Slow Reading

I had a gorgeous evening last night. I went to a reading group in Melbourne conducted by bibliotherapist, Sonya Tsakalakis.

The set up was simple: a handwritten sign announcing ‘Literary Salon,’ a couple of chairs placed together, a xerox copy of the short story, ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, and four strangers.

What took place over the next hour and a half was beautiful.

First a short summary of the story:  The Sheridan family is preparing to host a garden party. Laura, one of the teenage daughters, is excited and happily interacts with the workers hired to put up the marquee. She frets over the excessive order of lilies by her mother. She sinks her teeth into a delicious cream puff that is to be served to the guests. Suddenly into this idyllic day comes the news: a local man has been trampled and killed by a horse. Laura has the good grace to suggest that the party be stopped. After all the guests would walk right by the dead man’s house at the bottom of their path. But no one else agrees. Later Mrs. Sheridan sends Laura down to the dead man’s house with a basket of leftovers for the man’s family. Laura is brought in and shown the dead man’s corpse. She is unable to articulate what she feels, managing only: “Isn’t life…”

We took turns reading, stopping about every two pages to discuss. It flowed easily. Sonya deftly molded the evening around the written text and our conversation.

We chatted about what we thought of this comment, that nuance. We laughed. We discussed intimately what it is to be human in today’s world: How we don’t spend time mourning our lost ones. How very apropos the short story remains about poverty and the cluelessness of so many privileged people (I include myself). How we continue to try to distract young women from important issues by concentrating on their looks.

It was different to a book club where you’ve read the book and then get together to discuss. Often by then your first thoughts are forgotten. You are quick to judge. Sometimes the only real question is whether you liked the book or not. Yes, I quite liked it, you might murmur as you reached for the red wine. But what was different about this was that you read together, you remembered the sentences, you remembered your feelings.

I found the whole experience very soul-nurturing because as an author I tend to read too professionally. Either doing research or dissecting a book, wondering how did they do that. Thinking sometimes snootily, Is this really something that got published? Or more often, Wow I could never do this. I never turn off my professional eyes.

Which is sad because the main reason I became a writer is that I loved to read.

So it was good to relax into the story, to concentrate on the text, to fall deeply into the spell. No thoughts of who the author’s agent or publisher must be or any tricks of the trade. Just a long slow deep reading with new insights and conversation.

Slow reading.

If you’re in Melbourne, check out Sonya’s website. You will never read the same way again.

painting: Charwomen in Theater (1946) Norman Rockwell (USA, 1894-1978)

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You’re alright.

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Last month was my second anniversary of living in Melbourne. The time has flown by. I can honestly say we are very happy here.

What I love the most is this three word phrase that everyone keeps saying to me: You’re alright.

It sounds like one word: Yalright.

Having lived in London for 15 years previously I tend to say Sorry. All the time. If I’m late. If I’m flustered. If I’m in the way. If I exist.

But the response here is so life affirming that it’s like being dipped in cool velvety water.

If I bump into someone. “Sorry,” I murmur.

“You’re alright,” says the large man with the shaved head and anarchy tattoo across his neck.

If I can’t get my change out from my purse fast enough. “Oh so sorry…” I implore.

“You’re alright,” says the impossibly young and chirpy supermarket check out girl.

If I’m made a mistake. “I’m so so sorry….” I blurt.

“Y’alright,” says the seen-it-all lady at the Driver’s License Bureau.

It’s….bliss. And each time some one says it I perk up. I pat myself down and think Yeah, I am alright. I actually am.

It’s good to be reminded.

Which is why I love this country.

I’m sorry I am in your space.

You’re alright.

I love you.

photo by yasa_ (flickr)

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Et tu, Robin?

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It’s been a hell of a month, so many conflicts, so many children dying, a disease raging in Africa, and yet it was only when Robin Williams died did I cry.

Call me heartless. But as I watched twitter and Facebook exude grief I realized I was not the only one truly saddened. And I think we were grieving because the two were so connected: the horror of the world and Robin William’s comedy.  And his rage. A rage that increasingly many of us feel deep down. He managed to turn the rage that seemed to burst from his hairy chest into belly laughs.

He made a bleak world funny and found the funny in a bleak world.

Most writers have depressive tendencies. After all it’s not really normal, is it, to step aside and create imaginary people to explain what the hell is going on. His people were legendary. He wrote them and he lived them in front of us like an age-old storyteller: Good Morning, Vietnam, Mork and Mindy, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King to name just a few.

But there is a price to be paid. All that openness to man’s gory details, digging your hand into the bowels of humanity, mucking about to finding a gem, takes its toll.

And I think he’d run out of change.

We thought he’d always be there to get us through. I personally don’t think there is anyone out there within shooting distance of his talent.

And now he’s gone.

And that makes a string of them. The good guys, the guys who are digging deep and offering us gems.

Spalding Gray

David Foster Wallace

Malik Bendjelloul

Uday Kiran

And it makes me very nervous….

 

 

 

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Patrick White on fire

I have just finished reading Patrick White’s ‘Riders in the Chariot.’

Boy, when the Big Editor in the sky handed out talent he didn’t leave any for the rest of us, did he?

Patrick White, for those who don’t know, was an English-born Australian writer who many think is one of the most important English-language novelists of the 20th century. I have to agree. He published twelve novels, three short-story collections and eight plays. In 1973, he was the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He is known for his several points of view and stream of consciousness with which each character is so beautifully and memorably drawn. What struck me were his women. He conjured up all shades. From the saintly to the understandably mad to the useless carping self-righteous shrews who can condone such harm.

He is also known for his long florid sentences. The pages blur with so many words and little white relief it took a bit getting used to. But eventually the sentences uncoiled and began to sun themselves and I could see the jewels sparkling along their backs.

Try this one :

“A fellow on a skewbald nag could have been anybody’s almost-extinguished dream, the way he drew a match along the tight flank of his pants, and almost glanced up, out of his burnt-out eyes.”

Really, not a book to read while trying to write your own. It will leave you suicidal.

His descriptions of Australia conjure a world in which he was obviously in conflict–part fascination/part dread. You can feel the prickly heat, the scratchy weeds by the roadside, the majestic and demonic swirl of the overbearing clouds.

Having lived in Australia now for over a year I could recognize the waving gum trees and tricky weather flickering in the sky.

Patrick White was born to Australian parents in London and spent much of his youth going back and forth between the two countries. He spent the rest of his writing career attempting to describe what it was that best summed up this country. When he finally settled in Australia after the war he felt a foreigner in his home.

The more I read about him, the more I understand how he felt. I have often felt a foreigner in my home, the United States. It doesn’t lessen my love and intrigue, it just makes it all very enigmatic. My relationship would best be described, I suppose, a la Facebook: ‘It’s complicated.’ So I am very excited to read more novels by this writer.

At the end of his life, according to David Malouf, Patrick White was asked for a list of his loves: He responded:

“Silence, the company of friends, unexpected honesty, reading, going to the pictures, dreams, uncluttered landscapes, city streets, faces, good food, cooking small meals, whisky, sex, pugs, the thought of an Australian republic, my ashes floating off at last.”

Sounds like a fair dinkum cobber.

If you want to more about him you can go to this website which is perfectly called: why bother with patrick white? Or listen to a Wheeler Centre video discussing the book. (Wheeler Centre videos are brilliant!)

Personally I’m cracking open another book: his A Fringe of Leaves…..

 

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My Writing Process–Blog tour

A fellow writer, Linda Huber, who I met on Twitter, invited me to take part in a blog tour during which authors and writers talk about their process. I don’t have a current book to promote but I wanted to be helpful and I think it’s good to analyze the ways in which we approach our work.

Of course the main question might be Why do we blog? Well, it’s obvious. We like to think we’ve done some cool creative things (like the guys in the photo above) and we just wanted to show you.

You can enjoy Linda’s blog here. (She has a much prettier photo.) Her second novel, The Cold Cold Sea, will be published by Legend Press this summer.

What am I working on? I have just finished the first draft of a historical novel set during the fall of Singapore in WWII. It’s about a young British woman who falls in love with a Chinese man in the midst of chaos. I lived in Singapore for a year and became fascinated with the Peranakan culture. I wanted to attempt to write a romance. The first draft is a cringe-making mess. I am now trying to salvage it. To get at that vision I had which was smooth, clever, sexy.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? I began my career writing satires but wanted to try my hand at other genres. Perhaps I thought I would be taken more seriously. Get invited to the Booker party. I don’t know. But I haven’t been wildly successful lately until I wrote a darkly comic short story called My Wife the Hyena and it was included in the Best British Short Stories 2013. So perhaps I should return to my roots.

Why do I write what I do? I have a friend who laughs when I tell her what I’m writing next. She says Where do you come up with these ideas? Not sure but I do know that writing for me is compulsion. It is how I process the world and my place in it. I examine themes which pertain to me. For example, one of the Singapore story’s themes is nationalism. Because of the several number of nationalities in my family, this holds fascination for me. Successful writing, I find, involves a fine line between using that compulsion and fine-tuning it to interest others. Yes, I write about what interests me but I try very hard to write in a way that will interest others.

How does your writing process work? I write and write and write. Then I write some more. And then a bit more. I wish I had more control. Every time I approach a book I tell myself, Be more focused, Know where you’re going, Understand what you’re doing. But it never works. I just wrote a 85,000 word novel that frankly stinks for the first half. But I had to write that first half to know where I was going. The problem arises when I am loathe to give up sections of writing and spend too much time trying to squeeze them in other spots in the book. My best days are when I can finally kiss those large sections of darlings good-bye and toss them. Sometimes good material, like good men, will only show up if you get rid of the slackers.

Next Week Sarah Wesson will blog about her writing process. Here is her bio:

Sarah Wesson blogs at Earful of Cider so she can avoid writing while writing, and sometimes even while writing about writing. She’s a mommy of two, a spouse of one, a reader of anything, a public librarian, and a biographer of local dead people and rehasher of local history (not your local, her local).  She’s also a keeper of half-written fictional shipwrecks, completer of four drawer novels, querier of what is not a caper novel, because those don’t sell, and WIPping girl for a couple of new projects.
 

photo by Ari Helminen

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I’ve Gone Native.

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Trees, that is. I’ve become obsessed with Australian native trees. Gum trees, especially. Their long willowy trunks which reach high into the sky. Their delicate drooping leaves. Their infinitely fascinating bark.

When I think I’ve done enough writing for the day, I like to swing by my local nursery. I’ve become best pals of a sort with the plant man at Bunnings.

You here again? he says.

Yup.

I walk along the aisles, happy as a pig in potatoes, drooling over the choices: cyclads, tree ferns, native grasses, pandorea pandorana…

Recently I’ve discovered CERES nursery in East Brunswick. Oh how my plant obsession runneth over. Here a treasure of Australian natives awaits: grevilleas, banksias, wattles, kangaroo apples, wattles, lilly pillies, blackwoods, chocolate lillies, lemon myrtle. I love the taste of the words in my mouth.

I want to encircle the hot dry garden of our new house with trees and spend many a waking moment deciding which ones. My first dream is to have a pepper corn tree, the most exquisite specimen, sage colored leaves like fine tooth combs waving beautifully in the wind.

Right now I flirt with smaller shrubs and see how they fare in the soil. At Ceres I found a luscious Grevillea Red Hook. Even the cashier was impressed. She looked longingly it at it. “You found that here? I didn’t see it. I’m jealous.”

I hold on to it firmly. I know a good specimen when I see one.

Same thing happened when I found two statuesque burgundy Agonis. “Wow, those are tall. I didn’t see them,” said another cashier with that same jealous look gleamed in his eye.

I’m starting to realize my competitors are not the buyers but the staff.

Today I came home with a dwarf mandarin for my son who will eat no other fruit, and a Silver Princess eucalyptus.

The Silver Princess eucalyptus is very young, barely a metre high. But I have fallen in love with the species. Tall and delicate, often leaning lopsided like she’s had a touch too much to drink. In season her white slim branches will cascade with pink little gum-nuts.

But I must get back to work now–Revisions await–and try not to think about the kangaroo paws I would like plant along the path. They come in all sorts of colors, salmon pink, orange, blood-red, red and green striped, even black. I’m like a kid in the candy shop.

Princess gum photos by Tatiana Gerus (flickr)

Peppercorn tree photo by macinate (flickr)

Kangaroos paw photo by Linda DV (flickr)

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My Son the Genius

Look what my 12-year-old son made for me:

We’re now thinking of doing the next book on my backlist.

Who knew that when the children grew up they’d be so useful!

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