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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.

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

 

This year, which was bonkers (and not in a good way), was one that was both softened and enlarged by reading. Every year there are truly spectacular books, those that genuinely get under your skin and you think about them for weeks, if not months or longer. What follows is not a list of books I consider ‘the best’ (as if I’d know) but ones that have resonated in a way that was surprising, or beautiful, or funny, or shocking, sometimes all at once – and more.

Although I don’t usually break my reading down into genre or geographic categories, I have this time, only because the list is long and some structure might be useful.

Australian novels I enjoyed this year include Melissa Lucashenko’s cheeky but powerful and very necessary TOO MUCH LIP, Charlotte Wood’s moving and piercingly astute THE WEEKEND, RWC McDonald’s wondrously joyful THE NANCYS, and Simon Cleary’s THE WAR ARTIST, which is a timely addition to Australian literature that dares to question our apparently unbounded love of military history. Other novels that packed a necessary punch are Andrew Goldsmith’s intricately drawn INVENTED LIVES, THE BREEDING SEASON by Amanda Niehaus (my review for the Canberra Times here), and THE ORCHARDIST’S DAUGHTER, Karen Viggers’ study of Tasmanian forest ecology and the human lives that depend on it. THE PILLARS by Peter Polites puts a dagger through Sydney’s obsession with real estate; the novel actually does so much more. INVISIBLE BOYS by Holden Sheppard is a no-bullshit exploration of growing up gay in regional Western Australia – the novel and its author are attracting a huge fanbase and it’s not hard to see why. Finally, three novels that deserve to be widely read are Julie Keys’ THE ARTIST’S PORTRAIT, which is such an ambitious and unique historical novel about art and memory, HITCH by Kathryn Hind (my review for the Canberra Times here), and IN WHOM WE TRUST by one of Australia’s greatest living prose writers, John Clanchy.

Novels from overseas that I adored include HAPPINESS by the always wise Aminatta Forna, THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez, and Max Porter’s utterly magical – and devastating – LANNY. I finally read works by Rachel Cusk – TRANSIT – and Elizabeth Strout – OLIVE, AGAIN – and, oh my goodness, both were extraordinary and I will be reading more of both. To my mind, the novel of the year, if not the decade, was Ocean Vuong’s ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, which knocked my socks off, partly because it gently though forcefully reveals the inter-generational impact of war and partly because the language is so poetically exposed.

I read some very moving Australian non-fiction this year, including GROWING UP QUEER (edited by Benjamin Law), Laura Dawes’ FIGHTING FIT, which scientifically and entertainingly explores the many ways Britain kept its home population healthy during the Second World War, Chloe Higgins’ tragic and remarkably vulnerable THE GIRLS, James Halford’s wonderfully drawn essays about his love of Latin American literature as collected in REQUIEM WITH YELLOW BUTTERFLIES, and Patrick Mullins’ impeccably researched and thoughtfully written biography of the much-maligned Australian prime minister Billy McMahon – TIBERIUS WITH A TELEPHONE. I found THE SATURDAY PORTRAITS by Maxine Beneba Clarke incredibly moving and does a lot to reveal the challenges presented by contemporary Australia. I very much enjoyed Peter Papathanasiou’s LITTLE ONE, which is a joyful memoir about determination and crossing boundaries (in many ways). NO FRIEND BUT THE MOUNTAINS by Behrouz Boochani is an extraordinary – and deeply poetry – chronicle of ‘life’ in this country’s deplorable refugee prisons, and THE ERRATICS by Vicki Laveau-Harvie shows how powerful prose can be, especially when focused on a highly dysfunctional family.

I didn’t read as many poetry collections as I would have liked, though the form is a regular part of my reading. I loved ANOTHER LANGUAGE by Eileen Chong, and I had my own celebration of Mary Oliver, lapping up the Pulitzer Prize-winning AMERICAN PRIMATIVE and LONG LIFE, which is a collection of essays, many playful, interspersed with Oliver’s typically accessible though always moving poetry.

‘When Death Comes’

by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

***

Many thanks to regular Flutter commentor Nana Jo for pointing me in the direction of Mary Oliver and ‘When Death Comes’.

Born Sept. 10, 1935, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., Mary Oliver is an American poet whose work reflects a deep communion with the natural world.  Oliver attended Ohio State University and Vassar College but did not earn a degree.  Her volume American Primitive (1983), which won a Pulitzer Prize, glorifies the natural world, reflecting the American fascination with the ideal of the pastoral life as it was first expressed by Henry David Thoreau.

In other words, a bit of a legend.

(Source: britannica.com)

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