So I finished Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American a couple of books back, but we only just had the book club meeting on it last night, so it’s back in the forefront of my mind. I now wish I’d chosen What I Loved, which is the one I became aware of thanks to blogging friends. I ended up with Sorrows by default; it was all they had in the store, and I wanted to get cracking (Changeling tries to urge patience, but I always want an Oompa Loompa now). I think what I found ultimately dissatisfying about the novel is so interesting to me because it exposes the hazards of a meandering narrative arc. There’s very little in the way of denouement in the book. Sure, there’s some, but if you’re waiting for a pay off, it ain’t comin’. And life’s like that, which is something I originally attempted to convey in my own manuscript. I wanted to remove those narrative structures. I wanted it to be life-like in its suspension of resolution. I’ve spoken about the effect of this before: it made the book read like non-fiction (which it isn’t, and I can’t make a non-fiction claim for it save that there are certain elements inspired by my own experience). It didn’t succeed as a novel. Sorrows is a much less extreme example, there’s plenty of narratological scaffolding in place, but I think it still suffers from a lack of imperative. What is it all about? Why am I reading this to the end? As a fiction reader, I was able to see quite clearly what I need and expect from a fiction writer, and where I had failed in fulfilling that pact in earlier drafts of my own work. I don’t say I’ve got the problem licked, but I am aware of it, and I have taken pretty extreme action to address it.
Anyway, one of the things that felt a bit disingenuous in the book is the referencing of 9/11. I would be deeply interested to know what American readers think of Hustvedt’s handling of this; I found it forced and uncomfortable. It made me wonder if this is to be the terrible fate of contemporary East Coast writers, to be forever locked in a room with an endlessly spooling rerun of that day’s dreadful, unthinkable events. How do they gain release from something so all-consuming? After 9/11, can any New York writer truly get past that blue-sky day? Will it recede in time and relinquish its grip on the collective writerly imagination (and worse, memory)? How? And what will take its place? It’s in Hustvedt’s husband Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life… It’s not surprising that the city’s writers are compelled to write about this event – on the contrary, I think we need them to – but there was a self-consciousness to its presence in Sorrows that I found curious and almost cold. In fact, emotionally I would say it’s a pretty cold book overall, and I don’t think it’s just because of the sections set in the wintry mid-west.
After that I read Charlotte Wood’s second novel, The Submerged Cathedral. So different to her third – The Children – TSC is an Australian love story of fairly epic endurance by the time we see our two lovers reunited. It was looking pretty dicey there for a while, let me tell you. Charlotte has an incredible gift for evoking Australian flora and fauna; I read on her blog that her novels haven’t been published overseas because they’re deemed “too Australian,” but I find that astonishing. Surely there must be readers overseas who are interested in our vast and sunburnt land? Who find it bewitching that we have a word like “girt” in our national anthem?!! Charlotte’s ability to bring the land alive is something you’d think would appeal as part of the frontier tradition so established now in America (and isn’t that ironic?), but hey, what would I know? I was totally perplexed by the characters at times, though. So many of the obstacles keeping the two lovers apart and unhappy were entirely self-inflicted and might have been criminally easy to resolve… so I confess I did get awfully cross with them both for their various paralyses. Sometimes you just want to give characters a good hard shake. But gee, as I said to Charlotte, as a notorious black thumb (keep me out of your gardens and away from your plants), TSC definitely made me wish that gardening were a gift or even inclination of mine. As it is I’ll have to content myself with the garden she brought to life in my mind.
Last but not least, I’ve knocked over the book Darkling JB sent me, David Malouf’s new novel, Ransom, a retelling of Homer’s Iliad. Now, I did a year of Ancient History in my first year of university, and I read the Iliad, even surviving the dread tedium of the catalogue of ships (just kill me now, Zeus, for the love of…oh, hang on…), and I think it’s fair to say I promptly fell madly in love with the complicated mythology of the Trojan War, and it’s an ardour that remains undimmed. Malouf – is he about to be pilloried as an Aussie writer for tampering with this ancient tale? I wonder – has done a clever thing in building his story around one key event in a battle that raged for years, being Priam’s recovery of his son Hector’s body from the Greek camp following its 11 days of desecration at the hands of Achilles (who’s still pretty demented with grief over Patroclus’s death). You with me? Okay.
It’s beautifully done. A great way to ignite a modern audience’s interest in a very old story (not that my interest needs to be reignited. I think they’re all pretty cool customers, those Trojans and Myrmidons). I might even be able to persuade Llew to read this one… but if you’re expecting the grand sweep of (apocryphal) history to drum through each and every page, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s a much quieter, much more modest project than that, and much more simply to do with the company of men.
I think I’ve eaten myself into an allergy. At the moment this is all pure speculation, of course, but by deductive reasoning, it does make a certain kind of sense. That is, it makes sense to me, and I’m one of those self-diagnosing types who stalls qualified medical intervention like it’s somehow ennobling. Which, to all you like-minded souls out there, it’s not, it’s just really, really irritating for the people who have to listen to you moan yet again about that thing you still refuse to see the doctor about. Why? Why do we do this? Well, I for one always feel like a terrible hypochondriac at the doctor’s. I don’t need any assistance in this department, hypochondria’s one illness that really runs in the family (wheeze), so by not going, I feel like I am keeping my hypochondria at bay. Let it into a doctor’s surgery and give it the smallest validation and I won’t be responsible for what happens.
I hate going. I really like my doctor, she’s cool and serene and really pretty excellent, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend any time with her at all ever if I can possibly avoid it. Nothing personal. It’s just I always feel like I’m faking it whenever I’m there. This is similar, although I can’t think how, to the fact that I brace every time I walk out of a department store. There’s a tiny part of me that flinches as though I’m expecting to set off the alarms. The funniest thing about this is that I am dead certain I start looking suspicious on my way to the doors. My gait even shifts slightly, so that I get this weird marionette half skipping thing happening. I can also feel the gormless “Who me? Wha..?” expression starting to form on my face. If I were a store detective, I’d be exactly the kind of shifty character I’d follow out. And I feel the same way looking across at my kind and elegant GP. So I avoid her, because the doctor is much easier to avoid than the department store, and there’s only so much awkward loping I can cope with before it becomes easier to simply stay home and out of trouble.
So. Back to my allergy. I thought the weird red rash that’s sort of devoured the skin under my left eye was a nerve rash created by my pronounced manuscript anxiety. It arrived at around the same time I sent the MS to Catherine, so I was pretty sure the two were related. My body sometimes really likes to extend its sympathies to my mind, and this seemed like one of those times. But I neglected to think about what else its appearance coincided with, and that was Easter. Easter for most people means chocolate, but not me. Sure, I ate a couple of choc-bunnies from Lindt and a milk chocolate egg from Darrel Lea, but that was it. I’m just not a huge chocolate person (although I have recently rediscovered the joys of the CHOMP – it’s a delicious combination and wafer and caramel dipped in chocolate), and Easter, for me, is about something else entirely. Namely hot cross buns. Now, I know I told you I’d been feasting on my hot cross buns with lashings of butter over the Easter long weekend, but what was happening off-screen was slightly more excessive. I was shoving down those bad boys two at a time every breakfast. I polished off an entire cake of butter in a week. I was locked and larded.
And then came my eye thing. Last week, as I neared the end of my final pack of buns (sniff, sniff), it really started looking angry. I went to the chemist to see if they could give me something for it (they couldn’t, it’s too close to my eyeball), and the chemist said “Have you changed your routine recently?” I said no, because my skincare routine hasn’t changed, but later on I started wondering if there were any other things I’d recently introduced into my life. It was either the hot cross buns or the bags of service station lollies I discovered at the servo at the end of my street. All the jubes are there, all the old favourites from when we still had milk bars when I was a kid. I tell you what, those lolly bags got me through some pretty manic redrafting and helped kick along last week’s freelance job too. So it was the lollies or the buns. Then we had dinner last Friday with another couple. N works in pharmaceuticals, so I leaned my scabby face across the table and demanded to know if he had any big ideas on what the hell I was supposed to do about it. He squinted at the red angry skin for a minute then said “I got that from cholesterol once.”
Butter. The butter on the buns. The lashings and lashings and lashings of butter on the buns. That’s got to be it. For three intensive weeks, I scoffed those hot cross buns with dripping melted butter and I savoured every last delectable morsel. But did I perchance go overboard? Did I give myself a little butter blight? I wonder, because now there are no longer any hot cross buns in the house, it’s starting to go down. See? Who needs a doctor?!
Boy, it’s good to be back. It feels like a long time since the last post…and it’s been a very full week. I don’t think I’ve ever gone so long without posting or reading the posts of others while still being at home – it was all most irregular, and let’s hope it never happens again.
The draft of the conference report went over to the client this morning, so D and I are hoping all is well and they don’t (shudder) send it back with changes. It’s never happened before, but it’s a new client and a new task so you never can tell. I do know I’ve been working my arse off. Not that the week was without drama. Oh no. I think it was Thursday that my computer completely lost the plot. Maybe Wednesday. And please allow me to share this cautionary tale with you now.
I’d transcribed my book of notes (I’m serious. I have a book of notes from a one-day conference. No wonder I got RSI) and had drafted one of the session summaries. I was on page 19 when for some unknown reason, I did a manual save. This isn’t a habit of mine (I have a tendency to wait until the end of a writing session to back-up my work – bad girl, stupid girl) but it should be. You’ll see why in a moment. I kept writing. For a couple more hours. And then suddenly the cursor was running backwards at a brisk clip, erasing my document word by word, line by line, right before my very eyes.
“Oh fuck, shit, fuck fuck shit, fuck,” I said. “Stop, Jesus, stop!”
It kept chomping on my doc. It was really quite chilling.
“What the fuck is happening? What the fuck?”
You can see I’m at my eloquent best when disaster strikes.
I tried to close the doc – naturally – to try to minimise the damage, but when I ran the cursor over the menu bar, I couldn’t get any purchase on the icons. It just slipped off as though on an oil slick. An oil slick at the top of a hill. So I pressed the power button, hoping to force the computer to shut down. That’s when my 7 month old computer let forth a wailing siren noise I have never heard from any computer ever before. I reeled back in horror. I wanted to cry. I forced a shutdown.
When I rebooted, the nightmare continued. There was no ‘automatically recovered document,’ for a start. Nope. And then it got worse. I clicked on the document on the desktop, and it opened. It was 3 pages long.
“Where is it?” I demanded. “I manually saved this motherfucker at page 19, so where the fuck is it?”
There was stony silence from the screen.
At this point, I was really close to tears. I sent ranting ‘computer ate my homework’ texts to my co-writer, D, and several very colourful texts to Llew. Then I decided it had to be there somewhere. I’d saved it myself. Computers usually operate with some kind of logic even in the throes of a meltdown, so I pulled myself together and went to file and looked in recent documents. When I opened my document from there instead of from the desktop, there was the 19 page version (hallelujah). I still lost hours of work, but if it had munched away the entire transcript as well as the draft summary, I really would have been starting from scratch – not a very pleasant thought given I’d just spent the previous two days trying to decipher my scrawl and cryptic abbreviations from the conference Book of Handwritten Notes. Ugh.
Next came my slump. I was so deflated by the crisis, so demoralised by the lost work, that I proceeded to waste valuable time like the true pro I am. I stared and stared at the screen, willing my words back. I think somewhere in my puny mind I thought if I just sat there long enough, the words would re-materialise in the same way they began to dematerialise as the nightmare unfolded. Come on, I thought. Give them back. But no. And then, after sighing heavily and staring into space some more, I realised that what I really wanted to do was lie on the couch with a magazine and a pile of sugary treats to make myself feel better. I needed recovery time, you see, in an appropriate recovery setting with appropriate recovery items. So I hissed at my computer, shutting it down sans siren this time, and repaired to the lounge room for some PPQ (that’s patient peace and quiet in the health spa of my mind).
As a result of my own stubborn refusal to get cracking again, I was reduced to working all day Sunday – a spectacular day here in Sydney – and putting in another 12 hours straight yesterday in order to get the damn thing done. Why do writers do this? Every freelancer I know is the same. We delay the inevitable. The closer we inch toward our deadline, the more determined we become to turn it into a race against time. Maybe it’s a game we play among ourselves to keep life interesting… either way, I can honestly say that this particular gig was MUCH more work than a regular story would be. I’ve earned my filthy lucre this time. And the good news is it’ll pay my accommodation for the next Darkling retreat in September (phew – was a bit concerned about how I was going to swing that) as well as for an MS assessment from a woman Charlotte Wood’s recommended. That’s if she accepts the job – she’s still overseas and judging from her website is super experienced so I may not be at her standard. Anyway, I’ll see what she says. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to my dear blogging friends who volunteered with such heartwarming kindness to read my MS. I may still take you up on it, so don’t think you’re off the hook, but I also think there’s value in my coughing up the dough to hear what this lady has to say. She doesn’t know me from a dog turd, so her eyes will be fresh as fresh as can be.
God. Haven’t even told you about the – wait for it – Jerry Springer Opera we went to with some friends last week. I thought I was past shock. I’m pretty hard to shock anyway, and as you know I have a potty mouth, but I was shocked. They shocked me. The final verbal taboo boomed around Sydney’s packed Opera House Concert Hall as opera singers sang it loud and proud, and my jaw hit the floor. Did they really say what I think they just said? They did.
After nine and a half hours straight covering a philanthropy conference yesterday, I have RSI in my right hand for the first time in my life. I also have about fifty pages of handwritten notes to wade through, and a report to write. As you all know, the pesky GFC has meant a quiet start to the year here at DoctorDi HQ, so when a job comes along these days, I drop everything and make sure it’s my sole priority until it’s done. In other words, this week is blocked off while I write the report in collaboration with one of my freelance chickadees, D, who very kindly extended this work my way.
Have a great week, my dears, I am missing you already. Rest assured I’ll return with posts aplenty once this report has been given the okay.
You heard the lady – when C says “Now get back to work,” I can but comply. So here it is, Friday afternoon, and I have just spent the past two days going through THE WHOLE THING AGAIN. This is so pathological. Truly. I had dinner with three girlfriends on Wednesday night, and after S asked for an update, T (there’s another one…) gave me a funny look and said, “I never thought writing a book would be all that hard.”
“Well, go ahead and try it,” I said. “It’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done by a million miles. It’s much harder than my PhD.”
“I thought all you had to do was sit down and, you know, write it.”
“Yeah,” I said, gripping the wine bottle. “Me too. But it’s nothing like that. It’s not like that at all.”
And maybe some people do just dash them off. Who knows? I’m not in a position to say (but I doubt it). I only know that I’m basically bleeding out of my eyeballs trying to get this thing whipped into shape. And even just making decisions about all this structural apparatus is TRICKY. C pointed out that some of my chapters were too long, which I knew but was having trouble with, so one of the things I’ve done over the past few days is go back and look at where I break the text. And I’ve gone from 18 chapters to 27, so imagine the difference that makes. Chapters have a nice tightening effect, concise chapter breaks can add buoyancy and help build momentum, so it’s interesting to see the immediate impact on the action and the arc. I’m a fan of chapters, but they’re not arbitrary, no, no, no, and I’m not sure that readers always understand the lengths writers may go to making sure everything is just right. If I told you how many times I’ve changed chapter breaks, you’d probably think I was an idiot, but I prefer to think of myself as slow and steady. Whatever works – and believe me, it didn’t work first go. It didn’t work second time round either. And if it’s all the same to you, I won’t bother trying to figure out what number I’m up to, although I suspect we’ve hit double digits. And so what? You wanna make something of it?! No, I know you guys are all pulling for me – you’re such a gracious, generous, understanding lot I feel you will forgive me my many false starts, and thanks. It makes those conversations with people who aren’t quite so forgiving much easier to endure.
In other news, Llew and I saw a great play at the Ensemble Theatre last night. We scored the tickets from his parents, who are at this moment punting down Lake Eyre, a crazy desert lake system in the centre of Australia that only rises a couple of times a century. We thought it was once every twenty or so years, but I read this morning that Lake Eyre appeared just once last century. Please tell me that was unusual, because otherwise, we’re missing our chance right now. It’s a freaky little miracle, Lake Eyre. All this life, this perfect eco-system, lies suspended in the desert until conditions are perfect, meaning particular floods flowing down the country from Queensland, and then the waters rise, life begins again, and birds arrive from thousands of kilometres away for breeding. If you’re feeling a little jaded, you could do worse than reading up on Lake Eyre. The will to life – it’s something else in the middle of the vast Australian desert.
Anyway, they’re incommunicado until they get off their boat (they’re sleeping in swags beneath the stars – how good does this trip sound?!), so we tootled off to the theatre in their place. It’s a Mike Leigh play, Abigail’s Party, and it’s a cracker. It revolves around a small neighbourhood cocktail party of the 70s. Abigail’s teenage party is taking place offstage, up the road, and we’re left with five fraught adults. I expect Leigh wrote it with an English setting in mind, but mercifully they resisted adopting English accents in this production, and so it became incredibly relatable due in part to their different classes of Strine (Australian English). Llew’s parents have season tickets with three of their friends, and discussing it with them during the interval, we realised we all recognised aspects of ourselves and each other. I don’t know if this would have been the case to quite the same degree if the lead actress in particular were playing the part of Beverley as an Englishwoman, because the class system in the UK is so particular and so different to our own. Regardless, I haven’t laughed so hard in ages. Really thoroughly entertaining. I’m more familiar with Leigh’s films – Naked and Secrets & Lies are unforgettable – but this makes me want to hunt around for the rest of his plays, of which there are about a dozen, I think. Gosh it was good. The performances were just spot on, too. There’s usually one person in the Ensemble’s ensemble who lets the side down, but not in this production. Everyone’s on the money. Really great. We were so happy and impressed with the entire experience, and if you ever see this play being staged in your own neck of the woods, go along and put that all important patron’s bum on a seat.
Please allow me to explain yesterday’s cryptic closing line. Catherine is a Darkling, and has become our principal reader in the time we’ve all known each other. As well as a writer, Catherine is a natural editor, and we’ve all benefited from her gift. In On Writing, Stephen King talks about his wife Tabitha as his Ideal Reader, and he urges writers to have an Ideal Reader in mind when writing that all-important first draft. What will the IR find amusing? What shortcut won’t fool them? What will make IR’s nose crinkle in confusion? When might IR’s attention wander? It’s a really good idea, but I didn’t have an IR fixed in my mind. I’ve had excellent readers – friends whose contributions to the MS that now exists were vital to its progress and improvement – but I couldn’t visualise an IR in the manner that King suggests. That’s changed as time has gone on, and I guess it was the swearing that did it.
Months ago now, Catherine (henceforth C) gave some feedback to one of the other Darklings, JB. She called JB’s writing “fucking brilliant” – which it is. I stared dolefully at those words on the screen and compared this verdict to the one C had given me not long before. “I do like it,” she’d said of my own manuscript, “I do really, really like it…” – and you can guess the next word without my writing it. I brooded over this, even as I was obviously thrilled for JB, because that spontaneous assessment from C is about as good as it gets. Wow, I thought, now that’s something to aim for. Because C is a very measured and self-contained soul. She’s a very calm person, not sensible in any sort of boring sense, but someone who is always and notably together. She doesn’t explode, and yet there was an explosive joy is those two words: fucking brilliant.
I sulked alone in my office. I scowled at my manuscript. I felt very sorry for myself. My writing, by implication, was not fucking brilliant. I had failed to move C to the same degree. And it became, somehow, and perhaps a little absurdly, my new benchmark: I wanted to make C swear.
“Why?” I pressed her over lunch the next time the Sydney Darklings met. “What doesn’t my writing have?”
C very sensibly refused to be drawn into my grotesque neediness.
“I can’t answer that,” she said. “But I know it when I see it.”
Ouch – I felt the limitations of my manuscript more keenly at that moment than ever before or since. This was mainly because I knew she was right. We can’t always explain our feelings for a particular work, but we implicitly understand when a connection has been made or a truth communicated or an idea brought magically to life. A life in words: we know when we believe, and we know when we are moved. I had simply failed to take C to that place – and I could sit across the table glowering at her for as long and as hard as I liked, it wasn’t going to change things.
I had to change things.
I want to make C swear, I want to make C swear – you’d be surprised how motivating this mantra proved to be. Now when I try to conjure King’s Ideal Reader, it’s not Catherine I see so much as one word. One swear word. And I suppose it makes sense that I seized upon this word, as I am an inveterate swearer myself, and find a literary value in a well-placed expletive that many folks deny. If C swears, it means something. And so it came to mean something to me.
After deliberating on what to do with the latest draft – I still want fresh eyes, and I’m still weighing up how to manage that – I decided I did want C to read it too, just to tell me if it was working or not. I just needed her to confirm the changes are good. C had already read the MS twice, so she was well acquainted with its previous incarnations, and in a good position to comment on the major restructure and rewrite. I felt a good deal of anxiety waiting for C’s verdict, and I wonder if it’s not responsible for the weird peeling scales that have overtaken the skin beneath my left eye. A nervous reaction. And I was nervous because I didn’t know what I’d do if C didn’t like the new manuscript. It has changed a great deal – I’ve worked very hard and made significant changes in what by any strictly temporal measure is a brief span of time, but things gestate mentally, and I’ve been writing it for two and a third years, so, you know, time’s a tricky thing – and I finally feel like I have found it. I’ve excavated it. I didn’t even know quite what I was looking for until it flashed and gleamed before me: the story. Finally I have it, I know what my book is, and if C didn’t like the story, I’d be crushed.
But she does like it. And in the early hours of yesterday morning, she sent me a text that, among other things, answered my one question:
Does it work? Yes. Fuck yes.
Thank you, C.
It was a pretty indulgent Easter. My clothes were feeling rather tight and uncomfortable by the time I collapsed on the couch last night and began rubbing my belly. There was not a whole lot of restraint going on. It all started on Friday. No, wait. Thursday. I had a hankering for sushi that just wouldn’t quit, so after a sundowner at the jetty bar, I dragged Llew to Minato, a fab Japanese joint opposite the wharf. Talk about total wish fulfillment: sake, miso, tempura scallop rolls, sushi and sashimi – YUM. Then we realised we could just make the late session of The Boat That Rocked, playing at the independent cinema a few doors along.
Why does this movie have such a dumb name? That’s my first question, but it’s an important one. There’s no way that ridiculous title is going to do them any favours. It’s so clunky and, well, passive and dull. Surely even Rock the Boat is an improvement, if not quite a winner? The movie itself isn’t bad – it’s waaay more fun than the title suggests – and its portrayal of life aboard a pirate radio ship in the UK of the 1960s is amusing and toe-tapping. It also draws yet another excellent performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who may actually be incapable of a dud performance (unlike, say, Richard Gere… who’s not, I should hasten to add, in this movie, it’s just that Llew was channel surfing up at Palmie yesterday and the mere sight of Richard Gere on screen made me snort like a pig because he is such a hopeless HAM), and who can do other than love Bill Nighy and want to have him round for dinner? My only other question relates to my sole reservation about giving this movie an unequivocal thumbs up (regardless, it’s a good date movie – there’s plenty of music trivia to discuss during conversational lulls on the way home) and it is this: why sink a good film with a super corny bad ending? They were doing so well. Sure, there were a couple of minor annoyances, but still, they were doing well. They had me. I was on their side. But as the absurd climax took hold, I turned to Llew and said, “Well, that’s just stupid.” Such a shame. Still, in the balance, it’s worth a berth.
Friday started with tea and hot cross buns (with lashings of butter) in bed. I love them. I may well be addicted to them. Then I headed into the kitchen to make a late brunch because my friend and old office mate from PhD days, T (it’s not your imagination. I have an inordinate number of friends whose first initial is T), was up in Sydney from Melbourne and due to arrive on a ferry at some point. I slow roasted cherry tomatoes and then baked large flat mushrooms after brushing them with balsamic vinegar. Making the mushrooms the base on the plate, I added a dollop of sour cream, then shaved parmesan, then the tomatoes, and finished off the stack with fresh basil leaves. T is a vegetarian, so I was quite chuffed with myself because this was my own creation based on a few of my favourite ingredients. It’s really delicious, and one could easily add a layer of crispy bacon for a more carnivorous meal. I served it with hot buttered toast and coffee and I suggest you do the same. Mmmmm…. I love brunch.
It was great seeing T, we had him all to ourselves for a few hours in the Chez J courtyard before I saw him back to the ferry wharf and Llew and I headed up to Palm Beach. There we remained for the rest of the weekend. We swam, ran, Llew played golf, I worked on chapter one and read books, we had playmates on Saturday night when two friends T and R (see, I told you, T’s everywhere!) joined us for the night and next day, we walked up to the lighthouse (a fine sandstone specimen, the Palm Beach lighthouse is still fully operational), we ate and drank fit to BURST, we waved our friends goodbye, we strolled up the road to see another couple up there for the weekend, drank and ate more, went back to the house to meet up with my sister-in-law, went out for dinner locally (where I proceeded to wipe the floor in the ordering contest – my seafood stew was killer), rolled home, slept like the dead then woke up yesterday to basically do it all again. No wonder we were in bed by 9:30 fighting to keep our eyes open. No wonder I wasn’t hungry for the first time in my life when I woke up this morning… not that I was going to let a lack of hunger slow my down. I still have hot cross buns to get through (and a secret stash of back-ups in the freezer for when the weather next turns foul…).
In other news, Catherine swore.
(I’ll explain tomorrow, but as I said to the Darklings earlier today, I must be the only writer in existence who aspires to expletives.)
It’s another perfect day here in Sydney, although the forecast for the Easter long weekend is rain. No matter. I have things to do and things to read. I’m enjoying the strange stiffness of The Sorrows of An American, and think it highly peculiar that, hot on the heels of Mrs. Dalloway, I should find myself reading another book that does away with the little literary convention known as the CHAPTER. It’s crazy – and not very common, either. It’s weird finding myself wandering through another house without walls so soon after the last one. There’s something slightly unsettling about it, which suits the atmosphere of both books very well (not an accident, one suspects). And once I finish Sorrows, I’ve got Charlotte’s The Submerged Cathedral to look forward to, so if it is to rain all weekend, so much the better…
I was more productive yesterday. I received excellent, useful and astute feedback on the first 10,000 words from Darkling JB, so I went for a run to mull it all over. I really think the largest remaining problem is nailing chapter one… I don’t think it’s in bad shape, I just need to draw out a few things further than I’ve managed thus far. Which is fine. There are a couple of imbalances that need correcting; I’d wondered about them, and JB’s immediate identification of them makes a good case for their reworking. Try as I might to get away with it, the reader always knows and can spot this type of unevenness a mile off. It’ll keep me honest. Make me work harder, for longer, but keep me honest. The good news is that the graphic element received two thumbs up. I would have been surprised and distressed if she didn’t think it was working, simply because it feels so right to me. It would have been hugely disappointing to be told it wasn’t doing it for her. I know one person’s opinion is only ever one person’s opinion, and all the other disclaimers we cosset ourselves in to make harsh criticism bearable, but when it’s an opinion I respect, I take pains to listen very keenly, even when I don’t like what I hear. So having my own instincts about this graphic content vindicated by her enthusiasm, well, it just gives me a little confidence boost that I can really use. It means too that going back and doing battle for the umpteenth time with the raging beast otherwise known as chapter one (or This Total Fucker) is something I can almost enjoy. I made a start yesterday – not even a paragraph’s worth, more like taste testing than cooking with gas – and even though by all appearances I am someone who’s not currently working on her manuscript, looks can be deceiving, because behind my calm exterior lurks a mind that’s whirring around the clock, grappling all the time with what remains to be done. It’s true I have an obsessive streak, but I try to use this psychosis for good, not ill, and it does really assist my productivity that, being a terrier with a locked jaw, I won’t let go until it’s done.
In other news, I caught up with my freelance chicks last night. L, J, D and I met in town for a few glasses of pinot and a big confab about the state of freelancers’ affairs. Frankly, it’s a shambles. D and I are both feeling the pinch, commissions are in the toilet; L very sensibly threw in her lot with corp comms a long time ago, so she’s rolling in dough but obligingly sympathetic and full of sound commercial advice; and J is turning to highly irregular measures to make ends meet (I’d dearly love to tell you more, J fascinates and amuses me in equal measure, but I daresay her current misadventures will one day appear in book form and take the world by storm). It was very cathartic getting together with some peers for a bit of a pow-wow, and very reassuring to know I’m not the only freelancer whose services are no longer required. This is, it’s true, partially a situation of my own making. I have not been cold calling editors, I have not been flogging my wares, I have not been pitching stories. No, I’ve been working on my line-by-line instead of my bottom line. Is it any wonder I’ve fallen off the radar? No. But I will have to engage; you’re only as good as your last publication date, and I’m starting to feel a little stale. Ugh. I’d be fabulous as a woman of independent means, just fabulous! Oh well. It’s only money, and as cornball as it sounds, I feel rich in so many other far more important ways. Positively loaded, in fact. And on that cheering note, Happy Easter. I’ll be back next Tuesday 14 April. Be happy, be safe, and don’t eat all your eggs at once.
I’ll admit I’m cheating. I’m supposed to be stepping back from the MS, clearing my head, getting some distance, taking a breather, blah blah blah, but I haven’t quite succeeded in flicking the OFF switch. That’s not to say I’ve been a workhorse the past couple of days. I haven’t. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I didn’t do any work yesterday. Not a jot. As you might have noticed, I didn’t even blog. Nope. I went to see the women’s-health-naturopath-yoga lady with my friend, did a private class with her that has left me nicely sore today, had a coffee with T afterwards, then came home and pretty much flaked. Catatonia, here I come. One of the Darklings offered to read the first 10,000 words of the latest draft, so I did send that off, and naturally couldn’t resist a little peek at it myself (okay, I admit it, I read it through about four times), but other than that, I accomplished sweet F.A. ( that would be fuck all.)
It was great. Just what I needed after Monday, because even though Lady Alzheimer doesn’t really hurt my feelings, she does sap my reserves. It is thoroughly exhausting spending time with her, and I was duly knackered by the time I staggered out of there Monday afternoon. After doing nothing all afternoon – except lie prone on my sunroom ottoman resting my eyes – I snapped out of it and hopped on a ferry into town. I bought a coffee and a chocolate bar at the wharf (caffeine and sugar, where have you been all my life?), found myself a prime seat down the sunny side of the ferry, and settled in with The Sorrows of An American, my first Siri Hustvedt (Paul Auster’s wife, Hustvedt has recently come to my attention courtesy of my blog friends). Lovely. I had a seamless connection to Central from Circular Quay, and when I walked onto the platform for the Newtown train, there was C, Darkling and Dark Heart, and there was our train. Perfecto!
At Newtown, we wandered into the bottle shop and lamented the fact that bookstores don’t all turn into wine bars after dark. It would really make so much sense – and just think of the additional revenue stream… And then we went upstairs at Better Read Than Dead, a great bookstore on King St, for Charlotte’s Varuna PEN letter writing evening. Yes, it was a night of envelope stuffing, quaffing and gossing among a dozen Sydney writers. We managed a bit of networking even as we agitated (via very polite letters to ambassadors and the Minister for Foreign Affairs) for the release of a Burmese writer who’s been sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment for criticising Myanmar’s Junta. The number of gaoled writers worldwide is pretty extraordinary. Military regimes, dictators, Communists – they all love throwing the book at scribes (in a manner of speaking…!). I just realised we didn’t have an empty chair at the table last night – we ran out of room as well as wine glasses – but that’s the international PEN symbol of the absent author. It’s a small thing – I don’t know if letters work, and I’ve always doubted the effectiveness of petitions – but it does get one thinking about freedom of expression, and how important it is, and how much poorer we are the world over for those ideas that aren’t freely shared. Even in difference we find our common humanity, a truth that some quarters very much prefer to deny. Anyway, please spare a thought for incarcerated writers everywhere – some of these sentences really beggar belief.
And on sentences of a different nature, I have this to say: I have to rewrite chapter one. This is the wiliest chapter of my entire book. It has given me the most trouble, it has proved the most vexing, it has required the most change by far, and still, still it is not done. So yes, friends, it is back to the drawing board, but not yet, not today.
Team, I’m not gonna lie. It’s been a long day, spent mainly on public transport getting to and from Nana’s. And now I am in the midst of dinner preparations, but my puree is pissing me off, so I’ve left the kitchen and that unwatched pot can really do whatever the fuck it likes, I’ve stopped caring. Burn, baby, burn. I thought I’d post quickly instead.
Nana’s was interesting. I got a call from Julie from ACAT as I walked down Nana’s street. She’d already been up to Nana’s and left.
“She got a bit hostile,” Julie said. “And was pretty upset about some books on the floor.”
“I’m nearly there,” I said. “She should be okay if I’m there with you.”
“I’ll wait for you outside. I want to talk to you before we go in.”
We briefed each other out on the street, and I signed a couple of forms that basically mean Nana qualifies for high level care should she need it.
“I asked her about Ballina,” Julie said. “She wasn’t too happy when I said she’d been there for a number of weeks. She was very insistent that it was only for a few days and then she brought herself home.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “She doesn’t have a clue. She’s just making it up as she goes along. But I do find she gets pretty aggro if you challenge her version of reality. I think it’s better if we just go with whatever she thinks instead of trying to insist on something she clearly doesn’t remember.”
Julie agreed, and she’s a nurse, so up we went.
Well. It was immediately obvious that Nana was not going to take a shine to Julie. No way, no how. She all but hissed through the door at her. What’s more, Nana’s decided I’m responsible for the book towers. She thinks I planted them there while she was away.
“Actually I tried to remove them,” I said. “But I don’t have a security key so I couldn’t get in.”
“You’re the only one with keys,” she said. “I assumed you put them here.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
Julie tried to do a few tests to get an updated appraisal of Nana’s deterioration, but Nana wasn’t having a bar of it.
“This is stupid,” she said. “I’m not doing this. This is a total waste of time. I’ve got things to do.”
And then she rounded on me.
“I must say I’m not very happy about this and the fact that I didn’t know she was coming.”
“Nana,” I said, “I called you this morning on my way here. I told you I was coming, and I told you Julie was coming. I reminded you that Julie’s been here once before, and that she wanted to have another chat with us, but you said you didn’t remember, so I said oh well, I’d be there too. And here we are.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“No,” I said. “Clearly. But I did call, and we did speak, and I did tell you.”
“I came home and all these books were here,” she complained, throwing out her arm in the direction of the books.
Julie and I exchanged glances.
Oops. My puree really has become soldered to the bottom of the saucepan. I must try and save dinner, since it’s too late to do much about saving the day.