Winter reading is the best reading; warm and cosy, oatmeal and a curled-up puppy, blankets and low light. Yes.

This beautiful novel appeared in my letterbox a few weeks ago, from Text IMG_20180709_134132Publishing. I read it quickly, in bed, in three sittings. Loved it like a morning cup of coffee (and left a ring on the back cover to prove it).

Flames, the debut novel from Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott, is so wonderfully different. Richard Flanagan called it ‘A strange and joyous marvel’, and he is exactly right. It is strange in the best possible sense of the word – in its women that return from the dead, gods that live in rivers, elements that take human form. This is what magical realism, done well, is capable of: making characters feel more alive, more real, through their very strangeness. And it is joyous, too. In spite of the sad moments, scenes that are brutal and devastating, ultimately this is a novel of joy – the writing is so evocative and bright, and the experience of reading Flames is one imbued with energy, life, and hope.

Arnott so perfectly marries the fantastic nature of his narrative with the Tassie landscape. I’ve never been to Tasmania, and I’ve always wanted to. After reading Flames I am determined to go. I love the way Arnott writes about the rivers, the mountains, the forests, the cities. And animals – wombats, cormorants, seals, fish. All the characters – human and non-human – are so well drawn, so separate and different from each other yet inextricably linked. The connections between the sections of the novel are clear and clever, though each also contains its own story, its own defining images. Some that really caught hold of my imagination: a fisherman working with a seal to hunt the enormous Oneblood tuna; a stone cabin on a lake; the isolated beauty of Melaleuca; a young man building a coffin for his twenty-three year old sister.

It’s impossible to pick a favourite part, but one of the most memorable for me was following the Esk God – a water rat – upriver:

Rakali, water rat, pest – the names meant nothing to him. He had been here longer than the loud pale apes … had seen them grow and die and spread … had learned the colour and shape of their callousness, but he could not stop them, for his power was limited to the rivers, while they swamped over everything. (p.39)

Arnott has managed to create a novel where the beauty and uniqueness of the writing works together perfectly with the distinctive characters and the movement of the story. Everything about this book feels in sync, like a dancer and his music, a rider and her horse. Or a tuna fisherman and his seal.

Flames is published by Text. Robbie Arnott’s work has appeared in the Lifted Brow, Island and Kill Your Darlings. He lives in Hobart.

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Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

-E.L. Doctorow

You can’t know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing … Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.

-from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I’m about two-thirds of the way through a first draft of my work in progress, and suddenly I’m stuck.

It’s frustrating, especially since I’m in a situation at the moment where I have plenty of time – and headspace – to write. And even though I know, rationally, that this feeling is a common and natural part of the writing process it still leaves me anxious and restless. And scared. Scared that I won’t get past this, that all my ideas will stagnate and this book will never have an ending.

I firmly believe that being a writer means showing up to do the work, not waiting around for inspiration to hit. I believe, as Anne Lamott (author of Bird by Bird, an incredible book on the writing process) does, that ‘if I sit there long enough, something will happen’. This means, however, that when the ‘being stuck’ part of the process rolls around (as it inevitably does, at some point, with every project) it is doubly hard to get to work. Because everything you write feels like failing. And this is the paradox of writing – you have to fail (again and again and always, not just when you’re starting out) before you can get to anything good. In order to get to anything good.

This is easy to understand in theory. But in practice it’s so hard to get up every morning and sit down in front of the screen knowing you’re going to fail for two hours. Knowing you have no choice. If this is really what you want to do, this is how it has to be.

And it’s impossible to know how long being stuck will last. It could be days. Weeks. Months. Hopefully not years, but who knows. Thinking, ‘I’ve just got to make it through until next Tuesday’ doesn’t work, because you really have no idea. The only part of being stuck that’s in your control is the part where you show up to experience it. That’s it.

Why does ‘being stuck’ happen? Why now?

As I approach the end of this draft things I’ve set up need to start paying off. I’ve posed so many questions … the problem is I don’t know how to answer them. I think this is largely why I’m stalling. But I also feel like I can’t plan those answers – I can’t plot them on a list or a graph. They have to arise organically out of the writing process. Out of what’s come before. Otherwise the answers will feel forced and unbelievable, rather than inevitable.

If you stop trying to control your mind so much, you’ll have intuitive hunches about … character.

-Anne Lamott

The story I’m writing isn’t flowing – building out of itself – like it was before. I think this is because I’ve lost a sense – in all the details – of the larger picture, of what this book is really about. Its themes, but especially its characters. As Lamott notes, ‘plot grows out of character’. I don’t know them well enough, these people I’m creating, and so my subconscious can’t make the connections – while I’m writing – about who they are and what needs to happen to them next (what is inevitable). I feel like I’ve been writing in circles, trying to figure out the characters, without moving the plot forward.

Arrange whatever pieces come your way.

-Virginia Woolf

Maybe if I spend some time not planning, but sort of meditating on things, I will get moving again. I can feed my subconscious enough to make those connections, find those answers, and bring the plot home.

So that’s where I’m at now. Pulling back, giving myself a chance to mull, no pressure, no stress. Focussing the conscious brain somewhere else and trusting the subconscious to turn things over for a while. At least until the end of this first draft. The nature of good writing, Lamott points out, is ‘that you find things out as you go along. Then you go back and rewrite.’

This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop sitting down at the screen every day. But it does mean feeling less anxious about it when I do. It means continuing to collect the bits and pieces that come, whatever they may be, and having faith that they’ll carry this story through to its ending.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about reading, but I’ve been devouring books over the last few months. On sick days and in bed on cooling nights I’ve curled up with so many different pages, from crime novels to young adult to non-fiction. I haven’t kept track of every book, but I did jot down notes about many of them in a journal I keep for books and films. Here are some of the highlights from my summer/autumn reading pile.

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In January I read The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, a biography of Sandra Pankhurst published by Text. I loved the way the chapters in this book alternate between Sandra’s life story and detailed descriptions of the houses (and the people) she cleans for. Beautifully written, almost a love letter from Sarah to Sandra, the author reflects on her own battles and points out how easily she (or any of us) could end up living the way Sandra’s clients do.

In February I sped through The Dry and Force of Nature, both excellent Aussie IMG_20180507_161659crime thrillers by Jane Harper. I also rediscovered The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, a novel I found in a second-hand book shop in Yarrawonga last year. A quirky, epic story that moves – Forrest Gump-like – through history. Told in an omniscient style, I felt a little distant from the characters at times. But it was still an enjoyable and very different read.

For book club I re-read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, a short story written in 1948 that remains relevant (and popular in high school literature courses) today. Over coffee and cake we talked about the idea of tradition, and why we are afraid to give up rituals that have become outdated and sometimes harmful. Is this the danger of nostalgia? Holding on for holding ons sake?

In March – as the weather started to turn and I spent more time wearing hoodies and seeking out sun – I worked my way through A Brief History of Seven IMG_20180507_161640Killings by Marlon James. Epic in every sense of the word, this wasn’t always an easy read. Some novels feel more like a ride – a literary experience – than a narrative, and this certainly fits that description. Much more character than plot driven, Seven Killings presents an enormous cast of wonderfully created voices, moving through history and politics in an often stream of consciousness style. From Kingston in the 70’s to New York in the 90’s, I was caught up in this world for a good month of autumn.

In April I went on a YA and middle-grade binge, starting with The Extremely Weird Thing That Happened in Huggabie Falls by Adam Cece, winner of the 2017 Text Prize. I loved the imaginative randomness of this book, the anything-is-possible vibe. I also really liked the way the author’s voice frequently ‘intrudes’ upon the story.

Next I read the beautiful Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars by Martine Murray. This was such a lovely read – imaginative and quirky in a totally different way. And somehow gentle. I particularly liked the descriptions of the bush, the animals, and the herb potions.

In the space of a day I read Bonesland by Brendan Lawley, a YA novel IMG_20180507_161649shortlisted for last year’s Text Prize. Gritty and great, totally captivating in its angst. A really good insight into modern teen life in rural Victoria.

And then there was Bob, a magical little middle-grade story by Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass about an American/Aussie girl and a not-zombie-wrong-chicken. Weird and mysterious and hilarious and beautiful, I was constantly reading lines out loud. An ending I did not expect. One of those books that makes you want to give it to everyone but at the same time keep it secretly to yourself. So wonderful.

Towards the end of April I read two – very different – holocaust books back to back. The first was The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, a novel I’d heard people talk about for years but had never had the chance to read. It was worth the wait – amazingly different from anything else I’ve ever come across about the Second World War. Compelling and full of descriptions that are just odd enough to feel completely real. I loved Death as the narrator, the journal illustrations, the range of characters. A book I could read again.

The second was The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, a recent release by a New Zealand/Australian author based on the true story of Lale, a holocaust survivor. After The Book Thief, this felt much more traditional in terms of narrative style. It is a love story, and a very moving account of strength, bravery and – when it comes down to it – a great amount of luck.

It’s May already, and I’ve just finished two books of non-fiction. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo reads like a novel but is actually a documentation of a community living in the slums by Mumbai’s airport. The author lived there for an extended period, too, in an effort to get to know the people and the politics of poverty. It’s quite astounding to realise that the thoughts and inner workings of characters are not the result of poetic license or author interpretation, but are in fact based on extensive interviews with real people. It’s a pretty bleak account – people sorting garbage for a living, suicide by rat poison, a disabled woman who sets herself on fire – but it is also a revealing insight into the hierarchies of slum life.

IMG_20180507_161628Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is also largely about poverty, this time in Ohio in the United States. The author grew up in extremely difficult circumstances, but somehow – as an adult – he managed to escape them, to break the cycle. His book is an attempt to understand both what it is that traps people in poverty, and what allows them to get out. This was a really interesting read, an insight into a world I previously knew very little about, and perhaps a (partial) explanation for the current state of the States, and the influence of Trump.

It’s been a weird and wonderful mix of reading, from houses full of rubbish to the Appalachian mountains. I feel very lucky to have access to so many different worlds in this way, to be able to leave behind my own thinking and enter someone else’s, for a while. I’ve still got a fairly tall pile of unread books waiting for me on top of the bookshelf. I can’t wait to see what winter brings.

I haven’t posted since the end of October last year. The past four months have been rough, and I’ve had a hard time deciding how to write about them. How to come back to this blog.

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This book has travelled with me since I first moved to Korea in 2008. It’s been helpful at least twice before – evidenced by (first) green pencilled underlining and (second) orange highlighting. This year I’ve returned to it again; specifically, to Part III: Transforming Suffering. And I’m coming back to this blog now as a way of understanding my own thoughts on suffering. Hopefully they might be of use to others, as well.

Suffering is natural

If your basic outlook accepts that suffering is a natural part of your existence, this will undoubtedly make you more tolerant towards the adversities of life.

There is this initial feeling of: Why is this happening to me? It’s not fair, I don’t deserve this. It’s easy to forget that, of course, this isn’t just happening to me. Not by a long shot. Everyone – at some point in their lives – suffers. The Dalai Lama even goes so far as to say that ‘suffering is the most basic element that we share with others, the factor that unifies all living creatures’. So why is it so hard to feel this? I think it’s partly because we have an inclination to see ourselves as the centre of the universe. And partly because – at least in Australia – we are so good at hiding suffering (‘as suffering becomes less visible, it is no longer seen as part of the fundamental nature of human beings’). We have become experts at pretending everything is always okay, and that ‘okay’ is the natural order of things. Which results in a crisis when something – inevitably – goes wrong.

These last few months have made me acutely aware of the fact that anything can happen to anyone, at any time. Which, at first, is a terrifying thought. But once you start to realise that this is, actually, the essence of being alive it starts to feel kind of enlightening. Like you are seeing reality for the first time. Letting go of that feeling of abnormality is hugely freeing; it has allowed me to accept whatever I’m feeling, and to experience those feelings as part of life.

Suffering makes us more compassionate

The vulnerability we experience in the midst of our suffering can open us and deepen our connection with others.

Suffering makes us more aware of our connection to other ‘living creatures’, and it also makes us aware of how caring those creatures can be. And, by extension, how caring we ourselves are capable of being. Suffering shows us just how important that care is, even in small doses. I’ve been lucky enough to realise how much of a difference it can make when people visit, or smile, or send flowers, or make you a sandwich. It’s something of a relief to know how much such seemingly little gestures can matter. There is hope in the tiny things. It makes me feel less helpless; like the things I do – in turn – for other people will in fact be worth something.

Suffering makes us stronger

A tree with strong roots can withstand the most violent storm, but the tree can’t grow roots just as the storm appears on the horizon.

I’ve used this quote a lot in my teaching practice, but I don’t think I’ve really understood it until now. Suffering itself tests our metal and forces us to build up our resistance, like exercising a muscle. But it also reminds us that suffering is inevitable, and that there will always be more to face. It reminds us to be ready, to grow our roots during the good times, so that the next time things go bad we will be better able to cope.

I’ve started to think more about suffering. Not in a mulling, depressed way, but more like a meditation. A mental rehearsal. When the next lot of bad news comes, how will I face it? How will I act? In what ways will I want to be ready? Instead of praying that bad things won’t happen, I’m planning for how I will deal with them when they do. It’s a calmer way of being, and one that feels much more realistic. I don’t have any control over the suffering that comes to me – any more than a forest has control over a wildfire – but I can control my response to that suffering.

Suffering strengthens the mind and makes it more flexible; it helps us grasp the big picture, as well as the details. Suffering helps us, by shifting our perspective, to see all of life.

Suffering deepens our experience

‘Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.’ – Rumi

In the past four months or so I’ve felt anxious, depressed, angry and defeated. But I’ve also had moments of real happiness and calm, even during the worst weeks. And sometimes that sense of happiness has felt larger, somehow, than anything I’ve felt in the past. I’ve slowed down. I’ve made time for the things that I love doing, and I’ve enjoyed them more. I’ve noticed things, felt things. Like patting a puppy, or watering plants, watching a good movie, riding in the back of a ute. I’ve heard people say that having a sense of mortality can make you appreciate life; that the quality of life, the way you use it, improves when you realise what a tightrope walk you’re on. I always imagined it would be a bittersweet feeling, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it is just sweet.

Life is change. ‘At any given moment, no matter how pleasant or pleasurable your experience may be, it will not last’. Really knowing this, as cliched as it may sound, does make moments feel richer. The Art of Happiness quotes Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who was imprisoned during World War II: ‘Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.’ For me – and I’m only just coming to this realisation now as I write this – I think that meaning is closely tied to suffering itself. Meaning lies in the knowledge that life and suffering are one and the same thing, and that to have life without suffering is not to fully experience it. Like travelling and only staying in fancy resorts, never sleeping on a beach or riding on the back of a motorbike. Meaning is how much more amazing those little moments – reading in bed, running, hearing a song – are when they are juxtaposed with suffering. And meaning is also finding out how compassionate people can be, and how strong, when faced with suffering.

Suffering often seems to occur at random, senselessly and indiscriminately, with no meaning at all.

It does seem that way. It seems unfair, and badly timed, and unnatural. But it really isn’t. And realising this gives it meaning. Reflecting on suffering has allowed me to keep going. To write and work and come back to this blog. It has allowed me to do life, day to day, slowly, not too sadly, and – surprisingly often – sweetly.

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Reading Anaïs Nin’s journals last month reminded me of this collection of extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf, written between 1918 and 1941. I dug my battered copy – not looked at since uni days – out of the bottom of the bookshelf and have been dipping into it as a way of procrastinating/keeping myself motivated. This post is a quick list of some of the thoughts that I’ve found the most interesting …

-Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections.

-The habit of writing thus for my own eye is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.

-The main requisite … is not to play the part of the censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever.

-I want to write nothing in this book that I don’t enjoy writing. Yet writing is always difficult.

-I write … every morning now, feeling each day’s work like a fence which I have to ride at, my heart in my mouth till it’s over, and I’ve cleared, or knocked the bar out.

-Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end.

-The truth is … that writing, even here, needs screwing of the brain.

-You must put it all in before you can leave out.

-I am writing down the fidgets, so no matter if I write nonsense.

-The creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

… and back to work.

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I believe language has power.

Reading about writing. This $2 Saturday morning op-shop find is aIMG_20170928_171739 welcome companion while I’m struggling through the first draft of my novel. Op-shoppers can’t be choosers, so I’ve had to skip Volume One and jump right into the years 1934-1939, where Anaïs finds herself in France on the edge of the Spanish Civil War. In 2017 I’m in Australia, reading in my morning Twitter feed about Trump declaring war on North Korea, and more Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar. And when Anaïs writes about buying a newspaper and reading of “Massacres. Blood. Tortures. Cruelty. Fanaticism” I can’t help but feel that even though eighty years have passed the only thing that has really changed is the media’s medium.

I cling to the world made by the artists because the other is full of horror, and I can see no remedy for it.

Anaïs doesn’t believe in politics. “Art has been my only religion,” she writes. But she isn’t simply trying to escape reality, or to pretend we live in a perfect world. Anaïs is no Romantic. On the contrary, she writes that romanticism is a form of neurosis:

It stems from the same source, a hunger for perfection, an obsession with living out what one has imagined.

Despair, Anaïs muses, occurs when the search for perfection, for a universal meaning, fails:

There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.

Art, for Anaïs, is the giving of this personal meaning, the writing of our own individual novels. Art does not hide reality, but transforms it, illuminates it. And it is hard work – an ongoing, active process that requires daily practice:

The assaults of reality are more and more violent. It becomes more and more difficult to maintain an individually beautiful or integrated world. I have to kill one dragon a day, to maintain my small world from destruction.

Hope is hard. And happiness, Anaïs writes, is “precarious and dangerous … because of what is happening around me. I am always tightrope dancing.” There are times when she feels overwhelmed, “when all I have lived … comes up in my throat, drowns me.” But she survives, finds the good in life, through writing:

I live in a period of dissolution and disintegration … I thought I too would dissolve. But my diary seems to keep me whole.

Reading Anaïs – a writer who is perhaps more well known for her journals than her fiction – is a timely reminder of the power of language. It might not change the world, or even influence political policy, but it can – on an individual level – shape our experience and keep us alive. “I keep on writing in the diary,” Anaïs admits, “a writing which is not writing but breathing.”

Writing keeps alive in us the instinct – possibly naive but admirable in its doggedness – to keep going in the face of an often awful world. An instinct that combines our biological drive to survive with our capacity to create. “Our need to dream,” Anaïs writes, “in the middle of ugliness and a monstrous reality.” Reading these journals has renewed my motivation to write, both creatively and in my own diary. This little op-shop treasure has rescued me, in part, from the despair that can come from too much time to think:

Introspection is a devouring monster. You have to feed it with much material, much experience, many people, many places, many loves, many creations, and then it ceases feeding on you.

So thank you, Anaïs, for helping to feed my introspection. Hopefully this post will go some way towards feeding someone else’s.

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I’ve been sitting here for five minutes trying to think of a more interesting-eloquent-descriptive-original way of phrasing that title. Evidently, I can’t. Because … (see title).

While I was studying last year I promised myself I would keep writing. And I did – three hundred words a day, every day. It was all about getting words on a page. Didn’t matter what those words were, as long as they were in some sort of order and were more or less decipherable. I stuck to it for over a year, and ended up with around a hundred pages of what is essentially stream of consciousness rambling. This is the raw material (so raw it’s still gasping for breath) that now sits at the foundation of a new book. It’s the naked, subterranean ravings of my subconscious. There’s some surprisingly interesting stuff in there. There’s also a whole lot of clunky, confusing, (and sometimes psychologically-unsettling) clutter.

Free-writing was the easy part, although it never used to be. I used to find it nearly impossible to get any words down at all. It has taken years of practice to shut out that little inner-critic, and even now I can still hear her knocking to get back in. Just write. Throw up into your typewriter (thanks, Raymond Chandler). Okay. Yep. Done. Now – make it mean something.

Right.

Write.

And this is the really hard part. It is also somehow, simultaneously, the most exciting, enlivening part. I can sit and stare at my computer for half an hour and come away with a paragraph, a sentence, two words. But the feeling that comes after finding two perfect words is like … something really amazing (again, apologies, please see title).

In the last week or so I’ve changed my approach. It’s now about quality, rather than quantity. I’m giving myself a time – rather than a word – limit. Every day, no matter what else I’m doing, I sit down for at least half an hour. I stare at the screen. I let myself get bored. I let my thoughts wander. I don’t check Twitter. I don’t get up to clean my teeth or wash the dishes or play with the dog. For that time each day it’s just me and the page. Sometimes I finish up with sentences, sometimes paragraphs, sometimes one word. After a while it starts to feel like a sort of meditation. A slow but sure tearing away from the world. A necessary disconnection.

Writing is hard. But it is also – in the most simple sense – good. It’s good in the way eating an apple is good, or going for a walk, getting to bed early, reading a book (instead of my Twitter feed). Writing simply makes sense.

So without any further deliberation, contemplation, complication …

Just. Fucking. Write.