Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rules of writing

There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are - Somerset Maugham

I think I learnt one of the three rules today -  constantly save the document you're working on. Every five minutes according to my techie brother, any less and you're a fool apparently.You may risk RSI, but at least your work won't be gone with the wind when your computer crashes! 

Tunesday #14: Armand Van Helden + A-Trak present Duck Sauce

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gaga for Gigi

I have always adored the film Gigi. The film unfurls across the screen in all its technicolour majesty, as fresh as when it was made in 1958. The scenes are swaddled in red velvet and trimmed with lace.

I have only just recently read the novella. Golly I was blown away. Not only by my ability to actually read something start to finish (why has life gotten in the way of reading??) but the book has infinity more flair than the film. The language is lush. The sentences are strung out with sensuality and tart with wit. Colette is just marvellous!

It’s a coming of age story in a most peculiar age. Set in Paris in 1899, young Gilberte, also known as Gigi, is raised by her Grandmother and Aunt Alicia. Gigi’s mother makes infrequent appearances and has even less to do with her upbringing. 

It is not a standard childhood; Gigi is being primed to become a courtesan. There are clear expectations of how Gigi behave and what sort of society man is becomes “involved” with.  There are certain pressures to perform as Grandmamma warns Gigi  “we sink or swim together”.

What threatens them to sink even involves how Gigi performs at the dinner table:

“The three greats tumbling blocks in a girl’s education, she says (Aunt Alicia), are Homard Á L'Américaine, a boiled egg, and asparagus. Shoddy table manners, she says, have broken up many a happy home.”

The lessons don’t just involve table etiquette, but extend to posture, poise and even pastimes:

“Grandmamma says: ’Don’t read novels, they only depress you. Don’t put on powder, it ruins the complexion. Don’t wear stays, they spoil the figure. Don’t dawdle and gaze at shop windows when you’re by yourself. Don’t get to know the families of your school friends, especially not the fathers who wait at the gates to fetch their daughters home from school.”

These lessons often fall flat as Gigi is “a bit scattered-brained in certain things and backward for her age” and is "governed by the unconcern of childish innocence.” She rather play cards with her Uncle Gaston, gossip and eat liquorice.

For being only fifty-odd pages long I became utterly wrapped up in Gigi’s life and her journey to womanhood – “she was losing some of her sweetness”. This journey is sped up by an unexpected proposition which forces Gigi to grow up quickly.

If Downton Abbey leaves you leaving cold and pulse sluggish, then you my friend may adore Gigi. The French certainty exchange more then chase looks and heaving sighs. Plus Colette is an absolute wordsmith and awash with wanton witticisms. 

Tunesday #13: Daryl Braithwaite

Thursday, May 17, 2012

How to avoid writers 101

Street art, Berlin

Did it feel like you were being watched today? 

If you were in Sydney it was more than likely you were being scrutinised by professional ‘people watchers’. They would have almost certainly taken notes too. Detailed notes.

So as a public health and safety warning - watch what you say on the streets of Sydney this week – it may just end up on the pages of the next bestseller.

It's the Sydney writers’ festival this week.

Sydneysiders, you may have noticed an influx of tweed & cardigans. Library bags and ink stained fingertips. The plethora of people reading whilst propped by a tree or lounging on a grassy knoll*. Or realized that every bench in the CBD has been commandeered by pen toting types, waxing lyrical about Proust between furiously scribbling notes.

It has been said that you shouldn’t befriend a writer. Not because occupational isolation has left them defunct of rudimentary social skills. Writers are generally affable types - when highly caffeinated and not forced to stand in direct sunlight.

Though they will use you. And more than likely without you even being aware of it. I’m not suggesting that they will fossick through the back of your sofa for loose coins whilst you boil the kettle. But they may just silently extract elements of your personality and graft it into a character in their novel.

This wouldn’t faze most people. In fact it could almost been seen as a compliment if a writer has decided to create a character based on you. You of all people! Think of it as an honour!**

But if you have a particular character foible that you don’t want to have fictionalised, and you reside in Sydney, perhaps it’s best you lay low for the next week. 

Or if you must get out, to buy the milk or insist on topping up your precious vitamin D, here is a quick guide to help you identify writers. It was written for people wanting to look like writers.

Besides the obvious – carrying a notebook, pen or book – there are a few odd pointers. Take a deep nasally whiff of the suspect writer. If they smell “nostalgic” then step away.  Or if they are wearing a used duct tape rolls, step away quickly.  Clearly they are keen on cracking this writing malarkey (why else would they have googled “How to look like a writer”?) so they would be hunger for any stories. Even yours.

*Note the pre-requisite for lumbar support for writers - the hours spent battering away at keys in a dark room results in appalling posture and bones brittle from vitamin D deficiency. So

**Of course as a writer I am somewhat biased and will paint personality pilfering in it’s most positive light – it’s most honour worthy light

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Writing Task #5: pungent prompts

mouth watering aroma

This pungent task has been taken from Adair Lara's 'Naked, Drunk and writing' book.

Choose three from the following list, and write 100 words on each, telling is what memories the smell evokes for you. Use all five sense: smell, taste, hearing, sight, and touch:

Melted tar                                  Tobacco
Noxzema                                     Exhaust
Suntan lotion                               Lunch Box
Bug Spray                                   Play-Doh

Last seen in Lhasa

I like to think I’m hardy.

Not in a brawny or burly manner. Perhaps not even in an entirely able-bodied fashion. My flailing eyesight, flagging endurance and spindly limbs, discounts me from passing myself off as the robust sort.

But I always thought I have a tenacious temperament, brimming with fortitude and generally mental mucilaginous.

Then I read ‘Last Seen in Lhasa’ by Claire Scobie and realized that I am in no way hardy. Especially compared to Ani, a Tibetan nun. The memoir charts the unlikely friendship that develops between English journalist Scobie and Ani.

I’m the sort that hates to spend too much time alone and generally feel compelled to colour in silences with idle chitchat. Whereas Ani retreats into mountain top caves, for months of silent meditation. I doubt I would physically or mentally last a day.

Scobie initially travels to Tibet, as part of an expedition in search of a rare red lily. Ani is invited as a spiritual guide, as the region they are travelling through is a sacred site for pilgrims "Pemako was a nebulous place…a spiritualscape where legend merged with truth."

This expedition is cut short due to political bureaucracy, Scobie returns a few months later to find the flower. During this second visit Scobie becomes eager to learn more about the mysterious nun.

Ani is a yogini  a woman who undertakes physically and psychologically demanding practices”. Including Chod:

“way to sever emotions such as hatred, desire and ignorance to...limit one's attachment to the physical body and the inherent fear of dying.... 'chod is a short path to enlightenment,' writes Phillip Dawson, 'a vivid enactment of self-sacrifice.' It involves visualizing one's body and brain 'being totally dismembered, smashed, crushed and herded to a bloody pulp' before calling upon the spirits or hungry ghosts to devour it.'”

Ani is an extraordinarily resilient physically and mentally, it's no wonder Scobie becomes consumed with thoughts of her and revisits her several times.

'Over the years Ani, in my mind, had become whatever I imagined her to be - my teacher, my soul mate, spirit sister, cho-drok or pilgrim friend - my heroine no less.'

Not only apt in describing the metaphysical, Scobie deftly captures the tremendous physicality of Tibet, its unique sights, smells and sounds.

'The sounds of prayers rising, the smell of unwashed bodies and saccharine aroma from the butter lamps contributed to the heady atmosphere.'

Reading this instantly transported back to the temples we explored, moving through the dark labyrinth of corridors in clockwise fashion. At the time I was only aware that this was protocol. Scobie describes this protocol as Kora, a moving meditation, which earns the practitioner Spiritual power otherwise known as Wang.

I now understand the bullrush in temples, as nomads pushed and scrambled past us to get through the narrow doorways. Racing up and down ladders, they completed the clockwise circuit as quickly as possible so they could repeat it again and again.

Scobie visits to Tibet coincide with great political turmoil in the region. Scobie weaves fact, history, context and emotion into the narrative. Through her friendships, Scobie access into Tibetan society and how it was changing as a result of the presence of the Chinese. This insight is something outsiders are rarely privy to, especially given the heavy military control and surveillance present

"I asked ani if she ever felt hatred towards the Chinese for what they had done in Tibet.
'It’s Tibetans' bad karma - including my own - from previous lives that has lead to the present situation.'

Not only informative, its strong narrative thread makes it highly readable. In fact I thought I seen enough of Tibet when I was there last year, but after reading this I am itching to go back and explore some more.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Vive la revolution!

I’ve been having an awful day. A day full of straggled sobs and salty tears. I got some sad news regarding my darling Nan*.

Earlier in the week I was actually knocking together a post about happiness. I had come to the realization the more I tried to force creativity, the more I struggled to produce anything. Well nothing other than a set of shoulders knotted with stress.

Whilst I am aiming to make a living from writing, I have inadvertently been sucking the life out of my writing. Extreme expectations, intense workloads, strict deadlines etc.  So it’s almost no wonder that writing was making me feel rather stressed and anxious.

I was feeling so miserable I started reading ‘The Happiness Project’ and this quote hit me like ton of bricks:

“There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.” Robert Louis Stevenson.

Today this seems particularly potent, as I've been painfully reminded about the fragility of life. It makes me even more determined to prioritise happiness.

Last week, after reading that quote, I let go of the self-imposed pressures and just chilled out*. 

Once I stopped forcing myself to produce work that would make O. Henry go “oh my!” - I found that ideas starting popping up faster than corn kernels in a hot pan.

Like they say - a happy worker is a healthy worker.  In fact I stumbled across this report “Making employees happy, healthy and productive”

"First, consider the domino effect. Employees are overworked. This overworked environment encourages stress and stress-inducing behaviors and illnesses, which in turn increase turnover, absenteeism and employee dissatisfaction and ultimately costs employers billions in higher healthcare and labor costs" **

It feels like I’ve just given the one finger salute to a bitch of a boss.  I’m now working in a much healthier (and happier) working environment.

I’m learning to be the nice boss. The one who says things like “my door is always a open“, ”free muffins for all!” and “of course flannelette is appropriate for casual Friday!”

Of course there will still be demands, I won’t allow my writing to slip to just jotting down shopping lists, but I can already see that happiness doesn’t hinder productivity.

Whilst Red Smith famously said “There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein”

I think that would be a dreadfully messy business to engage in on a daily basis. I definitely think experiencing a spectrum of emotions is important to foster a sense of honesty and excitement in writing (I can attest to braving the stormy swell of emotions today). But I think that one needs to establish a happy working environment to ensure that the creative muse turns up and clocks on.

So Vive la revolution! Farwell Fi the dictator! And hello happy little camper!

Every revolution needs a couple of smashed eggs

*She is just the best.  Plain and simply – the best.

The woman herself! [photo taken 3years ago, during a freezing Irish winter!]

** This may have coincided with the discovery of the truly amazing show – Downton Abbey AND the hilarious podcast 'The Minutes'

**Note that this report was written for actual corporations, so perhaps it's prudent I edit out the word 'billions' for - “ultimately cost employers (read: Fi)…a fine button collection, a stack of tatty band posters and her sanity”. I think that this gives a clearer indication of my fiscal relationship with my writing!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tunesday #10 - Reptar

By a sneeze

I didn’t anticipate my Madeleine to be so – unpleasant. With a rib-rattling sneeze a wallop of mucus flung from my nose, and I was instantly transported back to the brothel Bucharest.

Hot tea and cake is so much more delightful to yield a relaxing reverie. But I suppose you can’t be picky about sensory stimulus! So here is the result of last week's writing exercise: 

I lay on the floor of my tent in a sweltering fug of fever. Lashing rain drowned out my haggard cough. I fidgeted, fighting to get comfortable. I finally flung off my sleeping bag, only to retreat under it moments later. A platoon of mosquitoes laid siege. We were camping in a poorly drained swamp. Even without a fever the air hung like a soppy, hot towel.

We had pulled into Bucharest earlier in the day. We pitched our tents in a campsite in outskirts of the city. The campsite used to house laborers during the communist era. A handful of original plywood huts still stood. They had since been tarted up with bright paint. We were later told that that wasn’t the only tarty behavior.

Campsites have a less then savory reputation in Romania. After the Iron curtain fell, these types of huts were sold off for private enterprise and turned a fine profit when rented by the hour.

This particular campsite was built on the edge of an industrial estate, a forty-minute bus trip from the city. We eagerly pitched our tents and set to work washing our filthy clothes in the bathroom sinks. Giggling at the strategically placed massage tables in the toilet sheds. Not yet knowing about the campsite’s avenues for revenue.

With everything washed, we negotiated with each other for space in the campgrounds backfield. We hung our wet clothes from fence posts, tent guide ropes and trees branches. The field looked like a launderette had exposed. We were immensely satisfied. Everything was washed. We failed to anticipate the impeding rain.

It wasn’t the rain that broke us. Bucharest broke us. As we eventually drove any from the wretched city we were weary and unwell.  My lungs were still a cesspool of mucus; everyone else had hangovers from a night on the city’s wild side. I suppose I haven’t explained very well why I’ll never return to Bucharest, that’s for another time. I highly doubt anyone else I travelled with would return either. I guess I risk the possibly of returning to it whenever I have a heavily laden sneeze. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Writing Task #4: Proust it!

I've been reading The Memoir Book by Patti Miller. Her chapter on memory has been greatly influenced by the Proust. Miller defines memory as either being ‘original’ or ‘remembered’. 

‘Remembered’ memory is simply your ability to recall events, ‘this is the extracted idea of the memory’ as it may feel as though you are ‘watching’ the events. Whereas ‘original’ memory is ‘the product of a sensory stimulus’ and you ‘relive the experience’ hence the heavy referencing to Proust.

So this week’s writing task is to find your own madeleines. Try and unlock some original memories by setting up some sensory cues – whether this means going for a slice of cake, sniffing out the spice rack, listening to music, touching silk or corduroy - anything that may trigger of some memories.

According to Miller, Proust said reverie was his favourite emotional state and the one he believed all good writing ought to induce. So allow yourself to slip into "a state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream" and record all the words/memories associated with the sensory stimulus you have selected. 

Fuel for thought

Fuel for thought

I’ve been a trifle busy this week – when I haven’t been contorting myself with pilates, I’ve been house hunting*, working insane hours**, studying, attempting to regain running fitness and attend to basic facets of everyday living. Needless to say my writing has once again fallen to the wayside.

Then this made me stop in my tracks and gave  me some fuel for thought. This is perhaps the most poetic press release of the week:

And that the letter of law has no top and no bottom. And everybody in the world knows who is responsible for the wrongdoing of News Corp: Rupert Murdoch. He paid the piper and he called the tune.

This chap sounds like a wordsmith! Perhaps I should start to incorporating some wordsmithery at work. Perhaps I should utilise lovely word images when educating my patients about their various ailments!

Two birds, one stone, eh?

Or I should just get more organised, ugh.

*Note: Word of the (newly) wise, perhaps don’t inspect the cheapest accommodation advertised – I tried that tact this week and found myself in the sleazy surrounds of a derelict squat. Lovely folks living there, somewhat spacey in demeanour, but not lovely enough to convince me to rent a room there. The black mole, damp and lack of a toilet also factored in on the decision!  

** I'm a physiotherapist

Friday, May 4, 2012

Book an escape

Whilst traveling I wanted the crib notes about each country. Not just to ascertain key landmarks (a quick search on wikitravel can do that) I wanted to sit in the shoes of someone - be fictional or nonfictional - and experience the country through before landing it’s doorstep.

In fact nearly everyone on the truck felt the same. Most of these books went on high rotation, passed along to whoever had dibbed it next.

China - Wild Swans
Thailand - The Beach
Australia - Down Under

After travelling through India I read 'A Fine Balance'. Even though I was in subzero temperatures in China, each time I flicked open the book I was transported me back to the bustling streets of Delhi. I could feel the hot slap of humidity on my skin and hear the story unfold to a sensory symphony of sights, smells and sounds.

It was a wonderful reading experience! Though I literally had to take breaks from the novel, as at times it became a sensory overland. From the jarring symphony of high-pitched car horns to the soft drag of handmade dry grass brooms on pavements. The angry spit of hot oil from street stalls frying Samoa to the heady perfume of cooked mustard seeds. The sickly sweet chai to the retched stench of faeces from open sewers. The kaleidoscope of colourful saris from roadsides to harvesting in fields. The crush of thousands of people passing under the stern gaze of policemen barricaded by sandbag walls at train stations.

I became conscious of recording the true essence of each country I visited. As I want each country in my novel to be a thumping beast of a character. To leap off the page, to curse, groan, moan or laugh, leap and pulsate with energy. Each country, city and region had its one vibe, it's own personality. Bucharest was crumbling, Delhi bureaucratic, Singapore a slick shoppers paradise, Berlin a bohemian playground and Jakarta a series of sweeping, traffic laden boulevards.

I don't want my novel to be all about me - that would the dullest book written. I didn't travel just to think about myself. I set on the road to see, feel and grasp the globe. I want to ensure I capture the character of each place. I want the reader to feel like they were on the road with me. 

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