Thursday, November 13, 2014

How poetry is different to prose

I sit myself at the table and I write. The Muse? I will have none of it. I am more interested in hard work than in inspiration. If I wait for the muse I will be waiting a lifetime.

Poetry works differently. I sit myself down and there is nothing but the words on the page, written in a different, heightened state. Poetry must be seized, it seems. At this desk there is nothing. The strict discipline of the craft will leave me with a gaping whiteness on the page like a scream arrested.

Today I feel on the edge of a poetry. I am unbalanced, dizzy with the heat and the shock of my flesh melting into it. I flick between A Grief Observed and Harwood and Best Australian Science and there is a vague hum as if the books are speaking to each other when I am not looking. I pace. This is how I write poetry when I am not mad or bereft. I have to catch it at a glance, side-on, sidling up to it. My note paper capturing the words, resisting judgement.

I open a painting and it is there, that hum, that image between the spidery letters of a word. I am quick to scoop up three lines. Then my pen turns to dough on the page. I must walk away and let the syllables rise like an unwatched pot.
My grandmother is shaking her head, she of the workmanlike elbows and fists. You must grab it - and the fly plucked from the air.  But my grandmother never wrote a poem. There is no grabbing a poem. It is more like photographic developing than sculpture. It is a quite sitting, half-looking, squinting through dark, waiting for the words to settle blackly on the page.

Today I have written two poems.

My grandmother is behind me. Tsking her tongue.
As always,
She is not impressed.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Writing a Glunk

OK. I may have mentioned this in my blogging once before, but when I was a child I was very disturbed by a particular Dr Suess book. I think it was in The Sneetches and other stories. It was a story about a boy's little sister who used to sit and think little fluffy things into existence every night after dinner. Then one night she thinks up a Glunk and of course the idea is way too big for her and causes terror and mayhem and it is up to the little boy to 'unthunk the Glunk'.  Now little Sally only ever thinks up fluffy things after dinner.

This story disturbed me, even when I was seven.  I was already involved in thinking up Glunks. I was reaching for books way too age-inappropriate for a seven year old. By the time I was ten I fell in love with Peter Otoole playing Lawrence of Arabia and insisted on reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with its bible thin pages and interminable recounting of one military push after another. I had no idea what I was reading but I pushed on anyway. I was so proud of myself when, after several months of slogging, I had finished the book. I even really loved some paragraphs and underlined them. I still have my copy of the book.

I did not want to be stuck thinking fluffy things after dinner. I wanted to over-reach.

Somehow I have found my safe-unsafe boundaries.  I know what I am comfortable writing and I stick to small contemporary stories with a manageable cast. I still over-reach but it is always about the concepts and not the parameters of the story.

I have an idea for a novel. It is a big novel. It requires lots of research. It is historical. It is about politics and cultural cringe and all the things that I am ignorant of.

I am really afraid to start this book but it won't let go of my head. It has a hook in me.  I am afraid that it is too big for me. I am afraid I will fail trying to write it.

Still, I was never satisfied with little Sally's parameters.  I suppose you can't get your teeth into the fruit unless you pick it first. I am reaching up into the tree for the forbidden apple. I have my Glunk in my sights. I am afraid I am going to start this impossible project. Frightened. Hesitant. Starting now.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Waiting for edits

My edits will arrive.

They will arrive yesterday or tomorrow or now. They will be just a rearrangement
of words and lines or great sweeping gouges that carve whole chapters away
leaving gaping holes that need to be replaced.

My chest is tight. I feel like perhaps my heart is giving up or giving out over the longest time.
Each night I die again. My edits cause a swelling
in the tissue, a drawing out where the blood thuds too hard.

I am waiting for my edits.

I am grinding my teeth at night.

I dream of children that I must save when I can not.
I dream of natural disasters coming to unnatural ends.

When my edits are done my book will be better or worse.
My book will be unchangeable
And I must embrace whatever wreck of myself I have left on the page.

I may die whilst I wait for my edits
Or perhaps they will come tomorrow, staving off this terrible loss of self
Beat by misshapen beat I come to an end
Of myself
or my waiting
or my book
or my career
or my self esteem.

And whatever half formed thing I make of it
It will never be so many other perfect things
And I will not be them
Or something outside of myself.

Tomorrow my edits may arrive

Or not.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Your nightmares can be useful to your book: A glimpse from "Half Light" a novel in progress.

Philip leans against the trunk of a tree. He is a big man, made bigger by the hopes and dreams of the brethren. He is the chosen of god which adds an extra few inches to his already considerable height.  He walks with the lord, and his footfalls are strong and sure and without hesitation. He has heard about Jessica which is why he is here now.  Jessica’s mother is nervous. She tucks her hair behind her ear and smooths down her simple cotton smock, small signs of vanity. Why doesn’t he see this? He is always talking about the evils of vanity, the evils of greed, the evils of selfishness and yet when the women primp and preen around him he seems to swell up with their undivided attention. He is adored as God Himself should be adored. He is the son of God on earth and he will save them all if they follow him closely enough.
She has stopped believing. Philip is a man, and as a man he is fallible. Every time he predicts a new date for the apocalypse, once a year, more frequently lately, every time they all walk up the mountain with their crosses, Jessica follows them but she does so knowing that they will soon trudge down the hill once more.  Jessica still joins the women in the cooking and preserving, putting food away for the end-times, but now she knows that they are just storing food for winter. There will be no end times. Not now. Not soon. Certainly not in Philip’s mortal lifetime.
He nods and this is a sign that Jessica should raise her gun. She should be as nervous as her mother is but strangely, she isn’t. Philip rarely bother’s himself with women’s business. Still he has heard about her, how she, a child, has a God-given  sure hand and an unerring eye. He has come to see for himself. Jessica raises the rifle, braces it against her shoulder. It is all about breath. Breathe out. Sight. Shoot.  The can leaps into the air, tumbles. The bullet will have pierced it at the centre of the label. It isn’t hard. She wonders what all the fuss is about. She feels the pulse of her blood. Even this thudding will change the direction of the bullet. The shot must be timed to the breath and to the heart. She lines up the second can, sights, breathes out, pulse, shoot. Another can down. Philip nods.  Jessica raises the rifle and he holds up his hand to stop her. The women are all lined up waiting. They know what he wants of them. Her mother walks out onto the range. She replaces the next can with the bundle that she is hiding under her smock. When she steps away from the log Jessica can see that she has placed a kitten there. The thing mews, stares at her, licks his black face with a rough pink tongue. Another woman picks up the next can and in its place there is an owl, almost the exact same colour as the log, an owl made of bark, it ruffles it’s feathers. Its eyes are big and yellow and wise. Another can removed, a puppy, a labrador, sandy brown, velvety, wrinkled with all it’s extra skin just waiting for a growth spurt. The women step back, out of the line of fire.  Philip lowers his hand. She is supposed to shoot. They are waiting for her. She glances up towards her mother and the woman narrows her eyes. She wants her daughter to do it. She is angry at Jessica for hesitating. She wants her to shoot, this time to kill. She shakes her head. Jessica’s mother raises her hand and there is a pistol in it. She is aiming the pistol at her daughter. Her aim has never been accurate. Jessica can see that her line of sight is off. She is pointing the gun at her shoulder. She will wing her daughter. She will hurt her but she will be alive, bleeding out slowly. Jessica raises her rifle. Philip’s eyes are on her and the hair is rising up on the back of the girl’s neck. His eyes are dark and unwavering. She can smell a reek off him like a cave full of bats. Wild thing, wild creature of god. She takes aim. She breathes out, she waits for the pulse. She sights. The wide, innocent kitten is all eyes. She fires. 
The blood hits Jessica full-force. Someone has thrown a bucket of blood and it has slapped her in the face. She feels the warmth of it dripping down her neck, crawling across her chest under the plain modest smock. She can taste the metallic edge of it as she opens her mouth and lets out a strangled scream, a sob. She has hit the kitten right in the head, above the eyes which were flat and yellow and trusting. Now there are no eyes, or what is left of them has been flung forward and onto her skin. The blood should have sprayed back, away from the force of the bullet. This is a direct contradiction of the laws of physics. She has betrayed science. It is worse than her guilt at betraying God. Philip nods, satisfied. Philip has taken the basic principles of action and reaction and bent the physics against her. Philip is the son of god on earth. They were right and Jessica was wrong. He nods to the second target, an owl.  She can’t kill an owl. An owl is a portent of fate. An owl is a symbol of all that is true and old and wise. Jessica doesn’t believe in all that of course. She is a scientist. She knows that it is just a bird, a protected bird. Protected by the government, still, she  can’t seem to raise the rifle. Her mother’s gun is still pointed at her, this time closer to her heart, wavering. Her finger is tight against the trigger. She lifts her rifle, closing her eyes, her heart beating wildly and she doesn’t wait for it to calm. She shoots.  There is too much blood for a creature so small. She is covered in it, rocked backward by the force of it. It winds her.  Jessica can’t breathe, she is drowning in blood. Then it is over and she is still here, still alive.  Still expected to prove her marksmanship one last time. The puppy. She must shoot the puppy, the thing is so soft, big paws, head cocked to one side. She has it in her sights. It pounds it’s oversised paws playfully on the branch as if it wants her to throw a stick. She breathes out. She swings the rifle. She points it at her mother. Her mother’s eyes widen. Her mother shifts her gun till it is in line with Jessica’s left eye.  With a small shift of her shoulders Jessica swings the weapon wide of her mother’s head. She is aiming at Philip. The son of god, the chosen one, the saviour. He stares back at her unafraid. His lips are moving. He is mouthing words. What are they? She has no time to make sense of them. She squeezes the trigger, feels the kick of the rifle pressing her shoulder back. The bullet hits, all of this in slow motion, the hole drilling slowly through skin and bone, the force of the blood inside him like a tidal wave approaching. Jessica falls back, the blood rushes over her. There is nothing in the world except blood, gallons of blood. The sky is obliterated by a wall of it. What was it he said? Her mind clutches at the last movement of his lips, the soundless words: You’re Dead. You’re Dead. And then his head exploded.

Jessica gasped. She had been holding her breath under a river of blood. She woke and there was blood or perhaps it was not blood, but sweat, damp on her forehead.  She was panting. She was sitting up. She thought she might have screamed in her sleep. She woke to find herself alone in the bed and someone was dead. Matthew. Yes. Mathew was dead. The grief hit her fresh and heavy, but more, something new. Something terrible.

And then she remembered. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Winning a prize. A speech.

Ok so tonight I won the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Award. Very crazy. So happy. I was going to read this speech but I didn't. It is here instead. I said most of the bits anyway.

This is the first award I have ever won for my writing. It is such a surprise. Such a wonderful surprise.
I was raised by my maternal grandmother. When my grandmother died earlier this year it changed me. I was in the middle of writing a novel and suddenly I couldn’t write fiction anymore. I couldn’t write anything except poetry.  I had never written poetry before, and now, suddenly I was writing it obsessively. I was waking up in the middle of the night with words in my head. I slept fitfully. I wrote like I was possessed. I was writing poetry about my grandmother. I was trying to make sense of my grief and poetry seemed the only language available to me. 
There is an episode of Rake where a women suddenly starts speaking Indonesian. She can no longer speak English. It is a strange and surreal part of that story, but I thought of it often as I continued to write poem after poem.  When I was done I had something on paper, but I had no idea if it was any good. The only way to find out was to read more poetry.
I discovered Ann Carson, Miroslav Holub and Sharon olds. I re-read old favourites, Elliot Weinberger, Michael Ondaatje and Simon Armitage. I began to feel more comfortable about my own strange place in all of this. 
My friends Katherine Lyall Watson, Ellen Van Neerven, Asley Hay, Kris Olsson and Michelle Dicinoski and my wonderful boy Anthony Mullins encouraged me to finish what I was working on and to enter what I had into the Thomas Shapcott award.  I was away in Tasmania in an isolated shack writing and Anthony printed it all out for me and carried it down to Tasmania in his luggage so I could enter it. I would like to thank these people for making me do this. I would also like to thank the Judges of the award, the Qld Poetry Festival supported by Arts Qld, and UQP. This is a crazy new journey I am on but it really has opened up a new world for me to explore.

I am only just beginning my journey in this new language but I love what I am discovering on the way. I would also like to thank the poets of Brisbane for always supporting me and accepting me. I have a lot to learn and you are the most fun teachers. Poets are always the most outrageous people to be with at any festival and it is really great to join your crazy crew.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Poetry revisited

What is poetry?

I was just asked what my favourite poems were and it was not quite as easy as I suspected.

My answer:
1: All of The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson,
2: Lacandons by Eliot Weinberger
3: You're Beautiful by Simon Armitage
4: All of Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds read very fast
5: Daddy by Sylvia Plath (old favourite of mine)

But I wanted to include a short essay that feels like a poem but is not divided into lines as a poem would be. I wanted to include other Weinberger essays, similarly rhythmic and amazing but looking like prose.

What is a prose poem?
What are the rules?

I have so much to learn.

Where do I go to find this out?

On Writing too Quickly

I write quickly. I put all my available time into the work. I work with a breathlessness that makes the work flow more easily. I race into a project and cling to it until it is done.

One of the reasons for my speed is because I am afraid I will forget. My memory causes me terrible anxiety. I forget people. I forget conversations. I forget I have written something. Sometimes I come across an errant file on my computer and it is as if a stranger has written it. I have no memory of that particular short story. I don't remember putting those words down in the file. Maybe this is a story sent to me by someone else? Only I recognise a turn of phrase. It has my accent. Therefore it must be mine.

It is worse with a novel. A novel has so many disparate parts. By the end of a book I have no idea where I started. I will have forgotten almost everything about it.

And don't get me started on having to answer questions for an interview. Really? Did I write that? Of course I must have because the journalist has done her research even if I have forgotten what I actually wrote.

Sometimes I wonder if I have an actual medical condition. My memory is so bad that I will bet to the last scene in a movie and suddenly find it almost familiar. Yes, we have seen that before, my husband will say, don't you remember?

I don't remember.

So I hop on a book like a runaway horse and cling on till the ride is over. This is how I have always worked.

The problem now is that I am frightened the books will grow stale before they emerge into the world. I do understand why my publisher will only consider a book by me every two years. We don't want to wear readers out. If a short time has elapsed they may not be ready to read another book by me, particularly when each book seems to be so different from the last. Maybe readers don't want to be confused by my tendency to leap across genres with each new offering.

But in my panic to finish a book before it shakes me off I tend to do a draft in a matter of months. A second draft in half a year. Subsequent redrafts can be fast and furious. Sometimes I have two books written simultaneously done in under a year. This is what happened with Steeplechase and Triptych. Steeplechase was a longer, more fraught process. Between the beginning of the first draft and the final redraft I had interspersed my writing with two other books, A YA book that has never seen the light of day, and Triptych which ended up being published two years before Steeplechase came out.

I am working on two books at the moment. Holding Hands is still giving me grief. It is not yet done. I have a second draft and it is 8 months since I started. In that time I wrote a book of poetry, Eating My Grandmother, and two drafts of a horror novel called Half Light. I have been racing to get a perfect draft of Half Light completed but I realise that my next book, Holly's Incredible Adventures in the Sex Machine, will not be published till February next year, 2015. After this there will be a two year gap as there always has been. Half Light probably won't be out in the world till 2017. Then, of course I will have to wait till 2019 to put out Holding Hands.

I have three other ideas on the boil at the moment. I have Crawl Space - a surrealist novella, tapping at the back of my head, and then I have the sequel to Holly's Adventures mapped out in my brain.  I am also making notes for a book on writing sex and and a sexual adventure with other writers. Given the pace of the publications, Crawl Space will be out in 2021 and Holly's sequel in 2023. Who knows when the two sex projects will find their way into the world. In 2023 I will be 55 years old.  I don't know how many books I can fit in before I die but I know I can write way more than will be published at this rate.

Is it any wonder I write fast? How can I contain all those characters and all those plots unless I tackle them at a run?

I do know this is a good problem to have. Better too many ideas than no ideas at all, but perhaps one day it will dry up. One day I might sit down at the page and realise I am done.  Until that day I must continue to write in a fury. I must race myself. I am a ticking clock. I will die. There will be an end.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Poetry

I have never spent much time thinking about poetry.

I read novels, short stories and occasionally memoirs and non-fiction books about science. This keeps me going.

When my grandmother died a few months ago something strange happened in my head. Nothing in the world seemed important. It was like I had suddenly actually understood that we will all die.  Nothing we do in life will mean anything. Not now. Not in the long run.  Even the great writers will die with the human race. Art, literature, kindness, none of this matters in the wider scheme of things. One day everyone will die. Humans will become extinct. Nature really doesn't care about Shakespeare.

I couldn't write. Suddenly there was no urgency. Everything I create will be less than the best literature in the world and even that will be worth nothing at the end of our species. It seemed like a waste of energy to write. It seemed like a waste of energy to live at all.

This is when I started writing poetry.

There is an episode of the Australian television show Rake, where a trauma causes one of the characters to suddenly speak in a language she never knew she could speak. She could no longer speak in English. I felt like this had happened to me.

I started to write poetry. I didn't know anything about poetry so I couldn't judge if it was good poems or bad but there were poems. I wrote one after another. I woke up at 2am and wrote poems because I couldn't sleep. They were all about my grandmother. After a month of this I had one hundred pages of poetry. I had a book of poetry all about death and my grandmother and loss and pointlessness. I am still not really sure what to do with that document.

I needed to know if it was any good. I started to read other people's poetry to figure that out.  I already loved Simon Armitage's poems along with Adrienne Rich and  Sylvia Plath. Now I began to hunt, to see what kind of poems I actually like and to try to figure out why.

Anne Carson was one of the first people I uncovered. I read The Beauty of the Husband because other people had talked about how wonderful it was. It is wonderful. It seems to say something true about separation and love and human need. I moved on from that to The Autobiography of Red. Reading this verse novel changed me in some way.  There are poems in that book that reach inside a person and shake them . I discovered feelings I could not name. I began to have ideas again.

I have recovered from whatever demon broke my sentences up into short detonations. I can write novels again - I think. But my foray into the world of the poets has stayed with me.  I have gobbled up E. E. Cumming's erotic poems. Lewd, often funny, sometimes romantic. I am not yet sure what I feel about these poems but I keep going back to them and reading some of them over and over. And now I have discovered Sharon Olds. In particular I am reading Stag's Leap, a verse novel about the end of a marriage.  What I love about this book is that the poems have no subtext. They are honest admissions on the page. I feel like her words have given me permission to take the poem cycle about my Grandmother out of the draw. She has explained to me with her own work, that my work can be just that. An exploration of feelings, grief, life, written simply and eloquently on the page.

My exploration of poetry does not seem to be over. I wonder where it will go to from here.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Messy Writer

Some writers are careful. Their prose forms with glacial precision. I have friends who labour for a week over a paragraph, replacing individual words, weighing the new form of the sentence changing the word back.

I am not one of those writers. I write furiously. When I have a sense of where I am going I sprint. Five words would be equally useful in one place and I reach for any one of them. I am happy, in an edit to replace a word with another, ripping it out and filling the gap without hesitation. I have been known to hack out twenty thousand of those words in a day, deleting whole chapters as if I were using a machete on an overgrown garden, ripping out the bushes with the weeds.

I am jealous of the careful writer. I am reading Favel Parrett's latest book and here is all the care in each breath. Here is a writer who hones a chapter down to a slight, resonant thing. It shows, this careful consideration. It makes a little gem, forged by time and concentration.

My books are wild places. They have forward motion, pace, flow. They dance erratically. I know there is beauty in a rubble and I suppose that is what I make, a beautiful disaster held together by hot glue and wire and spit. But when ever I read a book like this one I am reminded of the photographers I like the best, Tomatsu, Sugimoto, Paul Strand. I long for the kind of order that Favel can create, a line drawing sketched by the hand of a careful crafter.

Favel told me that she carefully read her last edited draft and even the first proof of her book. I am ashamed to admit that I am often too exhausted to give more than a cursory glance at my proof pages and if there is a bound proof, it goes in the drawer. I have never once read a manuscript I have written after that final struggle at an editorial level. A wrestle with a beast that I wish was already dead. I don't really care if I use one word or another. The thing has raced away from me and by that time my attention is already drawn and held by the next project. The current book is dead. I failed to achieve what I wanted, maybe next time, maybe with the next glimmer of an idea, maybe this will be the one. And so I go off chasing another whale, letting this one bleed out towards publication.

I wish I were a Sugimoto kind of writer, a Chris Somerville, a Favel Parrett.

The grass is always greener in another garden.

There is nothing to be done. I can read their books with delight and wonder but I will always, irrevocably, be myself.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dreams and monsters

I dream of a tiny house in the cold and all the configurations of laying two mattresses. The compromises and the final disappointment of a squeeze for space. I step into another cabin and there the beds are stacked three high and there is room for a chair and I realise I will not be able to work in my own cramped version of a home.

I dream that my father is not home when I visit him. The door is open and the snow blows through onto the carpet. I dream of my own confusion and when finally I find a cafe where someone knows his name they tell me he has gone to a different valley to recover the body of his child. Not me then for I am alive, but my sister, who has taken her own life.

Awake I wonder about meanings. Not real things but imaginary beasts that stalk my sleeping mind. I have thought of my own death so much this year and my relationship to the idea of end has changed since our familial grave was dug. There is no longer the sharp relief of it for I can see now that the endless trudge goes on and that death changes so little. The tedium. I have stopped walking up to the bridge and gazing down because there seems to be no relief in death.

In two weeks I will go away, to speak about writing and then to write. First I will write alongside someone, the shared pain, the promise of a new perspective on our work. Then I will fly south. I will find that too-small cabin and I will face the bitter winter of our southernmost point.

This is what I need and want and yet I fear it. Every step towards Tasmania makes me more afraid. What if I have all the time and still cannot write it. What if my eyes are open now, post-death, to the true pointlessness of life and what if I cannot capture it in words on a page. What if I am not a better writer now but I have leaped forward in my own clear-sighted judgement. What if I can see into my own soul and know what I suspected, that I am withered, talentless and bitter, a dried up fruit, all potential leaked away in sticky years of nothing.

I wake from dreams of monsters knowing that they are dreams of myself.

Under the bed, there I am. In the scratch of branches against the wall there is my thin cold voice. To go away to write is to go away with my monstrous self and yes, I am afraid.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Anne Carson's branch and my breast

Anne Carson may have been using an analogy when she talked about the project. One branch on one particular tree and a new poem written every day, honing down to the specifics, seeing a thing anew each time. An exercise that may be an invention for a poem which is fictional although it resonates like truth.

I read it walking to work. An hour, with a book clutched in my hand, one eye on the path before me, and more than half of my attention stolen by a recent grief. I glanced a tree with my shoulder. I almost but didn't trip off the path. All other moments in the real world are erased or never came to my attention, just this one throbbing idea remains like a bruise, a fresh wound. A new poem every day about a small thing, something barely worth noticing, noticed, repeatedly and with such detail.

This thing I must do.

Not a branch then as my life here seems impermanent. The only thing I take with me is my body. This body. This one ever-changing part of my body. My breast.

I need a new place for this exercise. I need to quarantine my breast into a space of its own. I will examine it. One small observation, or long, or just a word. Each day, the differences detailed beginning now.

When I walk reading poetry the meaning of it is drummed into my body with each step. Like learning lines for the stage, I take a part of it into myself in step with my forward motion. I take her branch into me and I cup it into the palm of my hand and my nipple opens like a bud unseasonably at the beginning of a colder season.

What becomes of a breast over the days and years and decades I have left? Is it cut from me? irradiated? nuzzled? pricked with cold. Do I notice the sag of time, the skin that grows inelastic, the ineluctable dance of time? Come with me and gaze at it, touch it as you might in self-examination. Or don't. You may have your own branch or breast or sky to attend to. Or you may be content to read the changing of the seasons in a branch in The Beautiful Husband by Carson herself.

Either way, it is here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

In verse / inverse

I seem to be writing a verse novel.

I can very clearly see a problem here.

Write an erotic memoir - translates into sales in the tens of thousands.
Write a pornographic series of novellas - sales well into the thousands
Write a literary fiction novel - sales of up to and sometimes including a thousand
Write a verse novel - ah well a dozen people may buy it if I can find a publisher for it.

Something is wrong here.

I started with a very clear idea that writing is a career and somehow I seem to be undermining my potential to make any kind of career out of it at all.

Lucky for all of us the book that is out early next year ticks some hefty boxes. Erotic? Tick. Novel? Tick. Comedy? Tick.

I suppose till I agree to play within the lines I will have to let the work itself sustain me.

Till then, this….

In Coles
In the picnic aisle
A packet falls
There are plastic knives

The pointless sound
Of nothing
Hitting ground

Is what breaks me


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Poem for my grandmother.

Lotty Kneen

I remember your skin
Rough and weathered
On my childish forehead
Wiping fever dreams
Worn away by work then time
Till it is tissue, soft as memory
So slight a wrapping for sharp regrets.

In grief
A queen forbade them to remove her king
And sat him up at table.
Ate with him, slept with him,
Waved from the royal carriage at his mouldering side.
The temptation to touch what was once warm,
Cold on a pillow damp with death
Folding now into itself, going to ground

I dig
A hole
For what remains of your burned blood
A hollow in the earth
To place the grit that might be bone or rock or salt
I pick a grain of you, stolen from the urn.
And place it on my tongue.
Your body.
My blood.

You lodge inside me.

In dream
In breath
In all the painful trudge of days ahead
I grow more like my final taste of you
In grit.
In earth
In death.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Next step - career issues for a working writer.

This is the shake up. I have been wondering what the 'next step' is for me. I have been lucky enough to take my writing up a notch every few years. Slow and steady with the intention of winning the marathon rather than the sprint.

I remember a moment when I was almost over the line with publishers, getting my books read by the editors but not quite accepted. Lovely personal rejection letters. Then for some reason I suddenly realised it was fine to write a book that people actually wanted to read. Till then I had been working towards an idea of perfection in craft. I was working on character and flow and sentences. I loved so many difficult but beautiful books. I was working towards making the perfect difficult book.  But it is just as hard to write a good novel that no one wants to read as it is to write a good novel that people want to read.

So I changed.  I focussed on the memoir. I focussed on sex. I broke through that wall.  I feel now like I have hit another wall.  Not with my writing, because I still keep steadily learning new things and moving from project to project. My books are well reviewed but not very financially successful. A few hundred copies is not going to delight my publisher and to appeal to a wider audience I don't have to dumb it down, I just have to find a subject that resonates on a universal level, something that is going to be easier to hook people with.  I need to treat this game like fly fishing. I have all the right technique, I have even learned how to craft a well-structured book (although this was hard at first). Now I need to change my bait. I need to find topics that are going to hit a cultural nerve. I can still write my difficult beautiful things - or try to, but now I need to step up. I need to write about subjects that people are going to want to read. I need to find those universal themes of interest and take my characters to those subjects and rest them there.

I am not the kind of person who was ever destined for a meteoric rise. I am not going to wow people with a big award winning book or become famous because of my personality. I am a work horse. I am a plain sturdy hard-working writer. Each rung of the ladder is hard won and I don't leap over any. I grab the next rung and haul myself up and it is exhausting but that is how you run a marathon.

The book I am struggling with at the moment is difficult but I can see how it is about something that people are interested in. It has wider implications. If I get it right it could net a new audience for my work. I feel sad for Steeplechase which I am fond of. It is a book that people like and a book I am proud of but it is a difficult sell with no razzle dazzle to wow a crowd with. It will quietly sit in my backlist, work horse that it is.

I just can't lose heart. I can't let myself slide backwards or fall off the track. I can feel sorry for the books that will fade despite all their careful work. I can mourn them but I have to keep running slowly even when my physical resources are stretched.

Next book then. This hard step up to the next rung on the ladder. Throw everything into the next step forward. Look back as the others are standing on the podium glinting with medals. Be happy for them. Allow for the inevitable day of sadness. Wipe tears. Move on. Remember this is the long game and that is not nearing an end yet.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

New Voice

Finding a new voice is tricky. Finding a new voice that is without voice is something that takes time. I crawl along snail's pace, no more than 1000 words a day and at the end of it I am exhausted by the acrobatics of non-language. I need smells and colours and textures for everything because without words, a person is not named. A person is a bunch of other understandings.  Anyway. I am following a lead. Here is a little grab of something barely formed. Just the beginning of my understanding of a new way of seeing and communicating what we have found:

S knows she is yellow like flowers. Like the explosive petals of a dandelion. S is yellow like a bright kitchen netted from memory, slippery fish of a long forgotten thought is S.
S like the words serendipity and savannah and psoriasis for she is not to know that the disease is not spelled the way it sounds.  She knows some words from magazines left open. Letters are things to be crawled up inside. Letters have sounds and words have  thicker sounds and all sounds are  a bright flash like a musket fire. S knows she tastes like  the grenade sizzle of icing sugar on the tip of a pastry. Everything loud and sharp and, even curled down like the S that she is, she is assaulted by sunlight which feels like a stained glass window sandpapering on her skin. 
Lying here open-mouthed she can taste the ocean, only faintly because there are bodies in the way. All the other people in the house are now familiar to her. Gus is an X, a xylophone, a percussive thump of complex chocolate, a chord but never a single note. David (E) is the water dripping down the outside of a frosted glass on a hot day. Sarah is opaque like toffee. She has no letter she is only Sarah. She shatters if you bite her and the sound of her  essence expelling from the tooth mark is sliced aubergine, weeping with salt tears. Paul is  a double M like sun on a wooden deck. Paul can be dozed upon, danced upon, but pull him to pieces and you could build him into a fence or a dog kennel. 
She is busy opening her mouth, sucking in the air and filtering it for the foam on the top of a breaking wave. She is trying to count the shells washed up on the nearby beach, sorting the ones that still have snails inside them, dead snails red and hard on the back of your palate like raw egg, live snails soft as butter. The beach is close enough for her to smell. The shells are a potent part of the strandal perfume. She is an olfactory adventurer and then the door is open and he steps inside.

She hears the word Vivienne which is what they call her. Vivienne and it is like nails down a chalkboard which she remembers from school. Yes she still remembers school. “David” and at first she imagines they are talking about E. She didn’t expect there would be two people with the same name in her house, but then there were three Jackies in her class at school (Jay, Jacky, Jacqueline) and two John’s (Big John, Little John). Two Davids then and this one is liqueur. She can tell by his voice and the scent of him which is felt. She wants to press her cheek to the sound of his voice. She moves from under one chair to the next. He is in the hallway. He is walking towards the kitchen. She can smell the crotchal must as he walks. Sunshine on sand, seawater soaked into a silk scarf. She is under the table before they reach it. The newness of his presence is like a container of gorgonzola opened and beginning to take up every cubic centimetre of the room.  He is all she can think of. There is no X laughing and slapping his hands together. There is no television mumble. The arrangement of the plates (smaller ones on the bottom of the stack, larger ones on top) no longer bothers her. She doesn’t care that the blue cup is sitting beside the green cup in a cacophony of cupboardness. She cares only about the information she can glean from his unique presence in the room. The assault of her senses with this new David and already she has given him an R for rose and rebelliousness and rambling and rapture. R. The essential letter in her alphabet. He has dropped into her life and suddenly the words can be completed. The alphabet is secure. R David. Her David. She was trembling.   Time  is not linear. Time exists all at once and now they have met he is always here as her parents are here, as her teachers, the other kids in school, all the letters she had ever come across, the ocean, all here now and always. Still, he roused her from the thick soup of everything at once. He, R David, was singular and linear. He, or rather, her relationship to him was something, and suddenly there was a sense to the hands on a clock. One minute followed another. R David would stand up and he would leave. He must stay. R David must stay must stay must stay. And when he moved his leg she reached out to him. She touched him and she was the cold sizzle from a sprinkler. She was life-giving. She was S and all the other letters vibrated against her in their joy of completion.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

craft issues

My blog used to be about sex. Now it is a combination of craft issues and life issues with a bit of sex thrown in.  Well, this is a post about craft so if you are a writer and have experienced a frustrating speed bump in your work - read on.

I have a block of time set aside to write. This is perhaps the first problem. I have gone away to a little isolated shack and I have decided to complete the first draft of the new book here. The deadline I have set myself is pretty steep. I had about 40 000 words to write and two and a half weeks to write it in. That is certainly achievable. I have written more when I have been caught in the tidal change of a book. The other problem is that this is a new book.  I don't know it well enough. I don't know the characters. My ideas about the plot are all in my head and not in my heart. The other problem is I don't really know what this book will read like. I knew pretty early that it would be a romantic comedy and yet I came to this understanding with some trepidation. I hate romantic comedies. I say this knowing that there are some wonderful exceptions. When Harry Met Sally is likeable. There is nothing not to like about that film. I am sure there there are some books in the genre that will be wonderful although I struggle to think of any right now.  I had just started to dig around and find ones that I was drawn to. I had let myself smile at the acid wit of some Dorothy Parker stories before I found my comfort zone with Will Self's Cock and Bull.  I would much rather write a Will Self-like novel than indulge in the soft sweet Rom Coms that Hollywood loves.

I have started writing the book and there might be some competent writing even in a first draft. I can see that the relationship is sparking. I know there are some meaty issues to explore in the text. I am fascinated by some of the ideas and yet I am afraid that what I have written is more Nick Hornby than Will Self.  I do not like this likeable book I am working on.  I can see the commercial potential of it and that puts me off entirely. I know I am writing a book that people will be fond of. Bookclubs could read it. People could buy it in Coles. It has a simmering naughtiness, a slightly unsettling after burn but for the most part it is nauseatingly palatable.  I don't like this book yet. I have not found the thing that sets it apart and makes it the awkward outsider in the school yard.  This is a book that can cheerfully play with all the other kids. In other words it is a book that seems unlike me.

I have two choices.  I can continue on with this book. I can do some more reading. I can chip away at it page by page, I can try to find something of myself in the unfolding story, or I can return to the book that I just finished. The one that is at first draft stage, the horror novel that needs more work. That book felt right from the very beginning. We were never at odds, that manuscript and I. We were in collusion. I enjoyed writing every page and there is still more to draw out in the text.

Today I will have to make a decision. I am wasting my time struggling with myself. I have to commit to the new book or commit to putting it down for now. That is how you write a book, you move through the hard bits. You just keep working. I either do it now, or set it aside till my attitude changes and agree to work on something else.

Today I just think and make a decision and return to it with a decisive plan.

This is how you write a book.