Vanitas Vanitatum!

In my late 20s, I took a job working in a government transport department. The main drawcard was that it halved my commute, because the area itself seemed totally foreign – what did I know about cars, roads or drivers, and how could such things possibly be interesting? Yet it turned out to be one of my favourite jobs – with a seemingly endless parade of fascinating, often arcane issues to solve.

One of those arcane issues was how to clean up ‘vanity suburbs’ in the address database. Real estate agents trade heavily on vanity in their advertising, and some residents go on to embrace what are essentially fictional places –  areas located on the fringes of more prestigious suburbs that  rebrand themselves by association, most often by adding a modifier like ‘north’ or ‘east’  or ‘heights’. Their fictionality is probably what appealed to me as a writer, even if my day job was to figure out how to subdue them into standard conventions.

This was back in 2004, when Amazon existed, but Kindle didn’t. We didn’t have ‘indie publishing’ or ‘print on demand’. In 2004, the idea of ‘vanity publishing’ was still seen by many writers as the last refuge of the truly desperate. I lumped it in with those people who insisted they lived in a fictional suburb as a way to inflate, not only their house prices, but also their ego.

How things change.

This year I turned 40, and in the months before my birthday, I had to face the fact that I would reach the shores of middle age without having finished  (let alone published) my current novel. After wallowing in a fair amount of self-pity, I decided I had to make some good come out of turning 40.

So I set myself the challenge of creating something that represented what I had achieved as a writer, instead of dwelling on what I hadn’t.

I chose a ‘top ten’ of my best poems, and approached Summer Pierre, my favourite artist from the Twittersphere, to see if she would illustrate them (if you work full time, and write, and are trying not to go crazy, read her wonderful book ‘The Artist in the Office‘.)  Summer said yes, and so was born my first published book – What they will become – a chapbook that you can now find on Amazon in Kindle format or paperback.

Poetry is the least commercial genre you can think of, so this isn’t about making money, or even building a profile. It’s just about producing something I can be really proud of. Maybe that is a form of vanity, but it’s given me what I always wish for when I blow out birthday candles: the experience of holding my very own book in my very own hands.

I hope you enjoy it.

Housekeeping

First, I open all the cupboards in one room,

pull out the hidden and forgotten things.

 

I lay them on the floor, or on a bed,

and brace myself for chaos.

 

This is my life, I say to myself, and only I can fix it.

 

I flatten things out, and take a close look: what is it?

do I need it? will I use it? is it broken? does it make me happy?

 

I set aside half the things for charity, and others

in a pile of ‘maybes’. Anything else gets a reprieve.

 

When I’ve resolved the ‘maybes’, I put my few things back;

knowing what I have now, and how to use it. The rest must go.

 

This is just one room, I remind myself, there are others

still to clean. Then it will be time to start again.

 

This act – of seeing what I have,

and choosing what to keep – is my life’s work.

 

So this is how I clean my house, and  how I write my book.

Spark

A year ago last week, we wrapped our Faber Academy course. To mark the occasion, the wonderful folk at Allen & Unwin organised an alumni event for the various intakes to spur us on.It was wonderful to see my old classmates, and hear how people were progressing with their masterpieces.

Both tutors, James Bradley (my tutor), and Kathryn Heyman, spoke about the challenges of a creative life and the tough decisions required to make something work when you get stuck, or when you know something is wrong. Kathryn suggested that when things get hard the best thing to do is to return to that one spark that began your story and remind yourself why you started writing it. Great advice.

But  what I found most helpful wasn’t the advice so much as the sense of a common foe, the one thing that non-writers never truly understand: all writers struggle to write. Writing a book takes a long time and a lot of guts and a big heart. And if we falter sometimes, it’s because we’re only human.

In some ways, it would be great to believe that once your first book is published it’s all plain sailing. But it’s much more helpful to know that the way you feel on bad days is just the same as someone who has not only written many books but also published them. What separates you from that person isn’t the problem, it’s how you solve it. If you give up, you’ll never get the chance to see that it’s possible to succeed. You’ll be giving in to the worst things rather than chasing after the best.

I have a little quote by my keyboard: courage is its own reward. Courage, more than time, and more than talent, is what it takes to finish a book. So let’s be brave.

 

Review of “A Hologram for the King” by Dave Eggers

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been awhile since I’ve read Eggers and I’m glad I waited for this one. Philosopher Alain de Botton wrote a really interesting article about work a few years ago which I often think about, asking why we don’t create more art about our jobs.
(See link here: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/our-wor…)

For me, this book was an exploration of work. How jobs define us, how we define the role of jobs in our life, the seismic shifts that have occurred in certain industries, and the effect of globalisation. If that makes it sound dull and theoretical, it’s not. It’s a story about Alan, and the complicated relationships he has with his daughter and ex-wife, and the situation he finds himself inhabiting; a real but almost fictional world in the Middle East. It’s a thoughtful, evocative book, that feels very carefully constructed but not tricksy. And it’s told in the most beautiful, clean prose. I loved it.

View all my reviews

Bright stars

I had a hunch. In the back of my mind, I knew I started this blog last February but didn’t know exactly when. Turns out my blog is a year old, as of yesterday.

When I think about what I’ve learned in that time, it strikes me that none of it is new. And maybe that’s part of being a writer. You learn something, you think you understand it, you think you’re applying it, and then months or years down the line you can come back to the same revelation and it feels different. There are elements you understand now that you didn’t then. You’ve changed, and the kind of writer you are, and the kind of writing you want to do, has changed too.

A year in, here are some mantras I live by:

You’ve got to be in it to win it

As they say, you can’t edit a blank page. The only way to finish is to keep writing. It’s always the simplest piece of advice to dish out, yet often the hardest to follow. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been scared – physically? or maybe psychically? – of my book over the last 12 months. Sometimes I give it a wide berth, like an angry dog that you cross the street to avoid. But once I pluck up the courage to face it again, I never regret it.

Lack of discipline, not time, is the greatest enemy.

When I did Nanowrimo in 2012, I found ways to meet my daily target of 1667. My life wasn’t any easier than it is now, I just decided to make it happen and I did. But without an anchor, I find it much harder to be productive. Over Christmas, I lost at least a month of writing.Eventually my frustration at not getting ahead overwhelms my logic for having no time. The key for me is creating proxies for the things I need – deadlines, beta readers. Right now, I’m experimenting with “serialising” my novel, so I have to produce complete chapters at a time.

It helps to know you’re not alone.

I’ve practically disappeared from Facebook, but I do love Twitter. Used well, it’s the campus you always wanted to attend – populated by bright stars and people who want to talk about the same stuff you do. Forever. It’s a distraction, but a welcome one. It’s also humbling to see the trials of tribulations of established writers, and to know they’re just (*exceptionally talented*) people too, with families, and personal obsessions, like anyone else.

Do you remember what you were doing a year ago? Have things turned out the way you hoped?