he couldn’t keep pinching. His sucking got deeper and slower, his eyes rolled back, and he slept. I took my nipple from his mouth and his little chin moved up and down, as if it were still there. But he stayed asleep. And then he transferred to the pram without waking.

My supervisor arrived and we sat in her book and light filled office and talked. She met my eyes and there were pictures of her children on her notice board and she was serious but lovely and had remembered some things about my project and some of my jelly-legged-there’s-no-way-I-can-do-this-what-was-I-thinking feelings fell away. Sparrow slept through the whole meeting. He woke again at the car. I got him up and out of the pram and he grinned and stroked my face and we stood in the cold, under a gum tree, and listened to hundreds of rosellas singing while the sun went down. With a key in my pocket, and a pigeon hole, and a photocopy code.

A walking poem

I’ve recently discovered that I can use the voice recorder on my iphone to catch lines of poetry that would otherwise float out and away. I’ve used the voice recorder before, but only to capture snippets of Monkey’s singing. I do lots of pram walks with Sparrow along the creek near my house, and this poem arrived, fully formed, last week. My partner has gone to pick up Monkey with a sleeping Sparrow in the car, so I’ve had 45 minutes alone in the house (I can’t remember the last time this happened). I could have done a load of washing, but I’ve chosen to transcribe this poem and post it instead.


Creek Walk

At dusk the men gather near the toilet

in the park that is a beat. I am

wearing my jeans and my boots and I wonder

am I safe? I am pushing my baby,

my dog is next to me and I wonder

am I safe? And I wonder how much can happen

to me between here, and there?

It is a dark part of the path. The wall

on one side, the creek on the other. The ducks landing,

sliding, sound sinister, suddenly. And I wonder

how much can happen, between here, and there?

Would I be pulled down from behind with a hand

around my neck? Because if you’d have asked

me, twenty years ago, I would have said

please. I was a thick girl in black tights,

in boots, waiting, to be taken.


But now I am thirty six. Now I have a child and a

baby and two dogs. Now I only hope

it will not rain so that we can all get to the park

in the day, in the sun, to fly your octopus kite.

Now I do not dare dream of disaster, but it

comes upon me, unbidden, anyway.

Writing to write

I’ve been wanting to do a PhD in Creative Writing since I was 15. Last week I got an email saying I’ve been accepted into a PhD at Latrobe. 21 years later and it’s actually happened. First, elation. Second, fear.

I have a five and a half month old baby and a two and half year old, and I’m starting in five or so weeks. I’m thinking that I may look back at the next four or so years of my life with sympathy and disbelief.

But I’m doing it anyway. And I’m going to write to write. I have a feeling that blogging about writing will actually create more (not less) space to write.

So this is it. Here we are. Come with me.