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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.

IMG_20170725_160931The last few weeks have, to say the least, been frustrating. Without going into detail, I’m stuck in limbo waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn. The result is a lot of free time, and a lot of restless anxiety. Unable to concentrate on a novel, I decided to re-read this book by Alain de Botton. I was hopeful, as Epicurus was, that philosophy might help “drive away the suffering of the mind.”

I first read The Consolations of Philosophy about five years ago, when I was living in South Korea. My little-black-book-of-quotes is full of wisdom from this volume, and I have drawn consolation from it over the intervening years. De Botton’s explanation of Seneca’s philosophy, for example – “We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them” – has been enormously helpful in dealing with my diabetes diagnosis. Coming back to it now, I’ve found reassurance in the way the ideas in this book help create perspective. It’s grounding to re-think the basics of existence every now and then, particularly when existence isn’t going exactly to plan. Here are some of the main ideas that have helped me navigate my thinking:

  • Frustration and stress are products of “dangerously optimistic notions” of reality

There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy (Schopenhauer)

Basically, we need to lower our expectations of the world around us. When we expect things to work out, and then they don’t, the result is anger, frustration, stress, anxiety. The less we expect, the less we are disappointed. It sounds a bit depressing, but it’s more about being realistic than pessimistic. The world is not here to make us happy. Nature is indifferent to whether we suffer or don’t. Further, suffering is a natural and inevitable part of life. Believing that any suffering we face is unfair or unnatural only increases the pain we feel.

  • Friends are important

He became himself on the page as he had been himself in the company of his friend (De Botton on Montaigne)

Both Epicurus and Montaigne specifically mention friendship as being a vital part of a good life. This is pretty obvious, but it’s easy to overlook. Friends give us a chance to be ourselves, they reaffirm our own experiences, thoughts and feelings by sharing and understanding – rather than judging – them. I’m very grateful for all the wonderful friends I have, and I need to spend more time appreciating (and enjoying) these relationships.

  • Nature is important

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. (Einstein)

Schopenhauer turned to the natural sciences in order to better understand human behaviour; Montaigne was interested in investigating and writing about his natural bodily functions; Nietzsche was a big fan of plant metaphors and – for a brief time – became a gardener. When human thinking gets too convoluted and confusing, taking some time out to consider how nature gets things done can bring a lot of clarity.

  • Art is important

[A]rt and philosophy help us … to turn pain into knowledge (De Botton on Schopenhauer)

For Epicurus, art is the antidote to advertising. Art shows us what we truly need (friendship, thought, freedom) stripped of all the crap advertising tells us we need (the latest iPhone, a fancy notebook, a new car). Art also, like friendship, reflects our experiences and helps us understand and cope with pain and suffering. A poet creates a story about a specific character that deals with universal themes, which we in turn – as readers – can relate back to our own individual experiences.

  • Simplicity is important

We are richer than we think, each one of us. (Montaigne)

It is possible to over-think things. It is also possible to over-write, and over-educate. Life doesn’t have to be so complicated. There is value in our own experiences, and in how we process and use those experiences. As humans we are intelligent, but we are also often impulsive and foolish. As Montaigne notes, “Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom: whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind.” Don’t just write about the complicated, universal stuff. Write about the specific, the individual. Write about the small and sometimes embarrassing details of what it’s like to be human. And don’t use big fancy words to do it.

  • Difficulty is important

[I]n the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. (De Botton on Nietzsche)

Not only should we expect life to be difficult, we should be thankful for those difficulties. It is through pain and suffering that we are given the chance to grow, to learn, to become better. Every time we are faced with something hard, we should look at it as a challenge. As an opportunity to become stronger, more compassionate, smarter, or – perhaps in my particular case – more patient. De Botton puts it beautifully when he writes: “We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge.”

I’ve read this book before. I’ve heard and thought about all of these ideas numerous times. But it is always useful and enlightening to come back to them again, to review them in a new context. Re-reading de Botton hasn’t solved my problem, but it has helped me accept and deal with it. I’m still waiting, but I’m waiting a little less anxiously.

Since I finished uni last month I’ve been on a bit of a reading spree. My book binge is thanks – in large part – to Text Publishing, who generously provided me with a wonderful selection of middle grade and young adult fiction. This post is an attempt to capture the joyful, heartbreaking and happily-strange experience of reading for kids and young adults.

IMG_20170625_082919I started with last year’s Text Prize winner – Beautiful Mess by Claire Christian (in the form of an uncorrected proof). Thanks to my six-month-old puppy the spine of this book is now its own beautiful mess, but this didn’t stop me finding a place for it on my bookshelf. Beautiful Mess is a novel that treats IMG_20170625_082952teenage readers as young adults – its characters are flawed, there is no happily-ever-after ending … And yet there is hope. Beautiful Mess is funny, engaging and overwhelmingly honest. This is a novel capable of rekindling a love of reading; a friend recently emailed me to say that the sixteen-year-old she had given Beautiful Mess to had previously lost interest in reading, but now loves it again. What writer could ask for a better review than that?

 

IMG_20170625_155816Goodbye Stranger by American author Rebecca Stead sits somewhere between middle grade and young adult fiction. I was drawn in by the characters and the story almost immediately. Reading a book like this (especially in winter) is like getting into a warm bath – cosy and totally immersive. I loved the little details of this novel – Bridge and her cat ears, Sherm’s unsent letters – and how they wound themselves into a larger message about the meaning of life. Goodbye Stranger also tackles some difficult issues – such as relationships and social media – in ways that reveal the complex motivations behind teenage behaviour.

Iris and the Tiger (Leanne Hall) and Elizabeth and Zenobia (Jessica Miller) seem IMG_20170625_082903geared towards younger readers, though the ideas in both of these novels are complex. What struck me most about these two books was the element of surrealism running through them. Iris and the Tiger is based around surrealism in art, and suggests – through the protagonist’s encounters with a number of unreal and unusual creatures – that art (and life) is all about perception. Elizabeth and Zenobia – a dark tale of grief and ghosts – creates an atmosphere that is increasingly strange, fantastic, and creepy.

IMG_20170625_082829I also read a couple of young adult novels from the Text Classics collection. Hills End by Ivan Southall was first published in 1962, and feels like a darker and more complex Enid Blyton story. A post-disaster survival tale that skips easily between perspectives to reveal the insecurities of each character, Hills End avoids the traditional adults-to-the-rescue ending. I can’t believe I have never encountered this novel before now. Likewise I for Isobel by Amy Witting, IMG_20170625_082817the first novel for young adults I’ve ever read that is written in an almost stream of consciousness style. This book is internal to the point of feeling claustrophobic at times, but beautifully written. And very dark. Like Beautiful Mess, I for Isobel doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to theme, starting with the trauma of being born to a mother who doesn’t (can’t?) love her children. I found a lot to like about this book, and it definitely warrants a re-read.

IMG_20170625_082759I finished with Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s novel The War That Saved My Life, set during World War II in London and rural England. I absolutely loved this book. From the very beginning I was right there beside Ada and Jamie as they are evacuated from London before the city is bombed. Again, this is a book for kids that doesn’t shy away from difficult experiences and emotions. Like I for Isobel, Ada is processing the trauma of a mother who doesn’t love her; who is actively cruel. This novel presents Ada’s emotional upheaval realistically, and with no easy explanations. As readers we ride the waves of fear and despair and uncertainty along with Ada. The War That Saved My Life presents so many questions for young (and old) readers, and would be a great book to read and discuss with a class.

I’m really impressed with Text for publishing books for young readers that are so different – books that don’t talk down to kids and teenagers, books that offer up ideas and characters that are complex. The kinds of books that kids can both enjoy and be inspired by. I’m excited to recommend these novels to young adults I know, and to incorporate them into my teaching. And – of course – I’m excited to read more books like these. I’m proud to be a grown adult who loves reading middle grade and YA fiction. A good book is a good book, and these are some of the best I’ve read in a long time.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about finding theme in novels, using Hannah Kent’s20170528_104135 Burial Rites – a Year 12 text – as an example. Over the past few months I’ve also been working through Tim Winton’s 2004 book The Turning with a student in Year 11. I write ‘book’ rather than ‘short story anthology’ or ‘novel’ because The Turning sits somewhere between the two, presenting seventeen separate stories that – when seen as a whole – also support a wider narrative. It makes sense, however, to look at each story individually before considering the links between them (links that, on the third read, I’m still discovering). It struck me – as I started thinking more deeply about The Turning – that searching for theme in a short story is quite a different exercise to finding theme in a novel. For years now I have returned to the following quote from Anne Enright to frame my understanding of the short story form:

“A story is something told, something that really needs to be said. The most we can say perhaps is that a short story is about a moment in life; and that, after this moment, we realise something has changed.”

In a novel we observe how the protagonist (as well as other characters) changes over time, across many – connected – ‘moments.’ A short story, however, doesn’t have the space for such a journey. The beauty of this form, for me, is its intense focus on one moment; its ability to show how transformative a single detail can be to a person’s life. As a reader, I turn to short stories when I feel the need to slow down, to concentrate, to notice the specific rather than the general. Sometimes I like to think about writing as if it were the zoom function on a camera. Imagine looking through a camera at a field. A novel is the whole image – the sky, the grass, the roots beneath the soil; a novella zooms in a little closer, perhaps just the grass; and a short story is a single blade of grass. (To take this analogy even further you might think of poetry as being a drop of dew on that blade of grass!)

In thinking about the seventeen stories that make up The Turning, my student and I have attempted – in each story – to identify two things:

  1. What is the “moment in life” for this story? In other words, what is the most important moment, the moment that stands out?

  2. After this moment, what has changed?

That change gives us a clue to the story’s theme (just as looking at what changes for a protagonist across a larger narrative can indicate the theme of a novel).

Some examples from The Turning:

‘Abbreviation’

  1. There are a couple of stand-out moments in this story. First, Vic Lang is kissed – in a particularly memorable way – by an older girl with a missing finger. Later in the story he is painfully injured in a fishing accident.

  2. Both of these moments cause Vic to realise the link between pain and memory. This is – in essence – a coming of age tale. Vic learns that adult life is both beautiful and painful, that pain is necessary. As Melanie says – “all the big things hurt, the things you remember. If it doesn’t hurt it’s not important” (p.26).

‘Family’

  1. It’s hard to look past a shark attack as a key moment in a story. Frank (Leaper) is surfing with his brother Max. Max is attacked by a whale shark, and Frank swims him to shore.

  2. After this moment Frank realises that, in spite of the way Max treats him, he cannot help but care about his brother. And it is this love that stops Frank from succeeding – “Just the thought of you was a weight in my legs, and the more I cared the worse it was” (p.187).

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‘Long, Clear View’

  1. Vic Lang is barely a teenager when his Dad leaves. Suddenly, Vic is responsible for his mother and baby sister. He takes his father’s rifle from the wardrobe and stands with it at the window, watching the town.

  2. After this Vic is constantly on guard. He is unable to relax for years, well into his adult life. “You can hold out for as long as it takes,” the young Vic thinks, “to have everyone home safe, returned to themselves and how things used to be” (p.204).

Three stories with three quite different themes – the necessity of pain (‘Abbreviation’), the burden of love (‘Family’), and the burden of responsibility (‘Long, Clear View’). There are, however, thematic links that run between these stories, and through the other fourteen. The ideas of memory, the power of the past over our present selves, and the often difficult but inescapable fact of family recur throughout the collection.

What makes The Turning a little more novel-like in its structure, however, is its links between characters and narrative events. The town of Angelus serves as a backdrop for many of the stories, and Vic Lang and his family (his mother, his father, and his wife) are prominent recurring characters. Details in a number of stories hint at something sinister going on in the background; there is another, larger, story that runs through the book about the underbelly of Angelus, about drugs and violence and police corruption. When we zoom out on The Turning we see a picture of a place and a group of people that stretches across decades. This is what, for me, makes The Turning so unique. It is a book that simultaneously satisfies my interest in story, and my desire for moments of change.

Tim Winton lives in Western Australia. His other novels include The Riders, Dirt Music and Cloudstreet. In 2013 The Turning was adapted into a film, with seventeen different directors interpreting the stories. Unlike the book, the film lacks the overarching character and narrative connections.

Just a quick post in the midst of furiously finishing uni assignments to announce some exciting news …

My very first novel – The Peacock Detectives – has been shortlisted for The Text Prize

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will be published by Text Publishing!

The Peacock Detectives is a novel for middle-grade readers (roughly ages 8 to 12) about a young girl searching for two peacocks that disappear from the holiday flats next door. Ostensibly a mystery, The Peacock Detectives is really about family, grief and coping with mental illness.

I first started working on The Peacocks in 2012 while I was living in Asia. Huge thanks to the dedicated members of Seoul Writers Workshop and Phnom Penh Writers Workshop for their thoughtful and constructive feedback. Thanks also to all those family members, students and friends (and children of friends!) who read drafts and shared their thoughts.

And of course thank you to Text! I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to work with this wonderful publisher.

Finally, congratulations to the other three shortlistees – Adam Cece, Sharon Kernot and Brendan Lawley. I’m looking forward to meeting you all in May and reading your work!

Okay, excited post over. Resuming assignments … now.

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peacock artwork by Emma Manning