Snatches of Songs

There are snatches of songs that come to mind at different times. Sometimes these are situational based prompts, providing a familiar kind of comfort. At other times, the mind seems to throw up surprising references that require a bit of further reflection.

If I stay up late, for whatever reason, and feel a bit sleep-deprived the next day, one of my favourite song snatches is from Late Last Night by Todd Snider:

Well could you try to keep it down, I was up kinda late last night?
Now I’m feeling’ like I usually feel after I feel alright
I don’t want hear another word about mornin’
I can’t take the light … 
Well could you try to keep it down I was up kinda late last night?

For those moments when a big decision is required but the whole thing feels a bit overwhelming? Try Little Decisions by Paul Kelly:

Little decisions are the kind I can make 
Big resolutions are so easy to break
I don’t want to hear about your big decisions

Sometimes for no particular reason at all, Anna Begins by Counting Crows reappears as an ear worm to hum:

… kindness falls like rain
It washes her away and Anna begins to change her mind

But it isn’t only lyrics that come to mind. Sometimes it is a tune, such as Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Or Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodwin. Just writing it out makes me start to whistle. And perhaps not tunefully. But that doesn’t matter!

I like to have musical references in my fiction sometimes too. In a flash fiction piece I managed to work in a reference to The Honeymoon is Over by The Cruel Sea which still makes me smile when I think of it.

What musical moments come to mind for you?

[Photo: servants bells at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta]

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Green

Green is my favourite colour. It is the colour of the leaves on the trees in my garden, the hue of the grass at different times of the year. It is the colour of new growth: fresh shoots signifying a change of season, the promise of the scents of spring.

It isn’t always new life. Sometimes it is the colour of fallen leaves, gum leaves with their seemingly infinite variety of shapes, some with bumps and modules along the veins of the leaves. They still carry their scent, a tang of evaporating bush oils.

Satin bowerbird

Satin bowerbird at Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens

There is the mottled green set in a pattern of scalloped feathers on the undercarriage of a satin bowerbird, either on females or the younger male birds up to the age of seven years, give or take, when their feathers take on the dark plume of blue-black satin.

Pine tree frond

Pine tree frond

Pine trees, tall and straight, are easily characterised by the green needles. Look closer on the trunk to see brown whorls and curling bark in contrast against the green foliage.

Old shop tile at Portland

Tile on old butcher shop at Portland

Polished green tiles in a country town reflect the passing cars and pedestrians. They have raised textures, a bulls head and a rams head. The building once housed a butcher shop, the tiles marked the trade.

Brush Farm at Eastwood, softened by greenery

Brush Farm at Eastwood, softened by greenery

Green is the ivy that curves with thickly cloying tendrils around the fenceposts before skirting along parts of the fence line. It sneaks into available space, softening the hard edges and drawing the eye. For that is what the colour green does.

What’s your favourite colour?

[Photo: green outlook at Lake Pillans, Lithgow]

Cafe Culture

Are you able to work in a creative sense in a cafe? I can sometimes. A lot depends on what I’m working on and whether the sounds and smells around me are overwhelming. Some cafes are really noisy, others have a low background hum spiced with fragments of conversation which can be wound into possible future stories or just provide an interesting point of reference. People are largely unguarded in a cafe – they might be catching up with friends or having a conversation on the phone. Yes, even those one-sided conversations can provide a spark of interest for the eavesdropping writer.

One of my more memorable cafe experiences happened in a small country town. The promise of coffee and raisin toast lulled me inside, along with the cafe’s description as an emporium. After I ordered I had a wander around the cafe which had various shelves, book cases and tables set up with preloved goods. It was one of those places where you would probably see something different each time you visit.

There was a clutch of women at a couple of tables at the front of the cafe, and in the absence of any background music it was impossible not to hear the conversation between the group. I was writing up some notes on some things I’d spotted whilst roaming around the village, but within a short period of time the conversation caught my attention and I felt the need to jot down some of the things that one woman in particular was saying. It isn’t something I would normally do, but I felt like she may have been putting on a performance for an outside audience and it was too good to ignore.

I started to type up some of the phrases that the woman was saying. The trick was that as she was speaking, the woman was also bouncing around the shop, touching this, inspecting that. There were other people in the cafe but they were all women who seemed to know each other and weren’t particularly bothered by her antics.

I was jotting some of the colourful phrases down when suddenly she swooped towards me, placed a hand on my shoulder and asked me what I was doing.

‘Don’t mind me, love, I’m a bit nosy.’

Fortunately I had seen her approach and had managed to flick to another screen. Unfortunately it was a browser window which featured an in-depth article about a murder that had taken place in the town. My claim that I was just reading up on some local news probably didn’t ring true, but she tapped my shoulder and moved on to the next thing of interest.

I wasn’t being deliberately misleading or intrusive. Being able to catch turns of phrase or unguarded moments of conversation is good training for a writer’s ear. Often we speak in a kind of shorthand, or sentences drift off. There can be a lot of murmuring or hand gestures or facial expressions which don’t necessarily translate into the written word. But the cadences and rhythm can be picked up and this can help to provide an authentic tone to a future piece of written dialogue.

It isn’t unusual to be sitting at a cafe and working on a laptop or device. I’m not saying that the person that looks focused on something in front of them is recording your every word and gesture. But you might be inspiring them to some authentic writing in the future!

There is an entertaining post from Pauline Conolly about writers and cafes which you can find here.

[Photo: hot chocolate with home-made marshmallow at Paragon Cafe, Katoomba (before it closed) – one of my favourite scribble spots]

Creative Challenges

I have learned to accept that my writing tends to ebb and flow. In an ideal world, I would diligently write every day or most days at least, and if I didn’t write then I would edit or research or plan the next writing project. There are times when I can be disciplined around my writing, then other times life crowds its way in and a day or two slips by, then a week. I have to scratch my head to think about when I last wrote something in a creative sense.

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast interview with author Hedley Derenzie. Derenzie had been in a very dark place and had attempted suicide when feeling overwhelmed with grief, loneliness and disconnection. Her road to recovery was long and difficult, but one of her lifelines was a return to her creative path. Derenzie is a writer, but writing had not been a consistent presence in her life for some time. In a moment of inspiration, Derenzie committed to writing 2,000 words a day for a month. There were rules around this commitment, including the need for the day’s writing to be inspired from the events in the previous 24 hours which in turn encouraged reengagement with the world during her creative pilgrimage.

I have just started reading Write Way Home: Writing My Way Back To A Meaningful Life. This is the result of not only that month of writing and experiences, but reflections on what reengagement with creativity can mean. And it isn’t necessarily just for writers; Derenzie encourages connecting with those creative outlets which we love, but which tend to fall by the wayside when life gets busy, or when it is realised that they will not result in employment or income generation. It isn’t the outcome that matters here, it is the action and that sense of joy and engagement that creativity brings to each of us.

About a month ago I decided that I would write 250 words a day. This is my minimum goal and it can be in any format. It can be a personal piece, something creative or a blog post. The words can be a continuation of a story in progress or something entirely new. It isn’t the output that is important, it is the activity. It is early days, and I didn’t have an end date in mind, but I wanted to see if I could keep up what feels like a small commitment to write each day. So far, I’ve made it, even if it is sometimes the last thing I do before I call it a day. And I do feel more engaged, and my mind is finding a creative rhythm of sorts.

Do you set yourself creative challenges?

[Photo: close up of some creative craft adorning a tree in front of St Hilda’s Church at Katoomba]

John Clarke on Nature and Walking

I think one of the useful things about an interest in nature and in walking and looking is a loss of the self. To completely lose yourself is a great pleasure especially if what you do for a living is put yourself up in some way which is psychically tiring. One of the principal joys of birdwatching is that you are being responsive to the world, you’re just another creature. You are the tool of the world. You are not mastering it, or moulding it to your image or any such piffle, you are reminded of what a pipsqueak you are.

John Clarke 1948-2017

There is a link here which shares some of John’s amazing photos. Also check out this link to his website.

When was the last time you lost yourself in the natural world?

[Photo: superb blue wren spotted in Canberra]

Feeling Retro?

There is something about this time of year that encourages reflection. It is normal to want to spend a moment or two reviewing the year that was and thinking about plans and hopes for the year ahead. This pocket of reflection allows for consideration of personal and professional goals, and it is good to be able to think about what has been accomplished. It is easy to get caught up in the doing sometimes.

Lately I have been enjoying various posts from some of my favourite bloggers about their blog and book highlights of 2017. At times it can feel that there is so much content out there that it is hard to simply stop and revisit those snippets of writing that really had an impact throughout the year, and the recaps of popular posts are a handy reminder. Some of my favourite book bloggers have posted about a year in first lines (including Whispering Gums and Lisa Hill) which makes me think about the year in reading.

But what of my own year in writing?

A couple of months back I sat down with a notebook and thought about how I was travelling with my writing. I took into account what I had written, what I considered finished and what I still wanted to write. It didn’t take long to assess where I was, or to plan out what I would like to write in the short to medium term, but I found it to be a worthwhile exercise. It can be easy to get caught up in the doing and to lose a sense of direction.

This quick check-in helped to refocus my attention on the areas that I wanted to work on. It is not a one-off event, nor should it be yearly. It is something that I need to do on a regular basis, especially when I feel that I am creating but not completing, or maybe not even creating and I need to revisit what I have already done to help cheer me on for the next phase.

How often do you check in with your creative goals?

[Photo: some of the many signs at Portland, NSW]

Writing Snippets

It isn’t possible to jot down everything that might come in handy one day in a writerly sense. There are some things which seem momentous, and are recorded, but when rediscovered at a later date there is some head scratching at context or simply general bewilderment about what was so important about a snatched phrase or idea. Other isolated thoughts, sometimes as simple as a word or two, seem to resonate with possibilities.

Whilst flicking through my latest writing notebook, I have come across some odd scratchings. Sometimes it is testing out an idea, or gathering notes on something I have listened to. The following was recorded after listening to how phrases from some obsolete (for the most part) occupations still appear today. One of the phrases was ‘a whale in the bay’, which was popular during the decades of whaling, and indicated someone with money to spend, a captive audience. The fluke is the tail fin of a whale, and is used when a whale lifts its tail before diving, usually after arching its back.

There are patches of word association: circuit breaker, mindfulness, visualisation techniques, creativity, calm, relaxation, invigorating, breath, breathing. These words helped to shape a post on mindfulness.

Then there are the random bits. Build the life you want in the time you’ve got. Not sure if I read this or heard it, but it captured my attention long enough to ensure it was recorded. There are bits from other people’s blogs. Comfort zone: a place where boredom lives and fear dominates. This was spotted on Susans130 in January this year.  And lots of things like this. Tuxedo: what a funny word. Where does it come from? Answer: named after a country club at Tuxedo Park, New York.

Writing notebooks are there to capture moments which otherwise might be lost. One last example below from March this year.

One of the reasons why I go out is to experience life – the essence of surprise. The lift door opened to let in another lady and an amazing burst of German opera. A man in black pants, white dress shirt and a stunning voice. Just magic, really.

How do you keep track of odd moments in your writing life?

[Photo: wren spotted scratching about at Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mt Tomah]

Notes On A Writing Retreat

I see distant mountain ranges framed by trees, a spider speeding along a railing. Birds are swooping and swaying overhead, and distant sounds carry on a warm breeze. I am in a space where there is scope to let the words fall where they may.

It is true that you cannot schedule inspiration, but you can create an environment which is conducive to it. Space to let thoughts eddy and swirl, where incomplete projects can be nurtured back into life or new projects commenced. Pockets of time in which the usual miscellany of life is held in abatement – it can and will wait for a few hours. There is freedom and wistfulness and the possibility of the exploration and creation of other times and places.

Time is passed in a casual routine of writing together, sharing what is written, and writing solo. There is something both industrious and intimate in creating in a group environment. Solitary yet not alone.

Giving yourself permission to create: it seems like something so simple but I find it is somehow harder than I expect. I know how fortunate I am to have a home where there is space to write yet these occasional days of being in a supportive and collaborative space is something else entirely, bringing a different element to what I write.

I strongly recommend participation and creation in such a space. Create it yourself if you need to!

Have you ever been on a writing retreat?

[Photo: some writing journals]

Ekphrasis: a writing technique

This Greek word relates to writing that is effectively triggered in response to art or music. I came across the word by chance in a Writer’s Digest article and discovered that it is an ancient concept with many adaptations and interpretations.

As a tourist in Edinburgh years ago I came across a book of poems and stories inspired by works in the National Galleries of Scotland. The book contained beautiful replicas of various artworks along with pieces that had been inspired by art. It was a glorious mix, providing a variety of viewpoints into what can be interpreted or instigated by taking the time to look at art and engage your imagination. The book is one of a number of works published following a competition originally devised to raise awareness of the various collections “to encourage writers to find imaginative links, from the personal to the universal, between art and the written word”. You can find out more about the competition here.

Years ago I used to regularly visit the Art Gallery of NSW. How I loved entering the grand building after walking through the lush green lawns of the Domain, taking shade from the gracious old trees. The tiled entrance to the gallery, skirting past the information desk and heading into the permanent collection, looking for old favourites before discovering new installations. There were many that I loved, and can still imagine them clearly years later. These included Cymon and Iphigenia by Lord Frederic Leighton, Across the Blacksoil Plains by George W Lambert and The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon by Sir Edward John Poynter. I also enjoyed the Australian gallery, becoming increasingly familiar with the styles of John Brack, Margaret Preston, Brett Whiteley and others.

What I am going to do now, though, is take the time to look through my collection of books from the works of galleries that I have visited and use them as the basis for writing prompts. Some of these may grow legs and expand into short stories or something even larger. They offer a window into another time and place, an alternative reality.

Have you ever used a piece of art as the source of creative inspiration?

[Photo: spent jacaranda blossoms on stairs at Old Buttery, Bellingen]

Books to Die For … crime and thriller writing uncovered @ Springwood Library

Last weekend this event (Books to Die For … crime and thriller writing uncovered …) was held at the Springwood Library. I have been a fan of detective stories for a long time, and enjoy thrillers too, so there was little hesitation to go along and listen to five Australian writers in this field.

Rachel Franks, Coordinator of Education & Scholarship at the State Library of NSW, started off the proceedings with an entertaining and informative overview of the genre. This included a handout which was effectively a literary genealogical tree, tracing the development and expansion of detective stories in particular, as well as highlighting some of the best examples in each category.

Chilling suspense novels are the speciality of Jaye Ford, a former news and sports journalist. Ford explained how she came to writing psychological thrillers featuring ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Many of the crimes that she writes about are intimate and personal, and they are triggered by news stories, personal experiences and that rich vein of writerly inspiration – ‘what if?’.

I have recently come across Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle, Associate Professor of Media at Macquarie University. It is one of two books by Doyle based on research into the Forensic Photography Archive at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney. The photos featured in the books come from a collection of 50,000 plus photos found by chance, with no labels and little in the way of identifiable information. During Doyle’s talk, some were shown in a slide show montage of mug shots, bullets embedded in walls and photos of police standing around in various poses at crime scenes. Doyle has also written several fiction books.

Next was Candice Fox, a crime author who has won consecutive Ned Kelly Awards for her novels. She has recently released Never Never in collaboration with James Patterson. Fox gave a humourous overview of her journey to publication, and outlined the impact of a strange childhood in western Sydney on her world view as a writer. Fox was recently interviewed on the podcast, So You Want To Be A Writer, and the link to the episode is here.

The final speaker was Chris Allen, a writer of action fiction. He provided a literary roadmap to his emergence as a writer. This trajectory was supported by his career in the armed services, law enforcement agencies, security operations for an aid agency in East Timor as well as appointment as Sheriff of NSW in 2008. Allen writes action thrillers with a theme, such as corruption and corporate greed in developing nations.

This series of talks opened up not only more books to read and authors to follow, but made me think about the writing process and the many influences that come into play.

Have you been inspired by author talks?

[Photo: apple blossoms]