In Anticipation of Creative Endeavours

Earlier this week I wrote about anticipating spring, and how this shows itself in a myriad of ways from early blossoms to the proliferation of buds. It reminded me of the importance of having something to look forward to, that intoxicating sense of anticipation.

This has resulted in a quick assessment of where I am at the moment in a creative sense. In my working life I am task oriented and love crossing items off my to-do list. Occasionally I think that if I applied the same approach in my creative life, I’d get a lot more done. This is probably true, but my creative side seems to resist any attempt to contain it in such a structured format. I know I could, but I don’t want to. Somehow it seems too important to have the flexibility to go where my creativity leads, rather than corralling it with constraints.

So what am I looking forward to, creatively speaking? I have a few ideas tucked into the pages of my writing notebooks for future projects, and these will continue to germinate as I go about my daily routines. I have two stories on the go at the moment, one of them triggered by a vivid dream. Both are longer than my usual outings and that in itself creates a sense of delight. Usually with a short story I have a fair idea of what I’m working towards, but both of these stories are taking their own sweet time to reveal the end and that makes the process quite intriguing.

Recently I have started reading a book of ten short stories with accompanying essays by the writers revealing insights into their craft and the genesis of their particular story. I have dipped in and read a couple so far and have been invigorated but have resisted the urge to read them too quickly. Some things are better digested slowly and savoured.

Another source of creative anticipation is something about me but not something that I have created. By chance I came across some interesting drawings on Instagram by an artist called Carly Zandstra. A few weeks back she posted a drawing of her head in a phrenological kind of way. There is a link to the post here which will make more sense. I was so impressed that I made contact and Carly is creating something similar for me, based on things that matter to me. I am really looking forward to what Carly has come up with – another version of my creative self.

So right now there are still stories to write, different worlds to ponder, stories to be read and a head full of ideas to fuel my sense of creative anticipation.

What are you looking forward to, creatively speaking?

[Photo: phrenology head spotted at a market]

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]

Book Review: The Home Girls by Olga Masters

I listened to this collection of short stories a few years ago, mainly as I wended my way to work along mountain roads in winter. At the end of some the stories I simply had to turn the audio off, needing time and space to absorb the dynamics of a story, or the machinations of various characters. Masters captured the essence of a character, of life in a small town, of the many joys and devastations of every day life with such a deft touch.

Sometimes I would also refer to the written word to recapture the moment, or to check my understanding of a story. I was also struck by the physicality of her writing; her way of depicting a character’s inner world through their physical actions. These stories in particular stayed in mind.

The Home Girls. This was a short, disturbing story of two sisters preparing to leave one foster family for another, sharing a final act of defiance before they head to their new home.

The Rages of Mrs Torrens. I loved this story of a vibrant and passionate woman, who was perhaps a bit extreme in her mood swings. The timber town is enthralled by her antics, during which she seemed to lose focus of her beloved Harold and their five children.

The rage that ended all rages took place when there was an accident at the mill and poor Harold lost the fingers on his right hand. Mrs Torrens goes to the mill and climbs atop a fence with surprising grace and agility to address the men who were ‘standing there … faces tipped up like eggs towards her’. She asks them what they have done with her beautiful mannikin before going wild with a piece of timber, destroying parts of the office.

The incident is strangely not widely discussed by those present, who were deeply affected by her rage. The family left town soon after, and eventually medication was used to stabilise her mood swings.

‘During these times Mrs Torren’s blue eyes dulled and her beautiful red hair straightened and she moved slowly and heavily with no life in her step or on her face. She looked like a lot of the women in Tantello.’

On The Train. This depicts an interaction between a beautiful mother travelling with two young plain daughters and a nosy stranger. The stranger speculates about their relationship, trying to prise information. As the two leave the carriage, the mother tells the stranger something deeply unsettling.

The Done Thing. An interesting twist on the tale of attraction between two married couples. On revisiting this story recently I was struck by the contrast between the two wives: the educated but insecure Annie and the thoroughly practical Louisa. Annie’s husband Peter arrives unannounced at Louisa’s place, bearing a large pumpkin.

She laid a hand on the grey-blue skin of the pumpkin as she might have touched a beautiful fur wrap.

Peter’s delight in the homely order of Louisa’s home is evident and there are gentle hints of the attraction between them.

As she spoke she bent and pulled at some grass, ripping it away to show more rock. He bent and pulled it with her and she straightened, holding the long loop of root against her skirt as if it were a bridal bouquet. 

I was pleased to see that I wasn’t alone in finding much satisfaction in this collection of stories. There is an excellent review by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: old kitchen at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill]

Deadlines: whooshing or otherwise?

An oft quoted phrase attributed to Douglas Adams is “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” I’m not sure if it is emblematic of my tendency to comply, but deadlines tend to translate into results for me.

A simple example would be my blog posts. I made a decision before I started to blog that I would try to write two posts a week. This was based on wanting to write about the Blue Mountains area in particular, effectively from the viewpoint of being a tourist in my adopted home, but I also wanted to explore writing habits and practices. Occasionally I have meandered off the track at times, but in essence this remains the focus for my blogging.

There have been times when I have faced the blank page, bereft of thoughts let alone ideas. But so far – touch wood – I have managed to come up with something before each due date. There are times when there is an abundance of ideas for one theme but not the other, reflective perhaps of where my mind is at that point of time. These ideas are captured and explored when time allows. Having a writing rhythm helps, and I know that it is preferable to have a draft, no matter how insignificant or rough, which can be expanded and edited at least a day or two before I’m due to post. There are times though when it is more of a last minute dash to get the words down.

My blogging schedule is self-imposed, but I try to apply the same discipline to writing competition deadlines. I keep an eye out for upcoming competitions and jot down key details on a whiteboard so I can submit a piece if appropriate. When I first started to mix with other writers, I was fortunate to meet an accomplished and prolific poet and short story writer in the central west. He invited me around for a chat one afternoon and showed me how he kept a stack of polished works ready for upcoming competitions, and explained how he would write new pieces for competition themes when necessary. A piece might not succeed in one competition but could place or win in another. The key was to be ready to meet the deadline and to adhere to the competition entry requirements.

Due to time constraints I am selective about the competitions I enter, but I find that deadlines hold me accountable and encourage me to produce and polish a piece for submission, rather than just scratching in the margins of a writing life.

What do writing deadlines mean to you?

[Photo: old typewriter]

Short Writing Works

Every now and then a challenge comes up to write a piece within a very tight word count. These tend to be part of a writing prompt or contest, and they can provide a good opportunity to flex a different kind of writing muscle. Having a theme to work towards is also a creative challenge, setting parameters that provide a sense of direction for shorter work.

Recently I came across a piece that I wrote last year. The requirements were to write no more than 25 words, and the work had to include ‘winter’, ‘writer’ and ‘silhouette’. This is what I came up with:

A hunched silhouette

Pen gripped tightly

The writer crafts

Her work nightly

Hours are lost

Worlds splinter

As she creates

Stories of winter

I also had a go at a writing challenge put out last year by wonderful mystery writer and blogger Margot Kinberg. This one was limited to 50 words and I used the word count to set a crime scene where something went wrong.

No-one told him about the dog. He’d had a clear run. The so-called secure complex was barely a challenge, the target easily despatched. The dog had been in the lounge room, cowering. He knew he had to get out, timing was everything. But he couldn’t leave the dog.

There is something about writing in a condensed format that is really satisfying. Another 25 word challenge has been issued by the Australian Writers’ Centre, this one with the words ‘victory’ and ‘violin’ to be included. I’m off to have a scribble – it is hard to resist a writing challenge!

Do you enjoy writing very short stories?

[Photo: Avenue of Honour, Ballarat]

Writing, Nature and Presence

Recently I attended the inaugural Eleanor Dark lecture which formally closed the Blue Mountains program of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The lecture, held at the grand old Carrington Hotel, was given by Delia Falconer.

Falconer is known for her novels including The Service of Clouds which I’ve referred to previously as one of the books that is intricately linked to the fictional world of the Blue Mountains. Falconer’s book on Sydney as part of the series of books on the Australian capital cities was also wonderfully evocative of place, history and atmosphere. And so it was with interest that I attended this lecture which had as its focus the themes of writing, nature and presence.

It was fitting that Falconer was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture as she had written part of The Service of Clouds whilst in residence at Varuna, the National Writers House bequeathed by the Dark family. Falconer spoke of her time there with fondness, of coming across Eleanor Dark’s gardening journal which illustrated her exacting practical mind, and the joy that Dark took in the local eccentricity of Katoomba life along with the magnificent landscape.

Falconer noted that part of the motivation behind Dark’s landmark trilogy The Timeless Land was distaste at the mindless celebrations around the sesquicentenary of European settlement. Dark’s response was to carefully research and write a fictional account of the early years of the colony from the viewpoint of the colonisers and the Aboriginals; this may be seen as clunky from our current perspective but it was revolutionary at the time. The natural world featured strongly in these books, and Falconer quoted someone as saying that Dark’s work gave the reader a sense of sunlight and the scent of boronia. It can be seen as a precursor to Australian nature writing.

From this foundation, the lecture moved to the challenges of writing in a world marked by the loss of abundance in nature. A simple example was given of driving at night through the countryside – or anywhere outside the suburban sprawl – when the windscreen would soon be choked up with moths and the like. Or the movement en masse of Sydney fruit bats over the city skyline at night. Both examples, which were commonplace, are now relatively rare. Some writers in this field maintain that we are going through the sixth great extinction, a time of rapid loss of species that is unprecedented.

I was interested by the idea that we are indirectly impacted by the kind of animals and plants that surround us, yet it is hard to know what you haven’t seen. This in turn could lead to environmental generational amnesia, where elements of the natural world are entirely lost or become so rare as to no longer be on the human peripheral. There is now a term for the psychological distress caused by such significant environmental shifts – solastalgia.

But what can writers do in such a period of change and uncertainty? Falconer urged writers to tell the story. Use autobiography to look back and understand what has changed. Make it uncomfortable. And think ahead to the future.

[Photo: view from Govett’s Leap lookout, Blackheath]

 

Writers’ Journey, Sydney Writers’ Festival Event @ Katoomba

Like many readers and writers I find it interesting to hear how other writers approach their craft, how their interest in writing came about and what their process looks like, not least of all because it is unique to each writer.

And so I jumped at the chance to attend an event about the writing journey as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, held in conjunction with Varuna and the Blue Mountains Library. The four people who shared their stories and insights into the writing life are accomplished Australian writers across fiction and non-fiction and their oeuvre crosses many genres. David White, who facilitated the event, acknowledged the endless fascination that readers and writers alike have in the writing process.

The session began with each writer providing a 15 minute overview of their writing life. Malcolm Knox shared the story of his first day on trial with the Sydney Morning Herald in 1994; Catherine Cole spoke of the influences of childhood, of how the joy and pleasure of reading led to a desire to create. Craig Cormick demonstrated his passion for writing the story that demands to be told by passing around a sample of his many published books, ranging across non-fiction, children’s fiction and short stories. Lisa Chaplin, a self-described housewife with an imagination, outlined her transition from romance writer to historical novelist, and shared her approach to writing which includes a hand drawn visual map incorporating the three act structure, soundtrack and scented candles specific to the current work in progress.

The reality and challenges of a writing life were acknowledged by all of the writers. Self-doubt, how your best work isn’t always your published work and how success does not always correlate to talent were some of the points agreed upon. Cormick said that writing exposes your heart and that publishing takes a bite (out of it), but write anyway. A couple of good examples of learning from the masters was provided by Chaplin, who learned the art of editing through the Romance Writers of Australia, and Fiona McIntosh Masterclass. All agreed on keeping drafts of your work, and to remove your darlings to a separate document rather than to kill them off completely – a character or situation which might not fit one piece of work may suit another.

But there are many upsides to a writing life as well. The importance of small things, of celebrating the success of other writers and of keeping in mind the need to engage in the world around you. How the best you can expect is a life in which there is space and scope to write.

Write anyway – this was the overarching message. Embrace the power of creation, and believe in yourself as a writer.

[Photo: Lisa Chaplin, Malcolm Knox, Catherine Cole & Craig Cormick, left to right]

Writing Prompt: A Familiar Scent

At a recent writing group gathering, we wrote to a prompt of ‘A Familiar Scent’. A few of the pieces have been posted on Writers in The Mist – you can find them here. Below is my contribution.

There was a familiar scent in the air. Annie paused, momentarily struck. It was the soft, sweet scent of freesias, a fragrance of her grandmother’s garden on a warm spring day and not something that she expected to smell in hospital in the depths of winter. She cast a look around the room but there was just one other woman resting opposite her. She was snoring softly and hadn’t woken when Annie had been wheeled into the corner.

Annie leaned forward, thinking that perhaps it was just a floral scent being worn by one of the nursing staff. But there was no-one in sight and all that she could smell now was the brazen note of antiseptic, strong enough to singe nasal hair and cover most of the bodily odours in the ward. She sighed and closed her eyes. It might have been the effect of the medication or a delayed impact of the anaesthetic but as she closed her eyes, suddenly drowsy, she could smell it again.

Annie let her mind wander back to when life was simple and relatively pain-free, when her school holidays were spent at her grandparents’ house and days passed by playing in the wonderland that was their garden.

The freesias were planted in a neat row along the driveway, forming a fragrant guard of honour along the entrance. There were several garden beds at the front and back of the property, and Annie could picture the native trees marching along one fence line, bristling with banksia men and their fierce brown faces. The front garden was encircled by camellias, their blooms both large and small providing a colourful carpet of petals as the seasons changed. A large macadamia tree stood sentry over the driveway, its barbed leaves protecting the tough nuts. Bright bottle brushes and grevilleas tempted the birds, honeyeaters dancing swiftly about when the shrubs were in bloom.

The steep back garden had been terraced in part to grow vegetables. Crisp beans grew against the back fence, sharing a space with colourful sweet peas in spring. Parsley grew in pots, and Annie had loved to pluck and lightly crush the curling herb between her fingers. Large cabbages grew in winter, their dark green and purple leaves encasing the heavy hearts of the vegetables. The cumquat tree had enchanted her; the zesty skin of the carefully harvested small fruit later transformed into jam. A gum tree towered high above the clothes line, a favourite podium for the magpies to sing their beautiful songs.

Annie walked herself around the garden again, taking slow steps to enjoy the multicoloured freesia blooms, almost too heavy for their stems. She walked over to the camellias, marvelling at the marbling of pinks and whites and reds on the petals, such a contrast to the glossy emerald leaves. She reached out and felt once more the soft and comforting warmth of her grandmother’s hands as the scent of freesias surrounded her.

Creative Lessons from Pets

Recently I was remembering when my dog, Buster, appeared in my world. I had wondered how this puppy, full of energy and noise, would fit into my life.

This led me to consider some of the lessons and habits that he has taught me which foster creativity in my days. Here are some of the learnings so far.

Naps

Dogs are brilliant at sleeping. There are bursts of activity and they will run and jump and bark and chase anything. Then there’s nap time. Naps can be short or long, and napping is permissible at any time. And life is generally better after a nap. Ideas emerge, sometimes fully-formed plots or ways to move a story forward. As I write this, Buster is napping nearby, as if on cue.

If In Doubt, Shake It Out

Have you ever watched a dog discover something new in the yard, or find a forgotten toy stashed somewhere? Usually they will sniff around it and maybe poke it with a paw before picking it up and throwing it around. This also works for trying out new approaches or routines. It is easy to get into a rut, creatively speaking. Sometimes you need to throw it all up in the air and see what falls down.

Discovery Tours

Also known as walks, these outings provide endless material from a dog’s perspective. So much to sniff and scratch, even if the walk is a familiar one. These regular airings are great for writing material too, or for solving plot or scene problems. There have been many times when I’ve untied a writing-related knot whilst walking my dog. Even a short jaunt helps.

Don’t Be So Serious

Buster is always ready to play. Any excuse for silliness and he’s there. There’s no moping about the past or fretting about the future. There’s just right now. This sense of play can be harnessed when writing to prompts or brainstorming and coming up with different ideas.

Pay Attention

Dogs are alert most of the time. Even when apparently resting and doing nothing, they are listening to what’s going on around them and taking in sights and scents. Sometimes these small details can be telling, and can provide a creative spark.

There is an excellent post called Dogma for Writers by Sue Owens Wright here, inspired by her basset hounds. Have you picked up any creative tips from your pets?

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Buster enjoying autumn leaves and keeping an eye on a singing magpie

Sydney, Her City: Short Fiction

She had watched the bridge take shape. It had seemed an impossibility, an absurd idea that the sheer expanse of the harbour could be tethered by steel and iron. There had been talk of it for so long that it seemed like an intrinsic part of her childhood memories, its design a favourite topic of debate. Then suddenly whole streets and entire neighbourhoods began to vanish, houses and shops and factories that had been familiar were pulled apart and families were forced to relocate.

Ella’s family had been lucky. They had been earmarked for relocation but changes to plans meant that their street was spared. She could recall heading off to school of a morning, walking through nearby streets with her brothers and sister, then the shock of arriving home to find rubble and dust where houses had been. Her mother had complained of the dirt and the rats that seemed to be in plague proportions as buildings that had stood firm for decades were pushed over and destroyed within a day.

Her eldest brother had landed a job on one of the many construction crews that worked on the bridge. He would come home with stories about the movement of massive sandstone blocks that would form the pylons to anchor the bridge. Bert’s excitement at being part of something momentous was tangible and contagious.

But the building of the bridge took so long that Ella’s interest eventually waned. By the time it was almost complete, the magnificent arch tantalisingly close to joining, she was working at a tea shop in the city, down near Circular Quay. The bridge was visible, a looming presence in the background, but she was busy with work and stepping out of an evening on dates and going to dances.

After marriage Ella stopped working, settling quickly into domestic life. She found herself drawn to the harbour, taking the pram along the narrow city streets and steep gradients down to the foreshore. She loved to walk past the ferries, puffing out smoke, their sturdy shapes seemingly insignificant as they motored their way underneath the enormous arch of the iron coat-hanger.

When Ella and her husband moved to the suburbs, she still managed to visit the city occasionally, especially when Christmas shopping trips came up. To turn into a street and glance up at the bridge gave her a thrill that she couldn’t quite explain. The bridge became less extraordinary over time to most Sydneysiders, just a way to get from one side of the harbour to the other. But for Ella it remained one of her favourite things. Her birthday treats invariably included a trip to the city to take in the splendour of the bridge, now a constant presence against a changing city skyline. For Ella, the bridge was the essence of Sydney, her city.

Inspired by a writing prompt using a postcard painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Do landmarks appear in your writing?