I want to be there when it comes.
To be precise, I want to be there in the moments before it comes. I want to be a witness, but also a willing participant, engaged and alive. Breathless.
It’s about darkness, the house a subterranean cave. My eyes are open, but there’s very little to see. It’s about the near-perfect quiet. It’s no good when, for whatever reason (an exhausting social event, a rough night’s sleep), I wake too late and the house is already filled with light and noise. No, that’s not right. I want to be walking around my home, going from room to room, opening curtains and blinds to the black and the stillness and the quiet.
Toni Morrison knows about this. In her Paris Review interview, the novelist recounts how a colleague told her about her writing routine. ‘Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was – there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard – but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual.’
How morning – the break of dawn – does that: it enables us. Allows, facilitates, permits, makes possible. We enter the day, and the day enters us. We don’t know how the day will unravel, not really. We can hope, we can have expectations; there will be things we want and need – food, companionship, success, acknowledgment, reward. Or we might let the day simply (or not so simply at all) unravel. We’ll see what happens.
Artists – all kinds of artists – are good at seeing what happens. In fact, they are the best at it. They see what happens, understand what happens; more importantly, they know what happens. And what happened – past tense. And what might happen – the vital future. What might happen to our lives? What might happen to our relationships? What might happen to our places, to our environment? Our environment: the natural and the ‘man’ made: are we screwing it over, are we losing our way, are we not listening, are we not seeing the signs? These are good questions. These are the questions good artists ask.
Ben Okri writes, ‘The artist should never lose the spirit of play. It is curious how sometimes the biggest tasks are best approached tangentially, with a smile in the soul. Much has been written about the seriousness with which important work has to be undertaken. I believe that seriousness and rigour are invaluable, and hard work indispensable – but I want to speak a little for the mysterious and humble might of a playful creative spirit. Playfulness lightens all terrifying endeavours. It humanises them, and brings them within the realm of childhood. The playfulness becomes absorbing, engrossing, all-consuming, serious even. The spirit warms. Memory burns brightly. The fires of intelligence blaze away, and self-consciousness evaporates. Then – wonderfully – the soul finds the sea; and the usually divided selves function, luminously, as one.’
Oh isn’t that astonishing: ‘the mysterious and humble might of a playful creative spirit’. I can see that here, I can feel it, I can hear it. Laughing, warbling magpies, singing for the morning, or for each other, or just because they can. Ripe soft fruit in the grass: red and green and orange and yellow. Fresh lawn like blades or spikes. ‘The importance of precious ground.’ A fat black chook, comb upright and ready – very generously, she’s keeping our tea warm. ‘Wake up! Who’s for tennis?’ Seashells like spoons – cutlery for a picnic? Begging bowls for everyone, or they could be new ways to hold better ideas. Broken maps for buried treasure, except the map might be the treasure itself. Shadows casting both inwards and outwards – the miracle of this and that and more. A confluence of roadways: ‘Mirrors and memories, all tied together.’ A dead parrot; or it’s sheltering from the storm. ‘Barking up the wrong tree: LOVE AND PEACE, NO WAR.’ A rolling, patterned meadow; microscopic skin. Eggs like eyes; eyes like eggs (‘a world within’). A dark gift. Rejuvenation. ‘These plates have no instructions.’
Toni Morrison has more to say. ‘I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular … Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage with this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me.’
I suspect you know what Morrison means.
Ben Okri has more to say about this as well. ‘The reality of what we are doing to one another is explosive. The secret content of our lives is terrifying. There is so much to scream about. There are great polluting lies and monsters running around in the seabed of our century. The river within us has become more frozen than ever before. We need much more than Kafka’s proverbial axe to crack the ice and make the frozen blood of humanity flow again. Something is needed to wake us from the frightening depths of our moral sleep.’
I suspect you know what Okri means too.
My eyes are now open; they have been opened for me. I can see differently. I feel new, renewed. I feel deeper, bigger, better, brighter. My breathing is strong, powerful, potent. There are images – ideals, realities, opportunities – that I will carry with me for days, years, decades, until the end. The light is magnificent. It’s almost blinding.
I want to take this art work with both hands. I want to hold it, embrace it, kiss it. I want it like I’ve never known before.
I am awake.
This creative essay was commissioned by Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre as a response to the 2014 Accredited Professional Members show, called ‘Awaken’.
Philip Gourevitch (ed.), The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II (New York: Picador, 2007) 358 Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free (London: Phoenix House, 1997) 22, 52
Section 8 of this essay includes quotes from artist statements by Judi Elliott, Morgan James, Nikki Main, Luna Ryan and Nancy Tingey.
What if the Wall Street Journal suggested that you could be the next JK Rowling, one of the most commercially successful authors of all time? What if you signed a two-book publishing contract that would gross you a million dollars? What if you went on to sell your work in 52 countries?
This is just the stuff of dreams, you say, and you’d be right. But it does happen, albeit once in the bluest of blue moons, and it’s happened to a writer who calls Canberra home.
Her name is Rebecca James and she writes gritty, dark, urban dramas about teenagers finding their way in the world. Her work contains plenty of sex and drinking and drugs, and there’s much swearing as characters go about their heady business of trying to work out who they are and what they want.
No wizardry, no love-hungry vampires, no dresses catching fire.
Who is Rebecca James? And is everything they say about her true?
The author lives with her partner Hilary, a public servant, and their four children in a most unassuming red-brick house in Canberra’s inner northern suburbs. There’s a blue people-mover parked in the driveway (no garage). On the concrete porch some kids shoes and a free weekly newspaper still in its plastic wrapping. A small brown dog comes to the door. Rebecca James follows. She is small, petite. If she were a bird she’d be a wren or a robin: inquiring, mischievous.
Inside her neat home, which I am assured has been cleaned for my benefit, James turns her attention to the coffee machine. ‘Normally we just microwave the milk but I’ll have a go at frothing it for you.’ While she works out the buttons, I notice a large unframed painting on the kitchen wall. All reds and yellows and oranges, it is immensely vibrant – vital even – in an abstract way. A silhouette of a face; is that a hand emerging from the colours? ‘I painted it,’ says Rebecca James, now using an egg-slice to inexpertly lift two pastries out of their white cardboard box. ‘Nobody likes the picture, but I do.’ She laughs freely, wildly.
We take our places in a small sitting room, which contains two long blue couches and a large flat-screen television. The room has the most peculiar aesthetic: the walls are covered with small white tiles…
Keep reading over at the Sydney Morning Herald, which published this piece on Saturday 11 October 2014. Thanks to Sally Pryor.
I can remember the exact moment.
I can remember exactly where I was: in the car, on the Hume, just outside Marulan, heading south. And what I told myself: You have to get your act together, take this seriously, make every effort. Get. A. Damn. Website.
The kick up the pants? I was coming home from a month-long residency at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people – I’d worked my bum off, a productive time, but I’d also connected with a bunch of extremely committed artists, many of whom spoke about the need to have a digital platform. I didn’t even have the internet on at home. Within months I got connected to the internet, had a website built and got this blog going (which recently took over the role of being the actual website). Yes, my online adventures began on the Hume Highway that morning back in 2009. But the world has moved on, I’ve moved on, nothing’s the same.
Which means I can now make a declaration: this is my 300th post for UTCOAFITD (which clearly is the most ridiculous acronym in the history of humankind). And this will be my final weekly post.
I really have been doing this on a weekly basis from the beginning, because I read some advice somewhere or other that blog posts should be regular and frequent. On a handful of occasions I’ve done a cheeky mid-week post, but on the whole I’ve kept to my commitment. And there’s been something about that commitment: spending days thinking about what I’ll post, whether it be something that had been published elsewhere (Canberra Times, BMA Magazine) or something written for the purpose. There have been times – many times – when I haven’t known what I’d write until the pen was being put to pad, which sometimes resulted in no words at all, so I resorted to shonky visual…things.
I doubt that I’ve ever known what I’ve been doing, other than, perhaps, writing a journal that other people might read – here’s a depository of writing, one amongst a gazillion other depositories of writing. Of course, the most rewarding part has been connecting with other writers, bloggers and thinkers, some of whom I now consider friends, despite living hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away and never having met in person. This must be the best part of the digital era, surely.
What happens now?
I’m not going to call it quits, but from now on posts will be on an ad hoc basis only – perhaps on average they’ll be every month, but no longer will there be any hard and fast rules. Why? Because I’m exhausted, I’m over-committed; in the larger scheme of things, my brain is really quite small, it can only take on so much, which really isn’t that much at all. I need to prioritise. I want to spend as much time as possible reading fiction and writing fiction. I want to go on great, long, dreamy adventures; I want to be moved, confronted, changed. I’m forty-five – it’s time to start learning about how this planet works, and, I think, the best way to do that is through immersing myself in fiction.
So, fond blog, happy 300th post. Sincere thanks to everyone who’s read and commented – I’ve appreciated our conversations very much.
Here’s to new adventures.
You know when you start referencing Mariah Carey in conversation that things aren’t quite right. And when you begin yarns with ‘I’m reading a lot about war in Afghanistan at the moment and I can really understand how those men feel’ you know it’s time to take a deep breath. Regrettably, this week I’ve done both those things. Because (a) The Beach Volcano is now officially out in the world and (b) I’m so exhausted that my skill hurts – seriously. Have I told you how Mariah Carey is fighting war in Afghanistan?
I guess the first thing I want to say is THANK YOU to all those who attended the launch at the mighty Electric Shadows Bookshop on 18 September. There was a terrific buzz in the room and I managed to get through my speech without swearing and/or dribbling. Maybe. Better still, Distinguished Professor Jen Webb said great things, as in astute. Also, thanks to everyone who sent through congratulatory messages, vis textie, the Facebook, the Twitter, or via carrier pigeon. Thanks also, of course, to Blemish Books for putting up with me for the past four and a half years – it’s been a fantastically productive relationship, especially considering that literary novellas aren’t exactly an easy proposition these days.
Finally, it’s pleasing to report that there have been some warm critical responses to The Beach Volcano. A few highlights:
‘In this tight, spare novella, Nigel Featherstone takes a well-tried narrative formula, the family union for a big occasion, and gives it a treatment both elegant and original. The wonderful symbol of the beach volcano – a banked fire under a mound of sand that will ‘erupt’ if you pour saltwater into its mouth – gathers import and power as the story progresses’ Sydney Morning Herald
‘Nigel Featherstone’s accomplished third novella, The Beach Volcano, takes as its point of departure Tasmania, as had its predecessors, I’m Ready Now and Fall on Me. There is a good deal to admire in The Beach Volcano, whose title metaphor points to a key element in the plot of the novel, as well as to a lost childhood time that, it seems, can only be destructively revived in the present. Mick Dark’s musical career is imagined in economical and vivid detail, Featherstone even managing the very difficult task of giving us a sense of how key songs were born, and might sound. The family dynamic – of pride, concealment, ambition – is persuasively presented, not least in the unconscionable burdens that each of the Alburys feels obliged to accept. Featherstone has once more exploited to advantage the taut, intense fictional range in which he works best’ Canberra Times
‘The great contradictions and betrayals of family life are the central concerns of Nigel Featherstone’s new novel, The Beach Volcano, and reading it we share some of the rawest emotions that surface in the swings between guilt and sanctimony that characterise relationships between parents, children and siblings. The Beach Volcano is as much a crime thriller as a domestic drama, and Featherstone’s third and final book in a series of what he calls novellas (but which seem so much more substantial and complete than that) stands alone as something quite original. There is a real sense of excitement as the story proceeds, a heightened suspense that is surprising in literary fiction. Featherstone’s skill as a writer seems to increase book by book, and this novel stands out as the absolute crowning achievement. Utterly enthralling’ Newtown Review of Books
‘The thing about Featherstone’s books is that there’s potential for high drama, or, to put it more crudely, for violence and/or death. But Featherstone is not a writer of crime or thrillers. He’s interested in family and human relationships, and so, while dramatic things happen, the drama never takes over the story. We to-and-fro between love and hate, welcome and aggression, as this family tries to keep conflict at bay, while threatened by a secret that they refuse to openly confront. Family secrets, gotta love them. Featherstone’s language is clear and evocative. The ‘beach volcano’ of the title works on both the literal level and as a metaphor for simmering tensions that threaten to erupt. In a way, this is a reworking of the prodigal son story, except that in this version the son returns as a success and is, perhaps, the one who extends the greatest generosity. It is about love and acceptance, but has the added theme of the need to face the past before you can truly progress into your future. In its measured way, quite the page-turner. A fitting conclusion to Featherstone’s novella set’ Whispering Gums
So. The Beach Volcano is out of my hands and off on its own adventures, doing whatever it is that it wants/needs. And this brings to an end the Launceston novellas. It’s been a fantastic ride. I honestly never expected – or even intended – for the entire series to be made public. I wrote these books initially for myself, for my own challenge and entertainment. Then the editing started, and the rewriting, and the polishing, and more of those skull pains. Of course, it’s been wonderful to see the books go on to do good things (and I do feel as though Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now are no longer mine, though I’m still far too close to The Beach Volcano to think about it in any rational way). After a bit of a lie-down – okay, it might end up a very lengthy lie-down, as in I might not surface for years – it’ll be time to turn my attention to new things. Like caring for my chooks for weeks on end. Or walking the Old Lady of the House. Or just sitting on my back step talking to the sparrows.
They’re a lot of fun, sparrows, don’t you reckon?
There are plenty of satisfying things to do. Walking the dog is one. Reading is another. Working in the vegetable garden. Helping a friend move house. Baking a cake. Listening to music. Finding your way through an unfamiliar city without a map. But there’s something I know that’s even more satisfying. It’s something that happens so rarely, at least in my humble abode, but I always look forward to it. When it’s done my body feels lighter, better, and my mind is settled and free. Come on, Featherstone, spit it out. What on earth are you talking about now?
I’m a jar cleaner, as in I like – love – cleaning a jar, getting it ready for re-use.
Perhaps the jar used to contain pasta sauce, or some kind of pesto. Maybe it had contained herbs or ginger or garlic. But once it’s been emptied the real fun begins. The scrubbing and cleaning so the glass is crystal clear and the lid as perfect as can be. Then the label must be removed. Usually the label itself comes off easily enough. How good it is to tear it away with a finger – it’s like removing old skin. But that sticky, stubborn glue residue: isn’t it awful, it barely budges. So, in the jar goes for a soak in warm soapy water, for an hour, for hours, for an entire day if necessary. Slowly but surely, perhaps with the aid of a knife, the glue residue is removed. And there it is: a new jar.
It’s an empty vessel, that’s what it is. How can it be used now? What will it hold? Perhaps that’s what all this is about: the future, hope, wishes and dreams. Might it also be about renewal? That we all believe so passionately in recycling, in minimising waste? The thing is, in my place, the jars are almost never refilled. They just sit on their shelf, a dozen in a row, waiting there like birds on a fence. To my mind, it’s actually about emptiness, about emptying out, about not holding on, or not filling up. When we’re empty – of expectation, of busyness, of desire – we are open to everything that might come our way. When we’re empty we can feel that lightness of being that novelist Milan Kundera called ‘unbearable’.
When we’re empty we’re no one. We’re back at the beginning.
And there’s no better place than the beginning.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 13 September 2014.)
It’s strange what bubbles to the surface while walking the dog, or perhaps it’s not that strange at all. Regardless, what bubbled to the surface this week while walking the Old Lady of the House (who, like her walker, is aging at a rate of knots) is that this is my 20th year as a committed, daily writer. Thank you, thank you, thank you – your applause is very kind. So there’s a nice symmetry, if that’s the right word, to The Beach Volcano being published this year. What will happen now? How will the next 20 years be? Will there indeed be another 20 years of writing? Sometimes – often – I simply can’t imagine that being the case. What I know for certain is that it’s very, very unlikely that I’ll write another series of three novellas. I adore the novella form, as is probably obvious, but it’s time to work in a new way. On a personal level, it seems like one chapter is closing and another one is opening – maybe. So, if you’re so inclined, it’d be great to have you at the launch of The Beach Volcano and help celebrate not only this third and final novella, but also that…I’m getting incredibly old. Plus you’d get to hear from Distinguished Professor Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Practice at the University of Canberra (amongst many other things). I mentioned all this to Millie during our walk earlier this week. Being a very loving and patient dog, she wagged her tail, but I could that she wasn’t terribly interested. I think she just knows – really knows – that her greatest contribution to my life is taking me for a walk. Which is more than enough, surely.
For two days I visited newsagents but came away empty-handed every time. On the third day, however, there they were, a whole bunch of them stacked up high on the shelves. I grabbed one, grabbed another. Paid my money, got on my way. But only a dozen or so steps outside the shop I stopped. Flicked through the pages in my hands. A story on a musical response to a selection of Arthur Boyd paintings. A story on comedian Bill Bailey finding happiness. Gorgeous photographs of a gorgeous house, and fine text about the house’s design and construction. A boutique, biodynamic winery.
And then, there it was, my story, a piece of fiction – amongst all this.
There are three things that I love about ‘Come with me (to another world)’ being published in issue 66 of Capital Magazine. First, it’s a story that was in response to ‘Paths through the Forest’, an exhibition at M16 Art Space in Canberra in 2013 curated by Julie Bradley and Ann McMahon. I was asked to prepare a piece that responded to the art work in whatever way I felt was appropriate and ‘Come with me’…well…came into the world. Second, I adore the idea of fiction finding a way to readers through different means – quite frankly, as many means as possible. I love the thought that someone may pick up a copy of Capital to be inspired by beautiful architecture but come away being inspired by beautiful prose too (hopefully).
Perhaps, however, the main reason I love this whole thing so much is the accompanying illustration. It’s by Matt Adams, an award-wining artist and illustrator who’s worked for Fairfax Media and Mad Australia, and in 2006 won a Bald Archy for his portrait of John Olsen. It’s extraordinary to have your work interpreted by a visual artist (especially considering the story was originally inspired by a carefully curated selection of visual art). What elements will the artist explore? How will the themes be interpreted and communicated? What new layers will be revealed?
In short, it’s a visually literate way of seeing inside a reader’s mind.
Matt’s illustration for ‘Come with me (to another world)’ blows my brain. Almost literally: it’s almost too much too bear. A young man in T-shirt and pyjama bottoms. An axe. A chook coop. A chook on its side – it’s fallen, hasn’t it. A gate. A fence. A lemon tree. The corner of a Hill’s Hoist, a white handkerchief flapping freely in the breeze. But let’s go back to that young man: he’s not fully present, he’s faded – is he coming or going? It’s all so domestic, backyard, but oh so very dark. One day I’d love to see this art work on a wall in a gallery. Because, I think, it’s that good. But also to see what life it takes on. It’s as if the whole project has been about passing a kind of baton: from visual artist to me to visual artist to readers to…?
Huge thanks to Capital editor Gillian Lord for taking a risk on ‘Come with me’.
And huge thanks to Matt Adams for taking the story into another world.
To purchase this issue of Capital head into your favourite newsagent, or check out the magazine’s website.
So, it had happened again. I’d been blissfully scouring the shelves of a second-hand bookshop when the shop-keeper, a wren-like woman in her sixties with wild blonde hair and wearing black leather pants, did it, she asked her question. ‘What do you do for a living?’
It wasn’t as if she’d said, ‘Do you mind if I get nude?’ or ‘Why is it you have a face like a burns victim?’ She simply wanted to know how I earned a crust.
I moved in closer against the shelves in an effort to show that I was terribly busy trying to decide how to spend my money in her shop. But I had to be polite. I said, ‘I’m a…the best way to…journalist… fiction… stuff.’
My response was pathetic, awful, almost downright disrespectful. Why was it so hard to tell this gregarious woman what I do?
There’s no doubt that most people with a creative practice have been in a similar situation. And, I think, it all comes down to two key things: understanding and value. It’s true that the only person who understands what it’s like to try to write a decent story or column (let’s not even go near novellas or novels) is the person who’s trying to chose the right words and put them in the right order. Do I know what it’s like to be in a band, to write a song, to get it to sit up and swagger, to play the thing in front of a hundred drunken patrons? Nope, no idea. The visual arts? I love them, especially photomedia and assemblage, but do I understand what it takes to create a drawing or painting or a piece of public art? Nuh. And the performers – the dancers and choreographers. I admire them, I’m inspired by them, but I could never truly understand the work they do. Let’s face it, artists are the freaks of the Australian workforce.
That second key to all this: value.
How do we value what we do when we barely understand it ourselves? Recently I’ve been listening to Gossling’s Harvest of Gold. Because it’s an absolute cracker. How much work has gone into every chorus and verse and bridge, every sound, every layer – it’s meticulously crafted. How much blood, sweat and tears have been invested in something that many – thousands with any luck, hundreds of thousands – are enjoying. And maybe some are even being moved by it. Is this album really worth just $20, the cost of a laksa and a flat white? No. It’s worth more, so much more.
All creative practice, every single artistic endeavour, be it big or small, successful or unsuccessful, public or private, is worth an infinitesimal amount. How do we communicate that? How do we make politicians take notice and take action, particularly in these increasingly threadbare times?
Perhaps it all comes down to confidence.
Perhaps I should have said to that shop-keeper, ‘I’m a writer. Some of it is fact, some of it is fiction, and, Christ, I’d be dead without it.’
(First published in BMA Magazine on 30 July 2014.)