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What to do when things get busy?  Well, ramp things up and get crazy-busy of course.

Not satisfied with all the things I currently have going in my life, over the last few months I’ve been collaborating with Melbourne writer Alec Patric on something we both hope will be pretty bloody special – an on-line creative arts/literary journal.  Whilst format-wise there are still a few things to iron out we’re throwing caution to the wind and as of today getting it out there.  We’re planting a seed, and seeing what takes hold.

The name of this something pretty bloody special?  Drum-roll please.

Verity La.

It’s named after a hidden back-alley in the small Australian city where the journal was born.  We’re looking for the truth, and reality, and actuality, whatever these things mean.

We’re publishing short fiction and poetry, cultural comment, photomedia, and review.  What’s the point of difference?  Bravery.  Yes, bravery.  Courage, daring, pluck and nerve are all essential in the Verity La neck of the woods.  We’ve produced a place for creative risk-taking, freedom, and – above all else – being no one but yourself.

We’re interested in new voices, different voices, progressive voices; we like writing that gets you in the head as well as the gut, that has a point, that isn’t afraid.  Whether it’s fiction, poetry, comment or review, we want high-quality text, and by ‘high-quality’ we mean thoughtfully composed, a focus on words, words with impact.

Verity La publishes in the following streams:

  • ‘Lies To Live By’: Short fiction to 1,000 words.
  • ‘Heightened Talk”: Poetry with gumption.  Alec has kicked things off with a blistering poem called ‘What We’ve Done’.  Do have a read – it’s here.
  • ‘VL’: Cultural comment to 1,500 words.
  • ‘More Than Opinion’: Reviews of literature and contemporary music to 500 words.   Principles for submissions of reviews: accuracy, respect, truth.  We’re looking for high-quality text, hence the whole ‘more than opinion’ thing.
  • ‘Catching Light’: stills only.  Hint: Polaroid pics are particularly hot property on Verity La.
  • ‘The Melbourne Review Interviews’: interviews with writers and other artists.

Submission guidelines can be found here.

So…charge your glasses and join us in sending Verity La into the world!

In Tasmania recently I gave a series of workshops on writing about place.  Doing the workshops was a joy, quite frankly – I’ve taught in the university context before but I’d not previously given writing workshops to the broader community.  After each session I’d return to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage where I was staying, shove in a pair of mp3-player headphones into my ears (that month I was on a steady aural diet of Frightened Rabbit, The XX, Four Tet, Sigur Ros, and Phil Retrospector) and then walk for hours along the Tamar River with a real bounce in my step and smile on my face.

To provide a bit of inspiration for ways of thinking about place I put together a series of quotes and prepared them as a hand-out.  I reckon I’ve been thinking about place since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and it’s one of those elements of living that really turns my crank (check out those delicious mixed metaphors!).  I thought I’d share the list of quotes with you.  You’ll notice that a bloke called Edward Relph gets quite mention.  A specialist in human geography, Relph is one of the legends amongst ‘place thinkers’, and his Place and Placelessness text is a real cracker.

Do feel free to add to the list as you see fit.

***

‘To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have and know your place.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘A key test of sense of place rests with the degree to which a place in its physical form and the activities it facilitates reflects the culture who use it.’  (Francis Violich, Towards Revealing the Sense of Place, 1985)

‘We are not connected to the land, we are not connected to God, we are not really connected to one another.  You can’t keep severing all these connections, leaving people to float around without a sense of history, without a sense of story.  I think it leads to psychosis and I do wonder whether there isn’t a collective nervous breakdown.’  (Jeanette Winterson, as quoted by Helen Trinca in ‘A Particular Kind of Woman’, an article published in The Australian Magazine, July 25, 1994)’

‘The meaning of places may be routed in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘To have a sense of place is not to own, but rather to be owned by the places we inhabit; it is to ‘own up’ to the complexity and mutuality of both place and human being.’  (Jeff Malpas, from his article ‘Place and Human Being’, published in Making Sense of Place: Exploring Concepts and Expressions of Place Through Different Senses and Lenses, 2008)

‘A deep human need exists for associations with significant places.  If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter.  If, on the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience.  Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are possibilities, is far from certain.  But one thing at least is clear – whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘The crucial point about the connection between place and experience is not… that place is properly something only encountered ‘in’ experience, but rather that place is integral to the very structure and possibility of experience.’  (Jeff Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, 1999)

‘The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines place as profound centres of human existence.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘Place identity is closely linked to personal identity. ‘I am’ is supported by ‘I am here’.’  (Kevin Lynch, A Theory of Good City Form, 1985)

The following feature article was first published in The Canberra Times on 10 April 2010.  Many, many thanks to the following Australian author-bloggers who generously participated in the story: James Bradley, Sophie Cunningham, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Alec Patric and Charlotte Wood.  Thanks also to Canberra Times Features Editor, Gillian Lord.

Apparently it happens to most of us at some stage.  You’re happily travelling through life, getting all the pragmatic stuff done while trying to hold on to one or two dreams, maybe even achieving a dream when the stars align, but then, to everyone’s surprise, including your own, you go to bed very late one night realising that you’ve become…a blogger. I didn’t mean this to happen; this wasn’t one of my dreams.  Like a sworn TV-naysayer suddenly drawn to the latest reality show, I – a humble writing hack and up until the middle of last year a complete on-line Neanderthal – am now the proud owner of my own sparkling ‘web log’.  It has the rather unwieldy title of Under the Counter or a Flutter in the Dovecot.  And I am not alone in my blogging activities.  According to sources, there are 112,000,000 blogs in the world.  If my maths is right, and it’s often not, every fiftieth person around the globe is blogging.

There are blogs about everything, from crochet to Christ.  If you care to go looking, you will find ‘J-blogs’ (blogs written by journalists or those with a Jewish focus), ‘mummy blogs’ (about home and family life) and ‘bloggernacles’ (blogs written by Mormons).  Some blogs are open diaries or scrapbooks, while others are thoughtfully written on-line magazines, enthusiastically – and often professionally – presented by one person or a group.  Some are interactive adjuncts to newspapers or barely concealed marketing tools for home-produced goods.  And it’s not just mums and dads or people with no social skills or insomniacs who have flocked to the medium.  A number of Australian writers loyally maintain blogs.  On these sites you won’t find a photograph of the writer’s dog sleeping dreamily amongst the petunias (well, not often), but good, solid literary stuff – in-depth analysis of writing trends, cultural comment, and artful polemic, and that’s just for starters.  Sometimes they write about food.

Being curious about why successful writers have dived into the murky e-waters of Blog Ocean, I plucked up the courage to email a handful of dedicated scribes – through their blogs, of course – to see what’s going on.  Why, when your works are published around the world and well-reviewed and read by hundreds of thousands of people, when your works win or get short-listed for prestigious literary prizes and the rights are sold to movie makers, do upper-echelon writers want to muck around in an environment where so much is rubbish?  Isn’t it like living on the right side of the tracks but wanting to play with the rough kids at the local garbage tip?

Sydney-based Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral, which was short-listed for the 2005 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the widely-acclaimed The Children, began blogging in early 2009.  In March this year she decided to put her food-related blog How to Shuck an Oyster on ice (so to speak) to focus on the writing of her latest novel.  She says her original motivation was to talk to her friends about food and amuse herself while at it.  ‘I began the blog when our house was being renovated last year,’ says Wood.  ‘We were living out of suitcases for four months in other people’s houses and I found it difficult to settle firmly into writing my novel-in-progress.’

Alec Patric is a St. Kilda bookseller and, more importantly, a creative writer of poetry and novel-length works.  He admits to never having visited a blog until last year, when he was introduced to the concept by three women bloggers.  The immediate motivation for starting his own blog was to bring together under one umbrella his work published in literary journals.  These days A.S.Patric.Ink features his own creative writing, mostly experimental poetry, much of which is cleverly linked to graphics and quotes from literary luminaries.

Short-fiction writer, editor, reviewer and former academic Kerryn Goldsworthy, who lives in Adelaide, became involved for ‘pedagogical’ reasons.  In 2004 Goldsworthy was asked to assess a Masters thesis on blogging and its social implications, and she became so interested she started her own site.  ‘I figured if this kind of thing was what students were writing about then I needed to learn about it, and of course the best way to learn anything is to do it.’  She now maintains Still Life With Cat, an ‘all-purpose blog containing reflections on whatever is going on in the realms of literature, politics, media, music, dinner, gardening etc’.

Sophie Cunningham, author of the novels Geography and Bird, has been blogging since 2004 both at her own site as well as on Spike, the blog-shaped offshoot for the eminent Australian literary journal Meanjin, of which she is the current editor.  Cunningham began her blogging journey when traveling to Sri Lanka and she simply wanted to capture the experience for herself as well as friends and colleagues.  She has stayed with the practice because, by her own admission, she is a scattered thinker and writer and blogging has been a helpful way of catching some of those thoughts before they disappear.  ‘The minus side,’ she says, ‘is it takes me away from novel writing.’

Sydney-based James Bradley is the author of The Resurrectionist, which has sold over 200,000 copies worldwide.  His deliciously named City of Tongues blog features book and film analysis, articles about the creative process, and, quite regularly, pop-music videos.  Bradley says that he had three reasons for embarking on a blogging life.  ‘The first was my increasing frustration with the relatively narrow parameters of the newspapers and magazines I write for.  The second was about wanting to try something new, and to learn to write for the online environment.  And, finally, it was at least partly about an awareness that the most exciting writing is now happening online.’

Is there a difference between writing for a blog and writing ‘serious’ fiction?  As I’ve rather painfully discovered, it is all too easy for a blogger to just spray the words up on the screen and see what happens, a lot like swinging a fishing line into the ocean in the hope that something bites.  Kerryn Goldsworthy says it all depends.  ‘Even with the most casual or spontaneous blog posts, I try to make the writing something that people will enjoy reading, and I think about it at the level of things like sentence structure and word choice.’  Goldsworthy goes on: ‘The most exciting things about blogging are the opportunities afforded by hyperlinks and graphics.’

Charlotte Wood had a looser approach with How to Shuck an Oyster.  ‘When you write for a living, the quest for the perfection of a sentence or a paragraph can be quite exhausting.  So to write in a much less self-conscious way was a great deal of fun.  I focused on the subject at hand rather than the writing, and tried to keep it all loose.’

Sophie Cunningham agrees with the need for looseness.  ‘Because of my job as an editor,’ she says, ‘I got too much grief if I posted rushed and hastily thought-through pieces.  But I certainly want to keep that freshness and immediacy.  If it starts to feel like an exam it doesn’t work out.’

Alec Patric believes the only criterion for successful blog writing is readability.  ‘If the writing comes off half-cocked and unfocused then it’s not going to be read by anyone.  If it’s overly ‘literary’ or academic it won’t be readable.  It’s not that it can’t be sophisticated and polished, but blog writing thrives on momentum, passing from one day to the next.’

James Bradley is less concerned with rawness and roughness, but he does enjoy the sense that bloggers are free to explore ideas in a way they are often not in print.  ‘Partly that’s about the fact that the format is so open – I’m not expected to write something as constrained as a book review, so if I feel like wandering off and talking about Jack Kirby comics in the middle of something I can.  But it’s also about the fact that the form encourages conversation, so the best blogging is often about making connections rather than broadcasting to a passive audience as you do in print.’

One of the peculiarities of blogging is the fact that many are written by anonymous individuals and the majority of comments posted on blogs are written by similarly shady and mysterious people – regular visitors to my own blog (whom I appreciate very much, I should add) include ‘Screamish’, ‘It All Started’ and ‘A Free Man’.  Kerryn Goldsworthy says that using her real name means that people can find her, and that occasionally means vile personal abuse by email.  ‘I have less and less respect for anonymous bloggers and commenters who aren’t prepared to own their opinions.’

Sophie Cunningham reckons it is wise to remember that a blog is a public forum, no matter how private it might seem.  ‘Using your real name can help you remember that,’ she says.  ‘Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like the freedom to write ungrammatical, badly spelt posts without getting cracks on my editorial skills.  Or that I can’t understand why some people need to develop a more theatrical persona on-line.’

The often anonymous Internet environment and the unregulated nature of the conversation was one of the reasons why James Bradley originally avoided participating in blogs.  ‘Some people say appalling things online, and I wasn’t in a hurry to put myself in the way of that.  But as it turns out most of my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, and I’ve made many new friends through my blog.’

Considering the incredibly fast technological change of late – witness the Australian publishing industry’s current scurrying to address changes brought on by the Kindle and i-Pad e-readers – as well as the emergence of less onerous platforms such as micro-blogging site Twitter and the ubiquitous Facebook, is there a future for blogging?  Barack Obama, who famously embraced on-line social media to fuel his successful presidential campaign, did a back-flip in 2009 and said that he could see a future where it’s ‘all shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding’.

‘Oh Lord, who knows?’ offers Charlotte Wood with refreshing frankness.  ‘To me, fundamentally, blogging is writing – there is good and bad and boring and engaging and superficial and deeply thoughtful writing in blogs, just as there is in books or magazine articles.  But I love the democracy of the medium.  The fact that anyone can create a blog is a wonderful thing, not something to be abhorred.’  I can’t help wondering if Wood will return to How to Shuck an Oyster.  ‘I feel quite strongly that I’ll go back to it,’ she says, ‘and that it will be a deeply pleasurable part of my life between novels, or drafts of novels.’

Kerryn Goldsworthy is positive that the blogosphere will continue to be a place worth exploring for some time yet.  ‘The continuance of blogging might be the thing that separates the actual writers from the people who just want to chat and maintain relationships and friendship groups via the web.’  Alec Patric believes the future of blogging will see it grow from ‘a curious organ on the literary body to a point at which it will replace the whole nervous system’.  He continues: ‘Most of the critical thinking and opinion-making has already shifted to literary blogs and related Internet sites.’  And Patric vehemently disagrees with Obama.  ‘The void has opened up within the established mediums as they all wonder what the advent of e-books will mean.’

Sophie Cunningham claims that blogs have become ‘old school’ compared to Twitter and Facebook.  ‘The more social aspects of the online environment are migrating to these forms and blogs are becoming more formal.  I don’t think this is a bad thing.  It’s just different.’  She too disagrees with Obama.  ‘I don’t know that he’s right in that you could argue that all human interaction is, to some extent, shouting across the void without a lot of mutual understanding.’

In a very general sense, believes James Bradley, the Internet is a force for liberty and freedom of speech.  ‘You only have to look at what happened in Iran last year to see the way it breaks down a lot of the old polarities and forces governments to confront individuals.  But there is undoubtedly an echo-chamber effect, in which people gravitate towards sites and forums where they will find people of similar views and opinions, all of which then reinforce – and often amplify – what they already think.  The only way to overcome that is going to be to foster a culture that values discussion over abuse, but we’re going to have to work at it.’  Whether it’s the real world or the blog world, let’s all say amen to that.

What we can be sure of is that how we participate in the production and distribution of stories continues to evolve at a furious rate.  Human beings have an insatiable appetite for story-telling and connection.  We’ll do it any way possible, on anything available to us; our commonality is the indisputable fact that we’re telling stories day in, day out.  Even our dreams are a way of exploring story and understanding our lives.  It might be impossible to confidently predict where blogging will take us – Kerryn Goldsworthy says she can see ‘a future in which we can all read each other’s thoughts via microchips, though I can also imagine that if that were the case, humanity would implode fairly quickly’ – but it seems the platform is here to stay.  And it’s not a singular progression, but a multi-dimensional expansion of possibility.

Perhaps you’re keen for this article to finish so you too can get blogging.  If that’s the case, maybe we’ll run into each other.

Don’t forget to say hello.

My on-line name is Nigel Featherstone.

But what makes them vivid is the force of James’s interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James’s anxious concern for them.

– from How Fiction Works by James Wood

What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination; and, third, their industry.

–  John Ruskin

It’s banal to start a looking-back piece with ‘what a year it’s been’, because years can be nothing but themselves – years. So I’ll start somewhere else (although I haven’t started somewhere else, I’ve just started where I’ve begun) with a challenge: to think about the year ‘that’s been’ (I typed ‘bean’ just then, which is rather lovely), and to write about it, and see what learnings bubble to the surface.  Because we’re about to head into the ridiculous fake-snow-in-summer season – or, as a colleague said to me yesterday, ‘Shitmass’.  Which means the brain will turn off and then another year will get sprinting and before we know it we’ll all be two decades older, greyer, and probably not that much wiser.

So, to begin.  Somewhere.

Learning No. 1 – Go away. Under the Counter (or UTC to those in the know i.e. just muggins here, though ‘UTC’ sounds like a university, or a type of farm vehicle; I should drop this over-use of brackets) is littered with references to Bundanon and its far-reaching artist-in-residence program.  Still I can’t help remembering – for the umpteenth time – the Shoalhaven River and its happy leaping fish, the lantana-infested bush and the largest goanna I’ve ever seen (an easy six feet with a tongue the size of an arm), the mother roo and joey grazing nervously at the backdoor of the writer’s cottage, the sounds of busy things in the night that I’ve never heard before even though I’ve spent forty-one years in this part of the world.  And I remember drinks on the verandah at the always-pink dusk and watching wombats emerge from their burrows, and the swallows darting gloriously through the air, catching whatever it is they catch, bugs, they catch bugs.  And I remember working my arse off, so much so that on my fourth and last Thursday I had to have a lie down and listen to some Sigur Ros – yes, I’d over done it, but that’s my usual way, I’m afraid.  Oh woe is me.  The fact is I bring it on myself, it’s my choice, and, as I’ve counselled others, no one cares.  So Learning No 1.1 – no one cares.

Learning No. 2 – I’m in love with the most complex thing EVER. ‘Work-in-progress’: that’s the not-very-inventive title of my, um, work-in-progress, a novel, a very long story.  When people who know about these things say that novels are inherently complex, listen to them, believe them – novels are complex to write, they’re complex to read; they are the hardest thing to bring into the world.  My one, my second, has been in the process of being born since 2006 (I mistakenly typed ‘1996’, probably because that’s how it feels; bugger it, these brackets are just so persistent).  Needless to say, this project – is ‘project’ the right word? a novel isn’t a bridge, though they might be – has taken me here and there, like a wild river, and some of the waters have been fast and rough, some shallow and sublime, some tannin-black and utterly horrifying, and some murky and motionless, the froth of pollution at the edges.  Enough: I’m getting the shakes writing this, though that could be the rum balls I had for morning tea.

Learning No. 3 – good people never stop doing good things. The middle of the year saw the extended family and passionate others come from all over to be present at the launch of the Dorothy Porter Studio at Bundanon (yes, yet another reference to that Boyd place).  This meant taking He Who Originally Came From That Part of the World, Meaning Nowra, A Shit-Hole He Says back to the place from where he came, and also to the place I spent four weeks in a creative La-La Land.  After three hours of driving – up the Hume Highway, down through Kangaroo Valley, with the last half an hour winding our way amongst tinder-dry coastal bush – there it suddenly was, a converted 19th-century barn.  All shiny new, a red ribbon strung up for cutting, dancers dancing, the rainbow lorikeets watching on, as they will always be.  And we knew that within days the Studio would be filled with artists dreaming, imagining, collaborating – and working bloody hard, there can be no doubt about that.  Cuz, there was a tear in my eye when the ribbon was cut.

Learning No. 4 – reading completes me (like Blundstone boots and Arvo Part). 2009 was filled with great books and my favourites are listed elsewhere on this blog, but there are a few notables that aren’t on the list because they weren’t published this year, in fact they were published many years ago.  Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave – for decades I’d put off reading this book because by and large, and despite my own personal sexuality (which is indeed my own and personal), I don’t read gay fiction, but this novel completely ripped me to shreds.  So much so that, when after the last page was read, I had to go for the longest walk up the mountain (with The Old Lady of the House, obviously) until I felt ready to come back into the world.  Holding the Man went straight onto my ‘Brilliant Books Live Here’ shelf in my work room.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, which was no doubt reissued because of our bomb-tastic times.  And – embarrassingly – I finally read DJ Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; see ‘Caught in an Edgy Trap’ in the First Word 2009 archive for more on this.

Learning No. 5 – there will always be great music. Like the book list, the year’s top albums can be found elsewhere on Under the Counter, but I do have a late entry for the best-of-2009 gang: ‘Hospice’ by The Antlers.  Anyone who likes Jeff Buckley, Deerhunter and Arcade Fire really should check out this extraordinary album; there’s also a hint of Antony Hegarty in the overall aesthetic, which is both gentle and dramatic, always a great combination.  Hospice is hardly a jovial ride – it wallops you in the head and heart, and everywhere else for that matter – but it’s certainly worth the purchase price.  And great cover art, too.

Learning No. 6 – so writing conferences CAN be worthwhile! In October the National Library of Australia put on its Flight of the Mind – Writing and the Creative Imagination conference.  Speakers included Geraldine Brooks, Steven Conte, Rodney Hall, Andrew Goldsmith, Kevin Brophy, Claire Thomas, Judy Horacek, James Bradley, Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Felicity Packard, Sophie Cunningham, Aviva Tuffield, and Peter Pierce; not a bad line-up, it has to be said.  Topics covered creating fiction from fact, recreating other people’s stories, and writing across borders (a session chaired by yours truly; okay, the brackets win).  As one of the more prominent speakers told me at the end of the weekend, ‘This conference was a beauty’.  And good audiences too, in terms of both numbers and engagement.  The other thing that impressed me was the amount of speakers who hung around for the entire weekend, their journals at the ready, pens poised to jot down another pearl of wisdom for safe-keeping.  Yes, a beauty.

Learning No. 7 – posh experiences in poor countries don’t add up. In November He Who Likes A Cool Drink On A Warm Day and I jumped on a plane to attend a wedding in Vanuatu.  Apart from me almost carking it (check out ‘The Trouble with Death’, which is also in the First Word 2009 archive), we did everything you’re meant to do when on a tropical island: ate way too much, drank way too much, got so sunburnt we looked like Iced VoVos, read heaps, in my case Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book, which I enjoyed, though it also wore me out.  But resorts, big ones at least, aren’t my thing – they’re theme parks for the moderately rich and not-at-all-famous.  Still, good times were had, and, most importantly, two friends got married the way they wanted, and sometimes that’s all that matters (says he who over-thinks everything, including the moral responsibility of my local supermarket to provide free trolleys – not everyone has a gold coin in their pockets, you bastards).

Learning No. 8 – there’s nothing freakier than politics. 2009 was also about climate change, Copenhagen (a disaster? no, a little foot-shuffle in the right direction, me-thinks), and…bloody Tony Abbott.  Who’d have thought the Punch-Drunk Mad Monk would get the Leader of the Opposition gig?  Despite being born and bred on Sydney’s North Shore and schooled entirely at private schools, combined with the fact that I can sound terribly, terribly posh went I want to (see?), I’m not one for the conservative side of politics, but at least Malcolm ‘John Howard Broke My Heart By Stuffing Up The Republic Campaign’ Turnbull was trying to move things forward, if only by a millimetre.  Then, however, came the most public coup (of course, I just typed ‘pubic’, which isn’t something I usually associate with the Liberal Party) and Mr Malcolm went down the tube and Tony ‘Verbally Attacking Terminally People Is Such Fun’ Abbott came up trumps.  You know, I was happy give him a go, only because that’s what we do in this part of the world (when it suits us), but then all he’s been saying since he got the job is ‘great big tax’ and I’ve found myself shouting at the radio/television/newspaper, just like I did when John Howard hung around for eleven long, long, LONG years.

Learning No. 9 – the machines may take over. I started the year without having an internet connection at home but have ended the year with a PC on my desk, a laptop in the cupboard, an email address, and a website and a blog.  Next stop digital television and an i-Phone.  Perhaps.  Though probably not – a home is a home, not a computer-corporation outpost.  But it’s nice to be in the blogosphere, or hanging around ‘the inter-webs’ as some like to say, though I do feel as if I’m wandering around a parallel universe stark naked with the CCTV cameras tracking my every movement.  Now I just have to keep all this technology in check.   It’s us human types who control the machines, don’t we?

What, the machines have taken over?  How did I miss that?

Better go and pour myself a glass of crisp, dry Semillon and put on a record, yes, one of those Ye Olde spinning platter things that crackle and hiss like carpet on a hot day.  It might be The XX’s album, or Peaches’ cheeky latest, or something really, really old, maybe even Peter Gabrielle’s So, because So reminds me of being seventeen and school was about to finish and I knew absolutely nothing about anything.  Which, despite this list and all the words that go along with it, is still probably the case, because the sum total of what we know can only ever be a tear-drop in the deep blue ocean.

(Footnote: What’s with the opening quotes? you ask.  Well, I’ve had those two pearlers Blu-tacked onto the side of my computer screen all year.  They’ve hung there, just a little dog-eared and torn, fluttering each time I breathe or I type extra vigorously or the fan finds them; they tell me to work harder, to work deeper, to do good things.  In time, in time.)

In May this year I returned to Canberra from a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people on the Shoalhaven River near Nowra, and despite feeling like I was coming back from Mars, the first thing I did on arriving home was to go into my work room and write some words which within minutes would be stuck in the window of my wallet: Creating and the imagination are my natural habitats; creating is what I love doing, the imagination is where I am most alive.  Being in and with a community of dedicated creative people makes me so happy I want to burst out of my skin.

How is it that someone who’d only recently turned forty had come to that point of wanting to burst out of their skin?

When I turn my increasingly unreliable brain to my childhood, I think of spending the first 18 years of my life wandering, rather aimlessly it must be said, around my home suburb of St Ives on Sydney’s Volvo-infested North Shore, catching the bus and train to the austere school I attended, Barker College.  I think of the uniform – black shoes, grey trousers, white shirt, red-and-white striped tie, barber-shop blazer, and a Venetian boater.

I think of reaching adolescence, of girls joining us in Fifth and Sixth Form but somehow, for some reason, remaining only interested in the boys, of swimming carnivals, of trying to play rugby union, of homework, always that terrible homework.

Mostly, however, I remember writing: double creative writing classes and thousands of words – albeit dreadfully composed words – forming themselves on the exercise-book pages in the worst handwriting imaginable.  I distinctly remember my Fourth Class teacher, a man who had flicks and a Freddie Mercury moustache, yelling ‘Shut up Featherstone, don’t be rude!’ as I demanded that it be me who read out his story to class.  I remember writing in my bedroom, having a pseudonym, though thankfully I’ve forgotten the actual name – no doubt it was something like Roger T. Bartholomew the Third.

I remember writing in school holidays and writing when I was home sick – I always seemed to be getting bronchitis, particularly in winter.  I remember one of these periods of sickness, somewhere around Third or Fourth Form when I spent weeks on end sitting on the couch, a garishly-coloured cashmere nana-rug over my legs and waist, and rewriting and rewriting a short story to the Brideshead Revisited soundtrack, which was on repeat on the record player.

But despite all this writing and reading I was at a loss as to what I wanted do when I finished school.  Even though my family, particularly on my father’s side, is filled with writers and poets and painters and printmakers, some of whom have made significant names for themselves, the thought of seriously pursuing a career in the arts simply didn’t cross my mind.  Perhaps I misunderstood what Oscar Wilde meant when he said All art is quite useless. For a short time I did consider becoming an audio engineer, because I loved music – and still do, very much.  However, I’m glad I didn’t pursue this line of work, mainly because I’m the most impractical person you’ve ever come across – I have to get a man in to change the washers on my taps.

So I applied to do an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture.

But I didn’t get in.  Being someone who gets volcanically stressed at the most inconsequential of things, like when my computer decides that it would like to download some update or other, I became so anxious in the days leading up to the HSC that my temperature soured and the family GP refused to let me sit the English exam, English being the one subject in which I regularly excelled, and I wasn’t well enough to sit through all of mathematics.  The examining board guesstimated my English mark, which was unjustifiably low, and I failed maths outright, though somehow did remarkably well in economics, a subject I had no interest in whatsoever.  Thank God for universities, which offer almost limitless opportunities to correct early education flunks and misdemeanours.

After being subjected to much begging and pleading, the University of Canberra, or the Canberra College of Advanced Education as it was known back then, generously let me in on one condition: that I pass all my first semester units.  Not only did I pass, I did rather well, particularly in the design-related units, which I adored.  I learnt about the importance of big ideas, of understanding context, of piecing together relationships (‘everything is connected’ I’d learn later when I augmented my landscape degree with a graduate diploma in social ecology), of knowing that the best things have the right fit.  My love affair with the arts and design, as well as the humanities, was on its way.

More to the point, I fell in love with a classmate, a Christian boy, who loved me back but only as much as his religion would allow.  I converted to his faith hoping he’d convert to my sexuality.  He did not.  So I rounded out these undergraduate years wearing only black, listening to The Cure, The Smiths and New Order, driving my beloved 1969 Volkswagen Fastback around the blue-sky streets of Belconnen; I ate too much coke and chocolate and meat pies, and became fat.

Thinking it appropriate to find someone else to love, I moved to Perth where I lived beneath the desiccating heat at Cottesloe Beach (on which I’d read Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet) and worked for a small design firm in Subiaco. Though I loved Perth, it’s fair to say that I was a lonely soul there – I knew no one and spent most of my evenings writing in a journal and reading down at the beach (with one eye surveying for deliciously suntanned things that would walk my way but then walk on by).  Ultimately I decided that I needed to be in a place where there were mountains and I could wear jumpers, so after two years I returned to the south-east, where my family has lived for seven generations.  Place, I discovered, can be etched into your DNA.

But I didn’t find myself back over east; the opposite happened: I became lost.  I lived with my parents on Mount Gibraltar in the Southern Highlands, where they’d escaped Sydney to slide into retirement.  Feeling sorry for me, a friend gave me a suitcase-load of music recording equipment and I wrote and recorded some songs, sent them to Triple J, but Triple J only sent a car-sticker in return.  I scratched out some lyrics, one of which I quite liked, so, without having any idea whatsoever of what I was doing, I sent the ‘poem’ to an arts magazine in Canberra and then jumped onto a Jumbo jet to backpack around the world.   Exactly one hundred days and nights later, I returned to Mount Gibraltar and was surprised to find in the mail a letter from the magazine – they’d published the poem.

So, buoyed by this completely unexpected literary success, I wrote another poem, and this too was published, this time in Tasmania.  Then, realising that I didn’t actually know anything about poetry, I wrote a short story and this was also favourable received.  I was hooked – again – by words and ideas.  Since then, 1994, I’ve been writing fiction and creative journalism five days a week, augmenting a meagre writing income with landscape architecture work before, at the age of 36, jumping ship to work as the manager of arts development for the ACT Chief Minister’s Department, a job I believe in very much.

Despite the odds firmly stacked against the publication of fiction – according to the literary journal Overland, there is currently a one-in-a-thousand chance of having a novel published in Australia – writing is what I love doing. Whether it is fifty-word micro-fiction, short stories, a novel, or creative journalism, writing is my greatest achievement – apart from, of course, maintaining a relationship, which, even though it has had to weather a few internal hurdles, some family dramas, and the meretricious scorn of recent federal governments, has lasted thirteen years .

Yes, I love writing.  Yes, I’m in love with writing.  But quite regularly, like the best lovers, he doesn’t always love me back, at least not in the way I want.  Writing is reticent, he is painful, unpredictable, mercurial; he can fill my blood with heat, he can make my heart race like the best of drugs; writing can be everything, and then, like an ocean tide, he can recede, leaving me sore and hollow and exposed.

In 2000, I commenced what would end up being one of the most wonderful experiences of my life: a masters in creative arts/creative writing.  I did feel like an impostor – what was someone who’d only barely passed the HSC and didn’t originally get in to his first degree doing at university for the third time?  And a masters of all things!  But every Thursday for two years I connected with other writers, thinkers, academics; I read more than I’d read in my life.  I finished with a manuscript for what would become my first novel, Remnants, which was published in 2005.  Out of the nine Australian reviews and one international review that humble little story received, only one hated it and that was The Age. Despite others making conclusions like ‘a beautifully written book’ and ‘deserving of a wide audience’, The Age described Remnants as ‘a noble failure’, as if I’d gallantly tried to fight a wild dragon but had ultimately lost.

But what does all this reminiscing actually mean?

It means the importance of ongoing education. Writing – creativity – in itself is an education, but sometimes it’s worth taking the exit off the nine-to-five freeway and spending time back in the academy, to think, to learn, to explore, to be wild again.

It means the importance of blind faith, though by faith I don’t mean what my old landscape architecture paramour meant by faith.  Ex-Canberra writer and artist Judy Horacek, co-author of the phenomenally successful children’s book Where is the Green Sheep?, talks about the need to charge ahead no matter what the odds.  What makes someone spend up to ten years writing a novel, when it appears that the readership of literary prose is diminishing and new technologies may change the publishing landscape forever?  It’s the desire for adventure.  And adventure is risk.  And risk is living.

It means the importance of relentless persistence. I’m by no means a fan of sport, but recently I heard Carrie Graf, the unstoppable coach of the Canberra Capitals, talk about the notion of relentless persistence. There’s something in this: the unyielding, the unremitting, the inexorable; the perseverance, the determination, the doggedness, the diligence, even the pushiness.  These are the inescapable qualities of the artist, and, dare I say it, the qualities of anyone who wants to wring every drop of life from their days.

But to finish up.  And to end quoting an artist, not a sportsperson.

In October this year, the twice Miles Franklin Prize-winning Australian novelist Alex Miller gave the closing address at a conference on writing and creativity at the National Library of Australia.  Miller delivered his point by expanding on the often-quoted writing aphorism: he turned ‘Write what you know’ into ‘Write what you love’. But, right here, right now, let’s expand this a little further, to broader out its application: LIVE what you love.

LIVE what you love. How good is that!

(This is an edited version of a speech presented as an Occasional Address at the University of Canberra’s Conferring of Awards ceremony, held in the Great Hall, Parliament House, 17 December, 2009.)

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