Why I love kids' writers

I know, I know, one shouldn't generalise.  But it seems to me that the main characteristic of children's and ya writers is their unflagging, generous-spirited support of their peers.  When one of our number gets big, we celebrate (sure, there may be the odd green-eyed monster lurking unnoticed, but if there is, people have the decency to cry alone, and not turn irritation into pettiness.)  When one of our number is publicly dissed, or kicked in the teeth by a reviewer, a publisher, or a columnist, we rally together.  When people are gnashing their teeth over their current work-in-progress, as I am doing now (God!  Why can't I write the book in my head?  Why?!), their writing buddies are there to give moral support. 

Take this, for example, from the wonderful Simmone Howell. 

Poets don't do this for each other, by and large.*  I don't think 'grown up' fiction writers do either.

Sometimes, when I feel discouraged at writing in such an unacknowledged area, and having to put up with patronising 'tude from folk (and don't even get me started on being Western Australian!), I remember this.  And am grateful. 

I wouldn't swap it for quids.

Happy New Year, everyone, and may all your writing and other dreams come true!

* Disclaimer: some of my best friends are poets. 

Burning books

I have been cleaning up and cleaning out lately (at the ripe old age of 40, I'm about to get a writing room of my own for the first time), and have come across stacks and stacks of old journals, bits of writing, photo albums and housebooks.* Many times I have heard people lamenting burning or otherwise destroying their old diaries: reading cringingly through some of mine, it is all I can do not to do the same.  The old writing, naff as it is, I can stomach, showing as it does that my present writing preoccupations have been with me for decades.  But some of the teenaged journals - shallow and self-involved, melodramatic yet lacking in detail of the texture of my emotional life, in thrall to the intellectual, psychological and spiritual whims of those around me - are hard to keep.  Most people can forget about what they did or thought when they were young: journal writers have no such luxury, because it is there in ink, marked with old coffee stains, old ink blots, notes from what I was listening to or reading, allowing you no comfortable revision of how cool or collected you'd like to have thought you were.  (I won't even start on the old letters - the fact that I considered them worthy of sending and at a later date stealing back is enough to make my stomach gurgle with embarrassment, even now).  Meanwhile, I completely neglected the things of real importance that were going on. 

So why keep them?

Frankly, I keep them because I would romanticise what things were like then if I didn't; they do contain passing references to things or people that still matter; and they are the record of a life, and proof, if I needed any, that experience is important in tempering the emotional swings that so plagued me and many of my friends in those turbulent years.  Yes, life does get better, if only because you learn to handle it better. 

Also, if the worst comes to the worst, I can use them for material.  As a reasonably rational adult, it's easy to forget how completely different the world seems to teenaged and early twenties eyes.  For example, I took everything seriously and personally.  Like, everything - I felt as if God was personally punishing me for unknown misdemeanors, when really, it was just stuff.  I walked around a lot of the time in a kind of chip-on-shoulder rage because I hadn't worked out my place in the world, and didn't think I was ever going to.  I felt like a misfit, and resented everybody who didn't (hmmn, some things never change :))  If I hadn't kept the journals, I wouldn't be able to relive that intensity, and maybe use it in my writing sometime (if it doesn't exhaust me). 

I also wonder, if there had been blogs and Facebook and the whole online environment, whether the possibility for online communion would have soothed some of the experience of isolation - and whether that would have been a good thing.

*Do people in sharehouses do housebooks anymore?  The one I have custody of is a marvellous assortment of dreams, shopping lists, phone messages, cartoons, confessions, and reflections on the world circa 1991, all contributed by housemates, lovers, visitors, partygoers and neighbours. 

It's almost holidays!
Which is reason enough to celebrate with my favourite ever piece of music (besides, maybe, this and this.). I will be doing my best to finish the V Girls, and on February 19 Chess Nuts will be launched at the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre by the fabulous Andrew Forbes-Macphail. Come by if you can!

Chess Nuts!

Finally, I have written a book that the publishers can describe as 'light-hearted'! I need a Bex and a lie down, truly.

The book will be launched by an actual chess nut in February (seeing as he is a minor, I'd better check before I put his name here). By which time I hope to have finished a decent draft of the less than entirely light-hearted V Girls. Roll on holidays!

Introverts unite
In my list of advice for practising but as-yet-unpublished writers, I discussed things that you might do, or attitudes you might take. But what I should perhaps have mentioned is the matter of temperament.

Temperament is a vague, catch-all term, I know, but it seems to me that most published writers share a particular kind of temperament, one that involves having an attitude of tenacious patience, if I might put it like that. It was because I was lacking in tenacious patience that I didn't publish until I was 30*: before that, I could barely sit still, let alone pay writing the kind of attention it needed.

Being an introvert is also useful. If you're not sure which you are, ask yourself, a la Dorothy Rowe, whether you are recharged by being around others, or by being alone. If the answer is the latter, you're an introvert, or at least on the introvert side of the continuum. The world is not very accommodating to introverts (why can't we all work from home, I ask?!), but introversion is an asset for writers, for obvious reasons.

(Update: my writing friend Karen Cunningham referred me to this, which is one way of finding your introvert factor, amongst other things. Thanks Karen!)

In other news, I am almost 60,000 words into The V Girls, and am doing my best not to think about all the work I'm going to have to do when the draft is done. I've also been very disturbed by writing the story one of the characters, who is recovering from trauma: I've learned that if I am not immersed in the story, the result is shallow and unsatisfying. So I have to let myself feel the character's feelings, and it's icky. The literary equivalent of method acting, I guess. If somebody has advice on how to write authentically minus the angst, I would be most grateful.

* In any case, writers are not like pop musicians: writers generally get better with age, whereas the loss of youthful drive seems to detach musos from their target audience. Personal opinion only, of course.

Apropos of nothing
I love the poetry of John Forbes, and I thought I would share my favourite lines from his eminently quotable, deeply intelligent and sad/funny work:

Death, you're more successful than America,
even if we don't choose to join you, we do.
I've just become aware of this conscription
where no one's marble doesn't come up;
no use carving your name on a tree, exchanging vows
or not treading on the cracks for luck
where there's no statistical anomalies at all
& you know not the day nor the hour, or even if you do
timor mortis conturbat me.

(from Death, an Ode)

you know Dransfield's line, that once you become a junkie
you'll never want to be anything else?
well, I think he died too soon,
as if he thought drugs were an old fashioned teacher
& he was the teacher's pet, who just put up his hand
& said quietly, 'Sir, Sir'
& heroin let him leave the room.
(from Speed, a Pastoral)

Old father of the horrible bride whose
wedding cake has finally collapsed, you

spoke the truth that doesn't set us free -
it's like a lever made of words no one's

learnt to operate.

(Ode to Karl Marx)

Saving lives and stories
Someone at work yesterday asked me who was the most important person in the twentieth century (for the Western world, at least). I said Alexander Fleming, the man who invented antibiotics. One of my colleagues shook his head, and said, Hitler; the other said, of course it should be Fleming, or the person who made Fleming's discovery widely available. The person who saves lives wins. Right?

I have severe rheumatoid arthritis*: it's something that I don't often discuss, because of the general misunderstanding of what rheumatoid is and does, and also because I get tired of people suggesting treatments that don't work (and I am very well served by recent developments in treatments, to the extent that my RA has been in remission for many years, halleluia. See above). Plus, it's not deadly, only life-shortening, and I'm well aware that I have plenty to be grateful for. However, I came across this wonderful feature in the New York Times, which is testament to the power of the personal story, amongst other things.

I also mention this because it was chiefly the RA that got me writing: I was so scared that my fingers would seize up that I was propelled into writing my first novel, Obsession. If there must be a silver lining to such a cloud, this is it.

The NYT health section contains other features on conditions like cystic fibrosis, which ended the life of my beautiful young cousin terribly prematurely: again, advances medical science now means that such people can live longer, despite their conditions. Medical researchers, unsung and invisible heroes of our age, we salute you.

*That's the actual medical diagnosis, not its acuity - it's severe if not controlled by drugs.

Apology to bogan suburbs

I had a rollicking great time with the talented young writers who attended the Youth Literature Days at the Fremantle Children's Lit Centre this week.  They asked very astute questions, and produced some absolutely cracking pieces of writing (some of the best were heart-wrenchingly sad, but hell, there's nothing wrong with that.  Writing shouldn't be insipid: give me pain over boredom, any day!)

But, Lesley Reece did very kindly point out to me that in my expository bit (why/how I became a writer and all that) I may have been a little less than kind to the ghetto suburb in which I grew up.  I think this was the origin of the criticism I got from the teacher who didn't like one of my Melbourne Writers Festival talks.  (I have to say, I do tend to slag the old place generally, not only in public.  Something I need to work on, perhaps).  So, I'd like to take the opportunity to straighten the record a bit, and maybe offer some hope to kids who suffer as I used to.

1)  I still live in a bogan suburb.  Not the same one I grew up in, but a bogan suburb nevertheless, complete with public housing, occasional car chases, vicious roaming dogs and the odd siege or two.  (A light plane also flew into a carport a few streets away once, but that's another story).  I know this probably seems the height of hypocrisy, given the way I talk about my suburb of origin. 

But there is a difference.  Now, I live here by choice.  And, notwithstanding the above, there are benefits to living in bogan suburbs.  People are friendly (and not all bogans.  I know.  The irony).  I can go to the shops in my tracky daks, and nobody gives a bugger.  Nobody looks down their nose at you if you don't have the latest car or don't send your child to an expensive school.  There's liberation in that.

I also don't go to school here.  Which brings me to:

2)  It is a sad fact that public schools are often battlegrounds in suburbs like the one I grew up in.  Kids bring the damage and dysfunction from home to school (and please don't think for a minute that I don't think middle-class families don't have their fair share of d&d, but it does manifest in different ways).  There are teachers and principals who work hard in those schools, but the fact is, if you're academically inclined and not in an academic program at a tough public school, you will not be in an optimal learning environment, or encouraged the way you would in a private school (I know.  I've been in both types of schools and seen the difference).  Which is not to say kids from tough public schools can't do well, only that it's harder.  A quick glance at the TEE results, and a survey of who ends up in medicine and law, confirms that.  (Yes, yes, I know that academic achievement is not the be-all and end-all.  But you get my point).

3)  However, to qualify the above, I'm also aware of the good things my school did for me.  Just last night I saw the old drama teacher, now the dean of arts at a fabulous public school, and was reminded of the nourishing theatre program we had, both inside the school and outside through the Youth Theatre Company.  We had a creative arts camp in Year 10 that is still the stuff of legend (not always, it has to be said, for the arts-related activities!).  And I was sent on a Rotary youth leadership camp, through which I met some interesting people.  So there are opportunities even in the roughest of rough schools.  (And the kids at the Youth Lit days were also taking advantage of those opportunities.)  It's just that for me, the combination of other, more negative circumstances, at home and at school, got the upper hand.

So, when I bag the old school and the old suburb, I am aware of the complex feelings the place/s arouse.  Sure, the dominant one is sometimes bitterness (and I'm not Robinson Crusoe with that, as my former classmates will attest).  And it took me years to un-learn the behaviour that I picked up there, and, later, to get rid of the chip on my shoulder.  But maybe if I had gone to a comfortable middle-class school, supported by comfortable middle-class parents, my life would have been boring.  It has been anything but. 

And maybe, just maybe, I have the old suburb to thank for that.

Advice to a young writer

For two days this week I will be in residence at the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre as part of its Youth Literature program.  This has led me to ponder what advice I would give to young writers (if they even want advice: I'm not sure I would have taken much at 16, so I don't expect they will either).  Anyway, if I had any, it would be:

1) Keep going.
2) Sit outside a lot.
3) Read poetry (not the talented earache of modern poetry, as John Forbes memorably put it, but poets with heart and soul.  WA poets like Sarah French, Morgan Yasbincek, Marcella Polain, Barbara Temperton, Nandi Chinna, Meg McKinlay, Tracy Ryan and Barbara Temperton are my current favourites, but whatever floats your boat).
4) Actually write, as opposed to thinking about writing.
5) Accept that nobody will get it.
6) Accept that you will be rejected.
7) Accept that some people will love and some people will hate your writing, if you're any good.
8) Don't ask your loved ones for advice. 
9) Write with an open heart.  If you don't want to do that, become a lawyer.  There have been too many trees wasted on crap. 
10) Don't be afraid to be antisocial so that you can write.  It goes with the territory.

I want to write, 11) don't listen to anyone's advice, but that would be flippant.  Instead, I will end with a very apt quote from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (which I like better than his poetry, I regret to say). 

You ask whether your verses are any good.  You ask me.  You have asked others before this.  You send them to magazines.  You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work.  Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing.  You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid doing  right now. 

No one can advise or help you; no one.  There is only one thing you should do.  Go into yourself.  Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.  This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night:
must I write?  Dig deep into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple I must, then build your life in accordance with this necessity.

There.  Go do it.

Markus Zusak

... came to deliver the Leslie Rees lecture at the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre last night.  Judi J wrote a great summary of the talk here, but one of the (many) things that made me think was his comment about hearing his parents tell the stories that ended up being in, or contributing to the texture of, The Book Thief.  There are a quite a few writers around who have used their parents' stories in their fiction, the latest being the inimitable Gabrielle Wang in Little Paradise (which actually features a photo of her mother on the cover).  I did the same in Bye, Beautiful, a novel to which I've had an incredibly strong response.  I wonder if this is because the children of parents who experience trauma not only hear the stories, but take on the emotional reaction that their parents are unable to properly express, the way unrealised ambition feels its way from parent to child.  And as a child, you have the stories - hold them in your bones - but don't know what to do with them. 

Except write fiction.

Anyway, the talk confirmed for me that a) Markus Zusak is as open, natural and lovely as ever, and b) we have a damn fine community of readers, writers, teachers and librarians in Western Australia.  And that was only the folk who were there. 


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