Writing fiction: better than psychedelics

False Bay mandelbrots into a scalloping of smaller bays, and one of these, just around the corner from where we are living, is Fish Hoek. The swimming beach at Fish Hoek has a lot to recommend it -- it's protected from south-easters, a wind that adds chewing sandpaper to an afternoon's swim at the other east side beaches. It has a shark net, and as sharks do patrol here, (and unlike WA or Queensland, the Western Cape hasn't taken to slaughtering its great whites) a net's not a bad thing. It also has a shark siren -- which I love -- sounded on the nod from shark spotters perched in the surrounding hills. When it goes, it's 'everyone outta the pool' and we all stand around pointing out kelp masses in the shape of four-metre shark silhouettes to one another.

Anyways, here we are at Fish Hoek, and one of the things I'm realising I love about South Africa is about to happen. I'm coming out of the showers, making my way back to one of the brightly painted rock benches, and I see, on the concrete seawalk, making his painful way toward me, an old man, 80 if he's a day, white hair, cane, crabbed arthritic hands, and liver spots I can pick out at 50 metres. And in front of me, just about to pass him, are two young vibrant Black women. They've been chatting with animation for the short time I've been following them, and I've been quietly admiring the way they talk; they touch each other's arms for affirmation, they glance into each other's faces to see the reflections of their own smiles. They are happy and alive and the world is their oyster. That's what it feels like to me, anyways, on this bright sunny day.

And you can see the inevitable metaphor for the new South Africa coming, can't you? The old white man hobbling his way out; the fresh Black women etc etc. Except…  As they pass him, they both exclaim, and greet him, and there are smiles, laughter, genuine pleasure. It's not a perfunctory greeting or a falsely enthusiastic one. He was working so hard at walking, he wouldn't have seen them pass him by, if they'd have preferred to. But they're happy to see him. And as he slowly relinquishes the fearful care that has been his second crutch along the crowded sea walk, he lets a little smile onto his face. He is happy too.

And that is one of the things I've loved about being here. Lazy thinking gets hijacked. I'm always trying to work out the story around me, because, after all, how often do you get to witness the before/after of a revolution? South Africa is busy writing itself, and I can't help but get caught up in trying to read it.  And I can't help but hope it might be helping lure me back to writing. I so hope so. When I'm not writing, my brain gets lazy. When I am writing, the world gets much more interesting. Writing fiction: better than psychedelics.

How far is long enough?

I've been wanting to write you for a long, long time, so long, in fact, that I am afraid I've forgotten how to write. And then I think I should recap for you. And find it impossible to know where to start. But my longing to speak to you has now become more powerful than my fear of landing on my ass with bad metaphor all over my face. And so…

I don't think you know, I'm in South Africa right now, in Cape Town. The last time I was here was right before the free elections in '94. I keep finding myself trying to capture the feeling of the difference between then and now. Hopeful is entirely too big a word. There's too much left to be done -- too much education to be fixed, violence to be remedied, housing to be built. But there is something positive here.

And yet I don't know that moving from apartheid to garden variety racism and race-specific impoverishment quite counts as positive. It's an improvement, I suppose. Perhaps I should go with something my father used to say: it's better than a slap in the belly with a wet fish. And one thing I find better is that you can have a conversation about what's going right, or what's going wrong, with a black man or woman, and they will meet your eyes. Makes me feel better, anyways. I don't do memsahib very well. It would presumptuous in the extreme for me to pretend I have a good enough overview on race politics here to tease out the implications of that little change. I hope it means things are improving.  Even still, I don't think I'd use the word positive.

Maybe pedestrian will do, for the time being. From day to day, people by and large seem to be just getting on with things.  And to do that, you have to believe that you can. That's what I find encouraging.

But still, there's so much more I have to tell you. I miss talking to you.
Come back tomorrow. I'll try some more.

on grieving

A friend of mine died of cancer this week. Paul was a buddy from Clarion, a well-loved writer and friend.

Others have paid tribute to him eloquently.  I can't do better.
The small things that were just us, as friends, I'm still holding to myself.

So instead let me speak to you of some things I know about grieving. It's where I am right now.

One: Nothing prepares you.
I learned this when my mother died.
She'd been in intensive care, gravely ill, for two weeks. We were at her bed, waiting. The machines had been stilled. My hand rested on her leg. I felt the moment when her body stopped and she was gone.

You can see a death coming like a semi trailer, horns blaring, lights flashing, and you can tell yourself that you know how it's going to be. And you hope that somehow, the driver will crank the wheel, and miss. You know in some part of yourself that it's not likely. Still.
Nothing prepares you. The truck hits.

Two: Speak up.
Kelly, my god-daughter, would have been 37 today.
When she died, I was far away -- in a foreign country, under a strange tongue, amid distant customs. I found out too late. And I should have phoned her mother, but I didn't. I told myself others were closer, better equipped to help. I was wrong.

Someone dies. Maybe you tell yourself that it's silly to call, to send a card, that the survivors don't know you very well or at all, that there will be so many other well-wishers, that you don't want to intrude, etc. etc..

None of that matters.

When someone dies, those who are left behind are plunged into darkness. All the cards and emails and fb posts and calls, though exhausting and repetitive and hard, are flickers of light in that darkness, reminders that out there, somewhere, life is going on.

Find a memory that's alive. Make a tiny flame of it.
Send it, in the form of a card, or an email, or a phone call.
Don't delay.

Three: Regret.
It's unavoidable.
Try to avoid it.

Four: Remember to forget to remember.
People have written libraries on the work of grief and memory.
Here's one thing I know.

When someone you love dies, you spend the rest of your life learning how to navigate around the pain that their absence marks out in your life. Eventually, the route around the biggest holes becomes autonomic -- you won't have to think about swerving. The holes don't disappear. Sometimes new ones appear. Sometimes you stop, and visit at them a while. But it's better if you don't linger.

Now maybe the things that you know about grieving are different. It wouldn't surprise me. Like writing a novel, losing someone you care for does surprisingly little to prepare you for the next time, and every loss, like every life, has its own shape.

Each death is incommensurable.  And each is a reprise.

In memoriam
Paul Haines (1970-2012)
Betty Waring (1927-2010)
Kelly Weatherall (1975-2005)
Dan Waring (1923-2001)
Mary Teylouni (1930-1988)
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There's one on every corner

In Copenhagen, it seemed like there was a bike shop on every corner.  In Sydney, real estate agencies pop up like mushrooms. In Paris, it's a dry heat between the boulangerie and the pharmacy. In almost every big city I've lived in, there will be a type of store whose ubiquity surpasses function, a store whose omnipresence somehow captures some secret of the people who live there, a thread of their mythology, the daily story they tell each other about themselves.

If you live in Copenhagen, you travel by bike. It's one of the great pleasures of that city, swooping along with the rest of the bike traffic, past nineteenth-century buildings, and quirky little sculptures, stopping as one at a red bike light. And a bike always needs something done to it -- a wheel trued, a new seat, reflectors replaced -- so of course there are bike shops on every corner.   But it's not as if utility and myth can't co-exist.  For the secret purpose of the plethora of bike stores seemed to be, I thought, to hold out the promise of better weather. Let's face it, bike-riding, or doing anything, for that matter, in sub-zero weather ain't fun, even if you do have good gear.  The shops may slumber in quasi-hibernation for six months or more, and isn't that a strange business model, but who cares? Their very presence is a constant reminder that spring some day will come. In Denmark, that's no small thing.   

In Sydney, the myth is easier to parse -- it's home ownership -- a little parcel of land, a bungalow.  There's a real estate agency on every corner, and almost all come with pretty displays of sometimes recent photographs of sale offerings. I can't think of any neighbourhood I've visited where I haven't paused to look at what's on offer, to imagine living in this CBD studio or that suburban McMansion. Here, it's the utility that is that much harder to grasp. Most people buying a home will use the internet and the paper. A pretty storefront for passing traffic scarcely seems to make much business sense; how many people ready to plunk down a million bucks are going to be captured by window dressing?  And yet, there they are, glinty four-colour brochures and artfully shot fish-eye photos, giving every passerby the opportunity to stitch themselves into the narrative tapestry without which no Sydney dinner party would be complete.

The thing is, I've having trouble deciding what the shop is here in Amsterdam.  I think I've decided it's lighting stores.  In twee Jordaan, the lighting stores are kitschy ersatz-antique shoppes; in more modern suburbs there's more 'design', all hard plastics in primary colours and cantilevered globes dangling from nothing. I'm not sure what secret story is in operation with all the lighting stores, save that there's that whole open curtain "we-have-nothing-to-hide" mythology already in operation, and there's so many kitschy tchotchkes that deserve suitable illumination.  And Rembrandt, yes, so maybe lighting stores it is.  Though there do seem to be a lot of alteration / tailor shops around here.  Hmmmmm.

What about where you are? Is there a strangely ubiquitous store that is the keystone to the locals' urban myth?

writing and midlife, or, Perimenopause, coming soon to a keyboard near you

Over the last ten years, as I've entered midlife, I have acquired difficulties with cognition and language use common for those in perimenopause and menopause.  As this covers women roughly from the ages of 35 to 60 and onwards, you'd think someone somewhere in the blogosphere might have had something to say specifically about how the semantic and mnemonic lapses and mild cognitive impairment associated with perimenopause affect writing (and the writer). Yet if you google "writing and menopause" you get one hit. (No, "menopause and writing" isn't much better, and nothing for "perimenopause and writing".) Perhaps my google-foo is weak, so if someone you know deals with this in detail, please, just chime in and I'll point with linky glee. On the other hand, perhaps there are no hits because no one is interested in this. I have reasons for thinking otherwise, but I could use a little encouragement in the shape of a comment or two... (hint, hint)

My motivation for lifting the veil here is that had I known about these symptoms, I might not have indulged in quite so much self-loathing as they set in. I might even have developed coping strategies in advance. As it was, I largely just retreated into myself and stopped going out in company, because I couldn't bear the experience of being suddenly bereft of words in front of friends, companions and colleagues. Worse, I didn't know entirely who I was anymore. Long before I found out about sex, I loved words. If they were deserting me, who was I? Who am I?

While the medical jury is still deliberating on what treatments, if any, remedy these problems, there is a general consensus that these symptoms coincide with perimenopause (and halleluiah, there is new research that suggests that once menopause sets in, some of these problems abate). But I'm getting ahead of myself... 

Perimenopause, if your Greek is rusty, is the time that comes before menopause.  It's the lead-up where the hormones go nutso, recalibrating for life's next stage; it can take anywhere from a year to over a decade. (In my case, I've been in perimenopause for almost a decade. Each month I shout at my ovaries, "I'm too old for babies, and I ain't gonna have any, anyways!" and each month, they ignore me.) Where was I? Oh yes, chances are that the woman you are or a woman you know is experiencing or is going to experience these symptoms, and they will affect your ability to write and your identity as a writer (with or without a capital "W").

By writer, I mean anyone who writes for love or money - administrators, novelists, project managers, teachers, the list goes ever on and on.  So let's get started.  Remember, I'm only dealing with symptoms of menopause and perimenopause that specifically affect the writer; I don't pretend to be exhaustive, and I'm happy to be corrected or have more info.  I'm going to set out symptoms first, a few at a time, and then talk about remedies, such as there are, later. I'm going to go through the negatives first, because of the culture of silence around the topic, and then I'll hit a few positives (or report on them, because frankly, they haven't come to visit me...)

1) Vocabulary holes.
A while ago, at a frantic loss for a word, I had to get to it by plodding laboriously through its adjacent semantic fields:
hard --> iron --> scratch --> nail
Nail! That was it, that was the word I wanted.  Strangely enough, the conversation had moved on by the time my fish-sucking-air lips had reformed around it.  This happens with a chastening and distressing regularity.  It happens to a greater or lesser degree to every perimenopausal woman I have spoken with.  Words that you know, simple words, complex nouns, ten-a-penny verbs, technical vocabulary, they will fail you.  Just like that. Old friends who have kept you warm since you first smuggled a book under the blankets leave town without a note or explanation.  (And show up the next day for coffee as if they'd never left.)

Imagine giving a lecture, or a talk, or a reading, or a presentation, with this little Damoclean dagger hanging over your head. Imagine the novelist, hands poised over the keyboard, three complex plotlines rushing headlong toward each other, protagonists lining up like good little ducks, the scene in technicolour 3D with full CGI in her head, and then --- gone, empty, zilch -- some stupid word, that was just the right word, and you know exactly what it is, it's not an unusual word, you use it every day, but your fingers hover over the keyboard, stilled. Poof!  -- the scene that was hot and perfect crumbles.  Nor, pace Flaubert, is this an instance of swooning over "le mot juste" -- these are inexplicable gaps, sudden, whooshing lexical blackholes, nuggets of stupid right in the middle of your sentences.

2) Those things you capitalise...
Names. I've never been good at names, but I wasn't bad.  And once I'd learned someone's name, it generally stuck. I've taught classes of over 200 students, and hosted conferences with hundreds of attendees, and with a few mnemonic tricks, managed to remember most.  In the last few years, I can't remember my own cousins' names.  The name of my best friend in primary school, the name of the waitress at that cheap but good dive in Toronto where my true love and I would go at least 4 times a week for months on end while we had no kitchen, the name, the name, the name.  Place names, people names, thing names.  Gone.  For a while, I put it down to being an immigrant - I theorised that there was only so much memory allotted to names in the brain, and having moved to another country, I'd acquired a whole new set of proper names, and understandably, my buffer was full.  But it got worse, and then it got embarrassing. And then I found out that it's a common occurrence for women in perimenopause.

If you're worldbuilding, or have a novel populated with a cast of thousands, or if you're a project manager who moves from workplace to workplace, or...  Yes, there are many ways in which this makes a writing life difficult. I no longer hold quite as much in my head; spreadsheets and charts are my friend when it comes to novel writing. And when I meet you, and I cannot for the life of me summon up your name, even though once, in some bar at a writer's festival, we shared a cup of hot righteous indignation, I hope you will forgive me.

So there's two problems you can count on rubbing up against.  They're pretty common, and finding remedies for them is complicated by the fact that they share some real estate with ageing.  Still, women in their late 30s and early 40s have experienced the onset of these semantic and lexical gaps. Does this ring any bells?

Next up? Meet Mrs Malaprop.

Aurealis Awards.

The Aurealis Awards have been announced.  You can download the list here

And, what's really exciting, you can buy your ticket to attend here

Get 'em while they're hot, folks! You can still get an earlybird discount if you buy a ticket now.

Organic: Box #1

I'm experimenting with an organic food source called FoodConnect, which provides city slickers with organic food from locally sourced organic growers.  I've opted for an initial four week offering of a small box, but with fortnightly instead of weekly pick-ups.  Entries entitled Organic will just be me nattering on to myself about the food I get and what I do with it, so that I can properly supervise the experiment...  If you're here expecting revelations about my writing, I apologise for going off piste, but hey, a girl's gotta eat.  I was going to leave these entries hidden, but thought some people thinking about doing FoodConnect might want to get one person's take on it.  So I've de-cloaked.  Feel free to chime in with observations and recipes, or you like

With the first box, I was initially disappointed as I repacked it into bags to take home.  The fruit was pretty bruised (bruised, not blemished -- this wasn't about being organic, but handling), the eggplant had been picked too soon, so too small and not yet ripe. I'm not crazy about silverbeet, I hate fresh coriander, and I didn't need any basil, but it being the first delivery, there was no swop table set up.  So I was grumpy as I left.  And Wendy food-grumpy is not a pretty sight.  Still, it was the first week, so I thought, well, let 'em settle in.  And then I tasted the nectarines, the brown mushrooms, and the watermelon. I was less grumpy. Much less grumpy.

What I got, what I did with it

4 nectarines: The fruit was too bruised for hand eating, but it was lovely and sweet.  Should have made a clafoutis, but settled on a crumble.  Very nice.
4 gala apples: 2 went into an ersatz waldorf, 1 got eaten, and the last, which was pretty bruised from careless handling, got chucked into the crumble.
1 small slice watermelon, 2 plums: snarfed 'em.  Delicious.

Salad and veg

1 small bag mixed leaf lettuce: base for a grilled goat cheese salad, and the rest --> a plain green salad with French vinaigrette
2 small not quite ripe eggplant: M'toubal, aka baba ganoush.  The m'toubal was initially a bit bitter, but the next day the dip had lost that bitterness.  I made it as I have dozens of times, so I don't think it was my recipe.  I'm hoping the need to fill the boxes in time for a schedule doesn't result in more not quite or too ripe fruit/vege.
1 bunch basil: freezer pesto.  I am rich in basil, as I have it in several places in the garden, and was too braindead when picking up the box to think to hand it off to someone who could use it, so I processed it with some parsley and garlic from my garden, with olive oil, and tossed it in the fridge in a ziploc bag with the air squeezed out.  I'll be able to add pignoli and parmesan in the winter when my basil has gone to meet its maker.
1 bunch coriander: gave it to Mary Ann, my neighbour, as I don't do fresh coriander.  (An unfortunate incident involving me, traveller's tummy and a Morrocan market gardener selling bunches of fresh coriander.  Now I can't bear the smell of the stuff.)
1 bunch gai lan (Chinese broccoli) which I've never tried before.  (I'm shy around Asian greens, as we haven't been formally introduced.) Stir fried some on its own with garlic, ginger and a dash of oyster sauce.  It was okay, tasty, but on the bitter side.  I added some to a mixed vege stirfry, that was quite fine.
2 large brown mushrooms.  These were absolutely beautiful mushrooms.  I put them in a stir fry, but I wish I had BBQed them and had them on their own, or perhaps stuffed them.
1 big bunch silverbeet, 4 potatoes: I made a variation on Stephanie Alexander's silverbeet and potato torte, which is basically just cheese and vege wrapped in pizza dough and done in the oven.  Added some of the ruby chard from the garden for colour, used a combo of mostly mozzarella, some feta, and a chunk of cheddar that was ready to expire, instead of just the mozz in the recipe.  Very nice.  There was lots of silverbeet, so some got steamed as a side vege, some got added to a mixed stir fry, and I ended tossing some, because there was so much. 

All in all, it was fun having vegetables thrust upon me, and coming up with things to do with them.  I felt like a contestant on a cooking show (without the fancy benchtops and appliances).  Am looking forward to the next box.  Organic veg does not have a shelf life to speak of, so must remember to eat it all quickly.  The things one is forced to do for the good of the planet....

Not another reading list...

I'm not very good at keeping track of what I've read during a year.  Nevertheless, I comb other people's lists for suggestions, and it struck me as selfish that I wasn't contributing to the general festschrift celebrating the year 2009.  So here are a dozen or so books I read this year (although not published in 2009, sorry), that, months later, still hold their shape, resonate, or echo down into my present.  In a brain overburdened by infotainment and administrivia, that's clearly an accomplishment.

The year of magical thinking  Joan Didion 
Didion is one of my favourites from the Sontag generation, and this book, about the year after her husband dropped dead of a heart attack, captured me completely.  Didion finds the large in small details, and has a gift for encompassing this with artful phrases.  No soppiness. The work of grief sculpted in sinewy relief. 

The Lacuna Barbara Kingsolver 
I've just finished this, so perhaps it's unfair to place it on the list, but I'm pretty sure it will stick with me.  It was slow to start, which is why I'm mentioning it straight up.  Stick with it, if someone has gifted you with it.  The whole in the heart of a certain US history. 

The Book of Negroes (in Oz, Someone knows my name) Lawrence Hill
I interviewed Hill for Good Reading magazine, so I "had" to read this, but the story, which cannot help but skirt the repulsive as it limns the history of slavery in Canada and the US, is made beautiful by the heroine, who is sharp-witted, astute, and generous.

The woman in the fifth.  Douglas Kennedy
Another crossover novel which is, as far as I know, entirely billed as litfic.  If you like Stephen King, and you've spent any time in Paris, you could enjoy this. 

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. 
For charming whimsy, I don't think you could beat this one.  It's short, you can polish it off in the dentist's office.  Wear hat and gloves.

Kim Westwood's postapocalyptic Australian novel, Daughters of Moab.  Mad Max meets Jeanette Winterson.  Entirely homegrown, with international finishes. You ain't gonna read anything quite like this anywhere else.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon.
I liked this the way a watchmaker likes an 18th-century Swiss watch.  I kept wanting to take it apart and see how Haddon had pulled off the engaging yet difficult POV character.  And of course, I liked the story.

Joshua Ferris' novel, Then we came to the end
There's an injunction that goes: "Write what you know!".  Anyone who's spent any time in a writers group will add: "but not if it's about your life in a cubicle farm.  Please.  NOOoooo...!"   This first novel about, wait for it, life in a cubicle farm, manages to breathe life into its subject, and there isn't even a whiff of zombie.  I think Ferris' gift for dropping in unexpected yet apt sentences to invigorate his paragraphs draws you along until you're ineluctably lost to the stories at the heart of the cubicle labyrinth.

Andrew Hussey's Paris: the secret history
is a Parisophile's book on Paris.   Much more argumentative than British doyen of French history Alistair Horne's The Seven Ages of Paris, and so, much easier to love.

The enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt. 
Like a plain girl who turns out to be quite lovely, this small-town mystery story in Hustvedt's hands is definitely worth asking out.

The City & the City China Mieville. 
This is not the most byzantine of Mieville's works, nor the most challenging politically, but I found myself pondering it in odd moments in the weeks after I finished it.  I'd like to read it again.

Shelter, Susan Palwick. 
I liked this because there just isn't enough homely sf out there. 

And in June this year, to my 2-yr-old niece Mary, I read the Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham, and Michael Dugan's Wombats can't fly. Apparently, the latter did the trick.  She recently mounted the kitchen table and announced, flapping her arms, "I Mary and I fly." 

That's why we read books.

Wasn't that the sky falling?

Just now, heading down to the shore for an evening walk, out over the water, I saw the arc and burn of a meteor, but much clearer and closer than I've ever seen before.  It's one of the things I love about living in Australia, seeing meteors on a regular basis.  I don't know whether it's because I'm outside at night more than I would have been in Canada, or whether rocks and space junk better like falling into the atmosphere over Oz, but I see more meteors here.  And meteor showers, too.  Sweet.

(Why do I want to believe reason #2, when good sense tells me reason#1 makes more sense?  Could someone please provide me with a whole different reason so I can sidestep this battle between romance and rationality?)

Le Guin on Atwood's new novel The Year of the Flood

It seems fitting that I should bookend a long lacuna with a post on swine flu on one end, and on the other, this excellent review by Ursula Le Guin of Atwood's new science fiction novel The Year of the Flood in which much of the world's population has been done in by some mysterious disease.  What I like about the review is the intelligent way Le Guin deals with Atwood's coy statements about genre, but more,  the way it seems to me to do what a proper review of any decent work of fiction should do: it makes you not only want to read the work for its merits, but also engage with the reviewer's viewpoint.  That's what reviewing is all about to my mind, an even-handed contribution to the collective map to works you might want to read, and a bonus conversation which hovers in the aether enveloping the work.  I have a perverse relationship with Atwood's work, the result of extreme over-exposure at a tender age (Canadian Studies was coming into vogue when I was in high school, my BA was in Translation/Canadian Studies, my doctoral thesis took on women writing in Canada, -- I think there was a moment in the late 80s when I could have recited Surfacing by heart.) so I often shilly-shally endlessly before reading her novels.  But this time, with Le Guin's review to lure me, I think I may actually read it straight away.