Welcome to the blogspot of Melbourne writer, Elizabeth Jane

Welcome to the blogspot of Melbourne writer, Elizabeth Jane

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pearls of Wisdom from the Melbourne Writer's Festival ...

The count down is on. My brother’s flight is scheduled to arrive at 12:40am. It is running late. We are now looking at 1:08. I have time to share my pearls of wisdom with you, snippets of disjointed information that I have picked up at the writer’s festival.

First, a quote:

Truth in her dress finds facts too tight. In fiction she moves with ease. (Tagore)

The experiences you write about can be quite ordinary. If you write about the ordinary with intensity and feeling it comes alive. (Alice Pung).

Don’t tell the reader a character’s feelings. Give them a way of seeing it, feeling it, hearing it. Arnold Zable, illustrated this by citing an example from a student he was teaching who hated writing.

Zable asked the kid what he did on the weekend.

He said: ‘Surfing.’

‘What was it like,’ Zable asked.

The kid said: ‘Awesome.’

Zabel asked him: ‘What was so awesome about it?’

The kid said: ‘Words can’t describe it.’

After a bit of too-ing and fro-ing, Zable said: ‘Close your eyes. Imagine you are on a surf board. Tell me what you see?’

The kid said: ‘The water is a wall like glass shimmering. (I can’t remember the exact words but it was very poetic).

Zable said: ‘Tell me what you hear?’

‘I hear wind rushing through a tunnel.'

‘Tell me what you feel?’

‘I rise on wings like a bird, flying.’

Zable then asked us. Do I need to tell you how he is feeling?

Tim Winton was asked what story model he used when plotting. He said he does not use any. Which is all very well, if you are a genius but not very useful for a pleb like me.

Robert Muchamore, a children’s writer, was inspired to write by his nephew who could not find anything to read. He said, the nephew still hadn’t read his books.

What did I learn from this? You can't please everyone.

Muchamore personally thanked us, the volunteers, for our assistance. I will be recommending his books heavily in future.

Emily Rodda talked about finding ideas in the ordinary, everyday and how they became fantasy. One such example came from watching a wasp drag a paralysed spider into its mud nest and sealing it inside for its young to eat. The children were delighted to recall an instance in which some of her characters were trapped in a mud cave.

Melina Marchetta said her stories always start with character and grow from there.

Lili Wilkinson said she writes a ‘zero draft,’ a draft that no one gets to see. From that she learns what she wants to write about and builds the ‘first’ draft.

Lili read Trixie Belden books as a child (among other things). She also used to chew her books. She showed us examples of books that had most definitely been munched. Remind me to check if she is one of our library patrons and suspend her membership.

John Marsden writes with the TV on in the background. He read Enid Blyton books as a child (yeah). I admired his honesty. He is a born storyteller. He is also a teacher. He directed one of his comments at some boys who were reading from a newspaper(ouch!).

Margo Lanagan likes an envirnoment free from distractions.

In Kate Mosse’s session I put my hand up and asked my first ever Writing Festival question. I attribute this newfound courage to my job share partner Philippa. She told me you get more out of a conference if you read the latest book of each speaker. I have spent the last week reading Labyrinth and have Sepulchre in my TBR pile.

Mosse’s books have two stories, a historical one and a modern one, intertwined and interlinked, but distinct. I asked if she wrote them separately or wove them together as she wrote.

She explained that she wrote the historical strand first, then the modern one, to keep their voices distinct. Then she went back and put them together, crafting cutting and shaping. Finally she wrote the last ten chapters, tying up all the stands and links.

I was pleased with her answer because it is how I imagined I would tackle it. More important by far was that immediately I asked the question, she looked up into the crowd, beyond the spotlights and asked:

‘Are you a writer?’

I called out: ‘A wannabe.’

She said: ‘Well, that is a good question, a writer’s question, and good luck with your book.’

It was the highlight of the festival for me.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Diary of a Festival Volunteer: the story of how Liz scored a new red beret

A few months ago, I put my name down to help at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. I can only say that on the day I sent that fateful email I must have been feeling uncharacteristically energetic. For as my son Seth said when I outlined the scheme to him.

‘But Mum, you find a normal week pretty hard going. Whatever were you thinking?’

My desire to be part of Melbourne’s premier literary event was not, however, as unrealistic as it first appears. There would be no TAFE that week. I had planned to take annual leave for my library work and to give myself over to the festival completely. That was before I found out I was unable to take annual leave.

The problem with my leave was two-fold. Firstly, another of my colleagues had requested leave for that week. Secondly, the remainder of my colleagues were going to the festival as part of their professional development, you know ... getting paid for it.

Then I found out that the festival coincides with the greatly anticipated visit of my brother and his family. Okay, so now I was going to be working and volunteering as well as picking my brother and his family up from the airport at 12:40 am Thursday morning.

I should have probably quit at that stage and, after weeping into my pillow, sent an, I regret to inform you, letter to the festival organisers.

Instead I became stubborn and unrealistic.

‘Look, it is going to be a busy week,’ I said to my family. ‘But I really want to do this.’ All the time I was thinking: I must be a complete and utter muggins.

My husband Andrew compounded my inner sense of inner idiocy by saying: ‘I doubt anyone ever goes from being a volunteer to being an author.’

Of course, I wasn't doing it for that reason (well, not only that reason).

‘Why was I doing it?’ That was the question I asked myself as my alarm shrilled early Saturday morning. Of course, once I saw the Red Beret I would be wearing, I added and ‘F word’ to my original sentence.

Today is Tuesday and, yes, it has been tiring for a middle aged, health challenged, Vermont girl like me. But I am telling you, now. I will volunteer again next year and count it a privilege.

I have been assigned to BMW Edge a glorious venue in Federation square. After collecting tickets, volunteers are free to attend each session until it finishes. I have spent most of my time perched on the back bench of the BMW Edge looking out over the Yarra and listening. I have also carried the roving microphone around to various students during question time.

On Saturday I went to a reading by Age Book of the Year winners. A highlight was hearing Tim Winton read from his most recent novel, Breath. He read beautifully. Don Watson and Jan Harry were also fantastic. Monday evening, I sat in on a VCE session focussing on the film, Look Both Ways. I had not seen the movie but my son Seth is studying it for VCE. Last night Andrew and I perused his copy. It was inspiring, especially as I had just heard the writer and actor speak.

This morning I heard Robert Muchamore and Emily Rodda speak. At the end of Robert Muchamore’s session a teacher came up to me with a lone student. He had an email from one of the festival organisers indicating the student would be able to meet Roberts Muchamore. As the festival organizer in question was nowhere to be seen, I took the lad over to where the author was signing. Muchamore’s assistant was happy to arrange a meeting.

As I turned to leave, a petite woman in a pink poncho approached me. She had copy of The Shadow Thief by Alexandra Ardonetto in her hand. She said she could not wait in line because she had to go to the Green Room (the author’s waiting room). She asked could I please get it signed for her. I explained that I was not actually supposed to be standing in the author’s signing queue but promised to see what I could do. ‘Ah, before you go,’ I called out, as she hurried off. ‘Who would you like her to sign it to?’

‘My name is Melina,’ she said. ‘Melina Marchetta.’

My eyes flew open. I know that is a cliché line but I felt it happening. Standing there with my eyes like saucers I whispered: ‘I love your books.’

Thankfully at this stage my Liz-you-are-being-a-loser radar started beeping. I shut up and went in search of Alexandra Ardonetto.

Just in case you have never heard of Alexandra Ardonetto she is a Melbourne girl who signed a three-book-deal when she was only fourteen years of age. Can you imagine how I felt approaching her in my red beret and Crew T Shirt. Asking her to sign a book for Melina Marchetta and hoping she would do it quickly so that I wouldn’t get in trouble for being there, in line, instead of collecting tickets, or picking up rubbish, or directing people to the box office or the toilets.

I felt like an earwig.

Alexandra was sitting next to Alice Pung, author of Unpolished Gem. When I told Alexandra, Melina Marchetta wanted her autograph there was an audible gasp from both girls. Alice turned to Alexandra and said: ‘Oh, Alex, that’s fantastic.'

And it was.

When I took the book to Melina Marchetta in the Green Room, I felt like a fairy Godmother. Even now, as I sit here writing this blog, I find myself grinning stupidly.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Competing with the World ...

We have moved the television into the house. This only happens once every four years. Normally it lives out the back in the shed (I like to think our children are more intelligent as a result of this draconian measure). But it is Olympic Games time and we are Australian. We take our sport very seriously.

My friend Jane was the first to comment on the elevated status of our audio visual equipment. She comes from England and, despite having the recent privilege of citizenship conferred upon her, is sometimes mystified by local cultural practices.

‘Why have you got your TV in the house?’ she asked on a recent visit.

We looked at her dumdfounded. ‘It is the Olympics!’

My workplace sent out an email prior to the commencement of the Games, telling employees where television screens would be located during working hours. In my branch of the council library service the television is in the tearoom. We have been asked to consider non-sports enthusiasts (as if anyone would own up to it), and to be responsible with the amount of work time we spend viewing.

For my own part, it is always a shock to be exposed to commercial viewing after our Spartan diet of selected DVDs. Every advertisement during the Olympics is nauseatingly patriotic. Every possible link to sport is construed. Carine (who has been staying with us these past weeks) said this intense nationalism in relation to sport, is a novelty to her.

‘What,’ I said. ‘Don’t the Dutch go all sentimental during the Olympics?’

‘Not like you,’ she informed me.

I am not an avid sport watcher (I am more of a couch potato kind of girl). But I do love an event – and let’s face it, sports lover or not, the Olympics is an event. I can’t help but enjoy it. I like watching the agony on an athlete’s face give way to jubilation. I like the colour of the gymnastics. I like seeing people standing on the podium. I like the flags. I like the anthem singing. I also look forward to wheeling the television back to the shed when it is finished.

My favourite comment regarding the Games of the XXIX Olympiad comes from an online book group I belong to. The group is currently reading Race of Scorpions by Dorothy Dunnett. I am not following the reading schedule but I like to eavesdrop on other’s comments. This week someone wrote a plaintive message to the forum saying: ‘Can we please postpone this discussion for two weeks? I am not a big sports fan. But I can’t compete with the world.’

That pretty well sums it up for me.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

This Heroine's Journey ...

I have a cleaning lady. None of my neighbours have cleaning ladies. It is not something you admit to in Vermont.

In my suburb women whip around the house cleaning the wash basins before they leave for work; they remember to get their meat out of the freezer every morning, and they mow their lawns on Saturdays while their husbands watch football. They are tough, tracksuit-wearing super-women who take on the world before I have even brewed my morning coffee.

When I had babies and stayed at home full-time (at the tender age of twenty), I tried so hard to be a super-woman. I had a cleaning day and an ironing day, a shopping day and numerous wash days. I scrubbed, waxed and polished laboriously. I even bought myself a tracksuit. But, no matter how hard I tried, whenever I looked at other women’s gleaming stove tops and their sparkling tiles, I knew mine were somehow lacking. I felt inadequate.

Then I went to live in Fiji.

In Fiji everyone had a cleaning lady (we called them House Girls). It was an economic necessity for many of the local women. I had the best House Girl in Suva. Her name was Naomi. I did not inherit her (as many ex-patriots did). I found her myself. I paid her well. She went on courses. She designed her own uniforms and established the first House Girls playgroup. I think she was happy. I know I was.

While living in Suva, I noticed something peculiar. Some women did not like having a House Girl. They were always complaining. Their house was not clean enough. They could never find necessary items in their cupboards. They missed doing the washing. Whereas I was confident, adaptable and coping.

Then we returned to Melbourne.

We arrived in the middle of winter. It was bleak. I had a white skivvy with a permanent stain on its rollover neck from my mascara tears. When we moved back into our house I said: ‘Enough! I am getting a job so I can employ a cleaning lady.’

I went back to University. I did my library training. I got my first job well before I finished my Graduate Diploma (a career founded on such noble principles was bound to flourish). As soon as my first pay hit the bank, I employed a cleaning lady.

She is wonderful! and I am her slave.

If my cleaning lady suggests a change of floor wash, I buy it. If she wants a new sponge, she gets it. Brushes, mops, vacuum cleaner attachments, whatever she wants, money is no object. I prize her above rubies. Every Wednesday, I prostrate myself at her feet crying:

‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the work of your hands.’

It is as close as I get to goddess worship.

It is not for me to whip around the house cleaning basins. I do not iron or dust. I barely make the bed. My teenage kids do their own washing. We take turns with the cooking. don’t feel inadequate about this. I am in my forties; to hell with the super-woman complex.

I have been learning about the Heroine’s Journey at TAFE. In her excellent book, Story Structure Architect, Victoria Lynn Schmidt, calls this stage the Eye of the Storm. A time when a woman has come to terms with an ordeal and thinks her journey is over.

That was me — last week, I was light and happy and free. I thought I had found Nirvana. Now I realise it was only an Illusory Boon of Success. Yesterday, my cleaning lady told me she wanted to reduce her hours.

She may as well have shot me.

Last night, I pulled the old tracksuit out of the drawer. It still fits. Soon my scrubbing muscles will return. I am on the Road of Trials. I can feel my soul growing calloused. One by one my illusions being stripped away. I have begun my descent to the goddess.

This morning, I broke the news about the cleaning lady to the family. I told them it is all in Victoria Lynn Schmidt's book, and not to worry. That I am undergoing a symbolic death from with I will emerge strong and in control of my life. They did not panic. They did not weep or gnash their teeth. I was proud of them. Though it is the end of life as they know it.

Of course, I have not mentioned the roster word, yet. It is too soon. They are still in shock. But it will have to be faced ... eventually. Meanwhile we take things one day at a time. A mop here, a dust there, a spit and polish. Like a re-occuring nightmare it is all coming back to me.

I have commenced therapy.