Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Excerpt from 'Zoe and May' - new and unpublished

And then every Saturday, his ex brought around May, his five-year-old daughter. He was getting to know her still, after two years when he and Cathy hadn’t spoken, and the only times he’d seen May were through a parked car window, coming out of Cathy’s place on a blustery winter afternoon in a duffle-coat that made her look like Paddingon Bear, or going into the supermarket and emerging again half an hour later, skipping beside her plastic bag-laden mother. He’d watch the house for hours, nothing changing whatsoever except dark drawing in—this was so unhealthy—while inside, his daughter’s childhood was taking place.

Now at last he had her, and didn’t know what to do with her at all, he’d never felt such an oaf. The car door would slam in the street, and there she’d be at the end of the drive, with her overnight case in one hand and Puss-puss, her stuffed toy, dangling from the other. He’d open his arms, and while she ran to him, his eye would be drawn to the dark head in the car, turned his way. The long pause before she turned the ignition and the car slid off.

This mistrust made him defiant, but still he had no idea. When he lifted her up and spun her round he half expected his big dumb hands to be seared by contact with such loveliness. Mayflower, he said, kissing her cheeks. According to the scales she weighed fourteen kilograms, but he could not believe it. She felt light as a kite, only the pulsing imbalance of her kicking legs indicating she had any weight to her at all. What do you do when a butterfly lands on your shoulder? You hold your breath and wait and try not to move so you won’t damage it.

But holding still, he knew, would not save him from harming her, this serious child whose eyes took in everything, like she was swallowing the world whole. If he was not to damage her he would need to act, to decide, to care and nurture, he knew this, but—fathering? He simply didn’t have a clue. He remembered the first day she came, standing in his empty living room—he’d cleaned and vacuumed for the occasion, thinking he was preparing for her, making an effort, but now as she stood there on the bare carpet, like a sad but polite traveller, he understood he’d got it all wrong again.
Furthering the theme of successive approximations from my last post, I heard someone on the Book Show today talking about the idea of working and working a poem until it stands up and says, "You have found me." The same idea, from a less mathematical perspective! I used to write poetry, was never all that good at it, but I think in my short stories I'm still driven by the poet's yearning for precision and highest refinement. Poetry is apprehended by all the senses: image and cadence of course, but to me the ultimate poetic sense is olfactory. You breathe in a poem, like the subtlest perfume, like a vapour arising between the lines. You could say that, literarily speaking, a novel offers meat: something to fill the belly, whereas a poem offers fragrance only, a very Buddhist sort of pleasure. I am not a poet because I am still too hungry, and then not quite a novelist, because I am too ascetic. So I keep on writing these damn short stories.

I have also reflected recently, like many writers before, on the failure of the realised to attain the perfection of the ideal. So those attracted to perfection, like myself, tend to cut back, to pare away the explicit in favour of the suggested. It truly is an ascetic's impusle, as if the cutting away, the negating of the material, somehow leaves a space in which the ideal can be reflected, can breathe. But the ultimate end of such an impulse, if left unchecked, is the negation of form entirely. It's J.D. Salinger's rumoured room full 0f stories too precious to ever be published, or John Cage's 4'33''. It's silence and anorexia. Poetic writing - by which I mean not just poetry, but all writing with a poetic sensibility, must play its music on a string drawn tight by the tension between the material and the formless, between sound and silence, being and emptiness.

And anyway - final thought - novels can have fragrance too. Some ideas, some images, some thoughts can only breathe in the space given by a whole novel. You have to build a cathedral if you want to make organ music. And yes, I'm mixing my sensory metaphors awfully, but you'll get the gist of the riff...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Eroticising the landscape, and the method of successive approximations

The method of successive approximations is the way to go, I decided last night, as I tried to beat my latest story into shape. Sometimes I think I'm just too much of a scientist to be a writer - always looking for some theory or clever trick to capture or explain the creative process. Well anyway, it's my latest way of thinking about writing. Start with a broad idea, write it out, however it comes out, and then gradually shape it closer and closer to the 'ideal' in one's mind. It's kind of obvious in a way, but I find it a more helpful way of thinking about writing than a linear write-it-from-beginning-to-end type of model, which tends to lead to me obsessively reworking paragraph one to the brink of perfection or extinction.

The other day, I came up with this:

In the clog of the river, the slow sick froth and stagnation she’s lain for three days, face down and slowly swelling with the stench of the crime. Gone the girl, the beautiful girl, she’s long fled among the reeds, the cicada song, the thrips and the swooping kingfishers, she’s rushed out like a gasp into the starry chill. That is her in the long, elegant step of the heron, her in the silky fall of dusk, her in the crushed breath of eucalypt, the sigh of night breeze.

The thing down there in the river bend is not her, is nothing, only the carcass, the bag: a corrupted sac of virescent meat. The river stings and itches with flies, and plops with gases, and gathers the scum of decay in its teeth of rotted trunks and boughs. The thing-that-was-once-a-girl goes to collect there too, to slowly bloat and stink and simulate life with its sighing and popping and subsiding, as if restless with sad thoughts. It forgets itself and farts and belches and lets itself go completely, gets fat with death, does not even care that the rats tear flakes from its soft, white edges, that the maggots swarm on the water line and fill its skin like a piƱata. It embraces decay unreservedly, loses unity and becomes a multitude, a human-shaped colony of crawling and microscopic things, her once fine, splendid flesh softening, loosening, dissolving away, so that soon all that once clothed her in loveliness will break up like suds and the bones will rise out, a reminder that a life cannot so easily be unmade. The bones will rise out, white as stones, severe and fragile, to sing in the twilight of lost and forgotten things, of love unmade and deeds undone.

Somehow it seems unlikely to become a short story, more likely the novel I write while I'm not writing the novel I'm supposed to be writing. Am I really considering some Wolf-Creek-Ivan-Milat-Joanne-Lees suspense thriller here? Hmm, we shall see...

I think I mentioned that I convened a writers' group last year, beginning with writers who have all been published in the Sleepers Almanac, but now expanded beyond that somewhat. I call us the Almaniacs in my mind, but I'm not sure anybody else knows that. Anyway, we are privileged to have some fine writers in our small tribe, and none finer than Jessica Au, whose story 'Leopards' is probably my favourite from last year's Almanac and who, at the age of twenty-very-little, writes absolutely Winton-esque prose. She's been presenting chapters from her novel in development for our delectation in recent meetings. I wish I could post some of the lines here, but that would be presumptuous. I can't however resist the one quote, something about "girls with salt in their hair and bodies struck with sunlight". "Bodies struck with sunlight" - how simple and gorgeous. I read this chapter with a feeling of sick excitement and jealousy. Trust me, you read it here first: this book will win prizes, and if it doesn't sell as well, then you're all crazy you hear me?

I heard David Malouf on the Book Show on Radio National talking about "eroticising the landscape" when he writes, and that is exactly what Jess does so beautifully: she manages to scoop some of the essential and the sensual out of whatever she describes, so that what comes off the page is somehow more vivid and sublime than the real thing.

I went back to my own half-finished offering after the group finished feeling curiously dispirited and inspired (impossible, I know, but true). I just had to get some of that same vividness into it. Writing about erotic love, I realised I was sentimentalising, vaselining my lens. I was missing the irregularity and uniqueness of my subject. Everything was getting emulsified, and in the process actually losing its eroticism. So - the method of successive approximations - I started trying to write in these unexpected, even jarring elements. My perfectionism can be a killer, but it also means I get better, I hope. I'm always seeing the David (Malouf?) in the marble and trying to chip him out.