Tag Archives: Writing

Straight from the heart: Review of ‘To Become a Whale’ by Ben Hobson

IMG_2402Books rarely make me cry. Movies, yes. Talent shows, oh boy, yes (when those contestants get selected, they’re so happy! Who could stay unaffected?!). But for some reason, while I may feel some inward emotion when reading, I hardly ever cry. A book has to be powerful to squeeze actual water from me. To Become a Whale is that type of book.

To Become a Whale is the debut novel of Brisbane writer Ben Hobson (published by Allen & Unwin). It’s an emotional and mesmerising read – the story of a boy on his way to manhood, fighting his way through loss and a difficult relationship with his father. Part of the story takes place at the old whaling station on Tangalooma Island, and these gritty details are both repellent and engrossing.

The voice of the main character, thirteen-year-old Sam, is so believable that I quickly fell under the spell of this book and was reluctant to put it down. More than that, I began to love Sam himself, and every twist and turn of his fate tugged at my heartstrings.

And yes, I cried.

What I liked most about this book is that it is written for the reader, not for the author. Ben Hobson hasn’t used long flowery phrases, he hasn’t gone wild with metaphors or wacky similes or descriptive passages. The novel is beautifully written, yes, but always with the reader in mind, never as an indulgent authorial flight of fancy. The story is told in a clear and compelling way.

If you want a riveting read with a profoundly tender heart, To Become a Whale is definitely for you. Just keep the tissues handy.

 

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the importance of play

IMG_2686The past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing and writing. Sure, I’ve wasted time here and there, but I’ve also worked at my desk for hours.

Except, what I’ve written has been awful. Flat, uninspired, dull. I revised 3 stories in the past ten days and became thoroughly sick of each piece. Not because they were finished, either. They were just so terrible I couldn’t stand to read another word.

So I’ve been feeling sorry for myself and bemoaning my uselessness and wondering for the zillionth time why I thought I had any aptitude for this. And then last night something occurred to me.

Maybe doggedness can be a bad thing.

I’m not saying I’m about to give up, or that I don’t believe in hard work. But I realised that lately, my approach has been all wrong. It’s joyless. I’m showing up at my desk as if I’m sitting an exam. I’m not getting outside enough, not walking enough. I’m thinking about where I’ll submit a story before it’s even finished, instead of losing myself in the tale I’ve created. I’m as playful as a back brace.

I know writing isn’t all fun and games. I know it involves hard work, showing up, putting the words together. But surely that can still be done with a sense of fun, with an attitude that brings a lightness of spirit, creating prose that sparks and surprises.

Maybe my defensiveness over hearing criticism of ‘earnest’ writing was not just because I write emotionally, but because I sensed I was writing without enough playfulness in my heart. Which is not to say that story content should be always be humorous – just that the approach shouldn’t be so stompy.

Maybe I’ve had my gumboots on when I needed to skip around in a pair of sandals.

Or even barefoot, across the grass.

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Earnestly, yes

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I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction lately. Short fiction and commentary about short fiction. And I’ve been feeling unsettled. Not by the short fiction, which has been varied and fresh and intriguing. It’s the talk about the Australian short fiction scene that has been bothering me.

A couple of writers have made remarks to the effect that Australia short fiction tends to be boring and bland. One gave the example of too many stories set in rural Australia where not much happens. I’m sure I read an interview where another writer said he hated writing that was too earnest. And right away that comment made me defensive and squirmy. Is that me? It might be me.

I actually agree that some stories struggle to excite. They try too hard to be ‘literary’. Farmers’ wives gaze out over fields and farmers’ brows crease and the fly-blown sheep carcass is a metaphor. Clouds gather and it looks like rain but then it doesn’t and the story ends.

However. People in glass houses and all. Because I can’t help it, my stories are a bit earnest, they’re really not funny in any ha-ha way, I don’t write satire or fantasy, my characters frown a bit too. But I write the only way I can. It’s the only thing I know – people and what’s in their deepest hearts, what secretly moves them, what makes them cry at night, what they fear and what they hope for. What they can’t forget. Who they’ll always love.

I don’t believe that stories in traditional narrative form are boring if the content is good. I don’t believe a short story has to be humorous, or satirical, or contain magical elements to be entertaining. I believe there is a place for every kind of story, done well.

I like trying new things, within my capabilities. I’ve written dystopian fiction, magic realism, a dialogue-only story and crime fiction. I try to learn and to stretch myself. I read widely. But ultimately I am developing my own voice, and that voice is emotional and I guess it’s a bit earnest too. I need to own that without shame.

 

 

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Writing amongst the trees

IMG_3297I can hardly believe my two weeks at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre are almost over. I’ve had such a good time here, and not in exactly the way I expected.

I thought I’d write three or more stories during my residency. But I arrived with a story yet to be finished, and worked on that for a couple of days. Then I panicked for a couple of days, because I felt this intense pressure to choose a Good Idea for my next story and nothing seemed close to adequate (normally I would take the vaguest of concepts and just wing it). Eventually I calmed down and told myself to just play. So I tried something I’ve never tried – writing a story in second person. It was truly bad at first, so I worked on it, and now it’s approaching fair. After that I began a new story which I’m having fun writing. And here I am on the Friday of the last week.

So with two full writing days to go, I’ve edited one story, written a full story in second person, and am perhaps halfway through a new tragi-comedy sort of piece. I wouldn’t call that an enormous output yet. I say yet because I have no doubt that my experiences here will lead to more stories, perhaps as many again as I have written so far. I have walked at sunset, shopped in an Indian grocery store, met many creative people, attended writing groups and had dinner with a lovely writer friend I hadn’t yet been able to meet in person. I’ve had meals and discussions and lots of laughter with the other two Fellows here. I’ve read every night before bed. I’ve had time to become immersed in writing.

It became a bit of a catchcry between myself and my next-door neighbour Fellow Mark J Keenan (who is going through the re-drafting process with his novel) – It’s not about the word count, it’s about the whole writing experience. Thinking, planning, dreaming, talking and writing amongst the trees.

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How to Write – a manual for distractible writers

Step 1. Check email, in case you have won some nationwide competition or had a world-renowned journal accept one of your stories.

Step 2. Check Facebook. There could be a writing opportunity on a page you’ve liked. Or a cute puppy video.

Step 3. Check Twitter. You may hear some interesting news that prompts you to write a brilliant new piece of fiction. Or creative non-fiction. Or a cool sort of limerick.

Step 4. Check Instagram. You may get good ideas for a snack.

Step 5. Get a snack. And a drink while you’re at it.

Step 6. Sit back down. Open your document. Yes, just go to the toilet. Be quick.

Step 7. Write. Stay there. Do not access the internet, ring people or text people. Write.

Step 8. Briefly congratulate self. You’re writing!

Step 9. Keep writing.

 

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In Praise of Twitter

I never really got Twitter. Up until six months ago, that is. It seemed like Facebook in hyperdrive, and I hardly ever post on Facebook, so why would I use Twitter? On Facebook I can just slip around finding out how everyone is, admiring their growing-up children and holiday snaps, so again – why Twitter?

I joined to find out. Because you never really know if you don’t try something. And even then, you have to give it time. For example, when I first tried wine (as a twelve-year-old on New Year’s Eve, just a small sip) I thought it was disgusting. Now I feel differently.

At first on Twitter there was not much going on. Well obviously – I was following maybe twenty people and about two people were following me. But slowly I began to follow more people – mostly writers, since none of my non-writer friends are on Twitter – and I began to interact a little. After reading an article I enjoyed in The Australian, I tweeted to the journalist, who responded with a comment. I re-tweeted tweets by other writers. I realised there is a whole writing community out there, linked by Twitter on a day-to-day basis. It’s supportive. It’s informative. And it’s fun.*

It’s also a bit addictive, so I’m trying to be intentional in how I spend my time. But I’m happy to spend some of that time on Twitter, connecting with other writers and hearing about their news. Because writing is a lonely business – the actual bum-on-chair writing – and interaction with other writers who understand the whole hair-pulling joy …. it’s a great tonic.

If you feel so inclined, I might see you on Twitter 🙂 @FionaRRobertson

*This post is not funded by Twitter

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It’s a Brand New Year

img_2709This time of year is my favourite, despite the oppressive Brisbane heat, despite the extra roll of chub around my middle (thanks so much, Christmas gingerbread), despite my on-holidays children who leave yogurt-coated bowls on couches and don’t refill the water jug and ask to be driven around like I’m some sort of chaffeur.

It’s my favourite time of year because I secretly do like my kids, because that gingerbread was good and because a fresh new year is ripe with possibility. Anything could happen.

There are things I want to achieve this year and I’m sure you’re the same. Many of us are setting goals and planning steps towards those goals – either on paper or in our heads. (I plan to complete my short story manuscript, kindly assisted by the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre Fellowship I received last month, wahoo! I get to write for 2 weeks in Greenmount, Western Australia!) But it’s not just this possibility of achievement that I mean.

A new year feels like everything could be better. Our capacity for patience, our tolerance. Our generosity of spirit. Our attention to emotional detail, our care for those who too often get forgotten. Our ability to forgive. Maybe our hearts can even soften towards ourselves, because sure as eggs we’ll mess up. So we try again, and we might just do well. We’ll do the best we can and that fills me with hope.

Thanks for stopping by. And Happy New Year!

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