Monday, December 29, 2008

Same old same old

Recently I met up with an old writer friend. She told me that she’d been struggling for weeks with an impossibly unwieldy chapter, until suddenly she realised it was actually two chapters. Once she realised that, she said, the pieces pulled apart easily at a natural division.

I loved her story because that had just happened to me too, and not for the first time.

The other thing she said was that she’s been doing anything to postpone writing because it seemed too difficult, but finally she got down to it and it wasn’t as hard as she'd feared. She discovered yet again that the only way to do the work is to do the work.

Me too, I thought. I just have to get down and start it, no matter how afraid of it I am.

I’m afraid of the history chapters in my book. I find them so daunting to write I was even hoping my publisher would tell me I didn’t have to write them, that the book would be better off without them!

Funny how you need to learn the same things over and over again and also how universal these issues are.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Alzheimer's: A Love Story

I’ve sold my book about my mother's Alzheimer's. (This is not a picture of my mother, but of Alois Alzheimer who discovered the disease.) The book's working title is Alzheimer's: A Love Story.

I originally thought I’d wait until I finished the first draft before sending it off to a publisher, but I changed my mind. I began to feel that I needed editorial assistance with the structure, and without that I thought I’d waste a lot of time.

I submitted the first ten chapters to Scribe, the first publisher on my list, and three days later they offered me a contract.

They called it ‘impressive and moving’. Yippee!

It makes me nervous. This book that thus far has belonged only to me now has to answer to the outside world. But I’m thrilled and excited too, and I look forward to working on it with an editor. And of course to seeing it in the hands of readers.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Writing As Therapy

People often make a sympathetic face when they learn I am writing a book about my mother's Alzheimer's. 'That must be therapeutic for you,' they say.

I find that condescending and insulting. How would they like it if I said to them, 'Oh, plumbing/social work/law/medicine, eh? That must be therapeutic for you,' as though all their training, experience and professionalism was cast aside in the drive to make themselves feel better.

I like writing or I wouldn't do it, but it's work to take my own particular experience and shape and form it so that a fragment gives the impression of being my whole life in a way that illuminates for the reader their own.

Lying on the sofa this cold wet Saturday afternoon, I read this in Robyn Rowland's essay in the current Meanjin:

The writing of poetry is lived. It is not something we do, but something we are. It requires a life of observation, an openness to experience, an ability to empathise, an engagement with the transforming power of image and metaphor. It requires a moment when the self is put aside, akin to meditation: an absenting of the self, so that the poem may appear...It also requires technique....Then comes the real work - the shaping, the editing.

If writing is personal, is it cathartic? When people say, 'it must have been really cathartic to write that', it irritates me. It's a statement that casts poetry into the realms of therapy and creative writing is not therapy. It's an art. One that requires practice and patience and skill. Yes, the writing might be therapeutic in that it might uncover for us our own understanding of what we feel or believe. But that individual experience needs to be made universal so that it reaches out to the next person.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fiction as truth

This evening I watched Australian Story, about Richard Flanagan, the Tasmanian novelist. As a writer, as a person and as a Tasmanian, I found it very inspiring.

It seems funny in a way that a fiction writer is such a steadfast truth teller, but I think telling the truth is what good fiction does.

Flanagan is a brave man who has written some of the best journalism I’ve read. He has spoken without hysteria against a corrupt and vindictive government and its allies in big business. You might think that’s no big deal, but sadly, in Tasmania, it is.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Working Above the Abyss

My daughter, M, who these days prefers nonfiction to fiction, drew my attention to what the late much missed David Foster Wallace wrote in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2007:

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder — because nonfiction's based in reality, and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they're executed on tightropes, over abysses — it's the abysses that are different. Fiction's abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction's abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one's total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

I’ve thought about that a lot. I think finally I agree.

To me, fiction is about tapping into a world that exists in a dimension that you can only access a slice at a time. You work with what you manage to slice off.

Nonfiction is about this world that we live in, and the really hard part is to work out in the first place which slice you want to describe and then how best to do it.

In other words I’m still finding my nonfiction book a killer.

Monday, October 13, 2008


I’m out of the habit of hunting for ideas for fiction now, having been immersed in my non-fiction book about my parents for nearly a year.

The other day I felt an idea stirring in response to a news item. The opening sentences of a short story came into my mind. As I wrote them down I felt the push of the story behind them, but I stopped before the narrator with her intriguing voice took too firm a hold of me.

When I wrote fiction I used to think a short story was an affair – a brief fling – where a novel was a marriage that needed commitment, devotion, faithfulness. It was tempting to have a fling after the long haul of this year, with plenty more work up ahead.

But although my book is a bit like duty to me now, it’s also something that I think needs to be written. And I want to write it. I feel a sense of urgency about it too. My parents aren’t getting any younger.

Each chapter is a struggle but I’m past the halfway mark now and when I look back I’m proud of what I’ve captured.

I can still hear the voice of that tempting short story. I hope she’ll keep but, like my parents in their long marriage, I’m committed.

Friday, October 3, 2008


I was in the doldrums for the last couple of weeks with my current book.

The doldrums are a belt of very still air near the equator that in olden times stalled sailing ships. I felt stalled too. The job was too big for me. It was too daunting. I was too far into the journey to turn around and go back but I couldn’t see the distant shore line either.

I was in about the middle of the book when I got stuck: I’d written around 35,000 words.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to go on. I had it mapped out in my head and even on paper. And I had lots of stuff drafted. It was just that each chapter was so bloody hard and I still wasn’t positive that the idea was even going to work out in the end. For a while I felt as though the wind had gone out of my sails permanently. It was hard to believe I’d ever get moving again.

I knew the cure: push ahead. And I knew that once I got this next chapter done I’d see how close I was to the end and I’d pick up speed again. But the strength and courage I needed seemed to have deserted me.

I kept going somehow. I revised a lot, and plodded ahead a little, and now the breeze is picking up and the book is moving once more. Phew. I’m out of the doldrums I think, but it was scary there for a while.

A steady hand on the tiller, some courage and persistence and I should make it. Wish me luck.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Gate crashers part two

Gate crashers revisited.
They ignored us; they just ate. The mother stuffed leaves in her mouth without bothering about the fan club at the base of the tree, but she maintained her grip on her joey all the time.
It was hard to get a photo with the mother's head in it because she was so intent on dining.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Gate crashers

On our writing weekend there were two uninvited guests. They hung about in the copse of gum trees between us and the beach, gorging and pissing. Totally uncivilised.

But very welcome.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

last weekend

Last weekend I went away with two writer friends. We left the city Friday evening and returned Sunday evening, so we were only away for about 48 hours, but though the time went quickly we felt as though we’d been away longer.

We slept in both mornings, walked on the beach, ate constantly, drank, talked, read, workshopped and yes…even wrote.

We all came home with work done and, even more important than that, a clearer idea of where to go from here.

It’s funny with writing. It’s an entirely solitary occupation: you sit for hours with just the thoughts in your head. It’s the only way to do it. But I couldn’t get by without my workshop mates. I wouldn’t want to.

Thanks J and C. Can’t wait to do it again.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What if...

A writer friend forwarded this to me. It's funny but pretty close to the truth too. Sometimes a typical workshop session can sound a bit like this. Not this, but this...

Friday, September 19, 2008

City Life

This week in the city I've had visitors in my backyard.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Country Life

In a recent Island magazine article a poet described city life as narcissistic. It exists for your convenience. You don't have to make an effort. Country life can be hard; the work often feels never ending, especially when you have animals. Animals and fences. But look where you get to do it!

I inhabit two quite different worlds: Mole Creek and Melbourne. I filmed this in Mole Creek on the day before I returned to Melbourne.

Hi, Farmdoc.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

First Drafts

I wrote a lot in the last couple of weeks. Just about all day every day when I wasn’t busy with farm chores or walking to the post office to collect the mail or cooking.

And what I discovered yet again is the importance of first drafts. Of dumping any old rubbish down on the page – or screen. The quicker, the messier, the stupider, the better. Once something’s down I can fix it up, but I can’t fix a blank page.

Pausing to find the exact word or phrase or simile is counterproductive at this stage. I can do that later. In fact, the less censoring at this point, the richer the material will be. It’s hard. There’s such a strong urge to get it right, or at least neat and tidy or at least reasonable, first time around. It’s like unlearning all those lessons I learnt in school.

This is my experience anyway. I know some writers whose first drafts sit in their brains for ages and then by the time they see daylight they are pretty close to something decent. That’s not me. If I worked like that I’d find it would stifle the life out of my material.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Hay Fever

I love how the sheep that are so aloof every other time of the year come to hay. They are still wary, but at least they acknowledge our existence, even if only from the corner of their horizontal eyes.

The hayshed is half empty. There’s probably another month and a half of feeding out left, and then we’ll start to wonder about this summer’s hay: when we’ll cart it, how much it’ll cost this year, and how much we’ll need. We’ll scribble calculations on the backs of envelopes, but in the end as usual it’ll depend on the weather – if we get rain and sun at the right times – and who has hay for sale. We can’t cut our own here because our ground is too rough and uneven.

Meanwhile, used baling twine mounts up on the hook in the garage. At the end of the season most of it will go to the tip. There’s a limit to the uses even the most ingenious farmer can find for it.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Winter's End

Last day of winter, though not the last day of cold weather. It poured last night and this morning the sky has a hangover; the clouds look exhausted. The wind is pushing patches of blue from left to right so that from time to time a sun stripe lands on our solar panels and on the kitchen table.

One of those patches of blue looks like a map of Australia, but by the time I fetch my camera it has become something else.

There are already leaves on some of the sycamore trees and hundreds of new shoots. It feels hopeful and exciting, but also sad that the still part of the year is almost at an end. Winter is restful, the bare bones of the deciduous trees exposed; their discarded leaves in some light look like fallen snow. I love the starkness of it.

The farm will begin to warm up and life will resume its rush. We won’t have to feed out hay until next winter and soon we’ll stroll and picnic again in the shade of the green leaves that are budding now, but I’ll miss this slow inward-turned time.

Friday, August 29, 2008


I’ve just been reading about the brain in The New Yorker (July 28). ‘The Eureka Hunt’ by Jonah Lehrer describes the work of Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist who has spent the last fifteen years ‘trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight’.

As a writer I have a particular interest in insight. Jung-Beeman and his co investigator John Kounios describe it as a delicate mental balancing act.

‘At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas…We do some of our best thinking when we’re still half asleep.’

That must be why writing first thing in the morning (what I call, falling onto the page) works so well. It’s because it’s too early for the brain’s policeman, otherwise known as the left hemisphere, to be on duty, censoring and being sensible, which are the last things you need when you’re writing.

Next time I’m accused of being lazy when I'm having an afternoon nap or otherwise lolling about, I’ll be able to say, ‘I’m working!’ and have science on my side.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


When I was fifteen and on holidays with my parents I overheard a young woman talking on the public telephone in the lobby of our hotel. She was being extremely affectionate with the person on the other end of the line, who I was sure was her best friend, even though it could have been anyone – husband, boyfriend, mother, sibling.

I was shy and awkward and I wanted more than anything to have someone I could call darling and sweetheart on the phone.

That’s 45 years ago now, but I can still recall the longing I felt that day. It came to my mind yesterday when someone called me on my mobile.

‘Hello my darling one, can I call you back?’ I answered, almost without thinking.

‘Yeah, sure,’ she said.

As I rang off I was pierced so strongly by the memory of that longing that it brought tears to my eyes. Only this time it was with realisation: I now live my life surrounded by people I call sweetheart and darling, gorgeous and honeybum, people I love and care the world for.

I wish I could reach back to my fifteen-year-old self and tell her, ‘Don’t be sad. Not all at once, but bit by bit, you’ll get exactly what you want. And it’ll be just as you dreamed it would.’

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Melbourne Writers Festival

I’m just back from a session at the Melbourne Writers Festival. This year the festival is at Federation Square and I don’t think it works as well as it did when it was squashed into the Malthouse. You come out of the theatre and you’re directed out of the way and out into the city again, where what you want is to be allowed to wallow in that soupy place where ideas float. This is one time where you want to be tipped straight into the gift shop; bookshops are ideal venues for wallowing and floating.

Maybe it’s good for reading and writing to pretend they’re part of the mainstream and that they can compete on an equal basis with sport, drinking and shopping. Maybe the festival will attract more attention in this vast public space.

I missed the Malthouse, how intimate it felt, and how the inconveniences made people bond with each other, how you felt as though you were on an island – the Island of Dreams and Dreamers.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sandwich Generation

Yesterday I went to a friend’s sixtieth birthday party. Dorothy lives in England but was in Melbourne visiting her mother at just the right time for us to celebrate with her. I sat at a table of old school friends and some people I didn’t know.

We canvassed our children’s lives quickly. Seems at our age people have grown past the showing off stage, which is nice. There was a detour to talk about grandchildren and how adorable they are.

Then we moved on to the main topic of conversation – our aging parents. How well are they? How old are they? Do they live independently? Are they in a home? Do they have dementia? How often do you visit? Every new person who joined the group had a story to tell.

I remember when I was a young mother how affirming it felt to meet someone else at the same stage, someone else who was getting up at night, someone else lost in the wonder and awfulness of it all. Now here I am again, bonding with strangers over horror stories, only this time about our parents.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


My current obsession is the project I’m working on about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It’s a mixture of memoir (which seems a funny word for writing about something that is ongoing, but I don’t know of a better) and biography. I have no idea if it will work. But I persist.

It’s such a mixture of past and present. I’m always struggling to decide what to include – how much of me in the present, for example. Are my feelings universal or am I just a bad daughter? Who should I protect and to what extent? Which details will interest readers and which only interest me?

The best part of the project is that I can switch between past and present – or recent past, anyway. When it becomes too painful to write about my mother’s ongoing deterioration I turn to a chapter about the more distant past. When piecing together my parents’ early years starts to drive me crazy I put that aside for a while and return to the present.

The chapter I’ve just finished covers from 1943 to 1953, which were the first ten years of my parents’ marriage, and include my birth. Now I’ve begun work on the next ten years. I wonder if they’ll be easier because I remember those years – or most of them anyway. Maybe not. I’ll soon find out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

G. K. Chesterton

In my July 7 & 14 New Yorker, in an article by Adam Gopnik about the writer G. K. Chesterton, subtitled, 'The troubling genius of G. K. Chesterton', I found this:

'Mercantile capitalist societies profess values that their own appetites destroy; calls for public morality come from the same people who use prostitutes. Meanwhile, the workings of capital turn the local artisan into a maker of mass-produced objects and every high street into an identical strip mall….Chesterton is the great critic of...homogenization, the levelling of difference in the pursuit of cash. He is the grandfather of Slow Food, of local eating...''

I wasn't sure whether to post this; I liked it so much, but Chesterton was such a disgusting filthy old rascist bastard. I agonised over it for a while.

Later in the article, Gopnik writes, 'if obviously great writers were allowed onto the reading list only when they conform to the current consensus of liberal good will - voices of tolerance and liberal democracy - we would be down to George Eliot.'

So here it is.

Monday, August 4, 2008


Editing is such a tricky business - both editing someone else's work and being edited oneself.

I know just how the writer of this heartfelt letter feels.

Thanks, Farmdoc, for this.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting out of the way

From Steering the Craft, by Ursula K Le Guin:

'Some people see art as a matter of control. I see it mostly as a matter of self-control. It’s like this: in me there’s a story that wants to be told. It is my end; I am its means. If I can keep myself, my ego, my opinions, my mental junk, out of the way, and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story tells itself.'

Sounds easy, but it isn't. All that foolish prattle that gets in the way; the parrot on the shoulder that shrieks and must be hushed.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Living mindfully

I read this in the same (June 9 and 16, 2008) issue of The New Yorker as my previous post, in an article by James Wood:

‘Nietzsche said that if a human being put his ear to the heart chamber of the world and heard the roar of existence, the “innumerable shouts of pleasure and woe,” he would surely break into pieces. But a newspaper, pumping its inky current of despair, might serve as well…’

And ‘A large proportion of life involves our refusing to put our ear to the mundane heart chamber, lest we die from hearing ‘the roar which lies on the other side of silence.’

It’s a challenge simply to live mindfully in the world today, without shutting your eyes to what’s happening to the planet and its people, but without getting sucked in by the undertow.

I know I can do no good for anyone (least of all myself) by submitting to despair, and sustained anger corrodes, so despite my clear-sighted view of where things are headed, I choose to live with kindness, optimism, wonder and affection. In the end it’s all I can do.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Haruki Murakami

I’m reading an article in The New Yorker by Haruki Murakami. The article is actually about running, and in it he says, ‘…having the kind of body that easily puts on weight is perhaps a blessing in disguise…if I don’t want to gain weight I have to work out hard every day, watch what I eat, and cut down on indulgences. People who naturally keep the weight off don’t need to exercise or watch their diet. Which is why, in many cases, their physical strength deteriorates as they age. Those of us who have a tendency to gain weight should consider ourselves lucky that the red light is so clearly visible.’

He goes on: ‘I think this viewpoint applies as well to the job of novelist. Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can write easily, no matter what they do – or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into that category. I have to pound away at a rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of my creativity. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another hole. But, as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening those holes in the rock and locating new water veins. As soon as I notice one source drying up, I move on to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their source, they’re in trouble.’

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Time Off

I haven’t written for weeks now because I was busy with family stuff. My brain was full of guest lists and acceptances and MFA programmes and American geography.

I’ve begun to write again now but it’s slow and, as usual, I’m afraid it won’t come back.

But what I know, what I’ve learned from experience, is that when you do go away from the writing it always comes back, and usually stronger than ever. It’s like there’s this whole factory of whirring machines that manufacture the writing, and while you’re away the machines keep going. They slow down but they don’t stop. When you return you need to remind yourself again which buttons to push and which levers to pull, but once the machinery is back up to speed the writing’s even better than it was before.

So, though I wish I didn’t leave the factory, and I hate that rusty feeling and it scares me, in the end I’m usually glad for it because the writing feels stronger and more assured. Plus whatever I’ve been doing feeds me and my work in some way and that’s probably the most important thing of all.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pumpkin Scones

I almost feel I should ditch what I’ve posted so far and begin this blog again. I wanted to write only about writing but belatedly I realise that it’s impossible to separate who you are, what you read, eat, think, do, from what you write.

No part of writing is divorced from who you are. I knew that. In my eagerness to share my thoughts about the writing process I just forgot.

There are tricks and techniques that I’ve learnt that can help with the mechanics – that take the raw material of you and what you have to say and turn it into polished prose – but those techniques are only one part of the process. They’re important but no more important than being in the moment of your life. That in-the-moment consciousness is central to writing. It feeds both the writer and the writing.

Today I’m thinking pumpkins.

Last Sunday when we got back to the house from farming out in the paddocks our friend Steve had dropped by, leaving us a pair of pumpkins. They stayed there for several days, beside the back door. It’s cold enough for them on the south side of the house, and every time I go in or out I’m reminded of Steve and his kindness, and of what’s best about living in the country. Plus they look so earthy and attractive there.

Right now there’s only one pumpkin there but the house is full of the smell of freshly baked pumpkin scones.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Managing Fear

I still don’t know what the fear of facing my novel was. Maybe I was afraid that it’d be terrible, or that I wouldn’t be able to read it objectively; or maybe it was just that my heart now lies with my non-fiction book. Piecing a new story together, discovering new terrain is so exciting compared with the dull slog of revision.

I work a lot with fear and anxiety it seems to me. Fear that I won’t do justice to my material, or that I won’t be able to enter it fully. Fear of facing work I have done when I haven’t seen it for a while. I have developed techniques for dealing with some of my fears, such as the empty page – or screen – but I’ve still got a long way to go.

How I handled the problem this time was to give myself plenty of opportunity to make excuses, and then I stood firm: NO MORE DELAYS ALLOWED. I made myself a cup of peppermint tea, broke off a couple of squares of chocolate and then I forced myself to sit down and start reading.

It was hard for half a page and then I was in and away.

I knew before I started one problem in particular I needed to solve. I had to show why two of my characters had married. The reader had to understand what was at stake. This was my friend Christine’s excellent advice and I had no idea how I was going to do it. But by the time I’d reached the end of the first page the material had inserted itself in the simplest and most natural way.

All that fuss over nothing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


For days I’ve wanted to begin rereading my novel, By the Book. I’ve tried. Every day it’s top of my to-do list. I just can’t. It’s too scary. I don’t know exactly what it is I’m afraid of. I know once I’ve begun I’ll be fine but still I can’t break the barrier.

I’ve done anything I possibly can to avoid it. I’ve written part of a chapter of my nonfiction book; I've even composed a pitch for the novel; I’ve scribbled in my journal; I’ve checked my email and surfed the net. I’ve swept the floor and washed dishes.

OK, enough is enough. I can do this. Tonight after dinner while Farmdoc is at fire brigade training I’m going to take a cup of peppermint tea and a square or two of dark chocolate and yes, I’m going to read my own work.

I can do this.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


I wasn’t always as disciplined about my writing as I am now.

Here’s what Annie Dillard says about discipline and schedules in The Writing Life:

‘How we spend our day is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.’

When I first read this it changed my life. It was so plain. I could make as many excuses as I liked to avoid sitting down and facing the work, but in the end my life is how I spend my time. If I spend my hours doing housework or surfing the Internet, then that is who I am. I am not a writer, I am a housecleaner, or an Internet surfer. All the excuses in the world won’t change that.

This frightened me into being serious about my work and respecting my time. And I liked the mindfulness of it too. How I spend my time matters. What I do is what I am, who I am.

These days I am a writer

Monday, June 23, 2008


I'm just about to sit down and start work on my revision of By the Book. I'm as nervous as if it were a first date, scared stiff I won't be up to the job or that I'll hate it now. All those anxieties lined up like bitchy high school girls looking me up and down.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Place Called Kayforl

Now that I’ve given myself permission to include books in this blog, I can see it’s going to be full of them. How could I have ever thought otherwise?

There’s always something a bit disappointing to me in the endings of crime novels. Maybe that’s part of what makes them so addictive – the wish to recapture that early sense of excitement and promise. To keep the suspense going there have to be loose threads, too many to tie up neatly, so that the last pages are crowded with overblown images, people, things told not shown.

This is how I felt about the last quarter of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The book was redeemed though, in part by its perfect last paragraph.

Now I’m reading a fantasy novel for young adults written by my friend Christine. A Place Called Kayforl has been accepted for publication next year by Allen and Unwin. Christine has created an entire world with its own history and language. It’s difficult for me to remember that this is a world that does not exist outside the pages of the novel.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Writing Life

It was a cold day here today. This afternoon Farmdoc and I warmed up by splitting the firewood he cut yesterday. While we did it I thought, as I often do, of what Annie Dillard wrote in her book, The Writing Life:

‘You aim…at the chopping block, not at the wood…You cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end, by aiming past it.’

She has many many wonderful things to say about writing, but in my opinion that statement is amongst the most helpful.

Drift of words

Writing can make me anxious. Reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead helps me to feel calmer, with its easy drift of words that you have to trust to take you where you need to go.

In the novel she describes the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday:
‘It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it.’

For me this applies to the process of writing. Everything you need is there - you just have to get out of your own way and allow it to blossom of its own accord on the page.

Friday, June 20, 2008


This blog is going to be about writing, so at first I assumed that meant the second post shouldn’t be about the book I’m reading. Then I thought, no it’s perfect. Writing must begin with reading. We are what we eat, Brillat-Savin, the 19th century gourmet famously said. And I think we are what we read too. I know I am.

My first reading consisted of books that were about people who were nothing like me. Beginning with my first school readers about those goody goodies, John and Betty, and their pets, Scott and Fluff. All these books were about people who lived in England or America or sometimes in the Australian bush.

I was a Jewish girl who lived in the suburbs of Australia. I spoke with an Australian accent and went to Sunday school where I listened to stories from the Old Testament and learned to read and write Hebrew. When my parents wanted to tell each other things they didn’t want my brothers and me to know about they communicated in Yiddish.

Which leads me to the book I’m reading at the moment. It’s called The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and is by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Michael Chabon.

The premise of the book is that Israel doesn’t exist and instead a temporary Jewish state has been set up in Alaska where the language spoken is Yiddish. I love that I’m an insider here; that I get the joke about a gun being called a sholem; that I know what an eruv is, and that Chasids are called black hats; I understand why it matters what time sunset is on a Friday, and the significance of an addict tying off with a tefillin strap. But I also love Chabon’s use of language, and even though I’m not usually a crime reader, I love that the book is so plot driven.

I especially admire Chabon’s similes and metaphors. ‘His heart describes a sudden knight move in his chest,’ when he’s just been writing about chess. ‘He rose into the air like a charred scrap of paper…’ Here’s another one: ‘Around the grave site, black clumps of fir trees sway like grieving Chasids.’ There are lots more, but when you want to find them of course you never can.

Read it yourself.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


This morning I finished the first draft of a Varuna application for my non-fiction book. I felt pleased with myself when I pressed save, as though I’d accomplished something with my morning. But then I thought how funny that was, because I didn’t spend long on it today. Maybe just an hour. Whereas on other days I’ve worked for hours and not felt a sense of accomplishment. Even though that was when I did the hardest work, laying down the tracks for today’s final sprint.

So it’s only the completion that I allow to give me the feeling of a job well done,and not the time spent working, thinking, musing, reading revising, checking, dreaming that goes into the final product. Mm. How odd. How wrong of me. Maybe that’s also why I sometimes rush through a draft when it’s nowhere near ready. So I can give myself the cheap thrill of seeing something completed. I wonder if I could change that attitude of mine and how.