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It was, to be frank, a day that felt both terrifically exciting and utterly terrifying. Like skydiving, perhaps, or climbing a cliff without ropes.

I am referring to the recent creative development day for Homesong, which, in the larger scheme of life’s trials, should have been a breeze. But the fact is I’m primarily a fiction writer, meaning most of what I do is private. I write in private, I read in private. Quite frequently I meet with other writers to talk about this thing we do, but those conversations are, in the main, private too. Ultimately the work is made public, but then it becomes a private experience for a reader. I’m simplifying, of course, because there might be reviews, public readings, festival appearances, and book-club attendance. But writing for the stage is a different kettle of fish: it’s a living and breathing three-dimensional human space. Hence the reference to terror.

So what happened?

Team in development: Paul Scott-Williams, James Humberstone, myself, and Antony Talia. Photo credit: The Street Theatre

The creative team – project initiator Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and composer James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and I – spent a day at The Street Theatre in Canberra. Under the guidance of the Street’s artistic director Caroline Stacey, the work was performed behind closed doors by pianist Alan Hicks and baritone Tristan Entwistle. Together with actor Antony Talia, the team then reflected on the work, teasing out areas that needed further development. Was this song sufficiently articulate? Was that word really the best for the purpose? How do we want the audience to respond? Were the themes clear? (Apologies for being a little vague about the actual story, but more of that in later posts.)

After making some minor adjustments and resolving technical issues (i.e. staging), the doors were opened to an audience of thirty brave souls who fortified themselves with a glass of wine and then watched the first public performance, before providing feedback, again under the guidance of Caroline.

Baritone Tristan Entwistle getting to know the score before the first public performance. Photo credit: The Street Theatre

For a fiction writer, whose idea of a good day is spent from dawn to dusk at home in tracksuit pants and ugg-boots talking with sparrows, this was a confronting experience. Reading and responding to a piece of fiction, especially something as long as a novel, involves a period of commitment – hours, if not days, maybe even weeks – and then, after the last page is turned, there is time for reflection before conclusions (if any) are reached. Not so with a live song-cycle: at the Homesong creative development, once the last word was sung and there was a moment for applause, the response came immediately. Despite still processing the work myself, it was fascinating to learn what resonated, what was clear and what was not, and to hear possible solutions.

Rather predictably, as soon as I was in my car and driving in the night away from the theatre, doubt reared its head. Was I the best librettist for this project? Was I even ‘a librettist’? Would I be able to process the feedback in a way that would benefit the project? But then I realised that, as opposed to traditional fiction (as it were), where I am responsible for every mark on the page, with a collaborative work such as a song-cycle there is a team, and every member of the team is required to take the project to the next stage.

Which is where we are at now.

There have been many frank and open (but always loving) email exchanges, and some generous colleagues who attended the creative development performance have sent me emails that described their experience of Homesong, which were most hopeful. While I won’t detail here the areas of the work that need to be addressed, it comes down to – and perhaps with any writing project this is inevitably the case – intent, precision, and impact on the audience. I would be lying if, despite my doubts, I told you that I am finding this next stage daunting. The guts of the work are present; it is about revealing more of the heart. And, thankfully, I am not alone in this task.

So, where’s my paper copy of the libretto and a red pen?

Gates 2 PC

1.

It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense.

2.

At 4pm the slipping on of holey sneakers and the wearing of beanie and gloves; an old blue-striped hooded top too. Glasses on face, ready to go.

3.

Out the back door, down the side of the house (ducking to miss the overhead rose), out the first gate and then the picket-fenced second. Footsteps on cracked footpaths, arms swinging for rhythm, legs keeping up.

4.

Turn right into Addison and the rising begins, past the church with the imploring billboard, though it’s hard to ignore the peace of the high-peaked rectory opposite the workers cottages with nothing in the front gardens except twigs and dogshit, me eyeing off the twigs because I’m in the market for kindling.

5.

A bend in the road where the school oval forms a corner, the dependable runnel of water entering the drain and culvert. Wild plum trees like weeds. Two Herefords in their ag-class paddock, steer and calf, mother and daughter, or mother and son. The Lanyon-esque house opposite, all chimneys and verandahs, like a set of a TV drama. (What drama behind the walls?) On the same side but further up the local Liberal’s mansion tucked away beneath a thickness of pines, the whine of a chainsaw preparing wood for the hearth and then, oh, a glass of sherry. ‘Sherry, dear?’ ‘Yes dear, sherry.’ In my boyhood I would have admired their fine slate roof and the sherry, but not anymore.

6.

Turn away to the patch of scrappy bush, pine cones out of reach beneath the pine trees on the other side of the fence. The footie oval, or it might be for cricket, roos grouped on the sidelines, a hop here and a hop there, before head down to snack on the winter grass. Now my legs and arms have found their flow and there’s good breath and air in my lungs. Up we go some more. The small, axe-murderish farm with its darkly curtained windows and the goats that run up to the fence. One time, as I charged by, the farmer waved and called out hello, and I waved and said hello back and thought, so he’s probably not an axe-murderer after all. And on and on, past the new houses that are being built on sold-off paddocks, black Labradors running from one side of their unfinished yard to the other, thinking of my own black Labrador who is too old to come with me these days.

7.

Turn left and up I go even further, past PLEASANT RIDGE, no railings on the stairs or on the top landing despite the house, a red-brick 70s shocker, being two-storeys high – how old the occupants are, which always (sometimes) makes me worry. The horse paddock on the other side of the road, the horse I call Melody or Max; sometimes he – or she – whinnies, but I just keep walking, the ground becoming rockier, and steeper, my ankles training.

8.

And then, at last, the road tips over to flatness and I can feel my heart pounding. I draw in the crisply clean air; I smell the waft of the single sheep in the sloping paddock. I look over the animal to the wind-turbines on the ridge far away in the last of the light. I stop at the gate, grip the cold metal with two hands, let my breathing – and everything else, everything that I’ve brought with me but have left along the road, like invisible breadcrumbs – settling and settling some more. Breathing: it’s all about breathing; to have come all this way (47 years) to reach that conclusion. ‘Mr Sheep, it’s me again. I was here yesterday but now I’m back. What’s going on for you?’ Silence. And stillness. That other thing I’ve learnt: there’s breathing and there’s silence and stillness. Which is why I’ve come to the edge of town. Everything is now in place, even me, in my gloves and beanie and sneakers. ‘See you tomorrow, Mr Sheep.’

9.

Cross the road and make sure to walk beside the piece of bush, the smooth white trunks of young eucalypts, the scent that’s sometimes heady. VOLUNTEERS ARE REHABILITATING THIS AREA – DO NOT LITTER. As if I would. Looking north to the new suburbs, the suburbs that are already lighting up for another evening of Netflix and nachos, soft folds of paddocks to the north where the end of the day is making hollows, before the damp comes, then the frost. I shudder and burrow into the hoodie that I’ve pulled up and tightened.

10.

It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense: breathe out, ease in. I am empty.

 

I can remember the exact moment.

I can remember exactly where I was: in the car, on the Hume, just outside Marulan, heading south. And what I told myself: You have to get your act together, take this seriously, make every effort. Get. A. Damn. Website.

The kick up the pants? I was coming home from a month-long residency at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people – I’d worked my bum off, a productive time, but I’d also connected with a bunch of extremely committed artists, many of whom spoke about the need to have a digital platform. I didn’t even have the internet on at home. Within months I got connected to the internet, had a website built and got this blog going (which recently took over the role of being the actual website). Yes, my online adventures began on the Hume Highway that morning back in 2009. But the world has moved on, I’ve moved on, nothing’s the same.

Which means I can now make a declaration: this is my 300th post for UTCOAFITD (which clearly is the most ridiculous acronym in the history of humankind). And this will be my final weekly post.

AsleepI really have been doing this on a weekly basis from the beginning, because I read some advice somewhere or other that blog posts should be regular and frequent. On a handful of occasions I’ve done a cheeky mid-week post, but on the whole I’ve kept to my commitment. And there’s been something about that commitment: spending days thinking about what I’ll post, whether it be something that had been published elsewhere (Canberra Times, BMA Magazine) or something written for the purpose. There have been times – many times – when I haven’t known what I’d write until the pen was being put to pad, which sometimes resulted in no words at all, so I resorted to shonky visual…things.

I doubt that I’ve ever known what I’ve been doing, other than, perhaps, writing a journal that other people might read – here’s a depository of writing, one amongst a gazillion other depositories of writing. Of course, the most rewarding part has been connecting with other writers, bloggers and thinkers, some of whom I now consider friends, despite living hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away and never having met in person. This must be the best part of the digital era, surely.

What happens now?

I’m not going to call it quits, but from now on posts will be on an ad hoc basis only – perhaps on average they’ll be every month, but no longer will there be any hard and fast rules. Why? Because I’m exhausted, I’m over-committed; in the larger scheme of things, my brain is really quite small, it can only take on so much, which really isn’t that much at all. I need to prioritise. I want to spend as much time as possible reading fiction and writing fiction. I want to go on great, long, dreamy adventures; I want to be moved, confronted, changed. I’m forty-five – it’s time to start learning about how this planet works, and, I think, the best way to do that is through immersing myself in fiction.

So, fond blog, happy 300th post. Sincere thanks to everyone who’s read and commented – I’ve appreciated our conversations very much.

Here’s to new adventures.

Not my backyard chook set-up, but it'd be great if it was - there'd be oodles of rituals to be found

Not my backyard chook set-up, but it’d be great if it was – there’d be oodles of rituals to be found

We’ve all heard of writers who have certain rituals they put themselves through before starting a work, or when finishing a work, or when the work has gone off into what’s likely to be a dreadful dead-end.  Some writers only start putting words down on the page when they have three blue Bic pins lined up nicely on the desk; others have to take a walk up the hill and down the trail and over the creek.

No doubt you have your rituals too, whether you’re a writer or not.

For me, it’s cleaning out the chook-shed.  Yes, once I’ve fed the dog and had breakfast myself, once I’ve read the newspaper headlines online and checked the emails that have come in overnight and quickly scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed – as if my friends know something about the world the newspapers have missed; sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t – I head outside, feed the chooks, refresh their water, and clean out their shit-tray.  Yes, there’s a tray that catches their poo.

I have the world’s smallest backyard so in my quest to keep happy chooks there needs to be a judicious use of space, which has meant creating a two-storey coop.  To stop the girls crapping into their water while roosting my brother and I constructed a drawer that’s lined with sugar-cane mulch.  So this is my ritual, the last thing I do before heading to the writing room (which sometimes feels like a bower of bliss, other times it’s a pit of eternal doom, often it’s both at once): I lift the side hatch, slide out the draw, and with an old brickie’s trowel found in a secondhand yard, I carefully extract the little – or not so little, as the case my be – macaroons of chookshit and drop them into the watering-can at my feet.

It is, to be sure, a strange ritual, but also appropriate.

For a start it’s mechanical: open hatch, pull out drawer, scoop shit into watering-can.  Writing is all head, and fiction – its production at least – is amorphous and multi-layered and inherently complex and slippery and more often than not mind-warpingly unfathomable.  So it’s good to start with something that is so rudimentarily of the body.  And it doesn’t require much thinking beyond ‘Ooh, lots of crap today’ or ‘That one’s a bit runny – I wonder who’s feeling off?’ or ‘My God, that really does look like a macaroon’.  Of course, this whole process is analogous to writing: getting ride of the crap, cleaning up, putting the house together so everyone is happy and healthy and full of life.

But there’s more to it, of course.  Because each morning, once the watering-can has its scattering of chook crap at the bottom, I half-fill it with water and let it all stew into a foul-smelling swill.  Sometime later, it could be at lunchtime or during afternoon tea, I top up the watering-can with more water before finding a sapling or shrub or tiny little annual or perennial to give what I always imagine to be an intoxicating concoction.  So it’s also about turning the crap into a ripe juice that will make leaves grow glossy and green, stems thick and solid, moving everything along despite the harsh Southern Tablelands weather – the desiccating summers and the cutting winds and the wild wild frosts of winter.

Life, in other words; life against all odds.

Because surely that’s what writing is all about: creating richly living life from the most unlikely ingredients – paper and ink and a brain that, despite everything it knows, thinks it can do something with all this.  Regardless of the odds, which are so resolutely stacked against the whole wretched bloody enterprise.  For what’s in that watering-can is hope: faith, reassurance, optimism, aspiration, credit, trust.

There’s a phrase for hope: ‘a castle in the air’.

I call it chookshit in a watering-can.

According to Zadie Smith's definition, is swimming a joy or pleasure?

According to Zadie Smith’s definition, is swimming a joy or pleasure?  And what about learning to swim differently?

In the New York Review of Books last year novelist Zadie Smith wrote an article on the differences between joy and pleasure.  I wasn’t made aware of the piece until last Christmas, those long, slow, sometimes empty, sometimes bumpy days of eating and reading and sleeping.  I read Smith’s words closely; I read them repeatedly.  Are these ideas of joy and pleasure really that hard to get a grip on?

What else to do when something’s on your mind than head to the local pool.

In my lane, which luck would have it I didn’t need to share, amongst the crystal-clear chlorinated water, beneath the hazy but grand Southern Tablelands sky, I thought about Zadie Smith and her joy/pleasure conundrum.  She believed that for most people joy is just a more intense version of pleasure.  However, she also noted, ‘The thing no one ever really tells you about joy is that there is very little pleasure in it.  And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how could we live?’  It’s this question that hounded – haunted? – me as I got myself from one end of the pool to the other.

I’m a life-long lap-swimmer; I come from the breed of people who find this sort of thing enjoyable.  I can remember my first swimming less as a little boy, which was given in the family pool at home in Sydney by a Jaguar-driving man who prevented me from sinking by gripping the back of my tiny black Speedos.  Since then there’s rarely been a time when swimming hasn’t been a weekly activity; not so long ago I could do thirty laps, sometimes fifty, every so often more.

Which is probably why my shoulder gave up the ghost.  The physiotherapist told me that if I wanted to swim for the rest of my life then I’d have to learn to breathe ‘on both sides’, which, like jogging, is something I’ve simply never been able to do.  So, during the Christmas just gone, with Zadie Smith in my head, I began teaching myself to breathe on my left as well as my right.  By the end of the first session I could do it, gingerly, and I had to concentrate, but I made it work.

As I walked home I thought, swimming might be a pleasure but teaching this old dog to learn new swimming-pool tricks is where joy lives.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 February 2013.)

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