Archive for January, 2010

The Attrition of Heat

Posted in Uncategorized on January 29, 2010 by ladyredjess

In London, the worst months of the year were January and February.  The excitement and bright lights of Christmas and New Year were over, it was bitterly cold and it was grey.  If the sun made an appearance, it was only for a few brief, shocking hours, and I was usually indoors, working at the library or studying at my desk.  There was nothing to look forward to but the long drag into spring, which happened so slowly it seemed as if the days would never become light again.  I would check the sunrise and sunset times obsessively, calculating how long it would be before I walked into the courtyard of UCL after work and found it gleaming in a weak dusk.

Strangely, it seems that the worst days of this year in Brisbane have been in the same months, again because of the weather.  At first the heat was a novelty: it necessitated the purchase of light, silky frocks because my wardrobe was still geared towards winter, the balmy evenings were gorgeous, and Christmas was back to normal, with the opening of presents with the windows down and cicadas droning, the crispy meringue of pavlovas, and fresh grapes and stone fruit.

But now I find the heat so consistently overbearing that I can neither sleep nor eat.  It’s too warm to think, which means I am imprisoned in an air conditioned room for half the day while I write, and I hate not having natural airflow.  I am irritable, losing weight, and am attacked by a plethora of mosquitoes that live beneath the house and come into my room for dinner.

It seems the only thing to do, when the day finally cools, is to escape the claustrophobia of my room and get on my bicycle.  I ride to the river, where I sit on a bench beneath a flowering wisteria vine, eat an orange and watch the sun go down.

On Deadlines

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2010 by ladyredjess

In keeping with the subject matter of this post, it is apt that I started it some six months ago and that I’m only just getting around to finishing it. If I’d had a deadline it would be written by now.

Deadlines are a good thing for a writer, in that they make one write. Hence for my current novel, I have a self-imposed deadline of the end of January, when the publisher of my previous novel returns from maternity leave and might be interested in reading a draft. For my thesis, I know there is another academic who will shortly be publishing on similar material, so I need to get it into the public domain soon. I also enter literary competitions to force myself to polish my stories and essays. If they don’t get anywhere in the competition, they should then be ready to send to literary journals.

However, there is another deadline altogether which has meant that I cannot slow down in my output any time soon: children.

At the beginning of the year, a friend referred me to The Divided Heart, by Rachel Power, a book of interviews with artists who had become mothers. Power’s cogent introduction confirmed my fears:

The psychic transformation that occurs with motherhood arrives simultaneously with the cruellest of constraints on a woman’s time and freedom to create … Art demands what a mother’s routine does not permit: a concentration of self, the liberty to make use of the artistic impulse when it arrives (p. 1, Red Dog Books, 2008).

In other words, it’s a constant war between being selfish and selfless, between being on your own, thinking, and tending to the needs, thoughts and knowledge of others. Realistically speaking, the children come first, and your time for your art suffers.

As I write this, I hear Andrew Marvell’s classic lines from ‘To his Coy Mistress’: ‘At my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’. He was talking about getting a woman into bed, but I’m talking about getting my next five works (two novels, two novellas and my thesis) to a publisher before a kid comes along and eats up all my time.

The problem is, as Nikki Gemmell put it in The Bride Stripped Bare, ‘Your heart will now tighten whenever you see the imprint of a friend in her child’s face. It’s something that’s in danger of overtaking your life, the want’ (p. 38). I understood this perfectly when I saw my cousin’s daughter at Christmas. She was so like her mother in appearance and charm that it was impossible not to be moved. Your body begins to clamour, to become insistent; it melts when it holds a friend’s baby. You pay attention to children when before they were just irritants. You begin to conceptualise what it would be like to be pregnant, an idea that had previously been anathema to you.

‘Oh, you’re only 32,’ people say to me, ‘you’ve got plenty of time.’ But I haven’t. A friend with whom I was living in Sydney who, after a struggle, became pregnant at 43 told me, ‘Don’t leave it too late,’ and older women say to me, ‘Get cracking’. Also, I don’t believe in IVF; I think there are enough kiddies out there who need mothers through adoption than trying to make more through such an invasive process.

Needless to say, the problem of how to fit in the kids is one that rarely afflicts male artists, as it has usually been the woman who, cooking, cleaning and child-rearing, allows the man to get on with his work, a situation which I find highly unjust.

The many other difficulties facing the female artist were famously addressed by Linda Nochlin in her 1971 work Why Are There No Women Artists?, while in an Australian context, they are beautifully articulated by Drusilla Modjeska in Stravinsky’s Lunch. I also found a recent expression of it in The Broken Book by Susan Johnson, an Australian writer whom I admire, now living in England. Although it was a novel of broken narrative and broken dreams that never quite came together to deliver a punch, it illuminated well the quandary of the writer who is a mother:

‘You’ll never write anything if you expect perfection,’ he said.  ‘Better to have something on the page than nothing at all.’

I lost my temper: David has always written with effortless grace, words flow from him uninterrupted; I have always had to hunt down every word as if armed with a knife.  ‘That’s all right for you to say!  I can’t hold an uninterrupted conversation, let alone finish a book.’

‘Nothing stops a true artist,’ he said, ‘not war, not poverty, not the state. “The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything other than his art.” George Bernard Shaw.’

I glared at him.  ‘What if the artist happens to be the mother?’

He smiled.  ‘Darling, wet nurses are thick on the ground if you only care to look.’

I left the room.

(Allen and Unwin, 2004, pp. 144-145).

A nanny is always an option, of course, but only if you have money. The couple in Johnson’s book didn’t, and it was easy for the male writer to make this glib, dismissive comment, because he didn’t have to look after the kids.

What Johnson also expresses here is the difficulty of extracting yourself from your children. They interrupt, they demand attention and, of course, you feel bad for sending them away. Even I feel this when Niece and Nephew come into my room and crawl under the mosquito net, wanting to play.

‘Auntie Jess is working,’ I tell them (it has to be sternly, to make them go) and reluctantly they leave. I have to shrug off the guilt and go back to my neurotic doctor with her brooding love interest.

On that note, a female doctor friend once said to me, ‘It isn’t that I don’t want children, it’s that I have to be careful of wanting them too much, because it might not happen.’ Sadly, I feel the same: there is the danger that you might not meet the right man, or, if you do, you find you’re just too busy to make it work, or your partner isn’t prepared to put in the hard yards and help, so why get your hopes up? Although, being the most organised person on the planet, of course I have a backup plan, and intend to adopt if the first holds true. I also have a sense (possibly superstitious, possibly not) that if you give in to the craving, it takes over your life, which is a dangerous situation for a single woman to be in. As a person who values love so highly, I don’t want my choice in a man to be ruled by my ovaries.

So I find myself pushing the longing to the back of my mind, and as I write I silently beg my body not to pack it in yet, but to hold on and stay healthy for a little while longer.

And if I got up the duff and my carefully laid creative plans were thrown awry? Well, being that master of organisation, and being driven and ambitious, I would find a way to make it work. In addition, as my boss (a hard-working researcher who is not remotely creative) pointed out, the experience of having children is so amazing you would be insane not to do it. This is also what many of the women in The Divided Heart described: that, in terms of material, it changes you, and your art, fundamentally. From a creative point of view, it lends richness, depth and understanding to your craft.

Of course, to hold my own child in my arms would be the most gorgeous reward for so many years of hard work and waiting, but until then, I’m writing as fast as I can.

On Running and Avatars

Posted in Uncategorized on January 17, 2010 by ladyredjess

After the lugubrious navel-gazing of my former post (this is what happens to writers when they spend too much time on their own; they go mad), I thought it would be nice to inject some jollity into this blog and begin with a joke. Apologies to my married, male heterosexual readers, for this is at your expense:

Q: Why are married women heavier than single women?

A: Single women come home, see what’s in the fridge and go to bed. Married women come home, see what’s in bed and go to the fridge.

O it made me laugh. I love clever jokes. I love all things and all people that make me laugh. When I’m happy (which is often, these days), I sometimes laugh myself to sleep.

Sister returned this week, with dogs but sans children. Sister can talk the leg off an iron pot, and after two weeks in solitude this was something of a shock. However, I’m relieved that she’s back as now I have someone to cook for and will eat properly again.

I was devastated to find the puppy greatly changed: he’d had all his beautiful fur cut off because it was matted with dreadlocks. His pelt was pretty much the reason why I loved him, because he was like a big, soft Persian cat that bit my ankles and escaped with pieces of underwear from my room. Proving that I am not a fickle creature, however, and compensating for fewer cuddles, I have made him my running partner. I used to run with our kelpie when we moved into town and she couldn’t chase sheep or rabbits anymore and went a bit bonkers, and I realised how much I’d missed running with a dog. I said to Sister that I didn’t know what I’d do when the puppy’s fur grew back; I’d look like an idiot running with a fluffy cocker spaniel instead of the lean, bare-faced pointer that he currently is. Anyhow, he loves it, and gallops along with his tongue hanging out, still a dumb blonde despite his manly haircut.

Running also has its uses in that AFL season has begun and the boys are training again. This, naturally, necessitates the use of the route past the oval by the fruit bat colony, which allows for the most marvellous vistas, in tandem with the anxiety of being attacked by bats gone mad from the lyssavirus.

Enjoying our child-free freedom, Sister and I went to see Avatar at Hawthorne. Not having had a 3D experience since Expo 88 when we wore cardboard glasses with blue and red cellophane lenses, we were a little unsure how the new versions worked.

‘I can’t see properly. Does yours have a black spot in it?’ I asked Sister.

‘Yes, I took mine off to clean them.’

‘I don’t think the 3D bit can have started yet.’

While we waited for the movie, Sister bailed up the manager and asked why there were no hearing facilities, as I was too tired for a fight. His contention was that, as it was a cinema that showed blockbusters which were incredibly loud, the hearing impaired didn’t need any special equipment to hear. I would have told him that this was a lazy excuse; for most hearing impaired people it isn’t loudness that helps you hear, but clarity.

As it happened, the dialogue was so bad that it didn’t bother me that I missed half of it, although trying to work out what was going on from the context was a bit difficult. I was also irritated that the subtitled translations of the Na’vi language were clichéd. Surely if you go to the effort of creating a new language, you can render its translations a little more subtly than some kind of colonial pidgin?

That aside, I loved the film. I loved that it was so visually gorgeous, that the female characters were capable and graceful, that the interaction between the Na’vi and their surroundings was evocative of Indigenous Australians. I loved the slippage between dream and reality, and that after a while you couldn’t tell which world you were in. It reminded me of Blade Runner (one of my favourite films), where Decker tells the android with whom he falls in love that she isn’t human, as she believes she is, that her memories are constructs, and that the world she’s in isn’t real to her the way it is to him (presuming that he isn’t a android himself, an enduring question).

I also liked the theme of connections – not just between the Na’vi and the natural world but between humans and the Na’vi. The way their hair curled into a plant or animal echoed Case in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, ‘jacking in’ to cyberspace and into another consciousness — which is of course what happened when the humans became avatars, jacking in to another world. The way the Na’vi’s eyes widened when accessing the consciousness of other creatures also made me think of the shock of connection during sex which, in essence, was what the film seemed to be about: the fight to survive, to reproduce, to sustain a way of life.

When the lights came up Sister and I blinked rapidly, our eyes sore. Sister pointed out that the 3D screen was how her world appeared when she didn’t have her driving glasses on. I mumbled a reply, concentrating on getting out the door which is always difficult in darkness with poor balance, and brightened when I saw that the glasses could be recycled.

I was starting work the next day and it was imperative that I sleep. Of course, after my heart pounding for three hours, I didn’t. I could have done with a run to get rid of the adrenalin in my body, or a good laugh.

On Tedium

Posted in Uncategorized on January 9, 2010 by ladyredjess

Until I reached this stretch of holidays set aside to finish the first draft of my novel, I realised I’d forgotten just how insanely boring writing can be.

I get up at about 8am, or earlier if I can (it’s hard work becoming sentient when you are most definitely not a morning person), check my emails, occasionally do some yoga, eat breakfast and make a coffee, then sit at my desk.  Sometimes, if something interesting has happened in my life (which isn’t often), I write in my journal.  Then I think of a scene and start to write.  Then I check Facebook.  I write some more.  I make another coffee and look at clothes on birdsnest.com.au.  I write a bit more and have lunch.  After lunch I usually have a nap.  Then I make a cup of tea.  I look at Facebook again.  Then I write another scene or two.  Then I look at spencerandrutherford.com.au to see what’s in the sales (I mean, what did writers do before the internet?).  Then I push myself to write the few final pages to reach my quota of ten pages of longhand.  Released from my shackles, I go for a run past the bat colony where the fruit bats are waking, squealing like stuck pigs.  Or I ride to the pool and swim laps, enjoying the sensation of the water on my skin, and the relief of having a completely empty mind.

At the moment, I have no one to talk to, which is just as well or my concentration would be completely broken.  Sister is still at Parental Unit’s with the children and dogs, so I don’t have the puppy to play with.  It is tedious.  The stuff I’m writing is crap, with too much sex and melodrama.  I worry that it won’t be good enough for my agent to read at the end of January.

But then, but then.  After days of procrastination, I hit a seam and follow it, and the writing that comes out is as sharp and delicate as opal.  At other times the pressure of doing nothing builds up and is released like a storm, so that the writing, whether good or bad, gushes onto the page.  When it’s going really well, it’s like a drug.  Social invitations (not that there tend to be many in a writer’s life) are cancelled, because it’s preferable to be with characters than friends.  I feel distressed and irritable when I’m away from it for too long.  However, it takes a long time to get to even these small highs.

There is no money in writing.  It’s boring, except for the few exciting moments writing sex and melodrama, which I usually cut out when I edit, and it’s lonely.  The process of reworking a novel and playing with the language is immensely satisfying, but that doesn’t come until later.  The launch and publicity are thrilling, but short-lived.

I’m no longer at the stage of wondering why I bother, as it’s so much a part of me that to not write would be like killing myself.  So it’s heartening to listen to writers such as Kate Grenville, speaking at the Melbourne Festival of Ideas, in which she discusses the usefulness of writers, particularly in a time of change.

Grenville, on reading up on our reactions on climate change, likened the inaction of even intelligent people to changing their lifestyles to reduce carbon, to her attitude in her youth towards smoking.  She knew and believed all the science about why smoking was bad for her, but she still couldn’t give it up.  It was only when she lit up without thinking before a man she fancied, and saw the disgust in his face, that she was compelled to throw away the cigs and start running instead.

The key to changing her behaviour was empathy.  As she said, ‘I watched myself through his eyes.  I felt myself as disgusting, because I felt his disgust as my own.’

This, Grenville explains, is why writers are important: they help to translate other people’s lives and emotions into a form that compels readers to think differently.  Referring to Kafka’s comment that ‘a book is an axe for the frozen sea within us’, she maintains that the job of an artists is ‘to break the ice pack to create a different kind of response, one that’s beyond the oppositional positions of the intellect, the “yes it is, no it isn’t kind of debate’ … Art offers a way beyond those deadlocks of the reason and the intellect.  It creates a climate, so to speak, in which things can be understood in another way.’

And this is precisely why I write.  It’s all-consuming, ambitious and fervid desire to tell stories that force readers to step into other worlds, particularly the worlds of those that might be less fortunate than their own, and to see what it would be like, and how it would feel, to be that person.  In my eyes, the measure of my success isn’t how many copies I’ve sold, but how many readers I have persuaded to stop and think about why, for example, an Aboriginal person might be forced into drunkenness and violence, or why lesbians couldn’t be seen in the nineteenth century, or how even the most well-meaning members of a community can harbour the venom of racism.

The trick, however, is not to proselytise, because that turns a reader off.  Virginia Woolf put it elegantly when writing about Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre.  Describing a scene in which Jane, standing on a rooftop and staring over the paddocks, realised she was not free, Woolf says:

if one reads [Charlotte Bronte’s words] over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire.  Her books will be deformed and twisted.  She will write in a rage where she should write calmly.  She will write foolishly where she should write wisely.  She will write of herself where she should write of her characters.  She is at war with her lot (A Room of One’s Own, p. 81, Penguin, 2004).

Charlotte Bronte has lost her audience, Woolf is saying, because anger distorts her text.  Grenville also had a sweet way of putting it: we ought to provoke our readers and discomfort them, but in a way that is ‘sugared with the pill of such beauty or narrative force that they keep on reading’.

Often working outside, or on the edges of society (after all, we rarely put on a suit and go to work, except for our day jobs), Grenville also argues that writers think and problem solve in different ways.  She refers to the example of having lost one’s car keys, and you bang around the house in increasing fury trying to find them.  Eventually, to get your blood pressure down, you do the dishes.  And as you place the plate on the rack, dripping with suds, it springs into your head that you put the keys on top of the fridge.

It’s not an analytical way of thinking.  It’s intuitive, stemming from the unconscious, and writers tend to think in this manner.  This is part of the reason why, she says, we are more receptive to changes that are happening in society, and are well-placed to articulate them.

After listening to Grenville speak, I feel a thousand times better about the tedium and loneliness of my days.  Yes, writing for me is dull, pockmarked with procrastination, and never delivers enough money for frocks, but it’s not an entirely useless profession.  Besides, it’s literally impossible for me to do anything else.

On Piglets and Capitalism

Posted in Uncategorized on January 2, 2010 by ladyredjess

Christmas was subdued this year, as Brother and Sister were away.  Being an impoverished writer struggling to save dollars and carbon, I couldn’t fly home, but caught the bus, which entailed a 9-hour journey with a gourmet stopover at the Matilda Roadhouse, where the only offerings were fried chips, fried sausages, or fried [insert unidentifiable item].

I always have a horror of sitting next to some sweaty, smelly person on bus journeys, or of being groped (as has happened on British public transport), and thus I was relieved when an intelligent-looking woman sat next to me and turned out to be the daughter of my Year 11 Ancient History teacher.

Seeing as I had 9 hours to kill, I read Nikki Gemmell’s The Book of Rapture which wasn’t nearly as good as The Bride Stripped Bare.  This might partly be due to the fact that Bride is one of my favourite books, with its sensual expression of all that makes up a woman: the need for security in a partner; the luscious delight in good, empathetic sex; the overwhelming bounty of pregnancy and motherhood; and the callousness of your best friend’s betrayal.  Rapture followed the same format as Bride, as though hoping to capitalise on its success, but it seemed contrived.  The little platitudes in Bride on 18th Century womanhood complemented its subject matter.  In Rapture Gemmell likewise used quotes from the Bible, the Koran, C. S. Lewis and the Dalai Lama to reflect the subject matter, religion and playing god, but they seemed overblown, and became so irritating that I skipped over most of them.  It was interesting to read her representation of how the love for one’s children and one’s parents can affect and alter events, particularly in the sterile and totalitarian world she created, but it lacked the evenness and originality of Bride.

Out the window of the bus I saw a beige coloured bra strapped to a gum tree and two men raking onions, spilled onto the side of the road, into piles.

At home I found that my mother had done most of the cooking for Christmas, and that it was predominantly the same as the year before, which annoyed me as I enjoy cooking and trying out new things.  I watched seven DVDs, had the obligatory fight with my father, drank too much of Peterson’s pink bubbly Moscato and slept badly most nights.  On Christmas Day the rellies came up from Gunnedah, which provided much liveliness and amusement.  When they’d gone, Dad and I watched Wake in Fright, a clever critique of all that is revolting (and, to a woman, often frightening) about Australian masculinity.

Sister, who arrived a few days later in a hurricane of dogs, children and noise, asked if I had weighed myself before Christmas.  I said there had been no point, as what was I going to overindulge in: fruit salad?  She also failed to adhere to my Christmas List, which worried me greatly.  She assured me it was a fantastic present, which to me indicated that she had intuited that I wanted a $500 gift voucher from Alannah Hill.  Hence my worries were confirmed when I found she had given a Vietnamese family a piglet on my behalf via Oxfam.  Reverting to her 10 year-old-self (which was unable, as I sat on the verandah doing my homework, to walk past me without poking, hitting or aggravating me in some way), Sister thought it would be amusing the plumb the depths of irony, refer to me as a capitalist pig and provoke me by seeing what would happen when I didn’t get what I wanted.  O how we laughed.  Well, one of us did.  However she and Brother-in-Law also gave me a lovely pen, which will make my book signing much more glamorous, and secretly I was quite pleased about the piglet.

And once more I have found my incompatibility between my expensive tastes and my writerly impoverishment rearing its savage head.  Heading into town today to stock up on much-needed lipgloss and foundation, I found myself inexorably drawn to Alannah Hill.  Often I stand outside this shop like a little girl at a candy store, and never venture inside unless there is a sale.  Yet somehow the sales always coincide with my birthday, and so it was I found myself selecting a beautiful, summery, white, red and pink skirt which goes perfectly with the dark pink top I bought from Alannah two birthdays before, and what could I do but hand over my credit card, especially as one of my favourite songs, Flashdance, was playing?

Then the guilt was so overwhelming that as soon as I got home I cut up my credit card into 15 pieces.  I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions because you can make them on any day of the year, but I suppose now might be a useful time to dictate to myself that there is to be no more shopping until I am a fiscally responsible adult, and that I might think to myself, now and then, of those poor villagers who need piglets, and who could never dream of walking into a shop of such delicate, frothy clothes.