Jim Harrison

March 28, 2016

I have never read the American poet and novelist Jim Harrison – or, to be honest, until today even really heard of him. But he has just died, and reference to this on Twitter sent me to this Paris Review interview, which is one of the best things I’ve read in ages. Some coverage makes him sound like something of a Hemingway caricature, but in the PR interview from 1986 he sounds very sane and gentle.

The reason I’m posting it here, among some beautiful remarks including that “In a life properly lived, you’re a river. You touch things lightly or deeply; you move along because life herself moves, and you can’t stop it”, are some excellent thoughts about cooking and writing:


Let me ask a question about where your passion for food and cooking enters into your life as an artist.


I think it’s all one piece. When you bear down that hard on one thing—on your fiction or your poetry—then you have to have something like cooking, bird hunting or fishing that offers a commensurate and restorative joy. It comes from that notion that the way you eat bespeaks your entire attitude toward life. Consequently it can become obsessive, especially this time of year when Guy and Russell are here, because they’re both such good cooks. And sometimes you can temporarily exhaust it, just as you can exhaust yourself with writing because you work so hard. For instance, in the last few years I’ve really tried to lighten up on this whole cooking thing when I’m at my cabin.

The whole interview is a joy with many important things for writers to read.



Indie bookstore love!

March 24, 2016

I have been away from this blog for a loooooong time, but have been sent back here today by an interview with the fabulous Richard Glover of 702 ABC Sydney, who had me on his Drive show to talk about a prize I won last night – and about FISH!

First, the fish – it’s Easter, and lots of people like to keep to tradition and eat fish on Good Friday. At the last moment Richard asked me t0 stay on for his segment with the beloved Simon Marnie, weekend ABC Radio host, gourmand and excellent kitchen knowhow guru . I was asked for my go-to fish recipe, which had to be the Five-Minute Feast dish we eat at least once a week, of Salmon with Mirin, Ginger & Soy. I posted the recipe way back in 2009, and here it is.  These days I add a sliced red chilli to the mirin/soy mix, and sometimes some finely julienned red capsicum. And we add lots more greens of whatever variety are about – broccolini, or bok choy, whatever you like.

CharlotteWoodAusIndiesJust before that Richard and I were celebrating Australia’s independent bookselling scene, because our beloved indie stores yesterday chose my novel The Natural Way of Things as their Indie Awards fiction category winner, and then their overall Book of the Year. I can’t tell you how much this means to me, but those who were in the room and saw me blubbing like a fool might have got some idea. Richard, by the way, was also shortlisted for his brilliant, funny and very moving memoir, Flesh Wounds

The excellent folk at Allen & Unwin have posted my speech about bookstores on their blog, and I thought, ‘what a good idea’. So here are my thoughts about independent bookstores and what they mean to us in Australia.

Happy Easter everyone!

I am so very touched by these awards, and so grateful. Thank you for this honour. I would like first to thank the Independent Booksellers of Australia for your support of my novel. From offering me the chance to speak at the Leading Edge conference in May last year to choosing it for book clubs, to all the bookshop events, social media postings – and, most of all, the truly enthusiastic hand-selling of my novel, I owe you all so much.

I would also like to honour my fellow shortlistees. Gail Jones, Stephanie Bishop and Geraldine Brooks are writers I have long admired and whose accomplishments I celebrate. Book prizes are a strange phenomenon, and the way they are discussed can sometimes give rise to the depressing idea that the creation of literature is a contest, with one writer pitted against another. I honestly feel that nothing is further from the truth. All writers work in quiet, often lonesome isolation, each pursuing our own particular truth, each trying more than anything to make a strong and beautiful work of art. Yet despite this essential seclusion and the equally necessary differences between our literary projects which thankfully makes comparison impossible, we are also a community. Not a competition, but a flourishing community of quiet creators. I thank my fellow writers for their encouragement and solidarity over the years – and I offer mine to them, always. Independent booksellers in so many ways connect and support and build this community of writers. We could not make our work without you.

I also thank my beloved publisher Jane Palfreyman and editor Ali Lavau and all at Allen and Unwin who have been so overwhelming in their support.

I’m sure every author in this room has faced moments in the writing of a book where you can’t see a way forward. The book defeats you – uneven, unresolved, shameful in its ragged, state. You have a deep urge to finish it but every logical part of your mind wonders, why?

It was at one such moment, about fifteen years ago, that I left my desk in a state of despair and went for a walk. My first strange little novel, Pieces of a Girl, had mercifully been published but died soon into its short life, sent to the great pulping station in the sky. I kept writing, struggling along with a second novel that wasn’t working. All the time I was working against these questions: Why am I doing this? Who wants this? Who will even notice, let alone care, if I never write another book?

Brooding on those questions that day, I found myself wandering – perhaps riskily – into my local bookshop, Better Read than Dead in Newtown. I drifted along the shelves, looking for I don’t know what: consolation, inspiration, a reason to keep going. I bought something – quite possibly considering my finances at the time, not even a book but a card, a notebook. Behind the counter was a friendly bookseller I’d seen there before, but didn’t know by name. As I handed over my five bucks, she said to me quietly, ‘And Charlotte, can we expect another beautiful book from you some time soon?”

I was utterly stunned.

I have no idea what I said in reply. I am sure I was ungracious, from shock. But I can tell you that this moment of generous noticing from the bookseller, Karen Ferris, was a watershed moment in my writing life. If Karen cared that I finished my book, maybe someone else would. More importantly, maybe I could care, and keep going.

Since that moment I’ve felt the same kind of noticing, and caring, from so many independent booksellers, quietly urging me on through the writing of all my six books. Some of those books sold okay, and some didn’t, but the support I felt from these people never wavered. I want to particularly thank Barbara Horgan (formerly of Shearers and now of Boffins Books in Perth), Karen of course, now with Berkelouw, Kathryn Bancroft and Jenny Barry at Books Plus in Bathurst, Anna Low and her beautiful team at Potts Point Bookshop, Natalie Yabuka and Jeremy and all at Oscar and Friends in Double Bay and Surry Hills, Scott Whitmont at Lindfield, Lindy Jones and the team at Abbeys, Fiona Stager and Krissy Kneen and everyone at Avid Reader in Brisbane, David Gaunt and Morgan Smith at Gleebooks, Gillian May at Berkelouw Mona Vale; and Mark Rubbo, Chris Gordon and everyone at Readings in Melbourne for their sustaining care over the years.

One of the pleasures of sending The Natural Way of Things into the world has been meeting a whole new lot of booksellers, whose enthusiasm for it has been astounding to me. As well as those already mentioned, I thank the unstoppable Amelia Lush at Better Read than Dead, Gavin Williams at Matilda’s in Adelaide, Dan Sanderson and Nikki Anderson at MUSE Canberra; Clive Tilsley at Fullers, the amazing Natasha Boyd of Book Bonding in Essendon, Jay Lansdown from Constant Reader, Paul Macdonald at The Children’s Bookshop and the indefatigable Suzy Wilson at Riverbend Books in Brisbane.

Of course, I know there are so many others I haven’t named, and others not met, but who have gone out of their way to press my novels into readers’ hands, and I cannot thank them enough.


Recently I saw a news item about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a bombproof storage bank built deep into a mountain in Norway, in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1300 kilometres from the North Pole. Countries from all over the world send seed samples there to be protected and preserved; the Vault’s mission is to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional gene banks.

In thinking about tonight, and Australia’s independent booksellers, it struck me that you are like that seed vault. You are storehouses for the kernels not only of our literary culture but our history, our music, our food culture, our health and legal and technological culture, our visual arts, our politics. You are the safety vault for the seeds of our country’s cultural and intellectual life, and your customers are the spreaders of those seeds out in the world.

A few years ago, the outlook for our independent bookselling scene looked gloomy. But like those seeds packed into the cold mountain in Norway, you have survived, you are thriving, and because of your noticing and care, your love of words and your determination to flourish, you have kept Australian literature and our culture alive and thriving too.

On behalf of us all, I thank you so very much.

You can listen to Richard every weekday here – and see more about the Indie awards and the other category winners – brilliant writers all – here.


Pan handling

September 9, 2014

I almost never do this on this page, but I know most of you have subscribed here because of my writing about cooking (apologies to those who haven’t!). This is about a bunch of people I have no involvement with whatsoever, but who I think are doing good stuff and need Kickstarter money for a quality Australian-made product. The same guy made Furi knives, which I’ve had for a million years and use every day.

To my mind the best thing about this new pan (SO hoping they make their target) is the handle which is longer than the usual ‘stubby’ ones – the engineering means the weight is distributed along your hand and towards the end of the wrist, so it’s easier to hold rather than all that enormously heavy weight being held in the top of the hand which means with my pathetic little (RSI-compromised) wrists I can never lift a cast-iron pan without fear of dropping boiling stuff all over myself. AND the longer handle with the split in it means it’s cooler. Then there’s all the other stuff they talk about re iron quality blah bah which I don’t care so much about, but also love the rounded pan base which is great for tossing.

Then there’s the whole thing of properly seasoned cast iron being better than a non-stick pan with none of the creepy chemical stuff.

So – here endeth my plug. I reiterate that I have absolutely zero involvement with this product or any of these people – I just really want these guys to make their target so I get one of these pans!

To kick in as a backer to fund the production of a the pans click here  – you can throw in as little as $1, or $99 to secure a pan for yourself. Only 12 days of the campaign to go – they need to reach the target to start production, so if you’re keen, spread the word!



August 17, 2014

Some hints on applying for arts funding & fellowships

Recently I was invited to assess some fellowship applications for an arts organisation, which I was very happy to do. It’s one of the ways writers can contribute to those organisations which have supported them in the past, so I always say yes if I can manage the time. I’ve done a bit of this assessment sort of work in the past, for organisations offering mentorships, independent working retreats, or financial grants.

This time round, I was struck once more by how many applications are let down by very basic errors. I made mention of a couple of these on Twitter, and came away with the sense that many writers – especially beginners – were keen for advice on how to write a grant application.

This list is entirely subjective – I have no idea whether other grant assessors will agree with these points, and many of them will definitely disagree with some of them. But with more than a decade of experience in both writing my own applications (with a reasonable strike rate) and reading others’ applications alone and as part of a panel, I think most of these rules would hold up for most forms of funded support. I’m going to use the word ‘grant’ as shorthand for all types of support including mentorships and so on.

So, here goes: my rough-and-ready rip-and-read guide to applying for literary grants & fellowships.


  • Decide whether the application process itself will help or hinder your work. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not always a good idea. While writing a project description and selecting support material can be heartening (Wow, I have more than I thought! Writing this has made me finally see what my book is about!), it can also be the opposite. Think carefully: if rejection or cool scrutiny of your work in progress will disturb or destroy your project, don’t apply yet. Just keep on with your writing.
  • If you are not willing to write the book without a grant or fellowship, forget it. Lack of honest and sincere commitment always shows in your application and, more importantly, beyond a brief surge of confidence, a grant really won’t help you write a book you aren’t passionate about anyway. In fact, a grant for a book you don’t want to write can become a rotting albatross around your neck. You won’t believe this, but it’s true.
  •  Applying for grants is work, and takes time. Don’t think you can dash off a good application in an hour or so. For an Australia Council grant application, for example, I would spend the best part of a week working on my proposal.
  • There is no ‘trick’ to getting a grant or a fellowship. Occasionally I’ve been asked by emerging writers what my ‘trick’ is, or where I get my ‘inside knowledge’. I have had to bite my tongue, and I’ve felt insulted by the question. There is no trick. There is no secret inside knowledge. Succeeding in securing arts funding is not a matter of who you know, or friends giving grants to friends. If your application doesn’t succeed, there is no conspiracy against you. However, there certainly are fashions and trends in writing as in anything else – you may well fall outside what’s currently popular or what garners attention. On the other hand, if you develop a reputation as a professional who follows through, completes the work and acquits the grant (i.e. does what she proposes to do in the application and writes a decent report back to the funding body), it will stand you in good stead for future opportunities. It is true, I think, that success breeds success in these things.
  • To my knowledge there is no central, organised List of Grants and Who Should Apply for Them, though there are plenty of websites around. Start with the Australia Council, state and territory arts ministries, state libraries, universities, artists’ centres, writers’ centres. Ask your writing friends.
  • Carefully read the guidelines and any other material about applications provided by the organisation. I can’t stress this enough. They don’t put the guidelines there for their own amusement, but many applicants appear not to have read them at all. If I am unsure about details of the process, or have a burning question, I would ring or email the appropriate contact person and ask their advice. Be well prepared for this conversation and succinct with your questions.
  • If you do make contact with staff at the funding body, don’t be impolite to them, even if they are abrupt with you. Mostly they are impeccably charming and helpful and polite and generous with their time and advice. One or two I have come across are breathtakingly rude and patronising. Roll with it.
  • Realise that the person assessing your application is most often not a funding body staff member but another writer – someone like you, who like you, has tried and failed and sometimes succeeded to write, to get a grant, get published. Your assessor will often be unpaid, and be squeezing in this assessment work around their own measly writing life, part-time job, their family, sick mother, and annoying boss. Don’t waste their time.
  • Once I decide to go ahead with an application, I think it’s a good idea to apply for everything I can with that project. This won’t suit everyone, but I like this approach for several reasons. First, it’s not that much work after you develop a solid project description and support material – you can use the same basic template again, tailoring it each time for each grant of course. I will go for years without applying for anything, but then every four years or so I have a blitz and apply for everything I can in that year. For me, this normalizes the rejection – it becomes routine, and expected, rather than a personal blow. It also prevents the all-eggs-in-one-basket crushing defeat; once I get over the momentary disappointment, I have the next one to look forward to. I might be rejected ten times, but sometimes the eleventh is the one I really wanted, and the one I get. However, you need stamina for this approach, and you need to be prepared for all of them to be rejected. If that will be too destructive, don’t try this at home.
  • For new writers: it is extremely hard to get funding – I mean cash grants – without any sort of publishing track record. Apply for mentorships and manuscript development programs by all means, but I wouldn’t put much energy into applying for money until I had published something. I didn’t apply for any financial assistance until after my first novel was published, though I did have several mentorships for that book. I think it’s fair for taxpayers to expect some kind of evidence that you have the stamina and the commitment to writing before you are allocated money. The same goes for fellowships of course, which after all are usually taxpayer funded, but even applying for those is already demonstrating that you are prepared to work. Not so much with applications for cash.
  • Many organisations will now only take applications online, using an online form. Always draft and proof and revise your application offline, in your word processing program, then copy and paste it into the form. It can be very annoying for assessors to wade through multiple copies of your answers because you’ve saved the form six times or there’s been a glitch and it’s saved the wrong version. Much worse, if you write it straight into the form and there’s a technical problem, you could lose it all.
  • Again: read the guidelines, and write accordingly. Submit only the required number of pages /words. Do not go beyond the stated length; it won’t be read. If the application says ‘400 characters’, do not write ‘No room – see Annexure A’ and attach reams of work. The guidelines have been developed over years, and are designed to make assessments comparable and the assessor’s job manageable. Your departure from these guidelines will make their job harder. Do you really want to piss them off before they even read a word of your work?


Most applications have several parts: a letter stating why you want the grant and/or a project description, a CV, and support material. Sometimes there is also a section for referees, or a proposed budget.

Support material

  • By far the most important part of this is the support material – that is, the sample of your actual fiction, poetry, non-fiction or whatever it is you’re applying for. A fine project description is all very well, but your support material is the evidence that you can do what you propose. And even if your project description or rationale is a little wobbly, stunningly good creative writing always speaks for itself. Put most of your effort into selecting good support material.
  • Don’t worry if the sample is not from the beginning of the book, and there is no need for lengthy explanatory notes. Choose the best writing you have. Nor do I worry if the sample is made up of disconnected chunks – assessors don’t expect finished work. They just want to see that you can actually write.
  • There are different schools of thought about whether to only include published work in the sample / support material. However, I always submit a sample from the work in progress, even if it’s very new. I think it is an expression of good faith – you’re demonstrating that the book actually is in progress – and as well, a previously published work may not adequately ‘support’ what you’ve said in your application. They need to be complementary. To me as an assessor, if you’re submitting a proposal for a verse novel but your sample material is from a biography you wrote ten years ago, I might be unconvinced you can pull off the new proposal. To my mind, at least half of your support material should be from the new work in progress.

The rest of the application

The support material is where to demonstrate your experimental, poetic, quirky, creatively wild writing talent. The rest of your application should be cool as a cucumber and as professional as possible. Clarity is key. Don’t try to grab the assessor’s attention with quirky offbeat questions or little drawings or long descriptions of your emotional state. Neutrality and professionalism in your tone will convince me more than anything else. After I’ve read sixty applications, quirky answers to basic questions aren’t endearing, they’re just irritating.

Project description

  • If the space is for ‘project description’, start with a description of the project. You might be surprised how many applicants use this space to detail their working routine, spruik reviews of their last book, complain about the lack of a market for their work, or confess they are losing confidence and only this grant/fellowship/residency will save them. If the heading is ‘project description’, describe your project first. If you have room, you can then cover the other stuff.
  • Cover the basics first. Be clear about the form, and be specific. Is it a novel, short story, memoir or poetry or biography? Some funding bodies are assessing visual arts and dance or music in the same lot of applications; I have reached the end of some applications without ever finding out if the project is a novel, an interpretive dance or a painting. So don’t say ‘This project is an exploration of grief and history’. Instead, be specific and informative: ‘I am writing the second draft of a historical novel set in a Queensland mining town in the years between the World Wars. It’s my third novel. I expect it to be about 70,000 words long, and expect this draft to be complete by early 2015.’
  • If the application asks for a synopsis, include one. This is a short description of what happens in the book. Be concise. If you don’t know the ending yet, make this clear.
  • I think it’s fine for applicants not to know everything about a work in progress – but if you have gaps and doubts, express them in terms of the ideas you are exploring. Don’t make something up to ‘sound good’ – it usually doesn’t, the attempt is transparent and shows a lack of confidence. Instead, I would say something like ‘At this stage, I’ve yet to resolve the plot in the last third of the novel.’

Rationale or covering letter

  • Again, save the fancy writing for the support material. Professional writers don’t use pretentious word forms like ‘entitled’ instead of ‘titled’, ‘personages’ instead of ‘characters’ and so on. Crisp, elegant, energetic but plain writing is best.
  • Be honest. It’s surprisingly easy to pick up fibs and half-truths, particularly about accolades or publications. There is a line between self-confidence and hollow self-promotion, and I don’t think it’s an especially fine line. Confidence shows in the way you express yourself and the way you discuss your work. Don’t talk it down, obviously, but exaggerated self praise (‘My thriller will have you on the edge of your seat, gasping in shock!’) is silly. If you’re using exclamation marks, that’s a bad sign.
  • Leave out the self-pity. This is a big one, and one of the main differences between amateurs and professionals. I am always surprised by how many applicants treat the process as an opportunity to whinge about how hard their life is. The assessor is a writer, remember. They already know how hard writing is, how it’s difficult to find time between other commitments, how little writers earn, how much rejection hurts. They’re experiencing all that right now. By the time you are applying for grants or money, you should be beyond moaning. Yes, writing is hard. So what?
  • This does not mean your life circumstances are irrelevant. It is relevant to me as an assessor to know that you are a single parent with a full-time job – all other things being equal, I would lean towards giving you the opportunity over someone else I perceived to have a lesser need. But tone is the key – mention relevant factors like this briefly, in a neutral tone, and move on. Don’t milk it.
  • Don’t be too casual in your language, but don’t use jargon or academic or literary theory buzzwords either. Think of your assessor as an intelligent general reader, not an academic. On the other hand, don’t come over all sales-pitchy or hippy-trippy Creative Spirit either. Professional writers are not floaty, emotional dream-speakers (except in their work), and they are not cheap advertising copywriters. In their administrative dealings they are efficient, clear communicators with elegant language, good grammar and no typos.
  • As an applicant, I usually try to include a brief statement of what makes this project different from other books I’ve written, to show that I am challenging myself and striving to develop as an artist.

The CV

  • If the guidelines ask for a CV, provide one. For the purposes of a literary grant this is a list of your education, relevant publications (i.e. literary publications, not engineering reports or corporate brochures!), employment (brief and relevant), achievements and accolades, with accompanying dates. It is not a quirky story about how you want to follow your dreams.
  •  List your achievements but don’t exaggerate, and put them in the right categories. A writing course, for example, doesn’t go in ‘awards and accolades’ – it goes in education.
  • Name dropping won’t do much for you. A writer’s private remark to you in a classroom isn’t a statement of their public support for your work, but an encouraging teacher’s work. Nor does a public figure’s passing remark that your family history ‘would make a great novel’ belong in an application. Reviews are another matter – they are on the public record and good evidence of your standing – but ‘Hilary Mantel told my cousin she liked my poem’ is not verifiable or convincing, and can just look desperate.
  • Never be so rude as to leave out requested material. Never add notes like ‘See my website for CV’ if one is requested. If you can’t be bothered including all the relevant material, an assessor is unlikely to look beyond your application for evidence that you care.
  • Make sure referees actually really believe in you. Often references are not required, and a lukewarm statement from a referee is worse than none at all.

Reviewing and revising

  • Your application needs to be absolutely error free. This is a writing application. Precision and accuracy are absolutely essential. Even one typo in an application will annoy me as an assessor, because it shows you are not paying the attention to detail that good writing requires.
  • It’s surprising – and very deflating – to read so many applications with grammatical howlers, spelling mistakes, tense changes, missed words, typos and literal errors. Spell-check your application, and then read it aloud to yourself or someone else.
  • In the early days of applying for grants I would send all my material to a writing friend to check. Often I still do. Ask someone to proof it for you if you tend to miss errors.
  • Write in the active voice as much as possible. If you don’t know what that means, look it up.
  • Never use the term ‘fiction novel’. It’s sloppy and makes it look as if you don’t actually know what you’re doing.
  • Cut and pare and refine and revise. Remove repetitions and rambling descriptions. Tighten every sentence.
  • Check and double-check that you have filled out the application correctly. Make a checklist for yourself and include all relevant material. Send it before the deadline.

After the submission

  • Either refine and revise your application for another grant, or try to forget about it. Obsessing over getting a grant is a complete waste of time, and your chances of success can be as much about the tastes of the assessor and the quality of the other applicants on the day as the quality of your work.
  • If your application is rejected, try not to feel too disheartened. It could be too soon, or perhaps this book simply is not destined to get support. Write it anyway.
  • That said, applying again with the same project is perfectly acceptable. Your application may be virtually the same application, but your idea might be further developed and easier to articulate, and you could have better support material the year after a failed one and succeed the second time.
  • If you are rejected, I really recommend taking up offers of reports and feedback where appropriate. The first time I was rejected for an Australia Council grant I huffed and flounced. At the second rejection, I asked for feedback. It was exceptionally helpful, not just for that organisation but for all others since.

I’ll leave you with some more advice, from Patrick Allington. Patrick (@PatrAllington) joined the Twitter discussion about this the other day, and I asked him to contribute here. Patrick is a novelist, critic, editor and lecturer at Flinders Uni, who has done his share of assessing applications over the years. His points below are excellent and I thank him for them. You can read more about him and his work at www.patrickallington.net.au.

Hi Charlotte

On the question of grant applications, below are a few thoughts:

One big thing that bothers me — and this is utterly anecdotal but I think it could be quite common — is that some new and emerging writers seem to tailor their writing priorities — what to write, where to send it, etc. — around minimum eligibility requirements for grants. As in, ‘I really, really want to work on my novel but I need two more short stories before I can apply for that grant. Or maybe I could try a four poems, that might be easier.’ I don’t think the money involved warrants that sort of twisting of priorities. But more to the point, it doesn’t sound like a recipe for a writer to produce his/her best, most compelling, most urgent work.

As for grants themselves, I’ve observed people twisting themselves in knots with budgets. Writers are often asking for something quite simple: time to write. However, some budgets asking essentially for writing time somehow end up resembling one of those equations that geniuses scribble on vast blackboards. It’s important to get the feedback from the relevant bureaucrat, but in general I’d suggest that if it is simple, then keep it simple. It’s useful, also, to ensure that the columns actually add up. And it’s useful if the application doesn’t come across as if the candidate is seeking funding for an overseas holiday.

The tone of self-promotion is tricky. Everyone is told ‘you must sell yourself’ but some sorts of self-praise come across as tacky and false. For writers, self-reviewing of their own works, whether published or unpublished, whether finished or a work-in-progress, can invoke the opposite reaction than what the writer hopes for.

If a writer is including support letters, think hard about who to ask. A lukewarm endorsement (or worse) can be counter-productive.

Active voice.

The main thing with grant applications, however, is the supporting material. If a writer is applying for financial support for a particular project, and the sample of that project that he/she supplies is a mess, it will be very hard to convince a panel to fund it.



Well said. Now, if readers of this have other advice for artists on applying for support, please, please add your points in the comments. It would be brilliant if this post turned into a really useful resource for writers. Now, it’s time for me to disobey all my own instructions, not reread or revise this or check for errors. I’m going to get a glass of wine. Happy Sunday evening all.


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


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



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).




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.


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.