On the road

I’m officially on leave from work as of last Friday night. There was no sense of anticipation last week. I was busy, there were things I had to tidy up and hand over, but I was disappointed not to feel that gentle rush knowing I was about to be three weeks away from work.

I still don’t feel it really. Perhaps that’s because it’s unlikely I’ll be doing anything much. I had various plans, all speculative and contingent on available funds. Unsurprisingly, the funds aren’t available and so it’s three weeks at home – which, at least, is better than three weeks at work.

I went out for red wine and cheese with Cheeseboy Friday night hoping to force upon myself some sense of being off the leash. It was a cool, drizzly night and though the wine was good and the cheese plentiful I felt more weary than joyous. The most I can look forward to is the potential visit of an old friend, but let’s see if that eventuates.

Now it’s Monday morning and rather than sitting at my desk at work I’m sitting at my desk at home. I am at liberty. Among other things I hope this time away from work will allow me to clear my head and replenish some a weary body. I still don’t feel that uplift, but I sense my mind is slowly turning to a different perspective. My focus is shifting from the practicalities of the working man – making sure my shirts are ironed and my myki topped up, mindful of the clock and of the ongoing projects at work that occupy the mind, as well as the many petty frustrations. None of that is relevant at this moment and so I have turned off that part of my mind.

Last night I read some poetry and then thought a bit about it. I will read poetry now and then and almost always feel drawn into it. It’s a welcome sensation as if in that time I am exposed to a subterranean world of depth and meaning. It exists outside of me, in the world, if only we knew how to find it; and within me also. I sense it finally, this well of deep, curious feeling and with it a trembling, inquisitive, sensitivity. It’s a fine feeling as if now you can pick up frequencies unheard before, and let into a world of true wonder.

This time I am aware of my awareness. Because I have time before me my mind has space to indulge in the meaning of this: not just the poetry itself, but the meaning of myself in this poetry.

I woke this morning wondering, as I have many times before, about the contrasting attributes of my soul. I was always a creative, imaginative kid, but made my way in the relatively ruthless world of business. I thrived there because there were elements in me that came alive in the challenge. I was competitive without meaning to be, and ambitious because it was always so much better to do than not do. I was smart and so made my way up the ladder and a good communicator; but I was also hard and unyielding. I took pleasure in my success in much the same way a warrior celebrates his conquests. There’s little poetry in that though – yet there is poetry in me.

It’s hard to judge yourself in these things, but if I was to characterise my defining attributes I would say they are intelligence and determination, independence of mind and spirit, and defiance – which sits on the defensive side of belligerence. By and large, these attributes served me well (if we are to overlook the elephant in the room). I went further than I would have otherwise because I willed it, because I wouldn’t back down because I always wanted to be better. All of this made me formidable – though less so now.

And though all of this is true enough so is much that seems the obverse of that. I remain the creative, imaginative soul I was as a child. I am just as sensitive as I always was. I have a searching and restless mind. I am moved, mightily at times, by all manner of things, from a piece of music or poetry to the great and terrible events of our times. Despite everything I am romantic and have ever been the idealist.

This is what twitched at me this morning having read poetry last night, but it’s a recurring twitch. One of the things I seek to do in this time is to re-align myself in the hope that I will find a lifestyle more rewarding to me, both morally and financially. For me, mostly, that’s been about seeking a better angle in my career. I can still do it all, I just need to find a way back in. But then it occurs to me – should I have followed a different path? Can I still? And that’s the path in which I can be entirely my gentler self, the creative, sensitive man inside this crusty exterior.

Again, this is a question oft asked. There was a time when I could afford to answer yes – but not now, I think.

I have observed of life, as well as of myself, that little is all one thing or another. Life, and people, are much more complex than that. It’s silly to draw conclusions based only on what is visible, and it’s clear that contradiction is a law of nature.

As a thoughtful person, I find this fascinating and I’m glad of it too – it makes the world a more interesting place. Still, it’s not something I’ve ever really been able to reconcile in myself – as if reconciliation was possible. I search for a meaning or logic to it knowing there is no meaning or logic. That dissonance plays on my mind and I can’t let it go.

It’s one of the things that made me write, I think, the attempt to investigate and understand – and order – these things in the written word. These conversations go on in my head and if I parlay them into a fictional world that reflects the world I know then perhaps something of consequence can be made of it. And, you know, I find a lot of my understanding comes from putting it down on paper. It’s not quite automatic writing but often I find understanding in the act of writing, in drawing up as if from a deep well a sense not free to me otherwise.

One of the things I’ve discovered in my writing are my themes. I used to think redemption was my theme. To a degree it is, and I’m fascinated by stories that pivot on that. It’s a classic theme. But then, I’ve come to realise, my real theme is identity – self-identity. It shouldn’t be a surprise having read this journal but it’s surprising how long you can be oblivious of a thing. In my case that quest for enlightenment will often overlap with redemption – aren’t we all searching for that in some form?

I’m reading a book about Homer at the moment and I realised halfway through that the protagonist of the novel I’m working on now would fit easily into a Homeric tale – but I think that’s probably true of many. Homer’s tales touch upon so many classic tropes, much as Shakespeare does, that much of modern literature could be said to share.

In this case imagine an Achilles who has survived the battle and lived to middle age, to a time when he questions what he was and what he did while at the same time mourning for the vitality he has lost in the years between. Achilles was always a complex character, a ruthless warrior and sensitive spirit, but he was also an instinctive beast who cut a swathe with his unquestioned might. He was said to be invincible until the moment the arrow struck him in the one place he was vulnerable, his heel.

But what if he had survived all that, the battles on the plains before Troy and then the sacking of that city? What then would there have been for him? And after that? Where does it all go – ultimately, what does it mean?

I think all of us come to an age when we look back at what we have done and wonder at it. For so many years we just did it. Like Achilles, we go into battle because the battle is there. But then reflection grows on us, and some wisdom if we’re lucky. The battle slows, or has past.

For many, for most, it is enough to be husband or wife, and parent. There is meaning in that. We subvert something of ourselves for the greater meaning of the family unit.

That’s not been an option for me but, even so, I don’t know if my independence would be so easily satisfied. And if Achilles had become husband and father, would that have been enough? Only if he can reconcile the sensitive spirit he is with the ruthless warrior he was. That’s the journey he must take, pitfalls along the way and doubt and uncharacteristic confusion because instinct no longer counts. He must come to this a different way, where might is irrelevant. That’s the quest, the road to enlightenment and redemption if he can find it.

That’s the story I’m writing pretty much, but it’s my story too. I’m searching for that road, but at least I know it exists.

Treasures of memory

When I was a kid, still in primary school, I was diagnosed with pneumonia and taken out of school for a lengthy time – my memory tells me three months, though that seems a lot. My left lung collapsed and my mu would give me daily physio, and I was on antibiotics. I’ve had chest problems ever since, but that’s where it started.

That was in grade 6. I was about 10 years old with freckles and floppy, chestnut coloured hair. I remember once we thought I might be cured and I was allowed to go back to school, only to discover that I was still crook and should be home. Someone must have called the school to take me out of it, but we were on the verge of a small excursion to Eltham Lower Park where we were to try orienteering. I was given the choice: go home, or go with the PE teacher and help him set it up.

I think there was probably a part of me that refused to chicken out and go home at the first invitation, so I went with the PE teacher. I had a small, childish idolisation of the PE teacher, who represented much that a young boy would aspire to. As you would expect, he was tall and fit and exuded good health. He was good-looking too and had an easy, friendly nature. What I remember from that day was his kindness. I think he was sympathetic to me and wanted to make sure I had a good time. I wasn’t just some token tag-along. It was his decision to ask me in the first place and he made sure I was included in the fun of the day.

I remember it as a strangely intimate experience the two of us going through the park setting up points for the activities to come, him explaining things to me and asking me to help. At other times there was a companionable silence. I’m still grateful to him today for his good heart. I spent another month at home after that.

I remember that before I got sick that every day in class we would listen to an audiobook. There was a book we started which really captured me, but I never heard the end of it because I was taken out of school halfway through it.

It’s a funny thing, for years I’ve searched for that book, out of curiosity more than anything else, and perhaps from a sense of completeness. I didn’t know the name of the book or who wrote it or even how it ended, and for years I came up empty-handed.

This morning I happened by chance upon a book we read at school which had long lingered in my memory, The Owl Service, by Alan Garner. It’s quite a famous book and a great book for children. It made me remember the other book, and so once more I searched for the book I had never finished.

It was a children’s book set in the Swiss Alps. I remembered there was a character I quite identified with for some reason and was sympathetic towards. He was the unpopular kid who couldn’t help himself from being cruel, but he had a sensitive heart. I think that’s what drew me to him, not that I was anything like him except I was sensitive too, and perhaps deeper than I believed.

Even as the young boy I was capable of understanding that this kid was more complex than he first seemed. I could see his pain and how it made him act. He regretted his actions and was burdened by the unfriendly opinions of others that – no matter what he did – he couldn’t change. He retreated into himself, discovered a talent for wood carving, and what promised was a story of reconciliation and redemption – but I left before that played out.

Everyone’s a sucker for a good redemption tale, but me more than most for reasons I don’t understand. It’s the arc of my own fiction, though it’s more complex than that.

Long story short, I found it today. To the usual search terms, I added ‘tragedy’ and there it was: Treasures of the Snow, by Patricia St John.

As it turns out this is quite a famous book too, and the character I looked to was Lucien. I think I knew even as a boy that he would end up with the girl – Annette – if he did it right. Being fiction, you reckoned he would.

I now know how it ends and it’s roughly how I would have predicted, though even more rich and sentimental than I might have thought – perfect for a child’s imagination.

I’m very glad to have re-discovered this and am tempted to read it myself from the first word to last, even if it is a children’s book (as I might also The Owl Service).

Memories link and this connects a loop if not completely closing it. How nice it is to recall days of such innocence and love, simple and good. You need that sometimes.

Little pricks

I had a dream last night a little dweeb called Caleb Bond had published a novel to great acclaim. Bond is a young conservative columnist who looks like he hasn’t started to shave yet. He’s a fanboy of the conservative elements of the government and will occasionally indulge in the sort of breathless, fanboy prose that makes you feel like taking a shower after reading it. The rest of the time he’s a derisive, superficial critic of all things truly liberal. He’s a smug little prick with smug little prick views and just the sort of smug little prick you want to punch in the face. He and I are not close.

So anyway, in my dream, he opens up as the author of a novel that may be close to being a masterpiece and my world comes crumbling down.

For a start, how can someone I’ve dismissed so emphatically be capable of actual art? How does a smug little prick with the self-awareness of a gnat create something so layered with meaning and texture? And as I read it myself I become aware that the little cunt is actually the real deal. And, what the fuck, he’s actually got something published while I, heroic liberal that I am, slave away going in circles.

There’s a lot going on here. I mean, have I been so reductive in the first place that I can’t contemplate that someone might be more than their unimpressive public profile? What does that say about me? I wonder, where does art come from? What is the wellspring of it when clearly – as history shows – not all of its practitioners have been great characters (though generally, unlike Bond, have some talent)? I question everything, but what bites deepest is that he has done the very thing I seem incapable of doing – producing a work of art. That burns, and in the dream, I wonder if maybe I am a fucking snowflake after all.

Thankfully, it’s only a dream, and if that little suppository ever publishes anything worth reading I’ll join a monastery.

Where has this come from though? The Caleb Bond part of it is completely random. He’s a snide character, but so are most of his mates and I don’t waste much time worrying about any of them (though I’m curious how someone so young can hold such extreme conservative views- Keating used to call them ‘young fogies’).

What I really think is that this dream is a product – or reflection – of my own recent writing journey. It’s been bloody frustrating lately. Maybe Caleb Bond – a little prick – is the symbolic little prick to rouse me to greater effort?

I set myself to get to 50,000 words by the time I return to work on Monday. As of now, I’m a little over 45,000. I started off well this week, but then a combination of things sidetracked me – social events, hot weather, the cricket. Really though, what stopped me was that I’m at a creative loss just at the minute.

These episodes generally don’t worry me too much. I go back a little, I have a break, I take a look from different angles, and eventually, something will come to me. That’s been the case these last 15,000 words, but it’s not getting any easier, and even what I’ve done I’m not sure about.

I likened it the other day to driving on a winding mountain road at night with dim headlights. You’re not sure what’s coming up ahead, if you should turn left or right or keep going straight and you proceed tentatively, only to look back and wonder if you missed your turn and if you’re on the right road.

That’s where I’m at. I haven’t crashed yet, but I’m not sure where I am or where I’m heading.

Learning from the movies

Over the weekend I caught a Danish film director discussing how Nicolas Roeg and his film Don’t Look Now, influenced his vision and style. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking conversation. What I knew I could agree with. I’m a fan of both the director and the movie, which is a classic. What I didn’t know – or hadn’t thought of until then – was intriguing, and sent me off in a new direction.

What caught my interest particularly was a conversation about how Roeg edited the movie, and how effective it was in communicating mood and sense. It was discussed how the things left out shape a story – a not unfamiliar notion as Hemingway was big on this from a literary perspective.

I like talks like this because I’m curious and have a passion for the arts (and most things actually), and like to understand. I especially like how discussions like this set off different trains of thought in me. Things like this can reverberate in me for days. I’ll examine it a bit at the time before letting it go, but it’ll keep coming back to and until I have my own, 360 degree perspective of it. I have an objective understanding, but I’ve also got a personal understanding of it.

Occasionally there are more practical applications for such information. As my mind span off on Saturday it naturally occurred to me that I can apply these tricks to my writing. It’s a different medium, there’s no vision I can play with, but I can break things up and dictate the flow easily enough. Till then it was something I’d given only cursory consideration to.

As it happened it was a very timely reminder – but then these things reverberate especially strongly when there’s something to attach to. This time it was a section of prose I was uncertain about how I should proceed. Here was the answer.

It worked, too. I took the lessons of Nicholas Roeg and applied them to this writing and it changed entirely the feel and mood to exactly what I wanted.

Last week I explained how some weekends I’m more productive than others. This was a productive weekend. I managed to put down a couple of thousand words, on top of sketching out in some detail the scenes to come.

All art is a form of communication. How you communicate is just as important as what you communicate: substance and form.

How I write

When I’m writing I try and get around a thousand words a day on the page. I only write on the weekends between doing domestic and social stuff, but I still aim to get a couple of thousand words added over the two days.

That’s the aim, but it doesn’t always work out that way. As I write this I’m about 36,000 words into this novel – about 18 weeks of writing in this context. Except for many of those weekends, I only wrote one day out of two, plus the trend is it goes in fits and starts. I remember for about a period of about three weeks I was becalmed. I might have written 500 words, and probably deleted most of them as being inadequate. But then you strike a patch when it flows like honey. Suddenly it’s all clear, you know what you want to write and the words are there just waiting for you to transpose them.

I’m said to be a pretty quick writer, but last weekend I added about 800 words. That’s because right now I’m less certain of the direction I want to take in this phase of the book, and the words are a lot stickier in me. I did a lot of editing though and that has to be taken into account also.

Before I start writing I’ll probably read the previous two chapters to get into the groove, but also to clean them up. First time I put things on paper I’m not overly fussed about the details. I want to get the major points and the framework on the page. I’ll probably re-work it a little more before the session is through, and I’ll certainly return to it next time.

By the time I finish this first draft most of the manuscript will have been re-worked two or three times already. Often the edits become pretty big – changes are made, bits are taken out, other bits put in, and in general, the writing itself massaged to the point that it expresses what I want both clearly and somewhat lyrically.

I’ve been writing this since around March, I think. Say eight months, thirty-two weekends. Over that period I’m averaging about 1150 words a weekend, which sounds about right.

I’m actually considering taking a pause from this book. I’ve made some recent mental adjustments regarding how it ends. Not major changes, but significant. I’m at the stage now leading up to it – I reckon this’ll top out at about 75,000 words. The last three chapters as I’ve conceived them will be around 10,000 words. That leaves around 30,000 words of content leading into that. Much of it I have mapped out in my head, but I’m uncertain about the best way to get there.

My experience is that taking a break is pretty productive. It becomes less familiar and you view the story more objectively. Distance lends a perspective that allows you to see the whole rather being mired in the detail.

This is what I’ve done with the book I’ve finished. I stuck that in my bottom drawer around February and left it there. I’d think about it every now and then, but gradually it went from front of mind to back. At the same time, I had someone read it who would report back to me occasionally with their impressions. Over time my thinking on the book has changed quite a lot, which is what I hoped for.

I’ll pull that out of the bottom drawer sometime in the next few months, maybe sooner than later. When I return to it it will be with a changed perspective and quite radical notions of how I want to re-write it. If I can nail that I think it will be a much better book, and much closer to my original conception of it.

I’m sure I’ll be doing that with this novel too. Can’t speak for others but reckon it works for me. Come this time next year I hope to have two novels finished and in a state I’m proud of.

Reading in the bath

I’ve just had the pleasure of reading a typically charming and interesting article by Joseph Epstein about the pleasures of reading (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/11/the-bookish-life).
There’s little I could add to this. When it comes to books and reading he speaks for me as well. On every point we are in accord, which chuffs me more than you could imagine.

I’m not about to rehash what he wrote – read it yourself – but rather go off on a tangent he briefly refers to.

I’m sure I’ve previously written about the pleasures of reading in the bath. I’m a great bath-taker. To ease myself into a steaming hot bath at the end of a long day is a pleasure both physical and mental. It’s an escape from the world. There you are languishing in the warm embrace of your bath, your muscles relaxing in the soothing water, your mind unwinding from its tight coil. In that time the world stops spinning. It’s somewhere outside, in the raw, uncivilised elements, but here you are reclining with nothing better to do than gently bathe. Fuck the world, this is my time!

That’s not to say you don’t think. There are occasions I set myself to ponder some deep and meaningful thing while lying in the bath. In the bath I have a space of time free to indulge in such examinations. I can dedicate myself to the puzzle at hand, eased along by torpor of the bath, which seems to assist when delving through the metaphysical layers to the very nub of the issue. The steam, the hot water, the very mellowness of the occasion smooth out the trickier elements and eases you over and past the mental obstacles that stubbornly hold you up when upright and perfectly alert. A good bath makes for a very different state of mind.

There are few occasions when I don’t read in the bath. It’s one of the things I look forward to – hoping into the hot water and leaning back to read some suitable paperback while the heat is still on. I might only read a chapter or two before I get around to the proper business of washing myself, perhaps topping up the hot water while I’m at it.

In my mind it takes a very particular type of book suitable for the bath. In broad terms it is something you can dip into and out of with ease. It has easily digestible, possibly even distinct parts. Often it’s just the sort of book I wouldn’t think to read while lying in bed at the end of the day.

One of the notable books I’ve read in the bath is Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I’ve also read the autobiography of Jung, the maxims of Marcus Aurelius, once I even read a book or two by Osho trying to make sense of things. More recently I’ve read the notebooks of Simenon, and currently, the letters of Ian Fleming.

There’s a shelf behind the bath and sitting there already are the books I’ll get to next. They include a book about notable, great movies, and another about how to properly pleasure a woman, co-written by a lesbian.

Speaking of – there’s few things better than sharing a bath with someone you adore. Candles, a glass of wine, slippery naked bodies…But then that’s another story…

Just around the corner

I spent a part of Sunday cataloguing my books, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I only catalogued the books I have out, going one by one through the shelves and to the sundry books strewn around the place – mostly by and under my bed. I catalogued around 150 books, a tip of the iceberg really – there are about a dozen boxes in the garage unopened. It’s a start though, and it was a pretty satisfying experience as each time I scanned a book I was made to remember when I’d bought or read it, and what I thought of it. The books I have out are all important books so there were a lot of memories.

One of the things I recalled as I went through them was the book-reading phases I went through – there were a bunch of Sartre, a bunch of Camus, a bunch of Kundera, a bunch of Updike, Hemingway and Roth. They were read at different times, different stages of my life, but generally they were read as bunches. Camus and Sartre I read in my early twenties. Hemingway when I was still a teen, and later beyond that. Kundera was in my thirties I think, and Roth later again in general, though I first read Portnoy’s Complaint when I was 16 or 17. I don’t remember when I first read Updike, but I’ve been reading his stories regularly.

Then there are the bunches of books put away in boxes – Salinger, Conrad, Mann, Musil, and so on.

For those moments I felt as I did when I first read these books. Often present was a great sense of adventure and discovery. To happen across a good author and a promising set of books felt as if I was about to explore new worlds. These worlds represented an experience, a perspective, another time and place, a world yet mapped for me. I felt an intrepid reader. I wanted to enter into those worlds. I wanted to open all my senses to the experience. I wanted to learn and grow and understand. There was great pleasure in all of this, but also a sense of life education.

In the midst of reading I would often stop to consider what adventures awaited me down the road. These were words, but there was also real life ahead, which these words gave me a glimpse of. I was sure I had great things ahead of me. I remember a sense of almost uninterrupted anticipation.

I remembered all that and wondered when I’d lost all of that. I could understand, given my travails, how it could so easily be mislaid, or even corrupted, but I had the sense that it was on the wane even before that. To be rational, I’ve had many adventures, and lived both deeply and widely. Many of the things I imagined at came to pass. Does that make a difference?

I want to feel that again. I’m older now. There’s probably fewer years ahead of me than there are behind me, but that’s no reason to give it away. I’ve set myself to re-ignite that sense of anticipation and adventure. I don’t think it should be too hard. I may be of phlegmatic temperament, but I still retain some whimsy and am enduringly curious. I want to feel there’s still a lot ahead of me.