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The bedside bookstack – Summer 2021

What I’m reading and what was gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this summer.

I moved over Christmas and so it wasn’t a massive book stack this summer. Most of my to-be-reads were still boxed up and after all the unpacking it took me a while to get back into a reading habit.  But here’s what was on the book stack.

The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall, Simon & Schuster, 2020

In an unspecified but uncomfortably familiar future, Australia is a surveillance state with the climactic woe of current predictions.

Mim is quietly panicked. Her husband has gone missing in an offshore mining project and the contact she’s getting from the’ Department’ and underground journalists flag that she’s not being told everything about it.

There is also geopolitical instability and this oppressive loss of control for both Mim and the average citizen permeates the narrative.

But amidst geopolitical and climatic extremes people are still people. Mim looks to what she can do by protecting her children and trying to find her husband. Motherhood still sits with its complexities, old lust dies hard (if it actually dies) and family loyalty is tested.

This was a real page turner.

Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery, University of Queensland Press, 2020

This anthology of short stories by Australian writer Laura Elvery is inspired by the women who have won the Nobel Prize for scientific research. With only twenty female wins (two of them to Marie Curie) and what feels like not a lot of historical fanfare, it seems right to give them another nod.

The women and their discoveries are the starting point, so the stories take you across distance and time. Occasionally, a former winner is reimagined as a younger or older self (Marie Curie on tour with her daughters, Rosalyn Yalow on the eve of the Prize ceremony in Stockhom) but mostly it’s the discoveries and how they have changed lives in big and small ways – something we all participate in with scientific discovery whether we consider it or not.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakamo, Picador, 2020

This wasn’t an easy read, or perhaps I mean a ‘comfortable’ read. Set in modern Japan, it follows a mother, daughter and aunt. These women don’t have many options. The past actions of other people in their life, usually men, mean they are working hard to survive.  

There’s a cataloguing of small details – meals eaten, actions done, that snagged the narrative for me but certainly added to the oppressive and repetitive sense of their days.

It’s offered as a novel but feels more like two novellas (the notes say it’s the extended version of a novella). The second part of the book offers more hope and liberation for the aunt that comes from financial freedom. Her struggle changes to a moral and philosophical one regarding donor sperm and IVF parenthood in Japan.

The Burning Island by Jock Serong, Text Publishing, 2020

This was a real page-turner for me. I’ve never read anything else by Jock Serong but will definitely track down his other titles. I also don’t read a lot of historical fiction crime thrillers – if that’s what this could be defined as.

This story is set in early colonial Australia on a sea voyage from Sydney down to the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait.

A group of disparate characters are onboard; a naval lieutenant disgraced by his drunkenness, convict brothers bound by blood loyalty, the quiet Captain who navigates ever onwards, and the doctor scientist, whose charisma and curiosity pique the tedium for our narrator, Eliza.

A sense of doom pervades the narration from the isolation, the atrocities, and the landscape. It’s a great tale of revenge, grief, loyalty, lust and betrayal. But don’t fear all that heaviness because Jock Serong can turn the body of a drowned man to poetry as silver fish empty from the water in his mouth.

Our Shadows by Gail Jones, Text Publishing, 2020

In her characteristic poetic prose, Gail Jones writes the strata of time and families. There is the Irish immigrant who finds the gold nugget that Kalgoorlie is founded on, the grandfather miner who carries the damage and grief of a world war and a dead daughter, and the orphan granddaughters who split under the weight of their shared past.

The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Harper Perennial, 2009

Surprised, and a little disappointed, that I didn’t get any new books for Christmas, I had to read what was in the garage sale pile at my brother’s house. We moved houses and cities over Christmas and my books were still boxed up well into January.

I think this book was pretty big when it came out. It was also early on in the complete-sentence-as-book-title trend. It’s satirical and clever in its summaries of history and politics which I wasn’t expecting but there was also a touch of the slapstick to it that was just  a bit much for me – kind of a ‘caper’ journey where the old man meets a string of unlikely allies through a series of unlikely adventures.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

This tome was my only Christmas book (and it actually arrived in January). I haven’t started it yet. Anything over 500 pages seems to sink further down the book stack for sheer stability of the pile.

Billed as a generational family saga about Koreans in Japan, I missed the hype of this book when it came out but put it on my wish list after listening to this interview with Min Jin Lee on Conversations.

Sounds like once I get stuck in, I won’t be coming up for air for a while.

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Are you a goal getter?

With a fresh new year, it’s time to put pen to paper…..and do a little planning.

I’ve always liked the fresh start of a new year. First, I write a letter to the year that was. I reflect and say goodbye. Then, I write a letter to the new year to say hi and have a little chat about my hopes and ideas for the next 12 months.

My 2020 diary (A5, week to a double-page, hard cover, Kikki-k) now has me hooked on setting some goals too. I liked the questions it asked at the beginning of the year. They were an extension of the reflections in my letters and not all of them were about goals. It had regular check-ins and prompts. Then it got granular and asked what I needed to do in the next thirty days to get things moving. It asked about actions and priorities and kept asking about them all year. Actually, it asked every month and week and all that asking kept me on track.

There were no trick questions. It was always the same thing again and again re-checking what my goals were, what the priorities within them were and what actions I needed to do to get there.

So, I nibbled away rather than taking bite-sized chunks and found out that it’s much easier to keep an appetite that way. I also don’t give as much procrastination push-back to small tasks. Once I got some momentum going, I found that actually doing the things you’ve been meaning to do is very satisfying and kinda addictive.

There’s oodles of stuff out there about goals and goal setting. There’s a whole industry devoted to it but the simplicity of a regular written reflection was enough for me.

In a pandemic year, I managed to move cities with my young family and finish writing an anthology of short stories. One needed logistics and planning, the other, discipline. Both needed the stamina of ‘the long game’ and I may not have been as match-fit for that if I hadn’t been constantly checking in on them as ‘goals’.

The lesson I could’ve done with learning a decade ago is that it’s possible to think about something you want, consistently do small actions towards making it so and then have it actually happen.

I know. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

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Subscription conniptions

It’s time to reassess the prescription when the anxiety of all your unread subscriptions overtakes the pleasure of actually reading them.

I’m way over-subscribed. There are so many great magazines, journals and newspapers whose writing I love and who need readers and subscribers. But for the past few years, and this year in particular, they’ve just piled up next to my bed. They don’t get mentioned in my monthly bedside bookstacks, because they don’t get read.

There’s a novel, whose title I can’t remember, about the editor of an English-language newspaper on the continent. My recall of exact plot details is as uncertain as my memory of the title (but that’s for another post and apparently something that Helen Garner and I have in common) but I think the owner of the paper is dead. His widow is still alive and here’s the part I do remember; she has a copy of every issue stacked up in her house and is slowly working her way through and reading them.

She’s years behind but just keeps ploughing on through them. It’s the only part of the book which has stayed with me, because sometimes I feel like that. My pile is more varied but the slog of ever getting through it, once it’s so big, just feels like a chore and obligation.

I have an early association about newspapers which still shadows how I treat these subscriptions. I seem to think that you have to read everything. Yes, that’s every article in order of the pages, regardless of whether it engages you or not. No one told me I had to do it like that but I was definitely shocked when I found out that most people were skipping around the pages based on what interested them.

This year all I wanted was fiction. I think my news capacity was filled with COVID-19 updates and all the ensuing fallout.

I’ve subscribed to the Monthly for around 20 years because I think it’s got some of Australia’s best journalism in it. After this year’s issues slowly stacked higher, I finally went through them two weeks ago. And the only way to get through the backlog is to pick and choose what you read. It still feels like a novel concept. I stopped my previous subscriptions to The Saturday Paper and Harpers after a couple of years because I hadn’t caught onto the skip and select method yet.

I got a gift subscription to Audrey Daybook (now Mindful Puzzles). It has the most gorgeous graphics and a mix of articles and puzzles but until my time has more realistic slots for a cup of tea and some time out, I won’t be renewing it.

I also have a subscription to Australian Book Review and Island because I think at any time, a writer should support at least one of the publications they submit to. I usually share my literary journal subscriptions around and over the years have had subscriptions to Westerly, the Lifted Brow, Overland, Meanjin, the Griffith Review and Granta. All of these are great journals with some great writing that are worth checking out, but my rule now is, one at a time.

I still love a subscription arriving in the mail. I love the flick of the pages and the tease of a front cover. I also think it’s important to support writing, especially in local publications. But the anxiety I get as my unread pile grows and the sense of obligation I then associate with getting through it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. It also hasn’t been a year of financial bounty.

So, I’m going to keep it simple for next year and stick to two subscriptions; one newsy and one creative. And if one of them is quarterly rather than monthly and I remember that it’s OK to skip or skim, then I won’t get buried in the backlog.

…..and if anyone knows the name of the novel I can’t remember, please let me know.

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The bedside bookstack – November 2020

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this month.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson, Jonathon Cape 2020

By some random literary luck, I picked up three novels this month that could be loosely described as modern gothic. This one definitely felt like it was a firm fit for the genre. It was as compelling as it was unsettling and at times it felt like I was caught in the pages of a Henry James novel.

July and September are sisters. They’re a slim 9 months apart but their connection is more like twins. After an undisclosed event at school, their mother moves them away to a remote house owned by her ex-husband’s sister. The house has history for all of them but there is a sense of things closing in metaphorically rather than the freedom and release of being remote.

September, the older sister, has a ravenous love and control over July. And the mother, in her own fog of grief and depression fears September as a version of the violent husband who fathered her.

I read it a bit franticly, trying to keep up with the action and get to the final reveal. I read so fast that I was sure I was missing something important and wasn’t quite putting all the pieces together but I didn’t want to slow down and in the end it all comes out.

A warning that it’s always raining – everyone is always wet and muddy and cold. There’s a lot of stumbling around in the dark and I longed for some warm waterproof clothes and a few sunny days to dry everything out. Not very gothic of me, I know.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, Vintage 2020

I think this book would have to be in my top five for 2020. I just loved it. It’s the second of my accidental gothic novels this month with parallel narratives about three women all linked by family, location and a haunting. The bristling and elemental Scottish coastline is very much a character too.

Violence and aggression against women is a common thread through these narratives from the extremes of stabbed bodies to the attrition of emotional manipulation and insistence.

There is the idea that these women aren’t to be trusted and so they doubt themselves when really, it’s the men in their lives who should be viewed suspiciously.

They’re often frozen by their own doubts about what’s going on and revert to the shamefully familiar thought -‘I shouldn’t make a big deal about it.”

This was a real ‘wow’ read for me.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, Scribner 2020

Kim Jiyoung is the Korean every-woman. She’s named for the most popular girl’s name in that year. She is a normal girl with a normal family who follows the ‘normal’ path. Normal starts to unravel for her after having a baby when she briefly takes on the persona of other women in her life.

This book reads like a diary or catalogue. It lists, in a very understated way, the norms of Jiyoung’s life as a woman, especially a young one.

The preferential treatment of male siblings, classmates and colleagues made my blood boil. And the endemic misogyny in workplaces was a sobering reminder that things have only changed very recently and the fact that I tutted with recognition when I read it makes me wonder how much has actually changed.

Thank god this book was written and that a million copies have been bought breaking the code of ‘keeping quiet like a good girl’.

Sweetness and Light by Liam Pieper, Hamish Hamilton, 2020

I stayed up late last night to finish this one. It was a real page turner for me and should replace ‘The Beach’ as the definitive backpacker book. I liked the premise of an Australian expat in India who scams tourists in a beach town who then gets himself in too deep. Worlds collide when he runs into an American woman looking for a spiritual experience and a way to move on with her life.  

Anyone who has done any travel, especially backpacking, through south-east Asia, will love the familiarity of it all. Overnight trains, touts and tea stalls, seekers and surfers are all brought to life in a familiar but sometimes uncomfortable light.

I didn’t know how or where this one was going to end – which is a great thing and I recommend it as a perfect summer read.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings, Picado, 2020

This was the last of my accidental gothic trio of books this month and is by the very talented Kathleen Jennings whose gorgeous and other-worldly cut-paper silhouettes deserve their own mention.

But I digress…Bettina lives in the quiet rural town of Runagate with her mum. Her brothers and father have disappeared and there are rumours about strange creatures that have been sighted nearby.

I have to confess, I was very tired when I read this and was kind of unmoored from the start. I was never clear on when and where we were exactly and what was going on. It was described as part folk tale, part mystery, so there’s an intention for the reader to be unsettled and uncertain. They sure were for me.

The love of a good woman by Alice Munro, Vintage 1998

I picked this up at a garage sale and I love finds like this because they seem to arrive so serendipitously. I’d just been thinking I needed another Alice Munro on my shelf. I only have Dear Life thus far.

Haven’t read a word of it yet but am always happy for the bedside bookstack to have a few anthologies when I’m between books or just want a little slice of something. I’m sure I’ll get some in over the summer break.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, Vermilion 2016

This tome of a thing is sitting at the bottom of my bookstack. Not at all the kind of book I usually get, I bought it because of the eloquent recommendation that Katherine Colette gave it on the First Time Podcast.

The subtitle is: the tactics, routine and habits of billionaires, icons and world-class performers. So, there’s obviously going to be some interesting stuff in there but how and when to find it?

I already have another couple of writing/business books sitting around unread. The problem is that I do most of my reading at night and this is a ‘work’ book, so when am I going to choose that over the pleasure of a narrative?

Being realistic, it’s only going to get opened if I put it in as part of my working day.

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Do books belong out in the world or on your bookshelf?

For something that is really just printed words on paper, we have some very strong feelings and ideas about our books as possessions. Seeing a full bookshelf calms me and holding a book is always a comfort. But my passion in their power also means that I think they need to be read, so I’m happy to lend out my books.

A book is meant to be read, hopefully by as many people as possible. I love it when someone asks me if I have anything good to read. I have a look on my shelves and pick out what I think is the right pick for them at the time.

I’d like to get the book back eventually but it’s a bit of an honesty system (I am lending to family and friends after all) and not every book comes back to the shelf.

There are a few books which I keep lending out and then rebuying. One is Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole and the other is Elizabeth Gilbert’s celebration of creativity, Big Magic. Which reminds me, I don’t have a copy of either of them at the moment. Short story anthologies are something else I’m always lending out too.

Some people use Ex Libris bookplates in the front of their books but anecdotally, they don’t guarantee that a book will ever return.

I always know if someone else’s book is on my shelves though. I’m very aware of possessions that aren’t mine. For me, a borrowed book feels a bit like an unpaid debt until it’s been returned.

Books have sentimental value and financial value. Some are out of print and can’t be replaced. Others I just want on my shelves but any copy will do. My general hope is that I remember both that they’re gone and who they went to. And when it doesn’t work out that way, when I have an inkling that I used to own a book which is no longer there, there is a consolation in thinking of it making its way in the world onto other bookshelves and into other hands.

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Ideas in the dark

If life’s too noisy to hear your subconscious, try some insomnia or an acupuncture appointment.

I went to the acupuncturist recently. I hadn’t been for ages and as I lay there with the lights dimmed, I had ideas. New ideas for new projects as well as useful ideas to try with sticky plot points in current projects.

I remembered that when I had regular acupuncture appointments, I also used to sit in the car afterwards frantically scribbling in my notebook, so that I didn’t lose all the ideas that I’d had. This also happens sometimes in the middle of the night when I can’t get back to sleep. I hate those early broken hours but it’s a consolation that at least I get a few good ideas out of it.

I feel like my subconscious is telling me something along the lines of, ‘Have you noticed it takes a lot of sensory deprivation for me to deliver my most interesting morsels? Do you wonder if there could be an easier way to get new ideas?’

And I do wonder if there could be a better way but I’m never really doing nothing. If I’m sitting down and having a cup of tea, I’m probably also noting the state of the floor or idly adding to the shopping list. If I’m swimming laps or having a walk then there’s still everything around you to process and if I’ve insisted to myself that I need to just sit and do nothing, then I’m probably worrying about how I might be wasting this moment of nothingness by still thinking about something. There isn’t the same release in those moments as there is on the acupuncture table. I can’t move. It’s dark and warm. I have nowhere else to be and there’s no expectation for me to do anything.

This process is described in psychologist Melissa Burkley’s article Where do writers get their ideas? She talks about how our mind is controlled by two systems; controlled and automatic. The controlled system is basically our conscious awareness while the automatic system works outside this. She describes it as “the part of our mind that handles all our dirty work in order to make our lives easier.” Ideas are more likely to come when our conscious mind is settled enough to let us actually “hear the quiet voice of the unconscious mind”.

It would seem that my conscious mind is like one of those babies who needs more than a quiet room to sleep. They need their parents to black out the windows as well.

A lot of people talk about how they have ideas when they’re walking or doing exercise. That’s often how I find solutions when something in a piece of writing isn’t working. But for me, new ideas that come from nowhere usually start in the dark.

Where and when do you get your best ideas?

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So Roxette had it right all along?

I wasted a lot of writing time ignoring 90s pop lyrics.

Let me do a quick refresh for those who aren’t children of the 90s: Roxette was a Swedish pop duo with big hits in the early 90s. Per and Marie usually sang catchy upbeat songs but Listen to your heart was their breakthrough ballad.

We’re all welcome to laugh at pop lyrics but sometimes they get it right in their simplicity – Listen to your heart.

I wish I’d considered that we could follow our heart or instincts in areas beyond love and romance.

Everyone always says that first novels are autobiographical. When I first decided that I was going to write a novel, I was obsessed by this idea and wanted to make sure that this wasn’t going to be the case with me. How embarrassing for it to look like I was in there somewhere. How wrong and un-proper-writer. And of course, how frightening to be so ‘seen’.

So, I tried very hard to make it look like it wasn’t my first novel and put none of myself into it. It was a really hard manuscript to write. So were the next two manuscripts I wrote which I was also determined wouldn’t have any traces of me.

Timed passed, like it does. The more I read, the more I thought it was ridiculous for people to think that writers don’t leave any residue on their writing and why would I think of this as a weakness or something to be embarrassed about?

I read a lot of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing. The questions they were asking themselves and their own experiences were imprinted onto to their stories. They did it without shame or secrecy. I started to question this idea that to put yourself in your writing was a weakness and a trap for young players? Isn’t that the courage part, the part where you will be seen and maybe questioned, maybe found wanting, maybe not even ‘liked’ for it?

Now I know that things only get interesting if you take a bit of a risk and follow your instinct or heart. If I’d listened to my heart and followed what I wanted to be writing instead of what I thought I should be writing, I wonder how different things might have turned out.

No matter, all writing is experience and I think of those manuscripts as a kind of apprenticeship. They were long lasting and it felt like I was giving more than I got. But that’s not true, they’re also done and I know a lot more than I did when I started.

For me they were also a lesson in what not-to do. Writing isn’t easy but it also shouldn’t have to be that hard. If it feels like a real push, it might be time to listen to your heart. Are you writing what you need to write or what you think you should be writing? The answer will sometimes surprise you.

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The bedside bookstack – October 2020

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this month.

Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe, University of Queensland Press, 2020

Set in the Australian gold fields, this story is told by Chinese gold miners, Mei Ying and her brother Lai as well as Merri, the Irish housekeeper of a local prostitute.

Everyone is holding secrets, Ying is disguised as a boy, her brother chats with his dead fiancé and Merri has been forced to leave home and give up her child because she’s unmarried.

There’s sweat and dirt and hunger. These characters are here because of other people’s choices. Ying finds liberation in her ability to work and wander freely. Merri’s social standing is equal to her employer’s. But they’re both still women in a man’s world.

There’s debt and decency at stake and as their lives overlap and run parallel, even friendship and connection isn’t enough to dilute the separation of white miners, Chinese miners and local Indigenous people.

Act of Grace by Anna Krien, Black Inc., 2019

In the early parts of reading this book I would put it down and think, why bother trying to write when other people just do it so much better?

I know Anna Krien from her non-fiction. She’s thorough and eloquent and her recent piece The screens that ate school in The Monthly, had me in tears. As I said, the writing in this is sometimes so beautiful it feels like it’s about as good as writing can get.

There are multiple narrative strands that link the lives of a war veteran and his son, an Iraqi refugee and a young girl trying to square her identity and the fate of her father. They didn’t ultimately tie together for me, but why stop reading when the writing is so good?

The Shadow Year by Hannah Richell, Hachette, 2013

This started as a slow burn for me and I nearly left it a few pages in. But I was curious enough about some of the set up to keep reading and I’m glad I did. There’s an element of Lord of the Flies to it with five recent uni graduates trying to live off the land for a year in a rundown cottage in the remote Peak District.

When the sister of one of them arrives, the dynamic shifts and in close proximity sex, jealousy and power plays change everything.

There’s a parallel narration in the present day which was necessary for the plot reveals but I skipped through some of those parts. My fascination was with the blinkered love, sibling rivalry and desperation and how it can make us protect perpetrators and cast out victims.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, 1989

This was a tricky read for me. I read it because it won a Booker many moons ago and I’ve loved reading other Ishiguro books.

For those who don’t know the premise or haven’t watched the movie (Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins) it’s basically a butler, Stevens, from a once distinguished household narrating his younger years through the memory of a housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

Theirs is a close working relationship and for Stevens there is no separation between work and life.

This is what I struggled with, the loyalty to a boss and a position at the expense of his personal life. I know it’s making comments about pride, reserve, controlled emotions and the expectations of the hired help but that’s what made it hard to read for me. Anyone else need more emotion in a main character to keep on going?

Sweetness and Light by Liam Pieper, Hamish Hamilton, 2020

This one just joined the pile yesterday, borrowed from a friend. I like the premise of an Australian expat in India who scams tourists in a beach town then getting himself in too deep. Worlds collide when he runs into an American woman looking for a spiritual experience and a way to move on with her life.  

Haven’t started it yet but apparently the ending is quite ‘shocking’, so obviously I want to know what and why. That’ll probably move it to the top of the pile.

Letters of note: Mothers compiled by Shaun Usher, Canongate, 2020

Published letters satisfy the inner stickybeak in me who wants to know what everyone else is and has been saying in private. I’m not sure about letter collections and if the writers have authorised their publication or how letters come to be sold in the public sphere. Probably something to look into if I want a clear conscience about reading someone’s else’s mail.

These look good to pick up every now and again but haven’t made a start just yet.

What we talk about when we talk about love by Raymond Carver, Vintage, 2009

It’s never a bad time to read some Raymond Carver. Five-page average length and clean prose mean you can fit at least one story in before bed, even if you’re tired.

How can you compress whole lives within a few pages? That’s why we keep reading, to see where and how the magic is done.

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Complaints about the writing life?

Consider who you commiserate with and how you do it.

My Dad died when I was 22. In the immediate years after, when people complained about their father all I could think was, well, at least you have one.

We all need to complain, debrief, whinge and let it out sometimes. But what you complain about and who you say it to matters. I write this because recently I’ve listened to and read a few author essays talking about how exhausting the publicity is for a new book.

Ah creative envy, watch this space. There will be more posts about this because as much as I’d love to be a bigger person, more generous and genuine about the success of other writers sometimes, on the difficult days, it’s the last thing I want to hear. I’m hoping this makes me human rather than mean.

I’m happy to be happy for people’s success but it’s hard to sympathise with the fatigue that comes from too many people being interested in your book, a little like complaining about night feeds to a friend who wants (but doesn’t have) a baby or talking about how work is sooo busy to someone whose industry disappeared this year.

I read Ann Patchett’s (great) book of essays This is the story of a happy marriage. She’s a great writer and I love her books but I was going through a very long dry spell when I read it. There had been no publication, no short-listing, no long-listing, no pitches accepted, no nothing for my writing for a loooong time. It was hard to read about how she just happened to get published in Paris Review at 17, then went on to do a creative writing course, got a grant to write her debut novel, had it published and has been writing and publishing novels ever since. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the trajectory as she told it.

Harder to read though, was the chapter about the Book Tour. She talked about how tiring, relentless and repetitive it all was. All valid and obviously true. I just wasn’t the right reader to commiserate with lonely hotel rooms and interested interviewers.

As writers, at any stage of our careers, we do love to share our stories from the front. There is camaraderie from shared experiences and the creative pursuit of writing offers its own unique agony and ecstasy but Charlotte Wood said something that I think is worth remembering, “Writing is a privilege and a choice.”  

It doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to be exhausted or overwhelmed or over it. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t complain but it is worth thinking about who you choose to do it with and the fact that it’s a choice to write in the first place.

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The comfort of shared writing experiences

You’re not the only one who used to write limp internal characters that did nothing.

When I heard Australian author Charlotte Wood read an extract recently, I felt as though she’d taken it straight from my life. But this wasn’t fiction, hers or mine. She was talking about our younger writing-selves and how our uncertainty as women and as writers stopped our characters from actually doing anything.

I’ve never read a novel and thought, ‘This is me. This is my life!’ But last week, as I was coming back from the day care drop-off and listening to the First Time Podcast, Charlotte Wood’s answer to an Agony Aunt question made me stop. I leant against someone’s front fence to let her finish and delay the busy road that would’ve drowned her out. As she continued, she articulated everything I’d never been able to fully connect about the way I used to write.

I am a self-taught writer. I’ve never been a protégé, had a mentor, done a writing course or had a group to bounce things off. And it’s a slow apprenticeship when you do it that way around (I don’t recommend it).

My writing was good but it was muffled. It was as if any action happened in the shadows and any discussion was turned down low. I didn’t want to offend or get things wrong and so it was all slow-motion interiors and nicely phrased details. It was more like a written still life.

Charlotte Wood talked about how her younger writing-self believed that beautiful sentences and a good eye for detail should be enough to sustain a book and a reader’s interest. That was definitely me. Quoting from a speech explaining what Kate Jennings book Save Me, Joe Louis had taught her she said:

“My characters were invariably Sensitive Young Women. Inexplicably, men treated them callously. My young women observed their worlds closely – they noticed things… like dust motes floating in the air, or the dropped flower of a frangipani on a wet footpath…….

They arranged themselves in picturesque domestic scenes and, by keeping very still, themselves became decorative. They watched, and felt things, and ‘said nothing and turned away’.

The one thing my characters never, ever did back then was act – because to act would be to show yourself, to take a risk. And I was not ready for that.”

It was so comforting to be in good company and know that I wasn’t the only young female writer who had muzzled herself with self-doubt and didn’t trust herself to ask questions and take risks. I was looking for approval and to be liked.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still looking for approval. But one thing that passing time and an output of words does is liberate you. Charlotte Wood mentioned that fiction can lack a certain type of energy when you don’t take risks. It’s true. You’re clipping your own wings if you spend all your time needing to be liked, so it’s lucky that you eventually get bored of your characters being so passive and listless.

It’s a reminder though, that putting your name to words is no small thing. But with curiosity and a bit of courage comes liberation.

You can find the transcript of Charlotte Wood’s complete speech here. And if you’re going to listen to the First Time Podcast episode (which I recommend, I got a lot from her advice to the writer of a ‘quiet novel’) she reads the extract at 23 minutes and 20 seconds in.

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