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Posts from the ‘Creativity’ Category

Research on the road

December 5th, 2016

Eleanor

Now that it is summer here in Australia I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have two summers this year, and that I have yet to write about the research I did for my novel in the United States in July. I have taught a few seminars about researching for writing and spoken to many writer friends about this over the years, but I haven’t written about how I use different types of research while writing a novel. So here goes.

My initial purpose of travelling to the US was to attend the Tin House Summer Workshop, but once I was well into the draft of this novel I realised how worthwhile it would be to research the gaps in my story as well. I am writing a novel about a war bride from Australia who meets and marries an American GI during World War II and subsequently moves to the US. Through Dr Robyn Arrowsmith, author of the fascinating social history All The Way To The USA: Australian WWII War Brides, I was introduced to several WWII war brides, two of whom I was able to visit with during my trip.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

First I flew into Los Angeles, for the dual purpose of visiting an old friend and to see the Queen Mary,
a retired ocean liner from the Cunard line which was used as a troop ship during WWII and also transported war brides from the UK to the USA after the war was over in 1946. While the Queen Mary was never used to transport Australian war brides, the original art deco interiors were similar to some of the ships which Australian war brides sailed on. The ship is permanently docked in Long Beach now as a hotel and tourist site, and my friend (who was eight months pregnant and had a two-year-old in tow) was kind enough to share me with the ship. We stayed on board (though she had heard it was haunted). We didn’t see ghosts, but I was delighted to see that the cabins were largely unchanged, with original built-ins and taps in the bathroom for seawater or freshwater. Read more

Tin House Summer Workshop

July 20th, 2016

Eleanor

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For years I’ve thought about attending one of the many summer writing workshops in the US: Bread Loaf, Tin House, Iowa, Sewanee. I’ve studied their programs and the lists of authors and talks and envied the immersive creative community. Since I grew up (part of the time) in America I knew the college atmosphere from my undergrad days, but I moved to Australia in my early 20s and never experienced a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. We just don’t have them here.

The Doctorate of Creative Arts which I finished last year gave me a wonderful supervisor who read, advised and guided my project, but never the intensive workshop structure which is available in the US. My scholarship gave me the financial freedom to write, but I never felt part of a community of writers, and even working from my desk at the university the other writers I came into contact with existed in the bubble of their own work. I think there is something to be gained from reading others who are still figuring things out, learning from each other’s mistakes and being pushed by their inventiveness. I love being challenged – critiqued – questioned. Being asked: what’s at stake for you here? What’s your vulnerability? How can you push this further?

So this year I made my plans far in advance to apply to the Tin House Summer Workshop, in part because of their reputation and the quality of the writers they publish, and in part because the timing fit perfectly with my kids’ school holidays.13697201_10155207534304152_2399967082162832931_n I blocked out two weeks – one to attend the workshop and one to conduct interviews with Australian WWII war brides for the novel I am working on, and visit WWII-era ships on the West Coast (more about this in a later post). Only when I received my acceptance did I start to question my decision. Was I really ready to leave my children for two weeks? What if my workshop hated my writing? What if everyone was so much more meta than me? Although I had taught workshops recently I hadn’t workshopped my own work in so long that it made my stomach flip with fear. Even though I’ve had two novels published, I still feel like every time I’m beginning again.

So it was that my first night on the campus of Reed College in Portland Oregon I lay in my single bed, the plastic mattress squeaking beneath me, the bathroom door across the hall creaking and clicking, thinking “what the fuck have I done?”IMG_7376

Would I just have been better off taking a week alone to write? Was I going to feel comfortable enough with a group of strangers to bear hearing them talk about my work?

I wouldn’t have and I did. I was in the novel workshop with Dana Spiotta, an author I’ve read and admired. This interview with her in the New York Times earlier this year made me think she would be a damn good teacher too (and quietly subversive – right up my alley).

I won’t go into detail of my workshop group here, just that I came to trust them and their judgement, to feel safe with them, to know that they would have insight into things which in my own work I couldn’t see. We all came from such different places, we wrote wildly different kinds of fiction, but we also had many of the same problems and structural challenges. We bonded over oddly descriptive cafeteria food and quite a bit of alcohol. I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time.

But it wasn’t just the workshops every day: it was the seminars, panels and readings which filled me to overflowing. Sarah Manguso talking about the power of omission. Steve Almond talking about how our stories suffer from emotional cowardice – how too often we look away just at the moment of turmoil. Kiese Laymon questioning the act of representation and what our responsibilities are as writers. Alex Chee on what drives our characters and how we make this into plot. Gregory Pardlo reading a poem about his father (“like America his fist only rose on occasion”). I was struck by the joy and vitality Sharon Olds communicated when she talked about her work, about how after graduate school she decided “I will give up all I have learned if I can just write my own poems.”

How important it is to keep our roughness, our “skin in the game”, our voice which communicates our own particular vision of the world.IMG_7415

I took a lot of notes but hardly wrote a thing of my own when I was there. What I did was experience, fill like a sponge until I couldn’t hold another thing. Now I’m wringing myself out, clinging to each drop.

So here is my advice if you are thinking about attending the Tin House Summer Workshop, or pushing yourself into some other unfamiliar territory with your writing. Swallow your fear and do it. For me, just one day would have been worth the trip.

I was able to attend Tin House Summer Workshop thanks to funding from the Copyright Agency Limited Career Fund and the Australia Council for the Arts.

Easy versus hard won

March 17th, 2016

Eleanor

I saw Brooklyn a few days ago and I am still in its thrall. Those neat drab streets of Enniscorthy, the mother and sister at the wharf, the transformation of Eilis (played by the divine Saoirse Ronan) from girl into woman and oh yes, that yellow dress.

Eilis and Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Eilis and Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

But it was also the sense of being torn between two places which I thought Brooklyn communicated so beautifully, so viscerally, through Eilis’ character. Colm Tóibín wrote about the filming of the adaptation in the Guardian recently, saying it was about feeling the pull “between the easy familiarity of home and the hard-won familiarity of away”.

I’ve been waiting years for someone to say that so succinctly. Thank you Colm.

And here is my shameful admission: I have not read the novel the film is based on. I tried six or seven years ago and put it down after a few chapters. Why? I can’t even recall. I promise I will try again.

The plot of Brooklyn is an age-old one. Young person leaves home for new opportunities. They return changed, and must decide which path their life will take, pulled in two directions. They are forced to stop being a child and to become a person accountable for their own decisions. Eilis goes to Brooklyn from Ireland to find work, her sister has organised it for her through an Irish priest she knows there. She isn’t certain she wants to go but there are no chances for her at home. Once in Brooklyn, Eilis is brought to her knees by homesickness, but this abates when she meets Italian-American plumber Tony Fiorelli (played by Emory Cohen) at a dance. Called back to Ireland for family reasons, she is torn between whether to stay or return. Between the “easy familiarity of home and the hard-won familiarity of away”.

In other hands, this film could have become trite, I can almost hear the sappy violins crescendo, but luckily the director John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and the scriptwriter (Nick Hornsby) allowed the quietness, the focus on Eilis’ internal life and the small visual detail which was nostalgic without being twee.

This film does not have grand messages but small, familiar ones. Eilis is a woman of the 1950s and while she gains independence with her travel, this is ultimately a story about love. She is going to be a wife and mother. She is just not sure with whom.

Ellis working at a department store in NYC. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Eilis working at a department store in NYC. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Meanwhile she is disloyal, she keeps secrets, she has a dark moment during which she does not know which way to turn. And when turn she finally does, I realised I had been holding my breath. How close it all was. How real it felt.

Maybe part of my love of Brooklyn is because it mirrors my own struggle with homesickness, being torn between countries, having moved to Australia for love. The America I know is changed now, not least because I have changed too. But still every time I return I feel the pull. That easy familiarity. As simple as driving again on the right side of the road. Creamer in my coffee. Lemon in my tea.

At one point in Brooklyn the priest tells Eilis that homesickness is like any sickness: you get over it more quickly than you anticipate.

I would say it is more like a broken bone, even years after it has healed it will suddenly, without warning, begin to ache.

The blind joke

February 1st, 2016

Eleanor

A man came to my house today to install new blinds on the windows, and I was reminded immediately of a joke that my Grandpa Bob used to tell. I’ve always been a terrible joke-teller – I forget the punch line or some other crucial aspect which makes it funny – but this joke I remember perfectly.

Me, my sister Alma and my Grandpa Bob, circa 1982

Me, my sister Alma and my Grandpa Bob, 1982

My Grandpa Bob died when he was in his seventies and I was about 16. He died of prostate cancer. Before that, he was a lawyer, a cigar smoker, a martini drinker, a motorcycle aficionado and a sharp-witted, gruff, sarcastic man. His nickname for me was Dingbat, because I was a scrawny kid and when he looked up the definition of dingbat it said “object suitable for throwing”. He was not (obviously) the hugging, praising, affectionate sort of grandpa. When the grandchildren came to him freshly bathed and pyjama-clad for a goodnight kiss, he gave goodnight chokes. It sounds strange (maybe I should be telling this to my therapist?) but he’d wrap his leathery, gin-and-tobacco-smelling hands around our skinny little necks and give us the gentlest, barest little squeeze, complete with choking sounds from us and growling sounds from him. It was a superb piece of bedtime theatre and probably served to hype us up rather than calm us down, but it was Grandpa Bob at his finest.

So was this joke. Inappropriate, of course, and not in the slightest bit politically correct, which is probably why I’ve remembered it all these years.

A woman is having a shower when the doorbell rings. She gets out to answer the door but can’t find her towel, so peeks through the blinds. There, standing at the front door is a man wearing sunglasses and a shirt that reads BLIND MAN. “Well,” she thinks, “doesn’t matter about the towel, then,” and she goes to answer the door naked. She opens the front door.

The man says: “Nice tits, lady, I’m here to fix your blinds.”

I still can’t believe that my adolescent self used to recite that joke. I can’t believe I’m telling it to you. I wish I could remember if he told it to me, or if he told it to the other grown-ups and I just overheard it. I almost repeated it to the man who came to install our blinds today, but using my better judgement I decided not to.

I guess you can tell how much I adored my Grandpa Bob. He was never going to conform to anyone else’s expectations, but in his own way, he let you know how much you were loved.

How to write with children (or not)

December 16th, 2015

Eleanor

This is going to be my last post for a little while, as school holidays begin tomorrow and so ends my time to write.

Or does it? How do you write with small people around? I have always found it exceedingly difficult to write fiction when there is any possibility for distraction around me. And my children are not just possibilities for distraction, they are experts in it. They might be elbow-deep in Lego or cubby-building with sofa cushions and bedsheets, but the moment I sit in a chair and open my laptop, they hover around my shoulders, sticky fingers plucking my clothes.

“Can we watch funny dog videos on YouTube?” my daughter asks.

“Can we watch the trailer for the BFG?” my son asks.

I should have known when introducing them to the world of cute animal videos and movie trailers that I would one day regret it. This bulldog chasing his lead is a metaphor for my ability to focus while my children are home from school.

stream.pleated-jeans.com

stream.pleated-jeans.com

So what can be done? I have learned to just let go and not expect to do anything over these stretches of time, having discovered from experience that if I have unrealistic goals of working while the kids are home I become a cranky, short-tempered troll because I’m not doing what I’m MEANT TO GET DONE!

What I have learned is to expect little, but to keep myself attuned to possibility. That might mean keeping a notebook around to scribble ideas and scraps of information which come to me while we’re immersed in craft or cleaning out their cupboards. I do have to inform them this is MY notebook though, and please don’t scribble, draw, tear pages out for paper airplanes or write magic spells in it. I have found I’m able to take commission for a few short articles or reviews and plan to write them in the evenings or early mornings.

Another trick I’ve learned is to fill in research gaps in my writing – if there is a place or a museum I wanted to visit and it is even remotely kid-friendly, I’ll take them along. My kids have a better understanding than most six and eight-year-olds of early 20th century Sydney and the history of its transportation, gaols and police from when I was researching Long Bay. I still remember our visit to the Sydney Tramways Museum fondly. They didn’t find it quite so exciting.

Writer Ali Luke wrote (in this helpful article) that it is better to focus on the smaller projects rather than the big ones. This might be a good time to try writing a poem which has been eluding me, or to finish an unfinished short story. Is it the time to structure my next novel? Probably not.

Penn also suggests not to feel guilty, which is most important, and not to compare yourself with others who seem to be getting SO much done. I sometimes get asked how I wrote my first novel, What Was Leftwhile my son was two and my daughter four. When people ask how I could possibly write a novel while looking after young children, I tell them the truth.

I didn’t.

The novel came from an idea I had floating around in my head for a year and I really wanted to explore, but every time I tried I was interrupted. And so I paid a babysitter to come every morning five days a week, from 9am to 1pm. Half of the time she was there I wrote the novel, the other half I worked on paid freelance work. Did I make money? Only enough to pay her wages! But it was a choice I made, and one I don’t regret.

Writing is an integral, essential part of me, but so are my children. The right balance will always feel elusive, but I am going to enjoy this break from writing, this unencumbered time with them. What I have realised is that they are just old enough to let me read for short periods uninterrupted. Which I will be doing plenty of in these coming weeks. Hopefully they will as well!

Have you got any secrets of writing with children around? I’d love to hear them.

In short

October 19th, 2015

Eleanor

I’ve been lucky over the past few months to speak to various gatherings of people about how I came to write Long Bay, and while I love meeting readers and talking books, I become anxious about all of the time spent NOT writing. A little voice in my head begins asking: Is this it then? Will you never write another book?

So it was with relief that I received news that one of my short stories, “On Ice”, originally Best-Stories-2015-(print)published in the journal Kill Your Darlings has been selected for Best Australian Stories 2015, edited by Amanda Lohrey. I was particularly thrilled to see Lohrey editing the collection, as not long after moving to Sydney I read Camille’s Bread and recognised in it something I hadn’t found yet – a novelist’s reflection of the city and people I was in the midst of. She created such a compelling and half-familiar world that I emerged from that novel with a deeper understanding of my new home. I have enjoyed other books of hers since but Camille’s Bread left the deepest impression on me.

almanacxI’m also very pleased to have a short story, “The Arizona Bar”, in the final Sleepers Almanac, the gorgeous Sleepers Almanac X. I am always amazed at the skills of Lou Swinn and Zoe Dattner but they have outdone themselves in curating, editing and designing this collection.

Finally, I am finding time to write again, in fits and spurts, and a new exciting project is always the best thing. Get back to me when it’s time to rewrite and I promise not to be so chipper.

Best Australian Stories 2015 will be out November 1. Sleepers Almanac X is out now and available in bookstores and online.

 

The story behind Long Bay

August 1st, 2015

Eleanor

 

I live in the hilly Sydney suburb of Maroubra, so when I go for a run I choose the flattest route. This is south along Anzac Parade, past suburban blocks and then beside the razor wire, parking lots and concrete façade of Long Bay Correctional Centre. Look closely and you can glimpse some original sandstone walls and older buildings behind the wire. It makes you wonder about the history of the place.

Long Bay opened in 1909 as a Women’s Reformatory and was the first purpose-built institution of its kind in Australia. Many of the notorious female criminals involved in the razor gangs of the 1920s were prisoners there: women with familiar names like Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine.

Long Bay Women's Reformatory Gates. Image courtesy Randwick City library service

Long Bay Women’s Reformatory Gates. Image courtesy Randwick City library service.

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Distraction and self doubt

July 20th, 2015

Eleanor

Only 12 days until Long Bay is released, which brings a certain familiar mixture of dread and excitement to my chest. The dread that something which has existed primarily in my head for so long will become publicly available, and the excitement that people might actually want to read it. This is all topped with a thick icing of self doubt, where I question the quality of everything I have ever written, and wonder what on earth possessed me to publish another novel.short hair

As a pleasant distraction from all of this angst – I was featured on the lovely Wordmothers blog to talk about my writing. It’s a great place to read about women in the writing and publishing industry and gain insight into how they work.

What else have I done? As an extension of my nervous anticipation, I cut off all my hair, thus ensuring that my appearance will never match my author photo.

Now, if only I could have placed all of my self doubt and nervousness in the strands of my hair, most of it would be swept away and neatly disposed of by now.

I’d love to know how you deal with self doubt. Have you found a way to distract yourself or even banish it for good?

The launch of Long Bay is on September 4th, at Sydney’s Gleebooks, all are welcome and to RSVP please click here.

 

The Secret River on the ABC

June 16th, 2015

Eleanor

I was excited when I saw trailers for this adaptation of Kate Grenville’s book on the ABC. I loved The Secret River, it changed the way I thought about Australia’s history. And her book Searching for the Secret River, which Grenville wrote about the process of researching and writing her novel, changed the way I thought about family histories and combining writing and research.

secretriver1

Will and Sal in the adaptation. Photo: ABC

The Secret River tells the story of one of Grenville’s ancestors, William Thornhill, who is a convict from London transported to Sydney for stealing timber. His wife, Sal, follows with their two children, determined that she will keep the family together. After a few years in Sydney William Thornhill buys his freedom and claims for his family a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River, a place which is still wild and largely unsettled. Apart, that is, from the Aboriginal inhabitants, who Thornhill and his family are both ignorant of and terrified by. This is a book about settlement and how Europeans essentially stole land which was not theirs to take and slaughtered those who stood in their way. Read more

Running and writing

May 19th, 2015

Eleanor

I ran in my second half-marathon on Sunday: 21 kilometres through the eerie quiet streets of Sydney with the only other sound the rhythmic breathing of others, feet hitting bitumen and the occasional shout of a spectator. Roads normally only for cars like the Cahill Expressway were closed to traffic and filled with other runners, all of us puffing towards the distant finish line. When I wasn’t focused on putting one foot in front of the other I gazed around in pained wonder. Who were all of these other people?

SMHX2665-20x30People crazy enough to get up at 5 in the morning on an overcast Sunday and slog through the streets of the city with thousands of others. Crazy enough to spend months logging long and shin-splinting training runs, to have eaten a plate of carbs and drunk a litre of water before going to bed by 9pm Saturday night. To have laid out their shoes and socks and shorts and sportsbras and singlets and special energy gels the night before, as carefully as a bride lays out her dress on the eve of her wedding. They are everywhere. It is strange to count myself among them. Read more