Send to darkness

I submitted an entry into a literary competition on Sunday. There was never any doubt I would enter, but I looked hard at what it meant for me. Ultimately the opportunities outweighed the inconvenience, even if I don’t win. For the record, I don’t expect to win – I need a good editor – but maybe submitting an entry will open doors for me.

I’ve spent much of the last eighteen months pondering a decent title. For much of that time it had a working title of River’s End, which I think is a bit lame. Good titles are hard to come by, but I’m pleased with the title I ultimately chose: Send to Darkness.

I took it from a quote by Shakespeare in Rome and Juliet, and it’s actually pretty apt for the novel:

I will be treble-sinewed, hearted, breathed,

And fight maliciously; for when mine hours

Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives

Of me for jests; but now I’ll set my teeth

And send to darkness all that stop me.

Cross your fingers for me. I don’t find out till February.


Our time travels with us

I was reading a review before of a book I’d like to read. Other Men’s Daughters is a re-release of a novel originally written in 1974 by one Richard Stern. It was controversial then, but praised for the quality of the writing. In the review, it is presented as an intelligent and insightful piece of work.

Stern died, aged 84, a few years ago. This little tidbit is casually reported in the review, but to me, reading seems most relevant. I have not read the novel, but in reading the review of it the novel seemed true to another time, now past. It’s not that the themes were no longer relevant – stories such as this continue in life. Rather it focussed on something in such a way that is no longer true to this time. Perhaps more serious than others, the book appeared a part of the Roth and Updike style of writing about relationships and sex. What were probing questions then now appear settled or discarded arguments.

Updike in recent years has been decried by some contemporary critics, with the inference being that his writing about sex was archaic, juvenile and even sexist. The new guys know better. And Roth has given up writing altogether. Needless to say, I am a great admirer of Updike’s stories (not so much his novels), which are beautiful things; and have read most of Roth’s oeuvre, and think him a master. Literature should be timeless, but clearly, there are trends that come and go, and times – and mores – that are described, then lapse. Is it just me, but are Updike and Roth old-fashioned now? Could there be an Updike or Roth – or indeed a Stern – these days?

I wondered this as I read the review, doubting that such a book would be written now, or even if anyone would be much interested in it now if it were – except, perhaps, to question and vilify any uncomfortable aspects of political incorrectness.

At the back of my mind is Tom Petty. Tom Petty died yesterday at age 66. He is another of those artists I grew up listening to. He is another thread from the soundtrack of my life, unravelled. And in fact, his era had passed too, though he still recorded and toured. He was mainstream once, though still critically acclaimed, his music was no longer part of the rotation, and his name no longer resonant.

It seems to me that as we pass through time we carry our own time with us. We learn to look a bit differently perhaps, our eyes take on new lens, but by and large, our perspective remains as it was when it was formed – in my argument, through our late teens and early twenties. It’s the burgeoning stage of our life full of discovery, sensation and rugged education. It can be modified, refined, it may even mellow, and rarely it may be inverted – but it is the same thing in different ways.

What it means for people like me is that I can look upon many things today and find myself weighing them against things I knew before. Nothing is entirely fresh because it is another representation of what I have known before, though the comparison is often puzzling. It means that the things that were important to you before remain true in you, even if they are no longer in vogue. Very little becomes irrelevant with the passing of time, regardless of what some critics would tell you.

That’s why a book like this resonates with me, because it was true when I was made. That’s why Tom Petty means something, never mind he hardly gets played anymore. None of this makes me old-fashioned or retro, it simply means I can see things from more than one angle, and with a lifetime of context.

Writing practice

So I’m submitting my book to a comp in October, not expecting to win or anything like that, but to get exposed to the right types. A lot of what I’m doing now is motivated by finances. Winning $20K would be handy. For much the same financial incentive I’m contemplating an essay competition due December ($3K), and a short story comp January ($4K). Good practice as well, and another way of getting my name out there.

My movie producer has also been in touch and sent me a movie script to look at by a big name director. She’s looking to make the movie of it and while it’s a great story, the dialogue is pretty simple. I don’t know how wise but I’ve reported that back to her, with the caveat that since I don’t know movies maybe simple and obvious is the way to go. I did add the supremely pretentious line that “as a fiction writer I prefer a bit more depth and subtlety”.

In general, I’m still very busy writing, and will be taking some time off shortly to polish up the novel for the comp.

Why I blog

I get regular emails from strangers promising to enhance my blog readership and turn it into something I can make money from. They come every 3-4 days, and many are very persistent. Most I never respond too, not because I’m rude, but because I get a million emails a day it takes me a while to get around for them and, let’s face it, responding to unsolicited emails are the last of my priorities.

Occasionally I will respond to the more persistent. For a start I understand how tough it is to reach out to potential clients – it may be an annoyance to the recipients, but if you’re a business it is an vital and mostly uncomfortable necessity. It’s a tough road, and I acknowledge that.

I’ll then go on to explain the reason I write my blog. I’m not so precious as to suggest that having a readership is unimportant, but it certainly comes second to the act of writing. Let me put it this way – I don’t write to be read, I write to get the written word out of me. As this is a personal blog that is a very personal process. The feelings, thoughts, ideas, opinions, attitudes, reflections, observations pile up in me and intermingle, and some of them become notions which ultimately I choose to explore by writing them down.

I think a lot of writers do that – they seek to make sense of these things by expressing them. It’s rare that these posts come to me fully formed. I start in on a position and as I proceed the way ahead of me becomes more clear. A key part of understanding is expression, for me at least.

You can see then that for me blogging is a journey. It’s gratifying if others read and take something from what I write. I’m like anyone else, I’m chuffed when someone appreciates my work. It’s irrelevant to purpose though. If no-one read anything that I wrote I would still continue to write.

I try to explain this. I’m not interested in artificially inflating my following. Much as I could do with the dollars, I believe to commercialise this blog would be to corrupt and influence the philosophy that inspires it. In fact, for me, it feels fraudulent – but that’s because the whole process of writing this blog is personal.

Strange as it is, this is where my ego becomes subsumed. I have to write straight, and that’s my therapy.


Revisiting Brideshead

I’m reading Brideshead Revisited right now, or rather I’m listening to the audiobook version of it narrated by Jeremy Irons. As you would expect, the performance is exceptional. The book itself has left me with mixed feelings.

For the first couple of hours I was fascinated and compelled by both story and the quality of the writing. Like all the best writing it had both depth and authenticity. It seemed a uniquely English story, but of a time that sun has now set upon, and so had a melancholy tone that never fails to draw you in. After the first couple of hours though I began to drift, though I remain engaged.

I’m not sure if this drift relates to the story itself, or if because the initial novelty has worn off. I think likely a combination of both.

There is a great novelty to the story, particularly for an Australian boy. The story is set in an entirely different era, but as a reader you become used to that. What is less normal is the milieu described – the crusty landed gentry with their standards and expectations, not to mention their beliefs. Added to this is the central relationship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. They meet in the gilded halls of Oxford (which is a different world), and develop an intimate friendship at odds with anything I have ever known, and probably foreign to old school Australian psyche – it may be different now.

Nevertheless as I listened on the train to and from work, and walking home, I found a part of my mind fixed on that.

Growing up as an Australian mateship was always a big thing, and part of that was a knockabout intimacy. It drew the line though. Everyone says Australia is a masculine society and I can see that, though I also think it is simplistic. I experienced heartfelt friendship. I was bound to my mates, we became as one in thought and action, but there was always a harder edge, even as a boy. Growing up I remember you would show affection by abusing each other. No-one ever got offended, though later I saw that outsiders to this were confused by it.

What was not there was the soft intimacy as portrayed in this book. We didn’t express ourselves in those ways. Had we encountered the same circumstances we would have reacted to it with a tougher attitude, a bluntness edged with humour. We go about it in round-about ways which may not always be healthy, but which takes a lot of steam out of the situation. Ours is a more robust relationship – or at least it was. I wonder if it still is?

And so I was fascinated to observe the relationship between Charles and Sebastian, and in the background Sebastian’s complex family. In totality it’s an entirely different world to modern Australia – and, I suspect, largely foreign to modern Britain also.

I wished I could have been there. I would have loved to have seen this, and been part of it. Had I been I would have been the brash colonial outsider I expect, a bit like Mottram, uncouth by birth.

This is what happened as the story progressed. It became cloying. The innate snobbery pressed more firmly. The privilege seemed increasingly pointless. And the characters themselves seemed more futile – thought addled, tortured, but never really doing anything about it. Of course, that’s a big part of the story.

An aspect I haven’t touched upon is the Catholicism. I always find this absorbing. That is a different world, but I find it oddly alluring. I’m agnostic, born catholic if my father is anything to go by, but christened as a protestant. I’m virtually an unbeliever without having committed to it. I’m sceptical about religion in general, not so much the reason for it – I understand that – but the administration of it, which so often appears inept, if not corrupt.

Catholic lore and tradition is fascinating though, even if you don’t believe, even when you know so much of it has been rotten. As a religious outsider it seems like a proper religion, invested in mystery and ceremony, as if that is the religion itself. By comparison Protestantism seems mundane, a Clayton’s religion, an idiots guide to easy spirituality, turn up on Sunday.

True Catholicism seems a much more lived experience – at least it was – if the likes of Waugh and Greene are anything to go by. It is a crucial part of your identity, as those writers would describe, as the Flyte’s in this book embodied. They may be extremes, but where then are the great protestant writers?

I have not yet finished this book, and have but a distant recollection of the TV series. I expect as it draws to the end that I will be drawn into it once more. Regardless of my feelings, they are fascinating themes and, no matter how foreign, the characters are compelling.

The Outsider

It’s been a while since I’ve read a decent book and so I’ve been going back to the tried and true in my bookcase. I read Age of Innocence, and otherwise I’ve been dipping into favourite books, generally collections of short stories from the likes of Bunin, Stegner and Roth. Over the weekend I took another book from those shelves, The Outsider, by Colin Wilson.

I remember when I first read this, boy did it have an impact. I was at that age when you you’re still actively searching for answers to the questions you find surrounding you. I read Camus and Sartre, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and random others before I happened across The Outsider in a local bookstore. At that time I thought it cool to consider myself an existentialist.

It helped I think that I had just had my heart broken for the very first time. I lived in a great apartment in a South Yarra street that I had taken on with the expectation of sharing it with the woman I was with. I was about 24 and pretty well at the peak of my manhood, fit, strong and – for a time – very good looking. None of that really mattered to me with my heart broken, and in fact it was something I only ever realised in retrospect. I had my moments, but did not take advantage of my temporary beauty.

I had read all those other authors years before, when I was 19 and 20, and so when I opened The Outsider I was familiar with many of the authors and personalities described within. I don’t know what made me buy it, probably curiosity. I’ve always had an intellectual curiosity, but at that age it’s on the upswing. You’re ripe for it.

Once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It seemed to speak directly to me. It was a fascinating subject, but at the same time I found myself in the pages of the book: I was an outsider.

I remember I became so roused by what I read that I began a long letter I was going to send to The Age explaining the plight of the outsider. It felt very personal. I felt proud to be one of such number, but at the same time disadvantaged to think it might be so. Even then I didn’t want to be like everyone else, and given the choice would elect to be an outsider. I saw how problematic it was though also.

I was gripped by it for months, and in the following years probably read it another couple of times, but the last time was probably 20 years ago. In the time since I have come to accept myself for who I am. Am I an outsider? By the terms of the book I probably am, but a high functioning outsider. It’s interesting to read my fiction where it comes out more plainly, but entirely unconsciously. I don’t set out to write about the experience of the outsider, yet many of my characters are that, and the circumstances they find themselves in describe it too. I find I make frequent reference to other worlds, or different paths, as if there might have been other possibilities.

I’m drawn to stories of outsiders too, and particularly characters. I find myself admiring them often – I think of Pechorin, for example. In some way or another they are alienated from the society they are part of, often because they see too clearly to be part of it. They tend to an absurdist view of the world, which is a natural reaction. The world is absurd really when you think hard enough on it, but the choice then is whether to rise above it or succumb to it. Often it seems they do both, and in many of these characters there is the germ of

So anyway I began reading the book again over the weekend and it was immediately familiar. It’s a very learned book, though Wilson himself seems a stuffy character. Reading now I don’t immediately agree with him as I did before, but I can appreciate the thrust of his arguments. Myself, as I am today, I identify in parts. I would be what one calls the intellectual outsider. I see it, but I’m hardly infected by it. I have accepted the gap between myself and most of society, and have come to appreciate it. I’ve never felt the need to belong, just the opposite really – and what redeems me is that I’m not the pessimist that so many outsiders are, and because – and perhaps this is the existentialist strain – I believe in acting directly.

Reading it now it feels a little dated, not because of the content perhaps, but because what was new and revolutionary then has since become a mode of study. By comparison with more recent efforts it reads more like erudite pop psychology, but that’s why it worked when it did. For me, when I read it first, I found it just at the right time. I was ready for it and for a while it expanded my concept of self and gave me some comfort finding there were others who thought as I did.

I’m far beyond that these days. I was finding myself then. Today I realise that’s not a destination, but a pathway. I’m a long way further down that path and have a fair idea of who I am. I’ve lived and experienced both joy and tragedy and been seasoned by the trip. What were once ideas to live by are now just an interesting and vaguely nostalgic perspective. I may or may not finish the book this time around, but I recognise the part it played in becoming the man I am today.

Writing as if it counts

Back at work after the Labour Day long weekend. I was out Friday and Saturday nights and otherwise took it easy at home.

As I do every weekend I did a little work on the book, but unlike any weekend for more than a year I then set it aside.

One of the tasks I set myself over the weekend was to return to a couple of the stories I’d begun writing some time ago. Way back I’d tried to work on them concurrently with the book, but they’re so different that it was a wrench shifting from one mindset to another. It’s strange, I can read multiple books at once without inconvenience, but it’s different when I write. There’s something akin being a method actor. You get into character when writing, especially, as in the case of the book, when it’s told in the first person. That was further exaggerated because the style of writing I chose was more mannered than my natural style. It requires effort to stay in character.

It felt like a kind of milestone to shift back to my stories. I hadn’t looked at them for ages. I wondered how they would read now, and I wondered how after writing the book I would approach them.

The first thing is that writing every weekend for the last 18 months has created a discipline in me that now comes reasonably natural. Starting always is difficult, but there is never any real hesitation in knuckling down to it. Once I’ve started it comes a lot easier. Looking back it feels an unnatural existence devoting so much time to my writing, but I’ve done the hard work now and want to keep up with it. It should be a lot easier from here – particularly as I can see the benefits.

The other thing is that writing so consistently for so long has made me a much more efficient writer. I used to agonise and go round in circles. I’d try one thing, and then another. I kid you not when I report there are stories I started 15 years ago I’m still working on. Sure I’m a perfectionist, but a good part of it is that I hadn’t mastered the craft.

I haven’t mastered it yet, but I now feel as if I’ve got a good eye for where the story should go, and what it needs. I’m a lot more certain and decisive when proceeding. The two stories I worked on yesterday have been in the pipeline for about 10 and 12 years. I looked at them again and knew what they needed. The trick then was to execute.

You might think writing day after day that the art of putting one word after another would become simpler. In a way it has, but I’m not sure the quality is any greater, but that’s because it was always pretty good.

I’m often surprised re-reading old stuff of mine at how good it is. There have been times when I’ve read something and been impressed and wondered where it came from – before realising that I had written it myself it on some long forgotten day. The stories I read yesterday were familiar, and contained in each of them was writing both powerful and descriptive. One thing I noticed was the influences of other writers – in one I could see clearly the shadow of Bunin (not a bad thing). I have a more distinct natural style now, but I believe in being adaptable – different stories have different ways of being told, and often demand different voices. If anything I have eliminated some of the tics and repetitions of days gone by, and less ‘loose’. I’m more direct because I’m more certain of where I’m heading.

The writing has improved – and certainly become more flexible– but by no more than 5-10% That’ll do me. The real test is whether I’d be happy in releasing it to the wider world to judge – and I am.

At the end of yesterday I had two pretty ambitious stories fully sketched out and perhaps 80% done. There are another two which need minor tidying up (today’s eye is more demanding), but virtually done. Add that t the book – which needs some professional editing before I proceed further – and it’s adding up nicely.

I have a screenplay in mind, another two novels roughly drafted in my head, and probably another dozen stories I can bring up to snuff. I’m pretty happy with that.