The one writing ritual you can’t give up

13 February 2018

Most authors have writing rituals, ranging from the pragmatic to the bizarre. Hemingway famously wrote standing up, and Edith Wharton lying in bed. John Cheever wrote in his underwear but Victor Hugo went one step further and wrote nude. Truman Capote avoided Fridays, never beginning or ending a piece of writing on that day. Poet Frederick Schiller couldn’t write without the smell of rotten apples emanating from his desk drawer.

My own writing ritual has been simple: one cup of coffee and I’m away. I’m not alone in this. Apparently Honoré de Balzac would drink up to fifty coffees a day, making my own one or two cups seem positively puritan. He would write day and night, and when the coffee stopped taking effect he would chew on coffee beans.

Unfortunately I don’t have de Balzac’s constitution and my doctor has forced me to abandon caffeine. I must confess, it’s been tough. A coffee always immediately clicked me into gear. It was a signal to myself: time to work. And the caffeine buzz gave me that ability to embrace the empty page with enthusiam, even on days when I felt terribly tired. So I miss it. Desperately.

As I mourn caffeine and attempt to make do with roasted dandelion ‘coffee’ (it’s as bad as it sounds), I thought I’d ask some of my fellow writers about the one writing ritual they couldn’t give up. Here goes…

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Kate Mildenhall is a writer and teacher. Her stunning debut novel, Skylarking was longlisted for Debut Fiction in the Indie Book Awards 2017 and the 2017 Voss Literary Award.
In the aftermath of my first novel being published, I found myself perplexed at what I couldn’t remember about the process and sequence of writing it. When did I decide to cut that character? What was I reading when I wrote that scene? Where did I put the link to that article about whale oil? On this, my second time around, I’ve kept a journal of the process. It’s a word doc that I keep open all the time, and I write in it nearly every day I’m working on the manuscript. It’s a catch-all for what I’m reading, to do lists, word counts, questions to myself, random ideas, links to relevant articles, research notes (some written in my cabin on a yacht in the middle of the Banda Sea!) and long rants filled with self-doubt and fear. It’s been incredibly useful to refer back to when I’ve felt lost or unsure, and I’m also looking forward to being able to use it when I’m talking about the book and my process. At some point in the last month the word count on the journal document surpassed the actual manuscript — testament to how addicted I’ve become to this little ritual.

Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel, The Anchoress, was an international bestseller, and her much-anticipated next novel, Book of Colours, is out in April.
My ritual doesn’t make a lot of sense, even to me. It’s a pen and notebook, but not for writing my work-in-progress; I do that on my computer. I’ve always loved the idea of writing my manuscript by hand, page upon page of words in ink. But I’ve discovered that on the computer I feel more freedom to change words, to play, invent, experiment. And yet, I also need the feel of pen on paper, my body engaged in a way it can’t be on the computer. In my notebook I write ideas, plans, questions, doodles. I talk to myself, chew over that crazy idea I had in the night. It’s especially crucial when I’m scared of writing — of the blank page or the stuck place in my story. When I’m too afraid to sit at the computer, I can grab my favourite pen, open my notebook and write to myself. Out it all comes: I have no ideas; I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m lost in my own narrative; I can’t work out the structure; I’m not sure what my character needs to do next. Anything, everything. It’s such a safe, cosy place; pen or pencil on paper feels so accepting. Eventually, an idea, or courage, or just a little bit of freedom, finds me, and I move on to the main work.

Perhaps it’s the difference between my private words on paper, just for me, and the words that I write on computer to go out into the world. I’m not sure, but this ritual works, so I’m keeping it!

 

 

Louise Allan’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song*, was released last month and it’s been going gangbusters. She also has an excellent blog for writers and readers.
The one writing ritual I can’t give up is that I must check the news, my emails and my social media before I can set to work.

Pre-internet, first thing each morning I used to read the newspaper from beginning to end, commenting to my husband as I went. I liked starting the day informed about what had been happening in the world.

These days, it’s the internet I check. Every day, the ABC messages me the news headlines, then I check my emails, and finally my social media. I feel like the housekeeping is then done and I can commence my work day. It takes at least an hour, but my head feels clearer afterwards, and I’m able to concentrate on my work. If I set to work beforehand, I feel like it’s still hanging over me.

I once did a six-day writing course and one of the rules was that we had to rise from bed and immediately start writing, taking advantage of our half-awake mental states. It was so good for my writing and I swore I’d maintain it after the course had finished. But, alas, I immediately reverted to my old habits!

Peggy Frew is the author of two brilliant books, House of Sticks and Hope Farm, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize.
I have a few writing rituals (and I am very sorry to say, Irma, that sitting down to work with a fresh cup of coffee is one of them) but the only really indispensible one is going offline. When it’s time to work I carry my laptop out into my backyard writing studio, and as soon as I open it I turn the wifi off and shut down my mail so I can’t see that little red circle with the number of unread emails in it. My phone I leave inside the house. Picking up my phone is something I do a lot when I’m having trouble settling in to work, and I’ve found that the only way to avoid it as a distraction is to simply not have it in the same room as me. This ritual — the change of location, the reopening of the laptop sans wifi and mail, and the leaving-behind of the phone — works as a kind of passageway. There is a sense of purpose, of clarity, of entering a different state. Whether or not any good writing happens is actually not relevant, because the ritual is not about good or bad writing, it’s about removing distractions and committing to complete focus on the work. In time (one hopes!) the good writing will come, but one thing is for sure: it won’t come if you don’t clear the decks and sit down to write in the first place.

So there you have it. The perfect writing recipe: coffee, notebook, journal, all the wifi, or no wifi. It just goes to show that every writer needs to discover what works for them and run with it.

* I have one signed copy of Louise Allan’s The Sisters’ Song to give away! Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget. If you’d like to get your hands on it, simply sign up to my newsletter before 7 pm Friday 23 Feb (link to the right). Open to Australian residents only. Winner will be randomly generated. Good luck!

Nine gifts for the writer in your life

24 January 2018

Christmas might be long gone but any time is a good time to buy the writer in your life a little special something. (I’ve waited until after my birthday to post this so no one takes it as a list of demands. Though, ahem, there’s always next year.)

1. Literary mug

I am one of those people who fall into the ‘I love Austen’ camp. If the writer in your life doesn’t, skip this one (but tell them they’re a little bit insane).

2. Lit wear

I stumbled across Redbubble when looking for a manga T-shirt for my daughter, and they have a super cool range of bookish designs. Team a tee with a pair of literary socks and you’ve got a new writing outfit (pants optional — unless your writer intends to write in public, then always wear pants).

3. Notebook

You can never have enough beautiful notebooks. Never. Throw in these cute pencils from Literary Emporium and you’ve got a winner.

4. Festival/conference ticket

If you want to give a gift that will help develop a writer’s career why not buy them a ticket to a festival or conference that will expand their skills and allow them to network with fellow industry professionals. For example, KidLitVic, a professional development day in May, would be perfect for a children’s writer. There are also writers centres in every state which run comprehensive workshop programs. If you’re not confident about selecting a specific workshop, some writers centres sell vouchers for this purpose.

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5. Tote bag

I like big books and I cannot lie. Clearly this one is for the puntastically minded. To carry all those big books. Nuff said.

6. Writers wallpaper

If your writer’s work space needs sprucing up, perhaps this literary wallpaper (detail below) is the go. Inspiration and decoration in one.

7. A book

Well, duh. I mean, I know this is obvious but is there anything better than a carefully chosen book? Buy it from a local independent bookstore for extra brownie points.

8. Book voucher

This might seem like a boring present but it isn’t, I swear. A book voucher always has me salivating over the possibilities. The only challenge is selecting which books to buy from my ridiculously long list of wants. Pop a voucher in a Mr Darcy mug for double the love.

9. DIY voucher

If you’re strapped for cash there’s still one important gift that you can give: time. For those writers with families, finding time to write can sometimes be challenging. Present your writer with a voucher for a day’s guilt-free writing time and then remove any children, leave pre-prepared delicious food, and evacuate. It may be the best gift of the lot.

A year between pages

15 December 2017

It’s that time of year where writerly types reflect on their 2017 reading highlights, but I have one small problem. A few weeks ago I upgraded my phone and lost the note in which I have been carefully recording every book I’ve read for the past three years. I didn’t lose any other notes, just that one. Random fail.

So I certainly won’t be giving you comprehensive stats like Jane Rawson (seriously, check this out). Instead expect a hazily recollected and likely inaccurate (was that 2016, or 2017?) offering.

One thing I know for sure, this year I read a ton of novels set in other countries. As a travel addict I love to explore new countries on the page, even if it usually increases my wanderlust to explore them on foot. India was a particular focus, probably because it’s high on my bucket list. I started the year with Gregory David Roberts’ epic novel Shantaram and went on to read The Permanent Resident, a short story collection by Perth author Roanna Gonsalves. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness followed, Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited follow-up to The God of Small Things, which blew my mind when I read it as a creative writing student all those years ago. Perhaps because of that, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness didn’t quite measure up. I enjoyed it, and Roy skilfully breaks several key writing ‘rules’ which was interesting, but I didn’t fall madly in love with Ministry. My favourite Indian novel was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It’s told by a village boy called Balram Halwai and follows his struggle to transcend the ‘Darkness’ of his lowly caste. The novel delves into India’s underbelly and is full of dark humour and suspense. I found it utterly captivating.

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The other country to feature even more heavily in my reading was South Africa. With a trip there in September, I read both fiction and nonfiction before leaving, and I am still following that literary trail. I loved Daman Galgut’s brilliant The Imposter and discovered Sowetan author Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog. I pored over photographic books like Peter Magubane’s Soweto: Portrait of a City and Jodi Bieber’s Soweto. (Are you sensing a theme?) I read Doing Life with Mandela by Christo Brand after picking it up at the gift shop on Robben Island, the place Nelson Mandela was notoriously incarcerated for 18 of his 27 years, about the relationship that developed between a prison warden and his most famous prisoner. I won’t bore you with my full South African reading list — it was long, and it’s growing longer by the week — but I’ve had rich and thought-provoking travels of both body and mind through this complex and fascinating country.

I also read books set in Indonesia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, New Zealand, Nigeria, Kenya, America, England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Greece, Norway, Antarctica, and probably a bunch of others that I am forgetting. However, the majority of my reading tends to be by Australian authors, predominantly female authors. Two standouts this year were The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose and Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar.

The Museum of Modern Love seems to have resonated with artists everywhere because it speaks to the challenges of the creative process, and the transformative ability of art. The book pivots around Marina Abramovic and her performance at New York’s MoMA, but really it is a meditation on art and life. I love this quote from the book: ‘Artists are stubborn. They have to be. Even when nothing is happening, the only way through is to work and work.’ And knowing that Rose wrestled this book into being over 11 long years makes this statement even more potent.

Incidentally The Museum of Modern Love won the Stella Prize which is my favourite Australian prize, of course because of what it stands for (‘to raise the profile of women writers and address their underrepresentation in the literary world’), but also because every winner has been among my favourite books of that year (with the exception of Clare Wright’s 2014-winning book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which I haven’t yet read).

Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek also won a bunch of awards and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary award. And rightly so. I came to it a bit late (it was published in 2015) but it’s a stunning debut that takes us into the unforgiving landscape of colonial Australia and the devastation of Indigenous displacement. It’s a beautiful and unflinching book that should be on every high school reading list. But fair warning: it’s a real heartbreaker.

Non-Aussie favourites this year included English (but, incidentally, Johannesburg-born) author Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Scottish author Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Interestingly, both these books inhabit the lives of quirky characters, and both have strong and distinctly unique voices. Highly recommended if you need a new read.

Well that’s my somewhat sketchy wrap for the year. Let’s hope technology doesn’t fail me again in 2018.

Oh the places you’ll go!

4 December 2017

2017 is the thirteenth year of the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge, but it’s been anything but unlucky. This year saw more students than ever before take part, with 34,000 kids from 91 schools reading their 15 books. Twenty-six schools finished with a 100 per cent completion rate across the school — bravo! And 49 schools with the highest percentage of students completing the Challenge were invited to attend the awards ceremony.

The ceremony is always a wonderful celebration, and this year I was honoured to speak on behalf of the Ambassadors. Our job is to promote reading (could their be a more perfect role?) and visit schools. I was asked to talk about how I became an author, and so I shared how I began writing and making my own books when I was just a wee thing. I remember hours spent on my bedroom floor, writing fairy stories and researching books on hard-hitting topics like the royal family. But I never imagined that I could actually become an author.

I spent my childhood in England and I assumed that authors must be terribly posh people who wore tweed suits and spectacles, and lived in mansions where they wrote in cavernous personal libraries that required a ladder to reach the books at the very top. They definitely weren’t people like me who lived in the suburbs in a noisy, chaotic house with five annoying younger brothers and a dog who liked to eat socks.

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Unbeknownst to me I was living just ten minutes down the road from a real author, one of the world’s most famous writers and one of my personal favourites, Roald Dahl. His writing studio was nothing like my glamorous fantasy. He wrote in a tiny, cluttered hut in his garden where he rested his feet on a battered suitcase filled with logs, and wore a sleeping bag to keep warm. The hut often had goat droppings in the corners, and there were always plenty of spiders to keep Roald company (which he apparently loved). If I could only have stood on tiptoe and looked in on this scene I might have realised sooner that authors are just ordinary people who love books.

But as it was it took me a long time to figure this out. I wasn’t much helped by my high school careers counsellor who declared that journalism was the only profession for a person like me, but I’d already been turned off that vocation by a school visit from a terribly grumpy newspaper columnist who clearly hated her job. These days I tell students that there is an endless list of possibilities for people who love books, everything from editing and illustrating to design and publicity.

I finished my speech by setting the students a challenge to read as widely as they possibly can — to explore characters who are completely different to them, who are experiencing different problems. I am a big believer that books are powerful agents of change. They have the potential to connect our diverse global community and create empathy for those who come from different countries, races, religions, cultures and ways of living. They allow us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand what the world looks like from their perspective, and that is sorely needed in our current climate. So I would encourage you to take up the challenge too, no matter your age!

The Ambassadors being presented with gorgeous bouquets, with Acting Chief Minister Yvette Berry on the left

It’s so heartening that through the Challenge the ACT Government supports and encourages children to explore the pleasures of books. Readers are clever, creative and compassionate thinkers, but the act of reading itself is a pure kind of joy. At least it is for me, and this is what I hope to share with the students as I go into their schools.

The minister quoted some of my favourite Dr Seuss lines in her speech and it seems an apt note to finish on:

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

The Ambassador crew: Tania McCartney, Jack Heath, Harry Laing, Tracey Hawkins, me, Virginia Haussegger

South Africa feels

15 October 2017

I am just back from South Africa, a place I have dreamed about travelling to for almost three decades. It is a complex country, full of contradictions, and I experienced all the feels. I thought I’d share a little of my grand adventure with you through a handful of the thousands of photos that I took. I travelled with my youngest brother and we started in Johannesburg, where our dad grew up, then went on to Soweto, Kruger, Blyde and Cape Town. We rode planes, trains and automobiles, and had a bloody fantastic time. So here’s a nonsequential version of how it went…

We met wild endangered penguins who looked super cute but were super smelly.

We drank excellent five-dollar mojitos as the sun set over stunning Camps Bay.

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Our hearts were broken, and then uplifted, on Robben Island where Mandela and his fellow anti-apartheid activists were jailed.

We took a train along the Western Cape that rattled through the dunes and travelled so close to the ocean that we felt the spray on our faces.

In Kruger National Park we saw everything we could have hoped for. We stopped for elephants more times than I can count…

and lions…

and rhino…

and a real zebra crossing.

We were fortunate to spend time with the elusive cheetah. There are only 400 in Kruger, which is the same size as Wales, and these two gave us every pose in the book.

I could fill this whole post with animal pix, but let’s move on.

In Soweto we made new friends wherever we went. I have never been so warmly welcomed in any place around the world, or given so many high fives to strangers on the street. Don’t believe the hype about Soweto. It was one of the most brilliant experiences of my travelling life.

It was also one of the most heartbreaking. We were invited into places where no tours go, into the homes of people forced to live in inhumane conditions — in tin shacks without electricity, sewerage, bathrooms, garbage removal, and with only one tap to serve the whole area. The rivulet you see here is sewerage.

We took the overnight train from Joburg to Cape Town. It was exhilarating and beautiful and hilarious. We often felt like we’d fallen into a slapstick comedy.

We climbed the sheer cliff face of Lion’s Head Rock, and took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain where we almost froze gulping up the gorgeous views.

We drooled over bubblegum-coloured houses in Bo-kaap.

And we hiked around and down into Blyde River Canyon where we saw barely a soul. It is the third largest canyon in the world but in a beauty contest it would beat the Grand Canyon hands down. No photograph can do it justice.

So there you have it. That’s one photo story; I could tell many others.

And now I’m going to take the words that I recorded in this pretty notebook and use it as the springboard for fiction. I don’t know what it will be about yet, or what form it will take, but I am going to start somewhere.