Progress and Panic

(Recreated from my Honours blog, just letting you all know I’m still alive)

I’ve been doing the work. I haven’t skipped any set readings, and am working on-topic reading into my available time more and more. I’ve started writing vignettes for the creative component of my work. I’d like to have read more, of course, but I’m plodding along at a realistic pace and doing the best I can. I’m not dangerously behind.

The fact that I’m working into a void scares the shit out of me. While I’m working, I’m not working to a known end-point, and I’m surprised at how confronted I am by this. I am making work, and I don’t know what it is, and this makes me panic. It’s a new way of working, and I need to constantly remind myself that it’s alright. I will end up with a thing, and because I’m doing the work it will be a considered and good thing. Breathe.

Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost is helping with this. In it, she talks about how “lost”ness allows us to see things in new ways, and keeps us open to the strangeness of life. The question (raised by Socrates, repeated by Solnit) is “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” - and that’s really the question I’m faced with now. In Research Strategies on Tuesday we talked about Ross Gibson’s model of research, which involves letting the intuitive side work hand-in-hand with the analytical side, without prizing one over the other. This is a possible (well, necessary) research method. Another is raised by Solnit, and which is my working model currently – “…to calculate on the unforseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.”

She talks about captives and explorers becoming “lost”, and returning as different people, undergoing those deep “transitions whereby you cease to be who you were.” In a way, similar to Gibson’s requirement that good research and art “causes surprising transformations.”

“The important thing is that the doors are left open,” Solnit says.

Read an essay called “L by Pam Rasmussen. It’s about so many things that I can’t quite pick the through-line, but it contains a particularly good exploration of her family’s two Easter celebrations (“Regular” Easter and Orthodox Easter). Memory, right throughout the essay, is tied to the body. The sound of the L train, the smells and tastes of Easter, bodily awareness when the L train tackles a particular curve on its route. I find this coming up in my own writing. Memories of by grandparents lives in the tart bite of raspberries, on the edges of my tongue as their flavour fades.

Similes and metaphors often refer to food, while writing about actual food is written using language about bodies and sex.

(Her uncles retire after Orthodox Easter to discuss highlights from the meal):
“Like lovers, they sighed over memories of each dish – that pastichio as alluring as a sea siren, those snowy mounds of kourabethia plump and white as breasts, those olives dark as Maria Callas’s eyes (they were all in love with her), that feta as firm as a woman’s derriere. It was as much poetry as it was sex education to me…”

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Looking Forward

I went to Adelaide and looked up:

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I also looked inward. Robert Adamson gets how my writing brain works: “Every time I finish a poem I think it’s a miracle. Will I ever write another one?” 

Now, looking forward. Honours started on Monday. 

The question, as it stands: “How can the personal essay form illuminate how memory inflects our relationship to food?”

I love the word “inflects” in this question. An inflection is a pitch thing. When I was working in call centres (yeah, did that), we’d talk about “upward inflections,” that annoying way that Australians raise the tone of their voice toward the end of sentences, turning everything into a question. Those who did this did it unconsciously, it’s just an accidental part of speech. And that’s how I feel about what memory does to my relationship with certain foods. They’re loaded with memory, and so I’m looking at things through a prism of sorts. There’s an inflection in the way that I view foods, and that’s tied up with memory.

Of the pile of books I was so kindly loaned, I’ve started with Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table. It’s comprised of shorter essays, in which Reichl looks at the different ways that she’s used food throughout her life. It’s not what I’m aiming to do, but I love the way that Reichl uses foods as shorthand for character traits (her grandmother’s cook Alice, for example, makes an apple pie to avoid discussing painful topics, because she’s just the kind of person who’d do that), and also that she recognizes that food isn’t just one thing. It’s functional, and not just for sustenance. It’s social glue, it’s emotional reward or punishment, it’s milestone marker, it’s memory trigger, it’s a source of power and cultural capital. It’s so much more than fuel, and Reichl explores that well through her essays.

I have to blog my honours experience, mainly as a way of tracking my work and thought processes. I had the option of using this blog, or of putting those entries on a separate site. I’ve elected to use the blog attached to the Consilience Lab site – ie, the site attached to my course. I want the clout attached to my work that comes with having the URL attached to a university (yep, SEOs rate that). I also don’t want to bore LGWABP readers with every single thing that’ll be posted on there – I imagine that some of it will be quite dry or not particularly relevant. So, things that are relevant or remotely interesting will land on both blogs. The aim of LGWABP has always been to track my work and discoveries, and I don’t want my honours year to be silent on here. It’s an important part of my journey.

Now, to construct a meaningful library search.

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An Attempt is Everything

“It all means little, all the painting, sculpture, drawing, writing … it all has its place and nothing more. An attempt is everything. How marvellous!” – Alberto Giacometti.

Make the attempt.

This is today’s prompt from Monica Wood’s gorgeous, helpful little bible, The Pocket Muse. There is a stack of writing prompt books on the left-hand side of my writing desk, and they teeter. I cycle through these books – I do a different exercise each day, I use the words in these books as a way in to my writing, or to provide a new angle on my thoughts. Often the trick to writing an interesting, engaging, outward-looking piece lies in finding the right lens through which to view the content, and these books help me do that.

This morning I received a call from the program director of the Honours program I’m starting next week (holy hell, next week!), asking if I’d be at orientation and checking that I know where I need to go for it. I picked up the letter I received last week and double-check the address. The buildings of RMIT are familiar to me, but room numbers and wings get lost in the between-semester fog of my brain. I assured the program director that I’d find it, and see him then. This thing is real.

Last week, I had coffee with a kind and incomparably thoughtful food-loving friend. I’d shared with her the exciting news that I’d found an area of study for my Honours work – I’ll be writing about food. As a fantastic foodie, she provided me with a reading list. I now have in my possession the bag that she used to transport materials while writing her own thesis. I feel lucky to have it, for however short a time it takes me to get through the books it contains.

It’s a dark blue-green, the same kind of dark that stylish suede sofas are, and it’s lined with colourful printed silk. It’s so well-loved that one handle is torn and starting to fray. It’s a strong bag though, and it carries things that are useful to me. The bag itself is a reassurance that thesis-writing can be done. Honours and Masters courses can be completed. I’ll need to invest in a bag like this for my own material-toting.

(Current tote bag choices include Sookie Stackhouse final book promo, Text Classic promo, MWF/Dymocks promo and RMIT graduation bag. I might have to find something less overtly promotional.)

I’ve been trying to think my way into a question, considering things with my brain. However, today’s writing prompt quote has reminded me to try something different: writing my way into a question. This method has proven useful before. There’s a point where you over-research or over-think, until the idea loses its appeal. Instead, writing into the magic of what you’re passionate about means that you stumble upon what needs to be researched as road-blocks to your words. You write a bit, then encounter a road-block, then research, then write it in. Repeat ad infinitum.

So I’ve been writing about what it is about food that interests me, trying to write into any contradictions or uncomfortable parts of that story.

This tandem approach works best for me: reading and writing and reading and writing and eating a lot and writing. It’s the increased amount of doing in this approach that does it – and the changing nature of the doing at all times. It’s an attempt, a constant and unending and uninhibited attempt, and that is everything.

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Preparing for the Unpreparable

The start of the year always seems to go much the same way. A lull, some planning, and then I’m flung into it face-first, whether I feel prepared or not. This year is the same as every other in that sense.

Of course, sometimes I have the luxury of preparation, or at least the luxury of knowing that I CAN be prepared if I feel inclined or have the time. What I’m facing right now is a pretty intense mixture of things I can and cannot prepare for. Being a major control-freak, I’m trying to make plans, whether it’s actually possible or not.

Coming up on the 22nd of February, I’ll be bonkers and doing an all-nighter for the Digital Writers/Emerging Writers Festival event, “The Book of the Night”. For this all-night event, twelve writers (I am one of them) are being challenged to write a book within a night. To do this, the night is broken into twelve 1-hour shifts. Each writer gets a brief update on where the book is up to, then sits down and does their thing for an hour. The Wheeler Centre will be open to the public, so anyone can swing past and suggest a plot twist or a new character. It’ll be loads of fun, very interactive and new. It will also be streamed online, so if you can’t sleep or if you’re not able to make it into the city for the event, you can join in from the comfort of your couch, using the #dwf14 hashtag.

Also, it’s a little bit scary – usually before things go out into the world, they undergo some pretty serious edits. The first edit usually involves printing the thing out before screwing it up and throwing it at my wall because it’s no good. That’s not an option for The Book of the Night. So, training has involved the following:

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These are hastily-prepared flash cards. I put a timer on, and I open Monica Wood’s The Pocket Muse to a random page for my starting point. Every few minutes, or whenever I start to think I might need to stop for a second, I turn over a card. Whatever is on that card (“Music”, “A phone call”, “Fear”, “Mouse!”) gets worked into the story-in-progress. This is the closest thing I can think of to what may or may not happen on the night. 

My attempt to train for the untrainable, to prepare for the unpreparable, is proving productive if nothing else. I don’t know whether I’m getting any better at writing for a whole hour straight, or any more comfortable with the idea of unedited work being accessible by the masses, but I am creating strange and wonderful things. 

Also, by the time my 5am slot rolls around, I should be suitably over-tired and delirious. This can only be a good thing.

Another thing I’m doing as part of the Digital Writers’ Festival is this panel on writers collectives and place, with Geoff from Writers Bloc and various folks from Scissors Paper Pen, Twitch, and Stilts. You don’t even have to leave your house, and this one is on before your bed-time AND after your wake-up time.

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Programpalooza

This week sees the release of THREE awesome programs, so get your diaries out and start scheduling in some literary stimulation.

Yesterday the Wheeler Centre released its first program of 2014, and it’s a doozy! I’ve got myself tickets for Alison Bechdel after reading and loving her Are You My Mother? last year. Rachel Kushner is recommended to me a lot, so I’ll be cramming in a book of hers before the event. Alain de Botton was fabulous last time he came to speak about Religion for Atheists, and his new book (out today) The News looks great, so his talk should be great too. There’s some great series in this program, including one on art, and another on female sexuality. Basically I’ve got two tickets to many, many things and this guarantees brain food and friends for the near future at least (“Anyone want to come to…?”)

Today the Digital Writers’ Festival released their program too. They also got online to answer questions from Twitter, and demonstrate the technology being used for the panels throughout the festival: it’s damn impressive stuff. The program casts a wide net, and includes guests from all over the world, practicing all sorts of amazing digital stuff. Like the EWF model, it seems like a good balance of ‘how’ and ‘why’ events. The festival’s program is mainly free, and all available online. This means that you can get amongst it no matter where you are.

The program for the Adelaide Writers Week has been launched today too, which is part of the Adelaide Festival in late February-early March. A list of authors has been out for a while, but a program and tickets have not been. We’re thinking of trekking over there for a few days before I start Honours (like literally, the couple of days before), during the weekend that sees the Artists’ Week and the Writers’ Week overlap, so I’m looking forward to seeing whether it’s a goer or not.

The next program I’m waiting for is You Are Here, who are releasing their program in late February. Their sneak-peek looks fantastic.

Go look and plan your brain food!

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On Meditation and Rituals

One of my resolutions for 2014 was to meditate daily. So far, I’ve meditated most days.

Bad ideas include: laying down, meditating while tired, meditating before (invariably becomes while) I sleep, and breathing loudly on public transport.

I’ve invested in the HeadSpace app. At $80 for a one-year subscription, I really do consider it an investment in my health and wellbeing. When I meditate, I am more patient, level, and less likely to fly off in any overly-emotional direction. 

Since trying a number of ways, times and places to meditate, I’ve found the Goldilocks situation – in the morning, after breakfast but before I do anything else. I aim to replicate this as often as possible.

Routines and rituals hold a funny spot in my life. While I would like to be a spontaneous person, I find that routines and rituals are what anchors me. I despise this, because it’s true of all the fragile people in the world (alzheimer’s patients, the very young and very old etc). But I guess I’ve got a bit of that in me. I also like that rituals ensure things get done. Meditating, exercising, medication, adequate sleep; these are all fairly well planned out and sit in a (sometimes actual, sometimes mental) schedule. And going through these rituals often triggers other things. Meditating makes me slow down and be mindful. Exercising (while decidedly a work-in-progress) kick-starts my day and often gives my brain the time it needs to have ideas. My bedtime ritual makes me sleepy, and my morning ritual ensures days don’t get wasted (too often).

So what’s my writing ritual? I wish I could say that I do it spontaneously and with joy, but mostly it’s about chaining myself to my desk (increasingly my chair, table given up in favour of soft snuggly leather) for an hour each day and making that hour be about my work. Not editing or applying or invoicing or looking at opportunities or checking Google Analytics or watching jumping animal gifs. For one solid hour every day, I sit down and only my pen moves. All other stuff normally chews up a fair portion of my non-bookselling days. Just one hour each day goes towards weaving words into stories. If I have a deadline or a piece takes off, it will become much more than an hour. But in-between times, I show up until something sticks. I flex the muscles of my creative brain.

What are your rituals, and how do you write?

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Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

People often ask what I’m reading, and it usually opens up a good conversation. I enjoy having the space to verbally sort out what I think, and if the conversation is with a certain type of person, I can be challenged to justify my assertions. It’s too easy to say something on here without questioning why I feel that way – an awful habit for a would-be critic, and one I’m trying to remedy.

Those “What are you reading?” conversations have been difficult ones while I’ve been reading Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. The main challenge comes from explaining the form of the novel.

McBride writes (in this work, at least) in fragmented sentences:

“That long night. Loams my eyes. Burn. Lime it. I’ll do. I’ll. Reach out through it. Catch it before it comes. Quick quick. But it’s gone like a rat. Burrow deep and dark where I cannot go. I have. Nothing against this. No defence at all. But. To fall on the spindle. To be turned into the darkness. To be turned into stone.”

ImageWhy this fragmented, choppy language? I’m not entirely sure. Possibly because that’s what we all feel like inside, especially during times of intense trauma, which is exactly what the story of this book centres upon. It’s a unique and challenging reading experience. As with any formally-experimental work, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a shock to begin with – I worried that it would never make any sense. But there are two kinds of “challenging” books: those that are simply baffling from beginning to end, and those whose rhythm and logic the reader can fall into step with. By three pages in, it was clear that this novel falls into the latter category.

I’ve touched on form and language first because it’s the most obvious thing that sets the novel apart. It’s what people will notice when they pick it up. However, it’s not the only remarkable thing about the work.

The “Girl” of the story is its narrator, and the story spans her young life, between birth and her young adulthood. The focus of the story is her relationship with her brother (referred to throughout as “you”), who recovers from a brain tumour as a child, but relapses as an adult. The brother’s illness is a looming presence in the Girl’s life. This way of referring to characters with such immediacy (pronouns and very specific labels) – “I”, “you”, “Mammy”, “aunt”, “uncle” – has the effect of pulling everything inwards, almost uncomfortably close.

Family dynamics are explored wonderfully in this novel, in a way that most people will be able to relate to in some way. From the love-hate tension that can only be felt toward your parents, to the nonsensical regression that our siblings bring out in us as adults. Incest is also a major issue explored in the story, and the narrator’s shifting opinion of what’s happening makes the situation all the more confronting.

Sex and sexuality feature prominently, and McBride beautifully considers the many and varied roles it can play in a person’s life. At various times, the Girl uses sex to control people, and uses the powerlessness of sex to escape from the pain of her life. Sex functions here as a tool, and a means to both gain and lose the upper hand. By the end of the novel, being “fucked and hurt” is the point, and the immense sadness of this can be confronting.

I applaud Eimear McBride’s bravery. This is not a safe novel, and doesn’t tell a safe story. As a debut novelist, it’s a brave move. It has paid off.

As a book seller, I’m having trouble conveying the pleasures of this book to people – they open it up and panic at its structure and language. They think they’ll need to be very switched on in order to read it – not so. I hope this review convinces you to pick it up and give it a go – it’s well worth your while.

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The Numbers, 2013

At the start of each year I like to break down the numbers of what I read in the previous year. Reading habits are hard to see while you’re (seemingly) randomly choosing books, but stepping back allows me to see if there are gaps in my reading, and be more purposeful about correcting those gaps.

I’ve been doing the 100+ Books Reading Challenge since the start of 2010. I’ve, of course, never hit anywhere near 100 books. The point for me is to track what I’m reading. This year I read 33 books – 11 less than last year. I reviewed 7 of them on this blog, and 4 for publication.

I was part of some reading groups in 2013 – 6 of the books I read were for KYD Book Club, and 3 for Asian Book Club.

12 non-fiction.
19 fiction.
2 mixed collections.
2 graphic novels.

20 by women. (8 by Australian women, 1 edited by Australian woman.)
11 by men.
(Remaining 2 were collections)

Only one journal got read cover-to-cover. I subscribe to multiple journals, and I always dip in to them, but never read them cover-to-cover. What am I missing out on?

Looking at last year’s numbers, this year has been much less varied.

So, some reading aims for 2014:
- Read more YA books
- Review more of what I read here
- Read journals in their entirety
- Read more broadly (ie, include poetry, plays, etc)

I already know that much of my 2014 reading will be aimed at my Honours work – I don’t know entirely what that will be yet. While I aim to read more broadly in terms of form, content might be a bit more repetitive, as I immerse myself in my Honours project.

What do you hope to  achieve with your reading in 2014?

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The Year That Was

The end of the year always prompts introspection and evaluation. Another year has passed, and what have I done with it? Have I acted the way I wanted to; have I achieved the things I intended; have I changed or grown as a person?

At the end of 2012, I graduated. I’d spent three years completing my BA (Creative Writing), and I graduated with Distinction, one of hundreds of other students and thousands of onlooking family and friends at Etihad stadium. They wouldn’t open the roof even though it was really hot and the robes didn’t help the situation, and they served us flat beer. It felt pretty good regardless.

I entered into 2013 with no solid plans, really. When asked, I told people I would use it to take as many writing-related opportunities as I could. “It’s a year off,” I said.

It’s turned out to be very much a year on. I did bugger all until February or March, and then my life exploded into a whirlwind of activity. I started an internship with Melbourne Writers Festival, and shortly after I started doing social media for Kill Your Darlings. And from there it all just rolled rapidly forwards. Toward the end of the year I joined the team at Writers Bloc as Online Editor.

I did reviews for The Big Issue, and I got my second feature published there. I wrote for the Emerging Writers’ Festival Online Journal, and for The Peach. I wrote bits for the City of Melbourne blog and the MWF blog.

I met more famous people than can really be good for anyone, but it did help me overcome my star-struckness. I dealt with last-minute problems and I fixed them, mainly. I learned new grammar rules (new to me, not to grammar). I clarified what I stand for, professionally. I met fantastic arts people.

I worked on stuff, and I re-worked it, and worked on it again. And then I submitted and got rejected and sometimes I got accepted. In that sense, it was a year like any other.

In every other sense, it was not. My “year off” turned out very much to be a “year on”. It’s been swell. Thanks, 2013.

SvZ

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Christmas in Retail

I’m a bookseller. It’s Christmas. The last week or so has been hectic. 

It has been:

The woman who thrust her credit card so hard into the machine that it rejected the card. She also grabbed the receipt while it was still being printed, trying to walk away with it before it even really existed.

The man who rang to put a book on hold, wondering if we’d perhaps be open 24-hours a day until Christmas eve. (We’re not. We’re a tiny shopping centre.)

The woman who asked if we had the first Heroes of Olympus book, and left the store in a huff before I’d even finished saying “No, I’m sorry, but I can check if another store has it in stock for you if you’d like.”

The man who stood in the middle of the store looking terribly lost and sad.
“Do you need a hand?”
“I need something for the girl.”
“Okay, what’s she interested in?”
“She likes the Dalai Lama.”
…This was the only information he would give me. He ended up with a biography about an inspiring horse. This shit happens when you don’t work with your bookseller.

Someone’s Grandad who came in wearing a YOLO shirt. Amen, Grandad.

The woman who muscled through our closed doors.

“Where are your books about antique watches?” 

The last customer of the day yesterday, who demonstrated exactly how all Christmas shopping should go down. He named the stereotype that his giftee most easily fit into, and I handed him books and loosely outlined themes. As such:
“Conservative Mum.”
(Handing him Walking on Trampolines), “Family drama, lady friendships.”
“Done!”
Him, holding up Eat Pray Love: “Single girl self-esteem?”
“Mmmm, more divorcee self-esteem, empowerment.”
“Okay yeah there’s one of those too. Done.”
I’m not trying to imply that you shouldn’t put any thought into your Christmas presents. But if you’ve left it until December 22nd, chances are you’re not putting a huge amount of thought in anyway. And when it’s ten minutes past closing time and you don’t actually care whether this book contains a dying elderly person, or if that book covers Provence or Marseille too, then just trust us when we recommend something. 

And finally, the sleep that happens at the end of these days. The sensation of my bones giving up beneath my flesh, when all of me seems to fall right through the mattress. To sleep like that every day of the year, without first putting in the work!

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