Friday, August 26, 2011

Confession: I did several creative writing subjects in my university years.

I know, I know. But I was young. I had Intellectually Romantic Notions.

I thought that each tutorial I'd have my stories and poems ferociously torn apart by my fellow scribblers and my faults laid bare in revelatory fashion (possibly with evocative jump-cuts between me and the other students). Or perhaps rather than cowing to their superior knowledge, I would go on to argue a devastating Gregory-Peck-style case for why I’d written what I’d written. Then next week I'd help do the same for their writing. We would appreciate our conflicting views and fierce arguments, and come away ready to confront our writing in new and risky ways.

Like I said, I was young.

I'd watched too many films involving writing workshop sequences.

So as we all sat quietly around the table each week, tentatively murmuring "That was good, I like your images," and "I was interested in how you changed tense halfway through", I started to wonder what I was actually going to learn. I wasn't going to learn to critique others, and I wasn't going to get critiqued in the way I’d hoped for if we were all going to be so goddamn nice all the time.

But actual assessment would be different, I thought. My tutors were writers I admired, so obviously I would get the sandblasting I wanted. I’d get opinions about which bits of my writing were the written equivalent of Roquefort, which bits were Tasmanian Heritage camembert, and which were Kraft 'parmesan-style' vomit flakes that come in a shaker you don't even need to keep in the fridge.

I would think hard about their opinions, possibly while ordering a cheese platter, and then decide for myself what I thought.

My assignments generally came back looking like this [circa 2004]:

This form of assessment didn’t really fit with my anticipated cheese/writing analogy.

The ‘big tick scenario’ could have meant three things.

1. It could have meant that I was an absolute freakin prodigy at 19, and should have just quit uni and waited a couple of weeks for my first publishing contract to land in my lap. Obviously this one was correct. Ahem.

2. It could have meant there was just so much wrong with what I'd written that the tutor saw no point even starting a detailed critique because she was only paid a flat fee for marking, not per assignment and certainly not per hour.

3. It could have meant she was being sensitive about possible (but non-existent) neuroses about having my writing criticised. I’ve never been overly attached to creative pieces I’ve written, once they’re finished. I’ll rework pretty much anything, especially if it gets me a paid publication. As Jim Rockford once said: “There’s two things I won’t do for money. I won’t marry for it and I won’t kill for it. Other than that I’m open to just about anything.”

Anyway. What I wanted was for my habits to be trampled and bloodied and my awkward writing structures to be cracked in half over my head like Anne Shirley in charge of a slate. I wanted to be pushed and confronted and hurt.

But at the end of each semester I got: A Big Tick.

I gave up on university creative writing classes after a few subjects.

My writing habits varied enormously over the next ten years. In undergrad I wrote masses of poetry and letters and essays and mated flies and inoculated agar plates and finished my BA and BSc degrees. I didn’t eat much and I didn’t sleep much and was probably a bit nuts a lot of the time.

Then I quit English/Philosophy Honours after a month, graduated with what I had and studied for a library degree full time (night classes) while also working nearly full-time during the day. Assignments (and – kill me now – group assignments) were done very early in the morning and all weekend. This is not recommended. My husband will attest to my sleep-walking and talking at this time. I graduated.

Then I stopped reading, and only worked and watched films. Think I was a wee bit burnt out.

Then I worked and read and the only writing I did was book reviews and I'd accepted I probably wasn’t going to write creatively ever again. This lasted a very long time. Every now and then I’d force a poem out from between the cracks, because that was what I was supposed to be doing. But mostly I edited up my old stuff and that was the stuff (some of it 10 years old) I was submitting to journals. It felt horrible and I felt useless and if anyone tried to talk to me about creative writing I got defensive and pretended it didn’t matter to me. Did it fuck.

Then I got wonderfully, deliberately pregnant, had a baby, and what happened in that following year was…hmm? What? Can you hang out the washing? I’ve just been pooed on.

Then as my kid got older I read more, reviewed and judged writing awards more. I was busy. I didn’t write much poetry, and I didn’t write any fiction and I kept pretending it didn’t matter.

Then everything went to complete and utter shit for over a year and I went a bit nuts and didn’t eat or sleep but I wrote more than 200 poems and over 80,000 words worth of stories in 6 months. Don’t try this at home. Seriously. It means you’re mental.

Now I'm just trying to keep writing because I think if I stop I might never start again.

Conclusion: I tend to be all, or bugger all. How I do one thing is how I do everything.

But I did in the end learn something from writing classes at uni. I learned that I want there to be different streams of classes, to cater for different needs. It would have made me feel a bit less mental, then and now. In my pretty dream uni (where the coffee is free and Union House doesn’t smell like dead fish and feet), there would be one creative writing stream for people who want encouragement, gentle constructive pointers, and to have the good things they do firmly acknowledged.

And there would be a second stream for those who want the extreme version – the all or bugger all. To be let loose to argue and criticise without fear of slamming their feet into the kidneys of someone’s dream-child. To get into the messy details and debate single words in single sentences, and be able to say, essentially: This bit is awesome, this bit is parmesan-style vomit-shaker.

And it would be clear-cut – you’d volunteer for your stream, not be assigned. Tick a box, choose your crits.

I don’t actually think either stream is ‘better’, by the way. I hate the idea that being able to ‘take’ criticism is an indication of strength or superiority. Some writers don’t read reviews because they write better without them. Some writers do read reviews because they write better with them. If some form of counsel helps your improve or makes you want to improve your writing, then it works. If whatever it is doesn’t help: screw it. Ignore it. Avoid it.

But in terms of creative writing classes, the cautious and nice approach doesn’t work for everyone, just like cheese doesn’t always make an appropriate analogy for writing. (I initially was going to link my cheese imagery to how marking at Melbourne Uni was done on the bell curve, but then I looked at the words ‘cheese’ and ‘bell curve’ in the same sentence and decided against it.)

I’m not completely inhuman; I do like praise. I like a big fat tick on my assignment as much as the next scribbler. But I like it explained, or not at all.

Is it a Roquefort tick?

Or a Tasmanian Heritage camembert tick?

Or a tick that means “just put that vomitous parmesan-style shaker back in the cupboard”?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The highest form of blogging

In this blog post, I will not do at least two things*.

1. I will not have my novel-in-progress assessed by a feline editor.
2. I will not fall backwards off anything.

It's true, consultation is the wryest form of cattery, and propellation the spryest form of battery. But by not doing at least both of these two things, it will become obvious that I am not copying anyone's comedy stylings.

Why yes, I did give up caffeine two months ago. What of it? It wasn't agreeing with me. And that awkward moment in the staff toilets was pure coincidence. This music is Bulgarian, by the way, not Georgian. What next? Am I still allowed to make sandwiches and drink arbitrarily feminised varieties of tea? Why am I defending myself to you anyway? You're a cat, and touching my stuff with your bum doesn't constitute editing.

I stop writing blog posts to my cat in order to have a shower. I’ve just taken my pyjamas off when there’s a knock at the door. It’s not the tv repair man because he came yesterday, eventually. So it’s going to be Paul, having forgotten his keys. I reach for a modesty-towel from the cupboard, and remember they’re all in the tumble drier because we only own three towels and usually that’s four towels too few for my washing regime.

The venetian blinds are still shut in the lounge. I trot naked to the front door, execute an elegant triple-step to avoid a particularly vicious-looking block of Duplo and impale my instep on a small plastic goat that I swear wasn’t there a second ago. I notify the plastic goat that it is, in fact, an arsehole, and wrench open the front door to give Paul his keys.

It’s the postman. He looks bored.

I slam the door shut again and shout “JUST A MINUTE!”

The only appropriately voluminous garment within reach is an embroidered kimono that I’m selling for my aunt on eBay. I shove my arms into the sleeves and wrap it around my body.

I open the front door again. The postman still looks bored.

“Sorry,” I say, “I was thinking about my husband. I mean, I thought you were my husband.”

"Sign at the top, please."

I pause, pen above paper. I have forgotten how to do my signature. I scrawl something with a few too many double-consonants in it across the form, and take my package. The postman fades out onto the footpath.

The package is puffy and soft, and I wonder what I ordered online the last time I was pre-menstrual and watching Dead Poets Society at 2am. I plonk down on the floor in my beautifully stitched kimono and strip off the wrapping.

It’s a set of towels.

My cat pauses mid arse-lick in the cello position and stares calmly at me.

"Stop it. This is fine," I say. "You can't copy an indirect presentation of a contradiction between an action or expression and the context in which it occurs. Irony is a widely used device.”

My cat finishes his editorial ablutions and jumps down from the desk. He sniffs the pile of new towels on the floor and then makes a pointed attempt to sit down on my bare foot. Despite his demonstrated high standards of anal hygiene, I'm not keen to risk having my bare toes critiqued.

So I stand up, take a step back onto a well-placed Matchbox car, perform a devastating somersault over the coffee table, and resolve to seriously reconsider the introduction to this post.

*My very funny friend Mat Larkin has a very funny blog. Parts of this post may or may not be directly related or stolen from his writing in the past, present and future.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Registration: EHN 539

One bleary afternoon I’m in an under-ventilated tutorial room, sitting in a moulded plastic chair that threatens to pierce my kidneys at any given moment. I nod confidently while the students in my tutorial wax literary about notions of the onanistic sublime in William Blake. I’ve got no idea what they’re talking about, but I suspect it’s mostly about wanking. I blame it all on Peter Otto and tune out for the rest of the hour.

You’re waiting outside for me, traditionally clad in philosopher-brown corduroy pants and a light grey shirt that suggests you don’t separate whites from colours.

“You know how the car got nicked?” I nod. “Well, the police found it. It had a few parking tickets on it, but we don’t have to pay them as it was reported stolen.”

“Oh, that’s good,” I say. “Where was it? Was it damaged?”

“No…” you say. I raise my eyebrows. “Well, it’s a funny thing,” you continue, “The police were quite surprised, because while the thieves had obviously taken it for a joyride, they’d locked the doors when they abandoned it.”

“They’d…locked…” I frown.

“Apparently they found it at Optus Oval,” you say.

“Optus Oval,” I say.

“Yeah. Where a week ago I went for a kick of the footy, and then I had a beer or two, and then because I’d had a beer or two I walked home.”

“And…did you walk to Optus Oval, or did you –”

“I drove.”

“Right. So you reported the car stolen the next day, when actually - ”

You smile, and your eyes crinkle at the corners. “Yeah. I forgot.”

I attempt to frown again, but somehow I’ve collapsed against the John Medley brickwork, gasping with laughter.

You slide down to a squat beside me. “At least we don’t have to pay the parking tickets.”


It’s a car with personality. Which is a nice way of saying it’s a piece of shit but we can’t afford to get a spare key cut for the lock, let alone buy a new car. Let me introduce our car by way of some salient features:

  • If we rev it too high, the radio changes stations.
  • The windscreen wipers don’t work. We have a sponge rubber-banded to a ruler; lean out the driver’s seat window and ta-dah! Human windscreen wiper. If the rain gets too heavy, we just have to pull over and wait.
  • There’s a hole in the radiator somewhere, so if we’re not careful the temperature indicator will point into the red, then to the H, the past the H, and then we have to abandon it for the night and walk home from the Lort Smith with the cat.
  • Don’t put anything precious on the floor in the back seat. There’s a leak in the roof, and in winter we have to bail out the puddles each morning.
  • The driver’s seatbelt-clip doesn’t undo. There’s a pocket-knife in the glove-box and if we stab it around in the catch for a while, eventually it comes free. We always wear seatbelts though. You know; safety first.
  • Something smells in the boot. We haven’t been able to find out what it is. This is probably just as well.
  • Most importantly: the engine doesn’t shut down if we just turn off the ignition. We have to stall the car to make it stop. This is very, very important.


It’s one of those excellent, pre-child Sunday mornings. Sleep-in til 11am, slightly hungover but not like someone has stripped off your skin and shoved it back on inside out while you were asleep. More the kind of hangover that just feels like you’ve clipped your toenails a little too vigorously and then worn new shoes, or that you’ve tried a new kind of sauce at Lord of the Fries when you knew your favourite was the cheese and gravy.

The best thing about North Carlton on a November morning is the light. The light in North Carlton dictates everything from rental prices to the attractiveness of your fellow café-goers. It turns three-day growth into designer stubble and last night’s makeup into dusky Vogue eyes. Even the dog turds, rehydrated from white to grey by gentle spring rain, take on a beatific glow.

On Sunday at 11am in North Carlton, everyone is eating massive plates of fluffy scrambled eggs, crackly bacon, salted lemony avocado, smoked salmon slices that curl up like kittens, luminous fried mushrooms, steaming nutmeggy spinach, thick slabs of crunchy toast glowing with butter and oh sorry I didn’t mean to stare, how long have I been standing here? Sorry.

We move on past the Paragon, and fish in our student-sized pockets to see if it will be one coffee each or one between us. We’d rummaged between the couch cushions to see if your housemate had been slumped on a favourable angle again, and come up trumps: $7.05 in change. That’s even enough for coffees at the Rathdowne St Food Store.

I poke the racks of crumbling books out the front of Alice’s Bookshop while you wander inside and end up having the usual lengthy exchange with Anthony. You tell each other (again) the story of that time I paid for my Jules Verne book with $40 of Monopoly money, and I smile to myself.

The coffee licks the remaining corners off our hangovers. Archie looms up at one point, beard first, arm over his head. “I’m tryna get fifteen dollars for petrol - ” We give him our remaining 35 cents and he pockets it without changing his expression. We’re the only ones who give him anything.

When we turn the corner into Richardson St, I frown at our car. Registration EHN 539. Honda Civic, red, no visible rust.

“Why are the windows black?” I ask. Our steps quicken. You pull open the unlocked door and the smell of burnt red carpet rolls out like…a red carpet.

“Is it on fire?” It’s not on fire. But there’s a large, damp, melted patch of carpet that stretches from just under the gearbox down to the pedals. I look at you.

“Did Ben borrow your car last night?” You nod. Ben is your fellow philosopher and housemate. Any communications between the two of you that don’t involve theoretical absolutes can be a bit unreliable. “Does he know that you have to stall it to make the engine turn off?”

“I did say,” you answer. I gaze around the car’s interior. There’s a piece of paper on the dashboard that wasn’t there before. I lean over and pick it up, unfold it. A short, handwritten message reads:

“We have put out your car. Any queries contact Carlton Fire Brigade.” I hand the note to you. You nod.

“Well, at least Ben paid for our coffees.”

Saturday, August 13, 2011

“Actually, I think it’s poo.”

I stare at my freshly bitten thumbnail.

“I did say you’d have to stop biting your nails before we had this baby,” my husband says.

I stare at my freshly bitten thumbnail. I would quote Fox Mulder right now, but beneath my cool exterior is one very distracting thought: It’s definitely poo.

But that’s Earth Motherly, surely. Ingesting my 6-week-old baby’s poo on the morning of my first mothers’ group is bound to make me some friends. Of course, they may be the kind of friends who eat placenta sandwiches and cry over episodes of Captain Planet, but I’ve been at home in 40+ degree heat, sans air conditioning with a new baby for the last month and a half, so frankly, have we met? I just want to buy some chips. What do you mean you don’t sell chips, what kind of dry-cleaners is this?

I leave the dry-cleaners and drag my body up the hill toward the Maternal Health and Something Nice About Children Centre. Everything is glaring hot and my stomach muscles feel like they’ve been twirled like chewing gum around someone’s finger (possibly Kylie Mole, but that’d be showing my age) and then splodged back into place. Seven of us stagger in with our seven little Bonds Wonder-Suits. I slam my pram confidently into the door frame, waking up my baby. I smile jovially at the other mums as his screams achieve a volume precisely calculated to wake their own sleeping infants, and realise that no amount of fingernail-poo ingestion is going to instantly rectify this particular event.

I have reached my first developmental milestone as a mum: I have pissed off more than five other mums at once. It’s listed in your horrible blue baby book, somewhere after “your baby isn’t putting on enough weight, you are a terrible mother” but before “your baby cannot use a cup or spoon, you are a terrible mother”. You’ll know it when you get to it.

But I’m staying for this meeting. I know why I’m here. I want to hear that someone else’s baby is worse than mine. I want to hear about more colicky babies, babies that sleep less in the day and less in the night, babies that scream for more hours, babies that chuck up more feeds, babies that refuse more and bite more and crap more.

Than mine.

We admire each other’s bundles of bunny-rug. Isn’t everybody’s baby lovely. But mainly we stare at our own babies. All they do is frown and yawn and crap themselves, but they’re like little lava lamps. We can’t look away.

I volunteer an ice-breaker. “I accidentally ate baby poo from under my fingernail this morning,” I say. My kid chooses this moment to make a dramatic violin noise from my lap. I gaze serenely down at him and demand: “Hungry? Sleepy? Tired? Pooey? Distressed about interest rates?” I get some tired smiles.

Another mother speaks up. “Yesterday, this one projectile pooed across the room into the slats of the electric fan.”

Another: “She only sleeps sitting up in her swing chair, but only if it’s in the kitchen. So I slept on a blanket on the kitchen tiles last night.”

A third: “He’ll only feed from the left side, so I lie upside down on the couch to feed him from the right side. Every hour.”

Then they all chime in:

“I fell asleep feeding her and woke up with bite marks all over my boobs.”

“My partner found me sleepwalking in the kitchen. I’d assembled the breast pump and had expressed 120ml.”

“I can’t remember how many bottles he has during the night. I can’t remember if I heat them up or not.”

“She vomited into my brother-in-law’s mouth when he held her up, and it was the best moment of my week.” Pause. “Possibly year.”

We stare at briefly at each other, away from our infants, and it’s almost like we’ve know each other all our lives. Then I feel suddenly warm and the other mothers gasp. I lift up my baby gently and more white milk vomit sprays through my hair, my clothes, onto the Maternal Health and Something Nice About Children Centre’s chair and all across the Maternal Health and Something Nice About Children Centre’s carpet. It’s pure milk, pure volume, and pure yoghurty stench. I’d rather eat all the poo under everyone’s fingernails.

Baby wipes appear from everywhere like magician’s doves. Unspeakable things are mopped up with fairly inadequate Aloe Infused! and Purely Sensitive! squares. The Maternal Health and Something Nice About Children nurse rushes to open the windows, diffusing the Something Not Nice About Children smell. We are all supposedly going out for coffee after this meeting, so I phone my husband at home and urgently ask him to bring me down a new top. Mine was white. It is now extra-white, but also extra-wet and extra-transparent.

“I’m covered in milk spew,” I whisper.

“That’s pretty normal, right?” he whispers back.

“Yes, but so is taking a shit and I don’t generally do that in the middle of a café either. Why are you whispering?”


“I’ll be five minutes.”

He arrives, my knight in shining stretch cotton, gallant husband and saviour. Suddenly faced with six more new-mum pairs of eyes than usual, and six rhythmic hands patting six little romper-suited backs, he looks slightly panicked. He thrusts the plastic bag towards me and edges back toward the door, smiling and nodding.

The other mums murmur their approval:

“My husband would never know what to bring down for me to wear.”

“You’ve got a good one there, very quick wasn’t he?”

Oh yes, I agree, dabbing more vomit from my hair and collarbones. I peer into the plastic bag. I look away. My skirt is passable, doesn’t need changing. My hair could be just be sporting a new, somewhat chunky gel product. I peer into the bag again and smile brightly at the other mums.

I retreat to the bathroom, sniff the vomit-crusted horror I’m wearing once more, just to check, then stuff it into the plastic bag.

I hold out the clean top at arm’s length. My well-meaning husband has brought me down one of my summer pyjama tops.

I pull it on, and stride back to the milky circle of chairs.

Isn’t everybody’s baby lovely.


Luka (6 weeks) and I just before our first mothers' group.
Note the lack of vomit on me at this point.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Two Twittericks


Admitted: I covet a mention,
A joke, loud applause or dissension,
Be it LOLZ at some wit,
Or critique of my shit,
I essentially need the @tention.


It's not that I'm twisted or bitter,
But I'm thinking of sticking to Twitter.
For aiming one's arse
At the bog of one's past
Reveals that Facebook is a shitter.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Technical arguments

When I was still quite young, I only had access to adjectives. My writing was full of them, crammed with great, big, meandering, directionless, wavering, tedious, strangely repetitive great, big, meandering, directionless strings of adjectives. Every object was mercilessly tied to at least two of these creatures, and after a while they began to complain. Landscapes bore the brunt of this unshakeable, immature habit. I awoke one morning to find a sweeping, pastoral, meadow-sweet collection of rolling hills perched determinedly at the foot of my bed.

“I’ve had enough,” it said in gramineous tones. “No one will even take photos of me any more, let along wander my lush valleys. By the time I’ve finished introducing myself, what with all these adjectives you’ve tacked on, everyone’s either fallen asleep or wandered off to some diverging path in a yellow wood. It’s ridiculous, so I’m moving to Malaysia. You’ve never been there, so you can’t describe it and I’ll be free of you.”

Animals didn’t seem too keen on how they were written either. Dragonflies and hummingbirds fronted up with increasing regularity.

“We’re supposed to be graceful and flit from place to place with unerring precision, but how are we supposed to manage that with these huge chains of adjectives clipped to our tails?”

A sprightly, lace-winged, swooping, metallic-scaled dragonfly pushed himself forward. He was almost in tears. “I was just trying to swoop through the air yesterday when my description got tangled up with a fragrant, blossoming, antique, faded-apricot rose bush. Nearly tore myself a new pair of wings!” He muffled a sob and drew himself up with quiet, stern, masterful dignity. “If you want us to function as plot devices, you’re going to have to be a damn sight more careful about how you treat us.”

I admit, I was worried about this persistent use of adjectives and its effect on my writing. But as I grew older, similes came into my life, unnoticed at first like a rash on the backs of your knees, but building in intensity like a hammer thrower winding towards release. I’d never been so excited; my writing would flow from my pen like a carton of milk upset on a table.

But still, my subjects were unhappy. Resentment in those I wrote about seethed like custard left on high in the microwave.

“Do you know what it’s like?” the river hissed like a leaking tyre valve. “To be told what you’re like all the time? I’m like a winding snake, like a path through despair, like an everchanging, endless passage of time and I’m fed up with it! Haven’t you ever had relatives bail you up at Christmas and inform you’re nose is like Uncle Keith’s, your ankles are like cousin Sarah’s, your left eyebrow is like third cousin twice removed Lord Roger’s, and your teeth are just like Billy who married that girl from New Zealand’s?” I nodded slowly, deciding the specific relatives were not to be taken literally. “I want to be something, not just be like something. I am an original! Not just like an original! I expect something to be done about it.”

I sighed. What can you possibly say to something that is never the same the next time you step into it?

Still, I did not despair. History had told me that time was like an ever-changing river (despite its objections to the role) and would bring something new, some solution to launch my writing beyond these distractions.

Metaphors. Metaphors came to me and suddenly words were a paint palette, I could paint a world on the canvas of my foolscap and transform it at will.

The rolling hills were a blanket dropped in a heap on the bed. The dragonflies and hummingbirds were reflections on the surface of a river, fleeting and brilliant. And the river, the river was a tiger, snarling over rocks and weeds, opening wide its jaws to swallow all in a rush of foam.

Nothing complained. Well, almost nothing. A few things tried:

“I’m not a fire really...”

“My hair isn’t black wires...”

But I shrugged my shoulders and informed them firmly, “Oh, that wasn’t a metaphor for you, you don’t think I think you’re really comparable that, do you? I think you’re misreading me, hmm?”

Shuts them up every time. Once everything is something else, there’s no end to what you can do.