Gathering at the Well: An Anniversary Post

I posted my first blog twelve months ago today and I’ve been pondering what to write for this occasion.  9QEVP5YHO3I considered describing the steep learning curve I experienced over the last twelve months and the mistakes I have made. I thought I might summarise the year’s posts, explain what I hoped to do and assess whether or not I achieved my goals. I considered celebrating what I see as my ‘coming of age’ (finally) as a writer and sharing what I’ve learned about myself as a result.

None of these ideas appealed.

I’ve decided, therefore, to resort to a tried a true blogging technique: a list. This list is, however, a bit different. I want to express my gratitude for the interest in and support of Elixir. It is my attempt to give back what twelve months of blogging has given me.

  • Thanks WordPress. You’ve been sensational. From creating my first blog, to Discover and BlogU, the support you offer and the hassle free connection with other bloggers has been exceptional. I am deeply grateful for your existence.
  • Thanks to my partner who patiently reads and edits my posts, who shares my enthusiasm and sympathises when the writing doesn’t go well and who has, for the last seven months, been my patron as well as my lover and friend. You are … astonishing.
  • To the friend who inspired the first post, when the blog’s main focus was therapeutic writing. It’s been ten years since your diagnosis and recover, but we missed the celebration this month because I’ve been busy writing. You have nevertheless been much in my thoughts. Thanks for your inspiration, for understanding writing takes up a lot of my time now and for being a steadfast friend. I owe you a champagne.
  • To the woman I met one June day in 1970 who is now a lifelong friend and confidante. On the day I published my first post you wrote, ‘I am so very proud’. Those words meant the world to me. You’re in the US right now, visiting family but I think of you every day and hope I can continue to make you proud.
  • To my many other friends who’ve read my posts, liked the posts via Facebook or commented on the posts in person, thank you. I am privileged to call you my friends. I’ve not seen as many of you in the last few months as I would have liked. I’ve become so focused on my writing since retiring but please know each and every one of you inspire me with your wisdom, intelligence, warmth and generosity. I may emerge from this self-devised writing intensive one day. When I do I hope we can catch up.
  • Special thanks to my first Guest Blogger, Barbara Brown. Thank you for writing something that inspired this and one other post. Not only are you a wonderful writer, your untiring work for refugees is an inspiration. I’m also grateful that you started a Book Club, Barb. Long may it live. cropped-80ryzdj8ue.jpg
  • Thanks to the members of my newly formed and growing-stronger-every-month writing group. We found each other by accident, but what a happy accident. We support and challenge each other and make the long hours at the computer worthwhile. You’re amazing writers; don’t ever stop writing.
  • Thanks also to my longtime Writing Buddy Louise. You’ve stuck with me through my various incarnations as a writer: dilettante; hopeful beginner; student. I love your poetry, admire your wit and am astounded by your wisdom.
  • Thank you from the bottom of my heart to my readers. Who are you guys? I want to invite you around for dinner! I particularly want to thank Calensariel Impromptu Promptings and peculiar ponderings. You have followed me almost from the start and I have learned a lot from reading your blog. I hope that, despite the kilometres of sea and land that separate us, we have become friends not only because we just ‘clicked’ somehow, but because you are a loving, compassionate, curious human being and you make me think. Raili over at Soul Gifts has also been a staunch follower, and … well I have 75 followers and I am rather gobsmacked by you all. Thank you for making it ‘real’ for me, for making me sit down at the computer and for the wisdom I read in your blogs.
  • Finally, thank you to my children. Your mother has always been a mite strange, but you’re accustomed to me now and you seem to cope exceptionally well with having a mother (and mother-in-law) who blogs. I promise I will continue to honour your privacy and share as little of your shenanigans as possible, unless you do something completely weird and then I promise nothing.

As I prepared my first blog post I remember feeling excited and uncertain. I worried that I would become caught up in a passing fad. I’ve since learned that blogging is not only about sharing my thoughts and ideas it’s about engaging with a variety of new and different thoughts and ideas. Blogging connects people.  Credit: Saved from images.search.yahoo.comIt is the equivalent of the village well, a meeting place where we draw sustenance from those also gathered at the well, where we offer succour to others, where we relate and  listen, where we strive to understand our lives and our world. I am honoured to be a part of this community.

What about you? How do you draw on the well that is blogging? What do you give and what have you gained since you started blogging?

Learning how to Change the World.

A little friend of mine had a big adventure last week: she went with her mother and father to a tropical island north of Australia. She travelled on a plane for the first time and is now a veteran of four flights. Each time the aircraft lifted off the ground my little friend cried ‘Wheeee’.Airplane

I have much to learn from this brave little girl.

Unfortunately, however, not everything worked out as planned. On the second evening of the eight-day holiday she fell and broke her collar bone.

Mummy and Daddy were, naturally, distraught and their family back home saddened to hear the holiday was spoiled. After receiving excellent help from the resort staff and advice from the local medical centre the family wisely chose to remain on the island resort and make the best of the situation.

Now, travelling with a three-year-old has its challenges, even with a three-year-old who loves, from the first moment, to fly. This holiday had, after the accident, more than the usual difficulties.  BeachSwimming in the pool or on the beach was out of the question. The excursion to the Great Barrier Reef was likewise cancelled; they couldn’t risk her overbalancing in the boat. Walking along the beach was fairly safe and there was a child’s activity room, but for a lot of the time the parents were faced with amusing a three-year-old while trying to contain her natural ebullience and help her understand that the sling compromised her balance and her ability to do things for herself. As any one who has had anything to do with a three-year-old knows, they have to do everything for themselves.

The result, sadly, was a frustrated little girl and a several days of temper tantrums.

Don’t get me wrong, this child is not a little angel; she has her moments. But these were serious, ear-splitting, toy throwing, hitting out, refusing to go to bed, refusing to do anything she was asked, tantrums.

Her parents are gentle, reasonable, perceptive people. This child is neither spoiled nor indulged and whatever discipline is needed is always explained, measured and reasoned. But Mummy and Daddy desperately needed a holiday, and their dream of a few blissful days with their little girl was ruined by the pain and grief of their thwarted expectations.

I’m not saying they didn’t handle it well, they did, but I could see the strain and exhaustion on all three faces when we picked them up from the airport last night.

How I wished I could have wrapped them in my arms and made it all go away.

I’ve thought a lot about what turned this usually affectionate and happy little girl into the monster her mother described to me as we trudged towards the carpark through Adelaide’s cold night.

Maybe it was the excitement of the trip, the anticipation and then the letdown of the accident and injury. Maybe it was the pain killers. As mild as they were, having to take them over several days can affect anyone, particularly a child. Maybe it was the unfamiliar situation. When we’re feeling poorly, we need the comforts of our home and our familiar toys. Perhaps it was the shock and pain occasioned by the fall; my little friend woke screaming several nights after the accident. Maybe it was a combination of all these things?

And maybe it was just raw fear. I’m no child psychologist (which is amazing, because any woman who’s raised three children is, of course, an expert on children), so I consulted Dr Google – specifically concerning children who hit out during temper tantrums. My intuition was confirmed.

We usually lash out at others when we are afraid. It’s part of the classic freeze, flight or fight reaction that comes from deep within what neurologists call our reptilian brain, an ancient section of the brain that controls our heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. The thing about three-year-olds (and most humans), is no matter how articulate, how well parented or how well behaved they are, fear inevitably triggers survival instincts and that results in defensive behaviour, in hitting out at others. There’s no irony in the fact that we often hit out at those we love, at those who hold our very survival in their hands, because we trust them to understand, without reacting negatively, our instinctive, automatic ferocity.

My little friend is probably one of the luckiest people I know. In her terror and pain she hit out at the very people she knew would cope with her behaviour. Her parents, despite being stressed themselves, found a way to understand, witness and try to soothe their frightened little girl’s inarticulate rage.

Not all girls or boys are so lucky.

I held back tears last night when I watched the exhausted father walking from the plane, holding his sleepy eyed baby in his arms. Their flights home were delayed and they’d spent the last 12 hours either waiting in airports or flying, but there she was, snuggled close to her Daddy, smiling at my partner and me, waving tentatively at us with her free hand.

Is this story a caution against travelling with children? Far from it. Accidents happen, tempers flare and misunderstandings occur wherever we are in the world. When I think of that couple alone in their resort room, relying on the goodwill of staff when the accident happened, and later receiving calls from concerned parents and grandparents across the width and breadth of Australia, I am reminded of how important family is, how we reach out to each other during times of travail and stress. This happens on a small scale, like it did this week with my family, but it also happens on a large scale.

We’ve learned, in the last dozen or so years, that there is but one race of humans and we came from the same mother. We are a very large, rambunctious, sometimes violent family and that violence usually comes from raw fear, from the ancient section of our brain that reacts first and thinks later.

My little friend is going to grow up to be an amazing woman.   P1020430 (2)She will gradually learn to moderate her reactions, to articulate her fears, to be mindful of her thoughts and, given the way her parents are raising her, to be compassionate when she witnesses another’s fear, another’s pain.

She may even change the world; she may find a way to end the fear that animates violence, because that’s the blessed potential of every child on the planet.

 

On Fulfilling a Challenge

Have you ever set yourself a challenge? Something long-term and personally meaningful, something that, when completed, surprised, delighted and satisfied you?

Back on the 4th July 2015, around the time I decided to retire, I set myself such a challenge. Aaron_BurdenI had another five months of classes to prepare and teach, but I was eager to start my ‘new’ life as a full-time writer. I always found it difficult to maintain a regular writing routine while teaching, so I knew ‘writing ten minutes a day’ wasn’t, at that time, going to work. I had to find something else that would prepare me for the rest of my life.

I decided to immerse myself in one aspect of my art: short stories. I set myself the challenge of reading one short story a day, every day, for twelve months.

Reader, I did it. Ten days ago, on the 4th July 2016, I read Kate Chopin’s ‘Regret’, the 366th (yes, I added an extra) story, thus ending my challenge. I have to say it was the best thing I have ever done. Not only did reading a wide selection of short stories inform my writing, I think it made me a better person.

I tended to stick to stories and collections written by women; it was my challenge and so I could follow my inclinations and biases. I discovered, during the challenge, writers I didn’t know about and rediscovered writers I had enjoyed years ago. In the case of the latter, reading Kerryn Goldsworthy’s wonderful Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology K_G_Bookfelt like walking in to a roomful of women, many of who were old friends and many others I wanted to learn more about. Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’, from that collection, is an Australian short story classic. I have read it several times and, yes, this is a cliché, but it never fails to move me. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so straight away.

Another collection I read was Contemporary Canadian Short Stories, edited by Michael Ondaatje. My reaction to this was mixed; I enjoyed most of the stories but was perplexed by the inclusion of several others. I learned, however, a lot about Canada’s history and its people. I have always wanted to visit Canada and this book fed that ambition. I’ve also decided to read a more recent collection of Canadian short stories; if you have a favourite, please let me know.

Another discovery was The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.   Davis_lydiaI’d known about flash fiction before finding this collection but Davis’ book has strengthened my interest in short, short stories. I am astounded by how she says so much in such a small form.

All in all, I read from about 21 collections (many of which I bought, putting, in the process, severe stress on my budget). I only read four of them from cover to cover, preferring to cherry pick from the others and expose myself to as wide a variety of writers and genres as possible. The bonus is, I still have many of these collections to complete, so I’ll be working through my short story collection for many years to come.

I also strayed into creative (or literary) nonfiction, those mostly erudite gems whose facets include truth, dialogue, characterisation, setting and plot. This is one of my favourite genres and something I want to work on so Helen Garner’s recent book, Everywhere I Look felt like a literary benediction. I read each story slowly and I didn’t want it to finish.

I also discovered podcasts. This was in the latter months of 2015, when I was still teaching and struggling to stick to my resolve of consuming a story a day. Every time I caught the bus to work I set up my mobile, put in my ear plugs and clicked on to New Yorker: Fiction or New Yorker: The Author’s Voice. Oh, the joys of being read to again.

Regrettably I only dipped into one short story magazine, mostly because purchasing them would have stretched the budget too far. As a writer, however, reading as many magazines as possible is a good idea, especially when I’m considering submitting a story.

Another happy discovery was Wild  Ways: New Stories about Women on the Road.  WildWays It was given to me by a friend who was clearing books from her personal library. This friend is much travelled and I suspect she gave it to me because I’m just the opposite; I’ve been overseas once. I loved this collection. It was full of funny, feisty, adventurous women and while I was reading it I wanted to get on the first plane to anywhere.

I learned so much from this challenge, although only a little in terms of how to write a short story. Back in 2004 I studied short story writing in depth, when I returned to university as an undergraduate. This is not to say I know everything about writing a short story, far from it. Three months into my challenge, I found I was immersed in the world of short stories and the short story writer and I had started looking beyond the different elements that make up a short story. I think I developed a more nuanced awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the short form. I absorbed, I believe, a deeper understanding of how the genre works and why it is so important. If I chose, I could probably bash out an academic essay about each element of story writing, but a good short story is more than a clever arrangement of those elements. Having read 366 short stories in a year, I think a good short story is like a tree in the forest, the one you come across that makes you stop. The one that holds your gaze because, even if its branches are askew, its leaves withered, and its roots knotty, the pattern of light and shade that tree affords, the interaction of that tree with the earth and the sky, is so inspiring, so fascinating it doesn’t need to be perfect. All that such stories need is the brush of your breath on the page, like the wind that brushes through the leaves of a tree, to complete it.

I read so many short good stories it is impossible to list and discuss them all. More importantly, the ones I like may be the very stories you’d reject. Yes, there are classics, universally loved tales that most people agree have all the elements perfectly arranged, but over the last year I stepped into several beautiful forests, I was arrested by many single trees whose branches embraced me, who revealed in their pattern of leaf and twig, a different sky, a further horizon.

I miss the routine of sitting down each day and reading a story, although the truth is I didn’t manage to do it every single day. In late 2015, essay and exam marking meant I never quite found the right moment. Christmas and New Year always chews up my days; who would want it any other way? I always caught up though, and I learned to love missed days because it meant I could sit and catch up on two or three stories at a time.

Every so often, in the last ten days, I have stopped what I’m doing and wondered what is missing. Then I realise I haven’t read a short story and I remember; my challenge is over. Except it isn’t. I’ve set myself a new challenge, only this time I’m not going to work on it every day; I want this challenge to be more leisured and measured. I am going to read Shakespeare: all the plays (some of them for a third or fourth time), in the order he wrote them; all the poems and all the sonnets. NortonI’ve started with ‘The First Part of the Contention’, which, it is assumed, is his first play. I’m up to Act III Scene i and I can’t wait to read more.

I’m not sure how long it will take me to complete this challenge, and I’m not sure I care. What I can say is, in the process, I’ll learn a lot about drama, about writing and about the human condition. That’s why I read; it’s one of the best ways to understand our fellow humans.

WHAT challenges have you set yourself that you’re still involved in? What challenges have you completed? What did you learn about yourself and others while doing the challenge? What kind of challenges would you like to set for yourself and why?

References

Davis, Lydia. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Daly, Margo, and Jill Dawson. Wild Ways: New Stories About Women on the Road. London: Sceptre, 1998.
Garner, Helen. Everywhere I Look. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016.
Goldsworthy, Kerryn. Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology. South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories. Faber, 1990.
http://www.newyorker.com/series/fiction-podcast
http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/the-authors-voice/introducing-the-authors-voice-new-fiction-from-the-new-yorker

(Edited 17/7/16)

Where are all the Angry Women?

I recently heard two separate interviews, recorded at different times and in different locations, with the same woman writer. Both interviews were about her new book and in the second interview her comments were the same or similar to the first.

While there is nothing wrong with this, the second interview gave me a chance to reflect on the writer’s response to both interviews and her comments about how she wrote the book. I discovered I had several problems with what she said. While her book is in some ways shocking and disturbing, it contains only a couple of descriptions of overt violence. I applaud the writer’s decision regarding the depiction of violence. I am sickened by books (or movies) that graphically portray the abuse, torture and maiming of anyone, especially women. In the second interview, however, I detected a sense of squeamishness in the writer when it came to writing about violence and sexual intercourse. Again, the book has a couple of sex scenes, written with assurance and skill but also curiously detached. This may be a good thing; books with too much sex, even pleasurable, loving sex can be boring. After all, as a friend once said to me, how many ways can you write about the mechanics of sexual intercourse that aren’t, well, mechanical?

On the other hand, invasive sexual congress, which occurs when one of the partners (usually, in heterosexual intercourse, the woman) is for whatever reason coerced into having sex, makes me really angry. So does the abuse of women, be it their bodies, their minds, their self-respect or their sovereignty.

Am I reading the wrong books or is no one writing about women’s anger anymore and if not, why not?

I wonder if it is because there exists a clutch of women literary writers, many of them aged between thirty and forty-five, who are a tad fastidious about women’s suffering? Who shy away from the awful reality of most women’s lives? If this is true, if women are too refined to write the truth about woman’s suffering, does this reluctance condone women’s abuse? Does it allow the perpetrators of that abuse to get away with their crimes? Does the absence of anger silence the women who are forced to negotiate, on a daily basis, ways to survive their abuse and their abuser.

I also think too many women writers shy away from so-called ‘feral’ female protagonists. Medusa cover I don’t necessarily think we should all write feminist versions of ‘Lord of the Flies’ but I don’t want to read novels where women are complicit in their abuse even though our conditioning and living situations can mean we willingly accept the status quo.

How long will women remain compliant? In straightened circumstances women eventually behave like any other human: they access their power and they fight back, they openly and proudly assert their rights and express their anger and frustration. It’s also true that women can hurt others, be abusive and violent. To say otherwise repudiates women’s humanity, the first dictate of which is survival by any means.

Many women are angry about how they are treated. Anger, however, is not action. Anger motivates: it can be, when properly and wisely directed, a potent force for change. Women have resisted unequal treatment and fought for equality for centuries and many continue the fight.

Do I want a bunch of novels about angry, violent, abusive women popping up on our bookshelves? Can the current crop of young-to-middle-aged women writers express such anger? How is it possible for many of these women writers, university educated, upper middle class, quasi-radical feminists, to ignore the often horrific daily reality of the majority of women? Are they unable to understand this reality because their university education failed them or is it because they simply don’t want to be sullied by the truth that lies behind the statistics, the truth that sits outside their safe, theoretical books and journals?

Why is this important to me? Apart from having been a feminist for over thirty years (and lamenting the ongoing situation many women continue to endure), I am trying to write a themed collection of stories about angry women. It is hard to write about anger without being confronted by one’s own anger. I am wary of alienating a potential reader with my characters’ anger and I want to avoid being didactic. Nor do I want my characters’ anger to be the action but be the motivation for their behaviour. I know it’s vital to show (not tell) the anger and show (not tell) how my characters face, accept, and use their rage to make the change they wants to make.

Every woman, from birth, must have access to good health care, an education, financial independence, safe and accessible contraception and access to safe child-birth and child care. Every woman has the right to have a career, if they want one. Every woman should feel, at the end of their lives, respected and nurtured. I want to put my characters’ divine and justifiable rage out into the world, to represent anger as a legitimate, reasonable reaction to the intolerable fact that too many women are denied these basic rights.

It’s just that writing about anger can be as taxing as feeling angry.

What do you think? Are you angry? Are you comfortable with expressing your anger? Have you created an angry fictional character? What problems did you confront and how did you solve them? Do you know of any books where angry women characters feature?