Musings on Memoir

IMG_3777Just popped into the Sydney Writers’ Festival today to hear Caroline Baum interviewed about her memoir ‘Only’. It is about her life growing up as an only child of very controlling parents.  It was one of many memoirs I have read recently in an attempt to immerse myself in the genre, hopefully in preparation to write my own.

Caroline Baum used to read for a living at the rate of 20 novels a month thinking at the time she had “the dream job”.  She also discovered a dark side of reading.  It became an addictive obsession.  Not surprising when you think about the power reading has to connect us with others and help deal with feelings of isolation.

One memoir that she chose to prepare herself to write her own was another that I had just read; ‘Shy’ by Sian Prior.  This book influenced the thematic structure that she chose for her memoir and one that I am also attracted to.  However, I was even more impressed recently with Renee McBride’s ‘House of Lies’ which is truly a triumph in creative non-fiction.  It brilliantly uses devices normally used in fiction such as imagined dialogue, to build the story and characters,  something not all non-fiction writers can do. It remains to be seen whether I can but her narrative style allowed me to suffer her tragedies and and to celebrate her triumphs with enormous empathy.

But Back to Caroline Baum.  One thing she said today that resonated with me was that in her forties she made a conscious decision to separate from her parents. “The boundaries that had been so porous, solidified” and allowed her to become “the good enough daughter, not the perfect one.” In those few words she articulated my own experience to such an extent that I felt her hand reach across the crowd and hold mine.  In that moment I no longer felt alone.

Caroline says that she wrote memoir for other people like her who hate self-help books as much as she does and prefer to access help by sieving through the well written reflections of others.  She says that the power of a memoir comes from truth driven by anger and pain, “when you dip your pen into the murky waters of yourself.”

I was reminded of the purpose of all that pain we go through and the motivation of sharing it with others.  It was an hour well spent.

Books as Bridges

img_3534

I stepped off the red eye into the Darwin humidity at around midnight.  The plan was to go to sleep and the next day, my four-year old granddaughter would wake me instead of her parents.  They were looking forward to a rare sleep-in.  I could count the number of times I’ve seen my granddaughter on two hands.  Four thousand kilometres has its drawbacks.  I went to sleep that night wondering. With such big time gaps in a relationship with one so young, I am never sure how popular I will be.  Apart from a sarong and swimmers, my 7 kilos of hand luggage was mainly books.  Books for me and books for her.  A few days before I had grabbed 4 illustrated Roald Dahl books off an Aldi table, thinking, hoping they were about her level.

The light had started to filter through the shutters when I heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs.  And there she was.  My beautiful eldest grand-child, eyes wide, ready for the world, a mass of blond curls just like her mother, standing at my door, attached to a dog on a lead.  “This is Charkey,” she said as she pulled him to my bedside.  “Is Charkey cheeky”, I responded as I sat up, bleary eyed, shoving a few pillows behind me.  “Aren’t you a lovely dog.”

Formalities over, I directed her to a parcel in my luggage, wrapped in cheap Xmas paper, which she carried to the bed and tore open.  Her reaction was difficult to read.  But this was to be short lived.  “This one is about a crocodile’, I enthused.  “Let’s start with it”.  And I began to read, as she leant into me, looking at the fabulous illustrations by Quentin Blake.  With the help of a pot of tea, we read the whole book in one sitting.  The rest of the day was all about crocodiles.  At the Museum, she led me by the hand to see the exhibit ironically called ‘Sweetheart,’ an enormous stuffed crocodile that drowned during a relocation attempt.  She took great delight at pressing the adjacent button that produced the sound of a roaring croc, not something I ever want to hear outside the museum.  Together we sat at a craft table and constructed a collage of a crocodile pretending to be a palm tree, just like in the story.  We bought her Mum a pen in the shape of a crocodile from the Museum shop, “because she likes to write stories”. Later in the pool we imagined a nearby palm tree to be the crocodile trying to fool the children.

I was reminded of the power of books.  Reading the story in the morning allowed us to instantly enter a shared world that bridged any distance created by time, space or perspective.  I then realised that this is what books can do for all of us, any time any place.

My mind cast back to 1981 when I read Babies Need Books by Dorothy Butler, a New Zealander. This was a foreign concept for me.  As the third child born in three years, my mother scarcely had time to hang out the fourth load of washing, let alone read me books.  In fact, I have no memory of ever being read to as a child and consequently discovered reading much later than some.  But better late than never.

People scoffed when they saw me turning the pages of a book in front of my eldest daughter from 3 months of age but the baby’s response was enough to spur me on.  Her wriggling instantly stopped as she became mesmerised by the sound of my voice and the images before her.  Soon her chubby hands were reaching for the pages.  I filled the lower shelf with board books that could be sucked, thrown, fought over or sat on.  Later she graduated to the less robust variety.

Now at 35, she has published two children’s picture books of her own, is a prize winning adult short story writer and regularly directs a live story telling event.  I would like to suggest that all those who scoffed might like to think again!

What Are Your Poetics?

 

fullsizerender-2

 

Accomplished Poet, Phillip Hall, tells us at a poetry workshop in Yerrinbool, that a poet has to decide “what gang to belong to” and that the best way to determine this is to read lots of poetry.  “The enemy of poetry is banality and mediocrity.”  He later adds, “The thing that makes imagery work is surprise.”

Phillip is a surprise himself.  He looks younger than his 54 years, is tall, masculine and is wearing an AFL, Panthers jersey, covered in sponsorship logos. He would fit right in with the Australian masculine stereo-type if it wasn’t for his poetic sensitivities.  He also describes himself as “highly emotional”.

He grew up in the Blue Mountains and admits to hating the beach and salt water.  Luckily, he was adopted by an ‘inland’ First Nations community on his 5 year stay in a remote community in Northern Australia.  “They just knew,” he claims.

This became the setting and inspiration for his latest work, an autobiography in verse called “Fume”.  His work is a celebration of indigenous culture but does not avoid the tragic consequences of colonialism; “dispossession, frontier violence, self-harm, grog, community and family conflict.”  He says that when he first arrived it took him a while to get over his “Christ complex” when he tried to do too much.  He is an articulate, powerful speaker and the workshop participants hang on his every word, especially when he is reading from his collection.  He practices what he preaches.  His poems capture the essence of their subject matter without a wasted word, totally original and unpredictable but in human terms, familiar.

“The challenge is to capture the everyday without the banal” Phillip says.  He adds that “contemporary writing has to be political and self interrogative.”  He discusses this in relation to the poetry of Les Murray, Samuel Wagan Watson, Judith Beveridge, Dorothy Porter and Jennifer Compton.

Intimate Music For Everyone

the-rose-room
A different occasion in the Rose Room

It is 4pm on a sunny, Saturday afternoon at the Rose Room, Burradoo in the Southern Highlands of NSW.  The room is an annex of a private house owned by Janet Ninio whose vision is “intimate music for everyone”.  As I sit and relax in pre-concert silence, I notice that the neutral tones of the straw washed walls and bamboo floors blend beautifully with the outside view of native grass and eucalypts.

It is an apt backdrop for the reason we are here; to listen to the poetry of the great Australian poet, Rosemary Dobson read by Leonie Cambage and accompanied by Shaun Ng on viola da gamba and lute and Diana Weston on harpsichord.  The performers are classically dressed in black, adding a formality to the occasion.

Today Janet Ninio has achieved her goal.  It is an exquisite, intimate hour of sounds and images representing themes ranging from Greek mythology to nostalgic Australian landscapes, of bush-land, rivers and even trams.  We are fortunate to be joined by Rosemary Dobson’s son, Ian Bolton who has traveled with his wife from New Zealand especially and previously provided insight for the show.  I feel very blessed indeed.

Here are two verses of my favourite poem.

Cock Crow

Wanting to be myself alone

between the lit house and the town

I took the road and at the bridge

Turned back and walked the way I’d come

 

And walking up and down the road

I knew myself separate and alone

Cut off from human cries, from pain,

And love that grows about the bone

Put the Social into Social Media

“Can’t I just pay someone to run my social media accounts,” begs a participant at a workshop entitled “Build Your Author Platform”.  The resistance to taking responsibility for social media is understandable from authors who “just want to write”.  But author and workshop presenter, Allison Tait, convinces us that having someone else run your social media account would be like paying someone else to be you.  “It wouldn’t be your authentic voice which is what social media needs to reflect.”

Allison adds that your social media friends will give you the flick as quickly as in real life if they sense it is a one way relationship or that they are being used.  So it seems that on-line relationships flourish or fizzle, the same as face to face relationships if they are not give and take or if they are viewed as just self-promotion.

Just like writers had to embrace the word processor and email, it is now time to embrace social media.  It’s just another painful change.  Why should we bother?  And yet we know the answer because that is why we are here.  Allison reminds us, “Today social media is essential because it allows you to amplify anything that’s said about you.  It is about creating a perception of yourself.  People become invested in you so that when you publish they already know about you.  Traditionally publishers promoted a new book for 2 weeks.  This is no longer enough to get your book sold.  Social media needs active management because Google search likes sites that add new content regularly.

But how to find the time?  “Wedge it in between things, while waiting for the bus,” says Allison.  Allison takes 20 minutes a day to respond to tweets and another 20 minutes to schedule tweets using an app called Buffer.  “The most time-consuming stage is the set up in the beginning.  Limit your focus.”  Allison focuses on her dog, her garden and her writing.

Alison responds to our confused frowns by concluding with a sigh, “It is a long game if you want a career as a writer.  Add one person at a time.  But it is not just about attracting readers.  Look for industry contacts.”

During the last part of the workshop Allison describes each social media platform, its use and offers a few tips:

Blogging is a journal for public consumption.  It is your shop window.  It is bringing them to your home to serve them what you choose. Don’t blog about outrage or how hard it is to write.  It is not about skiting. A blog needs to have a great ‘About Me’ page with one paragraph in the third person that mentions awards and publications.  The contact details page needs to be up to date.  Newsletters are an opportunity to market to people who have already elected to hear from you.  They should be one page and include interesting, useful information and some giveaways.  Best kept secret about blogging is the potential to connect with other bloggers’ readerships.

Facebook is good for “the ripple effect”.  Decide whether you want a page (good for reaching the public) or a profile (good for the personal updates with tight privacy settings.  Keep abreast of changes to Facebook.  Invite people who like a post to like your page.

Instagram is good for youth and book bloggers.

Pinterest is good for trafficking blogs.

Twitter is best for industry networking.  Twitter is like arriving at an amazing party.  It can be overwhelming at first and you may choose to be a wall flower for a while but for a writer who is isolated, it is the workplace “water cooler, it is small talk with big results”.  Check notifications first and respond before checking your feed.  Actively help others.

Instagram is the best for images that give readers a tiny glimpse into your life.  Avoid anything too personal about your life and turn off your location services to protect the privacy of your location.

If workshop participants were daunted at the beginning they are overwhelmed by the end.  “Which is the best platform to use?”, one participant peeped in a desperate attempt to simplify life.  Allison answers, “The ones you enjoy using, as you have to be there regularly.  No point being involved half-heartedly.  Follow publishers, booksellers, writers’ centres, writers, book bloggers and book reviewers.”

It is lunchtime and it is not just food that we needed time to digest!

(The workshop was orgainised by the South Coast Writers’ Centre and was held at Wollongong Central Library).

Raining Poetry

 

raining-poetry

It’s November but the warm weather has bypassed the Highlands on this Sunday afternoon in Ward Lane, Mittagong.  Around 50 of us are here to launch the Treelines exhibition, part of the Southern Highlands Arts Festival.  But rather than the interior of a building, the street is our gallery.  Curator, Monica Markovina reminds us that art has the power to produce a state of mindfulness that brings us to the present where we create our own meaning. What better place than the street for those of us less likely to frequent galleries, to discover this by accident.

A tireless cold wind might be blowing but the wine is flowing and the walls on both sides of the lane are glowing with the nocturnal landscapes of local photographers, Paul Harmon and Mim Stirling.  And it is about to rain poetry.  As if performing a holy ritual, water is poured onto the dry pavement.  Our heads bowed to the ground and eyes squinting to witness the miracle of an invisible poem becoming visible, we resemble a group gathered in prayer and perhaps we are for we are silently waiting for the revelation that poetry can bring, that ability to say the unsayable.

As the script of the first poem emerges before our eyes one of the featured poets, Lorne Johnson is there to read us another of his poems:

Under sweaty

Morning skies

We clambered through

Vaulted emerald domes

And spirals of light and insects.

Everything around us

Buzzed and ticked.

The air tasted of mint and salt.

Monica is right.  We are mindful.  Time stops as we silently interpret the words through our individual filters.

As water and wine continue to be poured another of the featured poets, Mark Tredinnick is there to perform one of his poems:

MID-AFTERNOON, I LOOK UP FROM MY DESK TO SEE

A KINGFISHER ALIGHT IN THE WATER POPLAR.

FOR TEN BLUE MINUTES SHE SITS WRAPPED IN

HER SACERDOTAL SELF, MURDER ON HER MIND

(To view the complete versions of either of these poems or other work by these poets please contact Pitt Street Publishing)

The exhibition includes another poet; Phillip Hall who will be the featured guest at the next Mittagong poetry event, Little Mountain Readings, scheduled for Saturday 3 December at the Sturt Gallery.

So where did this amazing idea of raining poetry come from?  Monica tells us she got the idea from Mass Poetry, a community arts project based in Boston.  They are enthusiastic to have their idea spread globally, making this not just a local community art event but a global one as well.  Monica recounts that they had planned to hand cut stencils of the poems which would have been painstakingly difficult.  However, a local business, Bowral Signs came to the rescue with the latest laser cutting technology.  The completed stencils were then placed on the pavement and sprayed using a biodegradable spray, leaving the invisible impression of the poem waiting for water like dormant seeds.

As part of the launch Monica acknowledges a long list of other local businesses and individuals that have been involved in the project.  This is community art at its best.  Today we witness the end product but we are reminded of the multiple community connections that have been forged in the process that led up to today.  In an era of on-line connection, face to face connection is even more precious.

The exhibition will be on display until November 30 and if you visit make sure you pop into the adjoining Shaggy Cow Café.  If the catering at the launch is an indication, the food is fantastic and they just won Most Outstanding Café in the Southern Highlands, Business Award.