She places her palms over her ears and breathes into her belly. ‘Don’t wish it away. Such a precious age,’ she’s heard it a million times. She smiles politely. Tells them, silently, they’ve forgotten. Blocked out the bad times, remembered only the good.
She wants to say to them that every coin has two sides; every story, multiple themes running at once. And love. Even the love of a parent has two sides, always. When it’s easy, and when it’s hard.
Bathroom days are hard.
She counts the hairs stuck to the bathroom tiles. She won’t have time to pick them up, piece by scraggily piece. Too busy being an excellent mother, not wishing too loud for peace and quiet to find her once again.
She belongs in the bathroom.
They belong in fresh-white homes, lovingly tending to their overgrown toenails.
It’s odd, the way my novel is writing itself. I write in short bursts, for what reason, I couldn’t tell you.
I develop a beautiful flow, find a sweet new piece of the puzzle to slot into place. Then, the door closes. I do not know why it’s working this way, but I’m learning to trust that this is the way this novel wishes to be born.
I am resisting a little.
A big part of me gets cross. Just keep writing. Now. Today, this minute: push through the stop sign and write some more.
I’ve just sent some picture book manuscripts off to a literary agent. I feel a lot more confident in the process since having completed the picture book course last year, so that’s my next aim. To have one of my word babies published to a wider market.
I have such fond memories of childhood reading…publishing books for children would be an absolute honour. I love writing picture book texts. I find the challenge of condensing what could potentially be a long story into a short and lovely thing to be very rewarding.
Since uni, I’ve become a little addicted to the art of culling. Culling words, that is. For some reason, I find it extremely satisfying. Taking a clunky sentence and seeing how many words I can remove from it, in order to make it shine. You’d be surprised how many words can be culled without having a negative effect on the sentence. In fact, culling words often brings a sentence more power. Hence, the satisfaction.
Two years ago, before the universe exploded everything around me, I began two very writerly things. One thing was this blog (and what an absolute gift this place has been to me. Writing and a beautiful little band of friends to share my life with? I mean, what life experience could be more wonderful. )
The other writerly thing I began was my very first novel, which became just about my whole entire heart when it began to spin its delicate web within me. I fell in love with the people, the places, the thoughts, the ideas. Everything. My novel felt like a safe and lovely home, and I felt like I was the lucky owner.
Apparently it wasn’t time for the novel, though, because the universe decided to blow my life up and make me a whole new person (thanks very much universe. Oh, you’re really quite welcome, Brooke.)
Anyway, I’m getting silly ( 🙂 )but according to the universe, there were a few more breadcrumbs of life for me to pick up before this novel could take flight…and without ruining the story for you, I can tell you: the universe was right. My goodness, how right the universe was to blow up my world and my novel.
I can’t quite articulate how I feel about the novel now that I’ve returned to it, but I can say that the clarity of thought and expression I now experience in my creative life— due to the meditation and healing I’ve done since then, I’d imagine — has given me a new set of eyes. And a new piece of my heart to write with. My goodness, you guys. It is the most magical, wonderful thing.
A great deal more of my novel makes sense to me now. I couldn’t possibly have written the novel that was asking to be written back then because I didn’t have the right ingredients within the writerly/ humanly cook book of me, then.
But lately I’ve started hearing whispers from the universe and this is what they’ve said:
Arki was a taxi driver, but in his heart he was a writer. He knew he was a writer because the words never stopped racing in his mind until they were out. Neither did the joyous feeling they stirred in him.
Everyday Arki would think up his words and send them into the world. He didn’t need a computer. He didn’t need paper. All he needed was to flash his words onto the windscreen of his cab, onto the night shining road, onto the cars that sped along beside him. He didn’t care where his words landed. All he cared about was that they landed.
He didn’t need his words to change anyone else’s life, either, because they changed his, and that was enough. In changing his life, they fixed a permanent light in his eyes that everyone who crossed his path could see and feel.
Joe, the frequent flyer who dressed for business and laughed like a monkey, slapped him on the back and called him, The happy driver. Jennifer, the lonely lawyer with sad eyes and a happy smile, insisted on a hug once they’d reached the office of a morning—just to say thank you. He’d wrapped his arms around her this morning and wondered if her eyes were closed and wishing to ‘catch’ some of his happy.
Arki had grown up with the burning need to change the world in some grand way. But as he drove along the road to home, thinking of his wife curled up on the couch and his baby boy, nose whistling in his cot, he smiled. He had changed the world in greater ways than he’d ever imagined.
It was time to tackle a difficult read—a bold move, on my behalf. I’d grown up reading only for pleasure and, up until that point in my life, I’d not felt the need to be challenged by books. Reality could be a bitter pill to swallow as it was; did I really want it shoved in my face? Did I want to be huffing and puffing at the dictionary every ten words? No. I didn’t.
But I would do it anyway.
I decided on an Australian literary fiction novel that had a shiny gold sticker on it: an award winner. Surely this would challenge me. I lasted fifty pages before I turned to my husband—who was lounging on the couch opposite me with his own book— and made the big announcement.
‘The struggle is real,’ I said, and it was. Oh, my goodness it was.
Wordy passages of profound thought. Dull family portraits, the monotony of everyday life. A bit of love. A bit of hate. A bit of everything and nothing all at once. I raised my eyebrow and decorated the google search bar on my phone with the words I’d come to know way too well over the past few days, ‘Define (insert word here).’
‘It’s okay to stop reading,’ my husband said, smiling up at me from his book—which he was loving, by the way. And so, it seemed I had a choice. I could go on, allow myself the potential to expand as a reader (and, perhaps, as a human) or I could give up and go find another book. A lovely, lovely book!
Oh, man. I knew what the answer had to be. I needed to read on, I’d kick myself if I didn’t.
The dominoes fell about a quarter of the way through when I had the uncanny sense that the book was becoming more. I frowned into it, gently rocking back and forth on our beloved flower armchair (the same one that’s rocked both our precious babes to sleep, on countless occasions) when I realised what had happened. For the very first time, I had seen me within the pages of a book. Not just the outer crust of me. The inner creaks, the bones, the blood; and all the horrendous aches and pains life had thrown my way.
It felt awful. It felt so bloody awful that I just did not know how I could possibly last through another moment of such soul-scraping reality. Surely, I’d have to put the book down. But I didn’t. I kept reading. And then the book was finished. Just like that, I’d been changed because I dared to go to a place, within the world of literature, that frightened me.
There lies the beauty and the beast that is literary fiction—the grace of the art, the rawness of humanity; these are books coloured by the real-lives of writers who dare to expose life’s simple truths so that us readers might come to know ourselves, and our world, differently.
Michelle De Kretser is one of Australia’s best when it comes to finding the truth and telling it in the form of a novel. As I sat in the audience of her Q and A session on Saturday—only days after she won her second Miles Franklin Award—I was taken right back to the book that changed me. My burst into the world of literary fiction and the humanity that connected me to it, and it to me.
Michelle’s characters are ordinary, flawed people—at least, the ones I’ve met so far— and they are so alive with the human traits we all share. It was fascinating to hear her explain the way she draws the lives of these imperfect individuals, crafts them into little gems that reflect the lives of us, the readers.
It was very easy to be inspired by Michelle and her cheeky confidence. She spoke about all the crap of life as though the fixes were obvious, that underneath the complications of modern living, lies simplicity. People. Just trying to be.
All the beautiful textures and colours of the world, and there they are— in the minds of our most cherished writers, on the pages of our most precious books. Surely, to be human is to share our lives and hearts with others. To take a chance. To show each other our scars and to help each other heal from them. Because life hurts so much better when we roll with the punches, together, don’t you think? To me, that’s the beauty of literature. And I get the feeling that Michelle De Kretser just might feel the same way.
I’ve never read an Alexis Wright, book. Until she won the 2018 Stella prize, I’d never even heard her name.
But I can’t stop thinking about the speech she gave at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Wednesday night, and I absolutely think you should read it, here.
It’ll be good for the writer in you.
It’ll be good for the human in you.
It’ll just…be good.
‘I absolutely believe that we need deep thinking and deep imagination in our literature to shock the daylight out of us, to make us see what is happening in the world, to make us think, and if we teach how to read more deeply, think more, then perhaps, perhaps, we might stop harming ourselves and the planet.
Alexis Wright, Boisbouvier Oration, 2018
(One more post to go for my Melbourne Writers Festival series. I’ll try to get that to you over the coming days. xx)
I was power walking and angry listening. In my earphones was the voice of an award-winning Aussie writer, discussing his concerns about the literary prizes of the world, and how potentially harmful he thought them to be, considering the subjective nature of reading and writing. I could see his point, but overall I had to disagree; great work should be acknowledged.
A couple of years later, I entered a short story competition…and won. The announcement was electric. I clapped my hand over my mouth (you know it, just like in the movies) and flicked my head around to where my sister was smiling back at me. Someone had liked my story. Someone had loved it, in fact, and I couldn’t quite believe how wonderful that kind of validation felt. This was one of my babies—one that I had agonised over, questioned, written and re-written so many times I thought I was going nuts. And now I was seeing it light up the world outside of me, making a difference in other peoples lives. Gosh, I was proud.
Over the coming days, though, I started to consider the validity of my win. Did I really deserve it? Of course, I was proud of my story, and, using the skills I’d picked up along my writerly way, I was confident that my story had technical merit. But was it the best? What did the best really look like?
My biggest punch of reality was the story that came in second place. It was a good story. It was a really, really good story. Not only was it superbly written, but the final paragraph delivered a twist so satisfying that my mouth flew open and a great big, ‘Hah!’ came flying out. That had never happened to me before while reading. Ever. This was clearly an award-winning story. And yet…it hadn’t won. My mind went straight to the podcast, to the writer who’d questioned it all, and finally, I could see what he was talking about. Comparing two stories is a bit like comparing an apple and an orange. Who’s to say which is sweeter?
With that said, as I sat in the audience of this Sunday’s announcement of the Miles Franklin award—clapping wildly as Michelle De Kretser took out the 2018 prize for her novel, The Life to Come— I decided once and for all. Literary competitions are good. They will never be entirely black and white, or fair; an opinion is an opinion, after all. But perhaps we should try to see the good in literary competitions, look at them through those glasses I love so much: the rose-coloured ones.
Competitions like the Miles Franklin, The Stella Prize, The Man Booker (just to name a few) can provide a roadmap, a huge wavy flag that says, ‘Look here! This is one way to write, this is one way to live!’ My passion for reading and writing—and for being a good human, for that matter— naturally leads me to think of these competitions as a rich source of learning and growth.
And, as for the subjectivity that places a question mark over the heads of every award-winning book out there…the great news is this. We get to decide the true winner. Us. The voracious readers. The learner writers. We know which books and authors resonate with our own sensibilities. And if our own opinion just so happens to be the same as that of the judges, well. Hi-fives all ‘round, hey?
Congratulations, Michelle De Kretser. I read your words and I wish they were mine. xx
Fear of judgement. I could fill a page with all the times it’s crippled me. All the times I wanted to do something but didn’t, all the ways I could have grown in this life of mine if only I’d stood firm and owned what I had to offer.
I’m in the front row at my second Melbourne Writers Festival event (Therapy Couch: Krissy Kneen) and there it is again, that word: humanity. It’s thick, and it’s oozing from Krissy Kneen as she talks through some of the fears she faces with her current project—a memoir recalling the history of her family, and the way it all sits within her life.
The scars of her family history are raw and deep, and, by writing a book on such a personal subject, Krissy will be exposed. She admits she’s nervous when it comes to Twitter and the various other social media platforms, and I don’t blame her. With the rise of the internet, ‘passing judgement’ has become all the more brutal.
It’s a moral fine line she’s walking, too, as it often is when it comes to writing memoir. Because even though our story will always be ours to tell: does it ever really belong only to us? What about the other characters in our lives? Krissy’s deceased Grandmother, who played a huge part in this family story, never wanted this story to be told. Krissy knows it—she’s reminded every time her Aunty shouts it down the telephone—and yet, she has chosen to tell the story, anyway.
Krissy recalls the moment she realised her Grandmothers passing meant the end of her uncomfortable silence. She would now be free to tell the story that, previously, she’d felt obliged to keep quiet. I can imagine the relief she must have felt. How many life choices might I have made differently if not for the wants and needs of others? I can think of a great many.
There really is no escaping the ache of humanity, is there? It’s the one thing we all have in common, whether we choose to share it with each other, or not. The stories of our humanity connect us and are often strewn with painful truths; truths that, these days, most of us would rather escape, than face. It’s easy to sit at the bottom of a mountain. But if you’ve ever stood at the top of one, I’m betting you know all about that view.
As I leave the auditorium, bumping shoulders with the people of my day, I can’t help but feel a hum of admiration for this woman called Krissy Kneen. Here is a woman who is chasing after her truth. She is standing in all of her power, and despite the ever-present fear of judgement, she is calm and she is steadfast. She sees the challenges. She chooses to move past them.
This is her life. Her story. Good on her for granting herself permission to honour it.