Saturday, July 26, 2008

A bad day at the office

Oh crap writing day! Yesterday was supposed to be a writing day, but instead it got frittered away on nothing, because I could sense in myself that I was empty. So today I tried again, determined to make a better fist of it. I took a notebook down to the Green Grocer in North Fitzroy (where the granola is the best on Earth) and sat in front of the fire, not writing but reading. Two glorious short stories from the Best Australian Short Stories 2007. The first was 'Speak to Me' by Paddy O'Reilly. If you haven't read this story, it's worth the price of the whole book, I swear it. Of course this is a personal thing, but I haven't been so thrilled by a short story in a long time. Forget Nabokov (I've been labouring through his collection) - read this! The other one was Cate Kennedy's 'Tender', as beautifully observed and simply written as all her short stories, and on any other day I would have been wowed. But Paddy O'Reilly's alien in the underwear drawer made it almost pale by comparison.

So after two lattes and two stories I went home again, having written zilch, and then decided to sit in front of my computer and have a go at something equally brilliant as 'Speak to Me'. Yes of course! I realised. All the possibilities that the surreal has to cast light on the human condition! Why hadn't I realised it before? Why was I so earth-bound? Everything is possible in fiction, so go for it...

Nothing, of course. A horrible emptiness. I'm brimming with the sense of everything that's possible, but I got nothing. I open up a story I wrote a couple of weeks ago. It's terrible. Some nice passages, but each nice paragraph, instead of adding up with all the others to something great, cancels out the others, so at the end when I try to deliver a punch line of sorts it's got nothing whatsoever behind it. It's pitiful, laughable. So the protagonist discovers that he cares. Pity that I, the reader, don't.

Still, there's gotta be something that I can salvage from all those fine words. Okay, so how's this bit:

It was the year I first got drunk, up there in that empty space full of echoes and moonlight and scraps of electrical wiring. I suggested an experiment. We would see how far it was possible to mentally resist the effects of alcohol. I’d read books and I believed the mind could do anything. I forced down gulp after gulp of the cold wine until my face went numb and my words slurred. The moonlight sloshed over us and I sprawled out on the bare floor and watched the trees through the window spin without ever completing a rotation. The wine bottle got knocked over and glugged out a great purple stain.

Where will you go? I asked him.

I dunno, I don’t care, he said. His cigarette end moved like a firefly. He was saying that a lot now, about not caring. He didn’t care about school, about the future, about his mum and dad. Anyway what was to care about? Nuclear war was bound to come sooner or later. We’d been expecting it for years. When we were younger we’d made plans to bury tins of food up on the Black Spur. We’d have mountain bikes and leave food on the doorsteps of people with less foresight than ourselves. Even now we still thought a little wistfully about the possibility of nuclear holocaust. At least it would be dramatic.

He opened the second bottle and I guzzled straight from the neck. Yes, hell, who cared? Through the window I could see the house I’d grown up in. It was as familiar as a face, like a big square head with windows for eyes, a head full of memories. But the last lights had gone out, its lids were drawn down. It slept unaware that I was out in the construction site next door, watching it with cold, unsympathetic eyes.

I kind of like that. Gotta be able to take it somewhere. Somehow I've got to make the thing cohere, got to bind the whole narrative together into something tight and compelling, the way those three paragraphs are. So I try starting again, but after two sentences I hit the little red x at top right. Do you wish to save? No thanks. (Which reminds me of something irrelevant but amusing. My nine-year-old son downloaded a picture of Everest from the internet. When he went to save it, he got a message saying 'Mt Everest already exists. Do you wish to replace it?' He found that hilarious, and of course I then had thirty minutes of variations: your arm already exists, do you wish to replace it? etc etc)

I'm labouring against a headwind today. So then I opened up my story 'White Summer' (due to be published in Sleepers Almanac 2009. Pre-order your copy today! Oh. You can't. Never mind.) Love that story! My mother tells me it is miserable, which is sort of true, but it is beautiful too, and ends with redemption of sorts. I have no aversion to sadness in my stories. I opened it to remind myself that I can write, and also because I'm thinking of using the character as part of my novel. I got to the end and thought Yes! I love it! and immediately opened up a blank document and started to write the first chapter of my novel, for the second time. One paragraph before all inspiration had haemorrhaged out of me onto the page and I was left staring at the blinking cursor. It was mocking me so I closed the page.

In the meantime, I was running my 'Word Learner' program in the margin, a little application I've written that helps me to learn, you guessed it, words. For some reason I believe I can multitask while writing the great Australian novel. I stare at the procession of obscure four-letter words that are all worth four points in scrabble.

leat inro neal rial aune raun trin sean ...

Then I go to see if anyone has made a move on scrabulous or chess pro...

There's a guy in my writing group who's written 70,000 words since November or something. He loves it. I hate him.

I check my emails. There's one from a friend I've never met whose life consists of following her diplomat husband across the far continents of the globe, playing scrabble and penning prettily written short stories about her gardeners and the diplomatic parties she has attended with self-important dignitaries where she'd wanted to dance naked on the cream cake. She's a great critic, and I'd asked her to read a couple of my stories, including the bad one that I hadn't realised was bad at that point. I'd then sent her a follow up email begging her not to read it after all, in fact to destroy it all costs, knowing that this was futile, and she was only going to be all the more likely to read the damn thing. She'd sent me a harried email from what I'd imagined was some windswept hut in the rain shadow of the Andes, but which turned out to be a local library in Northern Ireland, where she was having a holiday from her taxing schedule of horseriding in Uruguay. The email said she'd get to the stories when she had a moment, and informed she'd been paid twenty pounds for a story that had been accepted on an internet writing site.

Twenty pounds! Ah this is the life eh, writing? The glamour, the women! The twenty pound notes to throw around like petals at a wedding. The fast cars. The dizzying social calendar. The awards.

Which reminds me. Those champions of fine literature over at the National Jazz Writing Awards rejected my entry! A grand total of 57 entries, and mine failed to reach the short list of ten. The email of doom kindly informed me that this failure didn't necessarily mean my work was no good. It might just not be the right piece at the right time. You don't win the award, but please accept this condescension prize. Ah well, such is life...

It's dark now and raining. My bad writing day has come to an end. And look! Someone's made a move on scrabulous!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Excerpt from 'The Wasps' Nest'

The following is a short extract from my story 'The Wasps Nest', currently unpublished.

In the visits centre Alan was sitting hunched at the plastic table, so shrunken she hardly recognized him when she scanned the room. She was looking for the big strong mechanic she’d married, who’d so often boasted about the dodgy parts dealers he’d bested at the garage — not this frightened old man with his unshaven cheeks and edgy, fast-moving eyes. It was noisy and heckling in there, the kids bored and screaming while their parents huddled, bracketing their snatched intimacy with their backs and trying to grope one another out of sight of the officers. Alan stood and pulled out a chair for her — that was him all over, always polite, knew how to treat a lady. It was why she married him, that old-fashioned courtesy. A true gentleman, she always said. A gentleman at a time when her body and soul thirsted for gentleness like water. The bruises had faded, the bones mended, but after she escaped her first marriage she still suffered a terrible tenderness in her skin. A harsh word made her shake, the abrasion of a doorway hurt like a blow, even the hard light of summer assaulted her and had her wearing her dark glasses again, hiding in them like a shellfish. She had thought she could never bear to let a man touch her again. But then there had been Alan, courting her with flowers, the old-fashioned way.

And she’d told him. She’d said to him that if his intentions weren’t honourable then he could forget it right away; she wasn’t like that. Of course she knew she was damaged goods and was lucky to have him at all, someone to take her to the pokies on a Saturday night, or drive her to Target when she needed a new pair of shoes. But it had given her such pleasure playing the role of someone she wished she’d had the chance to be. Forty-two and acting like a schoolgirl who’d never been kissed. It was such silliness yet such dizzy pretence. And Alan opening doors and kissing her hand, for goodness sake. She shouldn’t have been shocked at the proposal, when it came. Alan was a man and even the sweetest of men won’t wait forever. She’d just hoped to play the game a little longer. Of course she said yes, and then she wept, and Alan thought it was happiness. She let him believe it; how could she ever have explained her grief?