What you can learn as a writer from Robbie Arnott’s Flames

This bold and unpredictable debut novel is worth reading once as a reader and again as a writer.

Flames is the debut novel of Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott. The quote on my cover, from Richard Flanagan, declares it a ‘strange and joyous marvel’. He isn’t wrong.

Readers can get caught up in the language and leaps of magic realism that take you from the brine and obsession of a tuna fisherman to an anthropomorphised ember. Writers can watch and wonder how he does it.

In the early pages, it’s declared that women from the McAllister family sometimes come back after death. Half landscape and half person their re-arrival always ends in flames.

This sets in motion the flight and pursuit which sustains the novel. Levi McAllister wants to make a coffin for his sister, so she won’t have a chance to re-incarnate and can rest in peace. His sister Charlotte sees this as a good reason to leave.

With each chapter, everything shifts; the point of view (POV), tense, text type and even genre. As a reader you can move through the magic of this and as a writer, take your time to enjoy what he’s up to and how boldly he does it.

He moves from the crime/detective narrative of a private investigator, to the diary entries of a mad ranger, to the narrative of a water rat, the magic realism of his main character and the pure poetry that is fire’s own monologue.

If you’re scared of writing a novel, and think it’s too big to take on, maybe try slicing it up. These chapters could be separated and stand independently as short stories but turn into something unique when presented together.

Who knows if it was pure experimentation or something much more deliberate on his behalf? Strategic or not, the result is so interesting and strange. There’s plenty in there to inspire mixing things up a little in your own writing and seeing where it takes you.

Marginalia

Notes from the edge of the page

To me, books aren’t sacred as physical objects. Don’t let that stop you from lending me one. I’m a careful borrower. I think they should be treated properly and have a few things to say when my kids casually step on them. But as an owner, I’m happy to fold corners, attach page-markers, highlight paragraphs and scrawl in the margins.

I like my books loved and lived in. Marginalia isn’t just an ‘I was here’ marker but proof of meaning and connection to a text.

It wasn’t always like this. I used to think margin comments were only legitimate as study notes in high school texts. I kept my other book pages clean and crisp. But after school finished, I missed the frantic margin scratches even though they were sometimes crammed in so tight you couldn’t even read them.

In the early tentative days, I only used a pencil. I wrote my comments and thoughts nervously, like someone was looking over my shoulder and tutting in my ear. But I grew bolder and pen is, of course, much easier to read.

Marginalia is often discussed in terms of the annotations and notes that were made on medieval manuscripts. These were intended as suggestions for future editions. Margins used to be wide specifically for the purpose of making notes. Edgar Allen Poe, a fan of generous margin dimensions, is quoted as saying in 1844, “I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”

Mark Twain must have had similar ideas as a lot of his marginalia still exists. He’s said to have written ‘cat could do better literature than this’ in the margin of one novel and Entropy has an image of the quip he inserted on the title page of Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men about it being translated ‘into rotten English’ from Greek.

The margin commentary isn’t for everyone. I lent a friend my high school copy of Wuthering Heights when she needed it for her book club but she gave it back a few days later saying that she couldn’t read it because of all the notes. Fair enough. They are distracting.

I can get just as caught up re-reading my own markings as someone else’s. It’s a little glimpse into a private moment from the past. Sometimes I can’t imagine why I marked certain sentences over others. Other times, I thank my former self for leading me straight back to the treasure.

Reading one friend’s book, I felt like I was seeing more than I should. A comment about heartache was underlined. In the margin she’d written That’s how it feels again and again! The second ‘again’ left an indent on the next three pages.

I know I’m not alone in the enjoyment and fascination with marginalia. For those with a penchant to read more there is the New Yorker’s take on marginalia, the Guardian’s article on Marlene Dietrich’s margin calls, the Atlantic’s list of medieval manuscript monk quotes and Entropy’s photos.

Keep your notebook close in a crisis

The simple trinity of a pen, a person and some paper has provided solace for many before us.

We’re in uncharted territory here. Most of us haven’t lived through a pandemic. None of us have lived through one of these proportions. When we write, we can use our words as an antidote to anxiety, as freedom from our confinement and to simply mark that we were here.

Writing during a time of crisis is not a new idea. Keeping a journal as a way to manage anxiety and depression was instinctive for writers like Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka. Both of them used diaries to detail their internal struggles.

There’s a relief in the simplicity of writing a journal. It’s just you and your thoughts without the echo of comments or threads. But it’s also a ritual that can ease your anxiety and give you a chance to reflect. When there are so many things outside our control, routine and habit can help to calm that anxiety.

There is also a sense of ‘better out than in’. The brain dump, brain vomit or ‘morning pages’ from Julia Cameron’s the Artists Way all acknowledge the idea that if you articulate it on a page, it’s less likely to rattle around in your head.

The days can be long and lonely during lockdown. Journaling can give you an outlet for your feelings, providing an internal audience when no one else is there. It also offers a sense of escape from isolation. 

Scottish poet, William Soutar wrote his book, Diary of a Dying Man, when he was quarantined with pneumonia. He spoke of his diary as a true companion and friend. American writer Flannery O’Connor also wrote a lot of her close observations about life as an escape from her sickbed.

Thomas Mallon in A Book of One’s Own: People and their Diaries, said that some people have kept a journal “not so much to record lives as to create them, their diaries being the only world in which they could fully live.” This is true for Xavier de Maistre. In 1794, he wrote A Journey Round my Room. It was written while he was under house arrest after deciding to explore his room and record it as a travel journal.

People journal against anxiety and isolation but you can also write to simply record. You can write for posterity like Samuel Pepys, the grandfather of modern diary entries. He just wrote it how it was.

Pepys covered the quotidian highs and lows of 17th Century England. He also covered the Great Plague of London. As a wealthy man, his experiences weren’t at the frontline but his observations of daily life give us insight into that time. He tells us that he chews tobacco to protect against infection and about his suspicions that the hair from corpses is being used by wig-makers. 

Restrictions feel normal now but they aren’t and this time is going to be interesting to future generations. Curators are already collecting proof of life as we’re living it now. In recovery people often write to addictions or perpetrators. In a pandemic, write to whoever or whatever you need to. Write to your unborn children and grandchildren. They’re going to want to hear about it. Or write to your future self, because we’ll all be different by the end of this.

This is a unique moment in time and our individual experiences of it will create the history of the future. Your notes from the pandemic could enter the Corona-lit canon that is no doubt going to emerge when the masks come off. They’re certainly going to help you survive the anxiety and isolation of life lived within four walls.

Valé Mary Oliver

The late American poet Mary Oliver blocked out life’s white noise and tuned in to our natural world.

The American poet Mary Oliver died nearly a year and a half ago and I’ve just found out. Somehow that adds to the loss.

For anyone who thinks (some) poetry is too hard (and I’ll gingerly raise my hand), read Mary Oliver. There are no tricks and turns for the sake of it.

One of her great gifts, was to take a moment in time and hush the rest of the world so we could kneel down with her and take a really close look. Her words magnify the natural world and return it golden and holy.

She had such reverence for life and her passionate questions have become mantras to many. 

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

These words from her poem Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches? were written on a post-it and stuck above our kitchen sink until it would stick no longer. Then I moved it to my desk, this pink post-it,  water-stained and sun-faded with a message too vital for the recycling bin.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

In The Summer Day she calls us to action again. How can we fumble through our days on repeat when life is in session?

Whenever the world is turned up too high or there’s too much interference, reading Mary Oliver mutes all the chatter. It’s quiet, suspended there in her poetry, watching birds arc in the sky, noticing mushrooms on the forest floor or the trees as theylean in and sigh together.

Her North American environment is completely alien to me. We have bushland and heat and seasons that aren’t so neatly marshalled. But what she showed us was universal. Moments. Wonder. Reverence for silence and nature. I think we can all understand that.

Thank you, Mary, for trusting your words to us.