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.