Some things this blog is not

Some things this blog is not:

This blog is not one of those lifestyle blogs, full of carefully styled photographs, written by a blogger who cultivates a persona that is allegedly busy and a little bit frazzled, but ultimately always upbeat, optimistic, and able to be cheered up instantly a cliched saying, typeset over a picture of a kitten.

In the ancient past, I did try to be an artist for a while, but in the tradition of the fine-art type artist, ie, one who makes their work according to where their own research and ideas lead them, not driven by commercial incentives. Unfortunately that approach incurs expenses and does not bring in much income to begin with, (just ask Vincent Van Gogh!) and thus, was hard to maintain and justify after a while, so I moved on.

Unfortunately, perhaps, I am NOT one of those people who has managed to combine their creativity with a strong entrepreneurial streak and turn it into a business, and I don’t necessarily want to. I’ve found I’m quite satisfied by earning my income working in creative companies with strong social justice agendas, doing the practical work to keep them running. This blog, therefore, is my creative outlet.

So you won’t read here about me juggling my own hard-but-rewarding business as a stylist/fashion designer and photographer with my sideline as a meditation and yoga teacher, while also just having published my very first self-help book, or how I managed all of this while mothering a brood of highly photogenic children that look amazing in pastel-coloured clothes in front of pastel-coloured backdrops in the photos that I so carefully style.

If you like reading that kind of thing, please feel free to depart from here now, because that’s not this blog! I never wear white flowing clothes, drink green smoothies, or voluntarily rise before 7.30am, and my kitchen never looks like a display home, except that it has a permanent display of dirty dishes next to the sink because I can never wash them fast enough to keep up with people who apparently drink 37 glasses of water a day, each from a clean glass.

Untidy kitchen, 2017, Styled & photographed by Blathering Productions. Limited editions now on sale.

On this blog you are more likely to read the stream-of-consciousness of someone who spends a lot of time thinking about writing, while juggling boring mundane things like grocery shopping, running errands, washing dishes, hanging out laundry and cleaning the shower. Even more frustratingly, none of those activities suggest a particularly interesting photo opportunity, but perhaps that’s just evidence that I’m not being creative enough. Suggestions for how to style photos of the above are welcome.

Here comes a stream-of -consiousness now: There are many of us out there scratching away (scratching is an analogy that doesn’t really work now that we’ve moved on from pen-and-ink to computers, and just makes it sound as if we all have fleas). After writing this blog for about eight years, it’s hard to maintain interest in it, because I feel as if I should be moving on and trying to write something more challenging. Are others still reading blogs? It’s hard to know. Despite the supposed number of people following this blog, the number of readers has never risen much over a few handfuls of people per day, from the time it began.

For those of us who enjoy writing, it can be a consuming hobby. Never does time go by so quickly as when I sit down to write. Why, already it’s after lunch time and I haven’t eaten any, nor do I have anything to make lunch with. But who cares to consider such practicalities when one’s head is in the abstract world of ideas, and absorbed in trying to craft a paragraph that’s meant to be poetically written and meaningful. (*that is not referring to any of the paragraphs in this post, by the way.) It’s a shame that often I delete the whole paragraph the next day when I re-read it and discover that it’s pedestrian, badly-written, and idiotic.

Anyway.

Another thing this blog is not, is an inspiration to others. You won’t read this blog and be inspired to clean your house, that’s for sure. In fact, many people who visit my house and simply don’t realise how much hard work and time is spent on drafting, deleted and re-writing posts for this very blog, probably think I’m lazy. That’s because there is dust on the stairs, laundry piled up in both laundry baskets waiting to be folded, and weeds growing larger by the second in the garden, but I’ll be serenely sitting upstairs staring into a laptop screen, doing what a lot of people would call nothing. That is, thinking, reading and writing, with no financial incentive for that work. Madness.

Those of you who read this blog know better, of course, because you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t value time spent in creative pursuits, like thinking, reading, and writing.

I like to think that I’m not lazy, it’s that I’m unwilling to re-prioritise.

 

 

 

 

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The amazing benefits to be gained from having a plan! (*amazing benefits may be relative)

Warning: following is a post about a would-be writer’s attempts at writing and getting an article published. For more interesting reading, that doesn’t travel ground you’ve probably encountered before, you may prefer to read that letter from the Tax Department that you have not yet opened. 

*

When there is a longer gap than usual on this blog, it often means I’ve had a burst of motivation about writing, and have therefore spent my time trying to focus on writing something for an outlet other than my own personal blog.

As it turns out, I don’t have enough spare time to manage to write two things within one week. Or rather, more accurately, what is lacking is not spare time, which I’m great at wasting, but determination, organisational skills, focus, and decisiveness. Indecisiveness is just as debilitating for a would-be writer as it is for an air traffic controller, although with less disastrous consequences. In my case, I waver indecisively, uncertain whether to write about subject x, or y, or z, or whether in fact I should stop writing and do some research – and if so, whether I should read about subject a, b, or c).

Thus, last week, in the time slot where I usually sit and write a post for this blog, instead I tried to attack my lack of organisation. I wrote out a plan that I thought was realistic, of what I aimed to try and achieve, writing-wise, in the next 3 months, and then, what the first steps would be towards achieving each of those goals.

(As a side note, it was an empowering exercise because I felt like I’d achieved something by creating a plan and defining some clear steps to take. Setting out what writing projects I should focus on also assists with overcoming my indecisiveness about what to focus on doing next, so by planning, I hope to kill two birds with one stone.)

It was important to try and keep this 3 month plan achievable so it’s modest: 3 projects. The first is to get published, a piece I’ve already written. The second is to write a creative non-fiction piece for a local literary journal, based on the theme they have set for their next issue. There was also a project number 3; but honestly, in the time it’s taken me to get from the start of this paragraph to this point, I’ve changed my mind and decided that it may not be realistic to also achieve that goal in the same timeframe. I am now feeling less confident, so I’m not going to make that one public. Maybe it will slip onto the next 3 month plan. I’ll stick to two goals this first time, because if I manage those two, I’ll be very happy.

Anyway, the day I wrote these goals, the adrenalin had kicked in. After writing up the plan, I moved swiftly onto phase two, which was the first steps required for project numbers 1 and 2. Yes, I started on both in the same day! For project #2, this required brainstorming ideas, and from those ideas, trying to come up with a reading list that I could start on, by way of research. This in itself was exciting, because it is a totally new approach for me. The most “research” I ever do for a piece of creative writing (i.e., the writing done on this blog) is to Google a few things to make sure I get dates or facts right, as I write about them. I hope that this new approach – starting with research before I have fully shaped an idea of what I’m going to write about – might shake things up a bit. At the very least, I hope that taking this project seriously and working at it, will result in a good piece writing even if I don’t achieve the goal of submitting it to the journal in question.

The task for project #1 was to approach a publication about publishing a piece of writing that I have ready to go. What is that piece of writing?, you may well ask. I see you are still assidiously avoiding that letter from the Tax Department.

Well, as it happens, there’s a letter from the Tax Department sitting unopened on my benchtop too, so I’m happy to tell you about that piece of writing and how it came about.

Every little while, I’m motivated to try and create a piece of writing that requires more than just my imagination and 60 minutes of my time. When this motivation hit last year, I did a short course on writing profiles, on the online training site, Skillshare. I then did some preparation for writing a profile of a friend of mine. I interviewed her and transcribed the interview, which took me about two months, because I let weeks go by in between doing any transcribing. We talked for about two hours, so I had two hours of recording to transcribe. It must have taken me about 20 hours of listening and typing and rewinding and listening again and typing some more! Anyway, once I got it all transcribed and was ready to start filtering and structuring and writing, I promptly lost interest in it and let it stagnate for months.

But the next time I got motivated to take writing seriously, a few months later, I had to come back to the profile project rather than waste all that work. So I started filtering, structuring and writing. That part wasn’t hard actually. I don’t know why I put it off for so long. But again, I took ages to do it. This was partly because it was so long.  I knew it was much longer than I, an almost-never-published writer, could expect to get published anywhere. Surprisingly enough, The Age Good Weekend does not publish unsolicited, 2500 word profiles from people whose publishing credits so far are a few unpaid pieces in arts/education publications and one 800 word paid article in a parenting magazine about 10 years ago. (Let it be noted that I’m also acutely aware that my writing is not up to the standard of a profile piece in the Good Weekend, lest that previous sentence should suggest otherwise.)

Despite knowing all this, I wrote a long piece anyway, because I’m stubborn about doing things my own way. Because I lacked the confidence to do it the other way around, ie, pitch the idea first and then when it was taken up by an editor, sit down and pump out a brilliant piece of writing, my seemingly weird approach was my way of making sure I got all the information I found interesting into the piece, and could then pitch the idea, with the (perhaps misguided) plan to chop it down to fit whatever word length a specific publication required.

But as all you writers out there will be aware, you need to know what you are writing so you can pitch it accordingly. I was aware, even as I wrote, that the piece that was forming was not so much a profile of my friend, as a description some of the interesting aspects of a project she is doing. This is an important distinction to consider when hoping for publication.

The reason that I focussed more on the project is because to interest an editor in a profile piece, you really need either a well-known person as the subject, or a well-published writer as the author. I knew that getting an editor interested in a profile of someone unknown, written by someone with no track record, was going to be a hard sell from the start.

The project my friend is working on, however, has a few “hooks” that could generate interest from media – she’s producing, with a team of artists, a pictorial map of Melbourne. So potential readers are: people who are interested in Melbourne, people who are interested in illustrated maps, or people who are interested more broadly in illustration. There was potential for good photos – of Melbourne, or of illustrated maps. That this angle could have interest for Melbourne-focussed publications is, as they say, is a no-brainer.

So I wrote my article with that in mind, but unfortunately as I slogged along slowly, letting it sit for weeks at a time without going near it, my friend, working hard to promote her project, managed to get some media outlets interested, and they published her media release, or wrote their own short articles on her project. (No resentment from me, since she needed the PR, and by this time I’d taken about 4 months to produce nothing she could use. There had been no understanding between us that she’d wait for my piece to be written – I didn’t have the confidence in my abilities to undertake that kind of commitment! So I’m really happy that her project got all the publicity it has had to date!)

In terms of publication possibilities, this essentially meant those outlets had already covered it and so were no longer options for publication by the time I had a piece of writing that I felt ready to approach editors with.

So when it was ready, I selected some publications who had not yet covered the story, and pitched a short version of my article, focussing on the project. So far I’ve pitched to two of those, with one publication not responding at all, and the other giving me a polite refusal immediately. (they explained that all their articles must be about projects that are funded by their local council).

That was weeks ago now, but since my highly motivated session last week, I followed the steps in my own 3 month plan, and did more research on other publication possibilities. Accordingly, I pitched it again, last week, to a national publication, this time suggesting it as a profile piece. Since then I’ve been eagerly checking my inbox, but have so far only received a polite, standard response, saying they are inundated with emails about submissions, and may take a few weeks to respond.

Since that’s not an outright rejection, I’m choosing to feel positive about this opportunity so far.

So stay tuned. I’m off now, to do more research for my creative non-fiction piece. That is, after I go out and buy groceries, make lunch, and clean the shower and toilet, because like all unpaid hobbies that you do for enjoyment rather than for income, writing has to fit in around life.

*

PS, in case you’re wondering, a reason why I kept my discussion here about my friend and her project pretty general is because if I can’t get the piece published anywhere else, you will get to read the whole thing on this blog. So it won’t be entirely wasted!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Notebook

A while back, I wrote a post about the pile of books next to my bed, and where they sat on the continuum of not having been opened/being partly read/being almost completely read/will probably never be read. But did I mention the notebooks that were also in that pile of books? There’s about 5 of them. (Honestly, the pile of books next to my bed is the saddest pile of books anywhere, in as much as it’s an indication of a wanna-be writer who never does anything more than write a post on her blog.)

Anyway, after looking through one of them, today’s post is this:

All the Ideas listed in one Yellow Spirax Notebook. (2007 – 2011)

I first used this very ordinary, spiral bound notebook to take notes in when I started a new job back in 2007. It opens, therefore, with some uninteresting notes: which printer prints in color, procedures for locking up, file paths to certain files – information I no doubt quickly came to know by heart, as I spent the next seven years working in that same organisation.

A few pages later, it’s become a writer’s notebook. Perhaps there was nothing more I needed to write in a notebook in the course of my day-to-day job. In any case, the diversion to a writer’s notebook is intentional, because I’ve used it for an exercise from The Memoir Book, (Patti Miller, 2007, Allen and Unwin) called Brainstorm Circles. The instructions in this exercise are to start by drawing a circle in the middle of a page, and writing in it a topic you want to write about. Then, creating a visual kind of “flow-chart”, you write the first word that comes to mind from that one, and then, the first word that comes to mind from the second word, etc. Importantly, the author notes, you are free-associating each time from the previous word, NOT from the original word. When you reach the edge of the page, or run out of ideas, go back to the middle and start again. Spend about 20 minutes – this will give you an idea of how rich your idea is.

Writing exercise from The Memoir Book, by Patti Miller (Allen & Unwin, 2007)

(I like this exercise and employ it every now and then. As it happens, from this very first exercise, I developed a piece of writing that I liked and have sent to a few literary magazines in the past ten years, but so far no-one else has liked it enough to publish it.)

The next few pages contain my ambitious ideas for books (never started) and more versions of the same writing exercise, using different topics. Book ideas under consideration were: a book about an organisation I was volunteering for at the time, a book on people from regional areas now living in the city, or a book about careers in the arts. Next are pages of research for an article I was writing about the value of arts education in schools. (That article was published, at least!)

Abruptly, this train of research is interrupted with a note scribbled down when I received a phone call from ANZ bank in 2008. Some of my siblings were travelling overseas, and the bank called me out of the blue to say that my brother’s credit card had been the subject of fraud and had been stopped. I’ve scribbled instructions about calling the bank using a reverse charge number, and below that, credit card cancelled.

That innocuous little memo signifies drama for others, although that mostly played out in Berlin. My part was done with after I passed on the message.

Underneath this, there are notes to myself on possible chapter ideas for a non-fiction book on arts education (never written). Then some research on funding opportunities for the organisation I was volunteering with.

Turn another page, and there’s another sudden shift in the function of the notebook. We were moving houses, (dating this to late 2008) and my use of the notebook has become purely pragmatic. Instead of writing, or even thinking about writing, my spare time, as well as the notebook, were used to keep track of what needed to be done. The evidence: an extensive, hand-written, checklist of all the companies (phone, electricity, etc) I’d need to inform of our change of address when we moved. Judging by a few boxes left unchecked at the end of the list from seven years ago, it appears that the local library and Dinosaur Designs may still have my old address. Woops!

In the chaos of packing and moving house it must have been the only paper we had at hand. That’s the conclusion I come to when I turn the next few pages, which contain lists of words written by my daughter, who was about 8 years old at the time – apparently spelling tests, corrected by me.

Seems pretty good for a grade 3 speller!

Next: a scribbled quote from Budget Truck Hire, on the cost of hiring a truck with a hydraulic lift. The truck was to be driven by my younger brother John. Back then, John was the go-to every time one of his siblings moved houses, as he had a licence to drive trucks and was always only too willing to give up his time and help out. It would have been his instruction to make sure the truck had a hydraulic lift, as I would barely know the difference between a hydraulic lift and a hydroponic tomato. Following on this theme, next comes a list of items to be put into storage.

Perhaps the notebook went into storage too, because on the next page, it’s apparent that at least a year has gone by. It’s now a writer’s notebook again, and I’m drafting ideas for a blog post about Beckett. This signals that it’s now late 2009. We were settled in our new house by then, I started this blog around October that year, and one of my first posts was about Beckett. Following this are more notes, on a book called The Lost Art of Sleep, by Michael McGirr (2009, Picador, Pan McMillen Australia), perhaps thinking I may refer to them in a blog post, or maybe just because I had a strong personal interest in the topic, as I was still, at that time, a constant insomniac. It’s a memoir of sorts, and passages I copied down include this lovely paragraph:

We fall into bed. We fall asleep. We rise in the morning. That’s what we do. Over and over. Falling and rising. Rising and falling. We fall in love. We rise in it too. The rising takes longer. (p248)

After this, the notebook must have been misplaced or left aside again for 2 years, as the next turn of the page reveals a list of scribbled descriptions of photos of my brother John. I guess that, once again, I grabbed the first bit of paper that was at hand, and this particular notebook seems to have been in the right place at the right time whenever that was required. On this page I’ve written headings, indicating different photo albums, and under each, a description of each photo of John taken out of the album. This means it’s September 2011, because I took those photos out of those albums to compile them for my brother’s funeral when he died suddenly on 11th of that month.

At the time, I scribbled that list with the intention of putting the photos back in each album after his funeral, but then after his funeral, it didn’t really seem important to bother putting them back. I think those photos of him remain together in a folder with other papers related to his life.

Following that is a scrawled first draft of the eulogy I wrote with my sister and youngest brother.

Incredibly, straight after the eulogy – surely the most significant and heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to write – the remaining pages full of mundane notes are a testament that the small details of life relentlessly carry on even after someone dies, and require attention.

These final, trivial notes include log-in details for a student portal, reminding me that I was actually studying part time at RMIT when my brother died. Then, prices of various options for holiday accommodation follow, because I had a strong desire to go away over the New Year break that would fall only a few months after my brother’s death and would also overlap with his birthday.

The rest of the notebook – only a few more pages – is taken up with similarly utilitarian notes: a confirmation number from a bill paid, a quote from a telephone company.

In my pile of notebooks, I’ve got writerly-looking notebooks, with luxurious, leather-bound covers, or floral designs and beautiful soft writing paper inside them. This one is the notebook you get out of your office stationery cupboard. It’s cheap and functional and not made to look like a writer’s notebook. It begins and ends with practical, trivial, and mundane memorandum – but it’s inadvertently also a missive that demonstrates how, in between the mundane, and in the course of four years, lives were irrevocably changed.

 

Don’t judge a book by its cover

 

 

On nerds, and dams, and good writing

It is a very pleasing thing to find that a great writer is a bit of a nerd.

On second thoughts, maybe it’s not at all surprising that a great writer is a bit of a nerd.

After all, for all the fist-fights, heavy drinking and multiple wives of your Ernest Hemingways, and Norman Mailer types, there are probably just as many introverted Emily Dickinsons or John Keats –  quiet, thoughtful, observant, intuitive souls; scribbling away at beautiful works carefully constructed from a love of words.

When I pulled Joan Didion’s famous collection of essays from the 1960s, The White Album from my bookshelves a few weeks ago, quotes on the back such as ‘Our quintessential essayist’,  and the byline, Scintillating reflections on contemporary America, prepared me for sizzling descriptions and analyses of the social and political climate of America in the 1960s.

The essays do range across events like the student uprisings, the Charles Manson murders, the music and the atmosphere of the 1960s, but what I wasn’t prepared for in this book were essays about the LA Operations Centre of CALTRANS (Bureaucrats), about suffering from Migraine, (In Bed), about Mall design (On the Mall), about Glasshouse orchids (Quiet Days in Malibu), and last but by no means least, not one but two essays about dams (Holy Water, and At The Dam). Subjects I did not expect from a collection of scintillating reflections on contemporary America – but I had forgotten that I was reading Didion.

There is certainly what doctors call a ‘migraine personality,’ and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organised, perfectionist. “You don’t look like a migraine personality,” a doctor once said to me. “Your hair’s messy. But I suppose you’re a compulsive housekeeper.” 

In one paragraph on a piece about Migraine, Didion has conveyed to me what it was like to be a woman in the 1960s, visiting a doctor, who was most likely male. Simultaneously she also conveys something of what it was, and is, like to be Joan Didion, that is consistent with the picture of her that I’ve built up through all the reading I’ve done of her: someone who always feels less-than-perfect, almost as if she has failed in the roles of woman/wife/mother/human being. She immediately goes on to reveal more about herself:

Actually my house is kept even more negligently than my hair, but the doctor was right nonetheless: perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.

These little reveals are endearing but it was in her writing about Dams that I really loved her, because she is unable to contain her deep sense of pleasure and awe at the movement of all that water;  and it’s her ability to convey her – some might say nerdy – obsession that allows us to also be moved by the technical prowess and the poetic majesty contained in the movement of these huge bodies of water.

Perhaps it’s the mark of a great writer, that even when writing about something as specific and discrete as the Hoover Dam, her essay displays that famous ability to expose things about herself as well as capture the time, and the psychological and physical environment around her with extraordinary clarity. Here is the opening to her piece about visiting the Hoover dam in 1967, (written in 1970), entitled At The Dam.

Since the afternoon of 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye. I will be talking to someone in Los Angeles, say, or in New York, and suddenly the dam will materialize, its pristine concave face gleaming white against the harsh rust and taupes and mauves of that rock canyon hundreds or thousands of miles from where I am. I will be driving down Sunset Boulevard, or about to enter a freeway, and abruptly those power transmission towers will appear before me, canted vertiginously over the tailrace. Sometimes I am confronted by the intakes and sometimes by the shadow of the heavy cable that spans the canyon(…….) Quite often I hear the turbines. Frequently I wonder what is happening at the dam this instant, at this precise intersection of time and space, how much water is being released to fill downstream orders and what lights are flashing and which generators are in full use and which just spinning free. 

This is a short piece, only three pages long, but in that space, Didion describes walking beneath the operation centre of the dam where visitors do not generally go.

…on the whole we spent the afternoon in a world so alien, so complete and so beautiful unto itself that it was scarcely necessary to speak at all. We saw almost no one. Cranes moved above us as if under their own volition. Generators roared. Transformers hummed…. 

She ends that piece by imagining the dam existing long after human beings have died out,

….a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world there no one is. 

Didion clearly fostered a love of dams, because another essay in the collection, Holy Water, written in 1977, describes a visit to the Operations Centre for the California State Water Project. Again, the piece begins by revealing her own fascination with water, or more specifically, as she explains in this piece, her fascination with the movement of water.

The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and I also think about exactly where that water is: I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps(…..) As it happens, my own reverence for water has always taken the form of this constant meditation upon where the water is, of an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movements of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale. I know the data on water projects I will never see (….) I can put myself to sleep imagining the water dropping a thousand feet into the turbines at Churchill Falls in Labrador.

She describes in detail the logistics of water movement around California – agencies call the Operations Centre headquarters by 9am to tell dispatchers how much water is needed by its local water contractors, a schedule is made, and the gates are opened and closed according to the schedule. Walking through the Operations Centre headquarters, she notices a reference in the communications log to Draining Quail, a reservoir in Los Angeles with a gross capacity of 1,636,018,000 gallons.

I knew at that moment I had missed the only vocation for which I had any instinctive affinity: I wanted to drain Quail myself.

The idea of this diminutive writer draining Quail myself strikes me as funny, but while I’m smiling, in those six words she has conveyed to me the strength of her passion for the topic, as keenly as if she’d slapped me around the face.

One of the strengths in her writing, it seems to me, comes from those glimpses of her own fascinations, obsessions, and flaws, as she tells a story. I’ve read other essays and books by Didion and throughout them all I put together my own impression of her personality: I imagine a very clever and quick witted, reserved, serious, careful, analytical, possibly nervous, or nervy, person. Capable of taking obsessive interest in things others might think “nerdy” – such as the movement of water. She is not a humorist, and does not write a piece like Holy Water primarily in order to be funny, but occasionally uses self-deprecating humour at her own obsessions or weaknesses very effectively, to convey that passion, or, on other occasions, that sense of vulnerability. Another example: right after the startling revelation – to herself as well as to the reader – that she wanted to drain Quail herself, Didion open the next paragraph with,

Not many people I know carry their end of the conversation when I want to talk about water deliveries, even when I stress that these deliveries affect their lives, indirectly, every day. 

Here’s her final, climactic paragraph from the essay, Holy Water.

If I had wanted to drain Quail at 10:15 that morning, I wanted, by early afternoon, to do a great deal more. I wanted to open and close the Clifton Court Forebay intake gate. I wanted to produce some power down at the San Luis Dam. I wanted to pick a pool at random on the Aqueduct and pull it down and then refill it, watching for the hydraulic jump.(….)

I stayed as long as I could and watched the system work on the big board with the lighted checkpoints. The Delta salinity report was coming in on one of the teletypes behind me. The Delta tidal report was coming in on another. The earthquake board, which has been desensitized to sound its alarm…only for those earthquakes which register at least 3.0 on the Richter Scale, was silent. I had no further business in the room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still.

*

All quotes above taken from The White Album, Penguin Books, 1981

The Elgin Street scenario

Today I noticed an old, dilapidated car parked on Elgin Street in Carlton.

This car was from another era, reminding of those huge old American cars still being driven around in Cuba. I tried to check out what type of car it was, and after a few surreptitious glances, decided it was a Ford.

Even to me – someone who takes little notice of cars – it was obvious that it dated back to the seventies. What exact shade of green it had been originally was hard to say. Now, it was a pale, faded, metallic green, the sheen long gone, the paintwork matted, mottled, stained and even peeling.

A 1970s Ford. Pic: Wikipedia

A 1970s Ford.
Pic: Wikipedia

The reason I am short on details is that I did not stare too hard as I walked past, because an elderly person, almost as dilapidated as the car, was absorbed in trying to break in to the car. He was working away at the passenger seat window, using a long piece of wire. I didn’t feel any sense of alarm – there was no question in my mind that the car belonged to this man, since they seemed perfectly matched, in era, in degree of decay, and even in color. (In my memory now, it seems as if the man was attired in a greenish-grey outfit.)

There was a shabby grey hat on his head, which was bent and absorbed in the activity at hand, so I can’t provide any more detail since I was reluctant to stare, stop to write a note, or take a picture.

But even as I walked past this scene, the thought had already flitted through my mind that I could write about it tonight.

That’s how we writers are: only in the moment for a spit second – the next moment, we are already thinking about whether the previous moment would make a good story.

Sometimes I wonder what comes first – the tendency to step back and turn experience into a potential sentence that will be written in a diary, journal or blog, or the drive to write, that leads to a tendency to view everything as potential material.

Yet even that is not quite accurate. Perhaps I’m not wondering which comes first at all. Maybe what I’m really wondering is whether it’s a good or bad thing, this tendency – or shall I be generous and call it an ability? –  to step back from an experience and start structuring a paragraph about it in our heads. I wonder why some people need to get their experiences down on paper while others are content to just live them.

I wrote diaries for years, right through high school and until I was in my mid 30s. It felt cathartic to write about my private thoughts and feelings. Perhaps it combatted a sense of loneliness, the universal teenage experience of not having anyone who really understood me. As an angst-ridden teen, writing in a diary was the closest I could get to having a really honest conversation with someone who cared about how I felt.

Many years later, here I am, still writing. Fortunately, I’ve matured at least a little bit since the days of writing copious pages in my diary after the end-of-school party, and my blog posts are not always about my feelings.

I’d love, however, to be the sort of writer who carried a decent camera everywhere they went, and who would, in the scenario above, stop and take a photo, and then talk to the man to find out what was going on. If I was that kind of person, I’d no doubt accumulate some very interesting stories.

But unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who worries that stopping to talk to a dilapidated old man attempting to break into a decrepit old car, could lead to a messy or awkward situation. He would probably want my help, I think to myself. I don’t know how to break into a car! What if it’s not his car?? Do I want to be seen on a main street in Carlton, aiding someone who could be a criminal for all I know, with the theft of a car? I don’t want to be held up here all night! I’m  hungry and it’s cold.

So, lacking the required sense of adventure, I walk on past that scene. And because of that, the story I’m able to tell you about him is almost nothing at all, just a very hastily-formed picture of an old man, as he fiddled with a piece of wire in Elgin Street.

Slippers that quiver in lonely terror at the expanse before them

Darlings, I simply must tell you about the book I’ve just read – it really was too marvellous for words. It’s a book of short stories by Dorothy Parker, titled, simply, “Collected Stories.” I’ve only just finished it; couldn’t have been more fascinating. Everybody and everything in it was simply divine, except for the restaurant at Thirty-Eight East, which was the world’s worst. The food there was absolutely poisonous, and there was not one living soul that you’d be seen dead with.

My goodness, have I really not read any Dorothy Parker before this? I cannot say yes or no with certainty, since this particular little book, bought second-hand, has been sitting in my book shelves for about 20 years, and my memory is such these days, that it seems possible  I may have read it 20 years ago and forgotten every last word.

Either way, what a treat it was to read, or re-read, this book, as the case may be.

Dorothy Parker was born in the late 1800s, and in the second decade of the 20th Century she worked as an editorial assistant at Vogue magazine, and then as a staff writer at Vanity Fair, a magazine which had already published her poems. She is best known for poetry, theatre criticism and short stories, and developed a reputation for her sharp wit. She wrote for the New Yorker and was one of the founders of the Algonquin Round Table. Later in her career she moved to Hollywood and had a successful career as a screenwriter.

Vogue, May 1917

Vogue, May 1917

My interest in Parker was kindled, or re-kindled, recently, after watching a film made in 1994, called Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh (whatever happened to her? – Ed), who is perfectly cast as the acerbic Mrs Parker. As you can probably guess from this casting choice (who has ever seen Jennifer Jason Leigh play a happy person?), Dorothy Parker was not exactly an easy-going or chilled out personality. Her sharp tongue created enemies – she was eventually fired from her role at Vanity Fair after her criticisms upset some powerful people. Much later on, her increasing civil rights activism through the 1930s and 40s resulted in her being listed as a Communist by the FBI, and subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood, putting an end to her screenwriting career.

An excerpt at the start of the book, which was first published in 1930, says that it contains all of her short stories “except a few which she did not wish to retain among her collected prose.” The stories within are largely observations of society, with a rather black humour to them. Parker gives us deft portrayals of interactions between people that reveal much about the author’s opinion of the authenticity of relationships between the genders, as well as class differences in 1920s New York.

For example, the story from which I stole part of a line for the title of this post, is called Horsie. The story focusses on a hapless Nurse, Miss Wilmarth, hired by a wealthy couple, to look after the new mother and her baby.

Her presence was an onus. There was that thing of dining with her every evening. It was a chore for him, certainly, and one that did not ease with repetition, but there was no choice. Everyone had always heard of trained nurses’ bristling insistence that they not be treated as servants; Miss Wilmarth could not be asked to dine with the maids. He would not have dinner out; be away from Camilla?

In this particular story the third person perspective shifts, sometimes allowing us to view private moments in Miss Wilmarth’s own thoughts, but mostly we see Miss Wilmarth from the perspective of the young father, Gerald Cruger, who, to his private anguish, has to face Miss Wilmarth, or Horsie, as he privately refers to her, due to her looks, each night at the dinner table, while his lovely wife Camilla languishes all white and languid on her apricot satin chaise-lounge upstairs, still too frail to come down to eat.

He tried, too, so far as it was possible to his beautiful manners, to keep his eyes from her face. Not that it was unpleasant – a kind face, certainly. But, as he told Camilla, once he looked he stayed fascinated, awaiting the toss and the whinny. 

Private conversations between Gerald and his wife show the cruelty in their attitude towards their hired Nurse:

…”Doesn’t our Horsie ever rate a night off?”

“Where would she want to go?” Camilla said. Her low, lazy words had always the trick of seeming a little weary of their subject. 

“Well,” Gerald said, “she might take herself a moonlight canter around the park.” 

Over and over, Parker reveals the cruel and selfish side of human nature, especially of those in the powerful position in a relationship, whether that is a masters of servants, or an older man having an affair with a younger woman. She hones in particularly on social conventions like small talk, which, she seems to say, is designed simply to make social interactions smoother for the person who is higher in the heirachy.

On his way home from his office, he found grim entertainment in rehearsing his table talk, and plotting desperate innovations to it.

….Lesson 1, a Dinner with a Miss Wilmarth, a Trained Nurse. Good evening Miss Wilmarth. Well! And how were the patients all day? That’s good, that’s fine. Well! The baby gained two ounces, did she? That’s fine. Yes, that’s right, she will be before we know it….

Caught in this social heirachy, Miss Wilmarth is not exempt from the same self-conscious attempts to make light conversation. Gerald reflects gloomily on how she awkwardly goes through the same routine every night, arriving late to the table for dinner:

“Well, Mary,” she would cry to the waitress, “you know what they say – better late than never!’

But no smile would mellow Mary’s lips, no light her eyes. Mary, in converse with the cook, habitually referred to Miss Wilmarth as “that one.”….

Remembering the look on Miss Wilmarth’s face each time this attempt at jocularity fails, Gerald can’t name the expression on her face, but we learn that it increases her equine resemblance to such a point that he thought of proffering her an apple. 

There is very little by way of action to this story, or most of the stories. The liveliness in them is largely in the complexities of people’s interactions – or monologues – and what is revealed about them. On reading up a little bit about Parker for the purpose of this post I notice that her writing is often referred to as sparse. Indeed, in the Foreword to the book, Franklin P Adams writes

Short stories they are, but only technically. Each is a novel, and in the unbridled hands of some of the wordier novelists – and I could name you plenty – would have become a novel of at least 500,000 words.

Take, for example, this succinct opening, which immediately sets the scene for The Waltz, which, like many of the most amusing stories in the collection, is written as one long monologue:

‘Why thank you so much. I’d adore to.’

I don’t want to dance with him. I don’t want to dance with anybody. And even if I did, it wouldn’t be him. He’d be well down among the last ten. I’ve seen the way he dances; it looks like something you do on Saint Walpurgis Night. 

This witty monologue has the narrator exaggerating her despair at being drawn into a waltz with a man who is apparently a clumsy dancer with a lack of skill and a large amount of enthusiasm.

I’m so glad I brought it to his attention that this is a waltz they’re playing. Heaven knows what might have happened, if he had thought it was something fast; we’d have blown the sides right out of the building.

The narrator’s internal dialogue, delivered as she’s being twirled around the room, consists in amusing hyperbole about just how bad the whole experience is, but is contrasted wittily against her conversation with her dance partner, in which she consistently says the socially acceptable thing:

‘You see that little step of yours – well, it’s perfectly lovely, but it’s just a tiny bit tricky to follow at first. Oh, did you work it up yourself? You really did? Well, aren’t you amazing. Oh, now I think I’ve got it. Oh, I think it’s lovely. I was watching you do it when you were dancing before. It’s awfully effective when you look at it.’

It’s awfully effective when you look at it. I bet I’m awfully effective when you look at me.

Parker’s expertise in writing is apparent also in her talent for description. We all know that description is an area where a writer must exert a high level of skill, and sparsity, otherwise it can teeter dangerously on the edge of becoming heavy and dull. Parker’s descriptions are mostly of people, but are lively even when she is detailing the attire that a character is wearing.

By the time we reach the paragraph in Horsie describing, in detail, Miss Wilmarth’s attire, we are aware of the subtext. The unfortunate Nurse has dressed for dinner, because Gerald, her employer, has invited some male friends to eat dinner, and she will dine with them. Even to a reader in 2016, it is clear that, as an employee dining with her boss and his friends, the very fact that she has dressed up for dinner is a social faux pas; on top of that, I don’t need to know what the fashions of the day were, to understand from the physical description Parker provides, that Miss Wilmarth looks unfashionable, ungainly and awkward. I will not quote the whole description here, but I think this sentence may be the most enjoyable description I’ve ever come across:

It revealed that Miss Wilmarth had clothed her ankles in roughened gray silk and her feet in black, casket-shaped slippers, upon which little bows quivered as if in lonely terror at the expanse before them. 

Of course, part of the beauty of that description is that the terror no doubt reflects that of Miss Wilmarth, on the rare occasion of sitting down to dinner with three men. Poor Miss Wilmarth. My heart goes out to those lonely slippers.

*

Reading Dorothy Parker reminded me that American literature has a tradition of very fine humorists and satirists  – after all, David Sedaris did not just appear out of a vacuum. In fact I was reminded very clearly of a book of short stories I have somewhere by Steve Martin (the Hollywood actor). I recall one of the funniest stories in it was a monologue that relied for its humour on conveying an obviously skewed perspective from an obviously neurotic narrator – I believe Mr Martin must have learned a trick or two from Mrs Parker.

Into the air

Today I noticed the sky.

 

The light. 

 

Sharp shadows in the late afternoon.

 

Cold air, warm patches in the sunlight, the last month of Autumn.

 

The shapes of buildings.

 

Dates on old buildings: 1878. 1926.

 

Today I noticed how easy it is to forget an idea that flits through your head. An idea for today’s writing flitted through my head just as I emerged from the dingy stairwell out onto the rooftop car park where my car was parked, at about 5.15 this afternoon. I recall that, as I stepped out the door, I was contemplating the blueness of the sky and the view of the city buildings spread out below me. 

 

What was that idea, that I pondered momentarily, thinking, naively, that I’d write it down later? Was it to do with the surprising blue of that sky, given the chilly temperature, or the shapes of the clouds? Was it something about looking out over a town in the late afternoon in late Autumn, when the sunlight is yellow and soft and the shadows are starting to lengthen?

 

I’m sure, in fact, that a whole sentence came to me as I walked to my car, and whatever it was, it struck me as interesting, worthy of inclusion in today’s piece of writing. This makes me think that it must have been a different kind of sentence than the ones I usually write. I liked it for that reason. Usually, I write in a habitual way – all my sentences are structured the same way, and as the writer of those sentences, I have to admit that I get a bit bored with that. Even as I am writing this next one, I can hear them – all sounding the same as always. The same sort of voice. The same rhythm.

 

(Rhythm: a word I always mis-spell, ever since I was tragically knocked out of the inter-school Spelling Bee in Grade 6 by mis-spelling it. Although it’s already a tricky word, being stuffed full of silent letters, including not one but two silents “h”s, and containing no vowels at all, my mistake is not to leave out an “h” or put something in the wrong place – it was, and still is, that I persist in thinking there’s a silent “n” at the end.)

 

Blah. And then, blah, BLAH, blah.

 

Anyway. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. Another idea, forgotten, and – who knows? – maybe it was a good one. I can pretend as much. It’s lost now, floating somewhere in the Autumn sky, above the rooftop carpark.

Hot Air Balloon over Melbourne at sunrise, 2005

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