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Writers make good jugglers. There’s the juggling of time to write and time to earn money and time for family and friends and time for your own mental health, which being a writer is more than likely quite precarious. There’s the juggling of ideas: fine ones, not so fine ones, appalling ones. There’s the juggling of character and plot and point. There’s the juggling of words, getting them all exactly where they need to be so that magic is the result. Oh my, I’m exhausted already. But we’re not done yet. There’s the juggling of writing fiction and non-fiction and poetry. In terms of fiction alone, there’s the juggling of the writing of novels and novellas and short stories and micro-stories, and, those slipperiest of beasts, prose-poems. It’s enough to make you want to chuck it all in and become something simple, like a duck-farmer, or a grower of daffodils.
For some reason, after twenty years, I haven’t yet chucked it all in, although I do think about it every second day, every single day if things aren’t going well, which is usually the case, if I’m honest with myself, and honest with you. I began my writing life, as in with seriousness and an almost religious sense of purpose, in my early twenties as – drumroll please – a poet. I wrote a poem, miraculously it was published, so I wrote another, and miraculously that, too, was published. Remembering that I loved reading short stories as a boy, I wrote a story, which was short-listed for publication; that it didn’t end up in print wasn’t the point – I was hooked again by words and their meaning, and by play, and by dream.
Wait, there’s more
Since 1994 I’ve had over 40 short stories published, including in literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and Island, and in the USA. In 2003 my novel Remnants was published by Pandanus Books. In 2011 and 2012 respectively, my novellas Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now were published by Blemish Books. Okay, now I’m just boasting. Wait, there’s more. Wanting to expand my readership, and add another string to my bow, in 2007 I began doing freelance work for the Canberra Times, primarily for the paper’s weekend magazine Panorama and its First Words column (along with Marion Halligan), as well as feature articles. Clearly not having enough to do, in 2009 I started this blog, ridiculously named Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot, which was selected for archiving by the National Library of Australia. I still write a post for the blog every Saturday morning.
Despite now working across these different modes, my mission hasn’t changed: I’m still just playing with words and their meanings. No matter what form there’s nothing like crafting and re-crafting until a piece hangs together, everything in its right place, it all makes sense; with any luck it might engage readers, perhaps – with an extra dose of luck – it might even move readers.
Ever since early 2010, when I spent a month in Launceston as a writer-in-residence courtesy of the City Council (as written about on this blog ad nauseam), I’ve written everything by hand. My handwriting is truly appalling, which, oddly, helps – I’m forced to slow down, to think about every mark on the page, but I’m also forced to follow my head and heart and gut. When writing like this is both mental and physical work, you want it to be worthwhile in the end – for yourself and the reader. These days, everything, even blog-posts, even articles for the local writers centre magazine, is first written with pen and pad. Because it’s better this way: there’s more life.
A decent dose of honesty
There are, however, subtle differences between the various forms of prose. Short stories, of course, are a cousin of poetry, so every word has to do more than one job. In the writing of a novel there’s greater opportunity for exploration and multi-layering and depth (and that awful flipside of getting tangled up and lost). Novellas are an especially peculiar creature: neither a short story nor a novel, they have their own prospects and hurdles; but in some ways I feel that this in-between mode is my natural home, because I’m an in-between kind of guy in an in-between stage of my life. Writing for newspapers requires turning down the literary fireworks and turning up general accessibility, although I still like strong characters, some kind of plot, a decent dose of honesty, and perhaps the odd writerly trick to create a spark – there’s nothing like an email from a reader saying that my work brings freshness to the newspaper. And there’s the writing of blog-posts, which can be more a terrific whoosh of words, maybe even something experimental (why not?), but still I like to make sure it’s as fine as possible.
A writer must have wine
One side of all this that I’ve become better at over the years is choosing the best form for an idea. Is there enough in it for a short story? Or perhaps there’s a lot in it and could run the marathon length of a novel? Or perhaps a novella might rein it in? In terms of creative non-fiction (which is my euphemism for journalism, because I really have no idea what I’m doing), is it something for the First Words column or a feature or an opinion piece – where in the newspaper might it belong? Blogging is interesting, too. When I first started Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot I committed to never self-publishing fiction on the thing, and I’ve held to that commitment, so it’s a place for everything but fiction. Except there’s something else about blogging: every so often, if I try harder, I can get the piece up a notch or two so that it can first be published by a journal that pays. Because, quite frankly, I need the money – a writer must have wine.
Writing is writing is writing
Despite all these years of juggling and practice and more juggling, writing is still about play – playing with words and their meanings – and dreams – dreaming up characters and predicaments, or imagining a non-fiction piece into existence and making a contribution to the broader cultural discussion. Scottish comedian Billy Connelly once famously said that ‘funny is funny is funny’. Perhaps I can echo Connelly by somewhat less famously saying that writing is writing is writing.
First published in ACTWrite, the monthly journal of the ACT Writers Centre (August 2013).
I’m surrounded by fire, year in and year out, day in and day out.
I’m not a smoker, nor am I some kind of professional fire-breather, I just live in an old house in an old country town. In summer, with bushland and paddocks just up the street, there’s the forever whiff of smoke; some days, when it’s bad, the sky is white with it, sirens rushing in this and that direction. In winter, to keep the house warm, there’s a fire in the living-room, another in the library, which really is a library, the shelves stacked and packed with books, novels mostly, though there are quite a few short story collections, and poetry collections too.
It’s the library I worry about the most, because the fire, which is actually a Hordern and Sons coal-burner that I use for wood, is surrounded by the books – a stray spark and whoosh up it all goes. So I’ve organised the books into categories: up high, as if I’m also worried about flood (in the past three years the river has flooded annually, though I’m alright in this regard – my house is high on a hill), are my favourite novels, the ones I’d risk life and limb to rescue. There’s a full shelf of these favourites, so if I really was in the midst of an emergency and only had a few seconds to decide I’d have to make the choices of a lifetime. As a trial run, as if this is a part of my Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan, I just ran from my writing room into the library and bundled up a baker’s – a writer’s – dozen.
Now, back in the writing room, piled on the desk, are thirteen books I’ve rescued in this mad drill…
Keep reading over at the Universal Heart Bookclub. Many thanks to Walter Mason and Stephanie Dowrick.
So odd. I’d not heard anything like it for decades. But there it was, as it unmistakably left my lips and hung in the air. A whistle, yes, a whistle, complete with shrilly vibrato, as though it had emerged from one of those content old men who can knock out any melody at the drop of a hat.
How on Earth did it happen?
It was last Sunday morning. I was sitting at the dining-room table, beside me a good coffee half drunk, in front the laptop whirring away as I did something easy on the screen. Playing on the stereo in the background was a CD I hadn’t listened to for years. Bearing the Bell: the Hymns of Thomas Tallis by Sydney-based jazz saxophonist Andrew Robson.
Let me say that I’m not fond of jazz. I don’t even like the look of the word (it looks almost obscene). And I don’t like a thing about the saxophone – Kenny G’s got a lot to answer for. But I bought Bearing the Bell after reading a review of it in the newspaper. What originally intrigued me was the way Robson so irresistibly abstracts his selection of sixteen-century ‘tunes’, which are the basis for many Christian hymns. It’s delicious music.
These days I don’t have a religious breath in my chest, but the majority of my first eighteen years were spent at an all-boys Anglican school on Sydney’s North Shore, one where weekly attendance at chapel was compulsory, and taken very seriously – by most students. If there was one thing I loved about chapel it was singing the hymns, especially the ones where Tallis was the source.
The hymns were unfathomably beautiful. The harmonies. The passing notes. The big, glorious, skin-tightening finishes. Now I think about it, what a strange act it was to bellow out lines such as ‘When in the slippery paths of youth/with heedless steps I ran/thine arm unseen conveyed me safe/and led me up to man’ (from “When All Thy Mercies, O My God”).
Who knows what these words really mean.
All I know is that listening to Robson’s imaginative take on Tallis last Sunday morning made me whistle. The whistle was brief, really just half a dozen notes, but in that moment I felt happier than I have in decades. As if I was nothing more than a teenager again and walking the cool corridors of school.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 10 August 2013.)
Overhead the plover,
Like the moon apart,
Tells his lonely knowledge,
Of the human heart.
– from ‘Town Planning’ by David Campbell
At the bottom of the world, in a country of white-sand edges and a heart of red dust, halfway between a glittery tart called Sydney and Melbourne’s rash of football scarves, is a city, a capital city, a place dreamed up over a century ago to be the ideal. Canberra: founded on landscape and democracy, geometry and axis. And smack-bang in the middle of this dream city, at the end of a grand spine, is a hill. Not a mountain or a temple, just a simple pimple of a hill.
It’s not a big place, just a few hectares rising up to a hump, all of it planted out with tree species imported from other lands, thick green grass as if supporting a dairy, vacant park benches scattered here and there. But encircled by a busy double-lane road, this hill is more an island. A secret island, and very few people cross over; you can’t see what’s inside. A grotto, a moated castle, a place for ghosts and hunchbacks, except bells don’t ring out from here – City Hill is gagged.
This isn’t how it was meant to be.
Walter Burley Griffin, the architect/landscape architect/town planner/ dreamer/mystic/sharman who gave us the original idea for Canberra (before it was stymied by a sceptical, Europe-obsessed federal public service) described City Hill – or, as he named it, ‘Civic Place’ – as an ‘eminence’. What a great word! Distinction, recognised superiority. A piece of rising ground. Eminent: exalted, great, famous, celebrated. I don’t know about you but I’m conjuring witch doctors and cardinals, and there’s applause that could go on for hours.
But in 2013 how is City Hill actually used?
If you ever want to get clues about a place, do what good pulp-fiction detectives do – ferret around rubbish bins. And this is what you would find on our Hill: empty booze bottles, spent condoms. That’s it.
Despite all the planning that’s gone into Canberra (it’s been sketched to within an inch of its life, you might say), despite the desires to make this particular spot on our fragile little planet a place of enduring symbolism and meaning, City Hill is nothing more than a forested mound ringed by a raging torrent of cars driven by people with malls to visit and fastfood to buy. A place no one goes except some time between midnight and dawn, for people who’ve trawled through Civic and scored and are now ready for the payoff. A place for the losers who just want to forget their heart’s ‘lonely knowledge’, as Campbell puts it. And it’s a place for the others who haven’t a skerrick and will spend sub-zero nights sleeping beneath pencil pines, tick-ridden possums for company.
Novelist Miles Franklin paid tribute to her good friend Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marian Mahoney Griffin – possibly the brains of the duo – in a piece that appeared in the Bulletin in 1937:
Never, they felt, had there been a better opportunity to create anew, free from the debris of old mistakes and the shackles of dead tradition, than in this wonderland with its forward-looking and independently-minded democracy.
Franklin might have been impressed with Canberra (you would have been if you spent a childhood looking at it from the hazy blue heights of the Brindabellas and then racking off overseas), but City Hill in real life is just a mirror. Perhaps it proves that if our efforts to plan and design don’t result in the creation of great places, we will fill our world with ordinariness. Because at the core of our lives, at the centre of our communal existence, is mystery. And we try to medicate our frustrations at this mystery with the most ignoble of acts.
City Hill hasn’t become what the Griffins dreamt. No, not yet.
But it could be a wonderland, an ideal – it could have unending eminence.
 Walter Burley Griffin, New York Times, 2 June 1912
 National Capital Authority, The Griffin Legacy – Canberra, the Nation’s Capital in the 21st Century, Canberra, 2004, p66
 Ibid., p. 30
David Campbell’s ‘Town Planning’ can be found in David Campbell: Selected Poems, Angus and Robertson, 1978