Wednesday, 28 May 2014

All you need to know

I was cleaning out my purse on the weekend and I came across a snippet of folded newspaper. I could see by one moth-eaten edge that I'd been carrying it for a long time. The snippet is an extract from a book called "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum. (Fulghum is an American who's written some books with interesting titles: "Words I Wish I Wrote" and "Uh-Oh: Some observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door" being two. You can go here to read more about him.) Once I'd read through the extract I understood why it was tucked away in my purse. It's the sort of information you need to read every now and again.   



The points that appeal to the writer in me are:

  1. Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. 
  2. Be aware of wonder. 
  3. Share everything. 


 
Share everything is obvious. Everything I know about writing I try to share with my writing friends. You should do the same. I went to a class last year where the tutor had an Excel spreadsheet listing every scene in her book and a brief sentence of what happens. If she wanted to check on something she went to the spreadsheet; it saved her paging and paging through her manuscript. Now this would never work for me; I'm frightened of spreadsheets because I don't understand how they work. But someone else in the class said, "Ah, bewdy" as if a light had come on.   

Be aware of wonder reminds me that I should take the time off every now and again to appreciate nature, to reflect on what's right in front of me -- be it a satellite at dusk, or a spider's web. Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist's Way, recommends having a hobby or doing something like gardening. "As we serve our hobby, we are freed from our ego's demands...this...affords us the perspectives needed to solve...creative conumdrums." 



Live a balanced life - learn some...paint and sing... reminds me that my creativity needs to be nurtured. It needs to be fed. Awoken when it tires of the same old same old. And challenged. This means take the afternoon off and see a movie (but make it a good one), stroll around an art gallery, kick the autumn leaves in the park, talk to a stranger, or do something you haven't done before. Please leave your headphones at home and switch off your phone. I can hear you thinking, "What a waste of time when I could be writing", but you'll be surprised at what you get out of it, although what you get out of it may not be immediately obvious. But it'll be there, waiting for an opportunity to show itself. Believe me.



Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Practising what you preach

In light of my last post about putting yourself out there, this is a story I first wrote in 2006. I worked on it again in 2009, using it for a uni assignment, and after I'd got feedback from that I worked on it some more and then submitted it to a competition. To my surprise, I won. (It was the Hal Porter Short Story Comp - you can read details here. Although this year's comp doesn't seem to be open yet.) My point is that sometimes stories take a while to come to fruition, and you should never give up on them. 



CUT UP
Kathy George

©




The pocket knife balances on my palm. It’s solid. Cold and heavy. It feels alien, but the longer I hold it the more familiar it becomes. I wrap my fingers around its bulk, close my eyes, and wait for that sense of anticipation and pleasure I might have got from clutching a new lip gloss or sketch pencils...But there’s nothing. I don’t feel anything at all.
The pocket knife is made of dull, silver metal and although I turn it over in my hand, angling it this way and that, it doesn’t throw my image back at me the way a shiny dinner table knife does. My image remains clouded and obscure.
A tiny circle of thin wire hangs from one end, attached to which is a cheap plastic clip and before I know it I’m getting rid of the clip and the wire. It’s the cheapness that disgusts me. My father didn’t like cheap things, either. For him it was all about elegance and good workmanship. Leather and solid wood. He liked having good tools, too. He was handy around the house. He could fix things.
I use a pair of pliers to cut the wire. They’re his Stanley pliers. The Mercedes Benz of tools, he used to say and he’d put in an Ooh la la and wriggle his butt.
He was a funny man.
The pliers, some of his screwdrivers, his favourite tie and his passport are all in my bottom drawer. My mother doesn’t know I’ve got his passport. She’s been searching for it but I’m not going to give it up. For one thing, the man in the photo actually looks like the dad I remember, although his soft hair is a little slicked down. Usually it was all over the place. A dandelion in a breeze. For another thing, I was with him when the photo was taken. I stood behind the photographer, stuck out my tongue and made my eyes wander all over my face, and my dad’s wearing just the hint of a goofy smile.
            Eight implements are contained within the pocket knife, but the corkscrew is the one I extract first. Balancing the knife horizontally on my desk, I see that it could be a steamship, with the corkscrew its smoking funnel. A steamship harmlessly going about its seafaring business on an ocean of wood. How deceptive appearances are. Of course it’s not a steamship. It’s a knife.
For slicing.
And cutting.
The blade is a disappointment. I’ve anticipated something slender and jagged, something tapering to a spiked point. But the blade is short and squat. Ugly. Wetting my finger I run it down one side, and suddenly the blade is a mirror and abruptly it’s shut closed. I’m not practised at this and almost catch my fingers. I try opening and shutting it one-handed like a gangster, but my fingers are clumsy.
Everything is shoved off my desk on to the floor. Pens, pencils, text books, sketchpad, even my precious copy of Michelangelo. The desktop is wiped down and then I place the pocket knife in the middle of the desk. Alone. In turn, I sit cross-legged in the middle of my rumpled bed. The pocket knife and I sit quietly. We gaze expectantly at each other, waiting like children who are curious to see what will happen next. It is the last thing I see before closing my eyes that night, and the first thing I see waking up in the morning.
*
The pocket knife is still waiting when I return in the afternoon. It neither smiles pityingly at me nor does it ask questions. It is simply there.    
Dumping my backpack on the floor, I perch on the bed’s edge. Except for a sliver of light edging through a gap in the curtains, the room is shrouded in darkness the way I like it.
Leaning over I pick up the pocket knife and hold it against my cheek. Tenderly. It is both cold and soothing. And then in one smooth movement I have flicked it open and am holding it like a weapon, clumsily twirling it in my hand and watching the light fall on the blade. Dark and shiny and shiny and dark.
My sleeve is pushed up my arm.
The blade is pressed against my skin.
Dragging the blade down against the skin without cutting into it takes considerable control, and the skin bulges on either side like I’ve cut into a sponge cake. It leaves a thin white line like a scar but the line quickly fades.
The second time I push down a little harder. Carefully. Slowly. And still the blade does not break the skin. We repeat the process, the blade and I, each time pressing further in. It takes a lot patience. A great deal of control. And the hand that is doing the cutting soon aches with tension. But at last we are rewarded, the skin opens and blood flowers like tiny red poppies. It is a steady, time-consuming process. Up and down strokes are simple, but when the blade tries to make a turn the skin resists and recoils.  
My mother knocks on my door, startling me.
“Ellen?” she says. Her voice is muffled. “Ellen, dinner’s ready.”
“Coming,” I call out. My voice is surprisingly steady.
After a minute I put down the knife and stand up. I’m light-headed, but it isn’t from any pain, it’s more like relief. A kind of peace seems to have settled on me.
I collect the bloody tissues and flush them down the toilet, and cover my arms by wearing a jumper. It’s a cool evening.
*
At dinner my mother’s eyes are bright with hope. “How are things?” she asks. “How are you coping?”
The words are pushed across the table like an envelope she wants me to open. An envelope with sharp, white corners.  
I look at my plate. I concentrate on picking up my peas one by one with the prongs of my fork. The peas are not cooked properly and skitter in all directions.
The woman sitting opposite me has become a little sparrow, a little sparrow with a cocked head waiting helplessly for a titbit of food. Any food.






 
It isn’t that I don’t have anything to tell her. It isn’t that I don’t understand she is also in pain.
“OK,” I say. Finally.
She’s still looking at me. If I could blindfold her, I would.
We play a little musical duet in the silence, clinking our cutlery on the fragile china plates. Swallowing delicately.
The cat silently slips between our legs. She pads backwards and forwards restlessly, as she always does, eventually settling a respectful distance on the rug and beginning to wash her ears. She answers to no-one, shows no emotion.
When I stretch out for my glass of water the weave of my jumper catches on the cuts on my arm, and reminds me of my handiwork. Engravings.
“And what did you do today?” I ask.
Out of nowhere I have constructed a sentence.
I’m talking to my mother.  
And I have to look up. I have to look at her when I speak.
*
When I wake up late on Saturday morning the first thing I notice is not the pocket knife but the sliver of light that falls across my desk. And I reach out and push my hand into the light, bathing my skin in a soft and warm glow.
I hold my hand in the light, my thin fingers slightly apart and trembling, the blue veins bulging faintly through my skin. I am reminded of a sculpture my father and I once saw when we were all overseas together. It was a vast and spacious art gallery...Probably in Italy. A sculpture of a pale outstretched hand. A hand reaching out. He’d turned to me and with amazement in his voice, he’d said, “Isn’t that a thing of infinite beauty?” And his eyes had blinked at me like they always did when he was being very serious.
I stand up to adjust the curtain. Between my fingers the material has the texture of sandpaper, but I give it a jerk. I open the curtain just a little more and let just a little more sunshine into my room.   


   
 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Seven reasons why you should put yourself out there

If you want to be taken seriously as a writer you must submit your writing to competitions, literary magazines and journals, and online publishing sites. I can't stress this enough. 





  1. You need to make yourself known. The sooner and more often your name appears on shortlists, runners-up lists, and general announcements, the better. Oh, look it's her again. I wonder what she writes? I wonder if she has a website where I can read her work?
  2. You’ve got nothing to lose. Seriously. You don't believe me? Okay, what are the worst things that can happen? You receive a rejection letter. You don't win. You don't come second. You aren't even short-listed. Get used to it. 
  3. You need to develop. You can't grow as a writer if you don't read the writing that's winning competitions and being published. 
  4. You can’t flourish in the dark. Once upon a time you could write a novel (preferably while you were lonely and starving and in a garret) and become enormously famous. Those days are over. Now you have to push yourself into the limelight, make yourself known in writing circles, blog if possible, get a domain name and publish your work. Twitter? Maybe. In my opinion Twitter should only be used by people who think before they speak, otherwise you risk doing yourself and your reputation irreparable harm.
  5. You need to grow a thick skin. See 2 above. Getting rejection letters and not winning competitions is part of a writer's life. Okay, I know it's hard. I've been writing since before some of you were born, and I still hurt when I'm rejected. Only nowadays I get over it pretty quickly. Sometimes it isn't the quality of your writing, but that your topic or style doesn't suit the publication you've submitted to. If you're submitting to online journals you should always research what kind of work they publish. 
  6. You might do okay in a competition. You might be short-listed. Or be a runner-up. Or you might receive a letter from a literary mag that says, Sorry, not this time, but we love your stuff. What a thrill that would be. What a boost to your self-confidence.
  7. You might do very well. You might win. Hooley dooley. Congratulations!  The bottom line: believe in yourself and in your writing. 
A couple of tips: 
  • Don't submit your work until someone else -- preferably another writer, ideally two writers -- has read it and critiqued it, and you've taken his/her suggestions on board;
  • Don't submit until the night before the comp closes. That way you'll avoid entering and then realising you want to change something, or some word/phrase/punctuation wasn't quite right.

Some competitions closing in the next few weeks:

Short story for Overland Story wine prize. Any topic, but IMO stories to do with wine will have the edge. Entries must be under 1000 words. See
Short story for page seventeen. Any topic. Entries must be under 3000 words. See 
Short story for Society of Women Writers. Entries must be under 1500 words. See 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Writing for literary journals

A friend, who knows lots about writing short stories for competitions, has just asked me how to write for literary journals. She said she knows I've had success with this, hence her question. 



I'd hardly call my brush with literary journals success. I've been published in two: The Stilts Handbook of Adventure, and Rex, which I think is no longer in publication but which was the literary journal of the Queensland University of Technology. But I'll have a go at answering her question...

There isn't an easy answer. Or a formula. And the question makes me think of something I thought up in the car this morning. I was driving along, listening to music as I always do, and Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man came on and, with apologies to Bob, I changed the lyrics.

You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You write something down and you say, Where'd that come from?
You try so hard, but you don't understand
Because something is happening here, and you 
don't know what it is, do you, Mrs George? 

The words to dwell on are, Because something is happening here, and you don't know what it is. Because that is my experience with my own literary writing: it comes out of left field; it is hard to analyse; it is hard to explain how I came by it.
 
My friend's question also makes me think of a blog I posted in January last year, about how to tell the difference between literary fiction and mainstream. Because the obvious answer is you've got to write something literary if you want to submit to a literary journal. 

And how do you write something literary? All I can say is that the words have got to resonate long after they've been read, they've got to mean more than just words on a page, and sometimes that isn't even it. Sometimes writing can be literary simply because the writer uses words in an abstract way. For example, the poet e e cummings. I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky, and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.  Do you see what I mean? The writing's got to be elevated to another level.



The obvious thing to say here is that if you want to write for literary journals the first thing to do is research the literary journal you want to submit to, and find out what kind of writing they like to publish. Or, if you have a piece that's literary, do your homework and match it to a journal. 
 
I recently had the privilege of attending a masterclass with the New Zealand writer, Lloyd Jones. Something he suggested doing every day was closing your eyes and simply writing anything that came to mind. I think he called it playing with words. And it was important to keep your eyes closed. I know this might sound crazy, but I think literary writing is connected with this; it comes from being able to think outside the box, and giving yourself freedom to write in an exploratory fashion. 

If anyone can add to this, or has a more logical explanation, I'd love to hear it.