the week in which I got a big head (twice) but then got over myself

The week just gone was a busy one. My friend Amanda O’Callaghan (below) had her wonderful short story collection This Taste for Silence (UQP) released into the world, with not one but two book launches. Both events were packed, the first at Avid Reader and the second at a function centre with over a hundred people attending. The book is stunning, and is already receiving much acclaim.

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I was fortunate enough to be asked to read at both launches, along with another lovely friend, Karen Hollands. This meant I was reading my work in public for the second and third times — exciting and nerve-wracking stuff.

A friend today asked me if I enjoyed it and I suppose I did — in the same way I like rollercoasters. I was scared, for sure, and yet the feeling of having a big room of people listening to your words was surreal in a wonderful way. After all, that’s one of the reasons many of us write — to have our words reach and touch others. Seeing all those people gazing my way, not scratching their heads or dozing or staring off elsewhere but in fact looking riveted — it was quite the high.

I even had several strangers tell me how much they enjoyed the reading, ask where they could read more of my work, or how to buy my book (um, yes, slight problem there).

Fiona at Avid (reading)

And so what did I do after each of these highs? I came home to all the usual household chores, wanting to flop on the couch with a cup of tea. I talked to my family. And I figured out a way to annoy them a great deal.

“Famous people don’t stack the dishwasher,” I said. They looked at me. I smiled. Someone else stacked the dishwasher.

“Also, famous people don’t get their own cups of tea.”

My husband sighed, heaved himself to his feet, muttering, but nevertheless made tea.

I explained to my beloved ones that my famousness was a one-night thing, that I wouldn’t be wielding it on other days. To their credit, they took my diva act in their stride. My husband may have even smirked in a tolerant way (which will only encourage me for next time).

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writers, day jobs, and a ruptured heart

woman wears yellow hard hat holding vehicle part

Photo by Chevanon Photography on Pexels.com

I caught up with a friend last week, and she spoke about the juggle of work and writing. She has a great idea for her second novel and it’s pouring onto the page, whenever she can write. But work gets in the way, and she’s tempted to give her job the flick. She knows she’s fortunate—her husband is supportive, and their finances could allow it. I asked how she’d feel if she didn’t go to work—if she couldn’t watch the body language in the staffroom, didn’t witness the everyday life of her colleagues, playing out in front of her. She said she’d considered that. She said if she didn’t work, she’d have to deliberately go out more, to get her fill of ‘people time’. For now, she plans to stay at work and get paid!

It seems most writers have a day job. They don’t have a choice. Unless they’ve reached retirement age, they work so they can pay the bills, since writing rarely generates a decent income.

But sometimes writers leave their day jobs behind. They don’t just downscale their hours or change jobs—they stop non-writing work altogether. They may support themselves with writing earnings—from publication payments, running courses, editing, lecturing and more. Or if a writer has a partner who can become the main breadwinner, the writer may then work solely on creative projects.

For some writers, being at home fulltime works well, as the rest of their life takes them out and about. But for other writers, having a day job doesn’t just pay the bills, it helps them get ideas by exposing them to different places, people and situations.

My day job is not rocket science, but I love it. As a surgical assistant, I often find my eyes goggling, my ears straining, even my fingers fascinated by the texture of different tissue (gross but true). I often chat to patients beforehand to distract them. We may talk about their dog’s weird habits in the minutes before they have their breast removed. I watch the ways other staff interact with patients—some briskly, some politely, some with the deepest kindness and care. None of these work details have featured in my stories, but I suspect the emotion permeates my fiction.

The other day, I sat in the tea room between cases, sipping a lukewarm coffee. A bloke strode through with a phone to his head, barking, Can you come to (redacted)? There’s a man here with a ruptured heart.’ And right away, though I know it’s not logical, I pictured a plump, balding man, standing in a hallway. His wife on the footpath, loading bags into a taxi. And the man growing pale, his hand to his chest, as blood rushed out through the tear in his heart.

I know writers who work a variety of day jobs—cleaning and accounting, sales and social work. Each of those occupations must give a window into the lives of others, helping to enrich the writer’s work. And for those who don’t work outside the home, I’m sure there are many ways to achieve the same goal, too. People-watching in cafes. Writing group, volunteering, family functions.

I guess the main thing is, except in special circumstances, it’s probably not ideal to sit at our desks day in, day out. Whether through paid work or via other means, it’s great to get out into that big, wide world.

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Sensational shorts

cropped-img_4420.jpgDo you ever wonder what makes a standout short story? I don’t mean a decent, solid, pleasing story, I mean one that grips you by the collar, rattles your bones, pops your eyeballs out. Or one that seems innocent, even placid, but lingers and trails and sticks its fingers in your brain long after you stop reading. That kind of story.

I’m no writing expert. I don’t have formal qualifications in writing. My only claim is that I both read and write a lot of short fiction. So this is just my personal opinion. (Before I go on, I’d just like to clarify that I’m not addressing any basic story-writing concepts here, I’m presuming anyone reading is familiar with short story basics of a story arc, characters, plot, point of view, etc.)

There are so many options for reading short fiction. Stories are on Twitter and Facebook links, on blogs, on online literary mags. We can read print anthologies, story collections and lit magsSo if we’re going to give our time to a story, we’d like it to sparkle in a way that is new and intriguing. How does the writer do this?

I think every truly great story has something that sets it apart, a certain pizazz. That pizazz can be created in many different ways, but it makes the reader sit up, take a breath, or lean closer, thinking Oooh, this is different. 

An exceptional story may contain:

An original setting. Instead of placing the main characters in your country, send them to Finland. Laos. Crete. Do your research, or use past experience if you’ve been lucky enough to live or travel overseas. If that sounds too tricky, consider a twist on familiar locations. A nudist beach. An alpaca farm. A city where all the traffic lights are flashing orange.

A strange turn of events. You may really want to write about a man sitting at his dying father’s bedside, and although that’s been done many times, it can still work beautifully if there’s another element, another storyline that adds depth and heightens the sorrow. Maybe while he’s sitting there, his father’s phone keeps ringing with crank calls from a scammer and maybe the son somehow ends up talking to the scammer at length, though not about his father. Something weird that adds to the story.

Humour. I don’t use this much myself, just the odd wry comment, because it doesn’t come naturally to me. But some writers do this so well, and funny stories are like precious gems. So often short stories are sombre or grim, and they don’t have to be this way. Laughing on and off through a piece of short fiction is so refreshing! For me, the best funny short stories are the ones that still have ‘heart’ – a message or meaning to go with the humour. I’m not a fan of stories that are odd or silly, just for the sake of it. I still need to be emotionally invested in some way. Julie Koh does this so well – her collection Portable Curiosities is a fabulous, innovative, very funny book.

A strong voice. Some stories hit you in the chest because right from the beginning the voice sweeps you away. The story is told with a confidence that has the reader spellbound. I think a distinctive or unusual voice is tough to pull off, especially for a beginner writer. No one seems to be able to define what it is, or how to achieve it, precisely. (I’m still working to find a clear voice in my short fiction, and I think only practice and reading more excellent writing will help.)

Passion. Sometimes it’s tempting to mimic other writers. I’ve fallen prey to that myself, thinking I need to write more political stories, or funnier stories, or a story about something more offbeat. When I’ve tried, fought against my own writing self, my stories have been awful. I say don’t try to write a story about a man who wears a tea cosy for a hat, unless you’re really excited and keen to write that story. Unless you have a whole backstory in your mind about that man and why he wears that hat, and you literally can’t wait to get it all down, forget it. Fantastic stories are written when we are drawn to write them, even feel compelled to write them. We’re curious or upset or horrified or scared, but for whatever reason, we must write that story. Often these stories turn out to be our best, and it’s hard to figure out why on a sentence level. We just know we poured out our hearts and minds.

 

These are the elements I find can take a story to the next level, but I’m sure there are many more. What are your tips?

 

 

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seeing/being seen

It’s just over five years now since I swapped GP work for a simple, menial job, so I could focus on writing. Around the same time, I started a new volunteer role. I also ended fifteen years of karate training to learn yoga instead.

What was this like, all this change at once? Actually, it was rough. I felt anxious, I worried whether I’d made the right decisions. I lost weight without meaning to. Everything I did was unfamiliar—exercise, work, volunteering, writing. There was no place I felt I had expertise. I kept going, and gradually acquired a few skills. But it was a big adjustment, being a beginner in my forties. I also felt the drop in ‘status’ in the eyes of others.

I was treated very differently by surgeons in my new job as a surgical assistant. Several spoke to me rudely, with sarcasm, or with disdain. A few yelled. Some were polite but cool. Only occasionally was I greeted with real warmth, or treated in a truly friendly manner. Even now, working mostly with the same (pleasant) surgeons, I have the occasional job with a new surgeon where I am treated as if I’m some kind of moron. It was a huge change from being an established medical practitioner, with staff and patients who treated me well. My pride was shot down.

Though it hurt, it did me good. I have a better idea of how it feels for others with nasty bosses. And I’ve learnt to ground my sense of self-worth inside me more, rather than looking to others for validation.

Almost worse than the snarky surgeons, though, was something else new—invisibility. In the hospital where I now volunteer, I was amazed how many doctors ‘blanked’ me. Many don’t make eye contact, let alone smile or say hi. Cleaning staff say hello, and nurses greet me by name. If I dressed in a blouse and skirt, with a stethoscope around my neck, would the medicos acknowledge me? I watch them greet other doctors, so I reckon they would.

Perhaps these doctors’ minds are elsewhere, maybe they don’t realise their rudeness, but I tend to think they classify me, in my blue volunteer vest, as a ‘non-person’. I find this fascinating, and yes, being a doctor myself (though these doctors don’t know that), I suspect I’m more sensitive to the way they don’t ‘see’ me. (My pride may be battered but it’s obviously alive and well!) But also, like anyone, I dislike being walked past in a quiet corridor as if I don’t exist.

Maybe I did the same thing to people when I was a hospital doctor. I hope I didn’t, but it’s entirely possible. If so, I’m trying to make up for it. In everyday life, I’m making eye contact more, smiling more. I’m initiating brief chats in different situations, trying to make sure the people I come across feel ‘seen’. Because I know what it feels like to be ‘unseen’, and how that bites.

My recent experiences have been insignificant compared to what other workers endure. But they’ve made me examine my own behaviour. And they’ve taught me to appreciate active kindness, one person really engaging with another. How that attention makes someone else feel valued. And how uplifting that really is.

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Keeping it real at Christmas

I recently went on a family holiday, and while we were away, I posted some photos on Facebook. I don’t post very often, but I was excited to be seeing new places. The pictures were of pretty scenery, with all of us smiling. And we did have lots of fun, in some beautiful spots.

When we returned, I phoned a close friend, and she asked me about the trip. I told her about the highlights, and how I loved every town and city. Then I whinged about some of the things that drove me crazy. The not-so-happy family moments. How partway through I had to give myself a stern talking-to, and remind myself that I’m not always a delight, so I shouldn’t expect others to be constantly sweet. I laughed at the irony of the smiling family photos, and told my friend – don’t believe everything you see on Facebook! 

I’ve been thinking about the public face of Christmas versus the reality. How people wish each other Merry Christmas and talk about getting together with family, and how won’t that be lovely, when in reality, as much as there will (hopefully) be love, and laughter, and usually some great food too, there is often hurt. Disappointment. Misunderstanding. Perhaps in small ways – if you’re lucky, or in huge, painful ways – if your family is especially damaged. There is almost always some uneasiness, no matter what family you belong to.

But the good news is that every family has its dysfunction. No one actually lives that Hallmark card Christmas. If we’re lucky, we have elements of the glossy day, but no one goes beaming through their entire festive season. (Well, with the exception perhaps of the odd very fortunate and oblivious small child!)

A friend of mine once told me of a quote she likes to live by:  ‘Expectations are resentments in the making’. I often think of these words at Christmas. I try to keep the food simple. I don’t get in a lather about decorating. And I understand and expect there may be irritations and undercurrents. After all, a large group of people, often small children to older adults, are gathering in a house for several hours.

Of course I hope people will laugh and relax. I hope the food is delicious. I hope the kids like their presents. But instead of bemoaning anything less than picture perfect, joyous family celebration, I just take the small good moments as they come and try to breathe when those other times occur.

For those who celebrate Christmas, I wish you all as much calm and peace and love as possible, given the season and your circumstances. May you have a comfortable bed to rest in. May you have a few minutes to yourself, to think and dream. And may 2019 bring you excitement, opportunity, and wonder.

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Review of ‘My Name is Revenge’ by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

My Name Is Revenge - cover

What if a book is gripping and gritty and deeply emotional, yet also informs you? Not in an obvious way, but so subtly you don’t even notice? Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s novella and reflective essay, My Name is Revenge—recently published as a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award—does just this.

The first section, the novella, is set in 1980, but flashes back to the past. It centres around Vrezh, a Sydney university student living at home with his parents, his older brother Armen and his invalid grandfather. Armen has become secretive of late, and Vrezh decides to find out why. He suspects his brother is involved in a secret Armenian group planning attacks on Turkish diplomats. Living up to his name, which means ‘revenge’, Vrezh also dreams of retribution for the terrible crimes committed against his grandfather’s family and countless other Armenian families during the Armenian Genocide—crimes that left his grandfather orphaned as a young boy, crimes that give his grandfather nightmares to this day. A foreboding atmosphere builds, layered with the pain and anger felt by everyone in the family. But Vrezh is not as single-minded as his brother, and he begins to realise that good and evil are not always black and white. He expresses this uncertainty to Armen, who treats him with disgust. ‘It was as if Armen had sliced through the flesh of his chest, peeling it away to reveal a heart that was Armenian, but not sufficiently so.’ It is this complexity of character and plot, the examination of right and wrong and all the gradations in between, that gives the novella its potency and poignancy.

The essay that follows is a wonderful counterpoint to the fictional world. It clarifies true historical events within the novella, and explains more about the Armenian Genocide. The essay also details how Kalagian Blunt is connected to the story, both personally and as a curious writer. This makes for heartbreaking but compelling reading.

As you finish and catch your breath, you realise you’ve devoured a fascinating narrative and essay, but you’ve also learned about the Armenian Genocide of World War I, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by order of the Ottoman Government. You begin to comprehend the horrors of what happened, and the repercussions for Armenian families as the trauma echoed through generations.

My Name is Revenge is immersive and affecting, written with balance and compassion. Ashley Kalagian Blunt has created a striking and important two-part work.

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A crazy good Monday

Richell-Longlist-2018-Blog-HeaderMonday morning I was dialling my ‘other mother’ Lynsey, who lives on Vancouver Island, to wish her a happy 80th birthday. As the phone rang, my eyes flicked to my computer screen, and I saw an email from Will Dawson, executive director of the Emerging Writers Festival, letting me know I’d been shortlisted in the 2018 Richell Prize. My heart almost stopped. I’d been stunned to get longlisted last month, let alone making it any further.

I talked to Lynsey for about an hour, then got off the phone and stared for awhile at the emails and tweets and messages coming in. My eyes filled with tears. I started replying. After awhile, I messaged my husband and my best friend. I called my dad. I called my mum.

When I collected my kids from school they were excited, but that night, my son was disgusted to discover I hadn’t posted on social media. I tried to explain that several other writers had posted on my behalf, that I’d received heaps of congratulations and I didn’t want people to feel they had to do it all over again. He was still unimpressed. “Nope. You should have posted. That’s what you do.” Then I worried that the judges or Richell prize organisers and supporters would think I wasn’t grateful for the shortlisting, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I am so thrilled, and so thankful.

So here I am today, posting about my Monday, which was the very best Monday of my life.

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