Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bonfire of the vanities

The school holidays are here, and my workload has dipped down to part time. For the last month, my imagination has been leaping forward into this mystical neverland where all my most utopian dreams will be realised and my everlasting school holiday to-do list (which could be titled: Things That Are Not Work) will be fulfilled, every last item.

(The devil on my shoulder is laughing sardonically. You can guess how things have played out).

Nevertheless -- and we are one week into the holidays now, so I speak as an older, jaded realist -- today I broke one of the leviathan tasks on my list down into a manageable chunk. "Declutter my house, clean everything, and become one of those minimalists whose flats look fashionable and welcoming, not coldly Spartan" became, "Let's go through the files in that one cupboard under the desk."

The Files turned out to be fourteen trees' worth of printouts from my uni days. Short stories, literary theory, analyses of spiritual themes in everyone from Tolkien to Terry Pratchett, academic readings on the women of Sparta, the mechanics of dialogue, philosophy of history, Australian editorial standards, Immanuel Kant, the Bible as poetry, examinations of grief in children's literature, more, more, more. All of it sounded wonderful. All of it called out for full immersion (Drop Everything And Read was something my primary school teacher instituted and I often wish it applied to adult life). And all of it swept me into an intense state of wistfulness.

Looking at this mound (a literal mound; I took pictures) of learning, this living, breathing, inspired stack of thought, made me feel a stranger to myself. It's only been a few years, but it feels as though I don't know the Danielle who studied, who wrote academically every day, who rolled words around in her head and on her tongue and tasted for the right one. She seems more intelligent than me, and with a significantly longer attention span. She followed thoughts through from their inception to their conclusion. She had ideas. She had opinions. She dreamed. She actually expected that future Danielle would have the time to reread thousands of pages of handouts.

I had to trash those mounds of magic and mystery, and part of me felt proud of my practicality as well as appreciative of the cupboard space I'd generated. But another part of me felt like I was trashing the Danielle who once was, the girl who dreamed and wrote and had big ideas -- the girl I worry I'll never be again.

It would have been satisfyingly symbolic to make a small bonfire and let those pages burn to ash and float off on the air. It appeals to my sense of drama, and isn't there a symbolic bonfire in every great coming-of-age story?

Instead, though, I dumped them into the recycle bin -- which perhaps carries a greater symbolism. Those pages are going to be remade and turned into something new, just as former Danielle is constantly being remade and turned into something new, just as you are being remade and turned into something new. I'm reminded of the biblical 'to everything there is a season,' and the reality that although autumn turns to winter and spring turns to summer, autumn comes around again, every year.

Just now, I'm looking back at the student life with longing for the constant intellectual feast. But back then, I looked forward to being employed and actually moving into what I saw as legitimate adulthood. My friends with little ones might once have looked achingly forward to having children, but now, in the endless cycle of feed, clean up, repeat, they look back with nostalgia on the days when their schedule was their own and they could fix a quick meal at 10pm, if they wanted to. The friend who was once desperate to travel the world would now give anything to feel at home somewhere, while the friend whose struggling health keeps her at home thinks back to the teenager who would go anywhere, do anything, at the drop of a hat.

What am I saying? That there is no joy in this world that comes without a cost? Not really, though perhaps that has some truth. Nothing will ever be entirely whole in a world that is broken.

I think what I am scrabbling to articulate is that we keep all those selves inside of us, the selves that once were and the selves we are today, so that the experiences we had then become part of who we are now. Which means that nothing is lost forever. Those former selves are not gone just because life has moved on. Instead, we grow and are shaped by our experiences. Even though we are not where we once were, it doesn't mean that "once" was wasted. And because we don't know the future -- wonderful, terrible truth that this is! -- we don't know just when winter will turn to spring and we will get to experience our own renaissance as the things we once loved or excelled at become the things we again get to practice and treasure.

To everything there is a season.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Everything glorious.

This afternoon I've been revelling in my first free day in a long time. When my evening plans fell through, I moved to the piano to play around, something that happens only occasionally these days. A rare afternoon off, a rare chance to play the piano just for the joy of it, and the rare opportunity to pull out a book of songs I probably haven't touched for two years. It felt like no accident then that today, Valentine's Day, I flipped the music book open to Everything Glorious, a song by David Crowder.

'The day is brighter here with you,' the lyrics begin, 'The night is lighter than its hue would lead me to believe, which leads me to believe that you make everything glorious.'

As a single thirty-something whose experience falls somewhere and everywhere between slightly crazy Austenesque old maid and the werkin'-it-Beyonce-style single lady, being a party of one in a world of pairs often feels less than glorious. When I started writing this post, I kind of got lost recounting the ungloriousness of extended singleness. It's a list that runs the gamut from petty, first-world annoyances -- never getting to take a plus one to a party, for example, or having to deal with car stuff on your own, or wishing food processors weren't only gifts for brides -- to the loneliness of being in a situation that 95% of your peers have not experienced, and then to the very real grief that comes when you realise the narrative you've always imagined for your future -- maybe one including children -- needs to be completely rewritten.

But none of us needs another list of why extended singleness can sometimes stink. We can come up with our own lists at the drop of a hat, and recounting these griefs leads nowhere (except, possibly, to the freezer for a tub of icecream).

What we do need are songs that remind us that glory is coming -- and not the beautiful but limited vision of glory that is romance and a white gown and to have and to hold. I mean a glory that takes a broken narrative and turns it into something wonderful, a message that now is not all there is, a promise that takes our ashes and gives us beauty.

Weeping may endure for a night, but the night is lighter than its hue would lead us to believe, and joy comes in the morning. Because someone is at work making everything glorious.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The opposite of dying.

Recently I read Marina Keegan’s now-famous essay for the Yale Daily News, “The Opposite of Loneliness.”

It is famous because it’s a lovely piece. Written in 2012 in the week of Keegan's graduation from college, it embodies the tension, uncertainty, and lip-biting optimism of this season. It suggests a woman moving forward from the collegiate cocoon into the realities of the adult world. It is honest, idealistic, joyful, frightened, hopeful.

It is also famous because Marina Keegan died in a car accident just days after her graduation.

As I read it, I – like everyone else who reads the essay knowing the story – couldn’t help but delight at the beauty of her hope, and grieve at the poignancy of it. Here is a young woman who stands looking out at what she sees as the beginning of her adult life. She marvels at it. She shrinks away from the unknowns. Then she runs boldly towards them all. She says, “We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.”

Only – she didn’t.

And that is one scary thing about death. We like to think of it as something having a proper time and a place. The time is far into the future, and the place is at the end of a full life: a gentle, welcome conclusion to a life well-lived. But death is not so tidy. It likes to sneak up on us at odd moments, and that is scary.

Another scary thing about death is that it closes the book. And wherever we were up to in our writing – even there at the half-finished sentence, the misspelt word, the angry exclamation – is where the book is done. Or undone, as the case may be.

That’s why, in Marina Keegan’s story, although there is a sense of deep sorrow at a bright young life being seemingly cut short, there is also a sense of triumph: the story ends on a rich, meaningful note, one that will have echoes far into the future. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s a great ending. Marina Keegan left her mark on the world, and it is a good mark.

Sometimes, when I’ve had a particularly lame day, overthought everything, talked too much, accidentally been a jerk to the people I love the most, and wrestled with creative paralysis, I worry that I might die in the night and the only legacy I’ll have left behind is a bad taste in people’s mouths.

I don’t think I’m alone in that. Even for those of us who believe there is life after life, we are not so much scared of death (although it can be frightening, because it is strange to us); we are scared of having not really lived. We are scared that we will not do what we were meant to do with this “one wild and precious life.” And all the unfinished projects, the untouched possibilities, the wide open relationships, the people we love the most that we haven’t loved the most – all of them are a hundred tiny swords of Damocles, suspended over our lives and ready to come crashing down at our failures.

People like Marina Keegan empower us, and they terrify us. We hope we will end well, but we can’t be sure we will. One of the gentlest men I have known once told me, “I worry that my time will be up just as I’m snapping angrily at my wife.” Even he was not immune. It seems that none of us want to be caught in the messiness of a first draft.

That’s why it’s freeing – achingly, beautifully freeing – to consider that our legacy, whether it’s a whisper or a shout, is not only about how well we lived. It’s also about how well we were loved. A life well-loved is a life well-lived. That is a rich life, and a full life. If there is one person who loves you, then you exist, you are valued, your very being is important.

Within the Christian worldview, this understanding goes even deeper. To be loved in many cases means to be lovely. To have friends requires us to be friendly. And there are days when we are not lovely. There are days where we are not friendly. There are days when we are abandoned and alone. This is, after all, the essence of the fear.

What then? What of those times? The Christian message, the message of the gospel, is for those very times. At the bleakest, at the blackest, at the most unlovely: still loved, still beloved.

The horse hairs snap, the tiny swords fall, and He is there catching them all in his bare hands, heedless of the pain and of the blood that flows from the wounds.

This is not permission for any of us to embrace the jerkdom that either hibernates within us or openly roams free. It is not permission to waste our lives; love compels us to live better lives. But it is permission to look ahead with hope and to silence the voice that tells us we must do something important in order to be important.

You may have sixty years left or you may have six. In every one of them: be loved, because you are beloved. That is the opposite of dying.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A peek into my processes*:

(Kinda-part 1 here). With thanks to James for this fun tag.

What am I working on at the moment? I work as a social media and marketing manager and also as an English tutor and workshop instructor, so commercial and editorial-style writing is part of my daily life. The real dream, however, is fiction. So when people ask me about my words, it’s stories that I think of. After I completed my Master of Arts last year (and finished up a work placement of two years just a month later), I fell into a period that felt a lot like creative paralysis. I was frozen. It wasn’t even that I had things to say but didn’t know how to say them; I was truly empty. Ideas weren’t floating in, and words weren’t flowing out.

That season lasted more than six months, and I found it terrifying. Finally I had been set free to do the thing I cared about – and it felt as if the thing no longer cared about me. I’d talked about writing since I was a kid. I didn’t know myself without that dream, without that work happening on the sidelines. And I couldn’t really do anything other than hold on and hope that whatever I’d lost would somehow return to me.

This year has been more about inching back towards that fragile creativity. I’m certainly not at the place where, as a teenager, I thought all writers lived: a flurry of words pouring out in a feverish rush, pen at the ready for ideas to strike out of nowhere. (Gosh I miss those days. The feeling of it all, I mean, not the rubbish I wrote). Rather, there’s a sort of steadiness to where I'm at with words, along with a slight sense of frustration at the constant pull between work, family, community, and creativity.

So what am I actually working on? I’m working on a screenplay treatment for a friend who works in the independent film industry. I’m in the very tentative early stages of a new story that I think is going to be novel length. And there’s a little short story that’s been simmering for two years but is close to being done. I’m writing lots of thoughts about what I’m reading lately, too, and there’s a novel first draft sitting on the backburner while I work out how to take it from A to, if not Z, then at least B, C, or D.

How does my work differ from others in my genre? My last few published pieces have been for children, some other recent stories have been a little speculative, while still another is a piece of adult fiction that is bit (a lot) autobiographical. So I’m no longer quite sure what my genre is. But my heart is with young adult fiction, always and forever.

Something that I find myself exploring, often not realising it until the work is finished, is the idea of otherness. Being other is often viewed with some awkwardness or perhaps even shame. We tend to blame ourselves for our otherness, thinking that “If I was more [whatever],” then maybe I’d belong. But otherness can have great value. It’s healthy to be able to step back from the crowd occasionally. It generates a sense of wonder. It allows us to form our own opinions. And it builds compassion within us for those who may not learn, work, look, speak, or live like ‘everyone else’ does. What’s more, I suspect most of the great men and women of history could be counted as quite “other” in one way or many. The jury’s still out on whether otherness actually turns you into a genius (or a sociopath, for the unfortunate few), but I definitely think it can help.

Of course, there’s nothing unique about exploring the other within literature. One could argue that all literature is about otherness, to some degree. So how does my work differ from others in my genre? I guess one way is that my stories tend to be light on the romance side of things. I enjoy romance, but show me friendships, too. Show me families, show me communities, show me diverse relationships that go beyond high school sweethearts. As I read or write young adult characters, I can’t help thinking that the all-consuming crush that’s occupying the character’s heart and mind might not be there in a couple of years or even a couple of months. But I hope the best friend will still be around, and I’m more interested in his or her feelings about the main character than I am in the feelings of Bad-Boy-With-A-Heart-of-Gold McSpunkypants.

Why do I write or create what I do? It recently occurred to me that I might not actually like writing. It’s really hard work. I’ve never been the sort to be able to churn out thousands of words a day, and it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that whirlwind frenzy of feverish inspiration and had words just fall from my fingertips. Instead, I slog and yank and tug and grimace and fight to get the words out of me and onto a page, and I’m even not sure why I do it. I only know that words are incredibly important to me, and this is the thing I want to do, even when I’m not quite certain what it’s all for.

How does my writing/creative process work? I love boundaries and feel like my creativity thrives under them. Briefs and deadlines and word limits are great. When they are in place, the scope of possibility narrows to something within my vision and, instead of being overwhelmed by the vast expanses of whatever that stretch out before me, I can look just a little way ahead and start to think. I like having themes or content requirements or specific prerequisites imposed upon me. They don’t feel like an imposition; they feel like a starting point. And when such limitations don’t exist, if I’m left with something formless, I have to impose the limitations on myself so I don’t shrivel up or drown under the weight of all that could be.

So my process begins with examining my creative boundaries or inventing some for myself. I’m a fan of pulling out a notebook and scribbling down anything relevant on an open double page spread, then examining the work for links and ideas and a proper starting place. If I can’t start at the beginning of the story, I’ll start with a scene that I know that I know, a moment that’s real for me, that reveals my characters, that might even be an instrumental moment in the story. It doesn’t matter where it comes chronologically; I can write away from it or up to it later on. The important thing is to start.

A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to the idea of the writing sprints, and, quite seriously, they've really changed how I write. Now, when I have a project to complete, I set a timer for 15 mins and write fast and furiously just for that fifteen. I don’t pause to look up words, to self-edit, to ponder the decisions I’m making for my characters. I just write. If I’m unsure of a word or a direction to take something, I can fill in that space with nothing words. (I have written BLAH BLAH SOMETHING HERE more times than I could say). After the fifteen minutes is up, of course there’s time to go back and tweak things or check the outline to see if the story is on track, but it’s amazing how many words one can spout when the timer is going. And it’s inspiring to just hit reset and go for another round. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to write in four fifteen-minute bursts than it is to write for an hour.

The primary advantage to this is that words get onto paper. Then there’s the fact that I don’t waste time self-censoring or overthinking my writing decisions. Finally, it’s a way to write even when I think I don’t have time for writing. One of my projects lately is being written in ten-minute snatches, just a few days a week. You can’t do a lot in ten minutes, but you can do something, and it keeps the story (and the hope) alive.

*not a double entendre. 

So... that's a little peek into my creative process. Now I'm going to invite two writerly ladies, Jodie and Katie, to answer these questions for themselves. I'm looking forward to hearing more about what makes your wild mind bloom!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Rock pools and sketches and notebooks, oh my.

As a kid, I loved to read books that were about people making books. There were two in particular that I read a lot, one in comic-strip style about the building of a picture book from start to finish, and another about the actual manual work of collating and binding a book of your own. I borrowed these books from the local public library so often that I’m sure a little part of me felt that the librarian should just take pity on me and give them to me for keeps. 

These days we’d say that reading books about writing, illustrating, and making books is kind of meta, but childhood me had no such word for it. I only knew that these books provided a peek into a process that was like drawing aside a magical curtain and opening up the world beyond, like lifting the lid of an upright piano and seeing the intricate innards of the instrument, like peering past the surface of the water to the microcosmic life of the rockpool beneath. Looking at the processes behind books was mesmerising.

I still feel the same sense of fascination with these backstage tours. I have a small but serious collection of books that each explore someone else's creative processes. One of my favourites is about the writer andillustrator Eric Carle; it has a giant fold-out page that shows the step-by-step process Carle uses to create his trademark collages. Another book shows pages from EH Shepard’s childhood sketchbook, with annotations in a scratchy, childish hand. I can’t really explain their fascination for me; I only know that processes are delicious. Show me your first drafts, your sketchbooks, your outlines, and I’m a little bit in awe.

For that reason, it’s been fun to follow the trail of bloggers passing along the Blog Tour Award and talking about their creative processes. (And gosh, reading about how people write is so much easier and more fun than actually writing.) I was nominated to take part in the fun by James Cooper, chief editor of the author.docx blog and lecturer at Tabor College in Adelaide (you can read his answers here). I took several units under James when I was studying my BA, and loved them all. In fact, James’s recommendation introduced me to Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, one of the best books about books I’ve ever read.

The idea of the blog tour is to answer a series of questions about my own creative processes, and to nominate up to four other bloggers to do the same. I was supposed to post my answers today, but I have a busy house full of local and interstate guests so I’ll be back with my answers tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, I have a question for you: are you a process person? What processes inspire you with a desire to create, do, or become?

Friday, June 12, 2015

A half-circle of light.

Last night was black and stormy. I was driving home from my friends' house, a route that cuts a winding path through a swathe of unlit bush. As I rounded a bend, a tiny car up ahead of me swung out round a further bend. It was one of those moments where, for just a second, the mask of humdrum falls away and you get to see life for the poetry that it really is.

The car was just a gleam in the dark, a flash of glossy black with an arc of yellow light from the headlights, filling out a semicircle in front of it. It looked like a tiny beetle with a torch strapped to its head. It was brave. There was something fierce in the way it cut a path through the darkness before it, seeing only a few metres ahead at a time.

I'm not a fan of that way of doing things. I don't want to see only a few metres ahead. I'd like to live with the high beam switched on. Better yet, I want to drive in full sun, where I can see the path stretched before me, where I can look ahead to the horizon. I like to estimate the bumps in the road before I reach them. I want to plot a course so I can stay on track. I'd like to avoid potholes instead of coming across them in the dark and being forced to swerve. I want to be ready in case a kangaroo leaps from a shrubby block of shadows. I want to be in control.

There's nothing brave, though, about being in control. It requires no courage. A life lived in full sun is a charmed life; the real world has some dark patches. And though my anxious heart wants to see what's waiting around the corner, I'm glad for the tiny half-circle of light stretched out before me. It's just enough brightness to keep me chugging on.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ice cream.

Last week, I made up a new batch of music flash cards for my younger students. I drew cards for all the usual stuff: quavers, semibreves, crotchet rests, treble clefs, various notes on the stave. Then, on one of the cards I drew an icecream, a yellow cone with a pink scoop and blue sprinkles. I don't even really know why I did it; it was just a random moment of whimsy to surprise the kids, I guess.

This week I've been trialling the new cards and the kids have been enjoying it. Anything that's a bit new is a little surprise all of its own. But the first time I took one of my students through the new flashcards, I was the one who was surprised. "Minim," my little student said. "Bass clef. Mezzo forte. Ice cream. Middle C." She just sailed right on by the ice cream cone without skipping a beat.

She wasn't the only one. It's happened with every single student so far. Some of them grin. Some of them laugh a little as they speak the word. But not one of them blinks when the unexpected thing appears. That to me is itself unexpected, and it's delightful.

I think this probably wouldn't happen with adults. I think that, if I showed the flashcards to my friends, they'd say, "Why'd you put the ice cream in there? What's that got to do with anything?" At the very least, they might say, "Ice cream?" with their voice sliding up on the end to suggest the question. Not the emphatic and certain "Ice cream" I've heard from each of the kids.

It feels like there's a metaphor in there somewhere. Something about hope or miracles or even having the faith of a little child. Something about not yet being so programmed to think that everything must make sense, that there must be a proper order for everything.

But I'm just gonna let it sit and simmer for a while. And I'll keep grinning as the little ones go through their music terminology and without skipping a beat shout out "Icecream!" every time.
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