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Author: Andy

Listen here! (1)

Listen here! (1)

I get bored easily. I always have. I do better if I have a book to occupy me, there are any number of games on my phone, carrying an iPad became mandatory once things called ‘iPad’ became available and I’m no good in the car without something on the radio. From there, podcasts were a natural progression. A history of driving an hour-plus to work each way, each day, together with an ‘early adopter’ approach to technology and the boredom thing mean that I’ve been listening to podcasts for well over 10 years.

It’s easy to become isolated when you live in the bush, so listening to writing podcasts became a no-brainer for me. Attending every writing workshop, or group or activity just isn’t possible when you’ve got a 3 or 4 hour drive to get there and then the same to come home. And lets face it, even if I lived in the city, it’s still not a good look to be attending every last writing event – because rather than talking and listening to stuff about writing, I should be writing.

It was only when I was talking to some friends at one of the rare writing workshops that I do attend that I realised that not everyone listens to podcasts or knows much about what’s available on line.

If you’re an emerging or aspiring writer and you’re not listening to podcasts or keeping an eye on what’s available on line, then I reckon that you’re missing out. There is a huge body of knowledge and experience on the internet – and they’re giving it way for free.

My current favourite is the  Writing Excuses  podcast. The catch phrase for Writing Excuses is a self-deprecating ‘Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart’. Which is far from accurate – even though the podcast is around fifteen to twenty minutes long, this is a bunch of smart experienced writers.  It’s hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette KowalHoward Tayler and Dan Wells. Mainly these folks are sci fi/fantasy writers but don’t be put off by that, if that’s not your genre. They’re experienced and knowledgeable and the weekly podcast can apply to any genre, and just about any writer. I should know – at the moment I’m working on a memoir and even so, I can’t think of a Writing Excuses podcast that I haven’t taken something away from, that hasn’t made me stop and think and reflect on my own work. (And no – my life is neither sci fi nor fantasy).

According to their website, Writing Excuses didn’t have season long themes until 2015. Last year, they arranged the year of podcasts to ‘flow like a single multi-session master class designed to walk a writer through the process of creating a story’. This was when I began listening to them seriously. I downloaded the lot in one hit, and listened to them all sequentially over a few months. By the time I got through 50-something episodes I was hooked and I binge-listened to the first half of 2016 as well. Even now that I’ve caught up, I tend to let 3, 4 or five episodes build up and binge-listen to them.

This is a podcast about the craft of writing. There is nothing about ‘waiting to inspired’ or ‘Great Art’. The Panel assumes that we know all about 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration, and they take it from there. They assume that their listeners  – us – are serious about our writing. Maybe we write for fun, maybe for profit, maybe we’re new to the writing world or maybe we’re a bit more experienced. But in amongst all that taking-your-work-seriously stuff is also a strong thread that is very clear: these folks love writing and they believe that we do too.

This is a well structured podcast that packs a lot into fifteen or twenty minutes. There are occasional guest panelists and they stick to the plan as well, adding their knowledge, experience and expertise to that weeks theme.

A bit of technical stuff: the sound quality is excellent and makes listening easy. There are occasional episodes that are recorded in workshops or other locations making the sound a bit harsher and less high quality, but that’s the exception and far from the rule. Writing Excuses comes out weekly – it arrives on the Australian east coast around mid morning every Monday – I believe that’s around 6pm on the east coast of the USA. You can listen to the podcast direct from the website, or download it. There’s Facebook page at Writing Excuses on Facebook.

This is a podcast that is well worth fifteen or twenty minutes of your time each week. Give it a go.

 

Of sliding doors and jigsaw puzzles

Of sliding doors and jigsaw puzzles

When I walk to buy sandwiches for lunch the air is sharp and promises snow. Today in Southern New Zealand it’s one of those blue sky sunny days that are so clear that I’m certain I can see all the way to Antarctica. The McDonalds a few blocks away declares in bold yellow letters immediately under its golden arches that it’s the southern most Maccas in the world, and today I have no difficulty believing it.

But it’s warm in my mother’s lounge room.  We sit in big red leather recliner chairs, our feet up, with sandwiches and good coffee in takeaway cups from the cafe down the road. On this visit we’ve discovered a shared guilty pleasure and so the Crime channel on cable shows just enough murder and misery.

For 27 years I’ve sat in my mother’s lounge room. That’s close enough to half of my life. Now we sit in companionable silence, with novels open and the occasional comment about the the crime that unfolds each half hour. With every visit I make from Australia to my mother’s home the TV gets louder. She has hearing aids; expensive hidden ones that that irritate her ears and take some getting used to. She has other health priorities at the moment and instead the hearing aids remain in the drawer and the TV is turned up loud.

These are the sliding door moments for me. There was a movie, and when the lead character got on a train she split into two: the person who got on the train, and the person who missed the train and had the doors slide shut in her face. Both of these version of her went about their lives which grew increasingly different, all because of that sliding door on the train.

I grew up with another family, another mother and that was my life for the first 29 years of my life. My first set of sliding doors grew out of my adoption at 3 days old.  My mother and my adoptive mother shared a gynaecologist and so the arrangement was made: my mother couldn’t keep me and my adoptive mother and father wanted a child.

But what if someone else had adopted me? What if the gynaecologist had offered me to someone else? Maybe my adoptive parents missed an appointment, or said something that he didn’t like or approve of. I could have ended up anywhere, with anyone. Who would I be? Would I be me? ‘Me’ seemed tenuous, and fragile.

Growing up I had to believe that nurture was a greater influence than nature. Even though I struggled to understand my adoptive family and parents, and they struggled to understand me I was afraid of even considering that I was shaped by anything or anyone other than them. I wanted so badly to belong that I wanted to believe I was shaped and ‘Me’ was created by the environment and world that I shared with my adoptive family. I dared not even think that maybe I wasn’t a product of my adopted family and the world that they gave me. Look like someone? Sure. I knew that somewhere there must be people that looked like me. But be like someone else somewhere else? My grip on Me was fragile enough as it was.

I didn’t know this. Not in any sensible way. What I did know was the sure feeling that my family, my life and world was a fluke. I could have wound up anywhere and I didn’t know who I’d be if that had happened. I didn’t dare go any further than that.

The Sliding Doors really hotted up after I met my mother. What if she had kept me? What if she and my father had married? My already shaky concept of Me felt like it had been taken apart and all the pieces laid out on a table, like a jigsaw waiting to be put together. Who would I be?

For a long time – for years – while I gradually found ways to put those jigsaw pieces together I felt that there was another Me. I’d catch a glimpse of her when I visited my mother. She was always just out of my vision, that other Me, the one who had been kept, who hadn’t been given away, who had grown up with my mother and family. Unlike me, she knew who she was, had never had any doubts of where she fitted in the world. Our shared sliding door happened at my birth, and she’d gone about her very different life.

My therapist told me that she was concerned that I seemed to be disassembling myself and I had to agree. I knew that there wasn’t another Me out there living the life that I might have had, had the fluke of my upbringing taken a different course, had my mother kept me, had my parents married. I knew that all my pieces were out on the table and I didn’t know how to put them back together again.

But I did and eventually the pieces reassembled themselves in a new shape. It became a shape with edges and a sense of who Me might be. It’s only very occasionally that I see the other Me, just off to one side, going about her sliding door life. Rather than wondering if my different life would have been a life where I fitted somewhere, just like she does, now, sitting in my mother’s lounge room, I wonder if she has it as good as me.

 

 

 

 

I steal things – no, really I do (pt 2)

I steal things – no, really I do (pt 2)

As a fiction writer, I steal people, their gestures, patterns of speech, their history and stories. Then I dress it up and change it around in any way that suits me and my story. Usually it’s only the folks who recognise a small part of themselves who have any idea that I’m a thief.

As a memoirist I don’t fictionalise people or borrow bits of them, or disguise them. Rather than take a little bit and change it, the idea is that I take all of it and lay it bare. There’s no hiding and no where to hide. Rather than the petty theft of fiction, of small generally unidentifiable gestures, mannerisms and bits of stories, in memoir I’m moving into the Grand Larceny of stealing people and their lives whole. Working on a memoir has me feeling as if I’m moving from a small bit of shoplifting, to The Great Train Robbery.

I talked about it with my Dad. He’s an historian and does a lot of family history work. He tells me that when he researched our extended family, he found all sorts of skeletons in many cupboards. Some were surprising, he said, and others explained things that had never quite made sense in the stories that are passed around and passed down in large extended families and which make up the family’s oral history. So that time in the 1920s that Uncle Whatsit vanished for a while actually wasn’t a sudden business trip, but according to the court records a rather nasty divorce case in which he was the other man. And we can’t be sure how it was that Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other raised three kids in the 1890s after her husband died and quite where she got the money from but it looks like….. well you know what I mean. And that’s just our family.  He tells me that when he’s researched family history for other folks, he’s found all sorts of things that no-one knew about. According to Dad if you go back two or three generations or more most of us have got something hanging from the family tree that has been conveniently forgotten, fictionalised, or changed to make it more acceptable.

Anyway, I thought that he’d be worth a chat. I wanted to know how he made decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. Truth be told – I was hoping for a magic formula, or wand that would help me in the Grand Larceny that writing a memoir entails. His solution wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. He told me that when he found something that may cause distress, be controversial or embarrassing, he consulted the family. If they wanted it published – then he published it. If they would rather it remained secret – or at least not published – then he handed what records he had over to them and didn’t publish that particular part of the history.

I tried translating this into something that would be helpful to me as memoirist. Certainly it’s possible to combine some people, or change some names or physical descriptions, or to leave some people out altogether. But there are some things and some people that won’t work for. I can’t write about my life as an adopted child and then adult without writing about my parents – all four of them. If I change them then it’s no longer a memoir, it’s fiction. I tried to back away from my Grand Larceny and go back into petty theft, and thought “I’ll just write a novel. I’ll write a story about an adopted child, then adult and her four parents and make it all up”. It didn’t work. My four parents kept emerging into my fiction. This was going to be a memoir, whether I wanted it or not.

Back I went to Dad. I’d already asked him how he managed potentially tricky disclosures, but in looking for the easy way out I hadn’t asked him why he managed it in the way that he does.

It’s compassion he said and it all fell into place for me. Compassion for the awful predicament that Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other found herself in as a mother raising children alone in the 1890s, and compassion for her descendants who weren’t concerned for themselves; they just didn’t want anyone to think badly of Great Great Aunt Someone-or-other, who did the best she could with what she had. And while Uncle Whatsit had always been a bit of a rogue, compassion for his wife and surviving children  – now family elders – who  didn’t want to revisit his choices and behaviour that had made their family life so harsh and difficult while they were growing up.  They had been pleased to leave it behind and saw no point in going back there.

Memoirs are, by their very nature, acts of Grand Larceny, but I’ve decided I’m going to try for compassionate theft. If I can bring compassion to the telling of the story and of the actions and decisions that my four parents made,  perhaps then my memoir  will be an act of Grand Compassionate Larceny.

 

What David, and Mandy and John did next

What David, and Mandy and John did next

My cousin David  was a quiet man. At family gatherings there was always a hug for me from him and a smile and a “how have you been?” But unlike his brothers, David wasn’t big on conversation and he was the kind of fellow who would be standing to one side, with a few other blokes, beer in hand, talking about whatever it is that blokes talk about.  His brother Stan and I have loud, noisy conversations about just about anything, often challenging each others beliefs and politics and then laughing. His brother Richard is the absolute best fellow to have MC any family occasion and is an ebullient, outgoing man, with a razor sharp wit and a deep compassion for those around him. He played Father Christmas to his nieces for years. Even after the girls knew that it was really Uncle Richard under the beard they pretended that they didn’t because they loved his version of Santa so much. Amongst his more outgoing brothers, David was the quiet one.

In my family cousins become brothers and nephews are more like sons. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, and the only girl of my generation. Whatever the reason, David and Richard and Stan are the cousins who should have been my brothers.

I haven’t seen as much of David over the last few years as either of us would have liked. Work commitments kept me in Australia and when I was in New Zealand David had moved away  from the South where the rest of the family lives to just outside Christchurch and our visits didn’t often coincide. Instead, I relied on my mother, Stan and Richard as the family grapevine to keep David and I up to date with each other.

David liked things with engines. He rode his Very Fast Motorbike between Christchurch and the family farm. My first ride in a jet boat was with David at the wheel. I have never seen the banks of the Shotover River at quite so close range, nor have it pass by me so quickly. He spent a year working at the base in the Antarctic, fixing things and kitchen handing. His eye/hand coordination was a sight  to behold. One Christmas David and Stan set up the clay pigeon machine at the farm and we took turns taking aim and firing. Whilst I was gloriously unsuccessful and can assure you that not a single clay pigeon came close to being harmed by me that day, David was shooting the tiny targets in the air two and three at a time. He played cricket for the local side, and when he took a year off and travelled overseas, he made a living playing county cricket in England. When he came home he had the opportunity to play professionally and become a prospective New Zealand Test player (my cousin the Black Cap!), but decided that he didn’t want the travelling lifestyle of a professional sportsman because it isn’t so conducive to having a family.

Instead he flew helicopters. It seemed a good combination for David – something with an engine that required really good eye/hand coordination. He did it well, his business grew. So did his family and he gave me more cousins in his sons and daughter.

Then the phone call came and I was flying to New Zealand, to David’s funeral. He’d been working one day, flying his chopper and spraying crops for a local farmer and something happened. David was dead, his chopper a mess on the ground.

Don’t do this.

Don’t try this at home.

If there is any way that you can avoid needing to have a funeral for your 48 year old cousin-who-is-like-a-brother then do it. Because the alternative is a truly terrible thing.

Mandy and John live a few doors down from us. They’re good neighbours and good folks. They began planning their wedding just over two years ago. That was before Mandy got her diagnosis. It’s no understatement to say that stage IV bowel cancer can mess up all sorts of plans and the wedding kept being put off. John and Mandy were waiting for the gap in cancer  treatments that has never come.

Hold on you say – where do they fit in this story? Stick with me here. If you’ve made it this far, there’s only a few more paragraphs until it all comes together and makes sense. 

Last weekend people from all over town, and across the region pulled together and pulled off a glorious wedding for Mandy and John. People who’d never met them and weren’t likely to, donated time and the myriad of things that come together to create a wedding celebration. There were a few points across the week when it looked like Mandy might not make it to Wedding Day, so Plan B was held quietly in waiting in the background: a celebrant, photographer, makeup and hair, and a wedding cake baker who each reckoned that with 45 minutes notice they could pull their part in a bedside ceremony together. But Mandy and John didn’t need Plan B; Mandy’s determination and the skill and care of the palliative care nurses and doctors got her home, and to her wedding, for the weekend.

Amongst all the memories and photos it’s John’s face while they were exchanging vows that stays with me.  He was totally and absolutely beaming and looking at Mandy with so much love. “Well duh” you say – it’s a wedding, he’s the groom – he’s supposed to. That’s how the deal works. Well yes it is – but I think John would have been entitled to shed at least the odd tear or two. It would be understandable if there had been tears for a life about to be shortened, and a marriage that won’t be shared into old age.  He never did. Instead he looked at his new wife with all the love that any one person can possibly have and let it shine through on her.

People talk about ‘being in the moment’ and there are memes all over Facebook telling us to live each moment, and my response is usually something along the lines of ‘yeah, yeah’ and to keep scrolling. But John and Mandy really were. They were each completely there. They weren’t thinking about what would come tomorrow and next week, or the random unfairness of terminal illness. They were with each other and living each moment.

After David died I realised that there was no point in waiting for the perfect time for anything. The perfect time might or might not come and even if it did come, there was no telling when that would be. I realised that if I didn’t do the things that were important to me now, when was I going to do them? And although we didn’t need to say it at David’s funeral, I didn’t want anyone saying at mine (a long time in the future!) “you know she was always going to get around to doing such-and-such and she just never found the time”.  Mandy and John have shown me that being right there when I’m doing ‘it’ (what ever ‘it’ may be) can bring more joy and love and happiness than I’ve thought possible.

I’ve made changes to how I live and the work that I do – and now sometimes don’t do. I know my cousin-like-a-brother Stan has too. We’ve talked about it over a few scotches beside the fire and then laughed, because if David’s someplace where he can hear us, we’re pretty sure that he’s calling us a pair of wankers and laughing at us. Conversations about how one lives one’s life were never really David’s thing.

When the time comes, if I leave behind some small thing of me, that leaves friends or family or the neighbour down the street considering the ways in which they live their life, then I know I’ll have lived my life well. Just like David, and Mandy and John.

David

I steal things – no, really I do. (Pt 1)

I steal things – no, really I do. (Pt 1)

There. It’s out in the open now. I steal things. I will continue to steal things. You’ll know about it when I do, although you might not recognise the theft.

Writers steal things. A gesture here, an expression there. Sometimes writers steal whole stories about people. An ex of mine got nearly an entire book of poetry out of our relationship, although if you didn’t know that it was really me and her, you wouldn’t have known. (Hello Catherine, how are you?). Another acquaintance took my adoption story and the adoption story of another ex of mine (I’m not that promiscuous really – just old enough to have quite a bit of history) and got a paragraph out of us. In a 500-and-something page book there was one small paragraph that was  – if you knew us – recognisably us. I was thrilled. “Hey look – we got a paragraph in A’s book. Isn’t that neat”. My ex – not so much. “How dare A” was her response.

I still don’t understand why my ex was so upset. It was a very good book and A is regularly nominated for writers awards and speaks at writers festivals and the like. It wasn’t as if A had taken our respective adoption stories and portrayed us poorly or unfavourably. We would only be recognised by people who knew us and knew that A knew us which is a very small set of people; you could count those folks on your fingers and still have fingers left over spare. And between us we did have unusual adoption stories. So what if A took our story and got a paragraph out of it. My ex didn’t feel the same way. She felt that A had intruded into our lives, and bared everything for the all the world to see.

I’ve stolen things too. The first poem that I had published was a true story, and there on the page was me and a dear friend and her kids. (You can read that poem at the end of this post). Coincidentally the poem was about theft too but that’s just coincidence. We still talk about that day and that poem and as sometimes happens with friends that have been a part of each others life for a long time, we’ve developed a shorthand, a shared language about it. All it takes are a few words and we’re both smiling, and often laughing.

I’m a reasonably straightforward person and it makes sense to me that if I’m to write about something, it’s useful if I’ve seen it, or experienced it. It’s not essential by any means – that’s what imagination is for  – but it doesn’t go astray. So I watch people. I eavesdrop in public, in restaurants and coffee shops. And I take things. A gesture here, and a way of moving there, and that story that I overheard last week when we were out for dinner in Big Town Down The Road. I’ve stolen the whole town that I live in and some of my neighbours for a short story. I have a idea for a novel bubbling away and a manager from a job a few years makes a great character. He demonstrated passive aggressive behaviour better than I could ever imagine it.

As a fiction writer I have absolutely no qualms about stealing things. In that way I’ve been writing about ‘real’ people, places, events and things for years. Sometimes people recognise themselves. Sometimes they don’t.

It’s interesting making the move from poetry and fiction to memoir. By it’s very nature, memoir has ‘real’ people in it, with ‘real’ events. If those elements of the story weren’t real – and I’m using that term pretty loosely anyway – it wouldn’t be memoir, it would be fiction. Memoirists will tell you that they might have combined two people into one, or left out an event or three, but fundamentally memoir is about people, places, events and things that are in some way real.

Making the move to memoir has brought some new challenges in sharing and honesty. It’s my memoir so I’m in control of what I share about me and how I do it. It’s the people that I care about that I’ve spent sleepless nights considering.

More in the next post…


And here’s that poem

Theft on a Sunday Afternoon

So there we were:

Two women,

Three kids,

A too-small-axe,

The nearly-blunt-saw

and

The Tree.

 

I’d like to tell you

that The Tree was:

Tall

Imposing

Green and lush

Reaching for the sky

 

I’d like to tell you

that The Tree held memories of:

Shade in summer,

Children laughing in its branches,

and home-made jam in spring

 

In fact,

it barely reached the verandah roof.

and its leaves had a brown sort of tinge.

It made the front room always dark,

and the kids slipped on the soft dark fruit.

 

So we got chopping

and the tree began to tilt

and the kids got worried about the letterbox.

But we kept chopping

and talked about role models

and pretended we didn’t mind blisters at all.

 

And then,

Just as we knew we were going to do it,

a few more strokes and it’d be down

and it looked like we’d miss the letterbox;

we told the kids to stand out of the way,

we leant and pushed,

and pushed,

and pushed

and then one more…………………………

 

It was just then that

some man walking past

ran in the gate and said

“Look out love, here’s how it’s done”

gave one big shove

and the thing went over.

 

Well,

the kids drifted off

and the tree just lay there

next to the letterbox

and the blisters began to hurt.

 

 

Changing Memories

Changing Memories

Memories are set – right? We have a memory of an event or a conversation and that’s the way it was. Unlike Back to the Future, we can’t go back and change the past, no matter how much we might like to.

So that party you were at, 20-something years ago, will always be that party where you drank too much, and your friend Lynne who knows everything had to bundle you into a taxi and take you home, stopping only to wait while you threw up in the gutter somewhere on Hoodle Street. And the Ex who treated you so badly will forever be an evil nasty person – right?

There are heaps of articles about how memories are created, and how our brain makes and stores and memories. Google ‘how are memories made’ and the the list is almost endless (About 9,630,000 results, according to the search page) The Smithsonian Institute has a interesting article on it. If you get really hooked on understanding brain function and memory, The National Centre for Biotechnology Information gets detailed with different types of explicit and implicit memory.

So back to where I started – once all that brain chemistry and neurological stuff in our brains have done their thing, memories are made. I assumed that once created, there were memories that I could call on and remember and other things that aren’t so easy to recall, and in that way were ‘forgotten’.

The very nature of writing a memoir is  – arguably – about taking memories and and putting them together in such a way that they’ll be interesting to others. The others might be family, friends, the local cricket club, or for an agent, publisher and wider audience.

It should be easy, shouldn’t it. If you’ve got a story to tell, it should be as simple as writing it down, deciding what bits go in and what bits to leave out and if it’s chronological order or perhaps ordered by themes and then you have it. A Memoir.

That was what I thought. I thought that writing a memoir would be easy. I would draw on my memories and knock them into some sort of shape so as to be readable and engaging. Instead what I’ve found is that writing a memoir is an intense and interesting exercise in the changing nature of memory.

In remembering, I find the memory rarely changes. The people, the place, who said what to who. The details largely remain the same. Sometimes, I recall small details that I had ‘forgotten’ – events immediately before or after, things that lead up to the main thing.

However, I find that I’m reinterpreting my life through writing about it. When Socrates talked about the unexamined life and the repercussions of living that way he was referring to a life lived ethically. I find that I am writing – and living – a very different sort of examined life. In looking at and writing about memories, I am examining my life. Despite more than a few visits to therapists and psychologists I’ve never looked at much of my life in this way. The facts remain the same – but I find new layers of interpretation. I’m seeing myself differently – not necessarily ‘better’ or ‘worse’ but differently.

I didn’t think that writing a memoir would change the memories. And yet, somehow, it has.