When I was in high school I thought themes were mysterious secrets locked inside novels, short stories, poems. Discovering them was like solving a cryptic crossword clue – finding a word to fit the boxes but never being exactly sure of the connection between the answer and the question. For a while I relied on teachers or Google to reveal the themes of a novel to me. It has taken probably ten years to wrap my head around what I really mean when I talk about themes – and it has taken teaching ‘theme’ to finally allow me to articulate it.

So. Articulate away then, Carly. What’s a theme?

Theme

  • A theme is a big idea in a novel (or short story, film, poem, play etc).

  • It is a big idea that recurs throughout a novel. Not just once or twice.

  • It is a big idea in the sense that it is broad and abstract: something universal (experienced by everyone) and yet subjective (experienced differently by everyone).

  • It is a big idea in the sense that everyone would – if they had to draw the idea – create a slightly different picture.

  • Some examples of big ideas (i.e. themes) are: love, identity, death.

  • It is a big idea PLUS the author’s interpretation/opinion of that idea. For example: love PLUS/+ takes many different forms and changes over time.

  • A novel is itself a specific example of a theme. A novel is a picture of the big idea. One person’s (the author’s) drawing of what this idea is about.

  • Novels have themes (big, over-arching ideas) and characters, narrative, setting (small, specific examples of themes).

  • Themes are found by looking at these examples (characters, narrative etc) and thinking about what keeps coming up. What are the characters preoccupied with, for example? In Burial Rites, why are there so many mentions of ravens? What sort of theme (big idea) might this be an example of?

Another way of thinking about – and figuring out – theme is to look at plot structure. I like to think about plot as a mountain shape – the story begins at the bottom of the mountain, a problem starts the climb, rising action is the climb, the climax sits at the top, and falling action is the descent. However, when a story comes back down its mountain it doesn’t end up at exactly the same level as it did when it began. This is because, although things go back to normal for the protagonist, it is a new normal. Something has changed – permanently – because of the story, because of the journey she or he has taken.

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In order to decide on the major theme of a novel it is sometimes useful to think about the following equation:

what has changed for the protagonist

+

why

=

theme

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I first read Burial Rites last year, based on a friend’s recommendation. It was very different to what I was expecting. I think, because Hannah Kent is an Australian author, I was imagining something set in the bush, the outback, the Aussie suburbs. Needless to say, 1820s Iceland was a surprise.

20170326_152622I liked Burial Rites after the first read. I thought the story was interesting, well-paced; I thought the writing was beautiful and crisp. I liked it, but I was not really invested in it. I felt like there was more to it, and that it warranted a second read. I wasn’t, however, planning to read it again. There are so many books on my shelf that haven’t had a first read. In a perfect world, I would love to read every book twice. There is something so different about a second read, but I just don’t have time.

Burial Rites is a Year 12 text, and I happen to be tutoring a few Year 12 students. So it was out of necessity, rather than choice, that I came to read Burial Rites a second time. And after the second read things really started to seep into me. So much so that by the end – knowing exactly how it would end – I was moved almost to tears.

The second read of a novel is where theme really starts to come into focus. Because you know the story you can concentrate on the details – on the description, the characters, the repeated moments, the structure of the narrative. You can highlight and scribble notes in the margins, and begin to see the symbolic shape of the novel rather than just its events.

One of the big ideas that recurs throughout Burial Rites – that starts to become clear during a second read – is identity. The very structure of the novel – told in third person from a number of different points of view – hints at this. So does the main character’s – Agnes – need to tell her story, to let people know who she is, to confirm her own identity.

Identity is a universal idea. Everyone has an identity, and everyone attempts to understand the identities of people around them. It is also a specific, subjective idea. Everyone thinks differently about how to define themselves and those around them. Do we understand identity by looking at physical appearance, by listening to what people say about themselves, or what others say about them?

Trying to understand what Hannah Kent thinks about the theme of identity (her opinion or the value she places on it) is a little trickier. To find out, we can look at how she presents the journeys of her main characters. How they are changed through the course of the story, and what this says about who they are.

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Let’s focus on Agnes. How is she different by the end of the novel to the beginning? Most obviously, she is alive at the beginning and dead at the end. Her physical state has changed. But what about her mental state?

Burial Rites is – in a very large sense – the story of a woman trying to come to terms with the fact that she is going to die. She is preparing for death, getting ready. At the beginning of the novel she is not ready to die. At the end – though she is still terrified of her execution – something has changed. She has made some peace, she has found people who support her, who don’t believe she deserves to die. She has gone from being alone in her death, to being with others.

Why? What was it that changed these circumstances for Agnes?

I would argue that it was the fact that she was able to tell her own story. To show people who she was through action (her hard work on the farm, her care for others) but also through her own words.

So – what has changed? Agnes is accepted, supported, has her identity confirmed by others.

+

Why? Because she was allowed to demonstrate her identity through words and actions.

=

Theme: True identity is discovered through being given the freedom to express ourselves through how we tell our own stories, and through what we do.

Of course, all this is open to interpretation. There is no fixed rule about how to find themes in texts – this post is an illustration of my own personal approach, of an approach that works for me. As long as you can support your own thematic opinions with evidence from the text, anything you say is valid.

Some people feel that by analysing novels we destroy them, draining all the pleasure out of a good story by picking away too closely at the details. For me, however, looking closely at a text (reading it again, highlighting, note-taking, discussing, thinking) adds another layer to my experience that is so much richer. I like analysing novels for the same reason I write about them here on this blog – because it gets me to think deeper, and in thinking deeper I inevitably find something that surprises, inspires or simply changes my ideas. This is a process that I find both enjoyable and important to the way I grow as a person, the way I interact with the world. Searching for meaning in a novel like Burial Rites adds another thread of meaning to my own life. It’s a search that enriches, engrosses, and lasts a lifetime.

Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s first novel, and is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Kent’s latest novel – The Good People – was published in 2016.

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I made a resolution at the beginning of this year to write a new blog post once a month. Then we adopted a puppy, and already this first post of 2017 is overdue. Puppy demands walks and cuddles and food. Puppy distracts me with her floppy ears and gangly legs. 20170118_191302Puppy chewed my computer cord and left me – until yesterday – disconnected.

I had planned to write about Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a book I’d wanted to read for years. I found a copy recently at a twilight market stall, and bought it just before the rain started and the remaining books were hastily covered up.

I had wanted to talk about Murakami. But then we adopted a puppy, and everything shifted slightly sideways. Even now I’m writing this at 10pm, with puppy – finally – asleep beside me on the couch. Even now I’m snatching time between walks and food puzzles and games of fetch to Get Things Done.

(Note: I am aware that adopting a puppy is not the same as having a baby, and that there may be an amount of hyperbole present in this post.)

I had wanted to talk about Murakami. About how this was the first of his non-fiction I had read. About how it wasn’t as inspiring or thought-provoking as I expected it to be – I was waiting for more connections between writing and running, waiting for it to come together somehow. But it felt very stream-of-consciousness, like a journal without much editing. Some of the phrasing felt cliched, even a little cheesy. These could all be problems with translation; apparently Murakami’s work is often translated very literally, without much poetic license taken. It could also be that I am not a runner. Not really. I dabble in a few laps around the park here and there, but I don’t do marathons.

Or it could be that we got a puppy, and my attention was elsewhere. When I talk about adopting a puppy I talk about training. I talk about toys and vet visits and food. I talk about the joy and the stress relief. I talk about the way a puppy at once takes over life and somehow also fits into it, the way writing does. And, I suppose, running does, too.

One of the most useful things Murakami focuses on in his memoir is the importance of using writing as a way of clarifying personal goals and clearing thoughts. Playing with a puppy, I think, can help us do the same things. Being on the floor with a piece of rope, playing tug-of-war, relaxes my brain and frees it up from thoughts of school and grocery lists and uni assignments to wonder about other things. Like a piece of music on the radio, or a new novel, or a friend I haven’t spoken to for months. This funny, floppy, furry little girl is taking me on more walks, but she is also slowing me down. She is setting a new pace for our lives. And we are – so far – happily keeping up.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was first published in 2008, and was translated by Philip Gabriel. Other works of non-fiction by Murakami include Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.

My car is full of 90s mix-tapes. Driving in Australia has become an exercise in nostalgia: Rage Against the Machine, Spice Girls, Take That, the Scatman. Each song carries with it a high school memory: a party, a friendship, a boy, a fight. It is a strange form of time travel.

It’s been eight years since I’ve lived in Australia. Eight years since I’ve had a fixed Aussie address, tax file number, bank account. Coming back toimg_20161214_182114 Australia from Southeast Asia creates a kind of reverse culture shock. We are surprised when cars slow down for us at pedestrian crossings, shocked by the seemingly exorbitant price of mangos, and confused by the workings of local government. It’s a tricky transition, but an exciting one. There is the thrill of fresh air, of bird song, of having a backyard that borders the bush. And, of course, there is the joy that comes with reuniting with family and friends.

We’ve moved back to my home town, where my parents still live. We are renting the house across the street from where I grew up, and earlier this year I did a teaching placement at my old high school. In a way it’s like slipping into a parallel universe – the same place, but a very different life. The same birds (kookaburras, king parrots, currawongs), the same trees (gums, pines, wattles), the same mammals and reptiles (kangaroos, possums, blue-tongues). But instead of walking to school I’m driving; instead of studying for SACs and exams I’m teaching for them. I pay rent and bills and (try to) remember to put petrol in the car. Suddenly I’m living a ‘grown-up’ existence in a place where I was always a kid. Needless to say, it’s taking some getting used to.

We moved here for a number of reasons. We moved in such a hurry because university said I had to. Since February I’ve been studying a Master of Teaching (basically a one-year diploma with an extra six months of research tacked on the end). I could write an entire post on this course – on how it’s taken over my life, on the disconnection between theory and practice, on the wonderfully hard-working teachers I’ve met on placement. But, to be honest, I need a break from all-things-uni. Perhaps when it’s all done in mid-2017 I’ll be able to write about the experience with some objectivity.

As busy as it’s been, working as a pre-service English teacher has allowed me to dive back into reading. In the last year – for my teaching placements – I’ve read: Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein and 20160429_125519Dragonkeeper by Carole Wilkinson (Year 7); Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden (Year 8); Deadly Unna by Phillip Gwynne, Parvana by Deborah Ellis, Private Peaceful by Michael Murpurgo, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare and Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein (Year 9); The Secret River by Kate Grenville, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Happiest Refugee by Ahn Do, 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose and First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung (Year 10); Macbeth by William Shakespeare, The Turning by Tim Winton, Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Year 11); The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff (Year 12).

Somehow I also managed to read quite a few non-school books, mostly thanks to the local library. To be honest, I stopped keeping track after a while, but the ones I did write down included The Tiger’s Wife by Tea O’Breht, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, After the Flood by Margaret Atwood (the sequel to Oryx and Crake), Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

If I had to choose a favourite book for 2016, it would be Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. A novel by an Australian author, set in Iceland in 1829. A little slow moving at times, but very atmospheric. Lovely descriptions of weather and the landscape. There is a compelling mystery at the heart of the story that kept me up late. In many ways, Burial Rites feels simple – a very readable novel about a crime committed, about relationships and place. However, there is a lot left to the imagination, too. The powerlessness of individuals in the face of the law, the relationship between Iceland and Denmark, the impact of religion. This is a novel that cries out to be re-read.

When uni became too much I retreated to my hard drive, and watched Sleeping Sickness (2011, director Ulrich Kohler), Secret Sunshine (2007, Lee Chang-dong), Sound of My Voice (2011, Zal Batmanglij), Narcos (TV series, 2015-, created by Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato and Doug Miro), Through the Forest (2005, Jean-Paul Civeyrac), Vinyan (2008, Fabrice Du Welz), The Girlfriend Experience (2009, Steven Soderbergh), They Might Be Giants (1971, Anthony Harvey), London to Brighton (2006, Paul Andrew Williams), Mingri Tianya (2003, Yu Lik-wai), West of Memphis (documentary, 2012, Amy J. Berg), Dark House (2014, Victor Salva), The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers), Hunger (1966, Henning Carlsen), Post Mortem (2010, Pablo Larrain), The State I Am In (2000, Christian Petzold), Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977, Richard Brooks), Ravanche (2008, Gotz Spielmann), Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo), The Last of England (1988, Derek Jarman), Girls’ Night Out (1998, Im Sang-soo), Old Boy (2003, Park Chan-wook), Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle) and Snowtown (2011, Justin Kurzel).

A number of films stood out for me this year (The Witch, Old Boy, Miss Bala, Vinyan, Sound of My Voice, Secret Sunshine, Snowtown). The film that had the biggest impact on me, however, was Blind Mountain (2007), directed by Li Yang. Set in China in the early 90s, 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. Li does a good job of showcasing the pressures that result in such a horrific situation. This is the kind of film that could create conversation and potentially instigate a shift in thinking. Potentially. Not an easy film to watch, but highly recommended.

Now it’s December, and life has finally afforded me some good weather and free time. I’m using it to sit outside, look for platypuses, write, and generally comes to terms with where I am.

So far, so good.

Thanks for reading, and happy new year. Scraps & Fragments will be back in 2017 – see you then!

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Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide. Her most recent novel, The Good People, was published in 2016.

Li Yang is a Chinese director and writer. His first film – Blind Shaft – was released in 2003.

My boyfriend and I first moved to Phnom Penh in 2009. I had just turned 25. We flew into the country with no jobs, nowhere to live, and no connections. Six years later we found ourselves leaving an apartment thatimg_20160302_113803 had come to feel like home, and friends that had come to feel like family. I’ve stared at this screen for five minutes trying to think of a way to adequately express just how much the people I met in Cambodia mean to me. No single sentence is sufficient, so I’ll just say this – friends in Cambodia (you know who are you are!), you are some of the most genuinely wonderful people I have ever known. Meeting you was finding a place to fit – perfectly – and saying goodbye was leaving a part of myself behind.

Cambodia gave me so many incredible experiences. In Cambodia I learned how to dance; saw gibbons in the wild; was introduced to the mythology of Angkor; found my favourite island; learned how complicated it can be to “make a difference”; got my bike fixed; helped some of my best friends get married; lived with diabetes; got rained on; visited river dolphins and jungle elephants; went to Thailand; saw Bob Dylan play live in Vietnam; volunteered at the Kampot Writers Festival … and a hundred other things that would take a year to write down.

We moved to Cambodia because we wanted to travel and live somewhere different. We stayed so long because of the friends we made. And we left because – to put it simply, although it is always so much more complicated – we’d been away from family too long.

20160220_113657Originally, we’d planned a long, slow exit from Southeast Asia. Things didn’t turn out that way, thanks to the uncompromising inflexibility of Australian university scheduling. Six-months-left-in-Cambodia quickly became six weeks. In that small window of leaving I coordinated my last writing workshop; taught lessons on space, Canadian wolves, and Taylor Swift; watched Ponyo until way past everyone’s bedtime; ate pancakes with my favourite radioactive friend (and a baby goat); and – finally – drove to the airport with two of the world’s most beautiful people, and their incredible little girl (all of whom I miss every day).

In the last few weeks before I left – when everything was too-quick and too-much and completely surreal – I went to a meditation session at Wat Langka with a friend. We sat for an hour in silence, a whole Wat full of people12801438_10153989122340477_1756996893335274105_n with racing minds suddenly putting on the brakes. And just as the clock hit sixty minutes a thin cat wandered in, meowing. A furry, pink-tongued alarm clock. Time to go.

The mental turmoil of packing up and moving countries at short notice makes reading difficult. While I was leaving Cambodia I read exactly one book (When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris). Film-watching, on the other hand, lends itself to leaving. In the midst of lists and half-packed bags I watched L’Originne (2009, director Xavier Giannoli), Welcome to Me (2014, Shira Piven), Wild (2014, Jean-Marc Vallee), Wish You Were Here (2012, Kieran Darcy-Smith), Queen of Earth (2015, Alex Ross Perry), The One I Love (2014, Charlie McDowell), Mean Girls (2004, Mark Waters), The Jane Austen Book Club (2007, Robin Swicord), Adventureland (2009, Greg Mottola), Bad Timing (1980, Nicolas Roeg), Murderous Maids (2000, Jean-Pierre Denis), Tamara Drewe (2010, Stephen Frears), The Old Garden (2006, Im Sang-soo), Oslo August 31 (2011, Joachim Trier), Le Orme (1975, Luigi Bazzoni), and Primer (2004, Shane Carruth). A strange, often disturbing, sometimes boring, always different mix of moments: a French con-man, an American theme park, a New Zealand herd of cows, a Korean uprising, a Norwegian heroin addict. Somehow lifted me off the ground, onto a plane, and back to Australia.

And though I’m no longer there, it is comforting to know that Cambodia is not so far away. We might have moved away, but we won’t forget where we’ve been.

The rowing boat passes by

The bank remains

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Photo by Yeng Chheangly

(from ‘Cambodian strolls and proverbs’, Isabelle Fournier-Nicolle & Anne Yvonne Guillou, 2009)

On my first ever trip to Canada I got off the plane in Vancouver – in a dopey, what-day-is-it Valium-haze – and was greeted by a tank of drifting jellyfish. I hadn’t even left the airport and already I knew I was going to like it here.20151216_111352

We flew to Canada from Cambodia last December. The country was a flurry of snow and Christmas lights, and family. In just over a month we ate the biggest piece of apple pie I’ve ever seen in a Vancouver diner, hiked through snow (in snow-shoes) in the Pacific Ranges, and browsed Munro’s Books in Victoria. And somehow – awake in the wee hours of the morning on jet lag and too much Tim Hortons – I managed to watch around 12 films/TV shows and read at least 10 books. Yeah. It was a pretty good Christmas.

Pemberton

20151220_104112A few hours’ drive from Vancouver is the small town of Pemberton – home to bears, the second X-Files movie (The X-Files: I Want To Believe), and a lot of snow. In Pemberton I woke up at midnight to see a snowplow clearing the street. In Pemberton I hiked to a glacial lake where a Whisky Jack bird landed on my hand. And in Pemberton I read The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I bought this novel months before reading it, at the little bookshop in Kampot, along with a collection of Lahiri’s short stories. I found it hard to get into at first, but then I finished it quickly. Like many of Lahiri’s short stories, The Lowland is a novel that moves between20151218_115941 India and the United States. It spans generations of characters, and time is non-linear (in this sense it reminds me of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy). Unlike Roy’s novel, however, I found it hard to connect with characters in The Lowland – there are perhaps too many different perspectives, interspersed with a lot of politics. There aren’t many narrative surprises in The Lowland, but the writing is beautiful – wonderful use of metaphor, vivid descriptions of place, the smells of food, the heat. A strange book to read in the midst of a snow storm, but a good one.

Victoria

We spent Christmas in Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island. Victoria is a playground for squirrels, raccoons and deer (and sometimes, consequently, cougars). There seems to be beautiful, rocky shoreline in walking distance of almost everywhere – the perfect place to sit with a takeaway coffee and contemplate life (or spot seals and 20151221_113647bald eagles). In Victoria I was introduced to hockey, candied salmon, and drive-through Tim Hortons. I was also (re-)introduced to that most excellent Christmas tradition of endless amounts of reading (and film-watching) time.

In Victoria – mostly while on the couch with a heated blanket – I read The Children Act by Ian McEwan, The Gathering by Anne Enright, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. My Boxing Day book – a Christmas present from my boyfriend’s parents – was Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.

This novel was like nothing I’ve read before. Nora Webster is a quiet, character-driven book. At first I was expecting events to thread themselves into a story. Instead, the novel explores all the mundane, everyday moments that help (and don’t help) Nora deal with the grief of losing her husband. It is an almost stream of consciousness style of writing, Virginia Woolf-esque, although the language is less flowery, the prose crisper and simpler. It is very well written. In the background is the larger story of Ireland and the ways in which it comes to terms with its own grief. Even though the plot is not ‘traditional’ there is a sense of resolution towards the end – a climax that is without fanfare but that is real and satisfying. There is something very gentle yet intensely beautiful about this novel. I finished it in just a few days.img_3405

In-between books I explored the (seemingly endless) contents of my hard drive, and watched Brand New Life (2009, director Ounie Lecomte), The Fall (2013-, TV series, created by Allan Cubitt), A Hanging Offense (2003, director Guillaume Nicloux), Claire Dolan (1998, director Lodge Kerrigan), Dogtooth (2009, director Yorgos Lanthimos), Innocence (2004, director Lucile Hadzihalilovic), Kill List (2011, director Ben Wheatley),
Margaret
(2011, director Kenneth Lonergan) and Nenette and Boni (1996, director Claire Denis). The film that has stayed with me the longest, however, was The Lobster (2015, director Yorgos Lanthimos).

Perhaps not quite as strange as Dogtooth, The Lobster is still wonderfully weird and completely compelling. The premise – a dystopian future where people without partners are corralled together in a hotel and forced to find true love or be transformed into an animal of their choice – is both imaginative fantasy and insightful social commentary. Visually it is beautiful and surreal – random animals walk by in the background, a flamingo here, a camel there. It sounds fantastic – the music in the first slow motion hunting scene is magical, and there is something strangely stilted about the way actors speak their dialogue that works really well. The Lobster is weird, thoughtful, shocking and lovely. The kind of film that makes me want to watch more films. Highly recommended.

Pitt Meadows

On the outskirts of Vancouver is Pitt Meadows – a suburb that feels more like a small rural town, home to berry farms, mountains, forests, red picture-book barns, and my boyfriend’s brother and his family. In Pitt Meadows we went for long walks, learned all there is to know about baby zombie alien lizards, and – unfortunately – had a run-in with 20160114_140817some black ice. Miraculously everyone was fine, but after a family trip to the emergency room we spent the rest of our visit indoors, where the kids watched Minions and I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

A family epic, over 500 pages long, Middlesex starts in Greece in the 1920s and ends in Berlin in the early 80s. Middlesex is the story of the passing down of a genetic trait that leads to the narrator, Calliope, (later Cal). A first person novel that is also omniscient in style – reporting the thoughts and actions of people the narrator couldn’t possibly know. I’m in awe of the expanse of this novel – of the amount of history and historical detail it encompasses. It did take a while to get into, but by about two-thirds of the way through – when the story finally reaches Cal – I was addicted. I liked the narrative voice, but at times I felt like passages were too wordy. The family history probably didn’t need to be quite so detailed, but at the same time I did appreciate the breadth and depth of this novel. Middlesex completely envelopes the reader for days. A wonderful, overwhelming read.

Vancouver

The highlight of our Vancouver visit was definitely The X-Files forest (a.k.a. the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve), but we did manage to see some other sights. Rabid 20160117_131927raccoons and beaver dams in Stanley Park (no actual beavers), Emily Carr paintings at
the art gallery, and some frighteningly large seagulls. We ate Nanaimo bars on Granville Island and about twelve different types of eggs Benedict in Kitsilano. I also raided my boyfriend’s sister’s bookshelf, and discovered a classic Canadian dystopian novel – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Told from the point of view of a narrator known as Snowman, Oryx and Crake tells the story of a destroyed Earth and a new species – Crake’s children. The novel skips between Snowman in the present – hunting for food in dilapidated shopping malls – and his memories of the past. I liked the world Atwood has conjured in this book – so vivid, recognisable enough to be plausible, different enough to be fascinating. Intriguing exploration of gene splicing and the creation of new species’, as well as consideration of the role of art and the influence of advertising. I wanted a bit more to happen at the end, but I did have to finish it quickly before getting on the ferry to head back to Victoria (and then to Cambodia a few days later). I’m not usually a fan of science-fiction/fantasy writing, but for some reason Margaret Atwood really draws me in.20151220_135805

We ended up staying longer in Canada than we had originally planned. For a number of reasons, but largely because it was so good to be with family. Our time in Canada was a catalyst, I think, for the making of decisions that eventually led us to leave Cambodia for
Australia. I’m at a point in my life when a Christmas spent on the couch with a pile of books is preferable to travel; when New Year’s Eve at home with family and Chinese takeaway is better than bar-hopping and drinking ’til sunrise. Canada came along at just the right time. And from here – in the heat of Australian December – I’m looking forward to our next rainy Vancouver adventure.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winning author born in London. She currently lives in New York.

Colm Toibin is an Irish novelist, short story writer and essayist. Nora Webster is his eighth novel.

Yorgos Lanthimos is a Greek film director and screenwriter. His next film – The Killing of a Sacred Deer – is due for release in 2017.

Jeffrey Eugenides is an American writer. He is perhaps best known for his novel The Virgin Suicides, which was made into a film in 1999. Middlesex was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author. In addition to Oryx and Crake, her novels include The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.

So much for maintaining ‘a regular blog’ (Carly’s resume, 2016).

Full disclosure – my last post was published in November of 2015. It was written in Cambodia at the end of the rainy season, in-between tutoring and trips to the coast. Over a year later I’m in Australia at the beginning of summer, sitting on the back deck of our rented house, watching magpies and wondering how I got here.

It would be easy – after such a long hiatus – to give up this blogging business. Who needs it? Who reads it?!

I do, as it turns out.

For all sorts of reasons. Mostly, though, because it reminds me to keep a (somewhat intelligible) record of things. This blog is – more than anything else – a way to reflect, think through ideas, and find motivation. Like going for a run, writing here clears my head.

In the last week – since uni finished for the year and I rediscovered life-outside-academia – I’ve gone back to writing and running. In both cases getting started again after so long is awkward and somewhat painful. Muscles ache, my shoes stumble, headphones slip out of my ears. I’m still figuring out the best routes; my stomach stitches and my breath gets caught in my chest. It’s a long, slow, stop-start process. Sixty seconds jogging, ninety seconds walking. Sixty seconds writing, five minutes staring at the page.

But there is pleasure in coming back, too. A rhythm that is familiar, and an out-of-breath, red-faced, post-run sweat that is a relief to re-find. A reassuring reminder that if I sit long enough, stare hard enough, disconnect enough words are still wonderful.

So where to start after a year has gone by? A year of innumerable films watched, books read, places travelled. A year of North-American diners, South-East Asian beaches, a lobster, a car crash, Shakespeare, Ballarat churches, a pomegranate tree, a kill list, Bigfoot, the X-Files forest (and The X-Files), a road trip, babysitting, a turkey, Christmas lights, cats, mountain bikes, platypus, beaver dams, rabid raccoons, a hockey match, poetry, Holes, blue-tongue lizards, aliens, diabetes, a camping stove, a maths test, nature documentaries, a music festival, kangaroos, a wombat, kookaburras, hotel swimming pools, massages, hot Phnom Penh rooftops, tuk-tuks, sports days, cross country, rockpools, koala grunts, possum growls, the Khmer Rouge, Monopoly, trees, jewelled weevils, cults, metalanguage, Galileo, Nigeria, Romeo and Juliet, dragons, Harper Lee, ancient China, Gold Rush bottles, dinosaur statistics, witches, nouns, drugs, jet lag, salmon, fog, snow, Family Feud, rhubarb, and a tarantula named Nora.

20151231_115615I suppose it doesn’t really matter. A beginning is a beginning, whether it starts in the middle or at the end. The next few posts will be an attempt to catch up on (at least a fraction of) 2016. An effort – really – to figure out how we went from a Phnom Penh apartment to a house with a river for a back fence and kookaburras for neighbours. Here goes.

It’s [the act of writing] like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.

-from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

I feel like lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about writing, but very little active creative work. This post is an effort to clarify all the things I’ve been thinking about recently, give my brain a clear direction to go in, and also free up some space for just writing!

03. Coffee & Pencils

This week was a bit of a landmark moment for me – I received my first ever cheque for a short story, published in Visible Ink’s latest anthology. I’ve been awarded mentorships before, and subscriptions to literary journals in which my work has been published, and been given grant money to put towards a particular project. But this is the first time I’ve ever been really, directly paid for my writing. As in – this money is yours to spend in whatever way you want. Buy a really expensive block of chocolate, a bottle of wine, donate it. (What I’ll probably do is use it to pay entry fees to more writing competitions!)

Being published (and paid) for work is so encouraging, and for a short time it’s a huge high. But it really makes no difference at all when you sit down to write something new. The page is still blank, the ideas still feel like they will never come. You decide that your last story must have been a complete fluke, and you’ll never be able to do it again.

This is the real mystery of writing. How does it actually happen? There are some basic rules of language you can follow, some parameters that can be set. But I think, when it really comes down to it, what makes a good story is something not quite within the realm of conscious understanding. Which is why writers (or at least, myself) have so much anxiety – it’s a leap of faith every time I sit down to write something. Is it going to work this time? Is the magic going to happen? Or is this going to be another block of wasted space on my hard drive? Am I going to go home sad and defeated, wondering why I keep doing this at all?

It is somewhat comforting to know other (very successful) writers also feel this way. Something that kept me going for a long time – taped above my desk – was this quote from Junot Diaz:

They [stories and novels] all seem impossible to me. They both have me through the intestines on their horns, so it’s that kind of weird thing like getting gut-shot by a pistol or a rifle.

Stephen King – whose book about writing (also titled On Writing) I recently re-read – describes a similar feeling:

[S]ometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

And finally – and possibly my favourite – from Kurt Vonnegut:

When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.

On Why I Write

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So why – when it is so goddamn difficult – do I write? That might be a good place to start. I think the answer is fairly simple. I write because if I don’t I start to feel like shit; it’s like not getting enough sleep, or not eating enough green veggies. I write because it helps my head feel less cluttered, because it helps me think through (though not necessarily answer – actually, never really answer, since I keep coming back to them again and again) themes and ideas that bother me. I write because I like the way certain words sound next to each other. I think I also write because I like to read – I like good stories (though I think plot is my weakest point when it comes to writing). Sometimes writing really stresses me out. Sometimes it is SO hard. But I keep doing it because if I don’t, life is actually harder, in the long run. And when I get in a writing zone, it is the best place to be. It feels like really living. I like this quote from Anais Nin:

I have days of illuminations … [But then] I have days when the music in my head stops. Then I mend socks, prune trees, can fruits, polish furniture. But while I am doing this I feel I am not living.

However, I don’t think you have to sit around and wait for ‘illuminations.’ Or at least, while you’re waiting, you don’t need to mend socks. You can just write, and sooner or later, the illuminations will kick in, and you will be away.

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On Where I Write

Why am I doing it here, in Cambodia? Quite simply, because I can. In Australia I’d never be able to afford so much time to write. Here I can work part time (in a job I love – teaching) and write part time.

On What I Write

16. Poster

Poster from my one of my first produced plays

When I was in late high school and university I wrote scripts for theatre, because it felt right. Because there was something crisp and simple about dialogue, because I liked how sparse it was and how it looked on the page, how so much could be said with so little, and also how it could be turned into a performance and brought to life.

But then I moved overseas, where there was less of an (English speaking, at least) theatre scene. I started writing short stories. I like the idea of a short story capturing a moment in time. This quote from Anne Enright talking about Raymond Carver describes what I mean:

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

Poetry does this, too, but I’ve never been as drawn to poetry, though I do write it sometimes, for fun. I like the simplicity of short stories, the logical side of them, the structure (inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action) but also the potential they offer within that structure to be crazy, to be anything they want. And I like that they are short – that I can finish one in a week or a few days, and feel like I’ve explored an important idea, recorded something worthwhile, learned something about myself (usually – lately – something to do with my childhood, my family, my teenage years).

Why do I write (or try to write) novels? I’ve only really finished one novel. And it happened by accident – what I thought was just free-writing, possibly a short story, turned into something longer. And then longer. The voice fit, I loved the character, I wanted to keep writing her. And suddenly it was a novel. This is perhaps why writing the next one scares me so much – because what if I don’t fall into that groove again? What if I don’t find a voice I like, that lets me just keep going? (I guess the answer to that is to just write every day anyway and wait for something to get longer again).

And why do I write this blog? A number of reasons, I think. To force myself to get at least one thing polished enough each week for a wider audience to read (however many of you that may actually be). To force myself to think more deeply about films and books, to understand what I like and don’t like about them, to be more articulate. And to record some of my life – whether it’s living overseas, travelling, diabetes – from different angles, in more interesting ways.

Carly bookOn How I Write

What is this mysterious process? It’s taken me years to get comfortable with a writing process, and I still don’t feel like I’ve perfected it. I used to start with plot, a careful planning out of events, using the ‘story mountain’, drawing it out. But all the stories I wrote that way ended up feeling forced. As Stephen King writes: “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … the story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” Similarly if I started with a theme or issue I wanted to say something about, the resulting story ended up feeling too contrived. King also has something similar to say about this:

Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.

I agree. Now I write starting with language. With one image, or a line, or a couple of unrelated images that I try to connect together (the brain is always trying to – unconsciously – make connections between things, and if you give it two random ideas it will connect them for you) and then I just start. And I keep writing – quickly! As King says, writing rapidly helps you “outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” It takes a while to get into the zone, but I’m a believer now in letting the subconscious take over and ignoring the conscious mind. The critic. Just get it all down, and come back to it later. The real you, the real things you are interested in, that you want to talk about, will come out by themselves (as King writes, “I have many interests, but only a few that are deep enough to power novels” – I find that I come back to similar themes over and over again). And they won’t feel forced. I love this quote from E.L. Doctorow (I think a lot of people doing NaNoWriMo at the moment can probably relate to it, too – it’s certainly how I felt writing my novel):

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.

Then I come back and clean up. Like Raymond Chandler said: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” You can’t know whether what you’re writing is good or not while you’re writing it. So why bother trying to judge? Just do it, put it away, and then come back and decide later. That’s when you discover that there are some good bits in there, after all. I look for the themes, I pull them out, I use the story mountain and shape the mess of words around it. But at least I’ve got the mess of words to start with. Out of the primordial ooze of subconscious association comes story.

I also believe in writing every day. Even if it’s just a page, or a few hundred words, or for half an hour. The more you exercise the muscle (and the more regularly) the stronger it gets. Like Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird: “Do it [write] every day for a while … Do it as you would do scales on the piano … And make a commitment to finishing things.”

On Submitting Writing

I used to be much more haphazard about this, and I still think I need to improve. But I’ve learned a lot from other writers (especially at workshop groups) about how and where to submit. Subscribing to literary journals and competitions on Facebook and Twitter is useful for reminders of when places and competitions are open. I keep a record of where I’ve submitted and which piece, and whether it was accepted or not. I also keep notes on whether or not rejections were encouraging! I have four or five stories at the moment that are in my sort of submission cycle. As soon as one gets rejected, I put it back into the file for re-submitting somewhere else. I think doing this has helped me toughen up against rejection. I send things off so often that I forget about them, and when rejections come back it doesn’t affect me so much because I hadn’t been thinking about it. And if something is accepted – hey! Hurray! (And then I have a glass of wine.)

On Having an External Writing Life

It’s often said, and it is generally true, that writing is a solitary pursuit. However, it can be really helpful to find a way to make writing (at least some of the time) social. A few years ago I was in Korea and was feeling really depressed about writing. Mostly because I wasn’t doing it – wasn’t feeling inspired or motivated. My very smart writing mentor back in Australia encouraged me to find a writers group, and I did. Joining Seoul Writers Workshop was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my writing. It was scary, at first, submitting work for feedback, but it20151107_121612 improved my writing so much. I also learned a lot by looking at other people’s work – trying to understand why I liked certain things and not others, why some things worked and others didn’t. For short stories now the writing group in Phnom Penh is part of my process – I free-write/vomit, I do an initial edit and clean up, then I submit to the group for feedback, then another edit. I find this a great way to work. It’s also nice to be able to talk to other writers about writing – about the challenges and the joys. Festivals (such as KWRF last weekend) are also great for building connections, inspiring writers with new ideas, and just reminding us (I think actually the Kampot festival has in part prompted this now very long and rambling post) of why writing is important – to us, and to the world.

Having said all of this – and all of these things are great and necessary to my writing process – I have been feeling a bit out of balance lately. A bit too focused on editing, networking, writing synopses, researching blog posts. And not focused enough on the vomit. On letting it spill out onto the page, of hours of just getting into the zone and not caring what comes out.

I’m hoping this weekend to get down to Kampot again – this time for some quiet. I want to get back to writing for the sake of writing, rather than the outcome. This quote from Bird by Bird stays with me:

Do it [writing] as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.

Part of me (as always) is afraid that nothing good will come out. But another part of me (a part that is growing slowly stronger the older I get and the more I write) is excited to see what will be revealed.

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On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott are both really good resources for all aspects of the writing life. King’s book includes some particularly useful information on writing query letters and getting published, as well as ideas for further reading