Thursday, 26 February 2015

Penelope Lively on Friendship

In one of her early works Penelope Lively wrote:

'Friendship is the love that is ignored; people don't theorise about friendship, write poetry about it. It just goes quietly along, sustaining. Passion spends itself ... but friendship is always there. Like a good marriage, it survives attack. ' (Perfect Happiness)
(We know that plenty of good relationships survive attack, not only marriage, but it was written in 1983.)

She later goes on:

'There are days which succeed one another, and in which we do what has to be done and in which time runs level; passing, simply, bringing with it pleasure and irritation and satiety and tiredness and all those ordinary furnishings of life. And then rarely, and unpredictably, there are fragments and passages from days which are of another order altogether. They are beyond and without chronology; they hang together, suspended, possessions for all time. To be called up out of darkness.'

I had some days like this in November last year when 7 of us - women who had met at one workplace or another and stuck together ever since - took ourselves off to a luxury apartment block on the waterfront at Metung Victoria, to spend 4 days exploring the lakes, bird-watching, walking, talking, eating, sleeping and laughing. There was a lot of laughing. Helpless, tears-down-the-face, can't-speak kind of laughing. None of which would be more than vaguely amusing in the recounting. But as we prepare to head off again, Port Fairy this time, with 2 more in tow, it got me thinking about which books of fiction best portray friendships. Hundreds for children (Remember Bridge to Terabithia? Have you recovered from that ending yet?) some for men, but women?
I thought of these, below, and they are probably in order of my loving them.

But surely there are more recent ones that haven’t sprung to my mind?

I don’t read much non-fiction but maybe the pickings are better there, and I plan to begin with Ann Patchett’s memoir about her friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. It's been out a while and I've loved all of Ann Patchett's fiction so don't know why I haven't got to it before this. Watch this space....

Monday, 23 February 2015

Writing About Mother

What is it about mothers? 
Get chatting with another woman who aspires to ‘write’ and chances are, when the barriers are down, when you’ve both ’fessed up to your lofty ambitions - think Alice Munro, Amanda Lohrey, Chloe Hooper - and you ask politely ‘So, Cassandra, (or whoever,) what’s your story about?’ Cassandra will reply, ‘Well I’m trying to write the story of my mother. She was such an interesting person.’ And Cassandra won’t be the only one. In every writers’ group of ten people there’ll be three or four women planning to write about mother.
Once I would have been all ears because, by some amazing co-incidence, I too was thinking of writing about my mother! What are the odds? But a decade or so later it’s hard not to let my eyes glaze over and hope for someone to say, instead, ‘I’m thinking of writing the story of that drainage contractor I wanted to run off with when he was working on our septic system.’
Drusilla Modjeska started it all with Poppy.  She has a lot to answer for. The blurb on the back cover of my old edition says:
In this book, Drusilla Modjeska sets out to collect the evidence of her mother’s life. But when the facts refuse to give up their secrets, she follows the threads of history and memory into imagination.
That is, when she could neither remember, nor find evidence for, the facts about her mother’s life which would give meaning and continuity to her story, Drusilla made it up. With stunning results.
When my mother died more than a decade ago and my sister and I were struggling to make sense of some of the things we subsequently learned about her, this approach seemed just the shot. Very liberating indeed. Oh, we loved her dearly, our Mum, but she could be contrary and she had more secrets than the KGB. So, inspired by Drusilla, liberated from the confines of truth and accuracy by her brave mix of facts and fiction and sure that this would lay all my demons to rest, I too set about writing about Mother.
Here was my chance to celebrate the trials she had borne with strength and a wry good humour, the poverty and narrowness of her world which she had overcome, her capacity to recite poetry and make up stories that made us, as children, flee squealing in excitement from the ghosts and goblins that had hunkered down since her terrifying childhood to re-emerge and haunt ours. Here too was my chance to honour her bravery in sitting for months with a dying friend saying yes, I will help you die if it becomes too terrible, while also memorialising her respect for every living thing from black snake to butterfly.
But wait. Here also was my chance to explore those times when she had ridiculed us for experimenting with make-up, laughed at us with her friends because we couldn’t swim (no-one had taught us and we weren’t allowed near the creek), rejected the gifts we had made for her as feeble efforts to buy her love.
So, back then, I wrote. Reams of it, mother love, mother revenge, mother-the-mystery. Ninety thousand words of purging - some facts, great slabs of imagination, whatever gave continuity to her story. In haste I printed it and sent it off to a major publisher. Oh, how I now cringe at the thought! But they were kind and you know what they said? Something along the lines of – we were very interested in your story etc etc blah blah, but – and these weren’t quite the words though the meaning was clear – we have enough material about mothers already.
But hey, I was satisfied. Amazingly, someone had read it all, there were little ticks and a few long lines down the side of various passages which could have meant anything – ‘Must show this around for a laugh!’ or ‘Step aside, Alice Munro.’ I was not to know. And there my effort ended.
In the meantime I continued to hear, without any instigation on my part, other women talking with bewilderment, rage, love or passion about their mothers. There were mean mothers, adored mothers, saintly mothers, unfathomable mothers, flaky mothers, martyred mothers and many of them the intended subjects of about-to-be written memoirs or new works of creative fiction.
Many years later I find myself writing again. I have more time now and I’ve shed all of the angst that drove that first embarrassing manuscript.
The current manuscript is fiction. No, really. My mother’s not in it. She tries to be from time to time, muscling in to different characters with her sage green eyes, her habit of singing to herself every morning, her inborn resolve to ‘just get on with it’. But that’s about it. I’ve exorcised her and come to terms with her, loving her and understanding her a whole lot better than before I spent all those tortured years on that first manuscript. I’m okay with Mother now.
So when a dear friend rang me from afar a while ago and said ‘I’m thinking of writing a story,’ I said ‘Great! Just find a punchy opening and go from there’. And she said ‘I have already. Listen to this… I can remember exactly where I was when I decided to kill my mother.’
My heart skipped only a beat or two and then I said ‘Go Girl! You’ll find out heaps about yourself and loads about your mother. And it’s way cheaper than five years of psychotherapy.’


Thursday, 19 February 2015

Craft and Clever Clogs

When I was bound for Varuna in 2013 (I know. Talk about name dropping!) I had no idea what to expect. At some stage I said to my friend Jo, ‘Well, I suppose I’ll just take my laptop, my book and my knitting and....’ at which point she pounced with an urgency usually reserved for falling babies or things on fire and said ‘Gaby! Don’t take your knitting!!’ Then with fire in her eyes and through clenched teeth she repeated ‘I’m telling you – don’t take your knitting!’ This was apparently on the assumption that if the writerly folk at Varuna saw me knitting they would assume I was an idiot.
Well, I took my knitting (a dog coat as I recall) and the first person to spring me was dear Joan, the housekeeper. Soon we were engaged in a lively exchange about wools and patterns and the need to have something to do while doing something else – knitting while watching TV, listening to music, talking around the fire. During one of our corridor conversations we were joined by one of the leading lights of Varuna whose eyes lit up with enthusiasm about knitting and asked for the pattern we were at that stage discussing.

You can’t categorise knitters. They spring up in all manner of places and professions. Knitting lets ideas in, allowing them to grow and branch out in all sorts of directions. It is often while knitting that I see solutions for plot problems in my writing. ‘Ha! I know – I’ll make Sebastian the real father!’
Andrea Goldsmith knits and knitted her way right through the writing of The Memory Trap. She says: Knitting is one of the few constructive occupations that allows you, simultaneously, to do something else equally constructive. Last winter for example, I knitted a poncho-cloak affair (in a beautiful maroon wool that felt like cashmere) while working my way through a few of the several thousand requiems that have been written in the past four hundred years. A vest for a friend took me through much of Schubert’s piano music.’

My good friend Margaret B. is a knitter and also a quilter and a seamstress. She and I knitted up over 30 dog coats between us for the Animal Aid shelters last winter. She also writes poetry, memoir and - oh, did I mention? - has a Ph. D. in Sociolinguistics in which she lectured at university level for years. At the height of the Fifty Shades blitz she knitted me this tea cosy for my birthday – Fifty Shades of Blue.

I’m still a bit intimidated by the prejudices against knitters. Despite training it to and from the city 3 times a week I still don’t have the courage to knit on the train. A few do and I’m full of secret admiration. ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’ do I hear you say?  When it happens I’ll let you know.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Tirra Lirra by the River

Tirra Lirra by the River
Jessica Anderson

My friend Marg Lacey referred me to this article which I'd missed over the weekend:

Can I read Tirra Lirra again? I've revisited it several times over the years and I confess it doesn't make me weak with admiration as some books of that era do. But Nora, the protagonist, is certainly complex and memorable and the old Brisbane setting very evocative.
Worth pondering right at the end of the article is Anne Funder's selection of a quote from Nora  that: "Imagination is only memory at one, or two, or twenty removes."

Now there's a topic for discussion....

Sunday, 15 February 2015


It took me a while, as a total amateur, to realise that I too could enrol for a course in writing without everyone rolling their eyes behind my back in that derisive ‘Oh dream on! You? A writer?’ kind of way. I dipped toes in water with a few one-off sessions at Writers Victoria and a whole new world opened up to me. I couldn’t wait to do more.

My first major commitment was to an 8 month course entitled The Year of the Novel – Extensive with P.D. Martin, back in 2012.

Phillipa was and is a very successful crime writer and I was writing wistful, vaguely melancholy literary fiction featuring, I now realise, way too much description and dreamy introspection. So I wondered at first if I was in the right course. Then we got started and I soon realised I couldn’t have been in a better place. There were 13 of us who met with Phillipa for one whole Sunday each month, for 8 months. It was my first experience with workshopping wherein each of us offered a piece of our own writing for the others to read and comment on, both verbally and in writing. It was a credit to Phillipa that we all felt totally safe and open to give and to receive constructive criticism. And how much we learnt!

I still credit one Steve Vincent with pointing out to me how often I repeated favoured words.

“Look here,’ he might say,  ‘silver moon’, ‘silver hair’, silver ripples on water...!”
I’m still ever alert to this and to many other bad habits revealed to me that year and meanwhile Steve has gone on to have his first manuscript published – zap! just like that, and more on the way!!

And P.D. Martin stayed in touch and supportive of us all long after the course had finished. If I hadn’t enrolled at RMIT I’d be snapping up one of the courses she’s offering privately this year. She’s a great professional – successful enough to be totally generous with her knowledge of the industry and what it takes to find your way in. And heaps of fun into the bargain!

Any other folk from that course doing good things, let me know!

Meanwhile I look forward to more workshopping opportunities this year, knowing how effectively my own blunders can hide so well from my own eyes while standing up and shimmying for someone else's.

PS: in a later short course with Andrea Goldsmith I was told not to use so many exclamation marks....

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Late Bloomer

I’d like to say I decided to start this blog to share my thoughts on writing and reading with friends, current and potential but this is not the case. I started it because everything around me including my husband – hereafter referred to as The Resident Songwriter, ‘cause that’s what he spends most of his time doing – is pushing me towards a ‘presence’ on the internet.

“How can you expect to ever get published if you remain invisible on the ‘Net?” he asks, exasperated.

I daren’t reply that the sheer brilliance of my writing will surely snare the first publisher I send my work to as even I suspect this is not going to happen, at least not quite so easily.

Not only that but the aforementioned RMIT course, I hear, allows for no-one to opt out the aforementioned presence on the ‘Net. So eventually I will be Twittering and Facebooking and whatever-elsing with the best of them, although a very with-it young man I spoke to in class last week told me he doesn’t do Facebook because it’s ‘so yesterday’. Wouldn’t that be just my luck to finally get proficient with the basics of social media only to have the very instruments I’ve mastered become defunct? We’ll see.

For now this blog will be a kind of blackboard for what I think about writing and reading and, hopefully, an avenue for the thoughts of others who may stumble upon it and choose to comment.

And because I can seldom go a day without a coo-y goo-y story about one or all of our dogs, there’s sure to be an occasional dog story that sneaks through the editing process.

You may as well get to know them now:

Barney, Stella & Archie