Friday, 21 December 2012

So, this is Christmas

Christmas hasn’t been the same since my mum, Anna, died ten years ago. After all this time I'm still uncertain what to do. Every year I wonder if I should stick with the old family traditions but without her they are less robust and over time have faded away. All I have carried from one Christmas to another was grief. 

The season had lost the infectious energy Anna brought to it. For her, the lead up to Christmas involved much kitchen activity. She busied herself making home-made pasta for the big day, baking fruit pies and home-made cassata ice cream. She filled the pantry with biscuits and cakes to share. She prepared food hampers for charity, starting well months beforehand, buying a little something to put aside every week. She participated in Samaritan’s Purse shoe-box program, and filled shoe-boxes full of small gifts for children in overseas aid programs. She thought about what gifts to give members of her family and friends, and lovingly wrapped each one. Always a superb cook, Anna excelled herself at Christmas, producing a feast, refusing to let anyone do anything to help. Finally, she would sit down with the family around her, the happiness on her face obvious. Now the empty chair at the table magnifies my loss. 

Countless people make this same journey without a loved one through the festive season each year and it never becomes less painful. There is no road map to follow, no rest stops to relieve the pain, no directions as to the best way through. Grief has its own crooked path and travels it at its own pace. Last Christmas for the first time I broke the cycle. Instead of a home-based celebration, we had a picnic near the Yarra River. It felt relaxed and dissipated the pressure to maintain what we’d always done in the past. Through that choice, I reclaimed our celebrations, perhaps establishing a new tradition.

This year an aunt is traveling from Italy to celebrate with us. It’s been over fifty years since Dad shared a Christmas table with his youngest sibling. She was five years old and he twenty-four.  If Mum were here, she’d cook and fuss and make everything welcoming. Although I can’t cook and fuss like she did, I can make things welcoming and emulate that aspect of her approach to the celebrations. So this is our new Christmas; at the heart of it, still at the heart of it a shared feast even if it's on a picnic rug. It feels right. 

I'm sure Anna would approve.  

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The path to friendship

 As I wrote Christmas cards, I mulled over on the nature of friendship. The cards are reserved mainly for those I think about often but don't get a chance to see regularly. I suppose too that the Christmas period, which brings the year to a close, is another measure of the time I've had with the friends in my life. And that’s always worth pondering.

I read somewhere that most people are lucky if they have a couple of true long-term friends; friends who want the best for you, who aren’t judgmental and who pull you into line when you’re screwing up. Using that gauge, I consider myself lucky because I have an abundance of those types of friends in my life. There’s Raffaele—he was four and I was six when we met and remained neighbours for two decades. In the 51 years since our first meeting we have had at least weekly contact. My friend Jo and I met at the age of 12. We still catch up for coffee each week and meet at other times depending on what life is dishing out. There is a cluster of friends that extends back 20 years or so. Of course there are more recently made friends, many of whom I already know will become part of that long-term category.

What has kept our friendships strong for so long? For me it’s this: I’m drawn to those I admire and respect for the way they treat others and how their espoused values are congruent with their actions. They live authentically. These friends are staunch and reliable; they extend themselves when it’s not always comfortable to do so. Doesn’t matter how busy they are they find space for our relationship. They invest in honesty and they are genuinely interested in my life and that of others around them. They are devoid of competitive natures within our friendship. They are fiercely loyal and supportive. They celebrate my victories and commiserate my losses. They pull me up when I'm being a jerk. They’re a reality check in my life. I hope they see the same qualities in me.

I'm grateful that my parents modeled friendship for me. They demonstrated that these special relationships are made up of shared experience; thought and deed, good times and tough. Recently, my father gave the eulogy at the funeral of his friend of 75 years. It was a friendship made up of reciprocal weekly visits, social get-togethers, regular phone calls and always practical help. Shared time is all these situations built a rich history. Dad delivered the eulogy without a single written prompt. I was astounded at his eloquence in the circumstances then it struck me that despite his distress, the ease of his speech came from knowing his friend so well.

It’s said that people come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. I've had lots of seasonal friends—born of study and work situations. Some of these relationships have taken root and become a sturdy part of my life, others have blow away with the changing winds of circumstance and time. I don’t lament them; every relationship has taught me something. Then when social media gave us a new version of ‘friendship’, I wondered what it would mean for my son’s generation. Would he experience friendship the way I feel I've been lucky enough to do? I needn’t have worried. While he’s part of the social media savvy cohort with lots of Facebook friends and a Twitter profile, he made an astute observation, ‘Mum, one click doesn’t make a friendship. You have to sit with your friend and look them in the eye, that’s where the relationship develops.’

He’s living by that too. At the ripe old age of 28 he already has a mate of 23 years standing and they spend a lot of time together. He recognises that friendships need an investment of time and emotion. He’s taken to heart the lesson passed down from his grandparents, living out Ralph Waldo Emerson words, ‘Go often the house of your friend, for weeds choke the unused path.’

I'm glad in this frenetic world we have lots of ways of high-tech ways of staying in touch with one another, I'm a fan of these new media. But I still love the beautiful maintenance work of friendship: the effort you expend to make someone else’s day, tweaking your schedule to find the time to just ‘be’ in each other’s company, and yes, even that daunting stack of Christmas cards you have to write.

Friday, 7 December 2012

What’s the story behind that?

Each day I try to take a walk, not a long one – maybe half an hour on a good day. I don't jog (the cardiologist told me it’s bad plan). ‘Everything you need you can get from walking,’ he said. He was right and not just from the health perspective. No one needs me to bleat on about the health benefits, they’re a given. The bonuses I get from walking are ideas that it generates. As I walk, I collect them like I'm on a massive treasure hunt. I often go out with a head full of trouble and return home with a head full of story.

I'm not sure of the science behind it but there is something about the rhythm of my stride and the fact that I am not distracted by all the ‘to do’ things that are in my face when I'm at home: the washing, general chores, stack of bills to be considered, needs of others – in another words a procrastination list that stops me from writing. Of course these things need to be taken care of at some point but not to the detriment of the thing that is most nourishing to me.  

In ‘The Artist’s Way’, Julia Cameron suggests regular walking as part of artistic practice. I have found this to be true. When I get out into my walking world, I can let the must/should/ought thoughts rattling around in my head evaporate for the duration. I'm free to concentrate on what I see and hear. I can look at gardens and house designs and the strange objects that people place on their window sills for the world to see. Things like this make me ask, ‘What’s the story behind that?’ The possible answers are like seeds planted in my head, waiting for the trigger to germinate. They are my resources and my tools.

An added bonus I get from daily walks is the fun of people-watching; definitely a writer’s resource. My observation is that early morning walkers are greeters and late-in-the-day walkers are not; possibly they are grumpier and walking off a bad day. I say ‘Hi’ to everyone regardless of whether they return the greeting or not. I note how they interact with me, others and with their environment. It gives me ideas about character. Here’s an example: The other day, I passed a very trendy two-year-old out with his mum. Mum had made sure he had the fashion spot on and his hair gelled into the latest style. He was still being a kid, having a great time squatting to examine something on the path – an ant or piece of rubbish. Like me he was being inspired. As I passed, his mum decided it was time to move on. ‘Come on Arthur, let’s go!’ Arthur? On that, the kid and I exchanged looks. 

I'm sure his said, ‘What’s the story behind that?’ 

Definitely fodder for a head full of story.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Hanging onto every word

There’s a mountain of paperwork on my desk; mainly bills, filing and any piece of paper that looks like it requires action. I don’t understand the physics behind it, but the pile grows at an exponential rate. No matter how much zealous attention I apply to scaling it down, it mocks me with its size. Every week or so, I steel myself to tackle the task of whittling it down to manageable proportions. In my history of whittling, I’ve only managed to disperse it entirely on about two occasions. Sad.

The bills and filing are easy to deal with. They are the mundane aspects of an orderly life. But, in my excavations, I also regularly uncover scraps of paper on which I've written story ideas or lines that have come to me at odd hours–usually in the middle of the night or after a dream. In those instances I write the note in the dark. I figure that after getting my ‘pen license’ decades ago in primary school, I would know how to form the letters without the benefit of light. Yet the next day when I look at the page, not only is the writing hard to read, I have no understanding of what it was that at 2 am seemed to be my life’s greatest discovery.

Occasionally the line alone makes sense, but my 2am brain hasn’t allowed for context so the words have nowhere to go. Here’s a few example of my more recent erudite offerings and in parentheses my reactive thoughts on reading them later:

·  You have to have a cymbal bash at the end of a drum roll (No idea what I meant)
·  Blue apples (unlikely in nature, maybe I was nursing a sci-fi moment)
·  Groovy sponge (No idea)
·  What is the link to Monty? (… and Monty would be…who?)
·  Need to make it more expansive (Er…make what more expansive?)
·  He’s not the coolest dude (There’s heaps of them around so I'm none the wiser)
·  House (?)
·  With the extra money (??)
·  Call it the guilt room (???)

You get the general idea.

Despite being unable to decipher my coded insights I can’t bring myself to throw them out just in case by some miracle of linguistics or graphology, the meaning becomes clear at some later point and the moment of ‘great understanding’ returns. So the bits of paper go back in the pile. It brings a whole new meaning to hanging on to every word.

Given that the alarming growth rate of my paper pile, when the scraps of paper have been in residence for some months, I’m forced to find them alternative accommodation so I paste them into an ‘ideas’ book. Anyone trying to read the ideas book would be forgiven for thinking it was compiled in moments of delusion. There is no sense or logic to it at all. Yet something in me won’t let me waste the words.
I consult the ideas book regularly even if it’s just to laugh at myself.  

One night I dreamed that I was in conversation with someone (no idea who) and during that conversation I had a revelation about life’s meaning. In the dream I felt elated. I had the answer! It’s a pity it wasn’t at 2 am and I didn’t rouse to write it down. If I had, instead of waking and remembering the dream but not the revelation, I could have found the answer in my jottings. Based on my above list it might have gone something like this:

If Monty was linked to a more expansive house, even though he’s not the coolest dude, with the extra money he could buy the blue apples and the groovy sponge and keep them in the guilt room. Drum roll, cymbal bash.

Yep, a bit like that. Can’t waste the words!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Small moments of everything

This afternoon I took advantage of the sun in my back garden. I'm trying to be more in the moment and doing that requires me to stop the clamour of musts, have-tos, shoulds and shouldn’ts in my head. Since I've been keeping my creative anxiety awareness journal I've realised that those racing thoughts are like rubbish strewn across the road. My thoughts can't travel straight and they collide with one another, tripping me over my own thinking. Instead, I choose to sit with a faint sting of heat on my arms and despite dark sunnies, my eyes narrowing slightly against the sun’s intensity. The water I sip is tart with a generous squeeze of lemon juice. It only takes a few minutes for a pleasant drowsiness to come over me. I want to lean back against the outdoor chair and enter into the relaxation—the thing that goes missing most often in this frantic thought world. I sense the tension draining away from my neck and shoulders. In a dreamlike state, the warmth soaks though my flesh and bone until the even the anxious thoughts in my head melt away. 

In the stillness I become aware of sounds: a distant broom scraping a neighbour’s concrete driveway; the grunt of trucks straining against the speed limit and the spirited debate of birds. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can hear the rhythm of the ocean waves just a few blocks away from home. A hint of fresh paint glides past with the breeze; there’s the scent of the local burger joint and freshly cut grass from the adjacent school oval. My drift into that safe zone continues; into the place where I'm not asleep yet far from awake. Time becomes shapeless.

There is nowhere else I need to be in this moment. In this moment, there is everything I need. It's full of thoughts of my family and friends and stories I want to write. That’s what matters to me. Even an indignant car horn and the high-pitched shouts of children leaving the school grounds across the way, don’t break my calm. I remain in the stillness until my body, alerted by the breeze stroking my forehead, says it’s time to move. The peace of the moment accompanies me as I enter the dull light of the house. The remnants of the outside brightness blur my vision but I can see where I'm going. I'm taking those moments to my desk. To the empty page that’s been waiting to be fed.    

Friday, 16 November 2012

Teach a girl to fish…

What’s the old saying? ‘Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll never see him on weekends…’

I’ve been in a writing group for some time now. It comprises four women and we call ourselves Big Fish. The name was an off the top of the head idea from one of our members. At the time it had no particular meaning for us but it stuck.

Big Fish meets for a few hours every 4 to 5 weeks subject to changes due to work, childcare, illness, appointments and life in general. Our agreement is that for each  session, we all commit to producing a piece of writing that we can workshop. We email the pieces to each other a few days before and when we come to the session, after the obligatory coffee and gossip, we get down to business.

The group brings discipline to our writing and for me in particular with chronic health problems, it's an anchor. My output and quality of writing would not be the same without the support of my Big Fish colleagues. While each of us is at different stages in our writing careers, we all bring something to the table not the least of which is our commitment to our work and to each other. We share resources with one another, offer encouragement when one of us feels like giving up and when one of us has something published or another writing-related success, we celebrate. A writing group is an effective strategy for pushing the word output along. Firstly, there is a deadline—always a great incentive for getting the work done. Secondly, there is a readership interested in the work and in making the work better. Thirdly, there is constant learning from the feedback.

We a true ‘school’ of fish; learning with every critique we take on-board. Some days we are sardines and some days we are sharks. We let each other know if we are using the wrong line, if we are missing a good hook and we talk about where to fish deep and when shallow is best.

As it turns out, the group name was inspired. I find I’m a better writer when I take time out to go fishing.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Full marks for learning

Most of today I spent marking assignments for my online writing students; exhausting and exciting at the same time. It’s encouraging to find people who are enthusiastic and committed to learning, who ask questions, who do the work, who take on board feedback and apply it. Who come back for more! When I think of 15-year-old Malala Yusafzai, shot by the Taliban because she campaigned for girls’ education, it reminds me how often those of us with access to education take it for granted. Many a parents are familiar with their kids groaning about school; how school is boring and where, according to many teens, they generally do nuthin’ and learn nuthin’ all day. I acknowledge that for some an academic environment doesn't suit their learning style and that for others life circumstances make it hard. Yet missing out on education is often a profound regret for many as they get older.

At the end of my high school education, my English Lit teacher, Rod Daniels, encouraged me to write professionally. To my everlasting regret I didn't listen and it took another 30 years before I had an opportunity to write. Now I've come full circle. It’s not just that I learn from having been a student but I also learn from being a teacher. Interaction with students forces me to examine my own work, what I am sharing with them in terms of my knowledge, my experience and what I know of the writing craft. It's thrilling to see students thrive and develop and to know I've played a part in that.

The older I get the more I value learning. Partly because the older I get, the more I'm aware of how much there is know. Lifelong education is important at many levels. It's not just about skill development. It's also about adapting to a changing world. It's about keeping our minds fresh and alive with ideas. As we are living longer, we are challenged to face new ways of working, in fact extended ways of working and often across a number of different careers. All of this involves learning in some form. So get yourself into an online course, go learn a language, teach one if you can, get onto U3A, go to TAFE, do a community course, get into your local library for one of the many free sessions they run. Share what you know. Keep learning. 

Monday, 29 October 2012

Oh Nooo! it’s NaNoWriMo


Kudos to all the brave and energetic souls preparing for this year’s NaNoWriMo. I'm not one of them. Not this year. I participated in one NaNOWriMo and 21 days into it, I hit 50K+ words and decided that if I kept going I’d DIE. I don’t remember most of what I wrote but I know it was bad. Bad! Bad! Bad! It’s funny though how much to the material I've been able to revisit, revise and use in other pieces. Like I tell students ‘It’s ok to write bad’ to start with. When you have material to work with you can fix it later; you cant edit a blank page. And to prove that I'm leading by example, I'm posting this small snippet from my NaNoWriMo piece to show you how truly bad it was. I must have hit a wall and this is what ensued-a conversation between the characters and the writer. It won’t make a lot of sense because the plot line is absent (and sadly always was) but I hope it gives those of you attempting the feat a good laugh and a little encouragement:  

 The thought This is turning out to be really good! leads suddenly to a new thought and the NaNOWriMo writing goes on:

‘But what isn’t turning out so good is the quality of this writing,’ Melody said.
‘I know,’ Jenny said. ‘We should go and talk to Mrs. Gilbert in the library and see how it can be improved.’
‘I doubt its possible’ Caroline said. ‘It started off badly and it just got worse.’
‘Well, whoever is at the keyboard really has a lot to answer for.’
‘Yep. The writer has made us stereotypical and one-dimensional.’
‘Why did she always insist on writing about teens? She knows nothing about that.’
‘Not any more,’ added Caroline.
‘Maybe what she should do is write a story like that. As if the characters are speaking to her from the page and she’s the writer. It has an odd merit to it.’
Melody butted in. ‘How much of idiot has she made me look? I can’t think for myself, I can't defend myself. I’m a complete wimp and what physical features do you know about me? Zilch! So much for five senses.’
‘God she’s bad hey?’
Caroline shouted from the page, ‘hey how about making us more real? You should map us, you idiot. I’m mean, poor old Mel her goes from being sixty to being seventeen and in between she gets to be a porn star and a sex maniac. What the hell is the plot here?’
‘There isn’t one,’ the writer typed back defensively. ‘I’m not saying I’m good at this, but I’m trying!’ The writer pouted. ‘Some people won’t even attempt this.’
‘Ha! Maybe you shouldn’t have either,’ character one said. The other two characters high-fived her.
;Well if you’re so smart, speak to me,’ the writer countered. ‘Tell me who you are? How can I get to know you?’
‘Firstly, start with what you know. You’ve been young. You know what it’s like.’
The writer scratched her head. It was a long time ago. She came from an age before text messaging. If I wanted to see you later, that’s what I had to do. I had no way of telling you I’d ‘c u l8r’.
‘Yeah, you’re hilarious,’ character two said drolly. ‘Look you need to lift your game. What about those MRU things that you go on about?’
‘Motivational Reaction Units?’
‘Yeah you know, action reaction and visceral responses. All that shit. You write in script mode all the time.’
‘I love scripts!’
‘This is prose, hell-o!’ interjected character three, ‘You are so bloody frustrating!’
Well, I think I write better from a place of experience.
‘Then if this is it, you must have had some bad experiences,’ characters one two and three laughed in unison, holding their sides.
How’s that?
‘Bloody awful.’
‘Maybe I should delete it all and start again?’
Are you kidding and kill us off? That’s typical. When it gets too hard you give up of go and make a cup of tea, or eat a biscuit or do some housework.’
‘You need to commit!’ shouted character three from the page. ‘We’re worth it. Think of us as your kids. You need to get to know us and nurture us.’
‘Yeah. Besides, I want to know if that Melody character gets back to being a porn star.’
‘Hmm. She’s in her sixties when the story opens. I don’t think it would be a good look.’
‘But it could be interesting,’ character one argued. ‘Let face it there’s no subject matter like that around, is there?’ She turned to character two who shrugged.
The writer stopped typing. Instead she drummed her finger s on the desk. ‘It’s too bloody hard.’
‘We know!’ chorused the characters.
‘And what about me?’ A strident voice piped up.
The three characters looked around. ‘Who said that?’
‘Down her, over here, under there, up here!’ The voice gave confusing direction, which strained the characters necks.
‘Whose IS that?’
‘I’m the setting! I’m as dull as a blank page.’
‘Hey, that not fair,’ said the writer. ‘I've devoted lots of words to you.’
‘Yeah. Dumb one like she was in the office. At the school.That’s not setting that’s just putting something in.’
‘I could ignore you all together, which frankly I’m tempted to do at his stage. I've already got characters screaming at me for attention,’ said the writer.
‘Don't forget me,’ pipped up a thin voice.
The writer groaned. ‘Now what?’
‘I’m plot and I need sustenance.’
‘Bloody hell. How much energy do you guys think I have?’
How much do you think the readers will have if they are stuck with this drivel? ‘They’ll never get past Melody putting lipstick on her mouth. No offence Melody character.’ All three characters said ‘none taken’ and looked at one another.
‘See?’ character one said stepping forward, ‘we’re indistinguishable from one another. We aren’t finely drawn were just slapped on and we’re all the same except for names.’ The other characters agreed by pouting.
‘Never mind that!’ yelled setting again. ‘I’m butt naked and I need a bit of dressing.’
‘That pointless if I’m not sorted,’ said plot.
‘What do you think?’ Plot turned to dialogue.
‘Hey, I think I’m doing really well. I got most of the action. Can't complain.’
‘See? I’m okay at dialogue,’ the writer said, buoyed by the support.
‘Not necessarily, said character one. You're just dumping words there and they have nothing to do with each of us.’
‘What does those mean?’
‘We all sound the bloody same. Our words are interchangeable. And don't even start me not the way the parent characters and teachers speak. What did you go to school in the sixties?
‘As a matter of fact I did. And this bit is set in the sixties so it works.’
‘Lazy cow!’ Chorused the characters.
‘What about me? screamed Setting again. I’m still waiting for my clothes!’
  As I said…Truly, sadly, deeply bad but one helluva lot of fun. Good luck all.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Just so we're clear

It’s funny how spooky little coincidences come your way to highlight whatever is going on in your life. I had a string of these recently. First, I was having trouble with my eyes. I couldn’t seem to focus and no matter which way I held my book or my head, all the words were an irritating blur. Off I went to the optometrist who announced that my eyesight had in fact improved and as a consequence I needed new glasses. Hmmm… Then the television picture played up. It was fuzzy, lacked definition and pixilated like crazy. Many technicians and several complex network interventions later, the screen came into sharp focus like a new set minus the expense. Lastly, on my wall hung posters; originally calls to bright holiday destinations. In these, the print had paled to deathbed grey, the names of the locations obliterated by years of sun exposure. As I’m wont to do, I mused on the common theme in these events. I realized that they were reflections of a wider problem, not just being unable to see things clearly but of also being unwilling to so. It made sense, because once you see a problem clearly you're compelled to fix what you can or risk just talking about ‘the problem’ forever and never sorting it out. But change is uncomfortable. That’s why most of us avoid it. It took some action to get back the sharp television images, the bright hues of the new posters and the well-formed letters on the page. Then it took some getting used to.

I decided that there are things for which we need always keep our eyes open: our behavior and its consequences, the quality of our relationships and friendships, our role in making the world a little better, our work and its contributions. When those images become fuzzy and ill-defined, it’s time to step up and make changes. Hard as it is, sometimes we need the paradox of improved eyesight first before the subsequent new glasses. When the image before us stops breaking up, we realize that hanging too long in the same space does nothing to get us to our destination, instead we risk becoming faded and jaded. So we fix and we cull and we edit and we change and in that uncomfortable continuum things become clear once more.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Spring cleaning my head

There are cupboards in my home into which I shove things that are too hard to think about. Consequently, I live in fear of opening the doors in case I'm avalanched by the enclosed mess. Now that the closed doors of winter are being thrown open to the warm spring air, I've been thinking about the many things to which I need to apply the notion of ‘spring cleaning’—besides my cupboards. One of these is my writing. Like many, I suffer from winter blues. The lack of light and the cold sap my motivation and energy. There are days I can’t put my fingers to the keyboard or pen to paper; when the doona seems life’s best option. The last few weeks have been particularly difficult. A perfectionist by nature, I bring to the blank page the weight of my expectations. Before I've even begun to write, I'm worrying about whether the work will be good enough, who will care and what if I can’t do it? It’s easy for all these thoughts to spiral quickly into what’s the point? After that kind of thinking the search for the doona begins in earnest.

In response, I started to explore these creative downs. Through reading the work of Eric Maisel, I discovered they are not entirely seasonal. He makes the point that both creating and not creating provoke anxiety in creative people—it’s intrinsic to the creative process. Taking one of Maisel’s ideas, I’m employing a new strategy which is to document my writing anxieties by keeping an ‘anxiety awareness journal’ for the next month. While I seem to be unable to produce new work at the moment, I can certainly bleat about the fact, even if I'm my only audience. Given that creative people live with anxiety for many reasons and at many levels, this method aids in identifying and challenging the specifics of what is behind the procrastination, fear, blues or any other word you want to give the ‘not writing’.

I recognise the irony of writing a blog about not being able to write. Perhaps acknowledgment does start the road to recovery. So, that’s my plan but before I begin, I need a cup of tea, a biscuit and an hour or so to edit my cupboards...Hey, at least I'm in writing metaphor mode.   


Friday, 7 September 2012

Hi mum, I love you. Can I use your washing machine?

This is what happens when twenty-somethings live ‘independently’. The basket  produced on this occasion contained clothes that look like they've never been introduced to washing machine since manufacture. Fair enough, some of that may have been my fault. Perhaps I didn't encourage his laundry skills when he was younger. Of course, he had things to do and places to be. Like the mum that I am, I told him not to worry and I would put on a couple of loads. About five loads as it turned out. Amazing how many clothes he had managed to pack into that one laundry basket. To be fair, he doesn't do this regularly. I'm not whinging about it because as I sorted the clothing, each item told me something about my son. About the colours he likes, the bands he follows, the sports he plays. It gave rise to memories of him as a baby, a boy, a teenager and now the man he is today. My brain tumbled ideas just as the washing tumbled to the rhythm of the machine. It motivated me to write a reflection on our relationship. Go figure. Inspiration is everywhere, even in a pile of dirty washing.  

Friday, 10 August 2012

Word countdown…or up?

Recently I discovered another useful tit-bit to add to my writing toolbox. It’s so unbelievably simple that it’s scary. It comes from the fact that is nothing like a deadline or goal to get you cracking! I put together a simple word counting spreadsheet. The formula gives me the word increase for each writing session. its qualitative different to using word count because I can see my progress. For me, that’s important because I can’t sit at the PC for long periods, so in the times I am able to do so do so, every word counts. My goal is to finish with more words than I started knowing that I have limited time available to do it in. Being able to see my progress makes a huge difference to my motivation. Sometimes I add only a few hundred words but every word moves the total forward. I know it isn’t all about the word count but without the words on the page there is nothing to edit and shape. In the last few weeks, this strategy has helped me feel like I can get to the end of my novel – counting on every word.  

Thursday, 2 August 2012

A bit of prose panel beating

Like everyone who writes, I have periods where I struggle with my writing. Often it has to do with my confidence in my work. Sometimes it has to do with my physical health. At other times, it’s simply that I’ve lost the plot! I talked with a writer friend today and though that realised that my current struggle is to do with the structure of my story. Each time I try to move it forward I'm overwhelmed by what is in my head and not knowing where to insert the new sections I am writing. Under the weight of that, it’s easy to give up. 
My friend suggested that I map out the story on a large sheet of paper using a simple three act structure. She thought this might help to place all the existing character elements and plot in sequence and to identify what was left out of the story. In panel beating my story into this shape, I worked out the inciting incidents and turning points, not just for the main story but for the subplots as well. It was an interesting exercise and not the sort of rigour I normally bring to my writing. Even a rough draft of a workable structure gave me movement and renewed energy for the project. Until then I had been stuck for words more specifically stuck for the right words and in the right order. It’s worth trying if you’re stuck. Add it to your writers’ toolbox. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Sex? It’s a pity…

I've recently finished reading a free e-book that I thought was going to be a relaxing read about a woman who reinvents herself after the breakup of her marriage and who somehow gets mixed up in solving a murder (not the cheating ex-husband’s I should add) However, I was totally thrown out of the story by the sex scenes which peppered the action. Now, I don't have anything against sex scenes but these had a vibe that they had been dropped in just for the spice. I guess they were intended to be erotic but I found them comedic. I spent so much time laughing because I couldn’t buy that characters, who had known each other for a few minutes could have sex so great that she has nine – yep, count ’em, NINE - orgasms the first time they have at it! (Just to ratchet up the inadequacy meter for the normal population) The scenes did nothing to progress the story, nor gave me any additional reasons to care what happened to the characters. In fact she’d become such a bleater that the further I got into the book the more I hoped she would be the next murder victim. No such luck. To make matters worse, I figured out the killer’s identity as soon as he appeared on the page. The last chapter was an info dump that tied up all the loose ends via a conversation of assorted characters while the new lovers looked adoringly into each others eyes. Kill me, kill me now! I'm still trying to figure out why I persevered with reading it. Maybe being a freebie, I figured I shouldn’t whine. Maybe I simply hoped it would get better. Maybe I wanted to give the writer the benefit of the doubt.But there’s something I learned: good sex in a novel isn’t just in the writhing, it’s in the writing. Otherwise celibacy from the page is a good option. 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Winter lessons in letting go

I've never thought of myself as a ‘winter person’. Don't like the cold. Don't like the grey. Don't like the darkness. It exacerbates my pain. I experience winter as a season of grief. A heavy time, where the warmth of other seasons seems lost forever. But this winter I have a new little buddy, a wee bird who is teaching me a lesson in letting go of all that I perceive as cold and getting some warmth back into my life, regardless of the season. 

The bird often sits in the bare branches of the elm tree in the backyard. I think it sad that the tree has lost all its beautiful leaves but I've noticed that the bird takes advantage of its nakedness. She sits at the very top having the best view of everything. There are no leaves to obscure her range of sight. She is in a good position to see everything that is going on. I suspect she doesn't grieve the end of the youthful spring, the passing of summer's warmth, the promise of harvest in the autumn gone. To the bird, winter is not like a death. She does not feel the need to withdraw and wait impatiently until the seasons turn again. She seems to enjoy the crisp air. She sings to the sky despite its grey undercoat.

I’ve learned from her. It occurs to me that one of the things a period (be it a season or a moment) of winter does in my life is to lay everything bare so that I could examine how I’ve been living, thinking and feeling. In resting in the quietness of the stripped back season, I can look out to new horizons. I have a chance to reflect and brave my fear of all that I experience as cold and desolate. Change is not easy at the best of times but there is a time to let things lie; to accept the solitude and in it, be at peace with the lessons that winter brings. And despite it all, like the wise little bird, I can still sing to the sky.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Words of comfort

Today is a bad pain day. It doesn't help that Melbourne has turned on nasty weather. The cold gets to every sore point in my body and renders me incapable of coherent thought. I follow all the guidelines that the pain specialists have given me; the treatments and medications barely make a dent. The pen is hard to grip but I can scribble a few words onto paper. They take me to another place where the world doesn't look like it does though today's icy window. It's a world infused with adventure and alternative lives. When writing becomes too much there are hardcopy books and the Kindle. The best therapy—words that are a distraction from a difficulty reality. 
They give me comfort when little else can.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Exercising your writing muscles

This month I've been doing a daily writing prompt exercise courtesy of Sherryl Clark's ebooks4writers. I'm on the website’s mailing list so in the morning the day’s prompts appear in my inbox and I can choose the time to do them. 

The prompts encourage me to do 10 min of writing every day - more if I want to. There are two sections - fiction and poetry and you don't have to do both. I have been doing both and have some spectacularly bad poetry to show for it! Luckily the writing is for my eyes only unless I choose otherwise.

It's been interesting exercise for a range of reasons. The first is that while love to write, I can't sit at the computer for long periods of time. This makes it difficult to stay in a regular writing rhythm but the prompt exercises, being short, overcome this. Like many writers, I carry a notebook everywhere and I write by hand. Today I did the prompts while waiting at the hairdresser. As a result of the impetus the prompts appearing in my inbox gives me, I have the start of possibly 18 short stories to date. Not all of them will attract me long-term but they are beginnings and story ideas I would not have had without the prompts.

The second is that the exercises till the soil for the rest of my writing. Today I found myself visiting my own slush pile of writing and looking at which pieces I could work on further. I also found my mind churning with new ideas. Again not all of them executable but nevertheless they show me that there is life in my writing yet. If you have a chance to get onto the site, do so and sign up. It’s not too late to get into it.

I've rediscovered how important it is to exercise the writing muscle, even if it’s a little each day. That’s how writing gets stronger. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A woman of letters

When I was 14 I had a pen-pal in France. Her name was Dominique and she lived in Ch√Ęteau Something-or-Another. For several years we exchanged letters. I clearly remember the excitement when one of hers arrived with its unusual looking stamps and its blue airmail sticker. The paper was particularly light weight and all the writing was done in fountain pen. As our lives expanded into adulthood, we lost touch. If I tried, I probably could find her on Facebook or Twitter but the relationship wouldn’t be the same. We built the best one out of paper and ink.

There is something about a handwritten message. It has a certain gravitas about it—a sense that the person writing it has bothered to think and taken the time to put pen to paper, place it in an envelope, attach a stamp and get it to the post box. Clearly text messaging and writing e-mails involves a process of thinking and effort. Arguably the effort involved isn’t as great (and not as expensive). But it’s a ‘convenience’ world and I get the use of technology for fast and expedient communication. I'm a fan myself but not for every type of message I need to send.

Today, I thought of two people to whom I wanted to send special messages. One was a friend who is ill and undergoing medical treatment; the other, a woman who wrote me a letter of support and gratitude after the abrupt cancellation of a community project in which I was involved. Emails were never going to cut it. I found embossed paper, thick enough to absorb a bit of ink. I wrote my messages without editing, heartfelt. Stamped the envelopes, walked to the red box, shot them through the slit and heard the satisfying thud as they landed.

I know that when the notes are received, there will be—as my French pen-pal may have said—a certain je ne sais quoi about them. Because the value of the personal letter is that it focuses on the recipient. It’s a unique item meant for him or her only; a one-of-a-kind message in which they are the complete centre of attention. I felt good about it. I like my rediscovered love of the handwritten letter. I think I’ll keep it up. If I have your address, watch your mailbox…