Tasting life twice by Ramona Koval

First Published 2005 by ABC Books.

tasting life twice

Tasting life Twice: Conversations with remarkable writers gets its title from a quote by Anaïs Nin, ‘We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.’ I found this book in an obscure corner of the Tea Tree Gully library, and what a find it was. 26 interviews with some of the biggest names in writing. Originally for ABC Radio National, these interviews were conducted around the turn of the millennium, and were later turned into this book.

At the time of writing this blog post, 12 of the writers have passed on, and of the 14 who are left, most are aged about 80, with the two ‘babies’, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis being old enough to get the pension. And I was dazzled, absolutely dazzled that Koval even managed to get this opportunity to meet these people in the first place, and she does the job well, and asks the sorts of questions that make the interview very interesting. She goes beyond the nuts and bolts of writing and gets to the deeper philosophical reasons why these people are writers and the other things that make them tick.

But then that old issue of gender raised its head. While I am glad the author has made the book her own without giving into the dreadful business of political correctness, and that whinge about there not being enough coloured or gay or whatever people represented, I would like to reflect a little on how it might have worked out that 8 women and 18 men were included.

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Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung

First Published 2011 by Black Inc.

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I was dazzled by her first book, the memoir Unpolished Gem. The line that stuck in my head was the part where she had “a funeral in my brain and we hadn’t even studied Emily Dickinson yet.” I was also dazzled by her bio – her being a writer and lawyer, yet to see her on the telly speaking at some writer’s festival, I was struck by what a nice down to earth person she seemed to be.

Despite all that, I must have borrowed Her Father’s Daughter five or six times before I finally read it. There were little things that put me off starting, such as her use of the third person, I mean who writes about themself as if they were someone else – except when preparing a bio of course! Another thing that made me bump the book in favour of others was the alternating perspectives, daughter-, father-, daughter- etc.

However the real reason if I look a little deeper, was that one of the settings was Cambodia, a place I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, after what I had heard.

But Cambodia lurks all through Unpolished Gem, although it is carefully stepped around. As the story progresses it is the elephant in the room, the why of half of the odd quirks of Pung’s family.

Her Father’s Daughter begins with a few introductory chapters, in which the overprotective behaviour of Pung’s parents continues well into adulthood. This part where she tries to break away is easy and pleasant reading. Then finally, we must bite the bullet and face the horrors of the killing fields, and her father’s story of the suffering that went on is one the reader must grit their teeth to get through. No wonder her father didn’t ever speak of it. But it seems that only after Pung delves into this history and visits the country is she finally allowed to grow up.

Having now read both books I find that neither of them can really exist without the other. You could read Unpolished Gem as a standalone book, but more depth is obtained through reading Her Father’s Daughter. Her Father’s Daughter is not a book that can be just read either, it needs the scene setting of Unpolished Gem.

How I write this stuff

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The beginning of the process is always a topic or idea. Some writers have said that the creative process begins when two ideas collide, but one has always been enough for me. That one idea leads to the next and then the next and if I’m lucky all the way around to the original thought.

When it comes to ABC Open 500 word topics, it’s all or nothing for me. I’ll know as soon as I read what the new topic is whether I have anything, and I seem to have something for about 40% of topics. Once or twice I’ve had more than one idea for a topic, and that tells me it’s been a good one. Only occasionally I’ve had an idea for something that has passed its use-by date, so with the current ABC Open website it pays to touch base quite regularly or miss out.

At the start of any piece I will at first muse on what exactly I’m going to include, and I let different thoughts waft around my head for a while, while driving or walking or showering or cleaning or whatever. Then I’ll get an opener, and before I do anything else that first line has to be written down or I’ll lose it. Then at some stage when I have space and time to think I’ll do the rest.

I work best away from the computer with a pad of lined paper and a pen, always Kilometricos. I find I think better this way. Some of the most fruitful locations have been my bedroom and the car. I am frequently amazed at how much more I get done when I am not at home with all those distractions. I love it when the car is due for a service as I usually get loads done in some public place.

With pen in hand I get going, and usually it is silence or the chirring of crickets that accompanies the process, except of course with the piece for ‘Lost in Music’. It’s because I need to hear myself think. What I’ve always done when I write is think it first then put the words to paper. And when I think I’m mostly having a conversation with myself, and that’s where the conversational style comes from. Sometimes I’ll have a coffee or tea sitting there, but that’s actually a signal that the writing process is stalling a little.

When I start writing, sometimes what happens is that after about half a page I’ll find that all I have reeks of narcissism, in which case I will put the pen down and the paper aside. The wankery will either be stored in my filing cabinet or in the bin.

More often, what happens is one of those mysterious processes of parts of the brain that are best left to do their alchemical thing. To delve into the hows and whys is to cut open the goose that lays the golden eggs. All I know is that this is the fun part. What comes out is a meld of quirky little observations and trivia, life’s crap and golden memories, and the fruit of a very Australian upbringing along with a sense of humour as dry as the landscape round here.

After I have two pages written, or more for a post like this one, it’s off to the computer to begin the revising and editing process. I often make changes as I type, and then I will re-read it a couple of times and take out any typos, apostrophes in wrong places, sloppy sentences and bad grammar. Reading it aloud to myself will tell me whether I have repeated any words. For example the other day I’d written ‘our earthly home’ and a few lines later ‘here on earth’, so one of those phrases had to go.

There is also nothing like a second pair of eyes, so if the piece is more important than a slapped together type as I think a blog post should be, I’ll show it to someone. The someone, usually a fellow writer, will tell me where I have rambled on and where I need to explain myself better. Perhaps they’ll make editing suggestions, of which I tend to take on about 50% – I find the other 50% is them writing it their way.

After that it’s preview and publish time, and I’ll let myself sit on my laurels for a day, but after that – God willing – it’s back to work.

(Originally published 20 Feb 2015 on ABC Open.)

What writers can learn from farmers

Where did the year go?

Suddenly it’s NaNoWriMo again, that time of the year when would-be novelists around the world are scrambling to get 50,000 words of a novel written over the 30 days of November. I’m aiming for 20K. It’s my second attempt and last year I only got 10K written, which was still an achievement considering the crap that was on my family’s plate at the time.

For me here in Quorn this scribbling coincides with the wheat and barley harvest and while I’m trying to gather in words, the headers are out there day and night, weather permitting. There’s a lovely symmetry here, and even as I write this post I can hear the hum of harvesters.

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For years I have thought quite often about what a writer’s life and farmer’s life have in common. The first one is, of course, the irregular income – both writers and farmers need either a day job, or a partner with a steady income, to keep them going in the months between payments.

There’s periods of intense activity during seeding time and harvest time interspersed with months where not much seems to get done.

Writing itself is a lot like planting seeds; what you do mostly is put your work out there and then wait. Months later something might come up. This work is not without risk because crops like books sometimes fail.

Farmers are a lot like writers when it comes to planning, and they can be a cagey lot when discussing what they plan to sow this season, much in the way a writer avoids discussing plot-lines out loud in case it kills the book stone dead.

We also have a solitary lifestyle which we would not have chosen did we not thrive on it, and we get to set our own timetables.

There also does no retirement age – think of the late Max Fatchen or the man behind the wheel in the above photo, Lawrie Fitzgerald, still cropping in his 80s.

Despite this, there are many things writers do which would have your average farmer shaking their head with the folly of it all.

Because the main life lesson a farmer teaches us is to sow on regardless. In Ecclesiastes it says, ‘He that observeth the wind will not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds will not reap,’ (11:4) and any farmer worth their salt sows seeds every year whether they’ve ever opened the Bible or not. No matter what the next growing season may bring, they will be out there sowing at seeding time whether the experts are predicting a dry year or not. The risk is taken every year.

And this brings me to the mistakes writers can make, especially the amateurs. The first one is procrastination. Instead of putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard we waste time wondering if these words we’re thinking about writing will ever see light of day, or whether what we write might suck or not, etc etc. Farmer don’t have the luxury of being able to procrastinate, or we would all starve. Have you ever seen a farmer polishing all the silver when they need to get behind the wheel of the tractor? I don’t think so. Or their crop yields would plummet!

Then there is the waiting for feedback, which I sometimes do when I’ve just written an awesome blog post. It would seem at times that the better the post, the louder the silence accompanying it!  But if a farmer ploughed one paddock then waited around for another human being to express their approval of it, we’d probably starve.

Another one is resting on success. This is when we’ve written that awesome blog post and someone else likes it, and maybe it will lead to a new opportunity or whatever.  But how many hours do we waste being in that happy little bubble instead of being like Dory from Finding Nemo and ‘just keep writing’. Have you ever seen a farmer take a year off because last year’s harvest was such a good one? Not around here anyway.

And have you ever seen a farmer endlessly self-promote? Okay you can probably think of at least one, but if they all did, we really would starve.

Study the habits of the writers who are successful and you will notice they are not unlike those of our agriculturalists. This is why they can write for a living and not starve!

(Originally published 12 Nov 2014 on ABC Open.)

Am I black enough for you? by Anita Heiss

First published 2012 by Bantam.

am i black enough for you

I wasn’t going to review this book. Mainly because almost everyone already did when it came out and I didn’t expect to have anything new to say about it. But I knew I wanted to read it, and once I got started I began reflecting on the subject of racism, and how I have tried to keep it out of my life. Sort of.

When I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, the same era that Heiss grew up in, I was blessed with a few teachers who taught me to respect the ways of the original inhabitants of this wide brown land, but at the same time, Aboriginal jokes were still told (as were Irish jokes etc, although we didn’t touch Jewish jokes after what they’d been through) and names such as abo, coon and boong were also in use. Another word I heard was nunga, which I assumed was another of these derogatory words – it was years before I worked out it was a word Nungas (from southern SA) like to call themselves. I also lived in a very white part of Adelaide, and the only Aboriginal people I came across were the ones who liked to sit drinking in Victoria Square.

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Confessions of a failed Wrimo

You may already know this, but I love to waste time playing life-sapping Facebook games when I could be producing great works of literature or at the very least, words on a page.

So on November 1st I decided to give the games up for a month and try NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) instead and that afternoon my Nanobook was conceived.

Over that weekend I signed up to the NaNoWriMo website and discovered that you were supposed to start a new novel and aim for 50,000 words by the end of that month. If three hundred thousand other writers were willing to give it a try, so would I. I soon found many of my writing comrades used the concept to begin a novel if not complete it; so would I.

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Week One

And so I got to work. It was harder than I thought it would be, despite the many ideas for novels I’d had in the years since I last tried to write one, and I pretty much hated every word I wrote.

The kids got sick of course and passed it on to me but that was okay because one night in that half-awake not-quite-delirious state, a man turned up asking me if I would put his adult son in the story. I had no choice but to obey.

By the end of the week, when I should have had about 16,666 words under my belt, I had less than 3,000.

Still, that was 3,000 more than if I had kept playing those soul-destroying Facebook games.

Facebook itself was still useful to me and the best thing I did was join a NaNo Facebook group. There we could share little achievements or frustrations and post a bit of inspiration or advice. Through these interchanges I learnt about the existence of Scrivener software for writers and other software called Freedom and Anti-social which were designed to not let people be distracted by the internet. (Perhaps someone could design software that kicks teenage sons off the computer – now that would be useful!)

Week Two

Then there was Week Two which is said to be the most difficult one and they did not lie. Back to work after too many days off, I found myself sitting there staring at the screen more than I’m accustomed to.

Come on girl, what happens next! To encourage myself I would be forcing myself to get to the next 1,000 words. This technique did bear some fruit and by the end of that week I had produced 6,500 words – never mind that the successful Wrimos were on 28,000.

I also made some exciting discoveries about my characters’ pasts. The woman I thought to be a pain in the backside turned out to have a heart of gold. Then I found out that she had lost her parents as a teenager, and through this developed a lot of compassion for my main character.

By now I was seeing the books and films I was watching quite differently, and it was very helpful. I could almost see the writer wrestle away on their first draft too. The work behind these final products was now revealed to me and I saw each plot twist as a eureka moment. I was also happy to find that the conversations in these books and films seemed not much better than the ones in my Nanobook.

Week Three

Week Three came and my writing stats were flat-lining again. Come on Tarla, what happens next? At least I was liking the work I was doing at last. And this week I discovered that ‘hating it all’ was a fairly normal stage in every novel’s development.

By now some of my fellow Wrimos were getting up to the 30,000 – 40,000 word count. One woman even passed 50,000 and was still going with her story. I wasn’t too concerned as I was guessing she would have to do a lot of editing down the track! Staring at the stats of my writing buddies on the NaNo website was not particularly helpful until I looked back at what some of them had done previous years and found they did not always win either.

Not enough was happening in my first NaNo Facebook group so I joined another, flushed out some fellow underachievers and then passed 9,000 words. And I bless the fellow underachiever who reminded me that NaNo was supposed to be about FUN not the number of words.

Week Four

And then it was Week Four. People in my Facebook NaNo groups were crossing the 50K finish line every day. I passed 10K and posted my little triumph too. I know it was supposed to be 50K and zero excuses, but I figured that what I lacked in words I could make up with the excuses!

This week was also exam week for my son in Year 11, and we both went into avoidance mode. I was thinking about some long abandoned project that I had not thought about for over a decade, and even dug some stuff out. My son tidied his room without being asked for the first time ever.

A new Facebook group popped up ready to catch us from the post-Nano comedown, Life After Nanowrimo. I also discovered what kind of Wrimo I was, a social one, which is funny given how antisocial I am in real life. With only a couple of days left and no hope of getting even to 15,000 words, I slacked off and was reflecting on what I’d learnt about myself. The main thing I rediscovered was that I am a writing Luddite.

95% of what I write, this post included, begins its life as handwriting on lined paper. Many days during NaNo I was writing 200 words while waiting to pick up kids, after writing zero words all day at home staring at a screen.

On the final day all I did was write comments in Facebook groups.  If only there was a prize for all that I’d written in those!

As for my Nanobook, I would like to write 10K a month for the next four or five months and actually finish the draft.

If I don’t it’ll be because I’m busy going up through the levels of Facebook games that shall remain nameless!

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My favourite writing place

Over the years I have written in many different places, depending on where I was living or travelling at the time. But my favourite writing time was at Coroico, Bolivia in mid 1995.

Coroico was a small town down the hill from La Paz amongst some very steep hills called los Yungas, which normally you risked your life to get to because the only way for vehicles was via the Death Road, but I had hiked down instead along the choro trail. There amongst a beautiful garden and general greenery was the Hostal Sol y Luna, which was quite a hike out of town, but worth the walk because it was paradise.

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The place had a wonderful scent, but it was a frustrating one because it reminded me of some indefinable place I could not quite remember, but I knew I’d smelt that smell somewhere.

For about five days I sat in a little room, happily scribbling my heart out. There was no phone, no internet, no day job, no children and no frickin Facebook games. Just me and a supply of pens and lined paper working at a little wooden table that was in the room. There were no other worries – even meals were taken care of and the meals at that place were some of the best that I’d eaten in that country, mainly as it catered for gringo tastes. My favourite meal was pasta served with a salsa verde.

The writing itself was also fun. I wasn’t sitting there defeated thinking, “no one wants to read this shit”, but was flat out working away pleasing only myself. I would love to get a little bit of what I had then back.

What I was writing was a travelogue, the story of what I had been up to as I backpacked around South America. That story came to an end when I met my husband, but when I started writing it, that meeting was still a few months away.

So far what I wrote has not seen the light of day, initially because I did not want my parents to read it, so the draft sits in a box whilst my parents live on.

Since then I have also had children, and some are now at an age that I would not want them to read what I’d been up to either. I’m probably safe on that one – after all, my mother is still waiting for me to read her thesis – but I’m not really wanting to take that chance.

I guess the only option is to start all over again, maybe have a quick look at how things unfolded, but start afresh as I’m sure what I wrote will seem rather clumsy now. And I must try not to worry about whether taking out the ‘good stuff’ will only leave boring stuff, because my job now will be to turn what’s left into something living.

(Originally published 22 Aug 2013 on ABC Open.)