Winter has come so I have gone, off on another long jaunt to escape the cold and see the world. Chapter one was a week in Umalas, Bali, staying with cousins. Here are some highlights:
In the house next door to mine lives a dog called Celia. When Celia’s owners go out and leave her alone in the garden she howls. The sound is almost operatic, a high fluting song of desolation. I work from home so there is no escaping the soundtrack to Celia’s loneliness. Recently I bought a bag of doggie treats and whenever it gets too loud I lean over the fence and drop her a few lumps of processed meat. She goes quiet then. For a while, anyway.
Humans have designed complex ways of measuring their loneliness. The UCLA Loneliness Scale asks a series of questions like ‘How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?’ and ‘How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?’According to social psychologists, up to a third of the population has experienced acute loneliness at some point in their lives. We also know that loneliness is bad for your health. In fact, the expert literature on loneliness is vast and growing. Yet how often do you hear someone say out loud – I’m lonely.
Celia has no problem expressing her loneliness. She just opens her jaws and out it comes. Humans, on the other hand, try and hide their loneliness, thinking it’s a purely personal problem. According to Emily White, the author of a book called ‘Lonely’ (Harper Perennial), we often view our loneliness as an individual shortcoming. We feel ashamed of it.
Thirty years ago I had a job delivering Meals on Wheels to elderly residents in a public housing high-rise. Most days it was hard to get away from my clients. Many of them were so isolated I was the only human they spoke to all day. They left their transistor radios on all day long, just for the sound of a human voice. They tried to delay my departure with small talk about football and the weather. Yet none of them ever said out loud – I’m lonely.
These days loneliness lurks behind the pages of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some people look for a sense of communion by observing and commenting upon the apparently busy lives of others. Others hide their heartache behind frequent postings about their apparently busy lives. They wait for ‘likes’ to assuage their loneliness, the equivalent of doggie treats for humans. You never read a tweet that simply says – I’m lonely.
I’m with Celia. Open your jaws. Sing about it.
(This column was first published in Daily Life in May 2016.)
Last night I launched a new memoir called ‘Two Decades Naked’ (Hachette). It was written by my student Leigh Hopkinson, who spent two decades working as a stripper in clubs across Australia, New Zealand and the UK. This is the speech I gave at her launch:
First impressions can be deceptive.
When I first met Leigh Hopkinson it was in a small writing group I was mentoring at RMIT. She was quiet, considered, unadorned, sweet. Well-mannered. A nice girl. Capital N, Capital G. And then I started reading her draft memoir.
Turns out this nice girl had a naughty side. Capital N naughty. And I very quickly realised that I was reading the first draft of a book that was very definitely going to be published.
Two Decades Naked’ is everything a memoir should be.
It is immersive – Leigh us takes by the hand and leads us inside the doors of places many of us – especially those of us who are usually Nice Boys and Girls – rarely enter. Places where women take a long hard look at the men who are there to take a long hard look at them – and those women quickly work out how to assume the upper hand – how to get what they want from those men.
And we get to feel the sticky carpet under our feet, to hold the slippery pole in our hands and know what it’s like to gyrate and pose for the male gaze – to strip away, not just our clothes, but our inhibitions, our preconceptions, and at times, our dignity.
It’s immersive, and it’s full of deftly-drawn character portraits – of men and women with false names and nick-names.
Women with names like Tiffany and Jade and Bonnie and Chelsea – and Violet.
Leigh tells us: ‘Violet wore all black: a fringed suede jacket, a miniskirt and a lace teddy. She greeted the working girls without moving her lips, which were deep purple and hung open non-compliantly, slashed across her porcelain skin like a blackening wound. Violet stripped to heavy metal, shuffling self-consciously, her eyes downcast. She was scarily fascinating to watch.’
Men like Thursday Man, who ‘opens his wallet like a spinnaker to the wind’. Men like Vietnam Phil, and Weatherman John whose ‘wife dropped him off (at the strip club) on her way to classical concerts’. Men like The Maestro – Leigh describes him like this: ‘A rotund man in shirtsleeves prancing around the podium, directing a topless dancer reclining on her elbows. It was The Maestro: a weekly weirdo and master of grandiose hand signals, with dubious musical ability.’
This memoir is immersive and full of character portraits – and full of love. Leigh falls in love – hard – several times – and she takes us into her heart as she wrangles that complex emotion.
And she is full of love for both her fellow strippers and her clients – she loves their strengths and their vulnerabilities in equal measure. She doesn’t judge, Leigh – she watches, and listens, and looks, and learns, and she wonders.
This memoir is full of wondering – about the strange world she’s entered, about the people she meets there, and about herself. And above all, if you write a memoir, you have to be willing to wonder – hard – about yourself.
Leigh is not a proselytiser – this is not a political tome, far from it – but she instinctively understands what Anne Summers meant when she used the term ‘damned whores and gods police’, and Leigh doesn’t want to be cast in either of those roles.
She understands the cost of stripping to the women who do it, and to the women who don’t do it but whose male friends watch it. But she has also seen the ways in which stripping empowers many of the women she worked with – the mortgages paid off, the businesses established – even just the rent paid. Leigh figured out that there were ways to set boundaries for herself in the world of stripping and for the most part she policed them very effectively.
Leigh’s memoir opens our eyes to the contrasts in this world she’s been observing for two decades – the contrasts between the clichés and stereotypes of stripping, and the reality of stripping. She has a wonderful ear for contrasts – for example, the tired woman who answers the phone at the massage parlour ‘and says ‘Pleasures’, flatly.’
For Leigh, at least at the beginning, stripping ‘is a small, select club. Stripping was (her) juicy secret… ‘ But Leigh also learns that stripping involves both shame and narcissism. ‘Two Decades Naked’ is sexy without being titillating, it’s gently mocking without being judgemental, it’s funny and sad and wise. It’s a bloody excellent read.
I commend it you. I congratulate Leigh – I’m so proud of her I might just burst. Please raise your glasses – to author Leigh Hopkinson and to her two decades naked.
In the last few years quite a few of my friends, former students and writing colleagues who have had books coming out for the first time have asked me for advice about how to handle the media side of book publishing. Specifically, how to deal with being interviewed – for print, TV, radio and online. As a result I have developed a one-off hour-long media training session specifically for writers.
As an arts journalist and broadcaster, and the author of a ridiculously self-revealing memoir (‘Shy: a memoir’, Text Publishing), I have not only spent many years interviewing authors, but I’ve been on the receiving end of some fairly challenging interviews about my book too.
Given how much of a book’s ‘success’ these days depends on how you ‘sell’ your own book to the media, I think it’s really important that we all find ways to make this process easier.
Feel free to contact me if you’d like to get together for one of these sessions (either in person or on Skype) or even just find out more about them.
Comment from recent media training students:
Author Jenny Valentish (‘Cherry Bomb’, Allen and Unwin): “Never has playing ‘worst-case scenario’ been so reassuring. Sian is an expert guide through media minefields, generous with her own experience and analytical of yours.”
Author Kate Mildenhall (‘Skylarking’, Black Inc): “Thanks so much Sian for your excellent (and hugely revealing) media training session. Feeling a little braver because of you!”
The Westgarth Ensemble presents: ‘Supernatural – uncanny music from the world of opera’
By the pricking of your thumbs you’ll know that something wicked this way comes! From Purcell’s beguiling sirens to Verdi’s plotting witches, from Lully’s majestic goddesses to Mendelssohn’s flitting fairies, the Westgarth Ensemble will lure you into unnatural worlds as envisioned by composers from the Baroque era through to the 20th century.
Last time these four singers performed together they were cross-dressing in Who Wears The Pants (St Paul’s Cathedral 2015). This time they’ve cooked up a cauldron of musical magic that ranges from the uncanny to the frankly unbelievable. Arias, duets, trios and quartets to make your hair stand on end.
Many of these songs have been inspired by the words of William Shakespeare. In the year we mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, the Westgarth Ensemble will present excerpts from Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Falstaff, amongst many other creations from myth and legend. Come along and be enchanted!
When: Saturday May 28, 3pm
Where: Armadale Uniting Church, 86A Kooyong Rd. Armadale. (Not far from Armadale Station)
Who: The Westgarth Ensemble
Claire McDonald (Soprano)
Katrena Mitchell (Soprano)
Sian Prior (Soprano)
Kerrie Bolton (Mezzo soprano)
with Gregory Smith (Piano)
Admission: $20 ($15 concession) at the door
Background: The members of the Westgarth Ensemble have been singing together since 1997. Graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio, they have all worked for a range of Australian opera companies and ensembles. In recent years they have been presenting themed concerts in venues around Victoria. In 2015 they performed ‘Who Wears The Pants’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Do you ever feel embarrassed about ‘over-sharing’? If the answer is yes, you’re not exactly Robinson Crusoe. The interwebs are full of people saying sorry for offering us ‘TMI’ (Too Much Information). Facebook friends apologise before relating their latest online dating disasters. Colleagues beg forgiveness on Twitter before recounting tales of professional exploitation. Close buddies send emails admitting to feeling anxious about admitting to feeling depressed. Everyone’s sharing and yet everyone’s worried that everyone else is over it.
As the author of a memoir that could earn me an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for over-sharing, I’m here to sing the praises of confessional communication. Our culture is replete with positive examples of people admitting to their shameful fears.
In Puccini’s opera La Boheme our lonely heroine Mimi over-shares with her handsome neighbour Rodolfo at their first meeting. He instantly falls in love with her, because vulnerability can be deeply seductive. On national television this week comedian Luke McGregor admitted to feeling hopelessly inept in all things sexual (Luke Warm Sex, ABC 1). Afterwards the Twitterverse almost imploded from the weight of McGregor’s new fans praising his courage and confessing their own sexual confusion. I continue to receive missives from readers describing how my memoir Shy (Text Publishing) has made them feel less freakish and less isolated by social anxiety. So why do we all feel so guilty about over-sharing?
Sociologists might point to ‘self-presentation theory’, the idea that we are all ‘performing’ in social situations. We’re all adopting appropriate ‘masks’ or personas to ensure we appear confident and therefore socially acceptable. If we remove our mask and admit to uncertainty, potentially we undermine the unwritten rules of public performance. This kind of confident performance can go too far, though: just look at Donald Trump, all bluff and bluster, bullying and braggadocio.
Perhaps we fear that our over-sharing moments could be perceived as pleas for pity, and few of us enjoy feeling pitiable. Pity and compassion are sometimes mistaken for each other, but there is no shame in soliciting compassion. Judging by the number of hits on Brene Brown’s TED talk on The power of vulnerability (upwards of 24 million), there is much to gain from admitting that we are not perfect. Brown argues that we are ‘neuro-biologically hardwired to feel connection’ with other humans, and that admitting to vulnerability is a brilliant way to connect.
So let’s all embrace over-sharing. At worst, we may look momentarily foolish. At best we may feel more compassionate. And less alone. Or is that TMI?
This column was first published in the Sunday Age in April 2016.
Once every change of season I pack my bags, travel to a nearby suburb and get semi-naked amongst a group of strangers. This intimate ritual has become a highlight of my social almanac. Before you jump to conclusions, let me be clear: there’s no hanky-panky involved. The ritual of undressing is called Clothes Swap and it involves a loose collective of about twenty-five women, many of whom only ever meet at these events.
Here’s the drill: you peruse your wardrobe and haul out anything you haven’t worn for at least a year and are unlikely to wear in the near future. The jeans you grew out of and hoped you would shrink back into (now they reproach you for your non-shrinkage every time you open the cupboard). The T-shirt you bought on impulse the day you were too hot in your long sleeves (even though that colour always makes you look like you have an iron deficiency). The boots you ordered online that were never going to fit (what were you thinking?). You are ruthlessly honest with yourself about whether you need this Stuff (the phrase ‘first world problems’ can be very helpful in this process). Then you stash all the Stuff in a big bag and wait for an email to arrive from whoever volunteers to organise the next Clothes Swap.
If you are hosting a Clothes Swap you choose the biggest room in your home and clear the floor. You make sure there’s a mirror in a nearby room. Then you sit back and wait for the stream of women to arrive bearing food, wine and bags of Stuff. Once the clothes have all been heaped into a pile on the floor, the swapping begins.
There is something both liberating and reassuring about getting undressed in front of other women. All those different body shapes and sizes remind you that there is no such thing as a normal female figure, let alone an idealone. Those of us now in middle age hand over our reproaching jeans to younger women who have not yet reached the age of reproach. The younger ones learn that women of their mother’s generation can have decent taste in clothing. And we all take vicarious pleasure in seeing our pre-loved Stuff looking fantastic on someone else’s body.
There’s currently a debate trending about whether well-off middle-class people should be ‘de-cluttering’ their lives. Books are being published with titles like ‘The Life Changing Joy of Tidying Up’. There are too many objects taking up too much mental space, according to these self-help tomes. One women’s magazine is even running a de-cluttering ‘challenge’. Other commentators have countered that you should hang onto your Stuff because your memories are embedded in it.
At our Clothes Swaps we respect both sides of this ‘first world problems’ debate. Yes, we tell each other, we all have too much Stuff. But there is a reason I haven’t yet been able to give away the pleated mini-skirt my mother wore when she was pregnant with me, and that I then wore with Doc Martens as a twenty-something feminist. Our lives are inscribed in the Stuff we own and giving it away can feel like giving away our history.
On the other hand, my mother’s mini-skirt would look fantastic on the twenty-something feminist daughter of my friend who comes to Clothes Swap. Perhaps my history can merge with the history of my friend’s daughter as she treads the streets of our hometown in that little woollen skirt.
The women at our Clothes Swaps are generous, and not just with their clothes. They often compliment each other as they’re trying things on. If they find something in the pile they think would particularly suit another woman, they hand it over. If they take something home and realise it doesn’t suit them, they bring it back to the next Clothes Swap for someone else to try on.
They’re not interested in patting themselves on the back about re-using and recycling resources, about saving money and avoiding waste. There is nothing self-righteous about the mood at Clothes Swap. Mostly we’re semi-hysterical with laughter as we re-live the childhood pleasures of a game of dress-ups. New friendships are formed between strangers as we zip each other into tight frocks. Inhibitions are shed as we’re challenged to try on new versions of ourselves in front of the mirror.
In a world where women are often encouraged to judge, condemn and compete with each other, a Clothes Swap can be an oasis of intimacy and empathy. And to be honest, who doesn’t love getting Stuff for free?
(This column was published in The Guardian in March 2016)
This year for the first time i am running some short courses for RMIT University in non fiction writing. There are three different courses available. Details below (click through headings to book a place at RMIT):
Whether you’re writing a memoir, a media release or a newsletter article, you need to do more than produce a faithful description of ‘what happened’. If you want to craft an engaging piece of writing, you need to find the ‘story’ at the heart of the ‘situation’ you’re exploring. Whether you call it finding an angle, offering an insight, or arriving at a poetic truth, it’s a task that requires structure, discipline and an empathy with your readers. In this hands-on course, we’ll cover how to convert a bunch of facts into a gripping tale to grab your audience or customers.
Creative Non Fiction Writing September/October 2016
We are living in the age of ‘reality hunger’. The reading public has an insatiable appetite for well-crafted true stories. This course will introduce you to some of the essential skills required to write publishable works of non fiction. From essays to memoirs and autobiographies, from personal columns to self-help books, the ingredients remain the same: well-planned and focussed research, a clear and convincing voice, and an ability to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ your readers what you want them to know. You will also learn how to structure and write a persuasive publishing proposal.
Feature Writing September/October 2016
Media editors are always looking for fresh and engaging freelance feature content, especially when it comes to travel articles, opinion pieces, personal columns, profiles and informative features. In this course we will introduce you to the basics of feature writing and show you how to pitch and sell your work to relevant publications. You will learn how to find an eye-catching ‘angle’, how to write to the traditional formulas of feature articles and how to write for a ‘house-style’.
A few people have expressed interest in reading the column i refer to in ‘Shy: a memoir’ about Magazine Woman. It was first published about ten years ago in The Age.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There she is again. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of her for a while, she pops up again in all the usual places.
She’s in the bathroom mirror, standing just behind you, smiling seductively with her hair all tousled and her fashionable pink terry-towelling bathrobe framing her perfect neck. Her skin is clear, her scent is fresh, and she’s putting you to shame again. She’s Magazine Woman.
She joins you at the beach in her sleek black swimsuit, her hair now combed back in a perfect, salt water slick. As you scurry self-consciously into the shallows, she strides out beside you, throwing one smooth, long leg out in front of the other, smiling all the while at the admiring onlookers. A perfect dive, and she’s strokes ahead of you already, because, remember, she’s always, inevitably fitter than you.
In fact, she comes to the gym with you and perches elegantly on the exercise bike, back straight, armpits dry, and as you crouch and sweat and frown, she’s still smiling that beautiful smile.
No one else can see her, except perhaps those bored enough to flick through the dog-eared ‘Vogue’ or ’Marie Claire’ magazines as they pedal away. You wonder if she escapes the confines of those glossy pages for them just as regularly as she does for you.
And she sure gets around. You’re far from home, in the change room of a small boutique in a distant shopping mall, and as you look up from that tricky zipper, she’s turning around, making sure her identical new outfit looks as good from the left angle as it does from the right. (And it does.) So you take it off and hang it back on the rack, once again reminded of your bulging thighs or sloping shoulders or non-existent bust. You can’t win when she’s around.
So just who is she? And why does Magazine Woman plague your sub-conscious in this way?
Is she your ideal self, the stunning beauty you wish you could have been, or are trying hard to be? Sometimes she looks a little like you, but slightly thinner, or taller, or with a flush of rosy colour highlighting her well-sculpted cheekbones. At other times she looks completely different, fair where you are dark, or curvaceous where you are stick-like.
Is she your past, youthful self? She’s always young, and reminds you of the time your skin was smooth and your hair was thick and shiny with health. And she has an air of confidence (remember, ignorance is bliss) that you must have felt at some time before the responsibilities started piling up.
Or is she the enemy, the Other, upon whom who you focus all your envy and resentment, because you know very well you were never, ever anything like her, and never will be?
And yet we can’t keep away from her. Hundreds of thousands of us buy her image in dozens of different magazines every day, to pore over her wardrobe, her hairstyle and her make-up, feeling that strange mixture of pain and pleasure that she always induces.
In one part of our media-savvy brains, we know all about her hair-brushing, her air-brushing, her waxing and teasing and plucking, her tinting and fudge-ing, her rigid work-out regime, her dental and her cosmetic bills. We understand she’s a pawn of the industrial/entertainment complex, designed to stimulate our desire for retail therapy, and distract us from the real problems facing this mad, over-consuming society of ours. We even know she may soon be replaced by an image that is entirely digitally constructed, using the very latest tools of the computer animation industry.
But another part of that contrary organism, the human brain, insists she’s all pure and natural, no artificial colourings or flavourings, no genetically engineered improvements. She’s what we should have been, and what we could yet be if only we would buy more products.
So we meet her at the hairdressers. She’s the one with the hairdo we know will suit us down to the ground, if only our stylist could get it right for once.
Then we return home and take a bath with her, pouring in the salts and the scents, paying homage to her beauty and begging her to become one with us. She’s our greatest friend, our worst foe, our nemesis – she’s Magazine Woman.
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