Young Writers’ Days

I’m running some writing workshops in Gippsland this year.

Young people only.

Why would I bother teaching kids about writing?

I love what I do. Most days. I think we have an obligation to ourselves, our loved ones and future generations to tell it like it is. Even if we are writing speculative fiction or absurd fantasy we are still drawing on this moment and our collective memories for detail. Exploring the world through fiction is a valid form of self-analysis and a powerful tool for generating empathy. Writers spend a lot of time walking in other people’s shoes and if you are open to the lessons the thoughts and actions of a fictional character can reveal things about your subconscious. We shine a light on the darkness in the world and in our own hearts. We speak about the unspeakable.

There’s a letter from a concerned parent framed and hanging on John Marsden’s wall. It explains that her daughter wouldn’t be attending the presentation by Mister Marsden because authors have ‘lawless minds’. I imagine John kept the letter because it’s true—we work hard at cultivating a natural anarchy in our heads. I imagine John also kept the letter as a stark reminder that there are people in the world too scared to dream, who pursue conformity with such vigour that the creative part of their minds—their child minds—have been caged and starved until they can no longer see dragons in the clouds or laugh at a fart.

My dad’s brother, my uncle Reg, died way before his time. He was younger than I am now when he died. He was a cabinetmaker by trade and an artist by heart. He built the display case at the museum that houses our most famous dead horse—Phar Lap. My dad’s a skilled woodworker and he learned much of his trade from his big brother. As a boy I found Reg’s bohemian lifestyle, his big old house of mysteries in Toronga Road Hawthorn and his flamboyant wife—my dear auntie Yvonne—intoxicating. His heart, head, and hands were invested in everything he did. By the time I came along, he didn’t appear to have a conventional job: he’d disappear into his workshop for days on end, emerging fitfully for olives and red wine covered in a patina of sawdust. The only other things to emerge from the workshop were magnificent pieces of bespoke timber furniture, smooth, shining, flawless.

I worked a decade in ‘normal’ jobs—apprenticed as a gardener (!), trained as a masseur, counsellor, hypnotherapist, drove trucks, waited tables and sold didjeridus in the early days of the World Wide Web. I met a magazine editor when I was twenty. I was hitchhiking in country Victoria and he picked me up, said I should write something for his magazine. The seed was sown, or perhaps the editor was water for a seed I picked up in Reg’s workshop. Whatever. The result was the feeling that perhaps—just perhaps—I could fashion myself some real vocation, some head/heart/hand work. Activity I could lose myself in for days/weeks/months at a time.

Like every form of artistic expression, writing has days and days of rainforest fecundity and months of desert gibber. The dry times can sometimes make it hard to feed the family and they test my commitment to the craft, but the rain has always come. There’s something wanton and triumphant about a desert in flower that a rainforest might never know.

I want to let young people know that they are the authors of their own lives and that they don’t always have to write between the lines and that it takes courage and commitment to pour their hearts onto a page. That story is king and that I can’t teach them how to write any more than I can teach them how to think, but I can most certainly show them what living with a lawless mind looks like.

If you know a young someone with a lawless mind, pass it on

Living Wild II

Koala 

Owl2If I lived in the burbs I could regale you with stories of our neighbour’s parties and the bloke in flat number four who’s learning the bagpipes but I live in the sticks so our closest neighbours are non-human.

It was unseasonably warm last Wednesday and walking home (five hundred metres) from my office, I stopped in the glade to watch a pair of eastern whip birds mucking about. They’re normally fairly timid and a fleeting glimpse is a rare treat, though you can hear their whip-crack call from a kilometre or so away. They have a white throat and a little crest that gives them a kind of startled appearance. The pair in the glade were playing a robust game of follow the leader and when they vanished into the undergrowth, I stepped off towards the barn. My foot rolled on something and I looked down to see a tiger snake pinned under my boot. In the second or so it took to realise what had happened, the snake recoiled and butted my jeans with a closed mouth. I leapt into the air and almost landed on it again before completing the second movement in the ballet known locally as Reptillus Shittus Brickus. There’s a simple song that goes with it: ‘Faaaaaaaaarrrrrkkkk’. Sing along if you know the words …

Once I’d regained my composure, I held my heart and followed the snake into the bush—it was a beautiful glossy sub-adult I hadn’t seen before and an un-striped slaty grey colour. It didn’t escape at speed, giving me time to apologise for standing on its neck. Or its back. Or its tail. Whatever. I said sorry, but I know they’re deaf. Make as much noise as you like in the bush—they can’t hear you. Those sonic snake repellants are as useful as water-based raincoats. They don’t sense the vibrations, either: they’re aware of movement and hypersensitive to the smell/taste of their prey.

Owls, on the other hand, have awesome hearing and even better sight, which had me puzzling the following evening when I found a boobook owl trapped in the old chicken coop. The chickens are long gone (they have their own mobile pen, now), but the rats and mice that used to live off the food scraps and pellets are still camping out in there. Maybe the owl was hunting those? I turned my phone into a torch and could get quite close to the wide-eyed pretty, but it may have been freaking out for a while before I got there. I spoke calmly and offered my forearm as a roost, which it obligingly perched on. With my heart beating in my mouth, I snapped a dodgy picture with my phone before carrying the wildest of wild things into the open. I felt the air from its wings as it powered off into the darkness, but I didn’t hear a thing. Not even a thank you. Ungrateful beast … oh how I love thee …

 

Old Mate

 

 

I’d been ripping through the countryside at 110kph for about six hours when I spotted Old Mate striding, eyes down, along the verge. Like the hundred cars before me, I noticed his steady gate, his hessian bags and the personality evident in his hat and rolled right by. I’d travelled five k’s before the feeling took hold – Old Mate had a story to tell. I hacked a U-turn, rode a kilometre past and parked the bike in a siding. I shed my helmet and jacket and picked my way back along the verge towards him. Road trains rattled the scrawny gums with their air wash. I could hear the drivers hesitate on the accelerator as Old Mate came into view around the sweeping bend ahead. A Land Cruiser tooted a wave.

On the ground at my feet, I spotted a bearded dragon. The lizard was frozen and almost invisible on the leaf litter. I took a photo and crouched a little closer, resting my hand on the grey bark and leaves in front of it. The lizard didn’t move so I inched closer and tickled it under the chin. It climbed on my fingers and I stood cautiously. The lizard hung there and let me take a few more pictures, unblinking and cool. I wondered if it was injured or ‘special needs’, but when I’d marvelled and had my photographic fill, I lowered it to the ground and it shot off into the undergrowth like I’d thrown it.

Old Mate regarded me from the shadow of his battered hat. ‘G’day.’
‘I spotted you as I rode past,’ I said. ‘You look like you have a story to tell.’
He jutted his chin and I slid into step beside him. We shook hands and he told me his name was John. John had been walking for thirty-five years – Victoria to Queensland and back again, every year. His wife walked with him for the first couple of years. He’d been a banker back then, but realised the job wasn’t for him. The first time he walked, it was an action to clear his head and give him the chance to think about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He didn’t have any revelations that year, so he just kept walking, Forest Gump style. He’s still walking.

He makes enough money for the food he needs selling and trading the things he finds on the roadside. In the eighties it was spanners, now he finds a little change and collects aluminium cans when he’s approaching a town. Never takes a lift and has never been on the dole. He doesn’t think he’d qualify. Doesn’t have an address. Doesn’t have a plastic card. Was once a banker now doesn’t have a bank account.

Just think about that for a minute, because I had to. Doesn’t. Have. A. Bank. Account. That’s probably against the law somewhere. In a first world country like Australia, it’s like cashing out before the game begins and from at least one angle, a profoundly liberating idea.

You don’t need a mortgage or credit card if your home is a sheet of plastic and a tarp, pitched in the shade of a new coolabah every night. If your existence is supremely minimal in a rich nation, you can live off the the side of the road.

‘People were worse in the eighties, shouting at me as they drove past. Now, some of the truck drivers who are doing this stretch of road two or three times a week stop and have a chat, give me food and drink. They know I won’t take a lift, but they ask anyway.’

For a minute, I wondered if he’d been injured or was ‘special needs’, but when I shook his hand again and he bade me happy riding, I realised he’d found something precious on the side of the road – a simple life that pleases him to the core.

 

Three Little Nerds

popsicle stick houseOnce upon a time, there were three little nerds. They were given an assignment to build a model house to somehow represent the evolution of domestic architecture.

The first little nerd decided to build his house out of drinking straws. They were light and easy to bend and it took him the best part of one period to build his über modern geodesic dome. He went back to playing Minecraft, smug in his efficiency and nerdy expertise.

The second nerd built his house out of popsicle sticks. It took longer than he’d hoped because the glue took ages to dry but, two periods in, he’d finished his weatherboard villa and had permission to hang out at the back of the library reading factual accounts of the attack on Pearl Harbour, content with his model-building skill and with the added bonus of dried glue to peel off his fingers while he read.

The third little nerd built his house out of Lego. Brick by brick, his medieval castle came together with turrets, a functional drawbridge and portcullis. The dining hall had a fireplace illuminated by a LED and a small motion sensor that triggered an mp3 fanfare when anyone entered the model. It took him four whole periods to complete the task and he had no free time by the end.

At then end of the exercise, their teacher, Mr Wolfenstein gathered the class to assess each of the nerd’s houses.

Of the geodesic house of straws, he said; ‘Nice colour coordination, Gordon, but I reckon I could blow it down.’ With the barest huff, Mr Wolfenstein levelled Gordon’s dome of drinking straws.

‘Actually, sir,’ Gordon said. ‘I was working with Peabody.’

‘Is this true, Peabody?’

‘Um, yes, sir.’

‘Substantial timber structure, Peabody, but you haven’t used any cross-bracing. I reckon a half-hearted sneeze will level it.’

Mr Wolfenstein pulled a hair from his right nostril and looked briefly at the sun in order to make himself sneeze. The resulting mini-tornado of spit and snot splintered the popsicle stick shack.

‘To be honest, sir,’ Peabody said. ‘We were both helping Higgenbottom.’

‘Is this true, Higgenbottom?’

‘I guess so, sir.’

‘Impressive, Higenbottom. I like the ramparts and the cellophane moat, but I think I can see a weak point just …’

With that, Wolfenstein pressed his finger on the exposed wire that powered the fireplace LED and doubled as an electrical snail barrier. The shock booted the teacher across the room and into the bookshelves. A volume of The Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the World tumbled from the shelf and cracked Wolfenstein in the head.

Higgenbottom eventually got an A.

Three Kisses

muddamI was fifteen the summer Sarah moved in next door. My mum and dad hadn’t hidden their delight when our previous neighbours—with their all-night parties and motorbikes—had put up the For Sale sign and eventually moved on. The day Sarah’s family moved in, Mum baked a fruitcake and Dad collected a bottle of home brew. We slipped through the strands of barbed wire to spread a bit of neighbourly cheer. And check them out.

Sarah’s dad played prop forward and had a ridiculously deep voice and knuckle-crusher grip. Her mum was a waif and an orthopaedic surgeon. There were three kids; the seven-year-old boy with the bowl cut who was introduced to us as Boofhead, Maxine, his ten-year-old sister who had curls so red and tight that she may have needed an asbestos pillow, and Sarah. She was thirteen. Her hair was red, too, but deep like polished jarrah and long and straight, clamped off her freckle-dusted face in a ponytail that hung to her shoulders. It whipped at the air as she gave me the guided tour of their new home. There were cardboard boxes in every room and we lingered at her door. The bed was made and the box on the floor was open, a single teddy bear’s paw reaching for the ceiling. Pick me, pick me!

‘It’s such a mess,’ she said.

‘It’s … it’s nice,’ I replied, the blood charging to my face. I’d never felt quite so awkward. I’d never seen the insides of a girl’s room before. Well, that’s not true. I’d seen my cousin’s Cinderella bedspread but she wasn’t a girl as such, she was my cousin.

I helped them set up their trampoline and double bounced Boofhead until his laughter turned to tears. Sarah told me not to worry, that it had been an accident and besides, Boofhead cried all the time, but I did feel like a monster. I sat demurely on the edge of the mat while Maxine bounced. Sarah sat at the other end and we talked about where they’d been living in South Australia and that their new house was the fifth one they’d called home in as many years.

I liked her lips. She carried her head like the Arab filly at Thompson’s place. She was confident and smart and used big words and talked about interesting things. She knew stuff. She read books and had opinions about things like world hunger and Islam. The mozzies started eating us as the sun went down and my parents collected me on their way home. Sarah said goodbye and I asked her if she was going to be around then next day. She shrugged, and smiled.

Mum and Dad sighed in unison when we made it home. Dad said they were a vast improvement. I had to agree.

I heard the kids shouting and laughing the following day. I brushed my hair and ran my fingers over the fuzz of moustache I’d been cultivating since I was thirteen. I huffed into my hand and smelled my breath.

I found them in the dam. The relentless heat had all but drained their cultured puddle and the kids had found the mud. Squelching, farting, knee-deep slick clay. Boofhead started throwing it. The girls pelted him and he hobbled home crying with his arms stretched wide and a healthy bolus stuck to his right cheek.

‘Coming in?’ Sarah asked.

I looked at my shorts and t-shirt. Maxine landed a gob of clay in my hair and giggled as I kicked my boots off. I waded into the cool slush and did my best to hold my smile. It squidged between my toes and made the worst possible first-date noises. I grabbed a lump and pelted Sarah. It slapped into her thigh and she squealed.

‘Sorry,’ I said.

She bent forward and cried quietly into the muck.

Maxine frowned at me and looked at her wrist before resting it on her sister’s shoulder.

‘You okay, Sarah?’ she asked.

Sarah whispered and rubbed her leg.

‘Sorry,’ I said again, and stepped closer.

With a banshee yowl and a cake-eating grin, Sarah snatched at the mud and sent me tumbling backwards in self-defence. My feet couldn’t move. My hands shot out behind me and sunk elbow deep into the slush. I managed to hold myself above the mess. My bottom was hovering dangerously close to the slop. I was pinned. I hung there like a human coffee table, unable to get up without getting seriously muddified.

The sun mauled at my eyes and then I was in shadow. Sarah stood above me, rolling a glob of mud from hand to hand, her face cut with an impish smile.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Please. Mercy!’

She grabbed more mud.

‘Kiss him,’ Maxine said. ‘Get him while he’s down.’

‘Now there’s an idea,’ Sarah said, and I started crabbing frantically towards the edge of the dam. Maxine stepped behind me and blocked my retreat.

Oh well, I thought. If you have to go, you have to go.

I closed my eyes. The smell of Sarah’s shampoo cut through the mud-rank air. Her hair tickled my nose, and I finally tasted smooth soft … mud.

I coughed and spat and let myself slump. I wiped my face on my sleeve and began to sink. The mud was cool on the back of my head and the bubble inside me burst. I didn’t care any more. I couldn’t get much dirtier. I grabbed at the squealing Sarah and she fell forward with a flup. Maxine had made it to the shore and bayed laughter at the sun.

Sarah had a fresh freckle on her nose. ‘Let’s get her,’ she growled, and I rolled onto my stomach.

Maxine realised too late that she was croc bait. We took hold of a leg each and dragged her in. She was covered by the time we let her go. She sat there and pretended to cry so we sobbed, too. At the top of our lungs.

‘You’ve got a spot of mud on your cheek,’ Sarah said.

‘You’ve got one on your nose,’ I replied.

‘Here, let me get it for you,’ she said, and smeared her clay slippery hand across my face.

‘Thanks.’

She didn’t fight when I wiped her look with my goopy paw, just cracked the mud with a smile and spat. ‘That’s better,’ she said. ‘Thank you very much.’

I took them to the creek and we clouded up the water as we swam our clothes clean. We lounged in the sun and grew crusty as we dried. I laid on my back in the grass, the crook of my arm shielding my eyes from the summer.

I heard Maxine whisper to her sister. ‘Kiss him,’ she said.

‘No,’ Sarah sighed.

‘Go on,’ Maxine said aloud.

And she did.

Her lips pressed against mine. I got such a fright that I opened my mouth and sat up.

Sarah stood, frantically wiped at her face and spat.

Maxine laughed.

I held my hand over my own lips, my heart flipping around like a trout.

Sarah smiled.

I knew there’d be nothing as sweet as a third kiss.

 

Thanks, Dad.

dad and kev lgI have a nice balance between home and work life at the moment and I think I owe most of it to my dad. I know that sounds trite but my dad is a really hard worker. When I was growing up he carried what you might call a protestant work ethic.       He didn’t have the religion but he had the ethos—hardly missed a day of work as a draftsman then advisor with the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. One man and more or less one job for thirty-five years. A feat of endurance that the likes of my generation would consider a kind of self-abuse or prison sentence, but he survived. I can’t say he came out unscathed, but he survived.

At home we had one mum, one dad and three boys. Mum taught exercises in the back shed and later studied Diversional Therapy and worked in adult day care but when I came home from school, she was always there. Dad would arrive some time around dusk and whisk us away in the sky-blue VW kombi for camping holidays in the summer and at long weekends. My most significant memory of my childhood is the months of long service leave that dad took when I was six. We got to hang out together for months on end—day and night—as he drove us up the east coast to a tropical wonderland. My childhood was idyllic in a kind of seventies pre-digital way.

My dad’s job at the SEC eventually got Economically Rationalised. He took The Package. Looking back, I think it happened just in the nick of time. I remember, as a seventeen-year-old, staggering home very early one morning after a blinder and Dad almost running me over on his way to work. His eyes were open as he was driving the ute but he wasn’t there. He hadn’t seen me. He was on autopilot. His work had made such a groove in his life that he was just going through the motions. I dived into the gutter and decided I’d never work that hard. Scary. I’d never loose myself in a job like he’d done.

Dad helped me get my first job out of school: as an apprentice gardener with the local council. He said it was a good job and, if I played my cards right, I’d have it for life. I worked hard but never stopped dreaming of doing something different. I got my trade qualifications then my job got Economically Rationalised. I was offered re-employment under contract with the new amalgamated council but my boss whispered to me one afternoon that I should go back to school. It was that or push a mower for the rest of my days.

My boss gave me the impetus and my dad supported my decision to step outside the protestant work ethic of one man one job one life and I reinvented my work self again and again and again in a long train of self-discovery. Massage, counselling, professional musicianship, landscaping, hypnotherapy and a host of gap-filler jobs in the service industries.

And I fell in love. I had a few rough starts but Dad assured me that when the right person came along, I’d know they were The One. Maybe I just subscribed to his romantic vision of the world but I eventually found her. She came fitted with two gorgeous girls (five and six-years-old) from a previous relationship and we had an instant family experience that we complimented with a child of our own a couple of years later.

Work life and family life. I had one of each but I was skewed towards work. My experiences of growing up were good and I wanted to give my kids the same. Better. I wanted to be there like my dad had been during his long service leave. I even bought the kombi—a green shit heap that cost us a lot of money and gave us a lot of pain. When our little bloke was three-months-old, my wife was ready to go back to work. She’d done her fair share of parenting with the girls and could bring home a better income than I could anyway so it made good sense for us. Childcare didn’t seem like a feasible option for me. Why pay somebody to do something you’re yearning to do yourself? Being a home dad—or, as my brother says, a professional boy farmer—was something that challenged the shit out of me and fed me when I didn’t know I was hungry. I learned how mind-numbing daytime television was, I learned how vulnerable you can feel if you’re not the one bringing the money into the household and I discovered all the things I’d been missing—the little things that are family-sized miracles, like all the steps along the way as the boy started to speak and crawl and walk and become a little man.

I skewed—very nicely, thank you—towards family. My wife was the primary breadwinner but I still had a few little work interests that were a welcome distraction from housework. I was working on a novel (isn’t everybody?), I maintained a website selling Australian Didjeridus to the world and produced a newsletter for the Didjeridu playing community. We’d bought our house in the country for $32,000 dollars and decided to go with the Hyundai instead of the BMW Z3. I guess that’s internal economic rationalisation.

When the little bloke found an afternoon sleeping pattern that suited him, I used the time to write. Usually a couple of hours a day, max. I wrote some articles for Earth Garden magazine and got paid for them ($150 for about six weeks worth of writing and editing!) and the floodgates opened. I found something new that I enjoyed, something that needed a good balance of head and heart to be worthwhile, something that I could do as time permitted—from the comfort of my own home—that fitted with my family life AND brought in the cash. A type of alchemy—money from words. So, as the boy grew older and went to school, instead of going out and finding meaningful full-time work, I took on a few part-time contractual jobs and my good woman supported us while I wrote.

I write novels for money now. It’s not a huge income but it’s supported by work as a speaker—visiting schools and festivals, hopefully inspiring young people and adults to read and write their hearts out. I work from home on average three or four days a week—during school hours—and have to travel quite a bit for the speaking work. Like a schoolteacher, I don’t have to work during the school holidays and I usually spend the time building things or knocking around with the family. I feel connected to work and more than just the ghostly moneymaking member of the family. My wife retired from paid work in 2005 and came home to look after her mum who suffers dementia.

And my dad? He works a contract job now that sees him on the computer at the paper mill three days a week. He fills the rest of his time—between luxurious semi-retired holidays—with line dancing, kayaking on the pondage and handyman work—for Mum and for other people. We’re agreed that it pays to work hard, but not at the expense of a life.

Boys, Books and Story

scot and shaund reading 3yr lgI’m not sure why there’s so much fuss about boys and their reading habits. Maybe it has something to do with their over representation in crash statistics and suicides. Maybe there’s some sort of subliminal link between how boys perform in life and how much they read. I guess that could be true at school but it’s a bit of a stretch to see it affecting their life choices and their sense of wellbeing.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe stories are the way we connect with our history. They help us develop our imagination and capacity to visualise. Packaged stories in the form of books are a fairly recent invention for our tribe and there are other, more recent inventions that have a greater allure for some of our young blokes.

Games machines and the video culture are still story telling mediums. They have beginnings, middles and ends. They have characters and plots, heroes and villains. Anybody who thinks that young people have a short attention span have never watched them hooked into a movie or a game. When something captures their attention, it’ll hold it. The pathologies associated with excessive gaming are similar to workaholism. It’s staying focussed for long periods of time and the invariable effects on posture, concentration and sense of wellbeing.

I know kids who hide from life through gaming and video. I know kids who hide from life with books, too, but we don’t see that as so much of a shortfall. We strive for balance.

In the library at the secondary school in Kerang they have a dozen or so computers networked and the kids are allowed to play games on them at lunchtime. The library is certainly a boyzone and I watched a few guys browsing the bookshelves while they were waiting for their turn on the machines. It would have been hopeful to think that gamers would become readers due to the placement of computers but there was no doubting that the library was a popular place to be.

Kerang illustrates the passive way some boys relate to reading. They’re not ‘reluctant’ readers as such but more perfunctory about the process. They read when they have to—under duress in English classes—and at other times as a gap filler, not as a recreational pastime. Do we jump up and down about people who are reluctant to appreciate visual art or music or movies or dance or any of the zillion other story telling mediums we have?

I was a reluctant reader, bordering on recalcitrant. I didn’t read a novel of my own volition until I was seventeen. There was too much else going on in my world and the shit they made us read at school meant nothing to me. I did okay in English due to the fact I could wrangle the language and I enjoyed telling stories. I read the first and last few pages of the set text and winged the rest. It was something to be proud of in year ten to get an A for an exam on a book that I’d never actually read. Young people still get away with it and I get a perverse sort of thrill when I hear about it.

You can lead an eye to words but you cannot make them read.

In the same way you can’t make them appreciate any other form of art. But that doesn’t stop us adults from getting excited about books and sculpture and theatre and trying to foster an openness and enthusiasm for the dynamic expressions of life captured therein. That’s our job as parents and teachers and it’s important to keep shoving the books and art in their faces.

I know I was seventeen when I read my first novel because it was an epiphany. It was an obscure book called My Side of the Mountain by an obscure (to me) American author with the awkward (if not memorable) name of Jean Craighead George. It was a book handed to me by the librarian at school. I told him I’d look at it, like I did with all the other books he handed me, only this time I did. It hooked me in. A story about a runaway boy and his pet falcon subsisting in the wilderness. It was my school holiday adventures captured on the page. It was a fantastical slant on life as I knew it and it resonated to my core. It may have been the book or it may have been that I was ready, but it hit me. It put me on a journey—one that has taken me to amazing places and has no real end. It’s a journey that has challenged me, thrilled me and paid the bills for a number of years.

My mum and dad didn’t read much—other than the Sun—but they are fantastic story tellers and listeners. My own kids have book habits that we’ve variously encouraged and discouraged (to keep in balance with the rest of life) over the years and we read at bedtime. We have a family ritual around visiting the local library on Sunday afternoons. These are probably the habits of a bookish family but we rough and tumble, play sports and music and watch movies, too. There’s no pressure to read. It has grown out of a family habit of telling stories and reading aloud at bedtime. Just one facet in a myriad life.

Mark Latham and the Labor Party probably hit on something with the Read Aloud Australia policy they launched way back in January 2003. They proposed to give free books to new parents, develop parental literacy and read-aloud skills and make a bit of a fuss with Read Aloud Ambassadors and Read Aloud Week. I was concerned that the Read Aloud initiative didn’t mention libraries. My kids buzz into the library with the same thrill I had at that age (and to a degree, still fight to suppress) … all those books, all those possibilities, all those stories. And it’s all for free! But how do you choose? How’s Mark Latham going to choose ‘up to three books’ to give to the new parents of Australia? Will they be Australian books? Will he pick the eyes out of the national and state literary awards lists? Will he grab bestsellers?

I’m glad it’s not me trying to make the choice. Even if he decided to support Australian authors by choosing only Aussie books for the list, there are still hundreds of great books to choose from. I think the ‘up to three books’ could go into the libraries and the infrastructure money spent on promoting libraries on television to sex-up their status as community hubs in this information world. To attack our reading habits as a culture, I think we also need to bridge the gaps the way Harry Potter, and so many others, have slipped effortlessly between mediums. From book to screenplay to video game and pencil case.

Boys are probably well served by being familiar with the art of telling their own stories and listening to others. It’s the way we become connected to our community. It’s how we get our needs met and our point of view across. Reading is one way of enhancing that ability. There’s more than one way to bind a story.

Wood, Water and Words

NightInsectsCollageMy mate Mark is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, composer and songwriter. He has created about five CD’s worth of material and worked with some of the well-to-do members of the music industry in Australia including compositions for ABC TV and one of the Hunter boys (ex ‘April Sun in Cuba’ Dragon) but you wont find his stuff on the shelves in Sanity. In fact, unless you’ve seen him live at Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon or festivals, it’s unlikely you’d have a reference point for his brilliance. He’s an unpublished musical genius.

Mark is disturbingly Zen about his lack of fame and his life. He’s busy with the chop-wood-carry-water experience of being a musician, father, teacher and partner. And he’s content. Content in a way that a corporate banker might never understand.

I try to model Mark’s Zen in my own life but I’m impatient and prone to fits of rage and frustration. Things never happen fast enough or big enough or never live up to my pyrotechnic vision of what they should be.

I’m an author. My sixth book of young adult fiction (Gravity) came out with Pan in 2006. I prowl the festival circuit, run workshops in schools and give corporate talks like some half-baked pop star. I’ve sat on signing tables with the Carmody/Griffiths/Marsden/Gleitzmans of the world, humbled by the serpentine queues of star-struck kids and parents. I twiddle my pen and know that I’m lucky. That there are writers more skilled and inventive than me who haven’t come this far. I know there are literary geniuses out there, some banging their manuscripts and their heads against the clean glass doors of the publishing industry. We all know some dreadful shit gets published while our manuscripts are overlooked. We’ve all read other people’s stuff and known we could do better. It’s so subjective. It’s the fine art of tickling peoples’ fancy. Your fancy, a publisher’s fancy and hopefully a reader’s fancy. Some published and unpublished writers are content to write as a hobby. They do the thing they love (write) and stay happy, either content to ignore fame, fortune and glory or simply enamoured by the journey with no grand destination.

I’m learning the importance of chopping wood and carrying water in a writer’s life. It may sound like a pissy defeatists aphorism but I can assure you that it is as significant a tool to the writer’s craft as a clear head and fresh ideas. In fact, one leads to the other.

Any published author will tell you that the world doesn’t change colour after you’re published. Sure, seeing your name on the cover of a book is a serious cut, wax and polish for the ego but it probably wont make much difference to the state of your bank balance and certainly wont make you any cooler or sexier. Tomorrow morning, you’ll be up a little earlier with a transitory sparkle in your eye, wood to chop and water to carry.

And that’s a blessing.

I hosted a work experience student for a week last year. She helped me transcribe my current novel from the written page to the computer. She could type faster than me, write with flair and honesty and was fifteen years my junior. She hadn’t finished school and she already knew that she wanted to write. I found myself getting envious of her talent, passion and direction … until the last day. Until I realised that she wasn’t interested in chopping wood and carrying water. She asked me what she had to do to become a writer so I gave her my slant on it.

You have to write, obviously, and the more you do it, the better you become. And you have to read. Der. The more you read, the more you come to understand what you like and dislike about the writing that has found ink before you. That’s your style speaking to you. What you like and dislike about other people’s writing is your innate sense of good writing/story/craft bubbling up from your history. What’s good for you might not be good for the publisher who reads it but may be earth-moving for the publisher in the next office.

That’s the easy part, she said. I love to read and I love to write.

Okay, find a job. Not necessarily one that involves writing because you could end up like a plumber with a leaky tap at home. Good jobs for novelists are not always academic or glossy and professional. For me, a good writer’s job has to provide one of two things: it has to give you the time to be in your own head or feed you with story.

I’m still writing ideas that came to me while pulling blackberries when I was a teenager. Mindless physical work that gave me the space to cogitate. At the end of a day, I’d be knackered, rich (!), buzzing with ideas and I’d leave behind a tract of arable land.

I’m still writing stories inspired by those I heard working with young people in schools. Exhausting and deeply personal work that gave me insight into the lives of others. At the end of the day, I’d be knackered, rich (?!), full to the brim with story and hopefully leaving behind people whose hearts were lighter for the sharing.

My CV’s full of those sorts of jobs. Landscaper, masseur, counselor, waiter, truck driver. Some days I’d have to think about the work more than others and some days I didn’t hear stories, I only heard pain.

Some of the authors I know have come to writing through academia. A lot of kid’s authors were teachers. Some authors I know have worked in the book industry. Their jobs probably opened doors to publication that wouldn’t have been available to a blackberry pulling masseur counselor type of person. But by far the majority of authors I know have done a zillion jobs and toiled away in a dark corner until the book was cooked.

So, you’ve found a job to put food on the table and stop the man from coming to repossess your soul. Now you have to find a place to live that doesn’t cripple you financially and have you working so hard that you can’t think. I like living in the country. The housing is cheap and there has always been work for me. Room to move and room to muse. But the city might be where you’re at …

You find a place then you need to find a place within that place to write. Or somewhere else. You find a place then you need to find the time to write. You find the time and then you have to find the words. You find the words and it’s your turn to wash the bloody dishes. Chop wood, carry water.

You can never really ‘make it’ as an author. Just like you can never really ‘make it’ as a pianist or a doctor or a human being. And in a way that’s the beauty of it. There’s no top wages bracket and no perfect book. Just because you have one book published doesn’t mean there’ll be a second. The fears and self-doubts that were there in the beginning still come up from time to time and your inner critic constantly expands his or her vocabulary.

But I just want to write, she says. So write, says I. Find a way to make it pay or find a pay and make your way. Either way you look at it, you’ll still have to chop wood and carry water.

I earn about as much as a schoolteacher from my writing and speaking. I’m not sad about that. Schoolteachers work much harder than I do and they rarely get the opportunity to wear their pyjamas to work. I’ll be published overseas soon and I know when it happens I’ll probably be washing my kids clothes or getting something organised for tea. Some people in the media have compared my work to John Marsden’s and I’m honoured by that but John and I share a more significant passion: we might be the only people in the world who enjoy pulling out blackberries.

Burning Eddy was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for older readers and the NSW Premier’s Literary awards in 2004. It’s been raining at home—at last—and all the firewood my wife and I split for the winter is getting wet. When I get home I’ll have to kick the generator in the guts and pump some of the rain up the hill for our showers. Shift wood, pump water. You’ve got to love it. It’s the wellspring of the writer’s life.

 

Snakes in the Garden

TigerIt’s cool to be frightened of snakes. It’s like being nervous about bushfires or trees falling on your house or running out of water—the fear keeps us alert and aware of our environment and if you live in Australia, the fears are well founded. Venomous snakes are a very real part of the place we call home. How we deal with fear is one of the important ways we define ourselves as humans and when those fears go nuclear or start messing with our joy of life, we need to stop and look at what’s going on.

Quite a few of my mates are keen on the traditional method of dealing with snake-fear and keep a shotgun for that purpose. Just having the gun around makes them feel better. It was their brag stories—about the big tiger they got with the 410 or the copperhead they dismembered with the shovel—that got me revved up enough to do a professional snake-handler’s course and I learned some things.

Snakes aren’t aggressive.

Think about it for a minute; are we part of their food chain?  If they come into our houses, it’s not with the intention of attacking us. They eat frogs and lizards and mice and nestlings and if your garden is gentle on the earth, you’ll find snake food everywhere. Snake food is the sign of a healthy garden, so snakes are probably the sign of a healthy garden, too. They love it when we pile up rocks and make ponds. Like us, they love mulch, to hide under and hunt through. The woodshed is like a live-in supermarket for snakes.

They are defensive creatures.

And here’s why; they are two centimetres tall. Some of us (well, the less vertically challenged specimens, like Dr Barry for example) are ONE HUNDRED times taller than that. Could you imagine being confronted by a creature two hundred metres tall? I don’t know about you, but if a two hundred metre tall monster cornered me, the first thing I’d do is run and hide, and that’s how a snake usually deals with human contact. If there’s nowhere to hide and no place to run then I’d make myself as big as I could, make as much noise as my body could muster and use every thing I had to defend myself. Snakes flatten themselves and hiss and raise their heads off the ground and some strike with sharp pointy teeth. The teeth—and venom—didn’t evolve as weapons; they evolved to grip and kill their prey as quickly as possible so they didn’t get smashed to pieces getting a meal. The teeth are—metaphorically—like digging sticks that can also be wielded as clubs.

Being scared of people, snakes rarely set up camp where we’re milling about. Normally, when you see a snake in the garden, it’s just passing through, looking for a snack or avoiding the neighbour’s mower. Or dog. Or cat. My mates that kill everything that looks even marginally like a garden hose tell me it’s to protect their pets or protect their kids. They’d better get busy because both the pets and the kids are more in danger of dying from the sting of a European honey bee than they are from snake bite. The people who get bitten are usually male, often drunk and almost always messing with or trying to kill the thing.

Last spring, the wrens were going berserk in the passion fruit vine that grows on the dunny, going crazy in the special ‘chat-chat-chat-chat-chat’ way they do when there’s a snake around. I watched them and eventually spotted the glossy tiger snake that was giving them grief. They sometimes climb small trees and shrubs to raid nests. I went inside to get the camera and the kids. We crept outside and I almost got a picture before the snake spotted us and crashed off into the bush. We all squealed.

A few weeks later, I spotted a copperhead in the veggie garden eating a skink. He had his mouth full and I crept up, with my heart banging in my neck, and got the photo. I’ve since learned that copperheads are the benevolent priests of the dangerous snakes in our area. If you’re indecent enough to stand on one and they strike at you, chances are they’ll do it with their mouth closed. A red-bellied black snake is more cantankerous than a copperhead and can flatten out and hiss like a beast but they’d still much rather run. Slide. Whatever. Tiger snakes can feel cornered in the middle of an empty footy oval. And brown snakes, on a hot day, are like professional wrestlers—picture a shaved, tattooed head, a few stray or absent teeth and a face cramped into a perpetual scowl. Not necessarily looking for a fight, but not the sort of creature you’d want to arm-wrestle drunk.

So, I did the snake-handling course and the next time a snake appeared at home, I was interstate for work. A tiger snake, trapped in the corner where the back fence meets the chook pen. Robyn heard it hissing in the half-dark as she went out to lock up the chooks. She screamed—she has more dignity than to squeal in those sorts of situations—and ran inside. Correct response.

Snakes are deaf. They have no ears so squeal and scream all you like. It won’t disturb them. And they don’t sense the vibration through their bellies so stomping through the grass won’t make them slither off either, unless they see you moving. When you’re thinking snakes, think Jurassic Park; the T-Rex can’t see you when you’re not moving. And on the warm nights they get around on smell and tasting the air so take a torch when you’re closing the chooks in.

Hayley from the wildlife shelter came to Robyn’s rescue. Put a bag down and the snake obligingly slipped inside to be released down by the creek.

I think it’ll be a while before my friends go running for the digital camera when they see a snake, perhaps a generation or two, but only a few generations ago my ancestors were guilty of far greater crimes of ignorance.

Are the snakes living in my garden or am I living in theirs?

Sorry

LandRightsSorry

We’re sorry.

Sorry for everything.

Sorry our invading fathers pretended you didn’t exist. That was an ignorant colonial lie.

Sorry our ancestors killed you like animals. Sorry for the poisoned flour, the hangings, the massacres. The countless years of violence. The disease.

Sorry for stealing your homes, your hope, your women.

We’re so sorry for stealing your children.

We’re sorry we didn’t listen. We’re sorry we closed our hearts to your vast wisdom and knowledge of the land.

We’re sorry we burned your culture.

We squirm and try to hide from our past but our past will not be hidden.

You didn’t die, you grew stronger. Sport, art, culture, politics. Every step of the way you remind us of our past.

Your pride reminds us of our shame.

We give you land (your land) and money and hope the pain will go away but it doesn’t.

Not without sorry.

Sorry.