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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 img_20181204_175154.jpgworld. 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.

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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 it and 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.

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‘It’s the arrangement of events which makes the stories … Hindsight can give structure to anything.’

– Carol Shields

‘Arrange whatever pieces come your way.’

– Virginia Woolf

Almost five months ago I wrote a piece about being stuck two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my new novel. I was in the midst of the messy stage of writing, then – the stage where all you have to do is show up and get words down (sounds much easier than it actually is). It’s the stage where you know so much of what you’re writing won’t make it to a final draft, but you write it anyway. Because you have to. Because it is by writing what doesn’t work that you get to what does. There are no shortcuts.

I got myself unstuck (largely thanks to writing out the problem in that post) and finished a first draft about two months ago. I put it away without reading it, and focussed on research for a while. I still wrote – bits and pieces, scenes that I thought might work their way into the story somehow – to keep myself in the headspace of the novel. But I gave that first draft a chance to sit, the way you put a casserole in the fridge overnight in the hope that the flavours will settle and grow.

Now I’m ready to start cleaning up some of that mess I made.

‘Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.’

– Scott Adams

This part of the process, though still creative in its own way, is much more analytical. I’m thinking about the story I’ve got, and also about the story I want to have. I’m figuring out how to cut away at the words – bit by bit – to get to the right shape. Writing a novel is, in a sense, like sculpting. Except instead of clay or stone you’re removing and moulding sentences and paragraphs, until the story you want to tell emerges.

Before I start rewriting, I find that this is a good time to pause, and plan. It’s also a good excuse to use coloured markers, and draw, and think. A time to round up all the characters and plotlines and themes that have run loose across the first draft, and put them into neat lists and outlines and maps.

They won’t stay put, of course, but it’s nice to pretend they will. For a while.

1. Character

‘Plot grows out of character.’

– Anne Lamott

If I want to write a message I will write a sentence and not a book. A book is much more complex.

– Paulo Coelho

When planning, I think it makes sense to start with character. Novels are, in essence, about people, and relationships. Starting with plot or theme can make a story feel forced; you end up writing characters that are often just vehicles for ideas, and that never ends well. Plot grows – naturally – from character. Let it grow. Help it, nurture it, but let the characters tell their own stories.

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In thinking about characters I like to create a page for each major character, including physical descriptions (which I draw, badly). I also draw webs of how people relate to each other, and outline each character’s story arc.

2. Timelines

This involves the kind of mathematical thinking I usually avoid, but somehow in this context it’s fun. Making sure things make sense, that scenes fit together logically, that there’s nothing so confusing it threatens to distract a reader from the story. I usually just make a timeline of the main plot, but sometimes there are mini-timelines that help with a rewrite, as well (for example, for this novel I’m making a timeline of seasons and plants).

3. Theme

Another aspect of planning that can cause headaches. This involves gathering the major themes that come from the character work above and listing them so they stay in your mind. It also means thinking about context and subtext; i.e. what’s going on externally, and what it means for the characters internally.

4. Plot

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‘You need to be moving your characters forward, even if they only go slowly. Imagine moving them across a lily pond. If each lily pad is beautifully, carefully written, the reader will stay with you.’

– Anne Lamott

This part can feel like a jigsaw, where you start to find where all those pieces of character and theme fit. It’s oh-so-satisfying to feel them snap into place, but it takes a lot of sorting and looking and testing first, to make sure everyone is moving in the right direction across the pond. I like to make an overall plot outline, with only the major events, as well as a more detailed outline of each third of the book. From this I’ll make a chapter outline, which I’ll use (along with draft 1) to rewrite.

5. MapsIMG_20160228_114912

More drawing! Making sure I’ve got it clear in my head where things happen, so that a hospital doesn’t appear on one side of the river in Chapter Two and the other side in Chapter Twenty-Four.

6. One Sentence

This can sometimes take longer than all the other planning steps put together. Trying to capture the essence of your novel in one sentence, so you can fit it on an index card and stick it above your desk. It is the sentence that you will always come back to, the centre, the load-bearing wall that keeps everything from collapsing around you. This sentence is so important, and so hard to get right. It almost goes through more drafts than the book itself. But it’s worth it.

7. Everything Else

There is always something else that needs thinking about: things I forgot to research, a list of ideas to add, recurring elements to keep track of, books to read. This part of the process can be neverending. Which is why I give myself a deadline. If I didn’t, I’d play around in this stage forever. It’s that much fun.

‘The novel is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and hypotheses.’

– Milan Kundera

Still, even in this stage I have to remind myself not to stress. Those familiar doubts and monstrous criticisms are, of course, still there. And it is still work to ignore them. But the beginning of a second draft is far from a final draft. It is more shaping. Things have to be a little clearer, a little closer to the final image, than they were in draft one. But they don’t have to be perfect. Not yet.

I’m reminding myself, as Henry Miller advises, not to be nervous. I’m reminding myself to ‘work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand.’ And I’m reminding myself that, after all, writing is easy, right?

‘All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.’

– Mark Twain

As a teenager, I loved being scared.

The X-Files, Stephen King novels, roller-coasters, playing spotlight in the bush. I was up for all of it. Then – somewhere in my mid to late twenties – I lost that love. I watched Paranormal Activity during the day, with all the curtains open and the sun streaming in, and still couldn’t sleep for a week afterwards. I began to feel nervous about flying, something I’d done without a second thought since I was sixteen. I gave up scary movies in favour of documentaries. I thought I was done with ghosts and demons.

But recently – maybe as a result of the fucking insanity of the last nine months – I’ve started to gravitate towards horror again. I’ve become addicted to My Favorite Murder and Last Podcast on the Left (both excellent true crime podcasts), and have read a couple of fantastically disturbing novels (The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady, and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent). But when it comes to horror, film – I feel – is the ultimate medium. And it was with no small amount of excitement (and some trepidation) that I turned off the lights and settled in to watch these two recent horror releases.

Hereditary (2018), Director: Ari Aster

This film had been on my radar for a while, and I was a little nervous about watching it (perhaps because the media was calling it the scariest movie of the year). It is scary, in a way that slowly fills you with dread. Hereditary focuses on a family that has just lost its matriarch, Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, Ellen. Ellen, it turns out, had D.I.D (dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder) and dementia. At a grief counselling meeting Annie also reveals that her father starved himself to death, and her brother hung himself at sixteen, leaving a note accusing their mother of trying to ‘put people’ in him. Yeah. Creepy. And it gets worse. Annie sleepwalks, and once woke to find herself standing over her paint-thinner-covered children holding a match.

I felt like this was what the film was really about; the things we inherit, the curse of mental illness/depression/schizophrenia. Being at the mercy of our own brains, totally out of our control, not knowing what to believe. It seems to be Annie’s own paranoia that is driving the film, but in the end that’s not entirely the case. I’m not sure the ending really worked, to be honest. It seemed to cheapen some of the themes and ideas that came before it.

This is definitely a film that needs a second watch, if only for the chilling shots of Toni Collette floating in the corners of dark rooms, so that you almost don’t notice her. There are also lots of intentional threads to find, recurring characters, little Easter eggs hidden in the scenes. It feels like a film that was very carefully, very intentionally put together, which I appreciate.

Ghost Stories (2017), Directors: Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson

I knew very little about this film before watching it, apart from the fact that it features Martin Freeman (of The Hobbit and The Office fame). Ghost Stories feels in places like a dark comedy, although there are some very frightening moments. Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) has made a career out of debunking the paranormal. When he is called upon to investigate three disturbing cases, his skepticism is tested. Like Hereditary, this is a film that I think would be worth a second watch, knowing what you know by the end. Also like Hereditary, the ending does feel a little disappointing, a bit like cheating. But the three stories are interesting, and creepy – the suspense builds effectively, and the performances are great (Alex Lawther as the demon-obsessed Simon Rifkind is particularly good). I found Professor Goodman irritating and unlikable, but I think that was largely intentional. Martin Freeman manages to be both extremely proper and extremely weird at the same time.

So what is it about horror films? Why is it so enjoyable to be scared, to hear about horrible things that have happened to other people (true crime), or to watch someone be haunted, hunted and dismembered? Is it healthy? Or is it morbid and disrespectful?

I think I’ve been asking myself these questions most of my life, as I’m sure many other horror fans have. I don’t know if it’s healthy or ‘right’, but I do know that there is something satisfying about immersing yourself in the truly terrible. The same way listening to sad songs when you’re depressed is devastating, but also somehow wonderful. If the world is fucked up and uncertain around you, it’s comforting to see this reflected in film. Especially when so many other aspects of culture seem to ignore the dark side of life. Horror films are at once an escape from and an acceptance of the shitty parts of existence. It’s cathartic, it feels balancing. The more we ignore feelings of horror the harder they are to deal with.

Plus it’s just really fucking fun to get scared.

They brought a woman from the street

And made her sit in the stalls

By threats

By bribes

By flattery

Obliging her to share a little of her life with actors

But I don’t understand art

Sit still, they said

But I don’t want to see sad things

Sit still, they said.

And she listened to everything

Understanding some things

But not others

Laughing rarely and always without knowing why.

Sometimes suffering disgust

Sometimes thoroughly amazed.

And in the light again, said

If that’s art I think it is hard work

It was beyond me

So much beyond my actual life.

But something troubled her

Something gnawed her peace

And she came a second time, armoured with friends

Sit still, she said

And again, she listened to everything

This time understanding different things

This time untroubled that some things

Could not be understood

Laughing rarely but now without shame

Sometimes suffering disgust

Sometimes thoroughly amazed

And in the light again said

This is art, it is hard work

And one friend said, too hard for me

And the other said, if you will

I will come again

Because I found it hard I felt honoured.

                                                                     – Howard Barker

Back in 2013 a friend who works in the film industry gave me a folder of more than seventy films. About a week ago (five years later) I watched the last one. I opened this collection, over the years, in fits and starts; sometimes watching a film every night, sometimes ignoring the folder entirely for months at a time. Watching these films wasn’t always easy (some were slow, many were subtitled, most were completely different to anything I’d ever seen before), but it was also often addictive. I came to love the surprise – not having read anything about any of the films before I watched them – of pressing play. The experience of being drawn into so many different worlds – countries, times, perspectives – was magic.

Not knowing what each film was going to be like – I had only the title and the year to judge them by – was exciting, but it was also challenging. It could also turn me off starting if I was in the mood for a particular type of movie. There’s a chance, I would often think, that this will be boring, that I won’t like it. In fact, what happened was that I found something to like in almost all of these films. Not one of them felt like time wasted. Even if it was just an image, a line of dialogue, or the whole plot. Just the simple act of sitting down and watching so many different films has taught me more about the world (and the film world) than any course ever could. This collection has pushed me to see and think about things I wouldn’t have otherwise. The experience reminds me of Howard Barker’s prologue to The Bite of the Night (quoted in full above):

But I don’t understand art

Sit still, they said …

And in the light again said

This is art, it is hard work …

I will come again

Because I found it hard I felt honoured.’

I watched films in Canada over Christmas, tucked up under blankets while it snowed outside. I watched as we prepared to leave Cambodia, under the ceiling fan, surrounded by half-packed suitcases. I watched as a respite from uni assignments, separating myself from pedagogy by diving into rural China and jungle Thailand. And, most recently, I watched while I was sick, curled up on cold nights with my computer and a sleepy puppy. It’s been a journey, and an education; I’ve found it frustrating and fantastic. And it has changed me, in a multitude of subtle ways. To come to the end of the folder feels like an achievement, but is also a little sad. I don’t have that work anymore, that challenge. But I will come again; I will be on the lookout for more.

It was difficult to pick favourites – so many of these films affected me in so many different ways. But I have put together a rough top ten list. Here, in no particular order, are the films that have landed and settled themselves somewhere deep in my mind.

1) Kynodontas/Dogtooth (2009) – Greece – Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

From the director of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, this film focuses on a family separated from society. The three adult children are told by their parents that cats are deadly, that the word ‘zombie’ means ‘flower’, and that they will be allowed to leave home when their dog teeth fall out. Very dark, at times uncomfortably funny, littered with weird moments and startling images that will stay with you. Dogtooth is my favourite of Lanthimos’s films.

2) Innocence (2004) – France – Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic

Like Dogtooth, this is another ‘isolated-from-the-outside-world’ film. Set in a boarding school for young girls, where new students arrive through secret underground tunnels in coffins. The school is surrounded by forest, and every scene looks beautiful – green and slightly dark and mysterious. Innocence is somehow both hopeful and sinister, like a fairy tale.

3) Kill List (2011) – UK – Director: Ben Wheatley

A truly unsettling horror film about an ex-soldier turned hit-man. Jay takes on a new assignment – a ‘kill list’ – and the line between reality and disturbing fantasy quickly begins to blur. What’s really going on here is ambiguous, but it is also terrifying, violent and thought-provoking. I loved the performances in this, the music, the way the tension was built. The kind of film that leaves you wishing you had someone to discuss it with.

4) Margaret (2011) – US – Director: Kenneth Lonergan

I had the extended version of this film, and – at almost three hours long – it felt like watching a novel. I don’t want to give away the event at the beginning (I think its impact is so much more powerful if you don’t know what’s coming), but the film is essentially teenage Lisa’s response to this experience. In essence, this is a coming of age film, but putting it into that category doesn’t do justice to its scope and complexity. Lisa is manipulative, emotional, dramatic, immature, selfish; she is a teenager, only able to relate to the world in terms of its effect on herself. The film’s title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: Margaret, are you grieving … it is Margaret you mourn for. I loved this film; I watched it in its entirety in one sitting, and was captivated the whole time.

5) Miryang/Secret Sunshine (2007) – South Korea – Director: Lee Chang-dong

For some reason – perhaps because of the title – I had it in my head that this film was a romantic comedy. It most certainly isn’t. After losing her husband in a car accident, Shin-ae moves to his home town with her son, Jun. It seems like this will be a new start, that Shin-ae may find love, happiness. But then her son is kidnapped, and the tone of the film shifts dramatically. A film about grief, love, chaos – Secret Sunshine is beautiful, sad, and very memorable.

6) Mang shan/Blind Mountain (2007) – China – Director: Yang Li

Set in China in the early 1990’s, Blind Mountain tells the story of a woman sold for marriage to a rural family. The simple setting, dialogue and music – the only soundtrack throughout the entire film is a man’s unaccompanied, guttural singing – highlight the complexity of the injustice this woman suffers. The majority of the film is a series of escape attempts that had me gritting my teeth. The ending is inevitable, and yet still surprising. I was an emotional wreck after watching this, but also aware of the futility of simply assigning blame. Not an easy film to watch, but highly recommended.

7) Cria Cuervos/Raise Ravens (1976) – Spain – Director: Carlos Saura

I love this title. A film about three young girls who have lost their mother and father and are being raised by an aunt. The middle child, Ana, is the protagonist. She is the most traumatised by the loss of her mother. Ana saw her on her death bed, heard her say ‘Nothing exists … I don’t want to die’. Cria Cuervos is at once chilling, funny, warm, and very sad. And a warning: it features a song that will get stuck in your head.

8) Khaneh syah ast/The House is Black (1963) – Iran – Director: Forough Farrokhzad

I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen a film in the Persian language. The House is Black is a short documentary film (26 minutes) about a leper colony. Not much dialogue, but lots of images and voice-overs from different texts, including the Koran. Black and white, short, largely uneventful. But I found this film so striking, particularly the school room scene at the end.

9) Banshu/Late Spring (1949) – Japan – Director: Yasujiro Ozu

In post-WWII Japan, Noriko doesn’t want to leave her widower father. He, however, insists that she must marry – even though he loves her and doesn’t want to be parted from her. This is the way of human life, this is how human history has always gone, he seems to be saying. I was really moved by this slow, quiet film; it has such a peaceful, beautiful sadness about it. There is a scene where Noriko’s father comes home, alone, and peels an apple. Such a simple moment, but somehow so full of everything that has happened to this character.

10) Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki/When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) – Japan – Director: Mikio Naruse

This was one of the last films I watched – right down at the bottom of the folder in the ‘W’s. Another beautiful, calm but loaded film from Japan, about a woman (Keiko) working as a hostess in Tokyo’s Ginza district. She is a widow, and doesn’t want to dishonour her dead husband by sleeping with her customers. She is a strong woman, but the (male-dominated) odds are stacked against her. She ascends the stairs to the bar in which she works.

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.

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.