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Can good things happen in a pandemic? Apparently.

It’s lovely to be able to announce that, along with wonderful Australian novelists Robyn Cadwallader and Julie Keys, I’m heading to northern New South Wales as part of the inaugural Write North Writers’ Group Residency.

The residency, which is a special initiative of the Byron Writers Festival and Create NSW, will give us space and time to write under the direction of eminent novelist Charlotte Wood. I’ve long-admired Wood’s work and her internationally successful The Natural Way of Things quite literally changed the way I look at the world. Her latest novel, The Weekend, about ageing and friendship, also affected me greatly.

Charlotte Wood

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been selected for a handful of residencies over the years – Varuna, Bundanon, and the Australian Defence Force Academy at UNSW Canberra – and they tend to have a significant impact on how I work. Indeed, it’s usually the case that I don’t fully understand the impact until some years down the track.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about ‘going away’ to write is that what I expect is rarely what I get, but what I get is just as valuable, usually more so. Perhaps the greatest benefit is the way a different place enables me to see my work in a different way; perhaps the place can even have an impact on how – and perhaps even why – I’m writing.

You would think by now that I would know what I’m doing, but I really don’t. Perhaps I do have a couple of tools in my writing tool-box, but I could always do with more. A lot more. And then there’s the fact (and I really do think it may be exactly that: a fact) that the writing process is largely mysterious. What makes one piece of writing feel more alive than another? The author’s motive probably has something to do with it; the rest is more or less beyond me.

Of course, with this residency, it will be wonderful spending time with two friends – Julie and Robyn – who are also writers of novels, all three of which – The Artist’s Portrait, The Anchoress, and Book of Colours – I’ve adored. And then, there will be Charlotte Wood encouraging us to take risks, to write differently, to challenge ourselves, and, perhaps to challenge each other. She also sent us an email: Be prepared to work hard. Roger that.

If I’m allowed one expectation for this particular experience, what might it be?

To get just a little better.

after Mary Oliver

 

The only way to write a story is to put a word down on a page, then another word, then another, until a sentence appears.

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A good sentence is clear and precise; it can also have hidden depths.

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It takes time and effort, and perhaps a little heartbreak, to make a sentence sit up and sing, or put a hand on your shoulder, or stare at you in the face.

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There is a difference between wanting to write a book and needing to tell a story: one is a product; the other is a great desire to explore, record, and communicate.

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The first draft can be like an archaeological dig: clear away the dirt until you find the evidence of story. If you find nothing that makes your blood pump faster, try digging somewhere else.

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Compare yourself to no one.

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Today there are 7.7 billion stories and 7.7 billion ways of telling them.

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As well as being an act of the mind, writing is an act of the body. Take note of your chest and heart, your gut, your arms and fingers, your legs, your crotch. When all of you is at work, your sentences will have more energy.

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If your writing is giving you a physical reaction – goosebumps say – it is possible that your readers will have the same or a similar response.

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When you put fingers to a keyboard, you type; when you write with a pen on a piece of paper, you compose.

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Prose is not poetry, though both are cousins of music.

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Allow life to rise from the page.

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Read more than you write.

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Put a moat around your writing time, pull up the drawbridge, and guard it with the biggest sling-shot you can find. That also goes for your reading time.

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Average writing can become good writing after it has been put aside to ferment.

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Sometimes the best writing happens when your conscious brain is switched off, for example when you’re walking your dog, or when dreaming.

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When something good happens with your writing practice, you have 24 hours to celebrate: drink champagne, eat French Camembert, dance naked to terrible pop music in the lounge-room – but then you have to keep going. When something bad happens with your writing practice, you have 24 hours to commiserate: drink whiskey, kick furniture, cry – but then you have to keep going.

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The writer at a dinner party who tells you all about his novel-in-progress will never write a novel.

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Confidence is a trickster.

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Doubt is a loyal friend and is more helpful than you may realise.

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There are no wrong steps. What feels like a wrong step now will reveal itself to be the right step further down the track.

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Listen to feedback but make your own decisions.

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Moving forward can come down to a brave choice and a safe choice. It is likely that the brave choice will be right.

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Whenever you don’t know how to proceed, play.

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A child telling a story is always a master of narrative technique.

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To edit a story, take it to an unfamiliar place – literally. It could be a library you don’t normally use, or a pub, or the coldest room you can find. Wherever you go, it should irritate you; watch as you slash your work with a red pen.

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Read your work aloud. If you find yourself wondering whether or not you should have a coffee or a green tea, you may have detected a weakness.

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It you are worried that a potential reader will think you are mad, you’re probably heading in an interesting direction.

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Give all yourself to the telling of your story: think about it day and night, week after week, month after month, year after year – care about the details.

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The story you are telling now may be your last.

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Finish all stories.

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Publication is the fullstop at the end of the sentence.

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For the stories that find a home, it was always impossible to predict where that home was going to be.

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Accept invitations that make you feel as though you’re going to faint.

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It is better to make art that no one sees than to not have made the art.

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Success is 10% talent, 20% luck, 50% hard work. No one knows what makes up the remaining 20%.

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Financial reward for your writing should be non-negotiable.

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Help the writing community grow and it will grow around you: attend a book launch, send a congratulatory tweet – whatever is your way.

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If you love another writer’s story, share your thoughts.

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Be easy on yourself. Rest.

*

First published in BITE 2019, as commissioned by ACT Writers.

The world is sick. It is easy to think that when the COVID-19 death ‘tally’ increases every day and reports suggest that as much as a third of the global population is currently living in some form of lock-down.

Here in Australia we are experiencing unprecedented limitations on how we can move about and who we can see. Some of us are lucky to be in a long-term relationship and intimacy is only a look or a joke away. Others are having a much more challenging time: not being able to see who they want, when they want, how they want, and why they want. Has love become even harder?

This week, while eating a homemade omelette for lunch (packed with mushrooms and feta), I decided to take my mind off the current troubles by watching a short film in which French philosopher Alain Badiou spoke about love being ‘a risky adventure’. Towards the end of the film, Badiou said two things that resonated with me: ‘Love creates a perspective and an existence in the world from the point of view of two, not one’, which he described as a ‘revolutionary act’; and, evidently paraphrasing Spinoza, ‘All that is true and rare are difficult’, which is a statement that reached right into my belly.

All that is true and rare are difficult.

Yes, that is love: wonderful, beautiful, messy, contradictory, infuriating, exciting, banal; and, in this challenging and sometimes unbearably heavy year, necessary.

Love is the domain of philosophy; it is also the domain of novelists and poets. There was a time, during my childhood and adolescence, when instructions on love came from a man in a black frock who was armed with a bible and a hymn book. Thankfully, these days my shelves are packed (ever more chaotically) with much better books.

Although I do not seek it out with any kind of fervour, gay literature is well-represented on my shelves, particularly gay novels. These works have provided me with experience, understanding, solace, antagonism, confusion, and, in the end, profound contentment. I never found profound contentment in nightclubs or tennis clubs or dinner parties, darling. I found profound contentment in novels, where the gay experience could shift and buckle and expand and explode; where it could be both ordinary and wondrous, and spectacularly alive.

The following are some novels that have indeed felt spectacularly alive.

*

Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which published this piece on 18 April 2020.

Despite the world having serious wobbles at the moment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (though thankfully, miraculously, Australia appears to be faring much better than many other countries), some good things continue to happen.

BODIES OF MEN is still doing its humble little thing: finding readers here and there; it’s such a joy to receive messages from folk saying that they have enjoyed the novel. In rather lovely news, for the month of April Amazon has the e-book version on special for $2.99. If you’re a Kindle user and would like an affordable way of reading the novel, now is your chance! Also please do help to spread the word – it’s autumn in Australia so the chooks have gone off the lay, which means more trips to Woolies, which means I need to have a few coins rattling around my pockets.

In related news, like many writers I have lost a number of gigs due to The Virus, but at least one is still going ahead, albeit online: a panel organised by the Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, Writing War, which features Melanie Myers, Simon Cleary and your old Goulburn mate and facilitation by Cass Moriarty, will be held via Zoom at 6pm (Queensland time) on Monday 20 April. Tickets are just $5 and can be bought here. It would be terrific to see you.

Moving from the page to the stage: my new play – with songs – has been selected for a creative development through the First Seen program, which is an initiative of The Street Theatre in Canberra. Last month I had the opportunity to spend two days at The Street doing a preliminary creative development with dramaturge Anne-Louise Rentell, which was such a productive experience. First Seen will offer an even deeper experience and involve a range of creative voices exploring and challenging the work. While usually this would happen over an intense 7-day period in the theatre’s rehearsal space, due to COVID-19 the sessions will be over Zoom and spread across 2 weeks in May.

The text for the work is still very much a work-in-progress, but here is a sample from one of the songs:

Who is he,

the man who dares to himself himself

‘father’?

 

He is my

he is your

crumbling wall

What I find (sometimes almost overwhelmingly) fascinating about writing for the stage is being able to access input from so many creatives, all with their different perspectives and requirements. In a way, there’s no way of knowing what will emerge, but, to be frank, it’s exciting.

To end: during the week I posted on my socials a photograph of me from when I was about 5 years old; it’s at the top of this post. Although I said online that the photo was taken in my backyard, I was actually at a holiday house my family used to rent at Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains, to the west of Sydney. Throughout my childhood we spent many holidays at Mount Wilson and I adored it; I still think about the place. And write about it. A lot. My first novel, REMNANTS (Pandanus Books, 2005, largely out of print but information is available here), was set at Mount Wilson, a significant chunk of BODIES OF MEN involves Mount Wilson, and a recent memoir essay I wrote for the special Australian Issue of the CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW explored my ongoing association with the place, including an event that has continued to resonate. (You might be pleased to know that new projects have moved ‘off mountain’.)

The caption I used for the photo when posted online was ‘One minute you’re a happy little kid playing theatre in the backyard; the next you’re a gloomy bloody author. Either way, buy a copy of the BODIES OF MEN e-book and cheer this old bugger up?’

Perhaps I’ll end this post by simply saying: if you’ve ever bought a copy of one of my books, or you’ve come to one of my shows or events, if you’ve commented here or on the socials, thank you.

Very much.

Snowfalls. Orange skies. Face-masks. Raging flames. Ash on the letterbox. Hail the size of apples. Half a billion animals gone. Dead trees. Lives lost. Floods.

It was the Summer from Hell in Australia.

And now the daffodils are coming up. In March. As they say in polite society: what the fuck?

Still, writing manages to happen.

Firstly, I was chuffed to have been asked to write a piece for the special Australian Issue of the CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW, which is now out. I wrote about my childhood in the Blue Mountains, Patrick White, and one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made.

The opening paragraph:

I stood on the edge of the lane and stared at the black house, at the old concrete water tank, at the lawn stones that might have been foundations. Some minutes later, after deciding that as it was midweek and the house likely a weekender, I took a step, then another— until I was standing in the garden, in the very place where my bedroom had once been. I stretched out my arms as if to touch the missing walls and said, “This is where it happened.”

Such an honour to share the pages with writers such as Claire G Coleman, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Krissy Kneen, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Behrouz Boochani, Van Badham, David Malouf, Kim Mahood, Simon Cleary, Quinn Eades, and Inga Simpson among many others.

While writing for the page continues to be my focus, writing for the stage is something I’m doing more and more, even though I never intended to go in this direction. Ah, the twists and turns in the writing life.

So, it was rather exciting to be informed recently that three of my songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT will be performed in November this year at Carnegie Hall’s Recital Hall in New York by international baritone David Wakeham.

To be frank, this is rather special: the song cycle, the score for which was written by the amazing James Humberstone, is about a high-raking Australian soldier who returns from his latest tour of Afghanistan with a dark secret; all he wants to do is heal on his family’s grazing property on the Southern Tablelands – what he doesn’t know is that his family have a dark secret of their own.

To have elements of the work performed in the US? Mind-blowing.

Finally, earlier this month I spent two days at The Street Theatre in Canberra. Three songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT may well be off to New York, but I have a new work for the stage in the very early phase of development i.e. crappy words on bits of paper.

Is it another song cycle? Perhaps it’s more of a play with songs?

Thanks to some lovely funding from Create NSW, I was able to spend two days with Wollongong-based dramaturge Anne-Louise Rentell. Together we talked about big ideas and then we tore the draft into small pieces and started putting it back together.

Not all the words are coming together yet, but here are a few:

A boat, I see

an empty boat blown by the wind

to the shore

 

of a lake filled to the brim

with life-giving water

that’s no more, like three boys

 

They drowned, they said,

and I believed them

Is the script in a better shape now? Yes. What’s the next step? Who knows. But I do love being in the creative space, both physically and mentally.

Thanks again to Create NSW for the opportunity, The Street Theatre for hosting these preliminary creative-development sessions, Anne-Louise Rentell for pushing me into some uncomfortable terrain (almost literally), David Sharpe for joining the dots, and Paul Scott-Williams from the Hume Conservatorium, who, by commissioning me all those years ago to write the libretto for what became THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, sent me in this exciting direction.

Perhaps if humanity survives long enough there might be a new work on the stage before long?

Quite honestly, who knows.

Who knows.

 

In winter you are covered from head to toe. Grey beanie; brown-striped woollen jumper that was knitted by your mother when you were a teenager; long-sleeved black sloppy-joe over black thermal top; blue thermal longs beneath blue tracksuit pants; red woollen socks from the shop in Crookwell; and Ugg-boots, of course. You spend those dark days in your writing room with a bar heater beside you, your right hand hovering over the bars. As the hours progress the room does get warmer, but the rest of the house, a worker’s cottage dating from 1895, does not. If you are lucky, the fog burns off by lunchtime and there is a bright blue sky, at which you will gaze longingly while eating an omelette.

At 4pm off go the jumper, tracksuit pants and Ugg-boots, and on go a pair of grey tracksuit pants, a grey hooded top, black sports socks, and running shoes (if that is what they are called). You leave the house and get on your way, past the little cottages the same as yours, all the corrugated iron roofs rusting, past the newer, bigger houses on their manicured blocks, until you reach the edge of town and the twin water-tanks there with the view across the paddocks to the low ranges to the west, wind-turbines turning in the distance.

There’s hope in those turbines, you think.

Then – in September, October, November? – the outfit changes.

*

Keep reading in the Sydney Morning Herald, which commissioned this piece and published it on 31 August 2019.

It was not the call I had ever imagined I would receive at 6:00 am on Christmas Day. At the other end of the line was the overnight nurse at my mother’s aged care facility. ‘We want to let you know that Rosemary is expected to pass away within the next few hours, so if you’d like to say goodbye you should make the necessary arrangements.’

I said thank you and hung up.

I lived 160 kilometres away, and we were in the middle of a heatwave, and I had visited my mother the previous day, but I knew what had to be done. I apologised to my partner Tim, who had spent days preparing lunch. He offered to drive me. I said I was fine—I’d pick up my middle brother on the way.

But as I drove, my chest began to feel as though it was filled with a jittery kind of air; my legs became as heavy as stone.

I should have turned around.

Two hours later we found our mother in the room, the curtains drawn. She was lying on a bed low to the ground, the mattress thin as if for camping, a mat on each side in case she rolled out. She couldn’t roll anywhere. She could barely move. She could barely breathe. Her eyes were closed, and every few minutes we heard the throaty rattle that everyone says is true. A vein on her neck pulsed frantically. Her head was turned to one side, her mouth wide open and forming an O, as if desperate for oxygen. Her hands—the brittle bones, the purple-black skin—gripped the sheets. Her legs were raised, almost as though she had been sitting in a chair and then become frozen before they put her back on the bed.

My brother checked her feet.

‘They’re cold,’ he said.

*

Keep reading at 3:AM Magazine, which published this essay on 3 June 2019.

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