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]

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A Creative Check-In

Last week I posted a creative checklist which encouraged building a sustainable writing practice that I had come across in the Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers by Judy Reeves. This week, I’m going to check-in and see how I’m travelling.

  1. Identify yourself as a writer. This is something that I’m getting better at, and blogging has helped more than I would have thought in regards to my writing identity. I now include ‘writer’ as part of my persona, rather than keeping it tucked away as something private. 
  2. Give yourself affirmations claiming yourself as a writerOn the filing cabinet next to my desk there is an affirmation picked out in magnets: You Are A Writer. I could do a bit more of this to keep it front of mind.
  3. I have a writing space, a sacred place. This one is a big tick. I have a small study with an old wooden desk where I do my best creative work. I can, and do, write where I can, and at home I’ll often write at the kitchen table or somewhere in the sunshine, but turning up at my desk means I’m writing seriously.
  4. I have the tools, materials and support to write. Another tick. I have a stash of stationery as well as technology at hand. I subscribe to literary journals and belong to the writers’ centre in my state. I also listen to podcasts about writing when I’m on the move.
  5. I have writing friends to write and talk with. This is also true. And they write across different genres and formats which makes for some interesting conversations and approaches to writing.
  6. I do writerly things. Yes, I do. I belong to a writing group, I go to readings and workshops when I can. I like reading writers who write about writing.
  7. I write to writers whose work has impacted me and thank them. Not so much. But I like the idea of it and social media has made it easier to do this than ever before. I’ll add it to my to-do list.
  8. I make time for my writing on a regular basis. Yes, I do.
  9. When I can’t keep my writing date, I acknowledge why and reschedule. Usually, yes.
  10. When I’m consistently breaking writing appointments, I review why and make necessary changes. This usually falls into the category of life getting in the way. I tend to pause to prioritise what I do have time for, and ensure that there is a bit of writing time carved out. I am happier when I write, so why wouldn’t I?
  11. I put my writing time high up on my priorities list. See above. I’m much nicer when I’m happy.
  12. I set aside enough time to build consistency. I think so. Part of me thinks I could put more time aside but I have to be realistic as thinking that I can spend X hours every day isn’t realistic at this point of my life.
  13. I also create special times for writing. I have been trying this out with larger pockets of time for bigger writing projects and it definitely helps.
  14. I write. This one seems kind of obvious but a big learning in the past year in particular has been around getting something down as you can edit, tweak and improve what you’ve written, but if you don’t actually write there is nothing to work with.
  15. When I’m stuck, I find out what’s holding me back. This is another work in progress. It can take me a while to realise I’m circling a problem but I’m getting better at picking up on procrastination and addressing the cause so it doesn’t become an insurmountable obstacle.

How often do you check in with yourself, creatively speaking?

[Photo: Cowra Japanese Gardens]

A Friend for All Seasons

Recently I was able to catch up with one of my oldest friends, LJ. We met in primary school playing handball, or KP as it was known in our school. Throughout the decades we have remained in touch although our lives have taken various tangents and we now live in different states.

One of our ways of keeping in contact has been through correspondence. This ranges from postcards to lengthy letters, often on exquisite stationery and sent with a stack of photos to keep each other up to date with what matters most. If you have ever received a stylish envelope holding several folded pages of news, observations and updates, you will know the joy that it brings.

LJ has surprised me several times with carefully chosen books. When I moved to the mountains she gave me a copy of In The Service of Clouds by Delia Falconer, the perfect introduction to living under dynamic, cloud-studded skies. In a nod to our continuing correspondence, she also sent me Women of Letters, a wide-ranging collection of heartfelt letters filled with humour and honesty.

Our long friendship means that we know habits and mannerisms, not only of each other, but of families and friends. We can commiserate and share stories of work place triumphs and challenges, along with the wisdom that comes with getting a little older. It also means that the back story is already there; we can communicate in shorthand, regardless of how long it is between catch ups. When we do connect there is a crossfire of ideas and stories, as well as sharing lists of books, music, podcasts and movies that each other might enjoy.

There are many attributes that I admire in LJ, including intelligence, compassion, humour and integrity. She has a keen sense of the absurd and doesn’t take everything too seriously. She has been there for me whenever I have needed her, as well as when I have been unable to see that I needed a friend. I know how lucky I am to have someone like her in my life.

Do you have a friend for all seasons?

[Photo: old tile spotted in a pub at Strathfield]

 

 

 

Senses working overtime*

Lately I’ve been catching up on some writing related podcasts. This has included a binge-like session of the ‘Your Creative Life’ podcasts with Vanessa Carnevale. The format of this podcast has recently changed with the addition of a co-host, Kimberley Foster. This has allowed for an expansion of the format with the podcasts now starting off with a chat between Vanessa and Kim, talking about the writing process amongst other things.

Recently they compared notes on influential writing books that they’ve read. My ears pricked up, not least of all because a book I’d recently picked up but hadn’t started reading was mentioned. It is Writing from the Senses by Laura Deutsch.

The title appealed to me as it is a frequent encouragement to write where possible using all of the senses. Sight is the most obvious sense used, but a greater depth can be added to your writing by engaging all of the senses. The book is divided into sections which provide outlines and examples of how to use the various senses in your writing. The examples are a mixture of excerpts from the author’s own writing and samples from work completed by students in her writing classes. These provide a wide range of writing styles and some really interesting ways in which to include senses in your written work. The examples are vibrant and engaging, and there are exercises to try at the end of each chapter.

While I am still making my way through the book, I found myself feeling hyper-alert to all things sensory after reading it. I have been travelling lately, seeing towns and cities that were new to me, and whilst this would in itself create a heightened sense of awareness, reading Deutsch’s book has really encouraged me to take the time to write these details down, the snippets which capture the essence of what I am seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling and smelling around me. Apart from hopefully improving my writing, this has also helped me feel more engaged in the world around me.

How do you get your writing senses working overtime?

* Taken from Senses Working Overtime by XTC

[Photo: Horizon in sight from Mt Tomah Botanical Gardens]

Taking Note

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to keep track of the tendrils of thoughts and ideas that come to the surface when I’m trying to do something else. These snippets seem to arise alongside, despite of and as a consequence of what I am writing, reading and listening to at the time.

Not all of these are recorded and rightly so. They are tenuous at best when I look over them at a later date, and sometimes I wonder what I was thinking when the need to record the essence of whatever it was took hold. These days we are subject to an increasing tide of information and stimulation. It can sometimes feel like grabbing handfuls of sand whilst being tossed on a thundering incoming wave. Recording snippets helps me to feel a modicum of control, as well as providing prompts and ideas for future writing.

I wish I could write that I have perfected the art of keeping track of these moments, but that would be a fib. I scribble bits and pieces in an A5 lined notebook. The pages include motley collections of lists including things I want to do when I have time (optimist!), musicians that I’ve heard and want to explore further, the name of a subject matter expert that a friend mentioned, a word that I hadn’t come across before (senescence, if you must know) and other miscellany.

Other pages contain prose relating to a short story where I was working on an ending, and some paragraphs where I was playing with a character’s viewpoint. There are to-do items along with song titles or lyric lines that have captured my attention for future use as writing prompts or just because I like them. There are a myriad of apps that also help with capturing the flotsam and jetsam. I like to use Evernote because I can group thoughts and images and links into journals, but I’m sure there are lots of other options out there.

This consideration of the compulsion to take notes was inspired by an article written by Joan Didion called ‘On Keeping a Notebook’. I’m quite sure this was referred to by Annabel Crabb or Leigh Sales in one of the early Chat 10, Looks 3 podcasts. There is a link to the article here. I found it encouraging to read that someone else feels the need capture these moments, such as they are. Didion writes about the necessity to record things, the mix of truth and fiction, the snatches of conversation, the need to capture how something felt.

How do you keep track of the flotsam and jetsam in your life?

[Photo: View from Mt Tomah Botanical Gardens]

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]

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?