I have had a lovely summer break, visiting friends and relations down the surf coast of Victoria and on the Mornington Peninsula. Back to work this week, teaching for The School of Life and mentoring my writing students. My next Sunday Age/Sydney Morning Herald column will be published on January 20th. Here’s a few snaps from summer 2019.
Here’s a weird fact: a couple of years ago the most popular new emoji on the interwebs was that little face with the rolling eyes. You know the one – contempt embodied in a yellow circle. It should come with the sound effect of a sigh.
I thought about this emoji recently when I heard an elderly man farewell a woman with the words ‘good girl!’ The three of us were in a lift together and as the silver-haired gent exited, the woman turned to me and rolled her eyes.
I was a champion eye roller when I was younger, and my ocular gymnastics were often provoked by language. I don’t mean ‘bad language’. Expletives have never worried me. I mean the kind of language that seemed like a relic of the patriarchal past. Men calling me ‘girlie’, for example, or ‘babe’. Bank tellers calling me ‘Miss’ when I was emphatically ‘Ms’. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t understand that times had changed. Power is embedded in language. Language constantly morphs as power shifts or crumbles.
So imagine how mortified I felt earlier this year when one of my students pulled me up for using the word ‘prostitute’ in a class discussion. ‘It’s sex worker’ she said, rolling her eyes. She was right. Some part of my brain knew that, too, and understood why the old word should be avoided. It‘s about respect and empowerment.
But language is sticky and somehow the old word had got stuck in my ageing brain and then slipped out.
It happened again recently, when another student asked me to use the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ rather than ‘she’ when discussing their work. I understood why. One of the best things about 2018 has been the growing acceptance of the fact that many people identify as non binary – neither he nor she. But the following week ‘she’ slipped out of my mouth and they rolled their eyes. Just as I used to do.
Many of us will spend time this Christmas with elderly relatives and younger (possibly non binary) relatives. Not everyone will have kept up with the changes and mistakes will be made. Faux pas will be mistaken for micro-aggressions. Eyes will roll. Old dogs, it will be assumed, can’t learn new tricks.
They (we) can, but it takes time and patience and goodwill (to all people). Take care out there. 😉
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in December 2018)
I don’t have any children (because we never get everything we want) but I love ‘em. I’m the woman who smiles at your bored child in the checkout queue. Not a crazy smile, just a hello smile.
Not long ago I was watching a group of kids playing on the grassy foreshore at Byron Bay. A bunch of them rushed down a steep concrete slope onto the beach, but one small blonde boy stopped at the top and considered the ramp for a long time. Finally, stepping gingerly in loose gumboots, he walked down the ramp onto the beach. Then he turned and climbed back up the slope again. Ignoring the calls of the other children, he trotted across the grass towards the top of a rock wall.
Jagged grey boulders were lodged unevenly against the edge of the foreshore park, a barrier against the ever rising tides. The boy took off his floppy gumboots and placed them carefully where they wouldn’t fall. Then he slowly climbed down, barefoot, over the boulders. I wanted to applaud. Bravo!
There was a mother there, watching and waiting as her son negotiated the treacherous rocks. Patience and trust. Is that what it takes to be a good parent? Bravissima!
Childless people like me are not meant to have opinions about parents like her. We haven’t been there.
Another beach, another small boy, playing with his father. From a distance they look picture perfect, the son digging a hole, the father crouching in front of him, staring intently at the activity. Closer up it looks different. The father is not watching his son shovelling sand. He is staring down at his phone, reading and tapping and swiping.
As I near them the father is shouting ‘no no don’t, just don’t, why on earth, can’t you, no don’t, you IDIOT!’ He’s shaking his phone, which has copped some of the wet sand. He turns and strides towards the boy’s mother, waving the phone under her nose and gesturing back towards the scene of the crime. Dobber.
As I pass them the mother is shouting at the boy. ‘You’ve been very, very bad, you hear me? Why are you so bad? What do you mean you don’t care?’
Don’t judge, Sian. You haven’t been there.
The wind blows most of her words away, but some linger. So bad. Don’t care.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in October 2018)
Have you noticed how popular the word cynicism has become lately? Over and over we hear journalists and commentators telling us that Australian voters have become ‘cynical’ about politics. The word is being used to describe our disenchantment with our elected politicians, especially in the wake of the latest Federal leadership battle.
Oddly enough, the same word is also being used to describe those politicians. ‘Cynical’ pollies, we’re told, have been deliberately misleading us whilst organising jobs, visas and other favours for their donors, mates and lovers.
Here’s the weirdest part – cynicism used to mean the polar opposite of these contemporary definitions.
In Ancient Greece the Cynics were people who believed we should live a virtuous life in harmony with nature. Cynics rejected conventional desires for wealth, power, sex and fame (Barnaby Joyce, take note). They believed greed caused suffering, and some of them even gave away their property and fortunes. One famous Cynic called Diogenes embraced asceticism by living in a barrel on the streets of Athens.
The philosophy of Cynicism was later taken up in Ancient Rome, where Cynics preached self-sufficiency and the pursuit of inner happiness.
But language never stands still and over the intervening centuries the word has taken on new meanings. The original Cynics must be turning in their graves to see how their idealistic philosophy has been obliterated by history.
I have a few suggestions. First, let’s stop reaching for cliches and start expanding our vocabularies. Let’s substitute some more accurate words for how we’re really feeling about Australian politics. The recent Canberra shenanigans have left many of us drowning in a sea of complicated emotions, including frustration, bewilderment, disbelief, disappointment, disgust, fear, outrage and despair. A more nuanced analysis of why we’re losing faith in our political leaders might help us hold them to account.
Second, let’s embrace the vision of the original Cynics. They were right; greed causes suffering. Happiness can’t be bought. Nature deserves respect. Dangerous human-induced climate change is the consequence of our materialism and our lack of respect for the natural world. The recent Liberal leadership debacle was largely caused by their inability to agree on how – or even whether – to tackle this problem. If our politicians embraced true Cynicism we might feel less despairing about the future.
And finally, the next pollie to tell a porky pie should be banished to a barrel in the streets of Canberra.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in September 2018)
Our new Prime Minister has given each of his new minion-sters a little ‘welcome to power’ gift. He announced the gift on Twitter last night: ‘a lapel pin with the Australian flag on it.’ PM Morrison has apparently been wearing one for years because, he tweeted, ‘it reminds me every single day whose side I’m on. I’m on the side of the Australian people.’
On the same day the miniature Aussie flags were being handed out, the last statement of US Senator John McCain was being broadcast around the globe. ‘We weaken our greatness’, the ghost of Senator McCain reminded us, ‘when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.’
Sometimes we describe death as ‘the other side’. It is the ultimate divider – there’s no coming back once you’ve gone there. What quirky timing, then, that the American Presidential candidate known for refusing to take predictable sides in politics offered his message about patriotism and tribalism from the other side on the same day our new Prime Minister tacitly enjoined Australians to think of ourselves as divided into sides.
Here’s the problem: my world is not made up of sides. My understanding of social and political relations is more nuanced. Though I disagree with many of Liberal MP Julia Banks’ policy positions, for example, I am sympathetic to her decision today to bail out of federal politics. Bullied by the protagonists in a baffling party leadership contest, she’d had enough of the ‘internal political games’ that demanded she pick a side.
We humans are clever. We can rub our stomachs and pat our heads at the same time. We can also simultaneously disagree and sympathise with other humans. ‘Taking sides’ is too simple a metaphor for the complexity of our alliances and allegiances, our certainties and our ambivalences.
And thank goodness for that, because we usually get ourselves into strife when we reduce our sense of identity to banal singularities. Muslim/Christian. Climate change-believer/denier. Patriot/anti-patriot. These kinds of over-simplifications are the basis of the violent tribalism that McCain was warning against. There is more that unites Americans, he told the world, than divides them. And there is more that unites those of us lucky enough to live in Australia than our new Prime Minister would like us to believe.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no particular beef with flags as lapel pins. In recent years lapel decorations have been flourishing in Australia. Sometimes we wear rainbow ribbons to signify our support for equality. Sometimes we wear white ribbons to signal our concern about violence against women. Pink ribbons embody our hopes of eradicating breast cancer. Poppies help us to remember the soldiers who died in terrible wars. Some of us advertise our football team allegiances on our lapels. Sometimes we wear these reminders of our causes and concerns as armbands instead of lapel pins. We change it up, because we care about many different things. We belong to many different tribes. As poet Walt Whitman wrote, we ‘contain multitudes’.
My beef is with the Prime Minister’s definition of what is symbolised by those little flags he handed out. He wants us to believe that there are those ‘out there’ who are not on our side. The membership of that other ‘side’ is deliberately not specified. When you are implying threats and conjuring enemies, the murkier the better. Eternal hyper-vigilance is required to make sure we recognise them when they appear. And a fearful hyper-vigilant populace is a more easily manipulable one.
The taking of sides first requires the making of sides. It’s a dangerous and potentially destructive tactic. There could be no coming back once you’ve gone there.
(This opinion piece was first published by Meanjin in August 2018)
The slow-mo effect: it gets me every time. The footballer leaps for the ball, the lovers lean in for a kiss, the lost dog runs to its owner, time slows down and I feel a prickling behind my eyes. It’s the oldest cinematic trick in the book but I can’t stop myself tearing up. Why does slow-motion footage have such an emotional impact?
The internets are full of this stuff. You could spend all day watching things happen at snail’s pace: bubbles rising, watermelons exploding, hurdlers hurdling, birds flapping their wings. With slow-mo you see all the minute details that you miss in real time. It’s immersive and it’s hypnotic.
In sport the slow-mo replay shows us how the impossible becomes possible. We see individual muscle tendons contracting as the rugby player floats over the line. We understand the physical risks involved in this split-second of play. Power becomes superpower when time slows down.
Slow-mo scenes in TV drama reveal the astonishing complexity of human feelings. In an episode of the ABC crime series ‘Mystery Road’ a body is discovered and loved ones must be told. Dialogue becomes redundant as the actor’s facial expression moves from fear to disbelief to horror and finally to abject grief. Compared to the shorthand of an emoji, it’s a cornucopia of emotions.
American video artist Bill Viola has been exploring the impact of slow motion video footage for decades. On floor to ceiling screens he projects infinitely slow-moving images of human bodies immersed in water. Lazy ripples re-shape their faces over and over, never the same way twice. Viola messes with our sense perception so that we lose track of the passage of ‘real time’. It’s meditative and it’s revelatory.
Viola says his use of extreme slow-mo is a response to ‘the anxiety of being aware of our mortality’. As we age it can seem as if life is speeding up. Our memories play tricks on us, compressing time. Years feel like months, decades feel like years.
Does slow-mo footage trigger our emotions because it reminds us that time used to move at a more leisurely pace? Or does it conjure sense memories of those moments we’ve felt intense fear and time seemed to slow down?
It’s my birthday next week. The best present you could give me would be a TV remote with a button I can push to ‘slow-mo’ my own life.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in August 2018)
This September I will begin teaching a course at Writers Victoria called Refine Your Memoir. There are still places available if you are interested in coming along. WV asked me to answer the following questions about memoirs:
As writers, our lives provide us with stories to tell. What do you think attracts people to writing memoir?
Some people write memoirs to try to understand themselves better. That was certainly the case with my book ‘Shy: a memoir’ (Text Publishing). Some write memoirs as a way of sharing the wisdom or survival skills they’ve gleaned from their life experiences. Some write for a sense of cathartic release, especially if they are writing about grief-inducing events. Life writing can sometimes help us gain some distance from the painful memories we carry around with us. Some simply want to share their stories. Humans have a powerful urge to tell, listen to, and learn from true stories.
What are the most common mistakes or slip ups that writers make when writing memoir?
It is rarely enough just to describe ‘what happened to me’, even if your experiences are startling. Memoirs require both hindsight and insight from the author. You need to try to find the ‘story’ behind the ‘situation’, work out what’s at stake for you in telling this story, and how the events you’re writing about have helped to shape your identity. You can’t assume the reader will care about you and your life. You have to make it worth their while to enter into your world for a while. You can do this by using many of the same literary devices that fiction writers use to engage their readers. It is always a mistake to write a memoir with the motive of revenge. Most readers hate that.
The daily life of a writer is often filled with anxieties (e.g. self-doubt, time constraints, social pressures, etc). How do you find the psychological space to write without being clouded by these anxieties?
It is hard. You have to do some careful self-diagnostic work to find out what’s holding you back. I am a shocking procrastinator, and often I’m procrastinating to avoid dealing with my anxieties. The irony is that not doing thewriting can make me feel even more anxious. I recently had a month-long writing residency in Mildura, courtesy of the Mildura Writers Festival, and it was such a luxury to be in that town with nothing to do but write – and no excuse notto write!
You have a new manuscript coming out soon – how has the process of writing memoir been different this time, compared to your first memoir, Shy?
I’m not sure ‘soon’ is the right word, I’m only half way through the first draft of the second memoir. It has taken me three years to make a proper start on this book, mostly because the subject matter requires me to re-visit some very painful memories. I realized recently that even though I’m writing about very different experiences to those I wrote about in ‘Shy’, at its heart this new memoir is in the same emotional territory. They say writers keep digging up and chewing on the same bone, over and over. I’m chewing and spitting out dirt and hopefully getting somewhere, but it is slow, hard work.
Do you think everyone has a memoir in them? Which stories make the best memoirs?
I think everyone’s memory bank is potentially worth mining for publishable stories. But not everyone wants to write about themselves, and many writers prefer to re-shape their experiences as fiction. As for ‘best memoirs’, different readers seek different things from memoirs, so it’s a hard one to answer. Stories of personal transformation or reconciliation, stories that involve deep critical self-reflection, stories which remind me that humans have more in common than not – these are the ones I am most interested in.
(This interview was first published by Writers Victoria in August 2018)
I’ve never had the courage to move to a new town. I’ve thought about it often, perused property listings in warmer places, fantasised about fresh starts. Stayed put. So I admire and envy people who take the plunge. How do they make those new friendships that are so vital for our sociable species?
This July I have been in Mildura on a four-week writing residency. I could have stayed behind closed doors, used my writing project as an excuse to be anti-social. But I was curious about this town and its folk. So I put the lead on the dog and began walking the streets.
One morning I came across an elegant older woman pacing the footpath. ‘I’ve lost my phone’, she said. ‘Dropped it out here somewhere’. I offered to call her number, but we couldn’t hear the phone ringing. ‘I’m new in town’, she told me. ‘Don’t know anyone here. I really need that phone.’
By coincidence we crossed paths again later that day, walking down by the Murray River. ‘Oh it’s you!” she smiled. ‘Thanks for your help.’ She’d found the phone inside her house – phew. Again she mentioned being new in town and asked if I walked this path regularly. ‘No, I’m just a blow-in’, I replied and we went our separate ways.
It took a few hours but eventually the penny dropped. Why hadn’t I suggested we walk together?
A few days later I searched online for Mildura singing groups. What better way to find company? The Sunraysia Community Choir invited me to their next Wednesday rehearsal. In a church hall I was given folders of music, a mug of Milo and a warm welcome.
‘Our next concert is called Sing Your Socks Off’, whispered the soprano next to me. ‘We’re going to toss rolled up pairs of socks into the audience while we’re singing.’ The choir has about fifty members, the oldest in his nineties. When the rhythms were tricky our conductor, a music teacher from Zimbabwe, danced them for us. When we sang Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ we raised the roof. After rehearsal some of them took me out for a vino. I drove home round midnight, humming.
If the elegant walking woman in Mildura is reading this, I’m sorry I didn’t suggest a walk. You might like to head down to the church hall next Wednesday evening. Oh, and take a spare pair of socks.
(This column was first published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in July 2018)
One of the best things about the Mildura Writers Festival is that there is only ever one session on at a time, so we all get to listen to all the public conversations between writers, until it begins to feel like one long rolling conversation over three days.
I took copious notes in many sessions of the 2018 Festival because I am a journalist, and because I have a poor memory, and because I wanted to be able to remember what was said.
I have taken the liberty of using actual quotes from some of the festival authors and creating an imagined conversation between them.
Robyn Davidson, essayist and memoirist – Why did I cross the desert with camels? Because I knew I had to do something big and challenging to pull myself together. In the desert I could no longer see myself as a separate thing to the landscape. In deserts I learnt there were other ways of being in the world, of thinking of the human in nature.
Jane Hirshfield, poet – I am deeply engaged with the peril that our biosphere is in. That’s why I got involved in the March for Science, and we started Poets for Science. We are direly in need of intimacy, a sense of connection, a ceremonial rather than a hostile relationship with each other. Poetry is based on interconnection – we are all in it together.
Paul Kane, poet – I teach hope.
Jane Hirshfield – Poems are distillations, not distractions. They are rituals, and ritual is about noticing your changing state of being. Are poems useful or useless? The idea of the useless is a useful thing. A poem can surprise you into the remembrance of the dimensions of existence you may have forgotten about. The role of the poem is to leave us with sharpened alertness. Art makes us better at knowing ourselves.
Cate Kennedy, poet and novelist – We carry stories around with us. Unless we can pass them on, they die. It can be a soothing relief to not have to just carry them around
Paul Kane – The great danger of grief is that it overflows and takes you with it. There is a constant need to hold together, and the writing form helps. Sentimentality is a falsification of experience.
Cate Kennedy – There is an embodied emotional surge of recognition of the universal theme or story in what you’re writing. Energy flows where attention goes.
Jane Hirshfield – Paying attention to everyday objects – thinking of the quotidian – is a doorway for poets. The momentary becomes the universe. It’s the sting of awakening.
Cate Kennedy – Yes, it’s about noticing. And you can’t help but reveal your preoccupations, your ‘bone’. You chew it, bury it, dig it up, gnaw on it again.
Paul Kane – For me, writing poetry became the catalyst for shifting. When the book of poems (A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina) ended, a certain phase of sorrow would be over. Grief kept me going. The process of writing the poems WAS the process of mourning.
David Malouf, poet, novelist – I don’t make a distinction between voice in poetry or fiction. If you have the tone right, a novel will write itself. I wrote my second novel An Imaginary Life thinking I was writing a prose poem.
Robyn Davidson – How do we find the right voice for memoir? It needs to be revealing yet reserved.
Marie Munkara, memoirist and novelist – I am now writing a PhD on mermaids. My totem is an indigenous mermaid, a creator being. It’s there in the rock art. She’s a femme fatale, a dangerous woman. There are mermaids everywhere in culture. Is it myth, archetype, global coincidence? I know that I know bugger all!
Cate Kennedy – You need to be able to sit with this imperfection. There is no right way of doing the writing. You go into the writing world to make those enormous blunders. As T. S. Eliot said, ‘writing is never finished, it is only abandoned’.
David Malouf – Yeats said ‘poetry is memorable speech’. The thing that holds it together is music – sound, rhythm, repetition.
Jane Hirshfield – Good poems travel in ways that are, strongly or subtly, meandering, askew, counter, extravagant, peculiar, free, and freeing. They loosen the map-lines of mental and emotional constructs, underslip narrowness, and let us see more than we could by looking at things merely directly. They are raids on reality that allow raids on hearts and minds. With a good poem you feel filled, but wanting, at the end.
(And with a good writers festival, you feel the same.)
(This conversation was first published on the Mildura Writers Festival blog, July 2018.)
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