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It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.

solar-bonesOne of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.

Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.

Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)

glasshousesFour poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.

the-hate-raceNon-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.

the-writers-roomIn terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.

Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.

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A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.

A screen grab of what goes through my head when I'm interviewing an author.

A screen grab of what goes through my head when I’m interviewing an author.

An indisputable joy for me over the past five years has been interviewing Australian authors for literary journal Verity La.

The interviews are conducted by email: I start with a question, the author responds, I ask a follow-up question, the author responds to that, and we keep going like this until we’ve reached a conclusion. Although I’ll have one or two questions prepared in advance, never have the interviews ended where I’ve expected them to, and I’ve learnt to follow the energy in the conversation, and allow the process – which isn’t far from writing letters to each other – to go into personal or dangerous territory. This part of the process can take a week or two, a month or two; some interviews have taken the best part of a year.

Once an interview has reached its natural conclusion, I bring it all together (keeping the order of the questions and answers as they happened), do a light edit, mostly for the purposes of consistency and to meet the editorial guidelines of Verity La, before I send it back to the interviewee for edits and clearance. This final stage in the process is critical: it allows the author to see her or his responses as part of a whole and also take the opportunity to make changes – and they almost always do, due to a desire to improve clarity and/or flow, or because, perhaps, it might be better to be more diplomatic, especially as the National Library of Australia archives Verity La.

With the publication of the most recent interview, with Biff Ward, the author of the extraordinary memoir In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), I thought it might be timely to prepare a bouquet of some of the most memorable observations, primarily about the writing process.

Enjoy.

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‘Isn’t that what writing is about – wanting to know more, daring to find out, being brave enough to inhabit a place even when you know it might be uncomfortable, even though you might find out that you are the stranger?’ – Francesca Rendle-Short

‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy

‘I find plunging into my imagination and making up stories endlessly interesting. I am fascinated by character, bringing each one to life through narrative. And I delight in the fact I can give a character a personality change if s/he is not working within the emerging novel. And I love the English language, it’s gorgeous. Such pleasure to be had playing with metaphor and imagery’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story’ – Andrew Croome

‘Everything we know, see, think, do, down to the minutest un-thought action, is stored in the pressure-cooker of memory where it gets steamed and combined into Memory Soup. Then, when the writer needs something, the soup produces it, not in the form it was originally but as what is needed now’ – Glenda Guest

‘Reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility’ – Paul Hetherington

‘I write stories because I feel compelled to do so. Because I love the writing process, everything about it. Well, maybe not those agonising moments where I know something is wrong but I can’t figure out what needs to happens next and begin to wonder if it’s possible I never will. But then something snaps and everything falls into place and that’s glorious’ – Irma Gold

‘One of my guiding principles in this old distinction between poetry and imaginative prose is Virginia Woolf’s observation that “…the poet gives us his essence, prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire”’ – Alan Gould

‘Material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and [my novel] needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level’ – Denise Young

‘It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them’ – Walter Mason

‘The way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘My so called ‘achievements’ are not a big deal. I was programmed to have fun, travel and speak my mind. It was more by accident than design I played a small part in extending the boundaries of free speech. It’s an ongoing task, unfortunately, because the leaders of nations both rich and poor will lie, cheat and even kill, in order to protect their interests’ – Richard Neville

‘I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced. Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs’ – Biff Ward

Two bits of news on The Beach Volcano.

Firstly, my alma mater, Verity La, has published a wonderfully thoughtful  and expansive review, one that manages to tease out some themes and interpretations that might have been buried even from me. It includes some generous conclusions: ‘The Beach Volcano rises and falls to a compelling beat. Not unlike John Cheever before him, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core. With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven. Unforgettable.’

The full review can be found here.

A French man's reaction after hearing that there's new Burial music in the world.

A French man’s reaction after hearing that there’s new Burial music in the world.

Secondly, Blemish Books has now made The Beach Volcano, and its cousins Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, available as e-books.

What’s more, for a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6, for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L, and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.

And finally, as you might know I’m obsessed with UK dub-step/electronica artist Burial. And he has new music: a single called ‘Temple Sleeper’. In a just world, there would be wild public celebrations, including dancing in the streets and drinking till dawn.

Onwards.

Devastating

Devastating

A good thing about being down and out with a bad case of winter ’flu, apart from the distinct possibility of a deep, sexy (maybe) radio-esque voice, is being able to read uninterrupted.

This week I finished Richard Flanagan’s epic The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage, 2013), which was the winner of the 2014 Independent Booksellers Award and has been shortlisted for other highly regarded literary gongs. I’m not going to review the novel – I wouldn’t know where to begin – but I do want to say that it’s extraordinary. Unflinching, devastating, multi-faceted, and ultimately very moving indeed. It focuses on an Australian doctor who was a POW on the Thai-Burma ‘death railway’ during the Second World War, but it also explores many other points of view, including the lovers of the men as well as those who found themselves guards and committed almost unspeakable atrocities. It’s sprawling, filmic, at times meandering, but it’s impossible not to be affected. Amazing that on the day I finished reading the work, Prime Minister Shinzo, Japan’s current head honcho, gave a presentation to a rare joint sitting of the Australian parliament; the associated speech by Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, is a different story.

2014 Independant Booksellers Award
2014 Independant Booksellers Award

2014 Independant Booksellers Award
2014 Independant Booksellers
Chekhovian

Chekhovian

Another book that’s been a part of my sick-bed (sick-couch, really) reading is The Wild Goose, a novella by Mori Ogai and translated by Meredith McKinney, the daughter of revered Australian poet Judith Wright. Ogai is considered one of the most notable writers of the Meiji era (1868-1912), during which Japan experienced significant changes in social and economic structures and foreign relations. McKinney has translated a work written by a man who was born in 1862 ‘in a Japan that had been officially closed to the rest of the world for centuries,’ as stated in the introduction. But Ogai went on to spend time in Germany where he immersed himself in western literature and although he was always convinced that Japan had to embrace modernity he also came to understand how much would be lost in the process. The Wild Goose, which has been beautifully produced by Finlay Lloyd, it’s a truly gorgeous object, is a story of love, entrapment, and the power of commerce. It is remarkably unformulaic, and it’s intriguingly Chekhovian in both spirit and scope. I’ll review it for Verity La soon, but I can tell you that it’s a novella that has got beneath my skin.

In the meantime, I really should hack up my other lung.

There’s been a bit of activity in the world of the Blemish novellas, and, as always, I want to share it with you.  First up, last weekend I read from I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012) at Bloom, an annual ‘open door’ festival held at the Gorman House and Ainslie arts centres in Canberra.  It was a packed day with a whole heap of people checking out the enourmous range of activity that happens in these places, much of it normally behind closed doors.  However, perhaps the most exciting part of the day for me was getting to share a literary bill with a bunch of writers who are extraordinary in their ability to perform their work, including Irma Gold, Sarah Rice, and slam poets Omar Musa and CJ Bowerbird.  I hadn’t seen slam poets so up close and personal, and I was blown away; in fact I really was overwhelmed. If you ever get to see these guys perform, steal your grandmother’s purse to make it happen – the way they deliver, with such connection and understanding of how words spread out and fill all corners and crevices of a room, is something very special.

Island: a place where some novellas happened; it's also a journal in which I have a yarn with Andrew Croome.

Island: a place where some novellas happened; it’s also a journal in which I have a yarn with Andrew Croome.

And then came this week, with the publication of the spring edition of Island, a longstanding literary journal out of Tasmania.  I always look forward to reading Island, but this one’s personally just a little more special as there’s an extensive interview with me, which was undertaken by Andrew Croome late 2012/early 2013.  Andrew is an award-winning Canberra-based novelist of espionage thrillers, including Document Z (Allen & Unwin, 2009), for which he won the 2008 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, and the highly acclaimed Midnight Empire (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  In a nice case of turning the tables, I’d interviewed Andrew for the Canberra Times and Verity La.  For the Island interview, we covered a fair bit of terrain, including the writing of Fall On Me (Blemish Books, 2011) and I’m Ready Now, the trials and tribulations of shifting between fiction and creative journalism, and the slipperiness of truth.  I won’t spoil the interview – you can buy a hard-copy or e-version of the journal and gobble up all the goodness by clicking on the cover image glaring at you on your screen (!) – but Mr Croome’s first question, which, to be frank, almost stumped me straight up, was this: What compels you to write? Have your reasons been constant, or have they changed over time?   Much gratitude to Andrew for getting me to think about these things, and to Island for giving our interview a home.

UPDATE: Island has now made the interview available for free.  It may be only for a short-time so get in quick, if quick is your thing, and literature is your thing also.

Male, female, masculinity, femininity: making crap up as we go along.

Male, female, masculinity, femininity: making crap up as we go along.

Proscrastination

This morning, after breakfast was done and the dog fed, and after sorting out the chooks for the day, I, feeling the need for just a few cheeky extra moments of procrastination, cleaned the loo and the sink and the mirror.  When done, I went into the garden and cut a small clump of pink geranium flowers, popped them in a little clear-glass bottle, filled the bottle with water, and set them out.  There: a sparkly, sparkling bathroom; and it always makes me feel brilliant.  Until I walk down to the writing-room with a strong mug of coffee in hand, turn on my computer and think, Oh Christ, I can’t remember where I’m up to.

Just activities

The point of all this? Manhood.  Or, at least, gender.  The thing is I’ve spent much of the last few weeks (on top of much of the last four and a half decades) thinking – worrying – about gender.  Along with most of Australia, probably.  Gender, sexism, equality: this is the stuff that’s currently flooding our radios and TVs and websites and newspapers.  But I don’t understand what any of it really means.  Last week over at Verity La I wrote an editorial about gender equality in terms of what the journal publishes, and I introduced the piece by saying that I simply don’t know what makes a man and what makes a woman.  Of course, we can talk in general terms, we can make observations based on assumptions.  Even though gender isn’t always black and white, it’s actually the notions of masculinity and femininity that are the hardest to define.  Is fixing a car a masculine activity?  Is cooking chicken soup a feminine activity?  Is tinkering in the shed with hammers and nails a masculine activity?  Is, oh I don’t know, blogging a feminine activity?  In the end the only rational conclusion is that these are just activities.  But if anyone knows of a logical definition of masculinity and femininity, do feel free to share it.

Political tedium

Yet one of the core precepts of human life is gender and what this enables and entitles us to do between being born and kicking the bucket.  In Australian political life, men wear dark-coloured suits with blue ties; woman wear whatever they want, more or less, though a pearl necklace, it seems, should be seriously considered if you’re in a leadership position.  Men can say whatever they want, even swear (hopefully off-camera), but it wouldn’t be right for women (even off-camera).  Men can be ruthless, but when women do the same we’re advised to approach with caution – she may be dangerous or mad, or even a witch.

The welfare of a child

Closer to home, I’ve been thinking about the welfare of children raised by same-sex parents.  I used to believe that as long as, say, the son of a lesbian couple had access to a good father-figure (an uncle or high-quality family friend), then all would be right with the world.  But what exactly is that father-figure meant to do?  Teach the son how to kick a footie and do air-guitar to AC/DC?  It’s just rubbish.  So my thinking evolved to this: as long as the son has access to masculine and feminine influences (both of which could be found in his two mothers) then all would be right with the world.  But does that mean one of the mothers has to be good at climbing onto the roof to clean out the gutters (a supposedly masculine trait) while the other has to be good at getting down on her hands and knees to clean the kitchen floors (a supposedly feminine trait)?  It’s totally absurd.  So recently my thinking has evolved to this: as long as the son is loved and protected and encouraged and challenged all will be right with the world; one day he might even climb the food-chain to be deputy prime-minister.

'Brokeback Mountain' by Annie Proulx: the best prose ever, as voted by me.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx: the best prose ever, as voted by me.

Best-ever novels, Fred Nile and the Australian soccer team

But here’s a thing: even closer to home, when I think of my favourite novels, you know, the ones that I’d rescue if the house was burning down around my ears, all but one (Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx) are written by men, and all of them (except, ironically, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tobin) are about men finding their way in the world and, quite honestly, fucking it up as they go here, there, and everywhere.  Further, as I pointed out over at Verity La, there is a distinct bias towards male writers in the work the journal publishes – and I’m the one who makes the decisions.  Surely it goes beyond my personal sexuality (which, sorry Fred Nile, is genetic) to something sinister: in society, and in the way we move through and within society, men have an access-all-areas voice while women must know their place.  Cue: the coach of the Australian soccer team and his completely and utterly ridiculous ‘private joke’.

Making crap up

It’s pretty handy that as Australians we live in an environment where these matters can be discussed so freely and openly (though I’d be brave to the point of stupidity to chew this stuff over with some mates down at my Goulburn local).  It’s also interesting that these issues have been brought to front of stage by a female prime-minister who is, rightly or wrongly (perhaps both), and consciously or unconsciously (perhaps both), using her gender to bolster her government (which has, it should be said, achieved a lot despite almost crippling political and economic circumstances).  But it would be good to reach the chapter – I thought we had already, but clearly I was wrong – where actions are just actions: they don’t have sex or genders.  Like picking pink flowers for the bathroom.  But it’s likely this is me just being a bit of a fairy.  And, as always, making crap up.

Let’s be honest: when all this started I had no idea what I was doing.  But it’s best we go back a bit.

In the autumn of 2009, I spent a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people on the Shoalhaven River just south of Sydney.  On the last night the other artists and I had a few drinks and shared stories of our time in the glorious creative isolation as well handed out business cards and email addresses and website URLs.  I had none of those things – really, how committed was I to writing?  By the time I’d driven home, I resolved to at least get the internet put on at home and set up an email address.

By October of that year, I had indeed got these things, but I also had a website designed, and I set up this blog.  I knew next to nothing about blogging other than it might be a good way of sharing news, if, that is, anyone was interested.  So here we are, in October 2012 and it seems almost impossible to believe that Under the counter or a flutter in a dovecot (which is, to be frank, a ridiculous name for a blog, a ridiculous name for anything) is heading into its fourth year.

It’s probably as good a time as any to reflect on the positives and challenges, so let’s do it, the reflection thing.

On the whole, I’ve enjoyed my time in the blogosphere, even if most of the online energy appears to have shifted to Facebook and Twitter, leaving blogs to feel just a little old-fashioned, which to a certain extent suits me fine because I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.  Thankfully, when I started this thing, I promised that I’d post only once per week, and I’ve kept to that, more or less.  Is it true that at the beginning I had no idea what I was doing?  Yes, it’s true, and I still might have no idea, although I have come to think of this blog as a diary that I write with other people in mind.  But it’s not a personal diary; I’ve been fairly keen to focus on writing and literature, music, other arts activity, and some quirky investigations into those little things that happen in a day that might have deeper meanings.  Like the last days of a chook.

I’ve enjoyed asking myself during the week, what will I post this weekend, what’s happened or happening that others might be intrigued about?  There’s a discipline to that, on a number of levels.  I’ve also found it fun to try out different things: writing music reviews (which is surprisingly difficult), trying to approach technology in new and weird ways (the On the other side of the city ‘survey’, and what sprung from it, has been a highlight), and it’s good to know that every one of the fifty or so First Word columns that I’ve written for The Canberra Times is stored here, and the features I’ve written have also had a second life online, meaning that the artists I’ve interviewed have been able to link to them (The Canberra Times has only very recently made Panorama, the paper’s weekend magazine, available electronically).

Plus there’s been the great pleasure of getting to know a number of the regular readers of Under the counter – all of whom, it’s amazing to realise, aren’t from my real-world community, some are even from overseas.  In a way, you are modern-day Pen Friends, or maybe that should be Keyboard Friends.  Some of you have become significant contributors to Verity La, that other part of my online life, and for that I thank you.  And, of course, there’s the handful of blogs that I comment on regularly, because the posts are frequently excellent and thought-provoking – have a look at the blog-roll to the left for the links.  Some of these blogs, for example Whispering Gums, are becoming influential, particularly in the funny little world that is literature, and that’s a great thing – a strong and sophisticated writing culture comes from articulate and erudite public discussion about creative practice (even if that observation and the sentence make me sound like a wanker).

What about the challenges?  There have been times, it’s true, when I’ve been all out of ideas, though this can also be a positive, as it’s forced me to still produce something, even if it’s a hastily put-together collage that looks like a six-year-old did it.  A key part of my blogging routine is commenting on other blogs – I can hardly expect readers to comment on this blog if I don’t comment other blogs.  Do comments matter?  Yes, they matter.  I do want to know what people think; I do want to know if readers have been moved, and a comment is a sure sign of that.  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for commenting – it’s made my day.  But it can be exhausting – and time-consuming – to find posts that I want to absorb and comment on.

It was – and continues to be – most gratifying that the National Library of Australia selected Under the counter for archiving in-perpetuity (if that isn’t a tautology) as part of its PANDORA program.  To think that maybe, just maybe, a researcher will stumble across this little old place in a hundred years time is a bit special.  There’s no doubt that without the commenters commenting and the National Library’s interest I would have stopped long ago – there’s only so often you can call out into the digital abyss.  And there have been times when I’ve wondered if the end might be in sight; in fact, to be completely frank, I can see the end right now.  I won’t keep this blog going forever, nor should it just keep rolling on and on and on.  But I’m not done just yet; there’s a bit more fuel in the tank, even if the engine’s developed a rattle.

Many many thanks again, and here’s to a bit more Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot.  For the time-being at least.

I knew something was wrong when I lost my temper while trying to do up my shoelaces – it all just seemed too much.  ‘God, I’m over it, over everything.’  As I eventually got my act together and managed to leave the house to walk down the street to do the grocery shopping, I did an urgent scan of my life.  It wasn’t only the shoelaces that were doing my head in.  I was horrified to realise that my morning coffee, a routine that I’d previously adored, the three-stage process, the smell, the taste, had also become a source of tension and anger.  Even the simple act of trying to open the back door so I could sit in the sun and watch the chooks for a few minutes had become a chore – the door was in my way and I hated it.

Why on earth was I so anxious and uptight? Sure I’ve had a lot on my plate this year: a new novella, I’m Ready Now, will be published by Blemish Books in November, so there has been polish after polish after polish (and worry after worry after worry); and I’m always working on new stories; and I do freelance writing for The Canberra Times; and I edit Verity La; and I’m an active member of an arts advocacy body called The Childers Group; and I maintain this blog.  But I live mortgage-free in a house I love, and home is an easy-going regional town.  And this year I’ve said no to things, over half a dozen, and all were good and exciting, but back in January, as a core New Year’s resolution, I promised that I’d say no more often to make sure things stay well-juggled, and I’ve held myself to that promise.  But the fact remained: tightening my shoelaces and making coffee and trying to open the back door made me lose my head.

Clearly needing to chill-out I decided to ease back on social media for a week – it seemed to be one thing that I could control.  I’m a late-bloomer in terms of Facebook, signing up only last year; I joined because a project in which I’m involved was communicating through Facebook.  Soon I was using the thing for my own writing and life – the word missing there is ‘marketing’ – as well as spreading news about Verity La and The Childers Group.  I run a Twitter account each for VL and Childers; I’m not much of a participant in the Twitterverse, preferring to simply put out a couple of tweets each week – to me it feels as though I’m sending up a flare to see if anyone notices (they rarely do).  In total, across both platforms, I’d probably knock out as few as six posts per week, most non-personal and the majority about people other than myself.  But I did check my Facebook ‘news-feed’ two to three times a day – first thing in the morning, at lunch, and before dinner.  After I read the newspapers on-line I’d sign in and scroll through, click the Like button every so often, make the odd comment, scroll through some more.

Amazingly, within twenty-four hours of giving up the scrolling side of my social-media life, I felt more relaxed.  Much more.  My head seemed clearer.  Actually it felt as if my head was my own again, as well as my mind, my heart too, perhaps even my soul.  I felt more myself, more whole; my natural shape was returning.

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I should make it clear that I’m a person who does get anxious at a drop of a hat.  You should see me trying to pack up to go away for a couple of days – now that really is too much!  And when I’m in the city and have to drive in traffic, well, that’s no good for anyone.  Anxiety is in my genes; it’s etched onto my DNA.  I can keep everything in check by daily exercise, especially walking and lap-swimming, and listening to certain types of music, and gardening, and being alone – too much socialising knocks me for a six.  Exercise has to be a daily thing otherwise I unravel very quickly.  If I don’t write for a week (which is a very, very rare event) I start going all wobbly at the knees.  So my life is a fine balance.  Whose isn’t?  But what I realised was I’d upset this fine balance by plugging myself into a – let’s not sugar-coat this – stream of random crap.

As each day went by in my new non-news-feed world I felt more and more at ease.  I could go through the back door without wanting to smash it down.  I could get together the coffee and enjoy the process.  Yes, I can even do up my shoelaces and have a smile on my face.  Why was social media having such a negative impact?  It is, after all, social, albeit in a vacuous kind of way, and I’m not someone who can be social 24/7 – a good week is one in which I’m able to spend 30% of the time in my own company, not that I prefer my own company, it’s just that I don’t need constant connection and engagement.  I also like a single source of stimulus, a book, a film, a piece of music, but not all at once.  Facebook is as if life has been shoved into a blender and the slops injected into your veins.  At the risk of mixing up too many metaphors, it’s also like the staff-room in an office or the student refectory at university or the common-room at school – I don’t mind ducking in and ducking out, but I loath lingering there for hours.  So social media may not be the best for non-social people like me.

But it’s also about the type of socialising that happens on Facebook.  The vast majority – 99% – is, of course, banal.  Someone saying that they had a good cappuccino, or a bad cappuccino, or an average cappuccino.  A picture of a cat with a vaguely funny caption.  A link to a video of a song from thirty years ago, a song that we’ve all forgotten and there are good reasons why we’ve all forgotten it.  Or those manipulatively demanding status updates where someone writes ‘Wow, that upset me’ or ‘I wish I hadn’t said what I did’ so we’re forced to ask ‘What upset you?’ or ‘What did you say that you shouldn’t have?’  And then there are those who use it as though it’s a counsellor: ‘I’m realising that I’m an okay person’.  Good for you.  That sounds bitchy, I know, but can anything truly good and long-lasting come from someone who is seriously down in the dumps trying to seek comfort in a machine?  Is crowd-sourcing psychoanalysis actually healthy?

However, even thoughtful posts from my more erudite ‘friends’ (those inverted commas are necessary because I haven’t met these people) become annoying after a while – it’s like being stuck in a world where the only program on offer is the ABC’s Q&A.  Or posts from very worthy organisations pleading for me to send an email to a politician, or to take action against some kind of abuse.  It all adds up to a bombardment.  It feels like I’m forcing myself to scavenge in the tip.  Worse: it feels like I’m allowing myself to have the tip poured over me on a daily basis.  (These metaphors keep coming.)  It’s not just about feeling dirty; it’s about feeling as though I’m being buried alive.  And then there’s the sense that the boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’ are being eroded, so much so that identity is deformed before lost altogether.  Some commentators like to say that social media is a great aggregator, but really we’re just being mashed up into oblivion.

And then there’s the addiction.  You know you’re in trouble when you’re in a mad rush, you have to be out of the house RIGHT NOW, in fact five minutes ago, but still you check Facebook to make sure there’s not something there that you really need to know about, even though you know that there isn’t going to be something there that you really need to know about, so now you’re even more late, but – hang on – one last check.  Or you find yourself simply scrolling through, not reading, not engaging, just scrolling, like the smoker who simply needs something to do with his hands.  (That’s it: I’m done with the metaphors.)

Sure, there are good things to be found in the social-media world.  One morning a radio-producer friend put up a post saying that he was going to cover for a presenter who’d come down sick so was looking for news items to fill the program.  My first novella, Fall on Me, had recently been published, so I sent him the publisher’s media release and that afternoon I was on-air talking about the book.  Another example: a page I ‘liked’ which highlights publishing opportunities in North American put up a post saying that a particular literary journal was looking for a certain type of story; I submitted a piece and months later had a story published overseas.  And it’s true that sometimes someone will post a comment or a photo or a video that is genuinely poignant and memorable, but I can count these experiences on one hand.

It’s also true that social media can be worthwhile for a project like Verity La – if a well-crafted post about a new story or poem or review can draw a couple of hundred people to the work and the writer then I’m more than happy to do it.  Similarly with The Childers Group.  Recently I was astonished to receive from Facebook a statistics update on Childers page which claimed that the potential reach was 18,000 people, even though only 50 people have actually formally connected with the thing.  For a voluntary body that’s trying to increase discussion about the value of the arts it’s hard to ignore the possibilities of these figures.

*

As I write I’m in the second week of my Approach Facebook With Caution way of getting through the week, and I continue to feel more relaxed and clearer in the head.  I’m still posting things about Verity La and The Childers Group but am no longer posting personal status updates, you know the ones, those that are put there simply to fill the void.  When I bring up the Facebook login screen and see that there are no little red marks in the left-hand corner indicating activity I simply don’t enter – like the alcoholic outside the pub, I’m learning to walk away.  (Damnit, another metaphor.)  I know that this isn’t really in the spirit of Facebook: if I want people to engage with my posts I should engage in posts by others.  It’s also hypocritical: I don’t want to be polluted by my news-feed but I’m more than happy to pollute other people’s news-feeds.  Rather frighteningly, Facebook seems to have noticed that I’m no longer accessing the site on a daily basis so it has given me login-free access, meaning I’m taken into the site as soon as I click on the Facebook icon in my list of favourites.  Perhaps this is a coincidence, but it does make you wonder if the machine is becoming too intelligent for our own good.

A quick Google search of ‘Facebook’ and ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’ and ‘mental health’ reveals a potentially endless list of articles quoting peer-reviewed research into the negative impacts of social media on quality of life.  No doubt the worthwhile mantra in this context is everything in moderation.  But what I’m suggesting is that for some people social media – which can be defined as a perpetual and invasive onslaught of random and mostly meaningless ‘thoughts’ and ‘observations’ and links and images – is as potentially harmful as trying to walk across a six-lane freeway at peak-hour.  Clearly I’m not done with these metaphors: they’re starting to feel a lot like a Facebook news-feed…and I’m getting the jitters.

So why don’t I just quit?  While I’m writing books and editing a literary journal and being active in an arts advocacy body, I will continue to use social media to communicate (although I doubt that communicate is the right word to use in this context) things that might be of interest to others.  It’s reported that up to 10 million Australians are on Facebook – 45% of the population – and 6.6 million people check the site daily.  And we’re just one tiny country; it’s probably impossible to know how many people there are around the world who are regular Facebook users.  It can only be assumed that many enjoy it.  So that’s a massive audience who are willing to be engaged through this medium.  Writing and literature – any kind of creative practice – is a tough game, and all tools have to be seriously considered if we want to cut through to the general populace.

However, I do wonder if for many, including myself, the personal cost of being immersed in this environment could reach the point where it’s fatal.  I’d certainly like to be able to keep doing up my shoelaces without wanting to ram by head through a brick wall.

So far, so good.

*

Update: here’s a very interesting article from The Sydney Morning Herald about how some high-profile novelists are dealing with social media and its impact on their writing.

It’s 8.15, Sunday morning.  Outside there are just a few wispy strips of cloud in an otherwise perfect blue sky, the sort of sky only my country can do.  There are still leaves on the trees, but there’s some yellowing at the edges.  It’s crisp out there, as in the temperature is low, probably around five degrees, which is nothing – in a couple of months it will be minus five, or less, much less.  So here I am, in the dining room, where I am writing this post by hand.  I have the heater on, and three layers of tops, and tracksuit pants, and ugg-boots, but that’s already too much information, isn’t it.

The fact is that I can’t wait to get outside.  There’s a chook-yard to clean, and a veggie-patch that’s starting to look just a little bit sad and sorry for itself – the basil’s long gone, and the tomatoes only have a week to go before they’ll be done and dusted.  Most of all, however, I want to plant bulbs, yes, daffodils, jonquils, snow-drops and more.  Despite this house being 120 years old, there wasn’t much garden when I moved in; the place would have been decimated by decades of searing summers and pitiless winters, and, far too regularly, drought.  But I’m getting it together, it’s a cottage garden now, I think that’s what I’ve created.

But here I am at the dining-room table, writing this post, because that’s what I do first thing every Sunday morning.

This time three years ago I didn’t have the internet at home, not even a private email address that I could access from someone else’s computer.  It was when on residence at Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River that during the final-night celebration the other artists handed out business cards with details of their on-line lives.  On the drive home I resolved to at least get an email account – how much of a professional writer could I be without it?

Within months, I had not only an email address, but also Open to Public, my formal web home, if that’s what it is, and Under the counter, which quickly became Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot.  And then I started Verity La, and then the Childers Group, an arts advocacy body, which, of course, needed a site.  And then bloody wretched Facebook reared its ugly head; I signed up because I’d been invited to participate in a writing project and the only way the organiser would communicate was through FB, those initials sounding like those of a close friend, but that’s hardly the case.

This week I realised that I now have five active email accounts.  And then there are the Facebook messages, and mobile-phone calls and messages, and sometimes even the land-line rings, though mostly it’s only telemarketeers who call these days.

I confess that it’s quite a struggle to juggle all these strands of what’s become my own on-line life.  I enjoy this blog, very much in fact – it’s become something like a diary that I write with other people in mind.  However, I’m glad that from the outset I committed to doing only one post per week, and only an hour or two of participating in other blogs.  Facebook has become a necessary annoyance more than anything else (and I’m avoiding Twitter like the plague).  It’s the whole email thing that’s got out of control.  On the back of an envelope I’ve estimated that I receive between three- and four-hundred emails each week, and the vast majority of them are important and/or interesting.  So my laptop has become a source of stress, with only the odd bit of pleasure thrown in, if I’m lucky.

How do you keep your on-line life in check?  What rules do you put in place, if any?  What do you do when your digital living starts to unravel in front of your eyes?

I tell you what I do.  I go out into the garden and remove plants, or plant plants, or clean out the chook-yard.  Or sometimes I just sit outside on a little bench with a cup of coffee and simply watch the chooks – how good it is to observe them going about their lives.  Do they care that they don’t have access to Youtube or 24/7 coverage of what’s happening in the world through multi-media newspaper sites? Do they care that they don’t know that someone on the other side of the world has just had the worst cup of soy-chai latte in the history of the universe?

No, not in the slightest, and I envy them for that, I really do.

There's about to be another...

Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday morning, I sent an email.  It wasn’t any old email; it was a very particular email, one I’d been thinking of sending for months.  The email was to three people: a well-known Australian writer, a life-long publisher, and the man behind a radical Melbourne-based press.  All three men, good men, wise men, in their own various ways have become a mentor to me, because I can’t do this alone.

Over the last two years the well-known Australian writer has been working with me on a manuscript for my second novel; how encouraging he has been, so generous with his advice and time.  The longstanding publisher put out my first novel, Remnants, distributing it nationally and internationally, garnering ten reviews, nine of which were more than positive; I have a contract out on the writer of the negative one.  The man behind the radical press read a manuscript I wrote when I did my masters in creative writing back at the University of Wollongong in 2000/2001 and loved it so much that he wanted to publish it; when it was eventually published – it would become the manuscript for my first novel – he offered me such praise that I was humbled to a pulp.

Yes, these men have become mentors, people I look up to, people I need.

Two weeks ago, I was in need of some mentorly love, because I’d hit a wall.  After seventeen years of writing, of hard work, the last five of which have been so incredibly intense, getting up at 5am even when I felt like I’d been hit by a train, being committed, tenacious, single-minded, I had nothing to show for it.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  To keep myself sane during the writing of what I’d hoped would be my second novel, I produced what I’ve been calling ‘creative journalism’, which is a euphemism for ‘stuff I send to the newspaper even though I have no idea what I’m doing’.  It’s true that I’ve loved writing these pieces – a monthly 500-word column (filed here on Under the Counter in the various First Word archives) and the odd feature – and I’ve taken their production seriously, as seriously as I take my fiction.  But it’s not fiction, it’s not as magical as that.

It’s true that in the last eighteen months I’ve established a website, and this blog-shaped spot in the world, and Verity La – the on-line creative arts journal that thinks it can, and actually does, and more recently, to my amazement and gross disappointment, a god-damn Facebook profile.  (Finding myself with the latter is like spending a lifetime hating commercial FM pop music only to discover myself enjoying a Phil Collins CD.  If this were to happen in real life, I’m off to Mars.)

The point of my email to my holy trinity of mentors?  That I’d had enough.

Of writing.  Of being a writer.

Yes, it sounds dramatic, even overdramatic.  But I couldn’t see the point of continuing.  Sure, I love the act of writing, the intolerable wrestle with words and ideas, and I love the act of reading – my bookshelves radiate such goodness into my little home that I could never imagine being without them.  However, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and asking the hard questions.  Has this love of mine become a health-hazard?  (Perhaps heroin addicts ask the same question.)  Might it not be better to spend the next forty years pottering around in my garden, pruning this, potting that, planting something else?  Gardening is fulfilling, and life-saving, especially now that I have only a handkerchief-sized plot of dirt to play in.

The odds of getting published in Australia are extraordinarily long – one in a thousand is a figure I saw quoted in a reputable literary journal – and you have to write something extraordinary for it to have a life out of the bottom drawer.  It’s this that I shared with my mentor men.  Of course, I was fishing for words of wisdom, if not outright praise.  ‘Nigel, you are clearly the best developing writer in the country – it would be a crime against humanity to give up now.’  That kind of thing.

I sent my email, shut down my lap-top, and then thought to myself, what a whiny, ungrateful bastard that email will make me sound like.  But I didn’t care – I meant what I wrote, because I needed help.  It was the first time I’d done such a rash thing.

So, it was with more than a shock that I opened the laptop the next morning and found not a reply from one of my mentor men but an email from Blemish Books saying that they were interested in a pair of novellas that I’d sent them and would like to meet to discuss their publication.  We’ve since had our meeting and the first novella, Fall On Me, will be published in September/October this year; depending on the success of the first, the second, I’m Ready Now, will be published in 2012.

Am I excited?  You better fucking believe it.

In the past, the journey to publication has been a private matter, something that I’ve largely kept to myself, the choicest bits shared with He Who Has To Put Up With These Things, and a little bit dribbled here and there to family and friends.  This time, however, thanks to a website, this blog, and a god-damn Facebook profile, I’m going to do regular updates – reality TV, if you like, except without the TV.  We could call the series of posts Nigel’s Got Talent (no, that won’t do, obviously), or The Text-Factor (cute, but corny), or My Novella Rules (which is pretty hilarious).  Or perhaps we should simply call it The Blemish Novella Story.  Yes, we’ll call it that, because ‘blemish’ means ‘imperfection’ and ‘fault’ and ‘blotch’, and I am nothing if not these things.

Come with me as I tell all – the whole box and dice: the highs, the lows, the gossip, the last-minute dramas and hissy-fits – as a little novella that was born in a cliff-face gatekeeper’s cottage comes into the gaze of what I can only hope will be a completely and utterly adoring public.

Hoo-bloody-ray for the unpredictability of life.

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