Posts from the ‘Writing’ Category
February 16th, 2017
One month ago I deactivated my Facebook account. I had a book to finish writing by the end of January, but I also was feeling overwhelmed by the Trump presidency. It was bleak and there it was again and again on my Facebook feed.
I admit that I checked Facebook far too often during the day – often without even realising I was doing it until I was there on the page. Because I work from home, alone, Facebook was my virtual watercooler. It was where I caught up on everyone’s news, where I congratulated those with birthdays and new partners and babies and said I was there for those going through a hard time. It made me feel connected. I live in Australia but am from the US, with lots of family and friends still there, so this feeling of connection was addictive.
I first joined Facebook the year my daughter was born, 2007, because of my Sydney-based mothers’ group. We used it to organise our get-togethers, and as more and more friends joined it became a way to share baby photos and catch up on everyone’s news in a single place. Before that I had kept in touch with a dozen or so university and high school friends, mostly through emails and in person every few years. Now I was suddenly connecting with friends who I hadn’t seen since 1995, when I graduated from high school. Then friends from primary school, or people who I only met once. Work colleagues in Sydney, ex-work colleagues, mother’s group members and friends-of-friends became connected via Facebook, and my feed was filled with all of these lives which I otherwise hardly would have known.
I have always been the type of person with a few close friends. I’m loyal and love their company, but I’m an introvert and this makes me poor at maintaining lots of friendships. Facebook, on the surface, makes it easy, but I began to question whether it was real as well. Was liking a post maintaining a friendship? Would I actually recognise some of these people if I saw them on the street? If we were in the same city, would we catch up for coffee?
Is it right that I know so much about their lives? Should I be telling them this much about my own?
So I culled some of the people I didn’t really know, and I ticked a few as acquaintances. I wasn’t one of those people with 1000 friends, my number hovered somewhere around 250.
But when I caught up with some of those 250 I realised our conversations became predictable. ‘How was your holiday? I saw you went to Sri Lanka. Beautiful photos.’
‘Thanks! And how was your trip to Perth? It looked amazing.’
What’s there to talk about when you’ve seen the highlights already, scrolling down your screen? I always had friends who weren’t on Facebook, and when we caught up for dinner or coffee the conversations were filled with genuine surprises. We were actually curious about one another’s lives because we had been living them in isolation from each other – we didn’t know.
That said, now that I’ve signed off I find that people expect me, still, to know what’s happening in their lives. ‘I’m not on Facebook these days,’ I have to say, for them to fill me in. A few have asked if I defriended them. ‘Did I do something to offend you?’ one mum asked at the school gates.
‘No!’ I said, feeling awful. ‘I’m not on Facebook at all. But you can still message me. I’m sorry.’ I do feel like I need to apologise for not already knowing their news.
So I do miss out – no question – on some of what goes on in the lives of people I care about. But how much are we meant to actually know? My mother, who is retired, spends at least an hour, sometimes two a day on Facebook. She clicks on all of the silly animal videos and looks at all the photographs from everyone’s weddings. She comments and sometimes has discussions with others in the comment sections and posts photographs of all of her trips. She also reads a lot, does Zumba, volunteers for several worthy organisations, cooks delicious meals and manages her finances – but I wonder what she’d do if she weren’t spending that time on Facebook. Would she email or write letters, talk on the phone more? Would she catch up with more people or fewer?
I haven’t even gotten to the best thing about being off Facebook. It’s not that the Trump disaster isn’t constantly there for me to see – it is, I still read the news. It has to do with my subconscious, which is directly related to creativity. When I was checking Facebook approximately 20 times a day I knew far too much about an eclectic collection of people. They were people who would normally just be on the periphery of my life, but because they posted a lot on Facebook they were in my life at least once a day, sometimes more than my husband (who is also one of those people not on social media). I found myself thinking about their families at odd times, dreaming of them, wondering how they’d gone with their job interview, their breakup, their new tattoo.
I knew them but I didn’t know them – I knew that carefully curated selection of what they chose to broadly share (some people on Instagram actually call this their portfolio). They took up space in my subconscious which is now freed for the characters from my novels or short stories, or the topics or projects I want to write about. I have kept my author page, and given my mother administrative powers. I don’t see her quitting Facebook any time soon. Will I go back one day? Not sure yet. I’m still enjoying being gone.
And those friends I still find myself wondering about? I do what I did in those pre-Facebook days. I send an email, or a text. If I’m feeling especially brave, I give them a call.
December 5th, 2016
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.
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.
To write a novel I have to inhabit a character, and so much of this means imagining myself in situations they might have been in, placing myself in environments similar to those they experienced. This allows the detail of their life to creep through my imaginings. It’s a kind of talismanic research – where the things around me are what allow me to inhabit them. Just walking around the areas of the ship – the infirmary, the bridge, the engine room, the ballrooms – I was able to get a sense of what three weeks at sea on such a vessel for my character would have been like.
Once I left Long Beach behind I travelled to San Francisco, staying by Fisherman’s Wharf, where the (fictional) war bride I am writing about sailed into in 1946 from Sydney. I walked around the Hyde Pier with its historic ships and then over to the SS Jeremiah O’Brien a WWII Liberty troopship which also carried war brides at one point. The SS O’Brien was such a stark contrast to the Queen Mary – it is a utilitarian ship in every way – purely built for the purposes of war. While in San Francisco I took a tourist ferry on the harbour, simply to get that perspective of what it was like to approach the city from the sea.
Little details like what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like from underneath are important to me. The war brides I have spoken to and those I have read interviews with emphasise how the journey was such an adventure – and how it was like they were seeing the world for the first time.
From San Francisco I took the commuter train to visit my first war bride, Mrs Dorothy Pence Berry in San Jose. Her daughter Beverley picked me up from the station and drove me to Dorothy’s house. When she was 19 Dorothy met American Naval Petty Officer Roy Pence in Brisbane. They married in 1943 and she had already had her daughter Beverley when she got passage on the troop ship SS General Mann to the US in December 1944. The war was still on and she remembers the mines they dodged at sea, and the bunk she shared with her baby. At night the whole ship would be in blackout, and there were no facilities for babies, no baby food, and only 27 war brides and 10 babies on board.
Beverley prepared a beautiful lunch for us while Dorothy told me about her journey, about her memories of Australia and the difficulties she faced as a new war bride in the US. She showed me photographs and her Australian memorabilia, and it struck me how memories of a place can suspend it in time, so that it is as much that place as that time in your life that you miss.
“Australia will always be home to me,” Dorothy said, showing me her Arnott’s biscuit tins. She has imbued her children with this love, one lives in Australia, another is the president of the US World War II War Brides Association, and another has a travelling exhibition of war bride wedding dresses.
After San Jose I returned to San Francisco to take the train up to Portland for the writing workshop and to meet another war bride. First I was going to catch up with a few friends, and they were curious as to why I insisted on taking the Coast Starlight Amtrak rather than flying – why take a 22-hour train when I could take a (less than) two-hour flight? More research, I insisted, since my character took a train across the US after sailing into San Francisco. It had been many years since I took a long distance train journey and though I know it is different now, I wanted to immerse myself in that pace again – the way the scenery passes and the time takes on a different quality. The sounds, the dining cars and the restrooms and the way strangers talk to one another– no one is rushed and stressed like we are in airports or on freeways.
To prove this point, the train was delayed about six hours and no one even seemed to mind (besides my poor friends waiting for me in Portland). There was a band travelling across the US playing music on the train, a Santa Claus impersonator and a woman who was taking her stuffed teddy bear across the US and taking photographs of him in different scenic spots. The Amtrak staff were some of the friendliest I’ve met, and while it’s probably not a good option if you’re in a hurry, I loved my slow journey up the coast.
After visiting with my dear, patient friends and checking in to my dormitory at Reed College, I had one more war bride to meet in Portland. I met Mrs Joann Patterson and three of her five children for brunch at a French restaurant in Portland. She met her American serviceman, Joe Patterson in Melbourne in 1942, when he followed her and her friend out of a restaurant and then waited for her outside of the night school class she was attending. Joann joined the AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service in the Signal Corps) and Joe was relocated to Townsville. They got to know one another by letter and he would come and find her when he could get leave. They married in 1944 in Brisbane and honeymooned for a week before having to part again. They didn’t see each other again for 16 months, until she sailed into San Francisco aboard the Monterey. He was driving across the country from Ohio to pick up his bride, but his car broke down en route and he was not there when the brides disembarked from the ship. Luckily he was able to call a friend, who drove up from San Jose and picked up Joann the day after the ship had pulled into port. Joe arrived the next day. Joann and her children and grandchildren have travelled to Australia many times, partly because her husband Joe (who was in the US Air Force) went on to become a commercial airline pilot.
Joann had me to her house at the end of my week in Portland and cooked dinner for me and three of her children, no small feat for a 92-year-old. While she had her own difficulties as a war bride fitting in to her husband’s Catholic family, she was also keenly aware that her experience was easier than many because she was able to fly back to Australia frequently to visit. Her children all feel closely connected to Australia and have kept in contact with relatives there.
While the main character of my novel is not based on either of the war brides I interviewed or any one particular story I read, I felt as though speaking to these generous and adventurous women gave me so much insight into the story I was writing, the motivations and the challenges, the implications for future generations. I was lucky to have been invited into their homes, to have heard their stories and seen their old photographs and newspaper clippings.
I can read until my eyes are tired, but to hear these women tell their stories given an extra dimension to the book I am writing – this is the kind of research that no library can hold.
Funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency Creative Individuals Career Fund allowed me to travel to the USA.
July 20th, 2016
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. 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?”
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.
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.
December 16th, 2015
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.
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 Left, while 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.
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.
October 19th, 2015
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 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.
I’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.
September 16th, 2015
I wondered whether to even have a book launch for Long Bay – with the first book it seems mandatory, but second time around you wonder if it is a little self-indulgent. Book launches used to be covered by publishers, but now it is generally the author’s responsibility. Which explains the absence of champagne magnums and shirtless waiters. In the end, I decided it would be worthwhile because so many people helped me with the research and stories behind Long Bay and it would be a chance to have as many of them as possible in one place and say thank you.
My PhD supervisor, the very talented author Debra Adelaide, did the launching and rather than have a traditional speech we had a short question and answer session about the novel, and a brief reading where I also sang – simply because there was a song lyric in the section I was reading and I felt like it would be a cop-out to speak it. I do not have a tuneful singing voice. I apologise to anyone who was there and has sustained hearing damage as a result.
I was particularly glad that the Rebecca Sinclair’s relatives were there – it must have been strange for them to have a writer take their grandmother and great-grandmother’s story and create fiction with it. They were very understanding and generous, which I was so glad of.
Then came the best part, the wine. Or not, if you’re sitting behind a table signing books, with adrenaline making your hand shake so it looks as though a six-year-old signed them.
There we go. It was fun, truly. My mother was visiting from the US and I think the best part of it all was being able to say thank you to her in front of a room full of people. Because we live thousands of miles (and even more kilometres) apart I rarely have that opportunity.
So launches are not so bad, after all. A special thanks goes out to my friend Sarah Rowan Dahl for taking these photographs on the night. And to you for reading this. Just be glad I didn’t sing it to you.
August 1st, 2015
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.
July 20th, 2015
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.
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.
June 16th, 2015
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.
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