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!


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!

white heart: my stella spark

white heart

A Stella Spark is the book by an Australian woman that struck a spark for you, igniting ideas, creativity and a passion for great writing.

That book for me is the novel White Heart by Heather Rose.

A year ago, whenever I mentioned Heather Rose as one of my favourite writers, I'd get a blank or curious look in return. Now, thanks to her most recent (and brilliant) novel winning last year's Stella Prize, her work has been getting some long overdue and much-deserved attention in Australia. I'm thrilled to hear it. I've been a Heather devotee since White Heart, her first novel.

It came out in 1999 and I read it in 2000, when I was 19. I have re-read every year since. I believe it's sadly no longer in print, which makes it all the more precious to me.

It’s a novel about a woman named Farley who grows up in Tasmania and who, in the face of a devastating loss (though we don’t realise exactly what this loss was until near the end), goes searching elsewhere - overseas and mainland Australia - for meaning, wholeness and love. 
It was one of the most beautifully written books I’d ever read and it still is. It was quiet in its beauty though, if that makes sense. It contained a wildness and a fiery spirit, yet was so gentle.

It sounds trite to say ‘it changed my life’ but it did. Before White Heart, the only glimpses of Tasmania I'd really seen in the literature I'd read was of a gothic, wild and quite oppressive place, but this novel had snapshots of the Tasmania that I actually knew and could relate to, as well as capturing its darker side. It made me realise that I could write about the Tasmania I knew as well.

It was also thanks to discovering White Heart that I started noticing other amazing Tasmanian women writers who had been somewhat unknown to me up to that point, and it opened up a completely new world for me. 

But in terms of actually changing my life…well, *I* had to do that. I was 19 when I first read White Heart and if you’ve read my own book, you’ll know that at that age, I really lost my way. It took a while for me to find my path. But it did spark something. 

And remembering that has reminded me, like Farley in White Heart, I too had to go on a soul-searching journey to heal and find my true self.

I love everything Heather Rose has ever written but I always, always come back to this one. If you ever see a copy, get it! You won’t regret it.

What's your Stella Spark?

blogging is not dead

nevertheless she persisted

The days of snatching up a free computer at City Library on Melbourne's Flinders Lane and the thrill of logging in to Blogger, a platform I was still getting my head around, feel like a very, very long time ago now. I'd spend that precious free hour of internet access, which I didn't yet have at home, writing a blog post, an update on my little world, in stream-of-consciousness style, barely pausing for breath. I'd rarely have time to reread what I'd written. I'd just reach a natural conclusion (or see I had 60 seconds left) and press "publish", then vacate the computer for the next library user. 

That's what blogging - not that many people knew what it was - was like back then. Honest, in the moment, unfiltered. If you wanted to know what someone was up to, you checked their blog. Seeing your favourite blogger had a new post up was always exciting - a bit like a new episode of your favourite TV show. It was fun and a lovely way to connect with people and get to know them. I can't speak for everyone who was blogging in those early days, but I certainly had no idea of the potential reach of the words I was putting out there. The world still seemed like a very small place to me. 

Blogging was a way for me to find my voice and a community of people to share it with. I was in my early twenties and had always wanted to be a writer - this seemed like the perfect opportunity to see if I could come up with the goods. Blogging was where I learned how to write non-fiction. Every day, I was taking raw material from my life - thoughts, feelings, events - and trying to make it interesting and relatable for other people, the majority of whom I had never met. 

For someone who had spent most of her life struggling to let her real self out and who had always felt like a bit of an outsider, blogging was a way of feeling seen and accepted for who I was for possibly the very first time in my life, up to that point. It wasn't something I did to get noticed, it hadn't even occurred to me that anyone outside of a handful of people would even read what I had to say. It was all about connection for me. I started blogging because I liked reading blogs and wanted to be a part of it. Once I began and realised how enjoyable it was to put something out there and have people read and respond to it, it became a compulsion, a real need. I think that's how writing should feel, when it's going well and you're saying something you really want to say. 

Blogging had its dark side though and I've had some very painful experiences over the years that made me frightened to ever reveal too much about myself and my life ever again. In the years since, I have yearned for that golden time when I just wrote what was on my mind and in my heart, and pressed "publish". I have longed to be able to trust people like that again. I have resisted and rallied against the unfairness of being on the receiving end of other people's insecurities. I don't think it was an accident that the nastiness I experienced online coincided with the time in my life in which I was single, after the breakdown of my first marriage. Nothing provokes speculation more than the sight of a woman enjoying herself, as Marmee March said in Little Women (published in 1868. This was 2007). 

But recently, I've felt emboldened to take up the mantle again. Not to write a warts-and-all blog like I used to, but just to write more from the heart and less from fear, whether it's of missing out or the past repeating itself. To have a piece of the web that is mine, not controlled by Facebook or Mr Jobs' heirs. To have a platform that I have control over, that is not besieged by algorithms. I don't know about you but I think, despite the many advantages of social media, the extent to which it has permeated our daily lives has meant we have definitely lost something as a society. I felt like blogs, in their early days, were really contributing to a conversation, starting a movement, helping people tell their stories when they might never have done so otherwise. 

Social media feels a bit like the pokies, to me. Harmless enough in small doses, for a laugh, when you've got a bit of change/time to spare. But to live on it, to lose hours and hours each day switching between these various apps, I don't know....far be it for me to question what appears to make a lot of people happy but speaking for myself, if I'm going to spend time creating content, I want to have it somewhere where I control it, where I can build my own audience rather than have an app conspire to "sell" my audience back to me, where the people following me don't even see what I post half the time unless I follow certain rules, use the right hashtags and engage at the right level. It's turning into what blogging sadly became 10 years ago - after a few years of fun and connection, it became just another damn popularity contest. 

So it feels oddly appropriate that blogging has come full circle, for me at least. I thought I was done with it. I wanted to step away from that old life, that old persona, because life had moved on and so had I. I needed time out to decide what was going to come next. It was refreshing to live life for its own sake rather than through the lens of an editorial calendar. I wrote about holidays I took, food I cooked and things I was aiming towards and pondering over in my journals instead. It was nice. 

But it feels equally nice to want to share again. To want to connect and have conversations with like-minded people again. I have bemoaned to my husband and friends that I still feel the need to hide some parts of myself, that I'm so afraid to really put the armour down and be vulnerable again, in case by doing so I'm inviting the nastiness of a decade ago to reoccur. And yet *not* being the real me - not talking about all the things I love and care about, everything from politics to women's rights to experimental art and music to making pickles and preserves and keeping my little garden - has felt so suffocating, and equally painful. In fact, it has started to outweigh the pain of rejection, the fear of being turned against. 

I am 37 years old this year. I started blogging when I was 24. I didn't exactly 'come of age' on the internet, I am part of that generation that has straddled the old and new worlds and that can probably see most clearly the pros and cons of both. I don't exactly yearn for pre-internet days but I can't deny life was simpler then. I am concerned that we are losing/have lost something we may never get back. And, ironically, that history is most definitely repeating when it comes to politics.

But on a personal level, I am tired of the old stories and the baggage that keeps me from claiming my rightful place in the world - which is no more prominent than anyone else's, only that I am allowed to take up space and have a voice, as we all are. What I'm hoping, going forward, is that I'll finally be able to feel OK with being who I am, and no longer conceal my missteps and vulnerability in order to feel safe and to prove some people wrong. I have to integrate those painful experiences into my reality rather than keep running away from them. As Martha Beck said, if you want to avoid being hurt, you're on the wrong planet! 

If I want to be seen and heard for who I really am, I have to show up in the world as who I really am. That was what blogging in 2005 and 2006 showed me. It's that spirit I'm aiming to recapture now.

If I wanted something bright and shiny with styled pictures and lots of nice products, I'd just buy a magazine. I come to blogs to find out about how people are really living their lives. What means something to them. What makes them feel happy. How they deal with the less happy days. Where they might have the balls to talk about things most of us are thinking but too scared to say out loud, and thereby we can all feel a little less alone. The blogs that have moved me over the years and that I still read now are not the ones that showcase an aspirational life, but ones that invite me into someone's real life and motivate me to take a closer look at my own. 

So, despite 'blogging is dead' being an oft-repeated phrase online, I don't think so. What got me started and what has now brought me back is the desire to connect. I think, as human beings, we will always need that. 

one story many ways

Perhaps Elizabeth Strout is right in my case.

Perhaps Elizabeth Strout is right in my case.

One of the reasons I was so thrilled when The Latte Years was finally written was because I thought the themes that had plagued me  and found their way into everything else I'd tried to write in the intervening years would be done with. I could move on. Write about other things.

That hasn't really happened!

The novel I started in earnest last year seems to have quite a few themes in common with my first book. A young marriage in trouble. Friendships fracturing and true colours shown when paths diverge. Making peace with your past. Yearning to belong. Finding your place in a world where every day you wake up to another drama and the small, ordinary things you want to do and share seem very irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

It is my belief that the only way we will progress as a society is if we talk about shameful experiences, and stop being silent. Many things I've experienced in my life have been messy and ugly. It has helped enormously when I've stumbled across a book or a blog where someone has had the heart to share their own pain and confusion. It's helped me feel less alone. It's why I write too.  

So maybe I'm not done with those themes just yet....or they are not done with me!