Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Successful Friends.

I'm not sure if writing this particular post is a good idea, or if I'll be able to actually capture in words what I'm thinking about at the moment, but I think the subject matter is actually one of those really important aspects of being a writer which is rarely, or never, discussed, so I'm going to have a bash at it. I'm hoping it won't seem too self-involved or whiney. Please bear with me, if you have the patience...

It's a funny thing, this writing game.

When I first got into this business, just after UQP accepted 'The Darkness', but before it had even hit the shelves, I had a long chat with James Moloney. It was a great conversation, and one I remember to this day. We talked about all sorts of things - what I hoped to achieve, where I thought writing might take me, what type of writer I wanted to be.

Jim did me the enormous favour of asking me a lot of the questions which people new to the publishing business really need to be asked. Hard questions. Important questions.

He asked me things like; "How are you going to deal with bad reviews?" (not, you'll note, 'what will you do if you get some bad reviews?' but, 'How will you deal with it WHEN it happens?')

He asked me; "What will you respond when someone tells you to your face that they didn't particularly like your book."

We discussed "What will you do when you miss out on an award which you really thought you'd win?"

And he asked me; "How will you deal with other people's success?"*

It was, I think, one of the most important discussions of my life. I owe Jim an enormous debt of thanks for making me really confront some of these darker aspects of the relationship between writing and ego, early on in my career.

Because the answers to those questions can, in many ways, define the writer you become. So much of this writing world is about rejection, in some form or another - from the moment you get your first form letter from a publisher, to the moment you miss out on a shortlisting, or get overlooked in a writers festival program, or miss out on your fifth or sixth consecutive grant application**.

And it can be even more subtle, even more insidious: One of the conversations I hate the most in the world is when I'm out in company and someone mentions that I'm 'a writer'. Generally nowadays if people ask me 'what do you do for a living?' I just tell them I'm an academic, and try and move the conversation on as fast as possible. Often, though, it'll come out that I'm a writer, and the inevetable follow up question is 'What have you written?'

It's never the questioner's fault that they haven't read any of my books, or heard of me. There are millions of books out there, after all, and I'm the first to admit that mine aren't generally well known. And there are plenty of writers out there who I wouldn't recognise from a bar of soap. And, for all that, it's not like I feel the need for my work to be recognised by everyone. But I still really hate that moment; the blank look of 'failure-to-register' which usually flickers across someone's face when told a couple of my titles is, to be brutally honest, horrible. Crushing.

It's irrational, I know. Egocentric, certainly. But horrible nonetheless.

But it's something which - I suspect - every writer experiences. And with it comes the feeling that you're wasting your life. That you don't have any real talent. That the last thing you wrote was pointless, and that the thing you're currently working on will be worse.

George Orwell summed it up best. In his seminal essay 'Why I Write', he attributed his drive to be 'a writer' to four central influences, all of which - in different proportions - play a part in driving a writer to pursue his or her craft, often at the expense of other aspects of their life.

The first of these, he suggests, is 'sheer egoism'.
...Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc etc. It is humbug to pretned that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristing with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen - in short, wiht the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition - in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all - and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self centred than journalists, though less interested in money... (1968:3)
I can't say that I disagree with Orwell's take on the role of the ego. (Though it's important to add that ego is only part of the mix. He also suggests that 'Aesthetic enthusiasm, Historical Impulse and Political Purpose are the three other driving influences behind a writer's writings, and this works fine for me. Although I also think you can make a pretty good argument for 'ego' being the driving force behind each of them, too...)

Every writer I know has an ego. It's not a bad thing. It's actually one of the tools of the trade and, as Orwell suggested, an essential one. It's ego which keeps you going in the face of the lukewarm or downright bad reviews - especially important in this age of 'Goodreads' and 'Amazon', where everyone has the right and capacity to publish their opinions on everything. It's ego that helps you ignore the little voice in the back of your head which whispers 'this is shit' in your ear as you write. It's ego that helps steady your hand when you click your Manuscript off to a publisher, or an agent, for the first time. It's ego that calms your nerves when you step on stage at a writer's festival, or just in a local library talking to a book club.

So yes, it's a tool. Part of the toolbox. But it's a tool which can get out of control and do a lot of damage. A little like an angle grinder. Your ego can also - if you let it - tear you apart, make you crave acceptance, make you expect certain privileges, make you view other people's successes as your own failings and, in short, can make you into a not very nice person to be around. It can make you say things you later regret, come off as arrogant or just downright rude. It can make you behave in ways you can't believe, looking back. I've been guilty of all these in the course of my writing career.

But - and this is the important part - it doesn't have to be all doom and gloom, and it's important to remember that. It's all a matter of perspective, which is why the questions that Jim asked me, way back in 1998, were so important.

Take that last one, for example. "How will you deal with other people's success?"

This one's a biggie. It can, I suspect, either make or break a writer, and it's one of those things you have to make a conscious decision about. You have to, I think, decide that you're going to celebrate other writer's successes, and not take personally the fact that your own works might not be getting the same recognition. That way lies madness. And the bottom line is that someone else's success, or talent, or ability, shouldn't (doesn't) have any impact at all on the value of your own work. I don't love my books any more, or any less when they win or miss out on awards. It's not like I'd have written them any differently (the book of mine which I think is one of the best stories I've ever written is also the one that never even got a shortlisting for a single award, is still on its first print run and which never really took off here in Australia, and yet I wouldn't change a word of it.)

When I started writing seriously, I made two good friends early on in the piece. (Actually, I made a lot of good friends, but I'm going to concentrate on two in particular). One was a young bloke named Markus, who was about my age, has a similar sense of humour to me, and who Imogen and I really clicked with during a literature festival out in Ipswich one weekend. The other was an illustrator- a guy named Shaun, who'd done a couple of books with my friend Gary Crew, and was - like me - a Perth boy. I actually bought a couple of Shaun's early artworks, because I liked them so much.***

A couple of days ago, Shaun was awarded the Astrid Lindgren prize, which is quite good. He also won another rather good prize earlier this year...

Markus, in 2005, penned a little book which, among other things, went to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. A few weeks ago it was mentioned on the brilliant sitcom 'Modern Family'.

All of which, let's face it, is awesome. Shaun and Markus are two of the nicest people I know, and two of the most talented, and I can't think of anyone else more deserving of the accolades they've received. You'd have to be a fairly self involved tosser to say otherwise.

But - and this is, I guess, the point of this long ramble - I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a couple of moments of - not jealousy or envy - but wistfulness. A couple of moments when I've watched these mates of mine achieving the most incredible things and wondered if perhaps I should have done some things differently. Wondered if, perhaps, I'm not as good a writer as I think I am (I'm pretty sure I'm not, actually...)

Do I begrudge my successful friends their wins? Of course not. If nothing else, the 'trickle down' effect means that their success is good for every other YA and children's writer. Including me. And watching their achievements has made me reassess a few of the decisions I've made in my writing career, and decide to - better late than never - remedy them.

More importantly, it's much more fun being able to revel in other people's successes. Much, much more fun. It's much nicer at the end of the day to go to bed delighted for your colleagues than it is wishing it was you.

And when the little ego voice cuts in, it's also a vital skill to be able to silence it and, in my experience, one of the best ways of doing this is to make that conscious decision to celebrate your field of practice and everyone involved in it, and not to treat it as a competition.

Which is what I try to do nowadays, with everything. And it helps turn those wistful moments into something positive, something useful.

So big (HUGE) congrats to Shaun, for both his Academy Award (BTW, if you haven't seen his film of 'The Lost Thing', then you really need to do yourself a favour and get your hands on it.) and for his winning of the Astrid Lindgren Prize. I can't think of a more deserving winner.

*I should mention that I am, for readability purposes, paraphrasing his questions into neat little bundles here, but all this was discussed in a conversation that lasted more than a couple of hours...
** All of these are based on experience, sadly.

*** Which turned out to be a really good decision.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Throughness and Connection

Last monday night (yes, I know it's thursday already, and yes, I know I said I'd blog more regularly this week...) I was lucky enough to present the grand prizes at the annual ACT English Teachers Association Litlinks writing competition. This is the third year in a row that I've been lucky enough to be invited to be the final judge of this really fantastic writing showcase, and every year the job seems to get more and more difficult. This years entries were probably the most difficult I've ever had to decide between. Huge congratulations to all the young writers who entered.

But that's not really what I want to talk about today. Or at least, not entirely. Today I want to share some of the ideas I talked about in my speech at the awards ceremony, and one in particular, because I think it's a lovely writerly idea that is worth putting out there.

So today I'm going to talk about horse riding. I'm also going to steal shamelessly from another writer.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've recently taken up horse riding and it's quickly become the little pool of zen in the middle of my week*

The only way to act around horses is to stay calm and measured, and to exude a sort of inner peace and restraint in your movements and in your mental attitude. If you don't do this, the horse picks up on it. Then they kick you. Unless you're already up on their back, in which case they throw you off. Then they kick you.**

And even if they don't kick you, if the rider on their back is overworking them, or dragging at the bit, or slumping and throwing their weight around, or constantly kicking and poking with their heels, then horses get grumpy, and stubborn, and refuse to do what they're told. Which is fair enough. I'd do the same.

So it's a good idea, when working with horses, to really get yourself into a good headspace. To get into a mental space where you're working with the horse, rather than trying to impose your will upon it.

All this I worked out pretty early on in the piece. About three minutes into my first trip to the riding school, actually, as I watched a couple of other people having a lesson. And the result of having to get myself into that 'zen' headspace is that, at the end of the lesson, when I swing down off the horse, I find myself incredibly relaxed, calm and refreshed. And that feeling generally stays with me for the rest of the day. It makes work easier, it makes me happier and more fun to be around, and - best of all - it makes me write better. I've noticed this. Riding puts me into a really good headspace for writing.

And it's not just me, either.

Late last week, while doing some research for a lecture, I came across an article written by the fantastic British writer Meg Rosoff. It's (as you would expect) a beautifully written reflection on how she goes about the business of writing, and the forces that come into play, and - to my surprise - about the relationship between horseriding and the process of writing. You can read the whole paper HERE - it's in volume II, number I.

What particularly resonated with me in Rosoff's piece, though, was towards the end, when she talks about two of the central skills that horse riders strive for in their riding - 'Throughness' and 'openness'. I'm going to quote her directly here, because she expresses this idea much better than I can:
I took up horse riding at the age of 50. I hadn’t ridden in more than 35 years, and even then, not properly. For anyone who thinks horse riding involves sitting on a horse, kicking it to go fast, and pulling on the reins to slow down, may I begin by saying that it is fantastically more complex than that.

It involves great strength, balance, lightness, decisiveness, and humility. It requires a willingness to partner, to communicate, to trust -- but never to relinquish responsibility or trust too much. Two of the most important concepts associated with riding are ‘throughness’ and ‘connection.’

The United States Dressage Federation defines throughness as ‘The supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back. Synonymous with the German term "Durchlaessigkeit," or "throughlettingness.” ’ Connection is defined as a state “in which there is no blockage, break, or slack in the circuit that joins horse and rider into a single harmonious unit; the unrestricted flow of energy and influence from and through the
rider to and throughout the horse, and back to the rider.”

Now think, for a minute, of the subconscious mind as the horse and the conscious mind as the rider. If the rider is too strong, too stiff or unsympathetic, the horse becomes inaccessible and difficult to control, or dull and resistant. The object of dressage is to create a fluid exchange of understanding and energy between horse and rider; an advanced dressage rider is often described as asking questions that the horse answers.

In writing, this powerful flow of energy cannot be faked, any more than it can in riding. A book written from the conscious, controlled mind will feel as stiff and lifeless as an insensitive rider on a resentful horse. Or a singer’s voice coming from the head rather than the chest and diaphragm. Or a ball thrown from the elbow. Writing (like riding, or singing or playing a musical instrument, or painting or playing cricket or thinking about the universe) requires the deep psychological resonance of the subconscious mind. It requires connection and throughness, and only then will the reader feel the surge of power that a clever borrowed voice never achieves.
I love this idea. I love particularly the notion that when I'm writing, I'm trying not to impose myself upon the words, but to allow the words to flow through me. Some days I achieve this, some days I don't. I love the notion that a good dressage rider asks questions that the horse answers - (I spend a lot of time teaching workshops on the value of questions as a narrative driver, and so this also rings very true with me).

Throughness, and Connection. They're not skills that I have in my riding, yet. At this point, I'm still working at not falling off. But, all the same, I love the idea of them, and already they're skills I'm working towards, every single lesson. From the moment I walk into the stable to bridle up my horse, to the moment I put him away and untack him again at the end.

And they're not skills that I always have in my writing. But, just like in riding, they're something to strive towards, with every sentence, and every paragraph.

*technically, as my lessons are usually on Mondays, it's become a pool of Zen at the start of my week. Unless you count my weeks from Thursday, in the same manner as the financial year starts in July...

** Just to be clear, I wrote that paragraph for comic effect - in reality all the horses I've come across to date have been incredibly tolerant and not even slightly psycopathic. Which, given the rather un-coordinated way I ride them at this point, is a testament to their stoicism. I haven't been kicked at all.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Embarrassed Silence....

So the last you heard from me was during the middle of the Perth Writer's Festival, where I was having a great time. And I was. I wrote my last entry up in a nearby pub and, after completing it, I walked out the door and straight into an old friend and housemate of mine who I haven't seen in probably 5 years or so, and who told me that he and his wife are pregnant. So we went back into the pub. Then another friend of mine, who I also haven't seen in ages (I'm really quite bad at keeping in touch with people) rang to tell me that he and his wife are pregnant. A definite pattern was emerging. So we stayed in the pub. Then I had dinner. Then I went to my hotel and drank a lot of water. Then I slept - a glorious, uninterrupted night's sleep.

The following morning I felt good. Some might say surprisingly good. Got off to the festival out at the University of WA, I phoned up one of Imogen and my old friends who I knew was at the festival that day and we arranged to meet that evening, after my final session, for a glass of wine and a catch up. Then I was planning to get to some of the evening events. After that, I had my first session for the day - a fantastic panel on Writing Australian Speculative Fiction, with (among others) my very good friend Margo Lanagan. We had a good time riffing off each other, and there was a good crowd and some fantastic questions.

Then off to the signing tent for half an hour or so. Then I bolted down half a sandwich, gave my son a cuddle (He'd arrived with grandparents just before my panel session) and then off to take a 3 hour workshop on writing fantasy. I was really looking forward to this workshop - it was one I'd not done before, and I'd put together some (in my opinion, at least) really interesting and fun stuff.

And it started well. The first hour was great, and the fifteen or so people who'd signed up were all lovely and engaged. The lecture theatre was a little gloomy, though, and so we had all the flourescent lights on.

The flickering, hard, white, flourescent lights.

About an hour into the workshop, while standing up the front of the lecture theatre, I noticed something a little odd - I couldn't read the monitor screen for my powerpoint projection any more. All I could see was a growing, pixellated blur. I also felt very suddenly nauseaus.

And this could only mean one thing...

Migraine.

I used to get a lot of migraines in my late teens and early 20's. I know the warning signs, and the first one of them is that my vision goes. That brings with it an odd sensation of 'spaciness', of feeling completely light headed and spun out. Light gets irritating at first and then, usually a couple of hours after the vision problems, the headache hits and, once that happens, nothing makes a dent in it. If I can gulp down some strong painkillers and get myself to a darkened room as soon as the vision thing starts, then the headache isn't usually too bad, and sometimes doesn't come at all.

Of course, it's a bit difficult to do that in front of a lecture theatre full of people who've all done me the courtesy of coming along to work with me. Especially when you're only about halfway through a workshop.

It was horribly embarrassing. I had to stop in the middle of a sentence, explain what was happening in my head, ask if anybody had any painkillers (one lovely person had some Panadol, which I knocked back like a junkie) and would they mind terribly if I turned all the lights off.

With the lecture theatre then plunged into darkness, and one of the lovely festival volunteers fetching me some fruit (I suspect that plunging blood sugar is one of the triggering factors for these) we all ploughed on with the workshop.

To be honest, I can't actually remember much of the rest of the afternoon. I know I got through to the end of the workshop, and then the festival got me back to the hotel quick smart. I remember vaguely getting some dinner into me ($50.00 for a plate of pasta. Thanks, room service...) and then it was lights out, both literally and metaphorically.

When I woke up the following morning, the headache had gone. I still felt spacey and a little light sensitive, but at least I was functional. Then it was back out to the festival for my final presentation - 40 minutes talking about my family on an outdoor stage during 'family day'. Lots of kids. Lots of old friends who I managed to talk to for about three minutes. As part of that presentation, Toby made his stage debut, bringing up some props for one of my stories.

Then another long night's sleep, and then on monday morning I checked out and headed up to my parent's place to pick up Toby. That afternoon we flew home to Canberra. Tuesday was back to work and 234 waiting emails, which took me most of last week to clear. This week's been similarly jammed, which is why I haven't written anything here (or anywhere else, for that matter - Orion is still firmly parked, about 3500 words from completion.)

In the meantime, one of my good friends has won an Oscar, the world has shaken in New Zealand and Japan, causing unspeakable suffering which I can't bring myself to write about, I've continued my weekly horseriding lessons, and life has basically continued at a breakneck pace.

Anyway, it's probably time I signed off from this long ramble. From next week I'm going to try and get back into my regular writing routine again, which will include blogging again. Actually, next monday evening, I'm involved in something exciting, which I'll tell you all about next week.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

PWF day one

Okay, this'll be short, because I'm typing it up on mi iPad, having to use the HTML edit function to enter text, while drinking a (admittedly rather nice) beer in a pub near my hotel.

I've just finished my first really enjoyable day at the PWF, spoke to a couple of groups, both of which, though small, were really interested and good fun to be with. I also got to catch up with writer friends, including (and I'll apologize now for the lack of links in this post - iPad issues. I'll plug them in later on my computer. If I remember...) Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta, Brian Faulkner, and Bernard Beckett. I also got to meet the lovely Wendy Orr, though owing to a small brain fart on my part (thanks largely to the fact that I had bee. Awake since 5.00am, due to having a toddler still on Canberra time) i referred to her as an illustrator. She isn't, of course, she's a fantastic writer. And also very gracious.

While I was doing my festival gigs, Toby, who has been something of a little champion the last few days, was off playing with an assortment of grandparents. I suspect there was probably sugar and ice-cream involved. Then he went home with my mum and dad to their place, and I went and checked in to the festival hotel. We did this because the hotel is just a few minutes from the festival, whereas my folks house is a little over an hours drive away, usually through Heavy traffic. Festival gigs, though a lot of fun, are also a lot of hard work, so minimizing the commute is a good idea.

Of course, this means that, for the first time ever, Toby is spending more than one night away from both min and I. And, I'll be honest with you, it feels a little strange. Even though he's with two of the four people I'd trust most in the world with him, its still rather strange to be suddenly away from him, especially after the last few days, which have included some of the most intense parenting I've done to date - traveling and getting him settled with mum and dad.

The weirdness factor is also, I i, coming from the fact that now I'm essentially a tourist in my own town. On the way back to the hotel from the festival this afternoon, our driver took us through Kings Park (again, apologies for lack of links and images. But you can look it up, if your interested) Ten years or so ago, I used to do cycle training in Kings Park three nights a week. Today, in a bus full of interstate visitors, it was a little like seeing the place and the city again, turlough different eyes. Same with staying in town. It's strange - familiar but different. Actually there's a touch of the uncanny about it, which is something I'm going to be talking about in my workshop this saturday, so I guess that gives me an example to draw on.

Anyway, I'm rambling, and my autocorrect is inserting all sorts of weird rubbish into this post, so I'm going to stop. In short:

Festival: good
Perth: good, if weird
Toby: missing him (but looking forward to uninterrupted night sleep plus sleep in)

TalK to you all later.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Perth Writer's Festival, plus a day at the Show

Okay, I know, I'm a bad blogger. Sadly the last couple of weeks have, thanks to a combination of sickness, work and preparation for a writer's festival, been a veritable catalogue of exhaustion.

Still, here I am now, in my parent's house in Greenmount (Toby and I got here yesterday to discover that, thanks to a freak storm which had swept across Perth the previous day, mum and dad hadn't had power for more than 24 hours. Luckily my dad, who is perhaps the most resourceful bloke I know, had managed to borrow and rig up a generator, so at least we had cold beer (for me) and icecream (for Toby)) The trip across was actually pretty good. Toby was voted best child on the plane by everyone sitting around us, which was gratifying, and we both basked in all the help and attention that a lone father travelling with a garrulous two year old can generate.

Tomorrow, I launch into my programme at the Perth Writer's Festival, starting with their schools day. These are always a great deal of fun - I had a ball earlier this year at the Sydney Writer's Festival schools days, and I'm sure that the Perth day tomorrow will be just as good. In the afternoon, I'm doing a session with New Zealand Writer Bernard Beckett, who I met a couple of years ago at Reading Matters in Melbourne, and whose novel Genesis is still one of my favourite YA speculative fiction novels ever.

On Saturday, I'm lucky enough to be chatting with my friend Margo Lanagan, who continues to make me horribly jealous of her capacity to write the most imaginative, gut wrenching short stories (and novels) I've ever read. We're going to be chatting along with Will Elliot, who I've never met, but am really looking forward to crossing paths with.

That's one of the things I love about writer's festivals, actually - I always meet new and interesting people. In Sydney last year I met another Kiwi, Brian Faulkner, and we had a great time doing our panel session there together. On Saturday, Margo, Will and I are talking about The Magic of Oz - is there an 'Australian' Fantasy voice? (And does it matter...)

I'm also taking a workshop that afternoon, looking at fantastic worlds. There are still places available, I notice, in case you're, you know, in Perth and bored. I'll be talking about Freud, Asimov, and Isobelle Carmody, among others. It should be a lot of fun.

In any case, the evening is fast approaching here, and (now that the power is back on) Mum and Toby and I are heading up to the local pool for a little bit of a dip. So I'm going to leave you with a few photos taken last weekend, when Min and I took our little boy to the Canberra Show. We did well this year - we managed to spend four hours there, and left without any showbags, and after only minimal junk food consumption. We walked about ten kilometres. We got dusty and thirsty. There were donkey rides. And fire engines. And facepainting. Fun was had by
all...

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