Uh oh… I’ve been left unsupervised… PARTY AT DI’S HOUSE! Hmmm, tempting, tempting, except that upholsterer absconded with our couch over four weeks ago and hasn’t been seen since, so there’s nowhere to sit except my lap, and look, I’m just not that kind of girl…
But LBJ is currently winging his way to Hong Kong for the rubgy test between Australia and New Zealand, which means that I am footloose and fancy-free for the weekend… Naturally I booked a hair appointment for this happy day exactly six weeks ago, so that will kick off the festival of freedom nicely. Not that Llew keeps me in manacles or anything; it’s just a reasonably novel event after nearly 12 years together to find myself swingin’ solo. He’ll be the same, I think. Wandering around Hong Kong lost, looking for the fairy who folds his underwear…I hope he remembers to eat something.
So the plan is this: girls’ night tonight, oh yes, bring it on. You would think none of us had ever been out before in our lives from the excitement. I feel like I am suppressing a squeal, and trust me, I don’t really do the whole clapping, high-pitched thing. But that mounting mood of anticipation is palpable… it’s just four of us, and we’re not exactly planning a night on the tiles, just a civilised dinner with some drinks, and still you’d think it was Christmas. Only much, much better.
Saturday I’m planning to keep it local. I’m going to sleep in, and then I’m going to go for a run and a swim. Afterwards I’ll go to Harris Farm Market and stock the fridge with goodies. Stone fruit. Berries. All my favourite things. After that I plan to swing in the hammock, listening to records, reading the paper and/or a book, and enjoying the ocean breeze. I plan to spin that out for several languid hours. Saturday night I’d quite like to watch the rugby, but I’d prefer to go to a friend’s place up the road if they’re around. Not sure if they are, which means my Saturday night venue is TBA. Whatever happens, I’m not sure I can be arsed leaving Man Town. Once I knock off work and walk away from my desk for the week, this place is once again transformed into my home, not my office, and generally speaking there are few places I’d rather be.
Sunday… Sunday’s a good one. I’m back up in Katoomba Monday for an all-day ‘Pathways to Publication’ seminar, run by Varuna, because I need all the help I can get. I’m hoping it’ll be full of worthwhile information and food for thought. Also I get to catch up with Peter Bishop, which will be lovely, and I’m hoping to meet some other Varuna Alumni too. Basically it all comes back to that ‘community of writers’ thing I’ve been banging on about. The more the merrier. So instead of waking up at 5 am on Monday to get up to Katoomba by 9, I’m heading up early. There’s nothing keeping me at home without my Llewie, so I thought I’d do some travel writing instead, and asked one of my editors if he’d be interested in a weekend getaway piece. He said okay, so now I’m checking in at Echoes for the night. It’s a superb looking property, and I can’t wait to get my room key. I love hotels. I love good hotels even more. I even dedicated a whole chapter of my PhD thesis to them, so I plan to get full mileage out of this one. Unfortunately, they’re not even half as fun without my partner in crime, but I’m determined to valiantly struggle on without him! Duty calls! Yes, I love my job. I really do.
So… I’ll be back here with a new post Tuesday 4 November, hopefully armed with all sorts of weaponry for getting my manuscript in front of the right people at the right time. To that end, it’s that time of the year again: my application went up yesterday for the Varuna HarperCollins Manuscript Development Awards. You may remember I entered last year and didn’t make the long list. I feel a whole range of emotions now I find myself, a whole year later, entering the exact same thing. I just keep telling myself that although the competition hasn’t changed, my manuscript certainly has, and maybe this time will be different. Maybe it won’t, but maybe it will. And when you’ve got nothing to lose, that’s more than enough.
I’ve been one lucky lady when it comes to the friends in my life (oh come on now, don’t be shy! You know who you are!). I have more than my share, if there is such a thing. And a little while ago, I thought I’d “maxed out” – there was no room at the inn, or on my Christmas card list, or in my mobile, or in my email account, or in my diary. It’s hard enough getting together with my oldest friends – trying to accommodate new ones, well, that’s just asking for trouble. That’s a total pain. Go away, new people! That’s what I thought. I can’t befriend you! Stop that! Just cut it out! Stop making me like you! But people insinuate their way into my heart in such a lot of ways that every now and again, I’m simply caught out on the full.
This happened with the Darklings, as you know. I fell for my writing girls hard, and now we have our Virtual Varuna, where we exchange and talk about our manuscripts online. I am so glad and grateful for them that I very nearly gush when someone asks me how it’s all going. And they don’t spare the rod, either. There’s no coddling of any sort. To be perfectly honest I would have liked just a little bit of patting on the head, because it would be quite soothing – yes, yes, tell me again how you liked that bit best, and then tell me what else you liked, go on – even though I know it’s better for me, and much better for my manuscript, that I don’t get it. But they don’t indulge my vanities or pander to my sometimes near-crippling insecurities at all, forcing me to pick myself up, dust myself off, and get back down to business. And I like to think I am doing the same thing for each of them. Certainly I am trying to, because I know how much I’m getting out of what they give to me. And I think that’s a pretty profound level of friendship for people who have only known each other two months. There’s so much trust. Maybe it was the intensity of the week, maybe we got lucky, who knows? All I know is, you do adjust the net, and it turns out there’s a few holes for extra friends to slip through after all.
Which is a good thing, really, because I’ve gone and done it again. Honestly, life would be much simpler if the world was full of arseholes. As it is, shit, you can’t move an inch without bumping into someone great. It’s EXHAUSTING. Oh I like you, and you, and yes, you too, oh, please, here’s my card, write, we must have drinks, fantastic, oh, yes, it was great to meet you too! Of course I’m talking about the Jakarta Junketeers. More. Cool. People. More potential f-words. You know, friends. How did that happen? I was determined that this time I really wouldn’t make any friends. I’d be aloof. Keep to myself. Stay out of trouble. Sit. On. My. Hands. But could I do it? No. I could not. I did not. I befriended, and it was good.
Here’s an email exchange I shared with a friend yesterday (I was wondering who could relate):
Friend: am desp for a whole new wardrobe di, going NUTS with my clothes. went to american apparel today. could the shop assistants look more bored and less interested in me and could the neon lights in the change rooms be any more cruel? i discovered spots and hairs i didn’t even know i had till i was under those glaring harsh lights. also, fat mirrors in change rooms is definitely a no-no. instead of a slim and svelte goddess looking back at me, a dumpy chunky food stained mother of two looked back. suffice it to say, bought nothing.
Di: what is with bad mirrors in 2008?? there’s just no call for it. i was trying on a pair of SHORTS – shorts! last worn circa…1989 – and the change-room mirror compared to the store mirror was like a cross between a fun park trick o’ the glass and a ‘before and after’ spread. spread being the operative. i am so with you on this, [friend]. i just wanted to shuffle home to my box of biscuits.
Why oh why do they insist on making change-rooms a site of utter devastation? It can’t be good for business. I like an honest mirror as much as the next woman, which is to say, not so much, so I’d happily buy something from the store that thoughtfully went to the trouble of deluding me with soft lighting and skinny mirrors before I’d buy something from a store that makes me feel like I am in a community health surgery lancing a boil.
Sometimes I like to see the full story. Just so I know what I’m dealing with. David Jones is good for that; they surround you with glass, and there is nowhere to hide. You can see you arse, your hips, your weak chin, your flat chest and your canteen ladies all at the same time. It’s hard to know where to look. You don’t really realise how much that swivel you do in front of the mirror at home saves you from yourself until there’s no need to swivel. Suddenly there’s six of you. You as seen from multiple angles. You as the world sees you. You from behind.
It’s particularly tricky when you add to this happy occasion the ultimate humiliation, the swimsuit, because for hygiene purposes, you have to keep your underwear on whilst you’re slipping into that racy new bikini. It’s difficult to avoid feeling ridiculous when your Bonds cottontails are gathering like sheep dags all around your bikini line and arse cheeks. You don’t really want a layering effect in this area. Most of us past the age of 25 have quite enough trouble reigning in the layers all on our own, thanks very much. Then there’s the mystery that is Australian sizing, a mystery that sends you lurching from euphoria to clinical depression and back again before you’ve even bought so much as a plain white t-shirt from Esprit. How can a size 8 in one place be a 12 somewhere else? I’ve actually had my legs stuck in stovepipe jeans. At the knee. Several times. If someone had bumped me, I would have toppled over like the proverbial tree in the woods (“If a woman falls over in a change room and nobody hears her scream, does she still get a 25% discount off the second pair?”). This happens not because I have acute masochistic tendencies, but because past experience leads me to believe I know my size. But I don’t. I never do. There’s no such thing.
Why do we do it to ourselves? I think I can answer that. It’s because every once in a very long while, the mirror on the wall smiles at you, and the dress fits, the shoes are perfect, and, for a brief but exquisite moment, you feel great.
I remember the first time I heard Leonard Cohen, which was a moment not unlike first reading a previously undiscovered but instantly beloved poet. The comparison is hardly surprising: Cohen is known as a poet (among other things) as much as he’s known as a songwriter. It was like the shock of recognition you get when you bump into someone you know when you’re on the other side of the world. How can this be? Is it you? And it was very much like that, because I was on the other side of the world, and I felt I’d always known that voice and those words, as though they’d been visited upon me in sleep.
I’m a strange case musically. I’m hopeless with band names, just dreadful, but sit me down in front of a radio and play me some current tunes, and I’ll be able to identify stuff I like. I won’t know who’s singing or what the band’s called or what genre their marketing department at their record label says they belong to, but I’ll know straightaway if I like their sound or not. I tend to be quite definite in the case of music; much more so than in any other sensory and creative exchange. I’ve read bad books, the worst, genuinely appalling insults to the profession, ’til the bitter end, but you start up any heavy metal around me and I will make my excuses and walk out the door. In Jakarta, I knew before I put it in my mouth that the slimy snot-green dessert was not going to be to my liking, but I ate it anyway. All of it. Just to make sure. Rent a shit DVD that’s essentially unwatchable and a crime against my precious time on this earth? I can’t look away. But try getting me to listen to Shannon Noll. You don’t even have to tell me it’s him, and I wouldn’t know or care, not because it’s Shannon Noll, it’s got nothing to do with it. I don’t know anything about him. I hold no grudge against the man. Go sing from the highest mountain, Shaz. Please. I’m just quietly confident that you could call his music whatever you wanted to call it, and I’d politely listen to it for as long as I could stand it, and then I’d say, “I don’t like it. Get it off.”
My tastes in music are as variable as my moods (or as Llew and I like to call them, all my extra special personalities). I’ve actually danced in a Kathmandu store because they put a Scissors Sisters song on that made me feel like dancing. I think it’s even called ‘I Feel Like Dancing.’ I couldn’t help it. My toes started tapping and before I knew it, I was bopping past the tents and sliding down toward the billy cans and Swiss Army knives. Llew pretended he didn’t know me and went and stood behind the prussiking ropes until the song finished. I find some of their songs infectious. That is the only word for it. Curtis Mayfield also makes me want to shake. And the Jackson Five.
Then there’s Amy Winehouse, that poor, fucked up little girl lost. I had heard her music around the traps for ages and ages before I put that voice together with that frail little junkie with the beehive. It was a nasty shock, actually. I couldn’t believe that mess-head was responsible for that sound. Then again, I don’t know why I was so surprised. What did I think made her pen a song like ‘Rehab’? Not chocolate biscuits. She’s got a fine voice, Amy, and I just love hearing it out there in the world.
Singing is the only creative expression that human beings carry within themselves. Everything else requires material of some description. I was having this discussion again with the Jakarta Junket teamsters, and it’s one that has been cropping up a lot lately. I don’t know why. But think about it. I need materials to do what I do. I have notebooks and pens and sometimes I even write on serviettes. I’d write on toilet paper if it was all I had going. Writers need instruments. They have tools. Same with musicians. Same with artists. Painters, sculptors, photographers, cartoonists. Film makers. Chefs, if you want to take it that far. All of these creative endeavours require something external to the creator. Except singing. It is so pure for that, I think, and perhaps it’s why I admire singers so much (aside from the obvious reason, which is that I’m a woefully shit singer). They hold their creativity within themselves. They make it happen entirely from within, and many people can cite at least one time that the sound of someone else’s voice moved them to tears. I bow down to that – how wonderful.
What does this have to do with Leonard Cohen? Oh, just memories, I guess.
Where to begin?
I’m home again, and outside the surf is pumping. There’s a salt haze right across the beach that makes it all look vaguely like a dreamscape, and tilting my face up to meet the warming sun and our endless blue sky does nothing to dislodge this odd sense of hyper-reality. Sometimes it’s so beautiful here that it’s hard to keep looking.
Jakarta was a blast, although not in the way DFAT is concerned about. The truth is I felt incredibly safe the whole time. It has to be one of the most non-threatening places I’ve ever been, although in fairness to all those violent extremists out there dedicated to making the world a frightening place – because I’d hate to offend them by suggesting they’re not on their game – I will say we were in a pretty soft, very controlled environment, so maybe we just missed their no doubt worthy efforts at getting our attention. Maybe there were trouble spots and terror cells and lunatics aplenty, but I didn’t see them. True, I wasn’t exactly mixing it up with the fanatics – unless you count the other journalists, who were a rabid lot after a couple of drinks in the lobby bar – but even so, I found Union Square in Washington D.C a much, much scarier place to be a woman walking alone down the street.
This is a good thing. I was unduly afraid before leaving for this trip, and all the worst case scenarios bobbed around in my mind like so many dumplings in a greasy soup. The language of terror is so evocative and now so (terribly, yes) familiar. When Australians think ‘Indonesia’ these days, ‘Bali Bombing’ is not far behind. It’s a toxic game of word association that allows you to forget the millions of peace-loving, obliging, sweetly smiling Indonesians in favour of the mere handful of brainwashed shitheads responsible for the loss of life in the embassy and tourist attacks. It’s intellectually lazy of us that we discount the logical case for the much more unlikely, sensational one, and I feel duly abashed for having fallen for it. I fell for it. In worrying so excessively about visiting Indonesia, I fell for the hysterical hyperbole as quickly as any jihadist, and basically the second I landed on Indonesian soil, I realised what I had done, and I gave myself a bit of a hard slap around the chops. Wake up. Yes, use common sense, yes, listen to official warnings, yes, do your homework, but Jakarta is a peaceful place full of generous, friendly people. Teeming with them, in fact. And how bewildering they would find it, I think, to know just how worried I’d been.
If you ask me, ignorance is the biggest enemy in just about all things. And I’m glad to say I’m now slightly less ignorant of the reality of life in Jakarta than I was a week ago. Only slightly because it was a quick trip with a full itinerary that mainly involved the Trade Expo, which was the reason we were all there, but it’s enough that I’d like to go back, and enough that I can say I won’t be anywhere near so quick to push the panic button the next time I’m on my way to a Muslim country. There are dangerous people everywhere, that’s true, but you know what? I’m so completely positive that we’ve got ’em covered.
Team, so sorry for the radio silence. I neglected (bad, bad blogger) to tell you that I was going to be in Jakarta this week for a freelance job, and this is the very first opportunity I’ve had to hit a computer (I stupidly didn’t pack the right cable for my own). So… I am away, and enjoying an entirely new country, and that incredible humidity that builds up an unquenchable thirst for ice-cold beer. You’ll be pleased to know I’m earning my reward; it’s been a jam-packed few days and the itinerary is looking pretty dense for the time remaining. I’ll return with all the Indonesian news next week, Monday 27 October. Now where’s that waiter…
Llew and I are mourning the loss of our local. It’s not a local in the true sense (which I think has to be a pub), but it was definitely the annex to our home from day one. The very day we took possession of our apartment, we celebrated with dinner at Jellyfish, and it was the first of many, many, many meals there with a procession of friends and family that came from as far afield as London and Port Moresby. We claimed it, we loved it, we ought to have had shares in it. You may remember Jellyfish from a post of several months back, about how we came to buy our favourite local cafe’s communal table, and I am sitting at that enormous piece of furniture right now. As a desk it is its own empire. And I must say, it is lovely to have plucked something so spectacular from the ruins.
We had our last meal at Jellyfish last Friday night. I had a mad day, Llew had a mad day, and by the time we were finally reunited, it was after 9pm and neither of us had had dinner or even so much as a Campari and soda. We hesitated about even going there – see what’s happened?! – but then reasoned that by the time we got down to the village proper, kitchens would be closing left, right, and centre and we’d be in danger of having to line up for a kebab on Sydney Road with all the youth (who for some reason are now sporting all the 80s gear we couldn’t wait to be rid of back when it was a n-e-w thing… it’s inconceivable to me that this appalling style-free decade is actually being imitated now – who’d have thought?! Poor pets). So reluctantly we cut our losses and ducked our heads and fought our way through the tarp into Jellyfish.
I wish they’d change the name. It doesn’t seem right to me that they can keep the name but spoil the atmosphere. I don’t know what that shark-silver bar with the wave effect is all about, but you can keep it. And as for the tarp, drop the opening and it’s as close as a cave in there. I felt like a canary in a mine. The ocean and its exquisite relief was just outside, but we couldn’t cut through the plastic to get at some of that oxygen. Nope. We were trapped with the floor manager instead.
I hate to keep harping on about the old Jellyfish, but one of the things the old owners nailed was the combination of floor and kitchen. Pete was on the floor, one of three owners, and he was just incredibly good at his job. Absolutely knew the difference between obliging and intrusive. Oh how we missed him – sob! – on Friday night. I haven’t been as murderously irritated by another individual since the Nerds Gone Native during and post-Vanuatu. I wanted to stab this guy with my fork. And the shame of it is that our food was good. If I averted my gaze from that garish Modern Australian Coastal Eatery Refit (as Llew said, “They’ve turned it into Dee Why…” – can we please, puh-lease ease up on the beach theme, people? We get it, we get it, there’s water out there, gotcha), and if I covered my ears to drown out the floor manager’s voice, I could have almost had a good time. But, you know, I cover my ears, I don’t eat; I don’t cover my ears, I hear idiot.
He was the most boorish loudmouth I’ve encountered since the man on the train from the airport after Vanuatu, no question. Actually they reminded me of each other a lot. The people at the table next to ours were trying to have a romantic date – champagne and all – and this dick stood over their table systematically ruining it for them, proclaiming over and over again that he “just loves people, I love talking to people, I just love those people, there’s nothing I love more than spending night after night talking to people.” Um. No. No, buddy, that would be talking at people, and I’m pretty sure if we read some of the feedback forms they’re now including with the bill (nothing smacks of desperation quite like a ‘Tell Us What You Think!’ quiz for the diner. It lacks confidence, and it asks the customer to work without pay), all those people, night after night, might be getting a little sick of all that love.
Worse, he kept threatening to give them a song. “I’m a performer, I love singing, I love interacting with my audience, with my fans. People are always telling me they just love listening to me sing, it makes people happy. Just wait, wait right here, I’ll be right back, I’ll do a number for you and it’ll blow you away. People love my singing, and I love to sing, I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.”
Llew and I looked at each other, terrified. Llew pleaded with his eyes: please don’t let him sing, Di. I shook my head and started eating faster. Thankfully Sinatra was called away and had to go do some actual work (and didn’t he ever want a biscuit afterwards! He wanted a big round of applause from the audience so, so badly as he self-consciously hefted a milk crate from out back and walked it to the fridge like it was the Mr Universe final and all the girls were screaming for him), and you should have seen this couple burn out of there whilst his back was turned. He sensed it, and turned slowly toward the exit – “N-o-o-o-o…!!” – and even tried calling them back, but luckily they had a good head-start, and I found myself cheering them on – “Don’t look back, just run, run, run for your lives!” as they fought the tarp and finally won).
With them gone, we became the little fawns in the open field. I almost gagged in my haste to flee to safety. Refusing to make eye contact with Sinatra, lest he mistake it for an invitation to break into song instead of deliver our bill to the table, we dashed for the cashier, threw money at her face, then ducked and covered until we were safely on the other side. Jellyfish, it was fun, but we’re through.
Have just filed another story – it never rains! So unstable, freelance. I love the fact that it’s always changing, but a week like this one just leaves me feeling like a blue-arsed fly, I guess particularly because I generally structure my workday, no one else (a delicious freedom), and many of my deadlines are self-imposed. But this week it feels like I’ve been interviewing, transcribing, and writing around the clock – with one very long lunch in between, true…
Yes, the Sydney chapter of the Dark Girls, a.k.a the Darklings, met for lunch yesterday, the first of what we’re planning to make a lifetime of reunions “A.V.”, or After Varuna. After we left Varuna, I finished off a little hybrid piece of writing retelling one of our nights there. It was one particular conversation, in fact, that I thought was hilarious (and yes, we’d been drinking). Where it suited me, I made up comments that were never uttered, and attributed personality traits that may or may not be accurate, but the main thrust of it was very much my impression of the night. Anyway, I tell you this only because I assigned us all names based on our novels – indeed, I’m Hybrid – so in case any of them would prefer to remain nameless (a bit too late for the Changeling, I think, since I’ve already talked about Wasp Season several times here), I’ll use those names now: the Dark Heart, the Disappointed Daughter, the Changeling and the steamy, flesh-obsessed Sensual Bookstore.
The Melbourne chapter comprises the Changeling and the Sensual Bookstore, and it was very sad meeting up without them. It emphasised again just how perfect the whole Varuna set-up was: a whole luxurious week of space and time for writing and talking. But desperate women who spend an inordinate of time sitting alone in a silent room really cannot afford to be fussy, so we had no choice but to press on without our Darklings down south. Dark Heart, the Disappointed Daughter and I met in Glebe at Sappho, the bookstore/cafe next door to Gleebooks. I had not been to Glebe since dinner at Lai Heng and Roberto’s house months ago, and I can’t even remember the last time before that. It’s always good to be there, in a great part of town with any number of relaxed cafes as well as one of Sydney’s most beloved bookstores.
Weren’t we just three Cheshire puss-alikes, colliding happily in the doorway, a tangle of white teeth and open arms? Do you think we were maybe just a little bit pleased to see each other? You betcha. What did I even do before they came into my life? Oh that’s right, I very often despaired of ever being part of a community of writers, and I felt increasingly desperate and isolated about it as I toiled away here on my own. Now we’ve established our Virtual Varuna, exchanging work and comments and ideas over email on a near-daily basis, I don’t feel that way anymore at all. And let me tell you, it is a merciful relief even knowing they’re out there, so having two out of four of them sitting opposite me at lunch was beyond exciting.
We talked about everyone’s stuff, but I guess I got a bit greedy, because we certainly spent a long time talking about mine. The Dark Heart had read the whole thing, and came to lunch with pages of notes. See what I mean? How great is that? For someone who is GAGGING for feedback, a chapter-by-chapter breakdown is about as good as it gets. Of course it is disappointing and frustrating to realise that I still have at least one more major redraft ahead of me, I’d be lying if I said that didn’t bother me at all (Tim sent me a fabulous Joseph Conrad quote the other day on this very thing. Conrad wrote to a friend that the thought of rewriting made him want to butt his head into a wall, which he followed with the eerily familiar words “I feel like screaming and foaming at the mouth, but I daren’t” – oh, I hear you, Joe, I hear you!). It feels a bit wretched, actually, staring at the long list of problems that need fixing – and it was a long list! The Dark Heart did not hold back, bless her. But it’s so invaluable getting that other perspective, or both those other perspectives in my very privileged case yesterday, that it’s hard to feel anything other than glad overall (she says, pulling out another clump of greying hair). And the truth is, I probably haven’t done enough of the purely technical work yet. There is a lot of technique that goes into supporting the structure that becomes the novel, and if I am totally honest, I haven’t paid my dues in that area at present, so it’s little wonder the foundations are still a little wobbly.
So now that I’ve filed this latest story (on cancer; trust me, you don’t want to know), can I please go back to facing the music? Thank you. I think I shall.
It’s a hell of a thing to have written five drafts of this manuscript only to realise like a dummy – and I’ve realised it only because I’ve been told – that there’s no narrative arc. Huh? What’s that, you say? No narrative arc? Whaddya mean? It’s right there, isn’t it? Character moves through time, shit happens, more shit happens, character takes a multitude of wrong turns, falls over in the shit, rolls around in the shit, pulls herself out of the shit and, finally, yep, gets her shit together. How, I wondered, was this not the narrative arc??
Well, since beginning to think about this in earnest late last Friday night, when I got my latest round of professional feedback, I’ve finally come to see the point, or at least I’ve begun to, because doing something to address it isn’t going to be such a cinch. And I’d like to stress that it was actually something I consciously resisted. I wanted my fiction to be true to life. Life doesn’t throw up those helpful literary signposts that alert the reader to the fact that, eventually, everything will be okay. Life’s just a blind bunfight, from what I can see, and I really instinctively wanted my fiction to reflect that. Ironically, that very desire has now created a classification issue of some magnitude, because some people have read the resulting manuscript quite definitely as non-fiction. As I’ve already explained, it’s at best a hybrid, but I’ve made up so much of it (characters, dialogue, events and places) that I couldn’t make a non-fiction claim for it without all sorts of qualifications that end up making it sound more like… fiction, which, let’s face it, is what I thought I was doing the whole time, right up until I got to Varuna. But the thing is, I have to make a decision about which it’s to be. There has to be a clear classification. It’s unhelpful to say ‘Oh, it’s a bit of both,’ and no one is going to welcome that with open arms and a publishing contract.
The other reason I need to make a specific claim for the text is that at this crossroads, the issue of whether it’s fiction or creative non-fiction needs to be decided in order to help me determine the changes that remain to be made. The narrative arc I keep hearing so much about is thoroughly dependent on which way I go. If I were to make it more of a creative non-fiction text, I’d go back and probably start replacing some of the fictional elements with non-fictional ones. This would take some doing, and I’m not at all sure my manuscript would benefit from my making it more my story and less the invented character’s. That wasn’t the idea at all, and in fact I was interested in exploring the road not taken; that was the whole point when I first started writing it.
If, on the other hand, I were to make it quite clearly even more of a fictional text, I’d have a different remit. One of the things I’ve found curious about this process thus far, and which I’ve mentioned before, is that when I first started writing, there was much more thinly-veiled (or not so) autobiography, but less of me. As it went on, and I gained a bit more confidence and a better clue about what the hell I was doing, there was much, much more invention, but, oddly, concurrently much more of me. Not “me” as in the facts of my life, of which there were fewer and fewer as I gradually edited them out, but “me” as in my voice, my personality, sense of humour and beliefs. It was fascinating to experience, and it remains a fascinating part of the process. So in order to place it firmly, once and for all in the fictional realm, I need, I think, to imagine a forward story for my character, rather than a back story. A forward story that is not mine. And that forward story will help, I think, shape and control the story I tell in the manuscript, which is this forward character’s back story. Does that make sense? It sort of does to me, although these are new thoughts and I am still thinking them through even as I write this. I was making like Murakami yesterday, running and thinking, thinking and running, and sure enough, an idea came to me that I think may be if not the solution to my missing narrative arc then at least a way in, a hole in the wall through which I may just be able to crawl. I may graze my knees on the way through, but I do so want to know who and what’s on the other side.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Llew’s such a handy man. It’s fantastic living with someone who has a clue about these things; I can often see what needs doing, but have no chance of actually doing it myself, and so it was with the shelves. We are running a little short on space, which is ridiculous because we’re just two and whole extended families live in dwellings half the size of our apartment, but it’s true. My office hogs the biggest room in the place, so the living space is a little squeezed, and utterly sans storage.
This would be less of a problem if Llew and I periodically threw out unused gadgets, unread school essays and whatever is in those treasure chests I’m almost too afraid to open, but a lack of storage requires a ruthlessness I do not possess. Am I ever going be in the position – let alone the mood – to listen to that Billy Bragg cassette tape from 1991? I don’t know, but just try prising it from my death-grip. Those council clean-ups come round and round, and every time I think, “I should throw everything out. All of it. I don’t need any of this stuff. I just want to live in an empty room. A nice, big, totally empty room. That’s all I want.” But do I do it? No. I don’t. I step over the archive boxes and stub my toes on the corner of the treasure chest, and I ask myself what on earth it was I meant to do…
If you can’t be ruthless, then you need an innovative solution. Now, I haven’t the faintest clue how to do-it-myself, but Llew is the maestro, the champion, the king of DIY. Llew’s great at it, and it doesn’t bother me even a little bit that I’m not (which is unlike me, as I can be a very sore loser. Or at least, generally speaking, I despise being hopeless at things, although you’d think I’d be used to it by now, what with all my experience). I just sit back whenever an outbreak of DIY strikes Chez J and watch the wizard at work, occasionally applauding his genius and doing the pie run at half-time.
I do really love some of our things. Certain artworks, pieces of furniture, and of course my beautiful books, all bring me an almost spiritual contentment. They are the texture of our lives, and I derive great pleasure from them. But when I walked into Sarah’s pristine, perfect apartment on Saturday night, I very nearly collapsed in worship before a very different altar. Sarah’s place is immaculate. So spotless, and so uncluttered. Yes, she has the advantage of being able to deliver everything she doesn’t currently want or need to her mum and dad’s house, that supreme storage solution so beloved of millions of children, but the result is so blissful and so blinding that you don’t really cling to the reasonable explanation for how someone can actually live like this. You don’t care. All you really want right at that moment is to swap places.
But because Llew and I aren’t capable of creating that picture perfect world (give me half an hour; I’d stain that gleaming couch and scratch those limey floorboards before the door was even closed), we have to create the means to live more harmoniously with our things. And we love records. I actually love looking at vinyl records almost as much as I love listening to them (yes, I’m completely serious). There’s something wonderful about them, and ever since Llew inherited his grandfather Lionel’s record player, we have been slowly building a small selection. We haven’t listened to a single CD since we got the record player. Not one. They’re completely obsolete as far as we’re concerned, so now all they do is take up precious, precious space. Of course, the records take up space too, and here’s where the problem arises, because up until yesterday, there was something so unsightly, so undergraduate about their storage unit. You guessed it: milk crates. Ack.
But a few weeks ago I shared my record storage solution with Llew. It would be a space maximiser, aesthetically pleasing, of a simple but effective design, and of course it would achieve the utmost utility. I would never have been able to create the shelves myself, but I had no problem dreamin’ them up. I’m not bad spatially, perhaps because space intrigues me on all levels conceptually, but I’m hopeless with the nuts and bolts execution. Nonetheless, my idea was solid, and I was sold, so I made my pitch to Llew, and he gave it the all-important handyman seal of approval. So over the weekend, whilst I was in here working, Llewie went off to the hardware store (how does he even know what to buy once he gets there?? I haven’t the faintest idea, but he does it very manfully!), came back, and built our sunroom shelves from scratch. It must be so satisfying to build something with your own two hands like that. Llew’s genuinely great at it, he really did a terrific job, and our record storage shelves – a combined J-team effort of thought and deed – are absolutely rocking. They’re fantastic, exactly as I’d imagined, and the milk crates went out last night. Who knew storage could be so satisfying?