writing

keeping a promise

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I have wanted to do my PhD for a very long time. Apparently I even talked about it at school! In my last year of my BA I remember it being all-consuming, and being devastated when, convinced I was speeding merrily along that path, I reached a dead end after my Honours year. 

But life went on. As some things ended, I found new beginnings. I moved interstate, then overseas. This time last year, more than 15 years had passed since reaching that dead end. Tom and I were packing up our lives in London, our flights back to Australia booked, his visa safely approved. I was in a routine I’d been in for years, though admittedly at the tail end of it. The daily grind. Happy enough but wondering if this particular dream would ever see the light of day after the best part of two decades in a cupboard. 

If anyone had told me a year later I would be enrolled in my PhD and attending seminars at University of Technology Sydney, meeting my supervisor who is one of the most creative, motivating and intelligent women I’ve ever met, well....I would have wanted to believe it. But I still thought it was unlikely. 

I entered the UTS building last Thursday and thought I would explode with joy. I sat at tables with some of this country’s brightest minds, most respected historians and highly praised writers and thought.....I belong here. Not in an arrogant way, you understand. I am honoured and beyond grateful to be here, but I also know this is where I’m meant to be. These are my people. This is work I understand and want to do with all my heart.

But this isn’t happening because I was ready. I thought my PhD was still years away. I’m here and doing it because life decided I was ready. After all these years, the space suddenly opened and when it did, I didn’t question it. With encouragement from some wonderful people, I jumped. 

This feels like the biggest journey of my life. Bigger than the move to Melbourne or London, bigger than the quest to get fit and healthy, bigger than the marathon. This is the keeping of a promise to my younger self, my most essential self. I want to look back on my life and know that, despite taking the scenic route, I did not fail her. 

So if you’re reading this, wondering if your own dream - the biggest dream of your true, most authentic self - will ever happen, please take heart.

Trust yourself and the timing of life. 

And never, ever give up. 

william, an englishman: a book for its time, and ours

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William, An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton was the first book published by my beloved Persephone Books in 1999, a reprint from the novel’s original publication in 1919. If you don’t know about my love affair with Persephone, do check out this post to be brought up to speed!

I stockpiled a number of Persephones before leaving London and this was among them. I read it at bedtime over the course of a few weeks, not something I’d recommend, as it’s not an escapist read to send you off into a dreamy, calm sleep. But it is an incredible book for its time - and for ours.

William and Griselda are young newlyweds, both heavily involved in various causes and social justice, extremely earnest and ready to fight for what they believe in. But they are in actual fact very impressionable, have been swept up in these various movements that were rocking the social foundations of Britain in 1914 (namely socialism and suffrage), and parrot the beliefs of the movements they support, as opposed to analysing and considering them, determining their own moral compasses rather than blindly following a crowd. They think they know what “fight” means but really, they haven’t a clue.

They honeymoon at a remote rural cottage in Belgium in August 1914. After three weeks of contentment, they are blissfully unaware of the world around them (they don't know war has been declared, let alone that Belgium has been invaded) and they don’t even speak the language so they cannot understand the warnings from the farmer's wife who cooks for them (despite everything it's amusing that William and Griselda are so oblivious).

On the day of their departure, they go to the farmhouse nearby to arrange for the boy to carry their suitcases to the train station, as he did when they arrived. Instead, they find the house deserted, with all the people and animals gone, and a lot of evidence to suggest they left in a real hurry. Bewildered, William and Griselda begin their way into the village to the train station on foot, when they are captured by the invading German troops. They finally learn what has happened and from that moment on, are caught up in the brutal, cruel horrors of war - a real one.

Cicely Hamilton spent the entire First World War on the frontline in France - she wrote this novel in a tent during the hostilities. You can tell. This is a woman who saw the horrors of that war firsthand and was unapologetic about exposing the ignorance of so many people as to what was really going on, what "war" really means when you're caught up in the middle of it. As an Australian soldier I knew, who died of his wounds in Iraq some years ago now, said, "it's not beer and skittles."

At the same time, this novel is not entirely "anti war" - Hamilton actually goes after the pacifists quite a bit too, asserting that they live in a "paradise of fools", that the things that were happening in Europe were horrific and the British war effort was actually very important and vital to fight the evil that was brewing on the European mainland.

William and Griselda are initially taken prisoner by the Germans, and separated at this point. William eventually makes an escape and finds Griselda, whose clothes are torn and spirit is crushed, she is utterly traumatised. Hamilton doesn't spell out what's happened to Griselda - we’ve already worked it out. The restraint with which she writes this scene, when they are reunited, is quite extraordinary.

Weakened from injuries and lack of food, the pair attempt to get to safety through the Belgian countryside to the French border. They are helped by travellers along the way, managing to remain out of sight of the enemy. But a road accident weakens Griselda further - and a few days later, as a kindly villager gives them a lift in their cart, she dies lying on a pile of straw.

William then mercifully finds someone who speaks English and manages to get through the trauma of burying his wife. His Good Samaritan, Edith, helps him get the train to Paris and eventually another train and boat back to England, where he arrives a broken man.

Having seen the horrors of what is happening in Europe and determined to stop it, he attempts to enlist in the Army, but he is rejected because he doesn't meet the height requirement. "Oh don't worry, in a few months they won't care about that," William's friend Faraday consoles him. And oh how true that turned out to be.

In the meantime, William attends meetings that he used to go to all the time, full of fiery speeches to motivate everyone into supporting the socialist and pacifist causes, which he loved and felt a sense of community in. But now, he is appalled. These people aren't brave - he realises - for they have sacrificed nothing. They haven't got the first clue what he's been through, what thousands are going through, of the brutality, the horror of what he's witnessed and what he's so cruelly lost. And it must be stopped. Now is not the time for pacifism, in his opinion. He is incensed, enraged and utterly broken.

Eventually he does get accepted by the Army and ends up in what one might deem a communications job - he writes letters, takes dictation, files documents. But then William moves to the third phase of his character development - utter disillusionment. What difference has he actually made? He has done his duty, yes, but what has been the point?

“He hated the war as it affected himself, was weary of the war in general; all he longed for was its ending, which meant his release from imprisonment; but neither hatred nor weariness had blinded his eyes to the folly of that other blindness which had denied that war could be.”

Eventually, as was the fate of so many, he is involved in combat, suffers massive injuries, and dies quietly in a field hospital.


It is not a happy read, but Hamilton did not intend it to be. I think she thought people had their heads far enough into the sand and they needed a reality check. This book won the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse, the highest honour bestowed on female authors in 1919 (probably the equivalent of the Stella or the Women's Prize today) and no wonder. It’s unforgettable. And I think it's just as relevant a read now as it was then.

to the east of your own island: remembering margaret scott

This is a piece I wrote for my old blog Green Ink, about 10 years ago. As today would have been Margaret Scott’s 85th birthday, I thought I’d republish it here.

When I was sixteen years old, my school held a kind of activity day in late October in the lead up to the end of the year and the Christmas holidays, when attention levels were drooping and we were in need of some fun, with the HSC (Oz equivalent of GCSE) exams on the horizon for most of us. The day was filled with workshops in various recreational activities designed around the theme of "Let Your Lives Speak", as per the Quaker ethos.

I signed up for the creative writing workshop which was to be run by Margaret Scott. Margaret was a poet, novelist and well-known intellectual, both throughout the state and on a national scale, and at this time she was a regular on Good News Week. Students and teachers alike were abuzz with excitement about her coming to the school - I, on the other hand, almost exclusively inhabited the world of nineteenth-century literature at that time (oh, how cool I was!) and didn't really know who she was. I was just interested in doing a creative writing workshop!

She gave us a topic to write on and we were given fifteen minutes to write a piece, and then we went around the room where everyone read theirs aloud. I was surrounded by students who I think quite fancied themselves as the top dogs of the arts at the school, and most of them eagerly volunteered to go first, with Margaret offering some brief comments, but nothing along the lines of "oh my goodness, that is amazing for one so young", which I think they were expecting! (I'm sure you all went to school with people like that!)

It came to my turn and I read my piece. When I finished, no one said anything.

Margaret started saying something, but then she trailed off and looked directly at me. Her eyes were so perceptive I felt like she could see right through me.

"Would you read that again?" she asked.

Being an insecure teenager with no confidence in my abilities, my immediate thought was "why? What's wrong with it?!" I felt very stupid! But I seem to recall the rest of the people in the room looking at me with a mixture of awe and envy. So, I read it again. Of the whole group, I was the only one asked to read again. And then the piece was discussed for almost the rest of the session, until one of the teachers supervising remembered that there were a few more people to get through! I can't even remember what it was about, but I seem to recall everyone's comments on the hidden symbolism in my piece making me sound far more in command of the craft than I actually was.

I never told anyone about it at the time because as I say, my first reaction was to be embarrassed, but I look back on that episode now with pride. Sometimes in my low moments I think back to it, and think that if a piece I wrote made a fine writer and scholar such as Margaret Scott have to think twice, then maybe I do have something.

It's a memory I treasure. Thank you, Margaret.

She passed away in 2005. It was only in the last few years of her life that I got to know her through her work, not just this memory. I love her poems, particularly the housework ones (which I'm trying to find a copy of) and I recommend trying to find her novel Family Album - if you're in Australia you should be able to get a copy from most libraries. It's a lovely book.

Do you have a moment like this that you look back on, to spur you forward?

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

CASTAWAY

 

Sometimes a neighbour's look, a post-card, a telephone call

will carry you up the shore of another life

and leave you gaping amazed at sudden jungle

a world away from the dolorous desk

the spruce back-yard, the brick-and-tile in Rosebud.

This glimmering shade's cacophonous with

unfamiliar names of long-dead pets and teachers,

side-streets in distant cities and faithless lovers.

The canopy's alive with flitting shapes unknown

beyond the confines of this island.

Here is the castaway's camp, his palisade,

contrivances he's fashioned year by year,

stores he saved from the wreck of his old ship

before it sank from sight beyond the reef.

Fragments of once-proud sails now patch his roof.

A saw, a pannikin hang by the bed

where every day he wakes alone at dawn

to a view of mountains. Those peaks rise

over the trees in a blue scrawl whose message

you seem to have read from a different angle

on the wall of sky to the east of your own island.

© Margaret Scott

be intensely yourself

A rose I spotted at Hobart’s beautiful Botanical Gardens early one morning a few weeks ago.

A rose I spotted at Hobart’s beautiful Botanical Gardens early one morning a few weeks ago.

"Eventually I discovered for myself the utterly simple prescription for creativity: be intensely yourself. Don't try to be outstanding; don't try to be a success; don't try to do pictures for others to look at - just please yourself."

- Ralph Steiner

the emerging artist has a home

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I am thrilled to share with you that my short story “The Emerging Artist” has just been published in international online literary journal Queen Mob’s Teahouse!

I’m so excited that this quirky little story has finally found a home. If you like strange, satirical fiction with its tongue firmly in its cheek, then I think you might enjoy it.

You can read it here!

Writing this story was an interesting experience. As I explained in my cover letter to the journal, the idea first came to me after attending an in-conversation event with the artist Marina Abramovic at London’s Festival Hall a couple of years ago. I had just read Heather Rose’s novel The Museum of Modern Love so was desperate to go along!

But as interesting as Abramovic herself was to listen to, I found myself really frustrated with the audience. The second part of the evening was a Q&A and unlike an event I attended last year with Liz Gilbert where you had to email any questions for the Q&A session ahead of time (which I think worked much better, and not just because they picked mine! If you’re a newsletter subscriber you already know that story), this really wasn’t that interesting at all - there was a long queue at each microphone to ask questions which were all “this is more of a comment than a question” which frankly just makes you grumpy, doesn’t it? You didn’t come to hear these people witter on!

Anyway. At one point, after about six very long-winded questions about nothing in particular, a young woman got to the microphone who introduced herself as “an emerging artist” and proceeded to give a monologue about herself to Marina Abramovic, oblivious to the fact that a few audience members had audibly groaned at her introduction (the British tend to be very reserved and polite people - but this was just after the Brexit vote in 2016 and brazen public rudeness had started to become a thing. It’s got worse since). But she was so earnest, this emerging artist. She seemed completely unfazed by the fact that no one was that interested in what she had to say, but she was trying to seize her moment anyway. It was, in an odd way, inspiring.

I understand “emerging artist” is an accepted term in the art world. In fact, “emerging writer” is becoming more common too. But what does it mean exactly? And what are the connotations of being considered “emerging”? Is it a bit like the caterpillar waiting to be come a butterfly? When have you “emerged”? Who gets to decide? There are no Emerging Bankers, or Emerging Journalists, or Emerging Doctors. They just reach a point in their qualifications and experience where they have the right to call themselves that. Is it the same for artists? I’m not sure.

I’m also fascinated - and equally irritated - by what feels like a proliferation of pretension in that world. These days pretty much everything can be labelled as ‘art’. We have devices on us constantly that can be used to create images, audio and video. And, in theory, we can all reach an audience. But I think these things have meant we’ve lost a bit of reverence for art.

But, as David Walsh (he of MONA fame) has pointed out (and which I experienced for myself on my last visit to the gallery a few months ago), lack of reverence for art is also a response to it. And it is not an invalid one.

So, with all this swirling around in my head, a few days after the Festival Hall event, I wrote the first draft of what became The Emerging Artist.

And then I drafted, and re-drafted, and re-drafted. And then drafted some more. And around the time I began the story, my lovely friend Lisa and I began meeting up after work to workshop our various projects - she with her amazing epic play in progress, me with my short stories and various attempts at a novel. Our meetings usually ended up being at Padella Pasta in London Bridge, because one cannot write well if one has not dined well. So I was extremely fortunate that I had a kind and willing audience for the earliest incarnation of the story and her feedback was so very helpful. It’s by far a better story for her input!

But one never knows how one’s work is going to be received. This story was rejected by several other journals and I got very disheartened. While I wondered whether to keep my faith in the Emerging Artist and keep sending her out, I listened to an excellent interview with writer Kristen Roupenian, who wrote the short story “Cat Person” which went viral - she shared that that story was rejected several times before it was published. In fact, Kristen found rejection was the standard response to her work!

I had been submitting stories for five or six years and gotten, like, tiny little acceptances here and there….and Cat Person, like all my other stories, had gone out to several different magazines and been rejected by them, which is par for the course … but it was still sitting at The New Yorker at that point, and I just assumed they had forgotten to send me my rejection letter! … but I think by that point I had come to understand the failure that is built into the process. It doesn’t matter how good a story is or isn’t, it’s still not going to be the right story for 99% of people. So you just have to do whatever you can to give yourself the stamina to keep rolling the dice … keep going until it doesn’t feel like failure any more [but] it feels like the process.

So this gave me fresh courage to keep going. And I’m so glad I did! Thank you Kristen.

And thank you Queen Mob’s! What an honour to be published in a journal dedicated to “writing, art, criticism—weird, serious, gorgeous, cross genre, spell conjuring, rant inducing work.” To know they thought my story was even one of those things, that thrills me down to my toes. I will have a soft spot for this journal in my heart forever.