writing life

remembering valerie lester

‘Do with your writing what you’re doing with your life,’ Val advised sagely. ‘Be brave.’

- from The Latte Years

Val and I on one of her friends’ boats in Annapolis, June 2007.

Val and I on one of her friends’ boats in Annapolis, June 2007.

My beloved friend, and the wonderful writer, translator and scholar, Valerie Lester passed away in June. How grateful I am that our paths crossed when she visited Hobart nearly 20 years ago. I owe her a great deal.

She was one of my greatest and most enthusiastic cheerleaders, set many wheels in motion for me and, as per the excerpt from my book above (which she loved), always encouraged me to be resilient and brave.

“I exhort you to keep writing,” she said in her last email to me.

Bloody Mary’s (I think!) in Annapolis, July 2007.

Bloody Mary’s (I think!) in Annapolis, July 2007.

A few weeks after Val’s passing, I learned I had been accepted into my PhD program, which I’ve now begun in earnest. I would have so loved to share that news with her. My PhD project was inspired by a tiny bit of research she asked me to do for her while she was writing her book about Phiz (Dickens’ principal illustrator), so it’s been nearly 15 years in the making. I hope I will do her proud. The project so far has been thrilling and I think it's going to be a real adventure. I'm so grateful to Val for leaving the first few crumbs on the trail for me.

What a talented, generous and fascinating person she was. I have so many happy memories of her and her husband Jim when I visited them in Annapolis in 2007. Most of them involve jazz music, poetry, and gin and tonics! They were both such dear friends and I miss them both very much.

With Val and Jim, Annapolis, July 2007.

With Val and Jim, Annapolis, July 2007.


Go well, dear Val. Until we meet again.  

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

you have waited long enough

philippa-moore-writing

Be brave enough to do what you really want.

You have waited long enough.

Humble yourself to really take on your true vocation.

Where you’ll work harder than you’ve ever worked before, be tested more than you’ve ever been tested, and where you’ll have to give everything you have, over and over again.

Where you’ll soar and fall, cry tears of joy and pain.

Where the counsel and support of others will help, but ultimately you’re on your own.

You have to crack open your own head and break your own heart.

You have so much to learn and then you’ll have to forget it all every time you meet the blank page or the blinking cursor.

Every time it will be like wading into cold water. The longer you wait to dive under, the harder and scarier it gets. You have to go under.

You have to do the work.

Not just the appearance of it. Not setting up your laptop and latte with a lovely view and curating a perfect Spotify playlist to write to.

Put your eyes where they need to be.

On the work.

Don’t let your talent and drive and ideas sit out for so long they get flat like sparkling water left in a glass.

Embrace it. Seize it. Fight for it.

Let go of your ego’s need to control everything and be prepared to get lost.

Get down on the floor, be of the earth.

Your voice matters. The stories you want to tell matter.

Give these women their voices, the voices they didn’t have while they lived.

Let go.

Lose yourself.

Who knows what you’ll find?

at first i was afraid, i was petrified

The great Gloria Gaynor ( image source )

The great Gloria Gaynor (image source)

It was November 2015, and The Latte Years had just gone to print. Contrary to what I had expected, that moment and the days and weeks that followed it, leading up to publication, were not full of excitement - though, naturally, I was excited too - but they were also full of dread, dread that seeped into my bones.

My anxiety went into overdrive and it was exhausting. I had permanent nausea for a month, so much so I bought a pregnancy test to make sure it wasn't for some other reason! I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I felt so frightened and exposed. The book had gone to print. I couldn't change my mind now. I had kept my shield up for so many years and finally, it had been put down. The moment I'd been waiting for, to have my say, at last, was here and I felt too frightened and too weak to see it through. 

In the midst of this, Tom took me to see Jason Donovan in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the musical in Wimbledon.

They sing Gloria Gaynor's disco classic ‘I Will Survive’ quite a few times during the show.

About five months after my first husband and I broke up, I went to a seventies disco party where there was a karaoke machine. This felt like the perfect song choice for me at the time, and I meant every word of it as I sang it. Because Glenn really did think I was the one who had missed out - that I would indeed crumble without him. And I knew that was not the case at all. 

Sitting in that theatre in Wimbledon nearly ten years later, Tom's hand in mine, feeling homesick, terrified and proud all at once, hearing "I Will Survive" again reminded me of who I was in 2006, a 25-year-old who was discovering her own strength but still so afraid of the man who had hurt her, who felt she had to stay silent and not tell him the truth or stand up for herself because she was so deeply afraid he would destroy her and never set her free if she did.

I wrote The Latte Years for that 25-year-old girl. And for every woman who has had to wait until she felt safe before she could tell the truth.

what kind of heart does it take - an evening with alison jean lester

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

On Thursday night at Daunt Books in Hampstead, I attended an author event by my friend Alison Jean Lester. We were greeted with shots of sake and Japanese rice crackers, and then the evening began, with an intimate and enthusiastic group of us gathered on a dark night in a gorgeous little bookshop. Alison is not only a very fine, observant and witty writer, she also used to work as a corporate communications coach so she knows how to work a room. I knew I was in for a fun evening!

sake-rice-crackers

Alison read an excerpt from her first novel Lillian on Life (one of my favourite reads of 2015) and then she sang us a Japanese folk song which she used to sing to her children, who were born in Japan. It was like a little meditation, the perfect bridge to the discussion of her latest novel, Yuki Means Happiness

A line from the song Alison sang was "what kind of heart does it take?" and she posed that as a question that fiction writers should ask themselves when starting the story they want to tell. What kind of heart does it take to endure/pursue what the story is asking? How will that heart be changed? Broken? Mended?

We talked a bit about the process of putting your real-life experiences into your fiction - something I am very familiar with (and didn't quite manage to pull off, hence why my book was a memoir in the end!). "The great thing about fiction is that you have control in a way you don't have in life," Alison said. "If someone fell under a train in real life, in fiction you can change that, you can save them. Or, you can let someone go under a train and save yourself!"

Alison also said she finds the whole "how autobiographical is this novel?" question that is often asked of women writers quite flattering - "because it means they think it really happened. It's a compliment to your writing." 

Ultimately, Alison advised us to "write about what haunts you". To ask questions of our characters that we might have asked of ourselves, once upon a time. To have a character take a path you did not. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

I thought deeply about this on my train home. The character in my novel is in a very similar situation to the one I found myself in 12 years ago and what she is doing to save the marriage is something I never, not for a split second, entertained - trying to have a child in the hope that it will heal the rift between them. I have been struggling with the novel lately, fearful that everything is a bit two-dimensional. I have done so much reading, so much research, and I know what I want to say and who these people are - I just haven't found the right way in yet. I have the key but it hasn't fit in any of the locks I've tried. Is this a way into the story, I wonder, to imagine an alternative future for myself, a path I might well have taken had a few things been different?

It was such an inspiring and wonderful evening, and it pumped me up in a way I hadn't realised I needed. I must make an effort to go to things like this more often because when I do, I feel like I'm among peers, among friends. I feel seen, heard and understood, even when I say very little and just listen. Writers are my people. And you can't help but feel uplifted when you're with your people. 

I'm currently reading Yuki Means Happiness and it's marvellous (as I thought it would be!). If you enjoy thoughtful and funny writing that makes you think about life, I highly recommend seeking out Alison's books!