Author Archive

Getting close

Friday, September 14th, 2012

In her review of the film “Hemingway and Gellhorn” in The Monthly, Helen Garner describes a moment in the film where photographer Robert Capa says to Martha Gellhorn, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.

This is great advice for writers. It is so easy to stand back, at a safe distance. So much harder to move in, closer and closer, until you are right inside your own body, writing slowly and carefully about the details that make a moment or a person or a thought or a feeling worth writing about. Up close you can capture the breath of a sleeping child, the dust on an autumn leaf, the fear in the mirror.

This is where writers need to be – very close indeed.

By the way, Garner pans the movie!

One perfect symbol

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

When I worked in book publishing in London in the late 1980s, there was much discussion about how the (then) new technology of electronic typesetting would kill off the printed book within a few years. Well, it didn’t happen then. Publishers, writers and readers have had about 30 years in which to prepare ourselves for the possible death of the printed book.

I’m still not prepared, though. I love the physical object of the p-book. And so do lots of others.

I was interested to read writer and book collector Julian Barnes in The Guardian Weekly saying that he thinks the p-book will survive, albeit it in altered form. The day after reading that, I read ‘Touch of Class’ by Robert Collins in The Weekend Australian Magazine, where he describes some wonderful ‘books’ that you can read on your iPad, like Eliot’s The Waste Land and Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, complete with sound recordings, vision of the original manuscripts, glossaries, extra information like photos, videos and scholarly articles. They sound pretty good. I will probably buy the Eliot one day, though I won’t be tossing out my scruffy old self-annotated copy of his Selected Poems.

I love what Barnes said about reading near the end of his Guardian article: ‘When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life; you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. And for this serious task of imaginative discovery and self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.’

The deep life

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

I read a lot, probably too much.

I should read less and do more of the practical things of life, like cleaning the house, getting some exercise and weeding the garden. I know I need practise with practical activities because the other day it took me 30 minutes to take the beeping smoke detector off the ceiling to change its battery and then another 30 minutes to fail to get it back up there. Tears and swear words later, my friend arrived and sorted it immediately – the problem was all to do with a little red tab that had to be tucked under the battery. How is it that some people can see that sort of thing straightaway and I can’t?

No amount of great literature is ever going to teach me how to be comfortable up a ladder fiddling around with batteries and buttons and little red things. I know this. I know I can’t rely on my friends to help me out every time either. You only get good at things through practice, so the smoke detector should be a warning to me – get practical.

Yes, I said to myself, but first since I’ve just made a coffee I’ll sit down for a quick read before I tackle the garden weeds. An hour later, I was still engrossed in The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, a novel set in the 80s, partly about a girl who reads too much!

What excuse is there for people like me? I don’t know, except I also came across this sentence by Mary Jane Moffat: “Literature is one of the few resources we have in modern times for living the deep life and not being simply spectators of our own experience.”

This is so true: the more I read, the more I understand myself and others. This is worth something, surely.

The social minefield of school

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

This week, Ben is experiencing a new problem at school.

“There’s this girl in year 4, mum, and she follows me around at lunch time and asks me questions,” he says.

“Oh, are the questions rude or something?” I ask because of the worried look on his face.

“No. But she keeps following me. It makes me feel funny.”

“Maybe she likes you, Ben,” I suggest.

He frowns: “Mum, she’s in year 4. I’m in year 7.”

It turns out that not only is he uncomfortable that a girl is following him around, he also feels it is totally inappropriate for a girl three years his junior to be friendly with him, especially as she is “quite short for her age”. Of course, I don’t point out that he is immature for his age (common with autistic boys) and short himself, but I do suggest that he can do with all the friends he can get. After all, he spends many lunch breaks on his own while the other year 7 boys play sport and the year 7 girls hang around in little groups.

“Why don’t you just play with her?” I suggest.

“I don’t know if that’s allowed,” he says.

If there was a prize for the most law-abiding kid in school, this boy would win hands down. (He’d also win child most likely to remember to ring the school siren on time, not to mention most anxious child of the year.) I encourage him to loosen up a bit and try to make a new friend. Then a frightening thought strikes him.

“Mum, you don’t think she like-likes me, do you?”

“It’s not a tragedy if a girl fancies you,” I say. “You don’t have to do anything. Just talk and play on the monkey bars or something.” He looks unconvinced.

“I don’t know if today is going to be a good day,” he mutters as we get into the car to drive to school.

I have to laugh. I never thought I’d be counselling my son on how to remain cheerful when a girl seems to like him!


Friday, July 27th, 2012

This, from Margaret Atwood: “Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.” (From her book Negotiating with the Dead.)

Isn’t this true? When you begin working on an essay or a story or a poem, something is obscured, but you don’t necessarily know what. There can be an emptiness – a void, the sense of something unknown or unspoken, something felt but not fully expressed yet. And you work with it, around it, towards it. You dive down into the darkness, and find – or rather create – a pattern, a way of shedding light.

And if you go down there and come up with nothing, well, you just do it all again the next day, and the next … Diving and writing, writing and diving.

Being a ‘real writer’

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

When my book was published, a writer friend said to me, ‘now you must feel that you’re a REAL writer?’ I know what she meant, because having a first book published does feel like a watershed, an event that defines you as the real thing. I also knew that it was false – the product and the process are quite far apart at times. (Though I love having published a book and my publishers, Black Inc, were and are terrific.) Now, four months after publication, I can see the irony. Now I’m a ‘writer’, I’m doing less writing than I was before I was published! The past year or so I have spent editing my book, proof reading it and then doing publicity for the book. I really enjoy talking about autism and memoir and meeting readers – its been great. But there hasn’t been much time or energy for writing anything new – until now anyhow.

That feeling of noticing the world in a different way, looking at people and places slantwise has finally returned to me. I’m back at the beginning of a writing project, fumbling around in the darkness, no idea what I am doing or why, making obscure notes on the back of shopping lists, cutting out articles from the paper and then wondering which side I cut it out for, borrowing bizarre books from the local library (thank you City of Melville), listening to the sound of crunching leaves underfoot, being preoccupied without knowing what preoccupies me, feeling horribly restless and then unable to settle to anything, waking from dreams that escape just as I reach for them, buying my son red shoes … hold on, perhaps the red shoes aren’t a sign that I’m writing again, though they could be, because I love the colour that is back in life when I’m sort of, almost, writing again. It can be painful though, the struggle to create something new, something worthwhile and beautiful and true, which is what I strive to do. Still, like a lot of life’s pain, I don’t want to do without it!

Western Australian of the Year

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Great news that my colleague at Curtin University, Professor of Writing Kim Scott, has been named inaugural Western Australian of the Year. Kim, of course, is a multi-award winning author. His latest book is That Deadman Dance. But the novel of his that transformed my own thinking about Noongar people was Benang.

Kim is also very active in Indigenous communities, particularly around language recovery. His work on the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories project is fantastic. I had the opportunity to read Mamang, a story about a man and a singing whale – it’s a lovely book.

It’s a real pleasure to have Kim in our School at Curtin; I think he may be the first Indigenous full Professorial appointment at Curtin. Roll on diversity! At work he is modest and friendly – which might be rare for someone who is so successful.

That Denmark Vibe

Monday, May 7th, 2012

I have just come back from a weekend in Denmark (WA) where I gave two author talks and ran a one day workshop. I’ve visited Denmark often and always enjoyed my time there, but this was particularly special.

Around 70 people attended the talks and 20 participated in the workshop, surely a sign that Denmark and environs are extraordinarily bookish places! People listened with such respect and warmth, asked interesting questions and gave wonderfully encouraging feedback.

The writers at the workshop ranged from a mother of toddlers to an 84 year old, all producing fantastic ideas and prose. It was inspiring to be among such enthusiastic and engaged writers and readers.

There were moments of surprise and humour, too, courtesy of an unexpected visitor to Tea House Books. And, of course, there was time to sample delicious local wine and food.

All credit to Denmark Arts, the Shire of Denmark, the Denmark Library and Writing WA for their work making such events not only possible but also so positive.

Becoming a mother

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Thousands of people do it. I’ve written a book about it. But still, I’m not sure how one becomes a mother.

I don’t think it happens the moment you give birth or adopt a child. Biologically, yes, but in every other way it takes time to learn to mother. Does it happen during that first year of milky sleep deprivation, of joy and amazement, of confused helplessness in the face of pure dependency? Or does it happen more slowly, over the years, a gradual stretching and turning inside out of the self, a transformation both profound and subtle? It is so common, perhaps, that we hardly notice it and the process of reconfiguration remains mysterious.

Certainly, all those books about how to be a good mother, the parenting courses, the advice websites – none of these approach the actuality of becoming a mother. They simply tell us how society thinks we should act as mothers and provide a place for sharing tips on how to manage children. They’re useful, but every woman must learn her own way to become a mother, just as every child will develop into their own individuated self.

Some people would argue I’m expressing a very romantic view of mothering here, describing it as mysterious and transformative. But in fact, I think that it is all the “how to” books that are based on motherhood as an ideal. I am more interested in the real experience of mothering as a complex, ongoing encounter with the self, an encounter of pain as well as pleasure, but an encounter that is always a gift.

Celebrating autism

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

As April is Autism Awareness Month, I’ve written a few blogs for other sites.

Autism, Diversity and Difference for the ABC’s Drum website, where I expand on the concept of neurodiversity.

Fantastic. Autistic. My Boy Ben for The Hoopla, where I celebrate some of the great things about being a parent to Ben.

School holiday blues? Not for me! for BubHub website, where I compare my current experiences of the school holidays with those when my son was much younger.

In all of these blogs, I’m writing only about my own experience and views, recognising that every autistic child is different (as are all children). But I have appreciated the feedback and comments from readers and hearing some of their experiences too.