We’ve all heard of Markus Zusak, right? The Australian author of the runaway best-selling book of 2005, The Book Thief. It’s won numerous awards, been translated into multiple languages and made into a feature film. His new book, The Bridge of Clay, was published in October 2018, amid high anticipation. So the author would be well entitled to consider himself as having ‘made it’ in the world of publishing, surely?
I was listening to a podcast today (Writes4Women) recorded at a fundraiser for the inaugural 2019 StoryFest Festival to be held in Milton, on the beautiful South Coast of NSW. Markus Zusak was the guest speaker at this event and the talk was recorded for the podcast. You can listen to it here:
Some of what Markus Zusak says in this talk came as a bit of a surprise to me. For example, the author says:
I don’t think of writing (for me, anyway) as an art form. I’m a tradesman and I go to work and I just keep chipping away, waiting for the moment to come…but it won’t come unless you’re there, doing the work. The biggest effort can be just getting to the desk, and making that commitment and being prepared to fail. It’s a trade that you’re always working on and trying to get right…I can love the effort even if I don’t always love the result. Markus Zusak
These words are balm to the soul of anyone having more of the “I can’t believe I wrote this mess!” days than the “Wow, look at what I wrote!” ones. Just turn up. Keep plugging away. Commit. Learn to do it better. And then do it all again, on the next draft, and the next…
It doesn’t have to perfect or even very good. Be proud, still, of the effort and the improvements you make.
And actually I think this can apply to any endeavour in life. Art, music, writing, gardening, a profession, a job.
As Markus Zusak says, “Love the effort.”
My husband and I have a little riff between us, where if one of us says a “mood” word in a sentence (such as ‘I’m feeling disgruntled / listless’, etc) the other will say something like ‘Yes, but what does it feel like to be gruntled? Or listful? (I know, you probably have to be there for it to be funny.)
Funny or not, these moments usually have me thinking about the word itself. Where on earth does a word like ‘listless’ come from, anyway?
So I did me some searching…
We all know what ‘listless’ means, right? The Macquarie Dictionary defines it as Feeling no inclination towards, or interest in, anything. After our spate of super-hot days in the NSW summer, I’m sure many of my fellow Australians will understand this feeling. Who wants to do anything remotely energetic on a 45 degree Celsius day?
OK, so that’s ‘listless’. But take off the suffix ‘less’ and it makes no sense, surely? No one says “I’m feeling listy (or listful) today.
No, they don’t. But if we understand the origins of the word ‘listless’, it starts to make more sense. The website for the podcast A Way with Words https://www.waywordradio.org/origin-of-listless/describes ‘listless’ as sharing a root with the English word ‘lust’. Ah! Now we get it. Back to the Macquarie: ‘lust’ means desire, passionate want for something, sexual desire…So to be without those, we can well be described as ‘listless’.
I love the way our English language is full of words that can appear to be nonsensical – until you dig down into their roots. Then they can have a magic of their own.
In last week’s post I mentioned being at the Cobargo Folk Festival recently, and having the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Stroud after reading her book ‘Teacher.’
At the same festival, I had another of those wonderful moments of serendipity. Also on the festival program were several performances of “The Good Girl Song” Project. A song cycle called “Voyage”, it was written by Helen Begley, based on research by Liz Rushen and eyewitness accounts of the voyage.It presents in musical and theatrical form the story of young single women who emigrated from England to Australia, in the 1830’s. The show was performed by Helen, Penny Larkins, Penelope Swales and Jamie Molloy.
I just loved this presentation. It was Australian history, brought to life. The hopes and dreams of poor women searching for a better life, who sailed halfway round the world to be met by several thousand men on the Sydney dock. The colony was starved of eligible young women, at that time in it’s history. So did the women receive a warm welcome? Hardly. They were greeted by jeers, catcalls and filthy remarks from the assembled men. Imagine the women’s distress and disappointment. And the resilience they needed, in order to lift their heads, endure the humiliation and jeers that their ship was a “floating brothel” and walk down the ship’s gangway, to somehow make a new life in this strange land.
The show brought me to tears. It evoked thoughts of my own ancestors, some of whom I am writing about in my current fiction project. Some arrived as convicts, others as free passengers, but all of them would have experienced the hardships of the voyage here, and the same trepidation as they stepped ashore.
To hear more about the project go here:https://vimeo.com/130713977
or visit their Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/thegoodgirlstory/
In January I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery in Canberra for the exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate. The exhibition is on until the end of April 2019 and if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage a visit to Canberra (if you don’t live too far away, that is.) It’s a beautiful experience.
Information about the exhibition is on the NGA website https://nga.gov.au/exhibitions/default.cfm
I was somewhat vague about this group of artists, who produced their works in the nineteenth century. I’d expected images of beautiful women in flowing robes, flowers floating on lakes, Biblical stories and medieval legends brought to life. I found all those things, and more. Incredibly accurate representations of nature in landscapes, alongside detailed scenes of everyday life of the times. Portraits, works about tragedy and love, goddesses and strong, powerful women, and – most surprising of all to me – the works of William Morris of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement.
So much colour and romance, so many powerful stories. For a small group of artists working (as many do) in relative poverty and obscurity, the Pre-Raphaelites produced work that packed a solid artistic and cultural punch.
It reminded me that stories aren’t always told in words alone. Colour, shapes, images, rhythm, music – these are all ways to tell stories.
If you’ve seen the exhibition in Canberra, or been lucky enough to see the works at the Tate or elsewhere, let me know in the comments below.
This is a ‘Strange New Year message’ because it’s all about ‘lasts’. Usually, as a new year rolls in, we are caught up in thinking about everything new and shiny: new year plans, resolutions, a new calendar on the wall…
And I’ve been doing all that too, of course. I’ve set my goal for 2019: to have a completed and edited manuscript of my first novel, and be well and truly on the path to approaching agents and publishers to gauge interest in the story.
For this post, though, I want to write about ‘last’ things.
How do we know when its the last time we do something, see something, speak to someone?
I ask this because last night, I called to wish Happy New Year to an elderly person in my life. After I had hung up the phone, I began to wonder if this was to be the last New Year greeting I would exchange with that person, who is not in the best of health and approaching the grand age of 90.
Would knowing that it was the last time I wished her a Happy New Year, change the way I did so? Or the way I act before or afterward? Probably. But of course I don’t know, and generally speaking, we never do. Which is, perhaps, for the best.
That got me thinking about other ‘lasts.’
The last time I might kiss someone hello, or goodbye.
The last breakfast I might eat.
The last coffee I enjoy.
The last swim ( I’m writing this post after 20 laps at my beautiful local pool, and it’s mid summer here in Australia, so swimming is definitely on my agenda right now)
The last piece of beautiful music I hear.
The last book I read.
Disappearing down that particular rabbit hole has me reflecting on what I would choose, if I knew that a book was to be my last one ever…and I truly don’t know the answer! Would I choose to re- read a well loved favourite, perhaps one I hadn’t read in a while? Or would I elect to tackle one of the many, many books on my ‘to be read’ list?
Even thinking about that incites a little bubble of panic. I always say, only partly joking, ‘So many books, so little time’. But of course I never really think that I won’t actually have enough time to read all the books I want to. Despite being perfectly aware of the reality that we all leave this life some day, I have never truly considered the fact that there will be a last book. So, which one would I choose?
Which book would you choose for your last book ever? Let me know in the comments.
And, Happy New Year to you and yours.
Here’s my little entry into the December ‘Furious Fiction’ at the Australian Writer’s Centre. 500 words, the story had to be set on Christmas Eve, either 40 years ago or 40 years in the future.
When Greg Stopped Believing in Santa By Denise Newton
I looked out at the red and green tinsel around my neighbour’s front window and the Merry Christmas written in white window spray in the centre of the pane.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, to myself—not aloud. Greg always said it’s safer to keep some things to yourself, in case people get the wrong idea about you. Greg was so wise for his age. Missing him was a sharp hurt, a pain deep in my chest. He was so far away this Christmas. All the way across the Nullabor. Past the Great Australian Bight. I’d never been but he described how it looked from the plane window when he and Sally flew there to start their new life in Perth. He’d said perhaps, I could go and visit them one day, stay for a couple of weeks.
Greg had gone away the year after he stopped believing in Santa. Well, okay—maybe a few years after…perhaps twenty years…but I found it hard to believe it was that long.
One Christmas Eve, he was staring, rapt, out our back door at the garden, the grass made dewy by the cool of the night.
“Look, Mum!” he breathed. “Santa’s sled tracks on the grass.” He pointed to a spot in the middle of the lawn, little finger trembling with joy. I couldn’t see anything but I smiled and ruffled his hair, loving his willingness to believe.
“Best be off to bed, then, love. Santa doesn’t stop at homes where the children are still awake.”
And he raced to leap into bed where he lay, eyes pressed closed in case Santa peeked through the window.
The next Christmas he was silent and embarrassed if Santa was mentioned. I knew he no longer believed but didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Sweet boy.
And then, what seemed like the very next year, he was off to Perth, he and Sally together. I was glad for his new job, his new city, his new wife. Sally with her miniskirts and her glossy hair piled high in the beehive hairdo that was all the rage now. She loved Greg—that was what mattered. Still, I hurt inside, though I never said it aloud. I’d learnt that from Greg. He called every Christmas Eve and all the other special days and I loved hearing his voice, though it never made the hurt go away.
Seems we are galloping towards the end of another year. The big speed bump before we get to the festivities of New Year is, of course, Christmas.
I know that this time of year is not easy for many people. Sometimes it’s agony to spend time with family, when you might prefer to be elsewhere. For others, it’s missing a loved one. And for other people it’s just a crazy busy period, full of family and food and festive spirit, and nowhere near enough time to sit down and really enjoy it all.
For some, Christmas is a time of quiet reflection, even welcome solitude.
Some hearts may be full of regret for mistakes made during the past year, or longing for better times to come.
Some folks choose to spend Christmas Day with strangers – handing out Christmas hampers, for example, or helping serve a Christmas meal to people who would otherwise have a lonely day with no special food or decorations to mark it as a special day.
(Shout out here to the Wayside Chapel in Sydney, which every year hosts a street party, complete with Christmas dinner, for those doing it hard on Christmas Day. You can find more about the Wayside here)
However you might spend your Christmas this year, I wish you a beautiful one…and perhaps a book or three under the tree for that precious summer reading time.
I could not resist this one: I saw the explanation of the expression ’slapstick’ (as in ‘slapstick comedy’ or ‘slapstick humour’) on a British TV doco on Regency English towns. The Cheltenham Theatre in this era was known for its pantomime productions, in particular those featuring the character Harlequin who originated in Italian comedy theatre. He is recognisable in his diamond chequered costume and magic sword, which he used to create new scenes, conjure a particular atmosphere on stage, or perform tricks.
In the documentary, the theatre historian showed the way the ‘magic sword’ was often made from two long pieces of wood, joined together at one end but loose on the other. When slapped against a leg, the wood made a sharp slapping sound, loud enough to be heard by audience members, and was the signal for the lights to dim, or a new prop or action to appear – hence the ‘magic’, but also how we get the term ‘slapstick’.
I went to a screening of ‘Ladies in Black’ recently: it was a fundraising event for a local community group. Having seen the stage play musical last year, I thought the screen version a little lighter than the play, which I found had a few more pointed comments about the sexism and xenophobia of 1950’s Australia. However, for a light-hearted dip into our social history, the film does a terrific job. Great performances by Noni Hazelhurst, Shane Jacobson, Susie Porter and Julia Ormond, as well as the younger cast members. The real star, of course, is Sydney in the late 1950’s – the trams, the department stores, the fashions and hairstyles.
I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on how well the movie adapts the original story by Madelaine St John.
If you have read the book, I’d love to know your opinion of the adaptation. Does the film do the original story justice?
As I work on re-drafting and editing my first draft, I am more conscious of the fear evoked by the thought of eventually putting my work out into the world. I know it’s common to writers, artists and others who work in creative pursuits. I suppose because when we write, compose music, or paint, we put a fair chunk of ourselves into whatever we are creating. It’s natural to be tentative about inviting a response from others.
In response to that fear, I’m working on making my story the best it can be. And when I’m satisfied I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own,that’s when I’ll invite others to read my work and give me feedback and suggestions. Yikes!
In the meantime, I can take baby steps in other ways. Submitting short stories to competitions, for example. Reading little pieces at a writer’s group meeting. Posting blogs. It’s all part of the process of putting my writing (and therefore myself) out there. Small steps. One at a time, each building on the ones before.