The Reading Hour

Whilst catching up on some podcasts recently I discovered that I had missed the inaugural annual reading hour. This event, promoted by the Australian Library and Information Association, called for Australians to spend one hour reading. One of the activities was to encourage parents to read to their children for at least 10 minutes a day over a week. There was also encouragement for anyone to make a date with a book. It  made me reflect on my reading habits and what reading means to me.

It is hard to think back to a time when I didn’t read, when the words were merely scribbles on a page, yet to be deciphered. I remember some early reading books such as Dick and Jane (anything that had my name in it assumed greater importance) and books of fairy tales. There were illustrated versions of the childhood classics, including Black Beauty and a book of Aboriginal legends. I delighted in odd compendiums of facts, like The Big Book of How and Why or something similar.

A lesson learnt early on was the incredible power of books to transport me to another time or place, to parts of the world both familiar and strange, to characters that seemed as real and complex as any that were in my daily life. The pleasure of being so caught up in a story that it slips into your mind whilst you’re doing other things, as you ponder on what might happen to this character, or how this seemingly impossible situation will resolve itself – these are some of the many joys that reading provides.

In the podcast, a few writers were interviewed to see what reading meant to them. For Chris Womersley reading takes place anywhere and it is difficult to imagine life without it. Sometimes life is understood more through literature than real life, and books play an important part in his internal narrative about what was going on in his life at a particular time. Kevin Kwan spoke of the pleasure that reading gives him – more pleasure than just about anything else, opening up a world of possibilities. For Kamila Shamsie, happiness is being in a hammock, reading. Reading means you never have to be alone, or that your life is limited to your own experiences. According to Shamsie, it enables you to develop empathy and imagination.

It is often claimed by many writers that to write, one must read. Reading widely is encouraged, not just in the genre that you write in or your particular field of expertise. Reading widely offers insights and approaches that can complement various styles, and I’ve heard interviews where some authors deliberately read non-fiction whilst writing fiction, for example.

I like to read a couple of books at any given time, and over the years this has evolved into a mixture of books, ebooks and audiobooks. I’ve just finished reading The Dunbar Case by Peter Corris as an ebook from the library after listening to The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman for my book group. Next on the book group list is The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, an author I haven’t read in decades since I toted War and Peace around at the end of my teens. Recently I finished reading The Museum of Words by Georgia Blain, which was beautiful and devastating. I’m also reading Where Song Began by Tim Low. A friend has given me a couple of books on meditation and I’m also keen to read a couple of Australian crime thrillers that have been in my reading pile after reading some enthusiastic reviews lately.

What does your reading life look like?

[Photo: detail from my favourite reading chair]


Finish the damn novel*

One of my favourite podcasts which I’ve mentioned before is ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ by Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait of the Australian Writers’ Centre. They have notched up over a hundred episodes and I’ve been a subscriber from the start, listening to the great mix of news, tips and tactics and an amazing array of interviews with writers from all backgrounds, as well as publishers, editors and other creative folk. If you don’t already subscribe, do your writing self a favour and sign up for the podcast.

Last week’s episode (# 104) stood out for me. The interview was with Pamela Freeman, who also writes as Pamela Hart. Freeman has written over 30 books across a range of genres, and whilst this was her second interview on the podcast (first was episode 58 ), there were a couple of comments which really resonated with me.

The first was discussion around the benefits of writing courses. Can you teach people how to write? Freeman drew an analogy between opera singing and writing. An opera teacher works on techniques to improve the student’s voice, and writing courses work in a similar way. They can help with method and approach, but the student’s input – the voice – remains unique.

Freeman also had words of wisdom around the need to finish the first draft, rather than perpetually revising, tweaking, making major or minor changes whilst never completing the novel. She suggested that you promise yourself that you will do as many drafts as you need to fix any inconsistencies or plot holes or whatever it is that keeps pulling you back rather than freeing you up to actually finish the work. As she said, most novels fail because they are incomplete.

Simple but powerful advice.

Now I’m off to keep writing my novel without a backwards glance.

Do you get caught up in tweaking rather than actually writing?

*This has been referenced in a couple of the SYWTBAW episodes as something that was spotted on a t-shirt at a writing conference. 

[Photo of mural in Blackheath]

The rhinoceros in the room

In interviews with published authors, one of the most frequently asked questions is ‘where do your ideas come from?’ It is the writing equivalent of a silver bullet, as if by being able to reliably generate ideas that are worthy of expanding into a poem, short story, novel, screen play or any other variation, life would be easier. Well, who wouldn’t like an infinite resource that generated ideas?

The source of creativity is as varied as the individuals who spend time and energy expanding thoughts, ideas and inspiration into something tangible that can be shared with other people. Some people keep track of the stray thoughts and ideas that they encounter in a book or online file that they can flick through when they are looking for inspiration at a later date. This can be a few scribbled words, images, or snatches of dialogue that can be expanded upon when ready. Sometimes these snippets form an integral part of a piece of work; other slivers may never be incorporated into something else, but unless you gather and retain this information, how would you know?

In writerly circles there are few things more discouraging than a blank page. By having something – anything – to refer back to can provide a starting point. It works in a similar way to prompts, but usually with a longer lead time. Both approaches can be used as a starting point or a mind-mapping exercise which results in something more solid.

Ideas for me sometimes come from simple acts of observation and imagination. It is often recommended that you spend time in a cafe, watching other people interact, imagining their back stories, making up what you can’t discern. I recently tapped out the following points whilst waiting in a restaurant. An older lady was also waiting:

  • Floral twin set, dark blue camisole, white sandals
  • Cameo necklace, tapestry handbag and matching tote
  • Permed hair, coloured
  • No rings, gold watch, blue stone bracelet, possible medical purposes
  • Looking people up and down, inspecting them, finding them wanting in some way
  • Tapping fingers in a silent rhythm, impatient but controlled

There was something about this woman at the time that made it worthy of recording, and I know that she will appear in my writing in some form (perhaps more than once) in time.

How do you keep track of your ideas?

[Photo was taken at the Japanese Gardens in Cowra, NSW]


Writing every day. Well, nearly.

I go through periods of consistency with my writing. Having a routine to make sure I get the writing done early, before the day gets too far underway, works best for me.

I listen to podcasts on my daily commute. Half an hour each way slips by that much quicker as I listen to ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ with Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait, or more recently ‘Your Creative Life’ by Vanessa Carnevale. The interviews with authors  provide interesting insights into the habits of working writers. I am inspired by people who aim for a minimum number of words on the page, such as 500 a day. It doesn’t sound that much, but there are days when even a relatively small figure such as this is harder than I would have thought possible.

When the words flow there is nothing quite like it. Everything else seems to recede into insignificance, my fingers fly, I can see what is happening and what might happen next. It is enthralling.

As a grand gesture on 1 January 2014, I started working through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. There are still elements of the workbook that remain in my life, and the morning pages are the most important. I write slowly by hand but every day I churn out my 3 pages. They contain a mixed assortment of thoughts and plot points and story ideas and dream fragments and the odd rant about someone or something that has annoyed me and that I can’t quite let go of yet. Until I write it out.

Sometimes I flick back through these pages, and there is reassurance at times in knowing that I got through something that seemed insurmountable, or I find the essence of an idea that ended up working its way into a short story. Or I stumble across the seed of an idea that I can now expand upon.

Now if I could only challenge this discipline into working on my creative output every day. How often do you write?