Full Steam Ahead: Why Having Kids Can Actually Make You A More Productive Writer

I almost didn’t get around to uploading a blog post this week, as I have been busy editing the final short story I intend to add to my self-published collection, due out in the next few weeks. This story has been sitting, in first draft mode, on my USB stick for several months. I didn’t quite know how to get the story to where it needed to be, and if truth be told, I also knew that I wouldn’t be self-publishing my story collection until around Easter this year, and without a deadline, I am hopeless. No, let me correct that. Without an urgent, imminent, there’s-a-steam-train-hurtling-towards-me deadline, I have no drive whatsoever. I don’t know if other writers feel the same. I am sure there are many who are awfully diligent and self-directing, and who can work at an even pace across their writing calendar. I would like to be more like those writers. But, no. I can quite happily wile away days and weeks unproductively, only to glance at the date somewhere and, with a jolt, realise that I have virtually no time left at all to do what I set out to do, oh, ages ago. And from then on it’s all pistons firing and all guns blazing and a race to the finish and… I’ve run out of clichés, but you get the drift. Ooh, there’s another one.

Time to make a start on that book?

Time to make a start on that book?

This might also explain why it has taken me thirty-odd years to get around to publishing these stories in the first place. All right, so it probably wasn’t going to happen during the first ten or so years of my life, but what have I been doing in the two decades since? Looking back, I had oodles of time in which to focus my energies on getting my writing into print, but instead, I waited until I was a mother of one, and about to drop another, before getting around to it. Talk about thriving under pressure.

James Joyce was quite possibly one of the slowest writers of all time. It took him on average seven years to complete each of his three published novels, and he famously could spend a day’s writing perfecting just three sentences. That’s a luxury I can’t possibly afford, but I bet Joyce wasn’t ferrying the kids to Gymbaroo in between penning his masterpieces. Time to yourself is a precious commodity when you have children.

It’s why I believe that having kids is the best possible motivator to Get Things Done. After Bubba was born, I realised how precious and short life is, and that I couldn’t put off those big ticket dreams on my bucket list any longer. And now, as a full time mum working from home, my writing is pocketed away into the short breaks when the hubby’s at work, Bubba is sleeping, the housework is done, and the dog has been fed. This doesn’t leave much time, trust me. Bubba is – thankfully – pretty regular with her nap times. And it’s amazing what you can get down on paper in the forty-five minutes it takes to run a wash cycle. Especially when you know that you only have forty-five minutes. My writing may not be better than it was pre-motherhood, but I’ve become a darn sight more productive since.

So now, with a month to go until Easter, I’ve finally decided to knuckle down, redraft that final short story, add it to the master copy of my short story collection, whip the whole lot up into a .PUB file, and launch it upon the eBook world. With the book’s launch date imminent, I am growing ever more excited about its release, but I’m trying to be patient until the book is truly, finally ready for publication. I have promised myself not even to disclose the cover art until the publication day, even though I designed this myself months ago. Ah yes, did I mention that, if there is any actual writing to be done, you’ll find me playing around with JPEGs and a publishing software tool, trying to find exactly the right font for my book cover? Because even though I may try to convince myself that I’ve got this time management thing down pat, there will always be room in this writer’s life for some good, old-fashioned procrastination.

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Review: “Elemental” by Amanda Curtin – Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

14.03.18 Elemental Book CoverAmanda Curtin’s second novel tells the story of Meggie Tulloch, born in the late nineteenth century in a remote corner of Scotland which, after centuries of unchanging tradition, now finds itself in a state of flux. Meggie’s family are fishing people, however the work is becoming scarce for the menfolk of the village of Roanhaven, a situation which turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Meggie and her older sister Kitta, who escape the suffocating patriarchy of home by finding work gutting fish, first in the Shetland Isles and then further afield in England. As Meggie puts it, “I am breathing it into me, this wondrous something new… I have felt freedom in my lungs.” From this first taste of freedom, Meggie eventually ends up traveling halfway around the world, to start a new life in Fremantle, Western Australia. Along the way, she suffers physical and mental pain, heartache and loss, but she never abandons the one thing nobody can take from her – hope.

The novel is written as a sequence of memoirs from an old, ailing Meggie to her granddaughter. Although this model is not new, it never feels laboured or trite here, and Meggie’s voice, rich with the dialect of her native Scotland, is distinctive and believable. Curtin shows a deft skill for the English language, using it to perfectly capture the raw, vivid details of scenery and character. From the bitterly cold winds of Scotland to the overwhelming stench of tonnes of fish guts, Curtin describes Meggie’s world with a lightness of touch and a humour which belie the vast amount of research which must have gone into a historical novel such as this.

Meggie is a lovable, fallible, character, and it is perhaps unfortunate that we bid farewell to her about two-thirds of the way through the novel, when the narrative turns to focus on her granddaughter Laura and Laura’s daughter-in-law. These two women are dealing with their own issues centring around Laura’s son, who is in a coma in hospital, however their characters, taking centre stage so late in the book, appeared somewhat flat to me, obvious literary constructs rather than living, breathing people in my imagination. This is in contrast to the vibrant, three-dimensional Meggie, and I found it hard to warm to them or their struggles, which seemed a bit of an irrelevancy. By the time we get back to tying up the loose ends of Meggie’s tale towards the end of the novel, her story seems to have cast adrift, and the novel’s denouement comes as something of an anti-climax, which it shouldn’t, considering the immensity of what Meggie reveals.

All in all, Elemental is a finely written novel by an author who clearly knows her craft very well. I did, however, struggle at times to lose myself within its pages, instead finding myself studying the elements of the writing as though it were a fine oil painting whose brushstrokes I was admiring. Whether this is a reflection of the book itself or my own state of mind during my reading of it, I cannot say.

The Van Gogh Effect

I was cleaning the shower screen the other day, and got to thinking about Vincent Van Gogh, and in particular the lack of critical and financial success he enjoyed in his lifetime. And yes, I am aware of how much of a tool that makes me sound. (“But, Henry, doesn’t everybody contemplate the life and times of post-Impressionist Dutch painters while doing the housework?” “Well, quite, Cyril, but what’s got me stumped is why the Dickens you were doing the housework in the first place, when you should have got one of the little people to do it?”)

A bit of back story might help here. The week before, I’d been conned into purchasing a bottle of quite expensive, high performance, racing-car-quality waterless car cleaner. I say “conned”, because I was leaving the local shopping centre when a friendly young man wielding a clipboard and a microfibre cloth leapt across my path from beneath a foldaway gazebo and proceeded to accompany me back to my car to give me a demonstration of this fabulous product which all the Formula 1 pit crews are using, wouldn’t you know. In a previous life, I would have smiled vaguely at the air just above his head and announced that I wasn’t interested, before dropping to all fours and zigzagging wildly between parked and moving vehicles in order to lose him. But, heavily pregnant and pushing a toddler in a stroller, I have become an easy target for the hard seller. And perhaps our young friend could read it across my face, but the truth is I now find it easier and less exhausting to throw money at the problem and hope it goes away, so I bought a bottle just to get rid of him. It cost me $40, and as I was beating a dismal retreat he threw in a free pack of microfibre cloths. I think he felt sorry for me.

One part of the salesman’s spiel I did recall was him saying that this product made an excellent shower screen cleaner. And so the next time I cleaned the bathroom at home, I put it to the test (because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to be cleaning the car any time soon, was I?) Well, the stuff works. Really really well. For the first time in years, our shower screen is not covered in those little grey water dots and we no longer have the hazy scum at the bottom of the glass where all the water dots get together and have a party. And that got me wondering why this product – clearly a good thing – wasn’t being stocked in all motoring shops. Not to mention the bathroom cleaning product section of supermarkets. Why did it take a bunch of Uni students working on a commission-only basis to push this stuff onto stressed-out housewives, when it is actually very good? Why are some products destined to spend their lives being flogged to death on the shopping channels and in those catalogues that feature tartan, velcro-fastening slippers, while others have people queuing for days outside an Apple store to buy one? Because, in all seriousness, if you were stuck on a desert island, would you rather have a pair of fully lined, rubber-soled slippers that hark back to the clan days of Scotland, or a smartphone with 4G capability and an in-built GPS? Okay, maybe that’s not the best example.

And that is how I got to our mate Vincent. You see, Van Gogh (as you are probably already aware) was not highly successful in his lifetime. In fact, he spent most of his life living in poverty, and then went mad, sliced his ear off, and quite possibly shot himself. These days, of course, his works sell for hundreds of millions of dollars and he is recognised as a bit of a genius. But back in 1885, he’d be the guy following you to your car with a clipboard and an over-earnest smile, spewing his memorised patter and blinking into the exhaust fumes as you hit the accelerator and sped away.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh, June 1890, most recently sold for US$82.5 million in 1990.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh, June 1890, most recently sold for US$82.5 million in 1990.

Much the same can be said for a lot of writers. There are (often very prolific) writers who produce works which are – let’s face it – rubbish, and yet enjoy global book sales in the millions and seven figure film rights sales. I’m sure we’ve all read a crap book that was a mega-super-bestseller. There are plenty about. Some even weren’t written by E. L. James. And then there are those writers who spend their lives perfecting their craft, creating perfectly decent novels, but who – even if they do get published – enjoy only mediocre success before sinking without a trace. Why are some very average writers so successful, when others – who write just as good, if not better books – can’t seem to get a look-in? Why do we keep buying and reading books that are the literary equivalent of a painting of kittens in a basket?

Artwork of unknown origin

Artwork of unknown origin.

I think I have the answer, and it is this. The problem, in my mind, is that most people have no taste in books. Now, please hear me out. I don’t mean that most people have poor taste, and that they willingly choose to read bad books (Twilight fans might be the exception to the rule here). I mean that most readers – those who read maybe a handful of books a year, either received as gifts or purchased in a mad dash through the airport duty free shop – don’t actually have a taste in literature. They don’t know what distinguishes a good book from an average one, a beautifully constructed sentence or a piercing characterisation over a hackneyed phrase or a stereotype. They just know that such-and-such a book has been read by lots of other people, so it must be good. And hey, the cover’s got big shiny embossed print all over it, so that’s a good sign, too, right? Right?

So, how do we redress the balance and start reading better books? Well, expanding the range of books that we select to read in the first place is a place to start. Most of us stick to one or two genres of fiction, rarely if ever stepping out of our literary comfort zones. You don’t have to pick something wildly different. If you usually read thrillers, why not pick up a horror novel instead, or if you lean towards romance fiction, try a Young Adult novel. And once you have found a cracking read, use word of mouth – or word of mouse – to pass on the message. If you bought a book from an online retailer, why not spend thirty seconds submitting a short review? Or tweet about it with the hashtag #amreading. There are lots of undervalued authors out there whose books deserve to be read.

This is another reason I’m so glad I signed on to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’m not aware of the exact number of books by Australian female authors I have read in my lifetime, but I bet it’s not nearly enough, and I look forward to reading at least the half dozen I have pledged to over the coming year. And for “Australian female authors” I could quite easily substitute “Romanian deaf-mute authors” or “Cuban closet transvestite authors”. The point is not that I want to read more books by secret fetishists or the aurally impaired, specifically, but that I – and most readers out there – should read books by a greater variety of authors. Even (especially) authors we might not have heard of before. Because, let’s face it, once you’ve read one Jeffrey Archer or Jackie Collins novel, you’ve pretty much covered the bases of all of them.

Although he produced well over 2,000 artworks in his lifetime, Van Gogh is rumoured to have only ever sold one painting, a fact which I’m sure didn’t help with his manic depression. I don’t know how many bottles of waterless car cleaner my friend with the clipboard managed to offload during his stint in my local shopping centre car park, but I hope it was enough for him to achieve his commission. And as for me, well, I am still far too busy to get around to washing the car, but on the plus side my bathroom now smells like a Ferrari’s glovebox, so that’s something.

2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

awwbadge_2014I have joined the party later than most (I like to think of it as being fashionably late) and signed up to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I was inspired to sign up and make the pledge to read and review books by Australian female authors while attending the 2014 Perth Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago. I heard a number of authors speak during the day, and the ones who inspired me the most (and by that I mean, the ones whose books I bought on the day) were almost entirely Australian women authors – local authors, at that.

While at the festival, I also sat in on a talk about the Stella Prize – a literary award, now in its second year, which celebrates Australian women’s writing – and heard Stella Board Chairwoman Aviva Duffield speak of the discrepancy between the genders in book reviewing in the Australian media. The exact figures, in percentages, can be found here but the gist of the argument is that the vast majority of books reviewed in our major newspapers in 2011 and 2012 were written by men – in some cases as many as 80% of a newspaper’s total books reviewed, although across the board the figure tends to be closer to 60%. That’s nearly two thirds of all books reviewed in Australia written by men.

The Australian Women Writers Challenge attempts to redress this imbalance, and I am proud to be adding my voice to let it be known that there are excellent books being written by women here in this great country – and not just in the dreaded “women’s fiction” genre, either (have you ever heard of “men’s fiction”? No, me either). On a personal level, I get to discover some wonderful books I might not have read otherwise. And if I am reviewing them, it counts as work, so it’s win-win all around!

My first review will be out soon and I will add it to this blog as well as the AWWC website. In the meantime, I’m signing off so I can get back to reading more wonderful books by Aussie women. If you want to get on board, you can sign up here.

Happy reading!