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Imaginative courage & the editor’s art  

July 14, 2014

Recently, the wonderful Sydney Review of Books published as an essay a speech I gave in May to editors at Australia’s Residential Editorial Program 2014, held at Varuna, The Writer’s House. I thought I’d reprint the essay here. The Sydney Review of Books, in case you don’t know it, is an excellent online publication of thoughtful, intelligent reviews and discussions about literature and books. It is refreshingly separate from the world of marketing and turnover of product that dominates many books pages – and it’s free. It is edited by the latest winner of the Pascall Prize for Criticism, James Ley.

‘I have had my vision': Four ideals to write by

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WHEN I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the first time last year, of course it was the struggles of amateur painter Lily Briscoe that lingered in my mind, and linger still.

Lily’s fears and condemnations (women can’t write, women can’t paint), her sudden revelations, her dreamy habitation of her work during boring dinner conversation – all of these were familiar to me, for of course in writing of painting Woolf was writing about writing.

What I want to talk about today is the quest to discover and fulfill a book’s creative vision. Note that I have not said ‘the writer’s vision’, because it is my experience that any vision is a fragmentary, partially glimpsed, faltering thing, never fully present – certainly never in my possession – until the work itself is complete. And so this potential vision is the space the writer and editor enter together.

Looking back over my experiences of editing, apart from a few striking moments, I find I can’t elucidate what those experiences have taught me. They have nourished me, that is certain, but the details have entered so far into my depths as a writer that when I look for them, all I hear is their echo, like the lotus-leaf imprint left on the surface of the water after a whale dives deep.

What I have learned in the past largely now feels trivial and obvious, and what is most urgent to me now is not what I already know, but what I still need to learn. Any artist, one hopes, is always reaching forward to new knowledge, that insight just beyond their grasp.

Perhaps this inability to articulate what I’ve learned from past edits is to also do with the fragmentary nature of creative knowledge. One learns essential lessons – is even elated by their profound nature – and yet, almost instantly, they are absorbed and replaced by the lost feeling that returns each time as one discovers, yet again, that one does not know how to write this book. One’s work is illuminated for a moment, then plunged into darkness again, over and over.

Ruminating on what has been important to me about editing, I have come to rest on four particular qualities. Perhaps we can think of them each as a brief wash of light, one of those long, steady strokes from Virginia’s lighthouse, to bathe in for a moment and then let pass, until the next time it returns.

The first of these illuminations is the quality of generosity.

My first two novels I wrote in a kind of innocent dream, it seems to me now.

Pieces of a Girl, my first, was a tiny, mysterious and menacing book which, if I had been more conscious of the market or the perils of publishing or What Readers Want, I would never have begun. As it was, I was oblivious to all those things, and wrote this dark little book out of pure instinct, and bewilderment, and a love of language. When I think about it now I shiver, not just for its weirdness, and for how starkly I was displaying my own, but at my own infatuation with the richness and beauty of words. For many years after I wrote it I was ashamed – it seemed so childish, so macabre, so strange.

And yet, it had something. And I’m grateful to it because it introduced me to the esteemed editor Judith Lukin-Amundsen, who sat with me and talked me through what I’d done, and suggested ways to help my odd little book enter the world outside my own imagination. She persuaded me, with her quiet, unerring logic and sensitivity, to remove a dreadful ending I had been convinced was genius itself. And she praised me.

I can’t remember what she said, but I remember that it shocked me, and confused me, and somehow frightened me. And then it made me brave.

I’ve heard it said that writers live on praise. I think this is true, though it feels shameful to admit it, because it seems to imply that we are all desperate conceit and needy self-love.

But what Judith understood, as have other fine editors I’ve worked with since, is that an editor’s praise is not simply about ego-stroking – it’s about ideas. Especially for a first novelist like the one I was, ungainly and shy, with no idea what I was doing, or why, or if I could ever do it again, if I even wanted to do it again, praise of the right kind – which is to say understated, and calm and, most importantly, honest – performs some much deeper task than flattery. The right kind of praise draws a writer out of safety and into abundance, and risk.

Woolf herself put it this way, writing in her diary about the public reception of To the Lighthouse. “What is the use of saying one is indifferent … when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on that instead of feeling dried up one feels, on the contrary, flooded with ideas?”

Another element of an editor’s praise – especially for new writers who perhaps need it the most – is that to a writer of any sensitivity it provides only the smallest counterbalance to the terror of exposure. This is an inexplicable phobia, because exposure is of course also what we most desire.

When Lily Briscoe, mid-painting, suddenly realises Mr Bankes is standing beside her and looking at her work, she is appalled.

She would have snatched the picture off the easel, but she said to herself One must. She braced herself to stand the awful trial of someone looking at her picture. One must, she said, one must. And if it must be seen, Mr Bankes was less alarming than another. But that any other eyes should see the residue of her thirty-three years, the deposit of each day’s living, mixed with something more secret than she had ever spoken or shown in the course of all those days was an agony. At the same time it was immensely exciting. (My emphasis)

It is the generosity of that first viewer’s gaze that makes this last sentence possible. And, when offered honestly, without gush or fizz, an editor’s praise can give rise to more ideas, revived energy, greater courage, and, one hopes, better art.

The second quality I think is essential for both writers and editors is humility.

This is not the kind of self-abnegation one sometimes hears even now in discussions of editing: that seamstressy, handmaideny downtroddenness that surely sucks all richness from the enterprise, and which any self-respecting editor must reject. I don’t want a handmaiden or seamstress as an editor, I want an equal. I doubt Gordon Lish or William Maxwell or Robert Gottlieb or Beatrice Davis or Diana Athill or Hilary McPhee ever thought of their work in such cringing terms, and nor should any good editor.

The humility I’m talking about is a much more textured, creative quality than meekness. It is a humility that allows close, dedicated attention to seemingly small things.

For a writer, this humility might also be a willingness to bow down to the work, to surrender yourself to it. To accept that much of what emerges in your writing is somehow beyond you, that you are not so much its controller as its listener. You need humility to understand that your work will reveal things about you that you might not like, but that if they are true, you must say them.

For Lily Briscoe, the artist’s humility lies in being truthful about the painter she is rather than the one she might wish to be. The spectre of ‘Mr Paunceforte’, the successful painter admired by all, is ever-present in Lily’s mind. In one scene, when she looks at her painting:

She could have wept. It was bad, it was bad, it was infinitely bad! She could have done it differently of course; the colour could have been thinned and faded; the shapes etherealised; that was how Paunceforte would have seen it. But she did not see it like that.

I think all artists have at some stage made this forlorn discovery; I am not like others, and all I have to offer is my own perception. George Saunders put it this way: “You can choose what you write but you can’t choose what you make live.”

How does this necessary humility of the writer translate to the work of an editor? I don’t exactly know, but it is to do with this same particular surrender, an attentiveness to the potential of this book, here, now – that promise lying just beneath the surface to be discovered if only we sit quietly enough, listening hard.

The most important lesson in narrative structure I ever had was from Judith’s copy edit of my second book, The Submerged Cathedral. Every page of that novel was covered in marks, so much so that I believe the publisher’s production editor braced herself for tears from me. But when I saw those pages, I saw a master class in craft. For the first time I began to understand what narrative tension actually was, I began to see how essential momentum was, to any story. I learned that beautiful language is not enough – and worse, that it can sometimes even hamper, or mislead. With that intricately generous copy edit I learned to pay proper attention to all the work my words could do, not just their jeweled surface.

I gather it’s not so fashionable to talk about line editing now. The big splashy stuff is apparently what gets attention – the brute cutting out of characters, the shifting of chapters, the hiving off endings or the point of view switch. What is perhaps too often forgotten, by writers most of all, is how magnificently a manuscript can be improved by painstaking work on the line. This is humble work, exacting and slow. On the line there is no breathtaking gamble or magician’s flourish. Instead it is quiet, demanding, thoughtful labour, word by word by word. And it can transform a book.

The editor and writer Janet Burroway has written about how she managed the suggestion that her novel lose ten thousand words.

“I set myself the task of identifying where I had used one too many images, phrases, sentences. And it was a revelation. I found that I tended to put four instead of the magic three things in a series, that in my eagerness to show, I often described one gesture more than the reader needed. Sometimes I killed a paragraph with an anticlimactic sentence … I ended by cutting the ten thousand words without cutting a whole paragraph anywhere.”  

Editors, Burroway said, should not be afraid to ask this of an author, and authors should not be afraid to try.

But line editing is not just about reduction, of course. Jonathan Cape editor Alex Bowler has extolled the abundantly creative possibility of the copy edit.

‘While there’s a perception that it’s the lowest rung on the editorial ladder,’ he writes, ‘There is a rich and serious pleasure to copyediting which goes beyond those of the pedant.”

When an editor has the time, says Bowler – and I would add the humility – to copyedit well, “you develop a unique, intimate knowledge” of the book; “you start to see patterns, structures, traits, secrets, and feel that for a week or so you’re closer than any reader in the world to the strange, alchemic magic that makes a book great.”

Amanda Lohrey told me last year that ‘small unorthodox manoeuvres can have potent effects’. This is an important point, for while the word humility might evoke smallness, its effects can be the opposite: a powerful sense that the book you are working on remains open and dynamic, that the truth one seeks to tell a little more precisely, with a little more force and beauty – all of this potential remains alive and vibrant as sea coral, right up until the printer’s press starts rolling.

 As I wrote my third and fourth novels The Children and Animal People I set out with some deliberate aims – greater control of my craft, which was all about the reader, and greater honesty, which was all about myself. By this time I had learned a few skills and it was time to try some things I didn’t know how to do. With The Children that meant an attempt at more heightened drama, less understatement, more visibility. With both books I wanted to risk another thing: a more direct exposure of myself and who I was, without hiding behind the opaque screen of language, a poetic flourish, a lyrical turn of phrase. With help from my editor and other readers, I think my work grew tougher, ruder, sharper. It’s not for me to say whether those books are better than the earlier ones, but I feel I learned a little more from them, from risking new things, and stretching myself. The editorial work on those books was less intricate, more practical. As with a perennial plant, the seeds of earlier edits bore fruit in these books. A diligent student, I had learned my lessons, more or less.

But the artist, as I said earlier, is always seeking something new, groping for something just out of reach. What has satisfied in the past will do so no longer. And so after Animal People, I found myself plummeting into darkness once more, into the inchoate, gloomy world of an unformed novel I did not know how to write. What I learned from those other books no longer helped or interested me, as another smudgy, misshapen idea began to form, and crumble, and form again, and dissolve and slowly build again.

When the lighthouse’s beam sweeps around this time, it falls upon the third ideal, a quality I have decided to call imaginative courage.

This is a different kind of bravery than that required to step up and do what you know is needed. I’m told, for example, that editors sometimes find writers’ reputations intimidating, and that the greater the reputation, the more reticent an editor might be. Of course you know what’s needed here: to stand your ground, to query everything your professional instincts tell you to, to graciously exercise your rightful authority.

(As an aside, I would suggest to newer editors, as I have done often to newer writers, that authority will not be somehow bestowed upon you. You have to seize it. Nobody will tell you that now you’re allowed to be confident, and no writer will recognise your authority before you have created it yourself. As Tim Winton has said, confidence is a discipline*.)

The imaginative courage that I refer to here manifests in a spirit of adventure. After years of diligently learning about shapeliness and reader satisfaction and storytelling craft, what I’m edging towards is the nerve – paradoxically, perhaps dangerously – to abandon the reader. For I am surprised to find that what most thrills me as a reader these days, is … well, mess.

Not any old mess, I hurry to point out. Not unconsidered mess, or mess born of ignorance or laziness, or blind inexperience. I’m talking about a structural and creative wildness, and the imaginative courage on both editor and writer’s part, to find it.

It’s much safer of course to remain in the realm of the known, the orderly. The refuge of narrative arcs and rising tensions and resolutions and What Readers Want. But there are so many books, and so little time, and when a writer stays in this refuge against their will, it becomes a cage.

As a point of reference, let’s look at To The Lighthouse, a most bizarrely designed book. The novel is like two rooms of almost equal size and space, joined by a dark, strange corridor – a section called Time Passes, in which nothing happens in an empty house, and the death of the main character occurs in a sentence, after the fact, in parentheses. It is breathtaking, shocking, thrilling. 

I think also of the stories of Alice Munro, which so often move towards a shapely, inevitable, satisfying form – and then spring a leak, or sprout a new branch, moving beyond all reader expectation to another, more difficult and more rewarding plane of revelation.

Recently I was jolted by Joyce Carol Oates’ terrifying novella The Corn Maiden, which similarly moves with swift, compelling inevitability towards resolution – and then takes a jarring left turn and as one reviewer said, “We find that the true ending lies somewhere unexpected, and that it makes the characters whole. “

Closer to home, I have been thrilled by the almost anti-narrative stance of three completely different novels: New Zealander Emily Perkins’ The Forrests, with its stunning leaps through time and intimate sensation, our own Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, with its dreamlike arcs and swoops, and the immensely restrained debut, Letters to the End of Love by West Australian Yvette Walker, in which three pairs of lovers write elegiacally to one another, with only the faintest, allusive connecting thread between them. All these novels showed me things I had never seen, and the visions were made possible not despite but because of their departures from conventional expectations of what a reader ‘wants’.

In 2011 the erratic, sometimes brilliant Jeanette Winterson said this:

“Editors have become linear and timid. They worry about how things follow and Emma Bovary’s eyes change colour unexpectedly, and no one minds. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “all my facts about lighthouses are wrong”. So there is wrong that is right, and that is better than rigid rightness that is wrong … I would like to see zest for difficulty making a comeback. Must we always be transparent?”

The painter Georges Braque said the function of art is to disturb, while David Simon, creator of the operatic television series The Wire, put this rebellion more crudely:

“My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it… knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.”

Now, I want to be clear that I do not advocate contempt for the reader; nor, I think, despite his vehemence, does Simon. Indeed, these words are a call to respect the reader – to invite her work harder, for deeper satisfactions than the tinsel on the surface of a work. I think Simon’s words were a cry against art as mere entertainment, a frustration with stories that must always please, never confuse or frighten or shock except in the most generic, prurient ways.

The more I go on, the more I am convinced that a great book is the one which leads its readers away from the worn path of what they already know, to a wild and unfamiliar place where new logics and understandings can take hold. But of course there is nothing new in this – it really is only what any gifted editor has always known: that each book is its own wild creature, and that sometimes it is in disorder and inconsistency and ambiguity where the greatest art lies.

But how is a writer or an editor to recognise which kind of mess this manuscript might be? Whether this chaos before them is the untidiness of great art, or simply the disarray of the unresolved, the lazy, the incompetent?

Well, I don’t know. I do know that greatness is not correlative with experience, for an experienced writer is perhaps even more likely to fall back on what they already know, what has worked before. I also believe most strongly that even greatness must be questioned, interrogated, sculpted, distilled. All writers should be pushed, and challenged, if we are to keep reaching for something beyond what we know we can do. For competence, as Michelle de Kretser noted in The Lost Dog, is the enemy of art.

And so we fall back into darkness, to ponder this question – how does one navigate the line between dull reader ‘satisfaction’ and potential reader exhilaration, and where is the path towards that knowledge?

I have one last quality to consider tonight.

Of his long career, the legendary editor and exquisite novelist, William Maxwell, observed this: “After forty years, what I came to care about most was not style, but the breath of life.”

The breath of life: that virtue of naturalness, of suppleness, or spaciousness of prose, the one Italo Calvino, in the first of his famous lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, called Lightness.

“My working method,” said Calvino, “has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight … above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

Importantly, he makes this distinction: “Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard.”

Similarly, when I think of the breath of life I am not calling for an editor to stay out of a text. I know, from that long-ago copy edit, how what might at first appear a heavy editorial hand can in fact untether a work from the burden of its own prose, softly and steadily unclipping the moorings, removing weight, so that in the end the writing is indeed set free.

And yet, at the same time, one does need to intuit when to step back, and let a work move in its own loose and lovely way. To recognise when the breath of life is already present, and where there may be danger of suffocation with rules and pedantry.

But what can any of this mean for an editor who is not working with Calvino or Woolf or Maxwell, or Munro or Wright? What relevance can these virtues possibly have for those of you toiling on a cookbook, for example, or a cricket tome, a romance novel or political memoir?

Well, funnily enough I think these ideals still hold. In any work, I believe, an editor who is alert can find opportunities to practise them: the generosity of fully entering into the work with the writer. The humility of paying close attention to its sentences and heart. The imaginative courage to challenge the writer just a little more, to trawl for a more original solution than the ones you have always offered before. And to seek out and encourage – or simply allow, in any work – the breath of life.

Now, with those steady circling strokes of the lighthouse, we return once more to Lily, on the lawn, with her painting. Ten years from when she first began, she starts again. And then finally:

With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

It is striking in Woolf’s novel how Lily’s final declarative line is in fact the one she has always instinctively known is needed, but only in that last second can she glimpse how it can be drawn.

At the start I talked about how for me a book’s vision so often only coalesces in those last days, as the work is completed. Like Lily Briscoe, I have often found completion to involve a final seizing of some resolution that has always been present but only dimly, in the foggiest corners of my mind.

It is in the company of a skilled editor’s meticulous attention to the fine grain of a work – not the last book, not another book like it, but this one – that writer and editor together might uncover and mark that precious resolving line, and with it bring the book, finally and fully into the light.

This is an edited version of the keynote speech delivered at the Residential Editorial Program,  Varuna House, Katoomba, on 5 May 2014

 

REFERENCES

Alex Bowler, ‘On being an editor,’ Vintage Books (10 July 2010). 
Janet Burroway, ‘Shop Talk,’ The Chicago Manual of Style Online (April 2014). 
Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Harvard University Press, 1988).
Alex Clark, ‘The lost art of editing,’ The Guardian (12 February 2011). 
Alex Clark, ‘George Saunders: “The things we felt about American culture couldn’t be reached by simple realism. It had to be a little nutty,”’ The Guardian (13 March 2014). 
Tegan Bennett Daylight, Solving Problems in Fiction, unpublished MCA thesis (2005).
Wilborn Hampton, ‘William Maxwell, 91, Author and Legendary Editor, Dies,’ The New York Times (1 August 2000).
Nick Hornby, ‘David Simon interview,’ The Believer (August 2007). 
Amanda Lohrey, The Writer’s Room Interviews, issue one (February 2013).
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (Hogarth Press, 1927).
Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary (Hogarth Press, 1953).

 

 

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Body & soul: the self & exercise

March 17, 2014

shoesA strange thing has happened to me recently. Time, that thing we are all so desperately lacking, and thus constantly mourning – seems to have warped and expanded. There seem to be more hours in the day, I feel calmly able to manage all the stuff I have to do and more, without that terrible fizzy, crowdy-headed feeling Caro so aptly described in her comment on the last post – the sense of being torn in different directions by competing demands, voices, responsibilities and desires, by the world’s troubles and our responses to them, by everything hurtling in.

Free, from all of it.

This weird and pleasant sensation can be fleeting, and I have to catch it when it’s there, but I have finally figured out its source: exercise. The more I exercise, the more time slows and expands. Seriously weird.

All my life I’ve been an on-again off-again exerciser, with extended periods of good fitness alternating with long bouts of pure slothfulness. I’ve only recently come to examine why, when I know how good regular exercise makes me feel, I so often lapse away from it.

A new book by a philosopher has finally helped me work out what’s behind this: I’ve never felt I actually belonged in the world of the physically fit. I might visit for a while, and feel good about it, but underneath it flows the current of a powerful belief that I’m Not Really That Kind of Person.

I’m late to understanding what a conceit this is – seeing oneself as Of The (elevated) Mind rather than Of The (base) Body. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit here to this simplistic and, let’s face it, quite absurd desire to divide the indivisible. But there it is. Though I have often genuinely admired my friends for their skill in and love of exercise, and have long been able to see that for other people it’s not an either/or thing, I just never felt that exercise was a natural home for me.

I wonder where it began?

In my family, despite all of us kids playing sport of one kind or another throughout our childhoods – basketball was my thing, though I was never particularly good at it – all achievement in the physical sphere was met by our parents with a kind of distracted bemusement. They were much more interested in our academic and creative achievements, I guess reflecting their own personalities and backgrounds. Or maybe they just weren’t interested in the idea of competition.

I am remembering as I type this that in junior high school I was athletics champion for several years running. But it was a little school, and it was a one-day-of-the-year thing, not to be trained for or thought about between annual carnivals. And this modest physical prowess completely disappeared in the pool – I absolutely hated, feared, and was hopeless at swimming. The time a primary school teacher had to jump into the pool and rescue my scrawny, flailing form is a huge family joke.

It will be interesting to see if my siblings feel the same way about this, for as we all know, family experiences are so wildly different for each member that half the time it seems impossible one lived in the same house. But for me, while I don’t recall anything ever being said, the family ethos was pretty clear: interest in the physical world was for Other People – sport was the province of those with no interest in the imagination or the mind.

Thinking, not moving, was living. The idea that the two things could be part of one whole never occurred to us.

How wrong we were.

But how wrong we all still are, in contemporary Australian culture, almost all the time. Apart from eastern traditions like yoga, almost all discussion of exercise in our culture focuses entirely on the body – or recently, on quite mechanistic-sounding effects on brain chemistry and hormones. And for women, so much exercise promotion is also the promotion of self-hatred: we should exercise because we’re fat, our bodies are the wrong shape, we’re sagging, we’re ageing, we’re undesirable – external stuff that is all about someone making money from our insecurity and self-loathing.

Almost nobody talks publicly, with any sophistication, about the self and exercise.

But lots of people do get it. I have always had a quiet envy of people who get real peace and imaginative and contemplative sustenance from physicality – like my friend Ailsa Piper with her incredible walk across Spain, or my friends Bec and Jane who brave the waves for ocean swimming in all seasons and find it deeply sustaining, or Ali whose sense of inner peace and wholeness has always depended on being able to swim or run regularly.

dyoungbookThey have always understood what Damon Young is talking about in his wonderful new work How To Think About Exercise, but though I’ve had glimpses of this wholeness, it’s taken this book to really draw it together for me. It’s one thing to intellectually accept that what’s good for the body is good for the mind, or that body and mind and soul inseparable – but it’s another thing altogether to feel it, to actually believe in this inseparability, this wholeness, in oneself.

A Melbourne-based philosopher whose work I first read in the rich and fascinating Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free, Damon’s new work has come to me at a time when my own impoverished thinking about exercise was ready for some serious nourishment.

Over the past year or so I have slowly begun to take proper notice and care of my spine and neck, damaged through decades of sitting and computer use, with beginner Pilates and good preventive osteopathy bringing my back to its best condition in years. As well, I’ve been working with Alison Manning and hearing her ideas about integration of the different parts of ourselves being the key to sound mental health, born of the synthesis of neurological, psychological and behavioural research. And I have finally begun to understand – bodily – that everything in my head is connected to everything in my body.

I’ve had some great chats with my osteopath Eddie about the way one’s mind can hold old injuries and sort of re-tell them, in one’s body, as pain rather than a sensation that another person might perceive as a stretch or mere stiffness.

And in talking with my Pilates teacher and physio Prue about the effects on the body of how we use language and the things we visualise, I’ve become conscious  for the first time of how much writing novels can screw with your body. I don’t mean just the standard desk-related damage, which is now well documented. But there’s another angle to this too.

Fiction requires conflict – you can’t write a good novel about people being happy and peaceful (can you?). And for me at least, writing well requires periods of absolute and sustained mental focus on things, especially in this current novel, that are – well, not nice. As my mind inhabits a character who is frightened, or desperate, or grief-stricken, I realise now, it’s simply impossible to escape the bodily manifestation of such emotions (changes in stress hormones, muscle tension, neural pathway changes), even if it’s only to the smallest degree. But over years and years, this surely must have some strange effects.

No wonder writing is so physically tiring.

All of this came together for me when I read Damon’s elegant introduction of the concept of dualism – our cultural separation of body and mind into two separate, unrelated systems. I suddenly understood a whole lot of stuff about myself and my own body/mind schism.

I mentioned all this to a friend, telling him how I’d always felt my self to be quite separate from my body, and that this new feeling of wholeness – largely through Damon’s articulation of exercise in poetic and intellectual terms, like reverie and constancy and beauty and humility – was altogether exhilarating. It was the first time in my life, I told him, that I’d made a serious link between mind and body.

‘Bullshit,’ he said. ‘What about cooking?’

I was shocked: of course he’s right. I’ve written endlessly about how inseparable is the feeding of the mind from the feeding of the body. This whole blog is basically a discussion in those terms. So how could I have missed this other part of the equation? Why such an immovable block about exercise?

I’m yet to figure that one out. For now, I’m just happy to have this growing, real rather than wishful, sense of the bits of me coming together. It’s a tentative thing, and it will need cultivation and attention if it’s to last. I would like it to – if for no other reason, this sense of time opening up because of mental calm feels like some kind of magical gift.

Here’s a bit from Damon’s book that struck me with great force.

So Descartes was wrong. We are not minds who have bodies, in the way we have a cricket bat or pair of sneakers. We are bodies. ‘Body am I entirely, and nothing more,’ wrote Nietzche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘and soul is only the name of something in the body.’ Thinking and feeling always happen in, with and through the flesh.

That’s my new mantra: all things through the flesh. It helps me see the real point of going to the gym or the physio, or walking to the bus stop, or working in the garden or hanging out the washing – all these things I used to be impatient to get out of the way, so I could get back to the real business of thinking. 

Now I understand that all of these things are also thinking, are living. Through the flesh.

And now, after all this sitting, I’m going to haul my thinking flesh off to the gym.

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Disconnecting, disappearing

March 1, 2014

photo 1Sometimes I feel that life is a constant struggle between the obligation to participate in society – as a citizen with education and privilege and the responsibility that goes along with it – and the desire to disconnect completely, and burrow deep into one’s own life and head and the sanctuary of home and friends and safety. This week’s revelations about the horror of Manus Island and our successive governments’ instigation and approval of it has just deepened my desire for quietness and separation from the outside world. And, of course, silence and inaction is complicity. I know. I’ve done the minimum, like everybody else: signed petitions, expressed sorrow and rage. Nothing changes, the despair goes on.

Sometimes, a sabbatical from citizenship is the only thing that will return my equilibrium. This week, that means taking leave of absence from Facebook (quite some time ago I deleted my personal Twitter account), sinking down, going quiet. And yes, I realise the irony of talking about this here, in blogland – but somehow this space has always felt different, and quietly comforting, to me.

This morning I was reminded of the week I took off all ‘connected’ technology last year, which I wrote about for Good Weekend magazine – you can read it here. Rereading this diary of disconnection just now, I was suddenly  urgently desiring of that quiet, private space it opened up in me. Here are a few bits of it:

Day three

I’m growing used to this luxurious, expansive sense of time. But without the interruptions of email and social media, or stray minutes scooting around the internet in search of some small fact, this intensity of focus is actually a little wearing. I’m embarrassed: as a novelist, I thought I was used to long stretches of hard concentration, but it seems I’m much scattier than I realised.

On the plus side, I’m reading much more than usual: long, uninterrupted hours of peaceful reading during the day. It feels indulgent and blessed, like a return to childhood …

Day four

My email-avalanche fear is building. But I rationalise that there can’t be more than 10 really urgent ones to deal with – if anything drastic was happening, people would surely phone. I’m realising how needy I am. Maybe it’s not a fear of being pursued, but the opposite: what if, instead of hundreds of claims for my attention when I return, there are none? What if nobody has even registered my absence?

Then two “emails” from bemused friends arrive – by snail mail. One is actually a printed-out email stuck to a postcard. The other, a chatty note from a friend across the city, is addressed to me c/- Luddites R Us. I’m enormously cheered, for with my newfound privacy has come a subtle kind of loneliness. I miss the breezy chatter and fleeting thoughtfulness that email and social media allow. I’ve never believed the internet forces people away from meaningful connection, and I’m relieved to find that belief unshaken. Online talk doesn’t replace in-person friendship; it’s another way of expressing and exploring it, in ways that are rich and varied, funny and real.

Day five
Floored by a savage head cold, I have to cancel coffee with my sister-in-law. Years of SMS arrangements seem to have eradicated my sense of telephone etiquette: when is it too early or too late to phone? A straight-out call seems intrusive. What a strange place I’ve got to.

Settling back into the yawning hours of privacy, I feel a little less like I’m wagging school, and more like I’ve been suspended. Will I ever see my friends again?

For the first time in years, I find myself actually reading the daily newspaper, and watching entire news bulletins at night. When I buy a printed magazine for the first time in 12 months, I realise that some of what I’m missing is not actual communication, but a kind of idle entertainment. Without the internet, most of my hours are spent with my mind fully occupied. I see now that the web, social media – even email – must provide me with a sort of twilight half-engagement. I thought I was an energetic, attentively focused sort of person. To discover how much mental laziness I possess is unsettling.

I don’t know whether it’s cause or effect, but I do know there’s a relationship between that laziness and the skittery, skating kind of feeling I get when there’s too much outside world coming in. But one of the best cures, the most solace, is to be found in writing.  Other people’s, I mean, though a certain kind of calm does come back to me when I’m also fully engaged in my own.

Today this solace has come from reading Susan Wyndham’s beautiful, gentle, delicately wrought profile of writer David Malouf, a man who has always seemed to me to embody thoughtfulness. I was somehow heartened and calmed by this:

He knows his measured views can annoy more outspoken people, but he believes a writer should be open-minded, curious, doubtful, able to slip into other skins – ‘a person who is in two minds about everything, and when he’s given it a bit of thought finds that he’s in six minds about it’. 

and this:

‘We don’t really understand other people’s lives, because the events we see are not the significant ones. What you’re interested in writing about are those unrevealed things that have shaped the course of people’s lives.’

Maybe one of the problems I have with all the anger at public policy now is the great weariness I feel in knowing we are all so certain of everything. I’m absolutely certain our Prime Minister is wrong, on almost everything, and he’s just as certain that I’m wrong. The space between we just fill with noise, and rage, and despair.

So. Back to books, and Malouf’s decision as a young man to leave Australia for Italy.

‘I wanted to go somewhere where I could sit down quietly and discover what else I had to write, if anything.’

Next week I’m going somewhere, to the place in the picture above in fact, to sit down quietly and discover the same thing. I feel calmer already.

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A seasonal shift…

February 27, 2014

ImageHello friends. It’s the first cool day of late summer here in Sydney today. It’s kind of nice, even for a heat-loving old girl like me. So I’m thinking about changeable weather and new seasons. 

Old faithful followers of this blog will know it has been a long while since the old days of regular posts here. I’ve felt bad about my disconnection from this blog over the past – well, the past year, really. I have toyed with the idea of shutting up shop, quite often, but something has stopped me each time. 

I can’t quite account for my absence here, really. I still cook all the time, but I’ve somehow lost the impetus to write about it so much. Maybe it’s a simple as the momentum finally running out after four or so years – I started the blog way back in 2009. 

So, with sincere apologies to new followers and subscribers who signed up to a cookery blog, I’ve had an idea. I’m going to branch out from writing strictly about cooking, and just write about whatever takes my fancy. What do you think? The thing I really loved about blogging when I first began was the luxurious freedom and looseness of it, and somehow over the years I think I lost sight of that, and began to feel a sort of professional obligation to this space – when the whole point of starting it was to write stuff that was not related to my usual writing life at all. That it could be a place to write in a much more relaxed, dreamy way. I still love that idea.

I feel that my days are very full with lots to think and talk about. I spend huge amounts of time reading and writing all kinds of stuff – I’m trying to complete a PhD this year which involves finishing my new novel and producing a thesis about psychology and creativity – and I’ve been doing some work I absolutely love with a new colleague and old friend. I’m lately involved with the beautiful Camdenville Paddock Community Garden, where I somehow got myself elected secretary (yikes), and I still do lots and lots of cooking. I often feel the urge to share some bit of interesting reading I’ve found online (like this great article a mate James sent me today, about procrastination, or this profile of Baz Lurhmann my friend V sent me last week), or information about something that makes a huge difference to my life, like my new swishy standupanddowny desk which still retains my battered and beloved old teak desktop but means my back and neck pain is much reduced, or how interesting I find the writers I talk to for my digital magazine

As I’m doing a lot of private and some public talking about writing, and writing processes, probably lots of my posts will be about that. But they might also be about how I just grew my first capsicum. ImageOr about what I’ve been reading and loving lately. Or what it’s like to get out of the city and get immersed in my own weird new book for a week (next week). Maybe it will sometimes just be a photo, like this one, of the rather beautiful grasses I saw at uni last week. 

Anyhow, we’ll see. I’d love you to stay and hang out here with me, but won’t be remotely offended if you unsubscribe and go find a proper cooking blog that actually is what you were looking for in the first place. 

And if you stay tuned, we’ll talk soon.

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Flashback – citrus couscous

December 13, 2013

citruscouscousLast night I made this lovely couscous salad – we haven’t eaten it at home in a couple of years I think, and now I can’t imagine why. It’s very good. I remembered it because I watched Jamie Oliver’s 15-Minute Meals the other day and he made some terrific lamb rissoles with pistachio, honey & thyme, and he served it with couscous.

The recipe for this salad is here, posted way back in 2009!

The meatballs were excellent – I’m a big fan of the J-man – and extremely easy. The recipe isn’t online, but I’m wondering if that book might be a very good present for cooks for Christmas (though of course everything takes longer than 15 minutes – I’d double the time personally, though the meatballs certainly didn’t take any longer than that).

But anyway, back to the couscous. Recommended – and it keeps forever and ever and a day.

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Grrrr, apology

December 9, 2013

Hello subscribers! Sorry about that chief – WordPress destroyed my last blog post immediately after I made it. I’ve rewritten and reposted, so it is available again here: http://howtoshuckanoyster.com/2013/12/09/christmas-material-a-festive-salad/

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Christmas material: a festive salad

December 9, 2013

photo 2[2](Take two! Sorry about the disappearance of first draft – I blame WordPress!)

A few weeks ago, when we had some pals round for dinner, I made a salad. I had planned an attempt at replication of one of the most perfect dishes I have ever eaten – a beautiful little salad I ordered as an entree in a Rome restaurant back in October (I could go on, and on, and on about that holiday but I won’t for fear of bursting into bitter tears of post-holiday-self-envy).

It was such a simple thing: a scattering of semi-roasted cherry tomatoes, a handful of tiny, sweet Ligurian olives, and a large, perfectly fresh zucchini flower – uncooked – filled with the most delicious ricotta I have ever tasted. It was one of those dishes that depends absolutely on the quality of each element, yet was so utterly simple, who wouldn’t want to try making it?

photo 5Well, things didn’t exactly to go plan for my dinner. For some reason the day came and rapidly went in a shambles of chaos and disorganization. I can’t recall what  put me in such a flap that day, but it was one of those afternoons of delays, interruptions, annoying shopping glitches – I couldn’t get enough zucchini flowers for the number of people, and the flowers were nowhere near the fresh, springy, silky quality of the one I ate in that dish. And nor could I find any really good ricotta in time. And I decided to add some asparagus to make up for lack of flowers, and my Ligurian olives were boring old kalamatas. By dinnertime, I had reverted to my usual cookery approach: 1. Get all the stuff. 2. Chuck it in a bowl. 3. Stick it on the table.

photo 3The one thing I did get right was the roasting of the tomatoes – little cherry lollybombs of sharp, salty sweetness with a concentrated delicious flavour. Easy to cook, but also easy to overdo at the last minute.

Still, despite being a completely different animal from the elegant entree of my memory, the salad was really quite nice. And one of the friends present liked it so much she told me later she’d decided to make it for her family’s Christmas lunch.

Well. I happened to run into her last week, and she told me she’d given it a trial run at home from her memory of the one we had, as you do. Her bloke and daughter ate the test dish, gave her a dubious glance and said, “Well, it’s not Christmas material.”

Not Christmas Material.

Them’s fightin words, pal.

When I repeated this outrage to Señor and said I’d be making it again and this time writing down what I did, he said: “Is that going to be the headline? Not Christmas Material My Arse?”

So here, in the spirit of reputation reclamation and hopefully the restitution of a Perfectly Good Salad to Miz G’s Christmas table, is a recipe.

The key thing, I reckon, is to use as high quality everything as you can, and  to make sure to roast the tomatoes very slowly. You can do the whole thing ahead of time and then just eat it at room temperature – or eat it warm just after cooking.

Ingredients

  • assorted cherry tomatoes
  • sea salt
  • spray olive oil
  • 2 or more bunches asparagus spears, cut into thirds or halves
  • best black olives you can find – the little sweet plump Ligurian ones are perfect
  • fresh zucchini flowers with tiny zucchini attached
  • best quality balsamic vinegar and olive oil for dressing
  • Best quality soft goat’s cheese or Persian feta

Method

photo 1[2]1. Halve the cherry tomatoes and arrange on baking paper, sprinkle with salt and spray with olive oil. Roast slowly for a couple of hours – I did these at 125 degrees C in a fan-assisted oven for two hours, then turned off the fan and turned down the oven to 100 degrees for another half hour.

2. Blanch the asparagus in boiling water for maximum one minute, the refresh in cold water.

3. Halve the zucchini and flowers lengthwise. Heat a little olive oil in a non-stick pan and then fry the zucchini on the flat side for a minute over moderate heat. Splash a little water into the pan, add the asparagus and cover for a minute, cooking till both zucchini & asparagus are tender.

photo 3[2]4. In a wide shallow bowl or platter, toss the vegetables, tomatoes and olives gently in a dressing of three parts oil to one part vinegar.

5. When it’s all mixed, dollop a few blobs of feta or goat’s cheese over the platter.

Who knows, with its red and green baubley goodness, this one might even make the grade as Christmas material for our table this year.

So what are your plans for Christmas cooking, hmm?

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