I’ve got a bit more time and head space at the moment, since finishing a shitty first draft of a new book, to think about other writing things. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is poetry. Specifically, poetry that clips together to form a longer narrative. Also known as, the verse novel.
The very first verse novel I read was Sharon Kernot’s The Art of Taxidermy back in 2018. Since then, I’ve returned to this book multiple times, and passed it on to friends and students. It’s a beautiful, sad, strange and unique exploration of grief and growing up. If you haven’t read it, do.
I did a deeper dive last year, and ended up with a stack of verse novels recommended by friends and the internet. I started with Bindi, written by Kirli Saunders and illustrated by Dub Leffler. I read this with my 4/5/6 class and the kids (and I) loved the way Saunders plays with language, both in terms of the words she uses and the way she places them on the page. There seems to be a growing number of verse novels written for middle grade and young adult readers, and I can see why this form appeals to kids and teens. It’s different, pushes the boundaries of language, doesn’t play by the usual rules. And for those young readers who might find pages of densely packed text overwhelming, the verse novel offers space and opportunity. More room for thought, less pressure to get to the end ‘in time’. For middle grade readers I also recommend Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, which made me smile and brought me to tears and generally wouldn’t let me put it down until I was finished. And for teens Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo is similarly unputdownable, as is Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (this is also a graphic novel, with art by Danica Novgorodoff). I haven’t read as many verse novels for adults, but can recommend The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter – a crime thriller in poetry. And Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson, which has to be one of the most powerful and memorable things I’ve ever read, in any form.
There is something about the verse novel that has captured my imagination, both as a reader and a writer. I don’t have much of an understanding of the technical aspects of poetry, and while there are moments in Shakespeare that I love, on the whole I do not love (nor do I completely comprehend) iambic pentameter. I have written some poetry in the past, but mostly secretly, and not seriously. I’ve dabbled; gone through phases where I’ve been obsessed with reading Ginsberg or Plath or Shelley, copied and played around with styles, but then moved back into the more familiar territory of the short story or the traditional novel. In the last year or so, however, I’ve found myself gravitating towards poetry – in both my reading and my writing. I’m not sure exactly why, but I suspect it has something to do with my emotional state.
The past year has been pretty complex, emotionally. I read somewhere recently (I wish I could remember where) that the purpose of poetry is to make the reader feel something. I like that. Poetry is not an answer, but more of an exploration. A place to investigate and sit with feelings that – in other parts of our lives – we are often encouraged to repress or ‘fix’ and move on from. Poetry is a place that recognises complexity, and that sees the value in experiencing and spending time with our various emotions, rather than just trying to ‘get over’ them.
So what is it about the verse novel that is so intriguing? I think, for me, it’s a number of things. It’s the ability to read or tell a story slowly, in close-up snippets that reveal specific and complex aspects of characters. It’s the freedom to explore ideas in non-traditional ways. It’s the way verse forces you to slow down, to think about each word, to give up the moment to the poem. It’s the emotional weight poetry carries, its propensity to surprise you with your own tears, the way music does. And it’s the allowance of complexity, of ambiguity, of all the uncertainties and paradoxes and inconsistencies that are inherent in our stories, and our lives.
A short post this month. I’m deep into the final third of a first draft at the moment, trying to keep the momentum going. A few weeks ago I found myself getting stuck, struggling to sit down at my desk every day, wondering (not for the first time) what I was doing and why I was doing it. I came across The Writer Laid Bare by Lee Kofman at this time of stuck-ness, and it has helped me find motivation again. I haven’t finished reading it yet – I’m dipping into its pages each day before I begin writing – but I’ve already found so much worth taking note of. Kofman’s memoir/guide is intelligent, intuitive and instructive. She frequently draws on the thoughts and practices of other great writers to illustrate her ideas. My copy is littered with underlining and notes and stars in the margins. Here are a few things I’ve found most helpful so far:
1. Reasons for writing. Kofman suggests a number of reasons why writers write, but the two that resonate most with me are an enthusiasm for ‘words and their right arrangement’, and the way writing slows down the mind. Reminding myself that it is enough just to enjoy the placement of words has helped me come to my manuscript with a sense of fun and excitement. And I have rediscovered the simple pleasure of sitting in one place, slowing down and focusing, turning off that incessant and fast-paced internal monologue that characterises all other aspects of my life.
2. First drafts should be messy. Kofman notes that she begins a new work in an ‘intuitive, chaotic way’. Sometimes writing too carefully in the beginning can inhibit the raw essence of an idea. Kofman quotes Steinbeck: ‘Write freely and as rapidly as possible’.
3. Writing is about layering. A first draft is just that – a first draft. The process of writing relies on redrafting, and redrafting, and redrafting. Kofman talks about the surprise of revising a first draft: the ‘meanings and interconnections’ that are discovered. Each draft is a layering of these meanings, and it takes time. Don’t rush it.
4. The importance of regular practice. The longer you spend away from your work, the harder it is to come back to. Kofman quotes Annie Dillard, who compares a work in progress to a caged lion. The more time you spend away from the lion, the more feral it becomes, and the more afraid you are to face it. I felt this last week, after spending a few days in Melbourne where I hardly even thought about my work in progress, let alone added words to it. When I re-opened the file it was with an anxious twist in my gut, and it was a while before I felt comfortable on the page again. Now, I’m trying to write every day, even if it’s just a few hundred words. I take breaks, and I write in small increments, but I do it regularly. That’s how I tame my lion.
Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian writer who lives in Melbourne. Her other works include the memoirs Imperfect and The Dangerous Bride. Dr Kofman also blogs about literature and writing here: https://leekofman.com.au/
The tiger was so close to the bars that Will could hear his huffing out-breaths . . . He remembered the theory of the sublime, which he’d read in philosophy class, and thought that this was what it meant . . . Fuck, no wonder he had no girlfriend; he was so far inside his own head that the sight of a tiger had sent him into some kind of existential crisis.
– from ‘Wild Abandon’ by Emily Bitto
This book wrecked me.
I finished Wild Abandon a little over a month ago, sitting on my back deck on Easter Sunday. Once I started reading I found it hard to stop, although at times I had to because of the emotional weight of it. I can’t remember the last time a book made me cry. Wild Abandon is the kind of novel that, once you finish it, leaves you dazed and useless for hours. I couldn’t stop thinking about this story; I’m still thinking about it, over a month later, as I struggle to put into words just how incredible Wild Abandon is.
I bought a copy of this novel after hearing Emily Bitto speak on the Guardian’s ‘Book It In’ podcast. But it wasn’t until I was about halfway through reading that I realised I knew this story. Twelve years ago, when I was living in South Korea, I read a news article about exotic animals shot in Ohio. I was fascinated and appalled, so much so that I wrote a poem about the incident (I’ve included a excerpt from the poem at the end of this post). However, when I read Wild Abandon – even though it is a novel loosely based on the events in Ohio in 2011 – it was like hearing the story for the first time. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: this is the power of fiction, to give you a deeper, more complex experience. To go beyond the facts of what happened and draw you into the details, into the emotional impact on individuals, as well as the larger societal implications.
Wild Abandon is not just a novel about the absurd tragedy of the US exotic animal trade. The main event of the book holds in its orbit so much more: the loneliness and aggression of capitalism, the devastating and lingering after-effects of war, the arrogance and insecurity of youth. One of the most compelling aspects of this book is the way it pulls you so deeply into the mind of its protagonist, Will. A young Australian man on an American road trip, Will is broken hearted and fresh from an Arts degree. He is at once sympathetic and infuriating, fluctuating between existential despair and over-confidence. His self-awareness is almost claustrophobic at times: the way he comments on his own thoughts and feelings, judging himself as much as he judges other people. Bitto has done a fabulous job of drawing the reader into Will’s head. I was completely immersed; I really felt like I was seeing the world through his eyes.
And Will’s is an interesting and unexpected perspective through which to experience the story of these animals, and that of their ‘collector’, Wayne. In the narrative of Wayne’s life Will is little more than an extra, an outsider passing through and becoming caught up in this tragedy. Seeing events unfold through Will’s eyes adds an extra layer of strangeness, a sense that this madness is not as random and disconnected as we might like to think. Because, in reality, Will is a part of the deaths of these animals. We all are. Connected through our participation in a global system that creates these sorts of situations. A system that we often feel conflicted about and helpless to change, as Will does. Will is so lost in this world. In trying to understand himself he is also trying to understand Wayne, and the entire history of human trauma and fear and loneliness that has led to this moment. There is no resolution, not really, and I think this makes the ending even more powerful. There is no redemption, no sense of a lesson learned or an identity discovered. Except, perhaps, for Will’s realisation that he is not blameless, that he is not separate from this life he is living. That his actions and feelings and choices are both influenced by and have an influence on the world. There is no way of extricating ourselves from this twenty-first century mess we’re in; we are the mess, just as we are destroyed by it.
Emily Bitto is a Melbourne-based writer. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the Stella Prize in 2015. Wild Abandon has been shortlisted for a 2022 ABIA award, in the literary fiction category.
A preschool book of animals:
18 Bengal tigers in the backstreets
17 African lions slinking past libraries
8 bears at a baseball game
3 mountain lions at a meeting
A wolf, a baboon
And some macaques
They were eating the man
Who didn’t need a license
In 8 states
To buy a tiger for the price of a Labrador.
They had to shoot them, the newspaper said
Because they were eating him in a country with trimmed grass
With swimming pools
They were eating him in a country with Costco
And coupons and cutlery
They were eating him in a country
Where there are more tigers in backyards
Than anywhere else
In the wild world.
What we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions . . . Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection.
My attention span is terrible.
As I write this, I have five other tabs open on my computer, silently demanding I look at them. I close them down, one by one, doing a final check for updates and notifications. But still, my attention drifts. I look at the time, and start mentally calculating when I need to get ready to leave the house to pick up my partner from work. I glance at the jar of pumpkin soup defrosting on the table in front of me, and plan what else I need to organise for dinner. I think about what I might eat for lunch, and that I haven’t had a shower today, and if I need to put the bins out, and whether or not I should vacuum. I also just spent thirty seconds Googling how to spell ‘vacuum’.
Before reading Stolen Focus by Johann Hari I knew my mind was busy. But I didn’t realise just how deep this problem runs, and the important things constant distraction is causing us to lose. This book resonated with me from the first chapter, as I think it will with most people. In particular, I related to the idea of ‘flow’ – how wonderful this state is when we achieve it, and how these days it seems harder and harder to achieve. Every moment of our lives is fragmented: we are doing so many things at once, and none of them deeply. We never stay with one thing long enough to really engage with it, to sink into it, and find that flow (also sometimes known as ‘the zone’). And we are sacrificing the quality of our lives for this constant distraction.
I read Stolen Focus about a month ago, and when I finished it I made some promises to myself regarding my attention. I turned off notifications on my phone. I resolved to shut down all my social media tabs while writing, and to spend less time ‘doom scrolling’. I planned to dedicate more time to ‘mind-wandering’.
I started strong, but over the last week or so I’ve noticed old habits creeping back in. This post is an effort to get back on track. To remind myself of some of the key ideas from Hari’s book, and to refocus on the importance of focusing.
1. Slow down
I’m teaching less this year, and I have a lot more free time. However, I still feel like I’m rushing. I’m skipping from one task to the next – write this post, go to the gym, organise dinner, walk the dog, clean the kitchen – and I’m doing it at speed. A good friend recently reminded me of a quote from Virginia Woolf: ‘No need to hurry. No need to sparkle.’ I’ve written it on the chalkboard in our kitchen to remind myself that all this running around really isn’t necessary. I feel like I’m skimming across the surface of everything I do, the way you skip stones across a body of water. I’m not really present for anything, and – as a result – I’m not really enjoying anything, either. As Sune Lehmann – a professor at the Technical University of Denmark, interviewed by Hari – says: ‘Depth takes time’. If we want to really engage with our lives, we need to slow down. We need to stop doing so many things at once. Or – maybe we just need to stop doing so many things. Quality, over quantity. This need for more is something I see in myself, but it also seems to be a larger societal trend. As Hari notes in the final chapter of Stolen Focus, our way of life since the Industrial Revolution has been all about economic growth. Our focus – as a species – has been on getting bigger, getting faster, getting ‘more’. But it doesn’t seem to be making us any happier. I live in a town where the push for more tourism is creating an environment that is overcrowded and stressful. As a teacher, I find the frequent introduction of new programs and directives from the department disruptive and distracting. There is no time to teach any subject in any depth, because we are trying to incorporate so many things into the curriculum. As a society I feel we need to stop and ask ourselves – does doing more always mean doing better?
2. Flow states
Something that does make our lives better is being able to access ‘flow states’. A flow state is a ‘deep form of attention’, Hari writes. It’s a sort of being-in-the-moment, a time where everything else disappears from your consciousness and you are completely focused on one thing. Lots of different activities can give you this flow state, but art is a big one. Last term I was teaching Visual Art from Prep to Grade 6, and it was amazing to see how kids would get lost in painting or drawing, always surprised when the bell went for the end of the session. Flow states can also happen with writing. They can happen with reading, or walking in the bush, or swimming, or rock climbing. There is a great joy that comes with flow states. A sense of purpose, a feeling of having participated in something meaningful. Hari notes that we have a choice: between ‘fragmentation, or flow’. Fragmentation is the state of flitting between tasks, on the surface, without depth. Flow is one task, deeply, and slowly. Fragmentation is social media and news headlines. Flow is painting a picture or writing a poem. Fragmentation is like eating a whole lot of different candy. Flow is enjoying a meal.
Hari talks about how experiencing a state of flow for a few hours in the morning left him feeling ‘relaxed and open and able to engage’ for the rest of the day. I can relate to this. I know that if I write in the morning my afternoon will be calmer, less frenetic. I’m able to enjoy whatever I’m doing more if I’ve spent some time in that flow. It’s similar to the after-effects of exercise. But flow states take time. I know as a writer it can take fifteen minutes (at least) of staring blankly at the screen or the page before I start to put any words down. It takes even longer for those words to start flowing. And flow states only come from monotasking. You can’t check your email and like a Tweet and send a text while you’re waiting. You just have to wait. Quality, not quantity. One. Thing. At. A. Time.
I like to walk our dog at night. I take her off the lead and we walk through the bush, in the dark. It’s quiet, and we set an easy pace. It’s the perfect time for mind-wandering.
We don’t let our minds wander much anymore. There is always something to think about, to plan, to listen to, to read. Just in my own life, I’ve noticed moments that used to be empty of distractions have now been filled. In line at the supermarket, for example. In the past, I would have stood and just waited, looking around, letting my mind wander. Now, I take out my phone and check the news, or do a crossword puzzle. If I’m in a cafe waiting to meet a friend for coffee, the same thing happens. Even when I take a shower these days I’ll put a podcast on in the background. There are so few pockets of time in my life where my mind is free to think without direction, to wander.
There are a number of reasons, according to Hari, that mind-wandering is important. First, it helps us make sense of things in our lives. When our minds wander they process our experiences, organising them, analysing them. Helping us understand how we feel and what we value. Mind-wandering also lets us make associations between things we might not otherwise realise are connected. This is so important when you are working on a creative project. As a writer, I can spend hours staring at the document I’m working on, trying to figure out a character’s motivation, or how to untangle a messy plot point. It is often not until I’m out walking at night, letting my mind run free, that I will discover a solution to a creative problem. And that solution frequently involves the coming together of two ideas I hadn’t previously realised had something in common.
The writer Anne Lamott calls it ‘woolgathering’: letting your imagination wander, watching your mind go ‘romping all over the place’. I’m trying to give myself more space to ‘woolgather’ these days. I’m putting my phone away in supermarket queues, I’m going for more night walks, and I’m letting my mind – like my dog – wander wherever it wants to go.
4. The medium is the message
More and more often over the past few years I’ve worried about my understanding of the world. Or rather, my lack of understanding. So much seems to be going on, and yet I feel like I know very little about anything. My relationship with the news feels very similar to my relationship with daily tasks: reading headlines on social media, skimming the surface, quickly moving on to the next thing.
In Stolen Focus, Hari reminds us of Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote ‘the medium is the message’. This is the idea that how we get our information has an impact on the information itself. The way we receive news tells us something about how we should think about it. The medium of Twitter, for example, tells us that news can be understood (and judged) quickly and in not-very-many words. It encourages us to think that the world is much simpler than it is, and that we should be able to develop an opinion on a topic in less time than it takes to make a cup of coffee. The mediums of books and longform journalism, on the other hand, tell us something quite different about the information they carry. Namely, that things take time to understand, that there are usually more than two sides to a story, and that there is value in focusing for more than three seconds on a single issue.
I think intuitively we know that life is more complex than our Twitter feeds, and this is why we are left feeling like we are seeing the world through broken glass; fractured and incomplete. We crave deeper understanding, but we’re not sure how to get it.
Hari suggests a return to reading news in print. I can’t remember the last time I actually sat down and read a printed newspaper. But I like the idea of it. Instead of reading snippets of news every day, I’m going to try sitting down with a real newspaper for a few hours every week. Hopefully this practice will help to fill in some of those gaps, or at least remind me that the world is much more interesting and varied than Twitter makes it seem.
Hari makes so many other valuable points in this book – the importance of getting good sleep, of eating recognisable (i.e. less processed) foods, of combating pollution, of working less, of allowing kids more unsupervised play. These are all things we know, but seem to need to be reminded of. Or at least, I do. So much of the way society is structured takes us away from these fundamental ideas, and we have to consciously work at keeping them in the forefront of our minds. Hari is also careful to point out that we shouldn’t put so much responsibility on the individual when it comes to regaining our focus. Modern industrial society – of which big tech companies are a large part – is actively working to distract us, and in a lot of cases it is nearly impossible for people to switch off social media and slow down. Not everyone is in a position where they can afford to take time to mind-wander, or read a newspaper. We need to be pushing for systemic change, as well as thinking about the changes we can make in our individual lives.
The moment I finished reading Stolen Focus I wrote the following note to myself: Attention is so important. Flow states are a key part of who we are, of what makes life meaningful. Destroying our ability to focus has so many scary knock-on effects. Even the awareness of this problem and the few little things I’ve done in the last week to improve my attention have left me feeling clearer. This is important.
This is important. So, in the interest of remembering how important attention is, I’m going to make myself a few promises here. One: Get away from social media as much as possible. Two: Write without distractions to achieve flow states. Three: Cultivate and value mind-wandering time. Four: Read books and long-form journalism instead of headlines. Five: Push back against the thoughtless impetus for ‘more’ – at school, in my local community, when voting for a new government. There is more to life than constant rapid forward movement. I want to slow down, and dig deep. I want to focus on One. Thing. At. A. Time.
Johann Hari is the author of two other books – Chasing the Scream, a history of the war on drugs, and Lost Connections, which considers the causes of depression and anxiety.
What’s yours is yours for a reason. Luck has nothing to do with it.
My second novel, Sugar, was released this month. Sugar is a young adult novel that follows the story of Persephone, a sixteen year old recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. At around the time of her diagnosis Persephone also lost her dad, and the book begins as she tries to come to terms with these two big events in her life. Then she comes across a body on a bush track while she’s out walking. Persephone becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to this woman, hoping it will help explain her own place in the universe.
I was diagnosed with diabetes when I was 28, and Sugar is inspired in part by my own experience of living with type 1 diabetes, and in part by conversations I’ve had with people who have grown up with diabetes. In writing Sugar I wanted to give a voice to the reality of living with a chronic illness. To explore the frustrations, but also to find some hope.
You can find out more about the book via the links below. Sugar is available in book stores and online.
One of my favourite things about starting a new writing project is the research. Canadian-American writer Ruth Ozeki says that when she writes she begins with a question she wants to explore. I love this idea. The freedom to be curious, and to follow your mind down the rabbit holes of whatever it is you find fascinating. Start with what fascinates you. Find something that captures your attention and learn about it. This practice will enrich your fiction writing, and it’s also just fun.
At the moment I am fascinated by fear. What are we afraid of? Where do our fears come from? When does a fear become irrational (a phobia)? How do we respond when confronted with our worst fears?
In asking these questions I stumbled across the documentary series A Cure For Fear, available on YouTube. The four part series follows Dr. Merel Kindt, a neuroscientist, as she develops and tests a treatment for phobias. Dr. Kindt’s approach is gripping to watch. She encourages her patients to really feel their fears, to delve into the emotion. ‘Try to go there,’ she says, gently. ‘I want you to be a little closer.’ With a firm kindness, she leads people into a small room, without windows, and closes the door. In the room is the thing the person is most afraid of. A cat, a spider, a mouse. Her aim is to get people to feel their fear as much as possible, to trigger it. The next part of the treatment relies on this activation of fear.
Dr. Kindt believes that fear is connected to memory. Her treatment, she says, is based on the fact that ‘memories can be changed.’ Through the combination of direct exposure to fear and medication, Kindt attempts to change the underlying neuronal structure of the memory. And it seems to work. A man terrified of spiders is suddenly able to touch a tarantula. A woman with an overwhelming fear of butterflies willingly goes to a butterfly garden and asks herself in wonder – ‘Where’s the terror gone? Where’s it gone?’
The key, it seems, is getting people to really immerse themselves in their fears. This is difficult, Dr. Kindt notes, because it means completely letting go of control. It means tolerating the thing that terrifies you, rather than trying to escape from it. When patients aren’t able to do this – turning away before their distress can reach its peak, or dissociating so that they feel nothing – the treatment doesn’t work. Dr. Kindt admits that purposefully triggering this fear response in other people does sometimes feel a bit unethical.
There are other questions, too, that the documentary presents. Such as – is fear always a bad thing? Should we be manipulating our own memories, which are tied up so tightly with our identities, in this way? In Episode 4, Dr. Kindt speaks from personal experience of a time when she used medication to suppress her own fear. The memory of that time now, she says, ‘feels less real.’
‘I don’t think that we should always try to change our emotional memories,’ Dr. Kindt admits. ‘Fear is a beautiful emotion.’ Emotional memories can serve a purpose – they can keep us safe from certain dangers, and they can also give ‘colour to our lives.’ On the other hand, if a fear becomes irrational, it can be debilitating. It can interfere with, rather than enhance, the living of our lives.
So how do we reconcile this? ‘That is something that I’m thinking about,’ says Dr. Kindt.
The series, directed by Lana Wilson, is beautifully put together. I was completely engaged from the first episode. The music, the gorgeous shots of Amsterdam, the quiet suspense. There are moments – such as the scene in the butterfly garden – that are incredibly moving. The documentary does a wonderful job with its topic, letting us get to know Dr. Kindt both as a scientist and a person, with her own doubts about her work, and her own fears. A Cure For Fear is a fascinating and thought-provoking watch. If the nature of fear is something you find yourself wanting to explore, I highly recommend this as a starting point.
A Cure For Fear was released in 2018. Director Lana Wilson is a documentary filmmaker for National Geographic. The series can be viewed for free on YouTube.
Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.
One of the things that kept me sane during the isolation and chaos of 2021 was reading. Stuck at home, my sense of life was in desperate need of expansion. Stuck in a state of uncertainty and stress, my soul needed feeding. So I dove into fiction and widened the four walls of my world. A Japanese convenience store, the English coast, the rainforest, a boat, a cemetery, the suburbs of Las Vegas. In these places, through different eyes, my narrow understanding of the world stretched a little. Through reading, life feels more spacious, lighter, imbued with more potential. There is still beauty out there, there are still things to discover and to learn. Thank fuck for books. Here’s a summary of my year in fiction.
Dance of the Happy Shades (short stories) by Alice Munro
I love Alice Munro’s writing. At one point I had at least three collections of Munro’s stories in my ‘to read’ pile. There is something so enveloping about the worlds she creates. Each story is a perfect moment; subtle, but so human and recognisable. A housing development, a piano recital. So many wonderful depictions of the experiences of women. Munro is a true virtuoso of the short story.
Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that this is the first Terry Pratchett novel I’ve ever read. Full of satire, fantastic world building, and literary allusions. I love how Pratchett plays with the familiar tropes of witches, kings, and fools. This novel covers all the fantasy bases – castles, murder, destiny revealed – with a twist.
The Survivors by Jane Harper
Another Australian crime thriller from Jane Harper (The Dry, Force of Nature) that is unputdownable. A small coastal Tasmanian town, a tragic past, a murder, a surprise ending. Twists and turns and clues and red herrings. I was hooked from the start and stunned by the conclusion.
Rainfish by Andrew Paterson
This was my favourite middle-grade read for 2021. Ten months later, the atmosphere, the characters and the themes of this novel still have a strong hold on my memory. Swamps and rainforest, crocs, bird-eating spiders, snakes, cane toads. The wonderful description of a guilty conscience as a black panther stalking the main character. And an ending that felt both surprising and inevitable. I loved everything about this book.
The Performance by Claire Thomas
A new release for 2021. Confronting, but very familiar. A page-turner, it kept me up late on a school night to finish it. Three women, one in her twenties, one in her forties, and one older. All present at a performance of Beckett’s Happy Days. The setting is Melbourne, with bushfires raging in regional Victoria. I kept getting strange flashbacks to uni days – both because of the setting and because of the Woolfian stream of consciousness style. Engaging, insightful, timely. Spoke to a lot of my own thoughts and anxieties.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Murata’s most recent novel is Earthlings, which I also read last year and loved. But there is something about Convenience Store Woman that completely captured my imagination, and my heart. I fell in love with Keiko, with her dedication to the store, with her need to be allowed to become so involved in this job. I loved the way this book got me thinking about societal expectations, and how narrow they are. You should have a job, but it has to be the right sort of job, for the right length of time. You should always want more. And if you don’t, people get really upset. Murata is such a wonderful writer. I can’t wait to discover more of her work.
The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín
This book was a surprise. Slow and quiet, the story of a judge, his past and his present. The loss of his father, the loss of his wife. As I was reading these moments of great emotion and resonance would take me by surprise, and bring tears to my eyes. Those little moments where he realises his wife is really gone: no need to flick up the lock on the car door. This book is truly beautiful.
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
The story of a boy’s journey from Sri Lanka to England by sea, on a boat called the Oronsay, in the 1950s. Ondaatje promises it is fiction, although the protagonist’s name is Michael, and the author took a similar journey. It’s a blurred line, I suppose, always, between fiction and memoir. The book revolves around the characters on the ship – a pianist, a prisoner, a secretive cousin. Some wonderful moments and images, a vivid travel tale.
Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down
This book. This. Book. It is impossible to describe the hold this book had on me. The epic story of a woman’s life that starts with trauma and crosses continents and tragedies. Her past follows her, as she changes her name and her address. Completely engrossing, so beautifully written. Once I started reading I could not stop. Here is the power of literature – to take your mind and hold it somewhere you have never been, to let it experience things it never would have otherwise. And to leave you grateful for the journey.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
This was probably the most disappointing read of the year, possibly because I had such high expectations for this book. The God of Small Things is one of my favourite novels, but this just didn’t sweep me up in the same way. There are some beautifully written passages, some wonderful characters and settings. But the story as a whole felt disconnected and confusing, and I found it hard to get into. I do remember the cemetery that becomes a home, the birds, the horse and the baby girl. A great sense of beauty, and sadness, and poetry, and violence. But I felt a little like I was flailing to hold it all together.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
The first of Matt Haig’s fiction that I’ve read. I’ve loved his non-fiction, found it easy to connect with his thinking. This is the story of Nora Seed, who is depressed, and decides she doesn’t want to live anymore. She’s full of regrets, and – in limbo – is given the opportunity to experience all the roads she didn’t take in life. This book is wise, compassionate, thoughtful. And I know a number of people who have found it helpful in difficult times. This is the kind of book you want to read when you’re sitting around feeling like shit.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I ended the year with an epic, eight hundred pager. School was done for 2021, and suddenly I had space and time to invest in a really, really thick novel. The Goldfinch spans years and miles. The descriptions of landscapes – New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam – are vivid and compelling. This book is the sort of read where you get to know the characters – over chapters and relationships and tragedies – and by the end they feel like so much more than words on pages. I loved them, and I missed them. I missed them so much I watched the film version (which, unsurprisingly, is vastly inferior to the book) just so I could be with them again. Also unsurprisingly, seeing them on-screen – in those vivid spaces with a Radiohead soundtrack – made me cry. This is what books do, this kind of dark magic that is at once upsetting and wonderful.
One of my goals at the start of 2021 was to finish a first draft of a new novel. Beginning, middle and end. Something with character development and a forward-moving plot. Words with a recognisable shape: sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Etc. For many reasons, that didn’t happen. I didn’t finish anything. But I did write.
A few months ago, a good friend (who is also a writer) asked me what I was working on. I struggled to describe it. It’s sort of. There’s a theme that. It feels like. There’s a bit where. I think one of the characters might possibly be a talking spider?
But what is it about? What happens? No idea. I have no elevator pitch. No narrative outline. No character profiles. What I have are bits and pieces. Scraps and fragments. Snippets of prose written between work and sleep, lines of poetry jotted down somehow in the midst of everything else. Notes. Things.
For most of 2021 I was vaguely worried about this. About the story I hadn’t been writing, the characters I hadn’t evolved. My first book came out in 2018, my second will be published in April this year. There is some sense of What next? Not pressure exactly; more of an intermittent nudge. Vague is the right word. Underneath the everything-else of 2021, concerns about writing were quiet and slow.
Then, just before Christmas, I rediscovered Joan Didion.
I hadn’t read Didion since university, more than ten years ago. Newly on holiday and wandering through Netflix I stumbled upon a documentary about her life – The Center Will Not Hold – which I highly recommend. The day after we watched the documentary my partner said to me – ‘Did you want to watch that film because she died?’ I peered over his shoulder, and there was Joan Didion’s obituary: 23rd December, 2021. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I didn’t know.’ That night I pulled The Year of Magical Thinking from the shelf and stayed up until 2am re-reading. Fifteen years on, Didion’s memoir was familiar but also a completely different reading experience. I underlined differently, paused differently. Loved it differently. I discovered new significance in the things Didion noticed in her grief that helped smooth out some of the edges of my own. Thanks for taking the time to write those things down, Joan. They were significant, and they told me something.
Now – in addition to sifting through last year’s bits and pieces of not-quite-story – I’m keeping a journal. Chuck Palahniuk would call it an “everyday book”. I’m writing down whatever I want, whenever I want, regardless of how insignificant it might seem. Especially if it seems insignificant. Without worrying what the story might be, trusting that the writing-down itself is the thing. The noticing is actually the important part. Everything else is just a bonus. Leonard Cohen said, ‘Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.’ This is my hope for 2022. A life that burns well, where things are noticed and considered. A bee on a flower. The way feet slide into sandals. An upside-down wheelbarrow. May the insignificant things burn bright, may their ashes arrange themselves on pages, and may they come to mean something.
Vale Joan Didion.
Born in 1934, Joan Didion was an American novelist and essayist. Her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking – about the sudden death of her husband John Dunne – was first published in 2005, and was adapted into a stage play in 2007.
If there was ever a reason to resurrect this blog – here it is.
My last post was in December of 2018, nearly two years ago. I have no good excuses; I was lazy, I was busy, I wasn’t paying attention. I needed something to remind me of why I started blogging in the first place. This week, Chath pierSath’s new book of poems and sketches did just that.
Chath pierSath is a Cambodian-American writer currently living in Massachusetts. He was born in Battambang five years before the beginning of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and came to the US as a refugee when he was eleven years old. Since then, Chath has lived between America, Cambodia, and France. He writes in English, and though he can speak Khmer (the Cambodian language) he doesn’t read it. ‘I am the son of two countries’ Chath writes in the introduction to On Earth Beneath Sky. Unsurprisingly, questions of culture, identity, and belonging permeate his writing: ‘No matter how American I’ve become, / Cambodia’s forever my shadow’ (‘An Escape Route’).
I met Chath in Phnom Penh in 2015, while co-facilitating a regular Open Mic night featuring local and expat writers. On that occasion, Chath read from his collection After (published in 2009), and I remember being struck by the beauty and the powerful imagery of those poems. Chath is a soft-spoken, gentle person, but he is also passionate. That calm, clarity of thought coupled with the unapologetic description of a raw and tumultuous emotional landscape results in poetry that is evocative, real, and universal in its insights. So when I found out, five years and three thousand miles later, that Chath had published a new book, I immediately ordered a copy.
On Earth Beneath Sky is divided into sections, each exploring different aspects of time and place. In ‘Claim Me, America’ Chath writes about San Francisco, where he learned ‘how to floss and brush’, and Colorado, where, as a child, he ‘learned the word refugee’ (from the poem ‘Un Refugie‘). This is a complicated relationship. The US is a place Chath feels ‘indebted to’ (‘America, My America’) but also conflicted by – ‘Doubts pencil-mark my American landscape’ (‘The Loneliest Winter’). The following section, titled ‘I Lost My Kampuchea’, speaks of Cambodia’s genocide and how the country has changed since then. ‘There were too many bombs to miss an ant’ Chath writes in ‘Day of Abandonment’. Here, again, is the schizophrenic influence of the United States, leading the destruction of a people it will later welcome as refugees. ‘Nixon and Kissinger drank tea and coffee,’ the poem ends, ‘business as usual, in the Oval Office, the shape of a screaming mouth, plotting what nation to abandon next.’ Later poems detail the ramifications of this history for Cambodia’s present and future: ‘Hell for the garment workers protesting for more money. Riot police shoot tear gas. Bulleted democracy’ (‘The Life of Ochnya Yang Ly Hai’); ‘If you want to get ahead give yourself to the current, / Bend and flow to corruption and immorality’ (‘How to be Khmer’). The third section, ‘Mother, I’m Coming Home’, continues this theme in poems such as ‘The New Cambodia’, which includes one of my favourite lines: ‘It’s hard to like anyone who drives a Lexus or a Hummer.’ Anyone who has spent time in Phnom Penh traffic will immediately relate to this poem.
There is so much more I could say about this collection; I could spend thousands more words talking about the heartbreakingly beautiful ways in which Chath’s writing captures grief and loss, as well as great love and a sense of awe and wonder at the largeness of the universe and our small place within it. But I think the poems speak for themselves. So instead I’m going to urge you to buy a copy of this very moving and important book (see below for more details on how to do this). Ask bookstores about it, and if you are a bookstore, stock up! I truly believe in the historical and literary significance of this collection, and would love to see it gain a wider readership.
Thank you, Chath, for doing this wonderful work, and for reminding me of the importance of language, and of taking the time to think about and feel something enough to put it into words. This is worthwhile; now even more so, when so much of what we read and write seems to be headlines and social media. Poetry has always helped me to slow down, to focus on each word, to pause and breathe a bit deeper. And ‘to live my own life’, as Chath does, and as he writes in the Introduction to On Earth Beneath Sky, ‘by jotting down memories, celebrating my own body electric, journaling, documenting, reflecting on the road–the journey, all the sorrow and pain of a life and the world’.
On Earth Beneath Sky is published by Loom Press. Copies can be ordered directly from Loompress.com, or from Amazon.com. Asking a local bookshop to order copies is a great way to help promote this book (and will also cut down on international shipping costs!)
Every so often you read a book and it feels like catching your breath.
Everything slows; the big picture comes back into focus and the details are beautiful again. Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet is one of those books. Honest, relevant, accessible, and different, Notes reminds you of the things that matter. And the things that really (really) don’t.
I bought this on impulse after some good news (and a long, deep breath). It was perfect timing. I had space in my head to refocus, to re-‘see’ the world, and Notes is all about that. Matt Haig is a master of the beautiful art of breaking things down to their simplest forms, of revealing the parts that make up this whole, mad, often overwhelming existence. Understanding how the pieces fit somehow makes life feel more do-able. More live-able.
I fell so completely in love with this book that I took it to school to share with the 5/6 class I was substitute-teaching a couple of weeks ago. The structure of Notes makes it perfect for reading with kids (although I was careful with some of the content). Short, titled chapters in all kinds of styles – dialogue, poetry, lists, anecdotes. And though the sections connect, they can also be read as stand-alone texts, little seed-packets full of advice, full of the potential for good things to grow. These are the lessons kids need to be learning. They are lessons I’m still learning, and will probably keep revisiting for the rest of my life. But for kids in the middle of that moment just before they become teens, when they are not quite kids and not quite adults, books like this are incredibly important. To help navigate the world and be ready to embrace its complexity and uncertainty. To feel okay about things being hard and not always working out. To be calm and to breathe and to realise you really are okay, no matter what that kid who sits behind you or social media or NAPLAN says1.
There is so much in this book, and I’m sure different sections will resonate at different times in my life, but for now these are some of the things that stand out: Reminders to slow down and not take things so seriously. Acknowledging the good things about the internet as well as the things that aren’t so good. Ideas about managing anxiety. Quotes from Kurt Vonnegut and Emily Dickinson. The way Haig connects these notes to his own life, and the way he breaks things down to their fundamental parts, in order to really get at what’s important. In order to live our lives well. I love the humour and the honesty, and the way it made me feel calmer, more focused, and more aware of the wonder of the world.
Things to remember (some notes – from Notes – of my own):
1. Don’t do things you know make you feel bad (duh).
–The thing with mental turmoil is that so many things that make you feel better in the short term make you feel worse in the long term.
Like too much caffeine and then not being able to sleep. Like too much alcohol and not being able to sleep. Like sleeping in instead of going to yoga and feeling lethargic for the rest of the day. Like spending an hour scrolling through Twitter and fueling the anger and frustration and helplessness. Do things that you know will make you feel good, in the long run. Practice resisting those short-term temptations (she writes, as she sips her second coffee of the morning).
2. You (most likely) already have everything you need.
-The whole of consumerism is based on us wanting the next thing rather than the present thing we already have. This is an almost perfect recipe for unhappiness.
Stop wanting. To be happier, to have done more (written more, cleaned more, blogged more, slept more), to have more (money, books published, friends, health), to be more. Society is set up to make us feel this way – to make us feel we are never enough, so we will keep consuming. Fuck that. Pay less attention to advertising, and more attention to art. The first makes us want what we don’t need, the second makes us appreciate what we already have.
3. Use technology, don’t let it use you.
-The internet can be what we want it to be. The internet can lead us anywhere we choose.
Oh the internet. Specifically, the way it has radically changed how we exist in the world. Not that it is intrinsically a bad thing, but that it can be used in ways that make us less happy. Less human. It has the potential to addict us, and to steal from us one of our most precious resources – time. As Annie Dillard wrote, ‘how we spend our days is how we spend our lives’. And I don’t want to spend my life on Twitter. I want to limit my social media use. Turn off notifications. Find something else mindless to do when my blood sugar is low. And remove devices from my bed time.
4. Go to sleep.
-Without sleep we don’t function properly.
Not rocket science, but sometimes feels like it. Like everything else, the secret is to simplify. Have a routine. Drink less coffee and alcohol. Go to bed earlier and get up earlier. Remove blue-screen-light. Read. Yeah, not complicated. And yet I’ll still find it so hard to say no to that late afternoon coffee.
5. Learn for learning’s sake.
-To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity.
Learning. Is an act that is important in the present, not the future. Learning shouldn’t be about where a certificate or a NAPLAN score can take you, but about the joy of discovering things in the moment. The joy of finding out how something works, how to create something. Learning is an end in itself, ‘it is a way to love living right now.’
6. You don’t always need to know.
-[W]atching news can feel like watching a continuous metaphor for generalised anxiety disorder … all sensation and no information.
The News (with a capital ‘N’). Is not as important as people think. There is no shame in not reading/watching/Twitter-drip-feeding the news. Most of it is presented in ways designed to keep us fearful, which also keeps us malleable, which makes us easy to sell to and manipulate. Know what you need to know to be in the world, and to improve what you can. Leave the rest.
7. Slow. The fuck. Down.
-Feeling you have no time doesn’t mean you have no time.
I’m so bad at this. Even writing this blog post I’ve been rushing, thinking ‘I’ve got to get this done’. Why? The only real deadline is the final one. Stop. Go and make some cookies. Come back later. The words will wait.
8. You can’t be everything.
-[Enjoy] the world within our boundaries … live on a human scale.
There is so much I could be doing right now. I could be reading one of the books from the towering pile on my shelf. I could be watching that TV show my friend recommended. I could be working on my novel. Cleaning. Cooking. Emailing friends overseas. Playing guitar. Learning a language. Listening to a podcast. Searching for art ideas. But just because I could, doesn’t mean I should. I’m trying – lately – to choose quality over quantity. I’m buying the more expensive chocolate, but I’m eating less of it. I’m spending more time doing less things. I’m taking less breaths, but they’re deeper.
9. Suffering is natural.
-Don’t beat yourself up for being a mess. It’s fine. The universe is a mess. Galaxies are drifting all over the place. You’re just in tune with the cosmos.
Often the real problem is not our sadness or anger or despair but the belief that we shouldn’t be feeling sadness or anger or despair. But all these things are natural. All these things happen – inevitably – to everyone. And just because someone looks like they’re not sad or angry or despairing (especially if what you’re looking at is the Facebook version of that person) doesn’t mean they’re not actually a mess in some way, too.
10. Be that voice that says, ‘No.’ Be human.
-When normality becomes madness, the only way to find sanity is by daring to be different.
If checking your emails every five minutes is making you feel stressed and divided, stop checking your emails. If people expect you to reply to said emails every five minutes, let them. You don’t have to be available twenty-four hours a day. Be unreachable, sometimes. You are not on call. You are not a robot. You are human. And you are the same sort of human that existed 50,000 years ago, before smartphones and watches and electric lights. Biologically, you are not ready for smartphones or watches or electric lights. So go easy on yourself. Take some time out. This planet might be nervous, but you don’t have to be.
Matt Haig is a UK author. His book Reasons to Stay Alive (which I haven’t read yet, but it’s definitely on my list) was a number one bestseller. He also writes novels for adults, and for children. I have just ordered his latest book, The Truth Pixie. I’m sure it will give me another amazing lesson for the kids at school!
1. Don’t get me started on standardised testing in Australian schools – I’ve recently read Teacher by Gabbie Stroud and would have written a very ranty post about how much I loved itand how much it fed my frustration by now if I hadn’t been lending it out to as many people as possible in an effort to foster revolution in my own small way.