Second draft

Well, Varuna The Writers House delivered. I have a second draft of my novel! I even have a working title: Fearlessly and Wonderfully Made.

At first I panicked at the idea of producing something in a week. Then I called my husband who gave me permission to sleep in, shop and get massages and do no writing at all, if that is what I needed. So I did that for a day, and then I found myself writing until the not-so-bitter end.

Hurray for Varuna! Thank goodness Mick Dark made this incredible gift to writers: space and time and quiet.

 

 

Write until you drop

I am thinking about writing. I am thinking about what I can write, and how I can make that more a part of my future.

I am thinking about honesty.

Whenever I start a new writing project, I get a sudden rush of other, excellent ideas for other, excellent projects.

It’s like Jesus encountering the devil in the desert, or Buddha facing the three spirits of temptation under the bodhi tree. These tempters look just like the real thing. So close, you can smell it – the faint, sweet smell of happiness.

Happiness is just one of the core evolutionary emotions, and it doesn’t even last that long.

Satisfaction, completion. To start and to finish. To speak and to write. These are my structures. These are the things that will take me the days and hours when I am not busily facilitating bubba’s life. Life is too short to spend in determined silence.

Keep. Going. Go.

I keep waking up happy

I keep waking up happy. It’s spooky. It’s as if someone has been doing a nightly operation on me, someone like Elijah Wood in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Instead of messing with my memories, my night gnome takes my DNA and examines the anxiety gene very, very closely. She turns it over, considering it. She assesses its long-term utility to the common good of the other amino acids in the chain. Will it help the group survive? Or has the balance turned against it; has it outserved its calculus of usefulness?

She is a scientist, my night gnome. She is conducting an experiment.

Every day, I wake up happy. But I go to bed worrying about little things, like, will I be able to cope with looking after my baby all day by myself? And throughout the morning, I might wonder, is this going OK? Should I be playing with her more? Should I be doing something else, something that members of the capable mums club know to do? Should I close that door, get her a drink of water, try to get something else done, be more productive?

Then I snaggle my worries on her little face, turned to me with a wide grin. I don’t need to close the door. I don’t need to be or do anything else right now. Things seem to be going quite fine.

Something has happened in the pits of my brain where the self-esteem lives. Someone gave it flowers. Someone said to it, you are actually doing pretty well, but thanks for asking.

An instance of the experiment: we are currently hiring a babysitter. I resisted the temptation to tidy up, or do anything out of the ordinary routine. This is how we do it, I was saying. And it’s OK. That gave me a warm feeling inside and the white hairs on my head seem to bristle with pride, thinking, finally, she is growing into her own wisdom.

I think the fact that I am doing this PhD in writing is one of the experimental catalysts. Someone believing in me and my writing is like someone saying that my way of going about the world is valid.

Another, far more serious part of life right now: my sister is in hospital, and things are not going well. But I feel good about my sisters and brother, all of whom are caring, concerned and actively helping her. At other times, I would have felt completely alone with this. Now I feel like she is supported, and therefore so am I.

Hope is strange; it has a strange effect on your brain, like sun after a night so long you hardly dared believe it would ever, ever end. You reach out as if you could touch the light, but you are afraid that by doing so you will find out it is nothing more than an illusion of your encroaching mind.

Continue the experiment. I am.

On permission

It comes back to this, doesn’t it?

It occurs to me that I am being paid to write what I want to, for the first time in my life. I have a PhD scholarship. They even gave me a bit extra, thanks to my university medal, garnered all those years ago. I still remember giggling like it wasn’t that important, but being disappointed when the Vice Chancellor forgot to announce us medallists. The mollified master of ceremonies regrouped with a round of applause once we were already back in our seats.

I used to walk with a sloping gait, shoulders hunched modestly. I am so short that I don’t really need to stoop, but I used to anyway. Now I have to walk stock straight, because of my aged knees. My husband calls for my goosestep as I march downhills, bottom out and knees bent slightly, taking the pressure in my quads, changing the physical habits of a lifetime of pretending to be not as smart or talented as I really may be, just in case I wasn’t loved because of it.

Such a girl thing. So cliched. But there it is.

And here is this PhD supervisor, a lovely, encouraging, supportive person. So smart. So well regarded. Here she is, in her office at the university, in a building that looks reasonably new, showing that other people, people in power, people with money, take writing seriously. And here she is, taking me seriously. Urging me to start writing immediately. Telling me to create a safe space for my writing so I can write whatever I want. Suggesting that I get my ideas, memories down.

She trusts my process.

Can I?

Well, I will start like this. Goosesteps up and down the hill. Time, each day, to write for myself. I will write as poorly as possible. I will write.

Writing

When I get anxious, I get jealous. It is an unpleasant trait, and one not immediately obviously related to my heightened state of worry, which makes it harder to rationalise away. I look at pictures of other people’s living rooms and think they are much nicer than my own. I assume everyone else has more money or if not, is better at managing it than I am. I see people smiling and I think dismally that everyone else knows the secret to being relaxed and taking life as it comes, and I do not.

What can make this go away? Writing.

It is a strange but true thing for me, that if I write, suddenly, alchemically, my world turns back into a known and trusted place. I am comforted and comfortable, reconnected with my reason for being. I love my family viscerally, spiritually, with the lifeforce which makes my heart beat. Writing however, that is something about me. It returns me to the inside of my skin rather than living on my own outer rawness.

I could live and not write. It is important that I know that, so writing does not become an addiction and therefore a burden. It is also not about writing well.

Writing is, importantly, my gift to myself. It is my chosen way of taking the ponding emotions and thoughts from my stomach and turning them outwards, feathering them, drawing smiley comic faces on them, blowing them up and letting them go.

It is not that writing gives my life meaning and without it, I would be a gap where the vacuum could claim another victory for lifelessness. I choose writing and in return it gives me a ball of oxygen to hold in my two hands – that is, it gives me nothing at all but the ability to connect myself to the air we breathe.

The 41st day of the rest of my life

I have been a little bit absent from the blogosphere, and that is because I have been rather busy, gnawing my leg off in anxiety, since I left my job.

I like leaving jobs.  I do it regularly.  But I had been I this job for three years, and they were three good years.  I liked the work. I liked [most] of the people.  What happened?

I was reading Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.  This woman has written three books in her life.  I don’t know much about the first, but Gilead won the Pulitzer or the National Book Prize or something fabulous, and its sequel Home won the Orange Prize, and I do like reading Orange Prize winners.  Not a bad track record, hey?

Anyhow, so I was reading this beautiful, calm book on the train from work.  And I was beautifully calm as a result.  And in that beautiful calm, I knew.  It was time.  I was tired of the commute, and I was tired of working in an office, to office hours.  I had been denying that for a while, but reading Robinson’s meditative graces, following the ruminating paces of an old man writing a letter to his son because the old man is dying; well, let’s call it perspective.

I resigned the next day.  When I told my manager, he smiled and asked, “For real this time?”  which indicates where my head had been for the last few months.  I said, yes, for real this time.  I meant it.

And so, on 26 Feb I started not-working.  Or to be more precise: freaking out to the tune of the ocean crashing 1 km away from my mortgage.

The plan was to take a month or so, finish my book, then start looking for some consulting work.  What happened was, I became immediately obsessed with finding work.  I applied for something like four different contracts in the space of ten days whilst still working for my previous employer in transition mode.  I was staying up late, let’s put it that way.

Then a good friend of mine visited from Canberra.  She smiled politely when I told her I had changed my plans; that getting consulting had become more important than finishing the book.   I muttered about a “pipeline,” and she didn’t say anything.  The next morning, when my husband had headed out to buy breakfast for us, she took me in hand.  She said, and I pretty much quote, “Is your credit card maxed out?” [No.] “Do you have money saved so you can do the writing?” [Yes.] “You have a university education, a massive amount of experience and a great reputation.  You’ll find work.  And your book is going to be a best seller if you finish it.  How much certainty do you need before you’ll be happy?  Do you need an investment property first, is that when you’ll be satisfied?”

Part of me thought, yes…but that part was wrong to have the floor, and I could see it.  By the time my husband came home, I had agreed with her to fulfil my current commitments, but to focus on the writing for a month and then get more consulting work.  Get the book finished.  Stop avoiding the real fear, which is that I’ll finish it and

NO ONE WILL LIKE IT.

Honestly, being a writer is sometimes like being five years old and in a new school; standing in the playground, with your new cowboy belt and gun, and suddenly having the sinking realisation that maybe here they don’t know about cowboys; and worse, maybe it’s actually a stupid game, and you’re actually an idiot, even though it was all the rage back where you cam from.  It’s a terrible shock when you first learn that what you always believed may not be universal.

Anyway.  So this is the 41st day of the rest of my life.  I’m giving it a determined go.  I am not shooting for any prizes like Marilynne Robinson.  It’s not that kind of book.  I just hope that I can get it finished and give the labour its due.  And remember that if someone shoots it down, they’re only using a toy gun, after all.

Something I care a lot about

I just read this article on the SMH.  It’s not often that I get excited about an article on SMH (except maybe to cuss out their tabloidal focus, or their lack of research except for surfing the blogs and the wires).

But this article about the under-representation of women in movies got my interest.  

Geena Davis (Oscar-winning actress, brainiac, mother and Olympian) started to get interested in this issue when she had kids.  She crunched some numbers and found that:

“Typically there are three male characters for every one female character. If it’s a crowd scene, that ratio goes out to four or five males for every female. And 87 per cent of narrators are male.”

She started up an Institute to encourage movie makers to redress this shocking imbalance.  

In my much smaller way, I am writing a teens’ book with a female lead for the same reason.  I started writing it with a male lead – it was instinctive to do so, even though I am not a boy myself.  It was because almost all the heroes in all the books I had read growing up were blokes.  Frodo (bloke hobbit), Harry (bloke wizard), the annoying kid in the Stormbreaker series, and the list goes on.   So when I sat down to write my own fantsay/sci-fi/philosophical fiction for kids, it was like I didn’t even have a choice – a boy appeared on the page, fully-formed.

After one year and one draft, I decided that wasn’t OK with me.  I started again, writing with a girl in the lead.  The boy is still in it – he may even get a lead role, may even be equal protagonist.  But the girl is going to totally kick some ass.

For some time, I questioned if it were OK to make a decision like that – to purposely interrupt the “creative flow” to impose my own beliefs.  But darn it, if I didn’t do it with my own little book, when would I make such a conscious choice again?  Because that’s what it is – that’s what it has to be by story-tellers and film-makers everywhere if the balance is going to change – a conscious effort, a real choice.  

It’s not been easy coming up with a voice for this character. That’s probably just me and my own issues and writerly bothers.  But maybe that’s not all.  The boy character, like I said, practically fell on to the page, and I reckon that’s largely because I had ingested so many version of him over the years that he was just hanging out in my subconscious, waiting for me to put him together.  

So maybe, at least one of the reasons people don’t write more female leads is that there are so few, fictional role models for writers.  There are a lot more books out there now with girl-power in the mix.  But they are a small minority and some of them sound and act like a boy who is a girl in name only anyway.  Ellie, the girl in “Tomorrow when the war began” series is downright boy-ish.  Does a girl-hero in a classic, adventure hero’s journey have to be boy-ish to be a hero?

I hope not.  I hope she also doesn’t have to be uber girlish.  She can just be a girl, with a combination of traditionally male and female qualities (like most of us anyway), in a bad situation that she has to change.  Girls and boys can be equally brave.  Let’s hope the same can be said for writers.

 

If this topic interests you, you might find this article interesting (it has some handy academic references in it): Gender issues in children’s literature.

Wharton worries

I’ve been reading Edith Wharton, and it’s rather depressing.  Everything is rather something (or’uther).  Not to be too flippant – I am sure the characters in Glimpses of the Moon really felt every bit as miserable and desperate as they sounded, so distant from reality in their artificial world of pre-World War One romantic intrigue and chinchilla cloaks.  And to be sure, there was something about the depth of their distress at being parted from their true love (and therefore, from a true life) which inspired a familiar anxiety in me.

How does one engage in everyday work to support the artistic life (trying not to be as tongue in cheek as that sounds and failing miserably, I see Wharton’s sad, sarcastic tone has infected me more than I would have liked!)  Surely there is a better solution than that of the two lead characters of Glimpses, who become hangers-on of rich people and wonder at themselves for being so hopeless as to not be able to do an honest day’s job, yet also can’t see a way out.  That is, until the very end of the book, the last five pages, when they find each other again and commit to loving each other in poverty.  Well, for at least one turn of the moon, anyhow.  It’s all rather bleak.

I suppose birth control would have helped the heroine.  And to my mind, a good kick up the bottom would have done the hero a world of good.

Is it really that simple?  Can the life of the mind be as easy to come by as I ruthlessly suggest?

To my mind (made obstinate by opposition), for thousands of people: yes.  A little dose of application and a lot of determination; the good fortune of being middle-class Australian, getting a good education and not having to fight for food: these are all things not to squander.  If you have permission from your loved ones to create and, for a while, put money second (though not, entirely, out of the picture!) then take it.  There’s nothing that makes me so impatient as hearing of someone in our affluent society, surrounded by supportive people and opportunities to work in ways that will support their writing (if not their Faberge egg habit) who wants to write but can’t seem to find the time.

I am being uncharitable, and these words will come back to bite me, I know.  It’s just that blasted Wharton I’m mad at.  She spoke too honestly and too close to the bone about the inertia and laziness that can stultify.  But then, so can a want of finance.  And then, so can fear.  Being on the cusp of leaving my job to cobble together freelancing and focus more on writing, you could say that this is on my mind.

I might read something less doleful next.  Who would have thought the story of a couple of wastrel New York socialites from the late 1800s could strike from such a distance?  Bloody classics. Thoroughly untrustworthy ways to spend your leisure time.  Just as likely as a modern read to bite you on the bottom with an home truth, of the kind you thought you had cleverly avoided by immersion in descriptions of clothes and carriages.  But look out: what goes on inside those c’s can pack a punch.