Here’s a feature I just published in The Saturday Paper, about the theatre company Back to Back.
Here’s a feature I just published in The Saturday Paper, about the theatre company Back to Back.
I just got sent a Vimeo link to a speech I made late last year as part of a debate, Can the Media Prevent Violence Against Women? It was held in Frankston under the auspices of WHISE as part of White Ribbon week, and featured wonderful speakers such as Susan Carland, Mahar Sukkar, Sushi Das and Sally Warhaft. My five minutes was unfortunately curtailed as my son appeared weeping in his grandfather’s arms halfway through and I had to dash from the stage — the gallant Leslie Cannold stepped in to read the remainder. I would love to think I’ll have time to write these notes up properly as an essay, but in the meantime: me speaking on media representation of violence against sex workers.
(In the meantime I see that a book is about to be released on this very subject: INVISIBLE WOMEN. Described thus: “Invisible Women tells the stories of several murdered sex workers – all of whom are somebody’s mother, daughter, wife or sister – whose identities have been erased. Why do we see some lives as less valuable than others, and what price do we all pay for this shocking lack of care? These amazing stories of incredible women are both deeply moving and shocking in their insight and clarity. And definitely way overdue.”)
Here is the footage, and hopefully it will lead to links of the other speakers. I will paste in my speaking notes below…
Can the media prevent violence? They probably can, because they can sure support it.
Violence against sex workers. A fair subject but too often reported snidely, irresponsibly, dismissively or not at all.
Common problems with media reporting:
The victim is a ‘prostitute’ and that’s pretty much all you need to know. Eg. “Police are investigating the brutal daylight killing of a prostitute in St Kilda’s red light district.” “A Melbourne man who raped a prostitute after holding her at knifepoint and threatening to kill her has been jailed for nine and a half years.”
“Dead prostitute had alarming levels of cocaine”
Or else we need to be given many salacious details about the woman’s sex work history, services, and reputation. In the case of murdered Johanna Martin, “A Melbourne escort agency describes Jazzy O as the “star of the iconic movie Aussie Good Girls Gone Bad”, and her performance as the “Most XXXXXX Rated Show in Melbourne!””
Or else there’s a sad feature or op-ed story about women ‘falling’ into ‘prostitution’ where they are inevitably assaulted and violated, it’s terribly sad, yes, tsk, what can you do? If only they could be rescued and saved from the life of vice! Because surely all sex workers hate and resent their work but are too feeble to make any choices or find exit strategies. Really, they’re so selfish or deluded, if they get into trouble it’s practically their own fault.
(In any case, in a sense it’s too late, because they are already no longer ‘women’ or ‘people’, they are ‘prostitutes’ and really that’s all you need to know about them.)
Or else there are more-in-sorrow-than-anger mentions of society’s sterner attempts to get her to see the error of her ways… which alas she did not take, and now look, she’s dead. For example, this lovely non sequitur, which follows at least a quote from a friend mentioning that the dead woman had actually been a nice person: “Ms Connelly had been charged several times for street sex work.”
This last quote is from an Age report on the murder of Tracy Connelly. She was killed in 2013 by a man in St Kilda in the van she lived in with her partner. Some commentators, such as Wendy Squires, commendably made pointed and lengthy note on the contrast between public reaction to Connelly’s death and that of Jill Meagher. Public reaction was duly ignited, and there was a candelight vigil for Connelly, and another a year later. It was good to see that after some hesitation and bamboozlement, the media were able to recognise that even a sex worker can be mourned. At least a kindly, attractive and noticed sex worker with a grieving partner can be. Too bad if you’re Asian or Islander, don’t have all your teeth, are overweight or old or don’t work in the neighbourhood of a prominent columnist.
But the problem I’d point out is not that sex worker violence isn’t sad. It’s that it’s either unrated or sensationalised. When it’s reported it’s done dismissively, in a brutal shorthand that reduces a whole complex person to a largely despised figure – strips out any particulars, shoves the story back into a tired old narrative silhouette (ie, she got what was coming), and commits a secondary assault, on her privacy and her dignity. (At this point I could quote from the detailed and pitiless reports of exactly how Johanna Martin’s body and clothing was positioned when she was found, but I’d rather not).
Reporting on violence against sex workers also has a tendency to helpfully assume that victims were hurt because they were sex workers. She was a whore? Obviously she was whoring at the time. Apparently it’s almost inevitable that sex workers get hurt, because it’s a dirty dark illicit world (actually, much of it’s a decriminalised and regulated world complete with invasive health monitoring and GST bureaucracy). It’s almost inevitable that sex workers get hurt because they’re different to normal women and it’s no surprise, really, is it? It’s almost inevitable that sex workers get hurt because they choose to make themselves vulnerable and to ignore those who want to help and rescue them, and because they go into rooms alone, and because, well, you only need to say ‘prostitute’ and possibly, ‘drugs?’ with a question mark if necessary, and attach it only to an incident featuring scandal, squalor or crime, and the story writes itself!
What if the problem, though, actually isn’t the women working in sex work… but the men who choose to hurt them?
I think it’s clear the media can help prevent violence against women. Once they stop supporting the idea that sex workers matter less than other women. That violence against sex workers isn’t really quite as bad as violence against other women. That it’s reasonable that the men who commit violence are mere shadows in the story, while the victim is splayed in the press for all to see. And that violence is just what happens to sex workers. Because if they stopped encouraging that idea… maybe it wouldn’t be.
Er, I am pathetic at keeping this blog going.
*tumbleweeds*, as we used to say back in 2003 when I was an EARLY ADOPTER OF BLOGS AND NO ONE KNEW WHAT THE WORD ‘BLOG’ MEANT.
Anyway, these are some links to stuff of late. I’m writing semi-regularly for The Saturday Paper, a glorious publication (honestly, it is) and occasional bursts of other stuff. Some public appearances on panels etc, and a lot of telepathic note-taking towards essays that never seem to get writ. Well. I do the best I can.
A short on-stage interview by Stephen Lang for Outspoken, in Maleny, QLD, Sept 2015 (podcast)
A panel I appeared on at Brisbane Writers Festival on drugs and the phenemenon of addiction, hosted by Paul Barclay and ABC’s Big Ideas (podcast), Sept 2015.
A feature in The Guardian Australia, marking ten years since the publication of In My Skin, November 2015
A few months ago I was invited to write a piece for Right Now, a human rights advocacy organisation here in Australia, on any topic I chose. I was originally thinking of eco-vs-human rights (mostly provoked by Tony Abbott’s “Coal is good for humanity” quote) but that is a HUGE topic. So instead I realised that like lots of parents I worry and wonder about what kind of planet my child is growing up on and what it will be like by his adulthood. This essay is me questioning to what extent a child has a ‘right’ to a healthy environment. It turns out that human rights and environmental issues are more tightly involved than I’d expected…
Many thanks to Right Now and Roselina Press for the chance to write this, learn more, and explore my thoughts. And to Rebecca Murphy for the gorgeous artwork.
Here’s a link to the essay: A Child’s Right to a Good Earth on the Right Now website.
I’m unpacking my stuff in the new house and of course this means a lot of getting distracted by rummaging curiously through boxes that have been schlepped from house to house, bedroom to office to cupboard to shed to storage to bedroom, and rarely if ever looked into or delved through. I have a truly unbelievable number of boxes like that. If they were (as some are turning out to be) august and stately collections of old bills and receipts from 2003, they are going OUT. Hooray!
But some of them turn out to be masses, leaves and leave, stacks and stapled bunches of archives. Childhood drawings. Notebooks. Sketchbooks. Lists. Dreams. Stories. Poems I wrote in secret at 14. Rubbish I wrote to show people at 15. Copied-out bits of other people’s writing. Letters. Postcards. Oh my god. Just every kind of bit of detritus and precious papery memory a person could possibly find. It’s absolutely wonderful, in a terrifying kind of way.
I might keep finding bits, and out of sheer bemusement, posting them up here. Why not? But for now, this is a Credo I found this morning, written in my best handwriting (and framed with careful pink-highlighter lines), dated April 1986 (so I had just turned 14). It says:
THAT all people are equal and different and important: and the importance is that they are equal and different.
No one is inferior in any way: we are all perfect in our own ways; we are all perfect at being ourselves. Some people just:
i. haven’t or dont know how or are scared to reach themselves
ii. sometimes hurt other people and things because of this
iii. sometimes can’t cope with their problems or don’t know how to so they get their frustrations out in different, often violent ways.
iv. sometimes don’t realise the harm they are doing to themselves and/or others.
THAT all people should be happy and peaceful and should all strive to achieve this state and then maintain it for themselves and other people and things. And that people should never inflict harm or a threat to another’s achievement of this state or the stage of development relating to this state.
People should have as much privacy as they require or want but they should be willing to talk about and seek help for their problems, and they should be happy to accept their faults and weaknesses and try to improve them without shame.
People should never be ashamed of themselves unless they have in some way hurt some one but if they have so wish they should be free to change and improve themselves physically and emotionally.
People should accept everyone else as they are and never make fun of them in any way or try to change them unless it is for the better as that person sees fit.
And a main aim of life should be to understand yourself and everyone else, their views and the reasons for their behaviour.
THAT everyone should accept death, risks and misfortune as an inevitable part of life but they should attempt to convert the triumph over these problems into not a keeping-back of disaster but as a step forward to total happiness. Violence and discontent should be expelled from a person’s body or mind in an effective way that does not in any way jeopardise another person’s happiness.”
It’s a wonder that with such a grasp of language at 14 I didn’t go into the public service writing meaningly formal crap; but you have to admit, my idealism was pretty adorable.
This post originally appeared on the website of Southerly, where I was guest blogging for a month. Thanks to them for permission to cross-post this and the previous three posts.
Writing is Grace
My fourth post – I had intended to write twice as many, in an inspired burst of blogging hyperactivity, but after peaking early in the early 2000s with a regular blog (back in the frowsty old dear days when people said, ‘A what?’) I have never again recovered the focus and the steam and the dedication, and alas, this month of February hecticness and an especial dose of personal frenetics too fell victim to lack of puff and excess of distraction. So, many thanks to Southerly and its people for inviting me to burble away here, and thanks to anyone who read said burblings. It’s been nice.
I’d like to conclude with something that I think hopefully expresses a sum emanation from my previous posts (about moving books, vanity/embarrassment when writing, and reading). Common to both reading and writing (and, no doubt, collecting books) is, I think, the importance of humility.
It is a great privilege to pick up a polished piece of writing, someone else’s work. Their toil, their care, their thoughts, placed in your hands and your mind. No word on a page arrives there randomly, or without some effort. Words don’t just waft down like autumn leaves. They’re chosen. Placed. Considered. Changed. Deleted. Replaced. Challenged and defended. Every single word, every single sentence, bit of punctuation, choice of tempo, selection of layout, is the product of thought (subliminal or conscious). Writing isn’t like breathing. Writing is a choice and every choice is work.
The writer didn’t have to publish his labours; share her dreams; even re-draft a single word. That writer might just have discharged the imagination and wandered off again. Might have tired before the work was properly caressed and bashed into shape, might have shrugged at the editor’s enquiring look and said, ‘It’ll do’. Might have declined the chance to terrify his soul with the prospect of impending publication and potential mockery; might have kept her best thoughts and phrases and understandings of the world jealously to herself, and burned her diaries or notebooks every ten years instead of digging through in search of inspiration. Might have saved the money spent on the creative writing course. Might have baulked after the first negative feedback or the first meeting with the dreaded workshop ogre. Might have let despair and fright triumph. Might have watched telly and eaten chips instead.
Writers do not generally get paid a great deal. Writers do not generally get published a great deal. Vanity is an emollient and a wage, but it’s not sufficient to explain all the writing that is made and cared for and dared and shared. There is generosity here. There is offering. A page held in your hands is like a cheek laid in your palm.
Likewise, it’s a great miracle when someone cares to pick up your own writing, and spend their time, their focus, their curiosity on it (rather than any other piece of writing by any other writer; watching sports on tv; plucking their eyebrows; going for a jog; masturbating; eating chips…). What a privilege indeed! Someone spent precious minutes of their life experiencing your thoughts. Someone chose to read your work in place of that of the millions, millions of other authors’ millions, millions of other works (although Geoff Dyer, as I discussed last time, shares with me a horrid compulsion to instantaneously and almost inevitably wish I was also reading something else, in my case for fear of running out of time for the really good books…). And while a paying reader who selected your work from among all the others on the bookshelves and spent hard-earned on purchasing it is perhaps the most obviously bejewelled of tributes, I reserve a special awe and gratitude for readers who recommend, lend and gift my work to friends, and to those friends who accept the recommendation, and even more gorgeously, come to tell me if they were glad they did. Never mind the royalties missed when a book is passed between friends and family, the sheepish apologies of ‘It’s done the rounds’ as a battered copy is passed over the desk to be signed. I am totally, utterly thrilled when someone has wanted to make someone else spend their time on my work.
If our work is noticed by critics, selected for review, mentioned in media, discussed in literary circles or given time in writers festival panels, extracted in journals, interviewed about, rated in street press, promoted in the Qantas magazine, cited in vox pops, even ostentatiously ignored by our enemies, we are hugely honoured. In 2010 Google estimated that there were 129,864,880 books in existence (i.e. published). Only a fraction of them is available or originated in Australia; but still. Any writer who gets a skerrick of notice amongst all this noise is singing the right kind of song.
And if we are very, very lucky, readers even take time to express how they feel about our work. They post reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon, they pen little précis for their bookshop newsletter, mention it on their blogs and in other blogs’ comment threads, they suggest the work for book clubs and sit around there on Thursday nights saying what they thought of it. They might even go to the trouble of tracking down the author through publishing house or Facebook or Twitter and sending a personal message. And if we are so lucky as to receive these messages – even if they’re not complimentary! – we are honoured. There are several hundred million other things that person might have done with their time. Writing to authors is not, generally, a major priority in anyone’s life; and yet people do it, and they do it sweetly. Never should we take for granted a single pair of eyeballs fixed on a single word we’ve offered.
And, at the end of the day, I find it humbling even to witness and experience my own ability to write. Not always write very well, but – well, to be able to write at all, in a world with still high numbers of people who can’t, or poorly (somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent of Australians have sub-sufficient literacy) and to be able to write fluently and to have written adequately enough to be published. There are the operatic rapturous moments when the muse kisses you deeply and the magical words fly from the ends of your fingers, when you’re surfing towards the bottom of each page, when a day’s work is like flying… and there is the simple, much humbler appreciation of being able to communicate and express in a form which is not transient in the way conversation is, or ephemeral in the mind’s eye images, impressions and memories that we share with ourselves, or mumbled and incomplete the way speech is. Writing fixes things, it allows articulacy and elegance where we might be shy in person; it gives us the time, as we cogitate each word, sip the tea, stare out the window, pat the dog, to evolve our thinking carefully; it permits the retraction of a mis-thought and the replacement by a better one. Writing lets our thoughts – formed in the very material goo of our fleshly brains – live on for millennia (just ask Seneca, who took his own life but still scolds from two thousand years ago). And writing is an act of grace, isn’t it? I don’t mean to end on a gushy, sentimental note. I’m not talking about eye surgery on the poor. But writing is grace, and humility is the nicest way to receive it.
 For a reminder of just what this signifies, what an immense gift a human’s time is, I recommend the Stoic Roman writer Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, in which he points out that we resent thieves of property, respect, rights, money, and so on, but freely give the single item which is absolutely not replaceable: the time we have before we die
This post originally appeared in February 2013 on the website of Southerly, where I was guest blogging for a month.
Ironically it was tonight, a hot, smothering, still Melbourne summer’s night when it’s all I can do to keep my dull eyes fixed on the telly, never mind think about great literature, that I had one of those moments when something true about my life with books hit me. I was trapped on the couch under the warm, soft weight of my little cat Boo, who was giving me a very rare and precious honour by taking her siesta on my hot lap, and thinking idly of how great it would be to get into bed later, and read for a while. It’s been a horrible, stressful, demanding day and the idea of bed, bed and a book has a reliably totemic, analgesic effect on nearly any spasm of stress I might have. At the end of the day, there’s always, always bed and a book. A bower of comfort, and a cushioning, almost like a very comfortable mattress, between you and the gravity of the world. It has saved my sanity in the harshest of times and an evening concluded without a few pages in bed, even when I have company, is rare.
But it was still hours before bed-time, and the cat was upon me so I couldn’t stir, and the tv remote was too remote indeed on the other armchair, and there was nothing to hand except a folded-over print-out of an essay I’d found in unpacking the house which I’d chucked unopened into the lounge room, hoping to get it read during the sports bulletin on the nightly news, and thus be free to briskly discard it. I’ve been unpacking five million books all week, having spent the previous two weeks packing them up and am absolutely rabid by this point to cast off any superfluous printed material. So I picked up the sheaf of pages.
It turned out to be a review from The New York Review of Books, by Giles Harvey, of two recent publications by one of my favourite authors, long-time-no-one-else-knew-about-him, British wunder essayist Geoff Dyer. (I have a whole long and dramatic Dyer-esque anecdote about meeting and not-meeting Dyer at a writers festival, but I think you had to be there. Suffice it to say that my rueful frenzies of regret have not diminished my appreciation of his talent.) Dyer is fairly well known here now, not least for the 2012 collection of pieces, Working the Room: Essays 1999-2010 and his most recent, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012), both of which were being reviewed in this piece. Harvey writes very nicely and deftly about Dyer’s very nice and deft writing, and I was enjoying the simultaneous play of a good review about a good book. I was thinking, I should re-read some of Dyer’s older stuff. I was thinking, oh for that bed, later, and a book, even though last night I finished the one I was reading and will have to start another, and shall it be the one I’m meant to read immediately for my studies or one of the two I’m meant to be reviewing, oh, what it is to have to read what you’re meant to instead of what you want to, wasn’t I going to try some Patrick White, well, don’t I always think that? – and having that familiar pang of regret that whenever I’m seized by the ferocious desire to read (or re-read) a certain book it’s always at a moment when that is quite impossible – when I came upon a reminder in Harvey’s review that Geoff Dyer himself is enjoying reading less and less as he gets older. And I thought: OH GOD. ME TOO.
And, reading this nice deft review of a wonderful book I thought: He’s right. Most of the time I can’t stand reading. Most of the time, to be honest, it puts me in a terrible state of tense irritation.
That is, I love reading. There are still books that make me squee and clench. Actually make my heart beat faster. Revelation. Glee. That’s still possible. I am thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying slowly eking out John Julius Norwich’s 1967 history of Norman Sicily The Kingdom in the Sun, and just rapturously appreciated Elizabeth Knox’s Billie’s Kiss for its Hilary Mantel-esque cleverness, and was re-ravished last year by Lolita… But, looking back just now through my notes on what I read, I am hard put to pick those gems from the mud. I read quite a lot of books last year, and the year before, and I cannot imagine a life without my beloved books and that beloved bed and book at the end of the day (sorry; no, I can, I had that life for a time once, and it was grim and gristled, all the flesh sucked off the days). And most of the books I have read in recent years I may as well not have read, for all they mattered, or stirred me, or might be recalled. Too often, in fact, I turned a book, mid-sentence, looked thoughtfully at the cover, calculated that I was half-way or two-thirds of the way, or two chapters through the book, and realised that if I put the book down there and then and never picked it up again, my life would not in any way be diminished. Nor was it, when I did just that. I would never miss finding out the end to that story. I would never regret not getting to know those characters. The book would, very likely, never again enter my consciousness except as an object to be packed, given away, or thumped thoughtlessly into a pile. It, and I may never have met. And to be honest, the vast majority of books I read are of that category.
I’m not going to sledge, here. This is not a complaint about contemporary literature and its accidie. I was just struck by the nerve of Geoff Dyer, a writer known for his erudition and sensitivity as well as his legendary supposed procrastination and shiftlessness, in admitting that he, a writer, is less and less enamoured by reading. It’s not what we’re supposed to say. We are supposed to bang on and on about how we live to write, live to read – how we are storytellers, in whom storytelling burns like an unquenchable ember, the desire to share stories and absorb them and surround ourselves constantly with stories. We are relied on to be the readers of each other’s works and be nice about them all the time and persistently clamour for more publication, more voices, further opportunities, more and more things to read. We, as writers, if no one else, must be the champions of reading.
I’m all for reading. But I notice that less and less can I justify the time I spend on it myself. Dyer, in the essay ‘Reader’s Block’, admits that in moments of pretentiousness he calls his condition the Mir syndrome, “after the cosmonaut who said that he didn’t read a page of the book he’d taken to the space station because his spare moments were better spent gazing out of the window.” I can understand that. There’s not a great deal to look at outside a curtained window at 11pm in a Melbourne suburb, but I know what he means. I also understand Dyer when he talks about the conscience involved in choosing (or being obliged to read) one book rather than another, lamenting that, “the opportunity cost of reading a given book is always too great.” I am possessed with constant violent anxiety and anguish over my choice of reading material – if I am reading new releases I am neglecting classics; if I re-read an old favourite I am missing out on a yet-unknown treasure; if I capitulate and read something middling-oldish, like Iris Murdoch or Graham Greene, tonic though they are, I won’t know what everyone is talking about when the Miles Franklin shortlist comes out (I never do, anyway). So when I pick up a book, from the – literally – five metres (by spine width) of unread books I have next to my bed, it had better be worth it. It’s like saving only one orphan from the orphanage. It is going to have to be utterly, utterly charming or back it goes into the cupboard under the stairs.
You can imagine my chagrin when, having committed to one out of the hundred imminently awaiting my attention next to the bed, or the thousands and thousands in the shops, or the hundreds of thousands in the library, it turns out to be a waste of my time. I have only a limited number of hours of life left to me (and I am only forty yet), limited reading hours; an average book takes, say, eight or nine hours to read; perhaps one book at week unless I’m very efficient; about eighty books a year on average; almost nothing is worth a full two weeks of my reading schedule.
And each disappointment (like the peevishness of the three bears, finding each volume too rictus-tight lyrical, too terse and manly – please, not the dreaded ‘McCarthy-esque’! – or too flaccidly pitiful) puts me in a more and more heightened condition of crankiness. By this stage I am pre-cranky with books. I open each one with a De Niro scowl and mentally stand, hand on cocked hip, lip curled, demanding to be impressed. Demanding to be satisfied. I am too old, too sleepy, too well-read, too arrogant now to finish a book unless it is absolutely fucking astonishingly good.
And I don’t think that is too much to ask.
In a more charitable frame of mind than myself, Dyer suggests
If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a proportionately smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. The more thoroughly we have absorbed its lessons, the less frequently we need to refer to the user’s manual.
I would so very much like to think it’s because I’m wiser, that I don’t need reading as much anymore, but I doubt it. I would adore to think I’m such a great writer I don’t need to study great writing any further, but I know absolutely this is not true, and never can be – god, as if. I’m just bored. I’m just restlessly, shiftlessly, frequently totally bored by most of the books I so much wanted to read. Is it the lack of fully realised story (what Michael Chabon so gorgeously calls “plotless [stories] sparkling with epiphanic dew”) or the turgid style, or the insensible formulaic construction or is it the fault of creative writing courses or not enough creative writing courses or is it modern malaise or is it shoddy neglect of editing or is it hype outsizing actuality or is it production-line commercialism or is it uncooked writing or overboiled writing… is it the writing or is it me? Who knows. It’s not even very interesting, that I’m not so interested in reading, or rather, so dissatisfied with it.
I want a book that tells me something I don’t know. I want a book that shows the author took care with words, which throws glints of gorgeousness and flashes of fangs, which galumphs along with a cracking story and lingers tenderly over moments of grace. I want a book that’s muscular, tight, jointed so the sinews flex with every line; I want a book that’s generous, even baggy, discursive, confident: more than anything, I want to read something that feels as if the author enjoyed writing it, and wasn’t typing with tense, close-bitten, freezing fingertips attached to a mind feeling grim. Writing, just as much as my experience of reading the product, shouldn’t feel like a dreadful chore.
Look, doubtless, as it is with Dyer (who mourns that he’s left it too late to enjoy The Brothers Karamazov), it’s not really the books. Or not entirely – I do suspect fiction in general is becoming more insipid – and not always. It must also be me. A searching, hungry, dissatisfied griping of restlessness in what I want, and a persistently shifting set of criteria. Perhaps I don’t really know what I’m searching for. For a few months, as I was working on one of my own, doubtless extremely flawed, novels-in-endless-progress, I found myself mooching distractedly around bookshop shelves: haunting the crime section, the fiction section, the fantasy nook… What was I looking for? I picked up volume after volume, but barely glanced at each before I replaced it, and left without buying anything, and with the sensation that I’d forgotten the name of a book I was long yearning to read. Eventually I realised: weirdly, I was looking for my own novel – the one I was still working on – my own unpublished book, hoping to find it on the shelves and discover how it ended. Not surprisingly, it still hasn’t been found.
So I desperately want to locate good books: satisfying, chewy, juicy books which I can be glad of discovering. I want to be able to receive and devour them as they deserve. I want to find focus and offer devotion to something worth my time. There are lots, lots of books like that out there – old ones, forgotten ones, books which are at this moment still being written.
But, having just moved well over a thousand books because I love them so, I wonder why so many of them, though beloved and cherished and gorgeous, have never been read again (though I yearn for that, often), and why so much of my collection is from my younger days, and so many of the books that have come my way in the past ten years are no longer with me, on the shelves, in the new house, or even in the archives of my memory. Why I read as much as ever, and yet, like some character in a fairytale, feel less and less nourished by most of the magic pudding.
 I made an exception once for Simon Schama’s Citizens and it took an entire six months – but I was on drugs at the time.
 But I am afraid to say, Chabon being one of the very few authors who generally make me swoon in ravished delight – see The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) – the other day I gave up on his newest, Telegraph Avenue, halfway through. He was just trying way too hard to be wonderful. It really burned.
I recently filmed a long interview with Katie ‘Monty’ Diamond and her team at ‘Show and Tell’, a new (woman-oriented?) site with media and fora and so forth. They asked me about sex work, my life, sexuality, hooker tips in bed, and everything else.
and there are three others if you visit the page.
This piece originally appeared as a post on the Southerly website, where I was guest blogging for Feb 2013.
I just heard Richard Ford tell Margaret Throsby on ABC-FM that, in writing, what writers do is make themselves smarter than they really are. He likened the creative process to a crucible, one which was hot and focused, and which made him seem smarter than he is. And this fits in perfectly with what I was thinking last night: that writing is very much about vanity, and embarrassment.
It’s always astonishing to me how little we talk, in essays, interviews, in teaching students, about the psychology and emotions of writing. Those things are what brim in us every time we sit to write. Fear, often. Glee. Pride. Astonishment and assurance. Fear again; stronger: terror. And often at the heart of all these and the other fugitive things we feel are the questions: how dare I think I can do this? And, why would I think I can’t?
I’m finding it difficult, Southerly readers, to get down to doing these guest posts, because I realise I haven’t done any writing since last September. Life has been busy since then: there was a holiday of tiring travel and then Christmas and then January torpor and February frenzy, and I just haven’t had the focus (only the remorse) and now I’m unpacking the house and it’s all I can do to find my desk under the boxes. But it’s also because I think I’m still coming down off the back of the six and a half years of writing a personal column for the Age, which ended abruptly last April, and the massive carnival ride of hubris and sheepishness, confidence and crisis that is involved in producing even a single published personal piece, and which occupied a disproportionate amount of creative energy simply in the management of so much writing-oriented emotion.
The column ran fortnightly in the A2 (later called Life&Style) Saturday section of the paper, on page 3 and then the back page, for years longer than I imagined – six and a half years more than I imagined. When Jonathan Green first rang and offered me the gig, just after my first book In My Skin came out, I was astounded. There was nothing in my idea of myself that said that I had anything to offer the public beyond the story I’d told in the book, and the tangents of discussion that came out of that story in publicity events, and even that all seemed like some ludicrous misunderstanding, half the time. You’ve made a horrible mistake, I said. Surely there’s someone else. There’s got to be. Someone actually clever. Honestly, Jonathan, I said, I’m an idiot. But he insisted I have a go. So every two weeks I would have a preliminary pee, clench a cup of coffee, swallow the fear and sit down on a Tuesday afternoon to write 750 sheepish words of me, me, meeee.
Of course I could have written about anything, but apprehension of breaking some implicit pact of confidentiality with my friends, and my total inexpertise in any other subject other than my own solipcism, meant that generally I fell back on using myself as a prism through which to talk about issues. So to the admixture of vanity and embarrassment I added narcissism/neurosis. Not that I’m complaining. It was a fantastic gig. I needed the money, enjoyed the challenge, loved the rush, learned a lot, received lovely feedback, got my name out and about. People, not everyone, but enough, seemed to like it. And I knew how lucky I was, how coveted a position it was, a regular gig in the Age., and the chance to share my thoughts. It’s only that it brought home, like a pulse of dread in the throat, just how volatile it is, the confidence and the humility required to write, and how vaporously they can rise to smother you; or evaporate away entirely just when you realised that, after all, you need them.
Every time you write something with the idea that it might be published (in any format) you have to confront these two fears (or at least I do): that I am too good, and that I’m too bad. It’s like Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death forces. One of the voices inside me says: Really, they’re lucky to have you! You’re so clever, Kate. You and your lovely words, your delightful turns of phrase, your perceptive wisdoms. What charm, what élan. You make it look easy. Honestly. And the subtle things you think: the way you capture life’s truths, the humanity that glows from your page. It’s amazing. So young, and already so wonderful.
It’s all about making myself look smarter than I really am. Trailing my cape, flourishing my polysyllabic Latinate adjectives and my elegant way with semi-colons; it’s making myself, in the privacy of my office, sit a little taller and think, You know, it’s true, I really am a clever girl. I can do this. I can do this so well. How gorgeous, that I’m getting the chance to show everyone! – and myself. And show myself.
I would think: no, actually, it’s not vanity: this is the attitude of a professional. I know my skill set. I am aware of my assets. I’m confident in my work. This is how a real writer thinks: that they’re a real writer. I must be: look, I’m writing!
And the other, inevitable, inexorable voice says: BULL. SHIT. God. Pathetic. It’s exactly that kind of arrogance that produces bad writing. Slack writing. You’re hardly even trying. Disdain for your readers. What’s that, you just sat down and wrote something in twenty minutes and barely read it over before filing? You’re riding for a fall, young lady. Everyone can see how hopeless you are: and how up-yourself. It’s worse that you don’t even know it – that you’re so mediocre. So embarrassing for you. Week after week you expose this delusion that you’re cute. You’re not just as boring as everyone else, you’re worse, because you imagine you’re interesting. And who do you think you are to be taking people’s time? They could do anything else with that five minutes it’s going to take to read your drivel! You! Why should anyone listen to you?
And then it’s so horrible, even the act of putting down words, even spending time thinking up words. Who are we, these monstrous things called writers? Us parasites, us self-absorbed ninnies, crawling creatures of vanity which we then impose on others. Surely we could be better used digging latrines for the poor, or distributing soup, or just pointlessly breaking rocks in the sun. Wankers. Losers. We should all be whipped.
In the midst of this clamour, this screeching, the words must be put on the page. The fingers must type. They must hear the third voice, the one that’s trying to dictate, ever so humbly, some thoughts into the ends of your fingertips on the keys. For the duration of the writing, you have to shut up those voices. There is, I tell myself, plenty of time for them later. On the tram. Washing up. In the dark of the night at 3 a.m. I can listen to those harpy howls of disagreement as to my fundamental worth as a person and as a writer any time and I shall.
But for the moments I spend with the thoughts and the keyboard and the page and the work, I have to shut them up.
And yet… we do need them. We need the caution of them – don’t take it for granted, this talent! don’t waste your chance! don’t forget: someone has asked you to write this, they must think you’re worth it – and we need the energy of them too. Like actors who love their stage-fright, writers need the surge, the electricity of shame and superbness. The catch of breath in the throat. Otherwise we’d just sit here, plonking out words, dull as porridge, glum as mud. And none of it would be any fun – to write, or to read. It would be nerveless, neuralgic. Then we really should be whipped.
At this point I’m going to leave this… because I don’t have the nerve to imagine, right now, that I have too many other ideas to share in this month of blogging, and I must also listen to the voice that says: tempo, tempo, tempo…. So. More of my asinine, mediocre, commonplace/wise, luminous and valuable thoughts on this next week.
This piece originally appeared as a post on the Southerly website, where I was guest blogging for Feb 2013.
This post is a little late: the dilatoriness due not to lack of enthusiasm but the fact that I am in the middle of one of life’s cataclysms – moving house. And by ‘moving house’ you know that I, as a writer, primarily mean standing, hands on hips in the middle of my living room, gazing with an abruptly urgent sense of incredulity at the dozen or so tightly packed shelves that form the main decoration of my home. Moving house, in other words, means moving books.
I am a forty year old writer and arts graduate from a bookish family. This suggests correctly that one of my greatest forms of entertainment is logging an inventory of all my books on LibraryThing, the online personal repository of such lists. It is a treat I have been eking out over the past year or so: because it is truly delicious thing to take an armful of slightly dusty books from a shelf, carry them to my desk (it barely occurs to me that I could bring the laptop to the shelf; the opposite is now my delightful ritual) and, one by one, enter the title, author or ISBN into the fields on the screen and find the correct listing; select it; and see an icon of the cover of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept or Selected Poems by T. S. Eliot or Out of Sheer Rage float into its place in the virtual library shelf of my inventory. Attending to each volume individually is a way of remembering, revisiting and re-cherishing it. Oh, I’d forgotten One More River, The Greengage Summer and All Quiet on the Western Front! I’d forgotten the treasurehouse of stories and worlds I have sitting so inaudibly around me. I’d forgotten what a splendid collection I have.
On occasion I have been seen to lift one of my neglected beauties and deliver it a rapturous, utterly sincere, literal kiss of love.
So LibraryThing tells me that – so far, and there are a couple of big shelves still to go – I have just over a thousand books. I’m a little disappointed, to be honest. Only a thousand! My father claims ten! I’m at capacity for my little apartment; one reason to move home is: more space for books! But now, standing before this mass of items, simultaneously proud and appalled by their number, and contemplating the putting of them into boxes, I understand the weight of my custodianship.
Literally. I have just booked a five-tonne truck.
Now, why not spare yourself this antidiluvian dilemma, people may ask. Why not go digital? I am yet to get an e-reader. (I have an iPad, an old one, but never in my life does it occur to me to pick up its brick-like heft and read a book on it.) Oh god, does this mean I am getting fusty? But I just… don’t want one. Every three months I have regular spasms about getting a Twitter account and a Kindle, and every time I decide to stroll on and wait to see if I need one. So far, no. There is not a single moment in my life when I envy those with tiny little whosis and their creepily vacuous pages. And though my lower back is going to screech about the number of books I am going to lug for the tenth time in my life into a five-tonne truck, there is no fucking way on this earth I would give up my paper books. I’d as soon sleep on the floor. Give up showering. I’d as soon knock out my own teeth.
A few years ago, traveling in Vietnam, I visited the Museum Alexandre Yersin, shrine to one of Vietnam’s most beloved foreign citizens. Monsieur Yersin was a Swiss-French doctor who relocated to Vietnam in the late 19th century for the Institut Pasteur, where he immediately identified the plague bacillus and set about establishing the country’s immunisation programs, saving millions of lives. This is the man who helped stop the black plague. He was an extraordinary man: fearless explorer, anthropologist, pioneering documentary photographer, botanist, agronomist (he introduced rubber and Cinchona—quinine—plants to Vietnam), research scientist and physician. His handsome, bearded, soulful face gazed out of photos with thoughtful eyes, a sensitive mouth, a reticent demeanour. As a student, according to a colleague, he “showed no emotion, except when confronted with the suffering of children.” Evidently a great beardy boffin, he had a taste for technology: brass anemometers, Morse transmitting antennae and a gigantic telescope are in the museum; in 1901 he bought the first car in Indochina; he thought about buying a plane in 1910, only seven years after the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. He conducted atmospheric readings by kite, owned one of the earliest radio sets in south-east Asia, possessed an alcohol-fuelled bicycle, and regularly took the ‘Air Orient’ route from Indochina, through Syria to France, a journey of many days.
His tenderness to the local people was legendary but, monkish, he loved solitude. And he loved books. His collection is preserved in the museum, and it was for this above all that I fell, for his reading included books on aviation, mountain climbing, physiology, mathematics, radiotelegraphy, geography, military history, the history of England, Bedouin costumery, Homer, navigation, astronomy, Rousseau, a full assemblage of Latin classics. And, for the slow warm humid evenings, something lighter: French translations of Agatha Christie, Walter Scott, Edgar Wallace’s, H. G. Wells’s and Jules Verne’s science fiction, 1001 Nights, and some racier titles such as Les Pirates de la Mer Rouge, La Caravane de la Mort and La Femme aux deux Sourires. Yersin’s armchair is next to the shelves: I pictured him, lean with age, settling down after a long day’s work to lose himself in penny-dreadfuls, their yellow covers cupped in his weathered hands.
This beautiful man was honoured during his lifetime, not least with the impressive ‘Ordre Imperiale du Dragon d’Annam’ by the area’s Emperor, and the Grand Croix in 1935. The Vietnamese have made him into a guardian spirit, and erected a pagoda to his memory. But I think the little museum of his notes, and countless letters to his mother, and those evocative bookshelves, are the best tribute of all.
I fell in love with Yersin for his wonderful eyes (still gazing at me from a postcard portrait in my kitchen—soon to be packed up too) and his library. Through seeing it I could see a part of him – a man long dead, but so present in the constellation of his reading. And I think my reluctance to embrace electronic books is to a large part due to a kind of horror: if all my books are held invisibly (frictionlessly, weightlessly, ineluctably) on some digital device, where no one but a deliberate browser can see them – not the visitor to my home, not the curious fellow-passenger on the train – then how will anyone know who I am?
It’s true that few of my friends need to inspect my bookshelves to know what my preoccupations are – I broadcast them vocally at every meeting. But I look around my home, and my books, and the assemblage of my reading – which is already missing the library books, the discarded books, the loaned books, the lost childhood books, the thousands of newspapers, the abandoned magazines, the ephemeral advertising material that I have read in my forty years – and to me the contents of the shelves are not just ornament, not simply aides memoires, not merely archives, but a literal manifestation of another intricate jewel: my own mind. These books are part of what has made me. They have burnished me, moved me, formed actual tracks in the material of my brain, transformed me and finally, given me their souls.
It seems the least I can do, to carry them gently to a new home, and love them anew there too. Five tonnes? It may not be enough.