Yesterday I climbed the mountain Beinn Eighe, and it was breathtaking. I get a bit of vertigo; when there’s a drop by the path I have to lean away from it and not look down or else my legs crumble and my head spins. As I laid in bed last night, my muscles humming with tiredness and pleasure, sleep came upon me as a drop, my head spun and I kicked out.
We’re staying on a small island, accessed by a footbridge. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Like, ridiculously stunning. Photographs can’t capture it. Today, G and I were digging out a campsite in the rocky earth of a smaller island that joins this one, and we paused to watch a pod of seals swim by. But I’ve also felt uneasy since we’ve been here, with all those annoying physical symptoms I experience—from hardcore heartburn to a twitching eye—and I’ve been trying to analyse why.
It’s because I’m feeling a little unmoored, and it’s a difficult feeling for me to embrace, though I’m aware that’s partly the point of (long term) travel. I feel very ‘in-between’ things, despite the fact that I do have projects on the go, being at the point of editing one, and spreading the word about another. I’ve also started researching a novel over here, but the idea is large and only slowly taking shape (the plot, the characters, what it’s ‘about’), and I’m incredibly impatient. I want to start writing it properly, but there’s a period coming up where we’ll be staying with relatives and I know I can’t be at the beginning stages of a novel then. I want to spend quality time with my relatives and thinking about the novel even more than I already am might impede that.
What we’re trying to make happen is a month after November where both G and I can just write. But we don’t really have the dough. We’re only able to travel for so long because we’ve been working, and working for board, and staying with very kind rellos, and we’ll have to continue in that vein. Of course, that has been amazing, and I am not underestimating the wealth of knowledge we’ve gained, not just the places and characters and gestures that writers can’t help collecting, but identifying birds, digging holes and making paths, ironing sheets (!), how to run a B&B, what to wear on long walks in the rain, what pleases a seven-year-old, how to make Banoffee, the best Speyside whiskies, the geology of a mountain, fables and histories, how to pronounce ‘Eilean’, and many other items.
I guess my problem is staying present, and trusting that I haven’t gone ‘off the path’. I was fine in Speyside, on our last Workaway assignment, probably because I had a firm routine. And this makes me laugh at myself. Because when I’m ‘stuck’ in a routine, at home, all I want to do is bust out of it. Writing this out is helping, though.
An added layer is that my 29th birthday has just passed. There was so much I thought I’d do before 30, and now that’s only a year away. I’ve been mentally readjusting my goals for a while now, taking in reality and everything that crops up, but… it’s pretty ingrained. Mostly ambition is pretty positive—the dreaming drives me—but the flip side (focusing on ‘failures’, disappointment, whatever) makes you see everything through a fog.
It’d be great to just feel ecstatic about everything I have going on right now: a long working holiday, two forthcoming books with my name on them, an incredible relationship… Yes. Let’s stop there.
I climbed a mountain yesterday. Sometimes I got dizzy. Occasionally I wandered off the path. Sometimes I struggled to see the next marker. But I always found my way back.
First published on the Stoffers blog.
You have to allow yourself one indulgence while travelling: one wild night, one big purchase, two nights at a five star hotel… I just had my one indulgence for this trip. And it relates to a 2010 TV series (that was also turned into a film) called The Trip, starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.
In The Trip, Brydon and Coogs play themselves on a restaurant tour of the north of England. Coogs was meant to go with his girlfriend, but she has gone to the US and he (reluctantly) takes his friend/colleague/competitor Brydon instead. They bicker, they tease, they do impressions, they eat and drink (a lot) and both annoy and charm the viewer.
I’m obsessed with it.
So the other day I did the nerdiest thing. I visited one of the locations in the show which also happens to be a very classy restaurant and accommodation called Holbeck Ghyll.
Holbeck Ghyll is a former hunting lodge, built in the late 19th century. The taxi took us up a steep driveway and emerged on a hilltop with a stunning view of the surrounding Cumbrian countryside.
Inside the building we were greeted as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, and treated immediately to pre-lunch cocktails, breadsticks and a cream cheese and truffle dip. My choice was a martini (shaken not stirred).
We ordered our lunch and were then taken through to a table near the window, almost exactly where Brydon and Coogan sat in the show. Perhaps it was our Aussie accents that got us such a good table.
I sat facing the window and was able to watch robins attending a bird feeder in the garden, as well as a dog nosing about (England is SO dog-friendly, they’re everywhere).
We ate scallops, ham hock and beef, we drank white and red wine (‘farewell to the white wine, hello to our old friend the red’), and whisky too. We forgot to care about the bill (I’m sure that’s why cocktails are offered first). And then we finished with the most incredible cheese we’ve ever tasted.
We were treated so well. The restaurant is out of our usual budget range, yes, but it’s not snooty. There were some ‘moneyed’ customers (you can tell by cars, fabrics and conversation) and then others dressed casually in shorts. We did overhear a couple of guys quoting from The Trip, as we were, and then overheard another couple on the bus the next day as we drove past. It’s a phenomenon.
We acted out all the classic parts of the episode, taking note of the salt, which is arranged like a line of cocaine (‘bit weird, Rob’), saying ‘come ‘ere with a cracker’ to the cheese, and acting out the part where the restaurant is name checked:
‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll. You might remember me from Follyfoot. I’m here to tell you about a wonderful new walk-in bath. And softly softly.’
Before we left, and the large hole in our wallets was revealed, I made sure to lather on as much as I could of the expensive hand cream in the loos. It was worth it—for the meta-restaurant experience, imitating the imitators, and because of the incredible food (the portions were real-sized, too). We had to go take a nap afterwards.
‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll. Goodnight.’
Let’s celebrate by reading Janet Frame’s ‘Gorse is Not People‘.
Or by watching this:
Or by wearing something glamorous.
Or by drinking this (I wish):
Thanks, as always, for reading x
My travel story/memoir ‘Amsterdam’ won the Australian Festival of Travel Writing 500 word short story comp and was published in the April issue of The Victorian Writer. Writers Vic have kindly allowed me to reproduce the story here. I hope you enjoy it.
My last week in Europe. All the dorms at the hostel are full, so I’ve been placed at the top of a tight, winding staircase in a tiny attic room sliced in half by the roof.
I sit at the bar alone, trying to own the romance of loneliness. For the rest of the month I’d thrived on being alone, even trying for days to shake off Brisbane-boy who followed me from Venice to Vienna.
Maybe it’s because I’m so close to going home.
I look around the bar, my stomach twisting, annoyed at my own desperation (‘but you love being alone’, I remind myself) until an olive-skinned young man comes over to talk to me. His name is Fadil and he’s from Cairo. He produces a cartoonishly large, cigar-shaped joint from his pocket and asks me if I’d like to join him. We go up to the back of the bar, and smoke and talk. He answers his phone a few times, displaying his popularity, then invites me to hang out with him for the night. I’m relieved and grateful.
We enter a pool hall above a café, filled with smoke and Arab men. Fadil doesn’t play but needs to check in with about eight different people. I stand back shyly but not too awkwardly, relaxed by the drug.
Next we walk down an alleyway and Fadil presses a buzzer on a metal door. Someone draws back a flap, like in the Wizard of Oz when they reach the Emerald City. A fat man in sequins lets us in and leads us ‘darlings’ to the upper level (past rooms cordoned off with cherry-red velvet drapes). The nightclub has one long, elevated lounge around its sides and café tables and chairs on the dancefloor. The music is slow trance and there are arty white-light projections on the walls. The people around the edges have bare feet and bottles of Moet in buckets. I think one of them is Ralph Fiennes. We sit at a table and chair, exposed, and I order a glass of Moet from a menu, because I never have.
The next day Fadil and I eat among Kama Sutra tapestries in an Indian restaurant. He pokes at his phone during dinner, frowning and complaining about having too many friends. It is as though he’s complaining about having to be with me. I have not risen to the top, the cream of his many acquaintances. I have not passed some invisible test. I feel underappreciated and disappointed, so I fight the terror of loneliness and leave him to the rest of them.
That night there are such storms over Europe: rib-cracking thunder and the sky swirling, like Van Gogh’s starry night without the light. The anxiety of the possibility of flight cancellations compounds my melancholy and I drink, alone in my hovel, until I feel sick.
On the last day of my trip I take 80 self-portraits with wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.
The Stella Prize 2013, the inaugural prize, was awarded last week to Carrie Tiffany, for Mateship with Birds, which you know I enjoyed very much (here’s my Big Issue interview with Carrie from last year). She very generously donated $10,000 of the prize money back to the shortlist, noting that it was a selfish act because it gave the authors time and she was looking forward to their next books! Very sweet.
Helen Garner was invited to speak, prior to the prize-giving. She spoke honestly and personally about how prizes can be tricky, if you don’t win or aren’t nominated at all. You have to remember, she said, that prizes are judged by people, driven by unconscious urges. It’s also true that even the most intelligent, studied, insightful and well-read critic is a person. There is always a factor of subjectivity.
Slowly shedding the naive shell I carried when I moved to Melbourne five years ago, I’m starting to realise that the industry isn’t quite so humble. (Yeah duh, you’re saying.) I’ve been privy to conversations lately, at festivals and events, where people are wearing envy on their sleeves, often around writers who have received big advances or won multiple prizes. I’ve heard words like ‘prize-bait’, and ‘flashing their advance’. Among all the good and positive stuff, mind you, of which there is a lot. Sometimes it just slips out.
But it’s healthy to (privately) express such things, because the industry is tough and getting tougher. Honestly, many authors whom you would think of as famous and respected are getting such tiny advances, like $4000. These are authors who have published several books. So it’s natural, don’t you think, that hopes become higher, maybe a little desperation creeps in?
Since I consider that I’m at the beginning of my career, I’m realising that it is a smart idea to have other work—a day job, freelance work, or whatever—that is regular, enjoyable (or bearable) and can be relied upon for an income. It’s a challenge in itself to find this, because ‘artists’ are not always easygoing. ‘Regular work’ can be a big deal, especially if you’re nervy, neurotic or prone to anxiety or depression (as many creative people are—no, I don’t think it’s a myth, they need to be because they need to see the inner workings of things, even if they misinterpret them):
‘All writers—all beings—are exiles as a matter of course. The certainty about living is that it is a succession of expulsions of whatever carries the life force… All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land…’—Janet Frame, The Envoy From Mirror City.
My own envy swells up when confronted with artists who seem free to be artists. My biggest obstacle to that is not money (though of course that’s an obstacle), it is myself. My unfortunate absorption of others’ opinions of what I should be doing, and the distraction of other genuine but smaller goals, means that I often put my biggest, shiniest ambition last. It gets blocked. And then there’s all the life stuff.
And I’m not brilliant, anyway. I need to work on something a lot to make it any good. An author I very much like suggested the other night that publishing a book might actually hinder my career. But most Australian critics that I respect have published books, fiction and/or nonfiction; and secondly, I obviously don’t see my career in the same light as she does. And that’s kind of depressing. It effects me, and makes me think my ambition is lofty. And it’s hard to shake those words when I sit down to write. Who do I think I am? All the while I watch the musician on the cello, moving his head like a mad person, being pure music; passion, and I envy that.
There’s a reason, then, that I’m drawn to characters in both my reading and writing who feel inadequate (would that effect my critical bias? Maybe). But also, adversely, characters who are supremely confident. Or eccentric, or glamorous; even arrogantly so. Not hard to figure that one out. Characters and figures to relate to, to make you feel less alone, and characters and figures who possess traits you aspire to. Both types are outward expressions of one own ‘truths’ and desires, though how confused it often all becomes. Always Kafka and always glam rock.
It’s my last chance to enter the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards as next year I turn 30 (and if I’ve read correctly, you can’t enter in the year you turn 30, even though my birthday will be after the comp ends). I won’t be a ‘yoof’ anymore…
You might remember that I was Highly Commended in the Written Word category last year. Yay! Well since then I’ve done a lot more writing and I’ve changed direction a little bit (with a strong focus on flash fiction). Hopefully I’m in with a chance. If you’d like to go and read some of my writing, and ‘like’ and share my profile page, that would be awesome.
If you are under 30, you should also have a go!
I was recently asked to write a blog post for Collaboration, the blog of the Book Industry Collaborative Council (BICC), explaining what I do and how I came to be involved in so many different facets of the book industry. It took me a while, as it felt strange to ‘explain myself’! If you are curious about how I got to be an all-rounder, though, in terms of books and writing, you may like to have a read.
Having a month off social media was wonderful, I’d highly recommend it. I was able to work on many different projects without distraction (and without comparing myself to others so much). Despite thesis and job-searching stress, my mind felt calmer, and I was able to concentrate for longer stretches. Most of all, as I’d intended, I was able to have a good think about the role social media plays in my life (and my career). And I’ve decided that participating in social media is beneficial to me, but it’s not essential. I really enjoy the interactions I have with friends and like-minded people through blogging, Facebook, Twitter etc.—I certainly missed the status updates of specific people—but I can also live a perfectly happy, fulfilled life without being constantly connected.
LiteraryMinded still plays a role in my career, which is wonderful, but I’ve realised that I’ve published and presented enough on- and off-line that even if I curtail my social media use, I won’t be missing out on any opportunities. So I’ll be writing just as much, but across the board: pieces online and for print media, and much longer pieces that will surface at some point in time.
The thesis is… getting there. And I’ve been very busy besides. You may have seen my piece in Crikey about David Bowie’s new song (which I am intensely excited about). I’ve also interviewed Graeme Simsion, author of the charming romantic comedy The Rosie Project, for The Big Issue, that’ll be out next Friday (8 Feb). You can also catch Graeme Simsion and I in conversation at Readings in Carlton next Thursday (7 Feb) at 5:30.
This year I’m running the Dog’s Tales storytelling events at Dog’s Bar in St Kilda! The first one is this coming Monday (4 Feb), featuring Meg Mundell and David Sornig. It’ll run monthly from then on (all the details are here). Come along, have a drink, and listen to some great writers. There’s also a short open mic slot at each event, and you must register your interest in advance. You can do that by emailing me: literaryminded at gmail dot com.
The programs are out for the Perth Writers Festival, and the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival. I’m chairing events at each of these lovely festivals, and I’ll also be giving a blogging workshop on the Sunday (24 Feb) in Perth.
I’ll be teaching a two-day course on blogging and social media for beginners at the NSW Writers’ Centre in April. It was great fun last year, and some wonderful blogs came out of it. Doing it over two days gives the students time to play around during the course and ask me lots of questions, which really works.
Phew! I’ve been saving that all up. I hope you’ve all had a nice, relaxing and productive month. See you when I see you.
2012 has been a crap year in some respects; a year of rejections, near misses and setbacks. There has been injury and some sickness. There has been grief. At times it has been hard to stay optimistic. I’ve also, at times, found it very hard to have faith in myself and my work. There’s been a cumulative effect of small difficulties, a sensation of rawness.
However, I have not been without a home, without friends, without love, without work, without money. I am incredibly grateful for all that I have, and have done, and I know that every year cannot be as wildly incredible as the previous few years. In fact, I think I was a little spoiled by them.
I do feel that 2013 will be a year where many things will change. With my writing, I need to both become more serious, and more patient. In terms of nonfiction/reviewing work, I’d like to write longer pieces, and for a range of media. I have to admit that writing regularly for LiteraryMinded is now holding me back in this regard. I need to read wider and deeper around the pieces I write, and when I’m keeping up one or two blog posts a week, this just can’t happen. So, after a complete break in January from social media (to break the habit) I think I will blog with less frequency. This is the first time in 5.5 years—the blog’s entire history—that I’ve come to a decision like this. I will still link to my reviews, interviews and articles in other places from here, and will still occasionally write original pieces/reviews/updates for the blog, ie. when at festivals. So it may not even seem that different. I’m just removing the mental priority status on the blog because now (unlike when I was starting out) I have to admit that it is hindering my practice and my progress.
Fiction-wise, I have the novel, one smaller project, and a planned project on the go. I want to dedicate more time to fiction. Through closer reading and analysis, as outlined above, I want to continue to develop as a fiction writer. Become more sophisticated in style, and bolder in ideas. I don’t want to be afraid to experiment, as an artist, nor do I want to be afraid to entertain.
That’s just some of the lit-related stuff. In 2013 I’ll also be finishing a doctorate, looking for work, editing an anthology (more on that soon), running the monthly Dog’s Bar St Kilda storytelling nights (first one is 4 Feb), attending festivals, and hopefully travelling. Travel is important to my writing as well as my personal well-being and growth. I also hope to learn more, be humble, be charitable, always honest, and if I can’t overcome my weaknesses I hope I at least don’t beat myself up too much over them.
So I usually end the year, on LiteraryMinded, with a list of achievements, events and random facts. As a summary for my readers, and for myself. It’s become a bit of a ritual. And this year the process will help me, I believe, to see that despite some difficulties, I have still achieved much!
In 2012, I…
interviewed Alan Hollinghurst, Ramona Koval, Irma Gold, Jessie Cole, AS Patrić, Annabel Smith, Jenna Williams of 100 Story Building, Courtney Collins, Emily Maguire, Belinda Castles, Sean M Whelan, Paul D Carter, a.rawlings, Simon Callow, Emily Perkins, The Rag and Bone Man Press, Deborah Robertson, Carrie Tiffany; and Kent MacCarter interviewed Johan Harstad
contributed to Varuna’s writer-a-day project
continued to read classic books I’d always meant to
completed the Australian Women Writers Reading & Reviewing Challenge
still yearned for a four-legged friend
wished I were as cool as Ron Charles
learnt about some fascinating characters in my family history
was invited to one writers’ festival and then the director never replied to my emails, meaning that I also missed out on another one that I turned down because I thought I was going to the first one
was jealous of G when Nick Cave said hello to him
tried to focus on the good things at Sydney Film Festival
was Highly Commended in the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards in the Written Word category
seemed to drop off the list for a few events to which I’m normally invited. But was invited to some different ones
pretty much abandoned my ereader
began a literary show called ‘A Drink with…’ and interviewed Lisa Lang, Omar Musa and Chris Flynn. The fourth interview still hasn’t been edited as my crew are getting a lot of work. I don’t know if it ever will be, to be honest
was very happy to meet my friends’ gorgeous bub
reviewed books for LiteraryMinded, Cordite Poetry Review, the Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, and Bookseller+Publisher; shared a ‘month of reading’ in the Victorian Writer, and started writing features semi-regularly for The Big Issue (links in the interview section above)
came close a few times but I’m still waiting for my cigar
started wearing lipstick
started learning German
exercised three times per week
ate a crap-load of cheese
did my best to support some people close to me dealing with mental illnesses and disorders
presented at Offset Festival, chaired panels at Sydney Writers’ Festival (and this is probably one of my best, if most self-indulgent, blog posts of the year), chaired and appeared on panels at Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, hosted a Late Night Book Club event on short stories at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, taught a blogging course at the NSW Writers’ Centre (to be repeated this April, see their website!)
stayed on track with my thesis
shared my favourite books on Marilyn Monroe
once again failed to read the winners of most of the major literary awards
lost my beautiful Nanna
was Maid of Honour at my best friend’s gorgeous Fremantle wedding
remained madly in love
OK, this is it. A month off social media from January 1… I’ll be on email: literaryminded (at) gmail (dot) com. And on my mobile. And checking my PO Box (PO Box 6266, St Kilda Road Central, Vic 8008) if you want to send me a postcard. If you hear of any great jobs in Melbourne, preferably part-time at this stage (four days is ideal), do get in touch. I’m already applying for them.
Happy New Year everyone. You’re wonderful. Thanks, as always, for reading.