Category Archives: Sally Newham

On Being Slow

I joked recently on Meg Vann’s facebook page that I think there should be a movement called Slow Writing, as there is the Slow Food movement that began in France when a farmer drove his tractor into a fast food restaurant in rebellion against a culture that is about immediate gratification, rather than about slow savouring and the conviviality of a shared meal.

But it’s not just a joke. It’s for real, for me. I am a Slow Writer. Which is kind of weird to come to realise, since I often write rather quickly; blurting words out in big, streaming puffs and blows. The slowness isn’t so much in the process of putting the words on paper, or typing to screen. The slowness is in what comes before and after. It’s in the opening and pondering and dreaming and stewing that comes before, and in the processing and digesting that comes after.

This all takes time. And time, for me, is space. This is something I’m still learning to trust. Being different, moving at a different pace, feeling like a slowcoach, can be hard to trust sometimes. You feel lonely, sometimes, when everyone is streaking ahead. Like the little caboose at the end of the train. Like the tortoise being left behind by the hare. The plod of your own steady footsteps your only company, until you recognise the ever-present company of space – the space you’re in, that you’re taking, that you’re held by, that you have and that has you.

This morning, after a long walk in the hills and valleys around my home, winding a wide circle down gravel road and orchard rows, across creeks, among trees, along fence lines, I came back and picked up my very first book about writing: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. This was apt, seeing as the thoughts that kept bubbling up on this particular walk had been thoughts of old friends, past relationships, memories. It’s an old book I don’t often turn to any more.

But it is such a good book, a kind book, a gentle and wise book. Maybe it is a book more for poets than for novelists. Maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just for writers at all, because it has a lot of Zen Buddhism in it, and that can be for anyone.

I noticed this morning, while flicking through the pages, something I hadn’t noticed before. There is a lot of talk about space. About taking space, giving yourself space, opening to space. This morning, this is what seemed most resonant to me in her words. It was the same thing my walk had been telling me. Maybe it’s the same thing my whole life has been telling me.

Natalie Goldberg talks about haiku at one point, about how, when you read a lot of it, you start to see that there is a leap in it; “a moment when the poet makes a large jump and the reader’s mind must catch up. This creates a little sensation of space in the reader’s mind, which is nothing less than a moment’s experience of God, and when you feel it, there is usually an ‘Ahh’ wanting to issue from your lips.”

This is what being a Slow Writer can be then, this is what a Slow Writer might be doing, in the savouring of space. A Slow Writer might just be someone who likes hanging out with God.

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Japanese kintsugi bowl. Broken crockery is joined with resins and then the cracks (spaces?) are accentuated by gold lacquer.

Here is Goldberg’s haiku exercise:

Write a series of short poems. You only have three minutes to write each one; each one must be three lines. Begin each one with a title that you choose from something your eye falls on: for example, glass, salt, water, the window. Three lines, three minutes. Without thinking, write three deft lines. Pause a moment, do another.

Here are some of mine from this morning:

Towel

Flag-like, moved by wind

Touched by air

And the private places of our bodies

Bucket

Stained, used

Handled daily and nightly, still

Little ants bless you

Wings

Discarded, the busy hungry life

You bore

Has been eaten

Scar

I forget the wound that made

This slender line of light

Shining from beneath

There is another section in her book titled ‘Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger’. I guess this is her version of a Slow Writing manifesto, but being Zen-like, it’s not very manifesto-ish. In this piece she gently distinguishes the writer from the achiever. “We want to think we are doing something useful, going someplace, achieving something – ‘I am writing a book’”. When you give yourself space, she says, to learn to “trust the force of your own voice” it will naturally “evolve a direction and a need for one, but it will come from a different place than your need to be an achiever.”

I like this idea. It helps me to trust the Slow Writer I am, helps me to listen to her and to pay attention to the things she pays attention to. I can see that the achiever wants the things the Slow Writer is capable of making. What the achiever needs to learn is how to let go and let it happen.

This is something else she says in that piece, that takes me back to the haiku exercise: “Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won’t begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being. And it is because of this that I think writing is religious. It splits you open and softens your heart toward the homely world.”

Amen to that. Amen to space … the breath in between things, actions, thoughts, words. The room of it. Space holds, gently; a cupped hand. How fortunate I am, you are, to be held like this. Even in the tightest places, there are paths to tread, tiny alleys, ladders that lead to rooftops, and the sky.

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Sensibly Spellbound

I made a promise a while back I would contribute regular writing exercises. I’ve been pretty slack on that front. I hope this’ll make up. But bear with me.  It’s kind of a book review with a writing exercise at the end.

I’m currently writing an exegesis to accompany a group (flock, herd, pack?) of short stories I’ve written for my creative writing Honours project. The ‘thing’ each of these stories has in common is shape-shifting – each tale has a central character that shifts form from human to other-than-human, or vice versa, or something in between.  The theoretical bit I am in the midst of, looks at a bunch of stories (by more famous people than me) that also have a strong element of shape-shifting in them, and examines what kind of stuff gets opened up when metamorphosis is given such an overt presence.

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Hathor – Susan Seddon Boulet

The thing about shape-shifting is, when you start to really think about it and engage with it, it opens up into an incredibly rich and ever-expanding territory. It’s big. It’s fun. There’s so much to explore. You kind of start out with these loose ideas about human/other-than-human relations and end up being taken on a wild ride through genetic engineering and poststructural cyborgs, through ecofeminism and postcolonial thought via fairy tales and mythology, and then deep inside the philosophy of phenomenology and finding yourself on the doorstep of animism, opening up to the inherently aware life of everything around us. Well, that’s what happened to me.

All along the way I knew that I wanted to speak about the way shape-shifting in stories is not something made-up and magical, at its essence (if it has one), but is a process inherent in all life, and when it happens in stories, it is addressing something both ordinary (in that it happens all the time) and profound (in that when we take it personally, we can see that it expands and connects us to EVERYTHING).

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Ok, I’m being a bit abstract about all this, I know. I’m still forming these thoughts into something that can make some kind of sharable sense. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share the beautiful articulation of thought that I have found in a book called ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ by David Abram. This book is that rare thing – the one you start to read and shivers go down your spine. The one you read and you don’t feel like you’re being talked to so much as feeling like you’ve been plunged deep inside a reciprocal conversation, because each bit you read seems to be a direct answer to an ache that’s been in your heart since the time you first started to figure out how most people live in this world. It’s rare in a book, and even more rare in a theoretical, intellectual book.

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And the marvellous thing is, the way the book does this, it actually embodies what it is speaking about, which is about perception being ‘an experience of reciprocal encounter’ when we pay attention to it at its most direct intersection with what it is we perceive ‘prior to all our conceptualisations and definitions.’

This recognition of perception as a dynamic exchange has a heck of a lot to do with writers and writing. Our perceptions are the base materials that we use in our craft, they’re what we paint with, weave with, build with and blend and bend into all the countless creations possible when words are turned into imagery. No matter how imaginative we are, no imagery is really pulled straight from our heads. It is from our experiences with the world, with things, with other beings, with landscapes and rooms and objects and voices and wavelengths and winds – all the myriad experiences open to the perception of the senses of our physical body, that this imagery is based upon, whether first-hand, or handed down over centuries from our ancestors.

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Der, you might say. That’s obvious. And okay, maybe it is. But it’s so goddam obvious I think we miss the profundity of it much of the time.

Take this, for example: ‘… in so far as my hand knows hardness and softness, and my gaze knows the moon’s light, it is as a certain way of linking up with the phenomenon and communicating with it. Hardness and softness, roughness and smoothness, moonlight and sunlight, present themselves in our recollections not pre-eminently as sensory contents but as certain kinds of symbioses, certain ways the outside has of invading us and certain ways we have of meeting this invasion…’ They’re the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose major work was to investigate and elaborate the philosophical terrain known as ‘phenomenology’, which is the intellectual basis of Abram’s book.

There is something profound in recognising that what is ‘outside’ our bodies, can ‘invade’ us in the process of perception. As Abram points out in his book, Merleau-Ponty’s writing is full of such words. Throughout his work, all that we traditionally describe as ‘passive and inert’, is ‘consistently described in the active voice’, so that the ‘sensible world’ beckons, summons, ‘holds itself aloof’, expresses itself, takes possession and even ‘thinks itself within me’. Abram suggests that this isn’t just a pretty, poetic turn of language, but is an inevitable result of what happens when you try to speak about the world as it is directly experienced, rather than shutting off from it.

So here’s my writing exercise for those who are up for it (and the potential profundity it may reveal in the ordinary world surrounding you): write about the ‘sensible world’ in the active voice. Any bit of it, whichever bit of it presents itself to you. It might be a cup or the sky. It might be a cat or a rock, a breeze or a building. See what happens. (eg. I could write quite a bit about the persuasive powers of my bed in the morning! It frequently resists releasing me. I think it makes itself more comfortable and snuggly on purpose as soon as the alarm clock rings. Maybe they have an agreement…)

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image by Miftah Fauzan

But if you remain unconvinced of the worth of this exercise for your writing (or your life), read this:

“We conceptually immobilise or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies… Only by affirming the animate-ness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world.”

So, go for it. See what happens when you open up to experiencing the world as awake and alive and active and then write from this openness. I dare ya.

More Writing Exercises for When the Well Runneth Dry

I did a writing workshop with the fabulous Kelly Link early this year. If you haven’t read any of her short stories you really should. They are soooooooo yum. I love the one about the Library/’reality’ TV show. Man it made me wish that show was real. It was even better (and weirder) than Buffy.

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(Image by Shaun Tan – illustration from Kelly’s book ‘Pretty Monsters’)

One of the exercises she gave us was to write 50 first lines as quick as we could. Just like free-writing (which Kelly called ‘the equivalent of doodling’), with no pausing and thinking, but with a separate, numbered line for each. You can try out using different point-of-views (first, second, third, and everything in-between), tenses and genres.

Then, when you’ve got your 50 first lines/sentences, pick out your ten favourite and go on (in the same doodlin’ frame of mind) to write a paragraph following on from each. So then you’ve got 10 first paragraphs. Now pick out your favourite of these and go on and write a page that flows on from it.

You’ve now got yourself a good start on a new story, and a whole bunch of material to draw upon next time you’re feeling stuck and just need to start somewhere.

Here are some examples of first lines that came out of that workshop for me:

In the waiting-room, there was magpie in a cage.

Beeswax, leather and woodsmoke.

That time I walked on water.

Monks and mermaids have one thing in common.

She smoked cigars and ate blue-vein cheese.

Some other things Kelly suggested:

Write a list of the things you reliably LOVE having in stories. Many people can’t resist a story with a haunted house in it.

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For me, a wild, witchy, weird wilderness is always a pleasure. I also love dirt and grit, bitter medicines and difficult healings, straight-talkin’ voices and double-decker buses.  What about you? Get particular about it.

When you are totally sick of yourself, try typing out a few paragraphs or pages of the work of someone you deeply admire. It usually won’t take long for your desire to create your own work to come shoving through nice and strong again.

Feel free to leave your favourite first line, or list of favourite story items, or most inspiring, envy-making writer in the comments section.

When Your Mojo Needs A Kickstart

Char sang out for a writing exercise this morning, cos the mojo wasn’t flowin’. I was happy to oblige. Bek reckons I should do a regular installment of such things on the blog. I reckon it’s a good plan. I’ll keep ’em short n sweet so’s I’m more likely to keep it up. So here’s the creative juice starter-upperers I prescribed for Char today. Feedback after usage most welcome!

Hmm. Okay. Something cathartic?
Put on music that suits where you’re at and write to it, for starters. One page, no stopping, no thinking, just write.
If you don’t feel ripe to go straight to that, maybe do a sorta zen exercise first – a page or 2 (I’m talkin hand-writing here) of paying detailed attention to your surroundings. Move through all the senses. Textures. Sensations. Then take that closer and do the same thing with your own being (mental, physical, all of it). Don’t stop and think, and sorta try to be objective, even scientific, non-attached and non-involved… (but not heartless!) Get intrigued by detail, the sheen of your skin, the spiderweb of lines in your hand, the buzz in your scalp … whatevs.

Ok, and here’s one from John Marsden:
‘Hell is the denial of the ordinary’. Do you agree? Design your own personal hell.

Image Hell can be pretty goddam ordinary, too, I reckon … 😉

When Life Turns Into a Writing-Eating Monster

Not necessarily a scary monster, though I have met those kind, too. I’m picturing a Cookie-Monster kind of beast, but it eats words and phrases and scenes and scene ideas and not only that, all those lovely, empty moments in between things, like when you’re in the shower or on the loo or just after waking up in the morn or just prior to nodding off at night or driving to get some place … all those moments that used to spontaneously fill up with pondering (brilliant) thoughts about the current WIP, or even an old story or, best of all, a newly born idea … all gone, all snaffled up and chomped down by that hungry, greedy, albeit kinda lovable monster that used to be life as I knew it but has now morphed, Hyde-like into something far less tame and predictable.

And let’s face it, who wants a tame and predictable kind of life? Surely not us writers, who go in search of the wild and strange and unruly all the time, ‘cos ordinary life just isn’t enough.  But maybe that’s just it … maybe we prefer it on the page, under the pen, where we can be the boss and decide on the happily ever afters or not?

Hmmm… that sounds suspiciously true, goddam it! Me, the free-wheeling hippy, a control freak, after all? Noooooo! But … yes. Sometimes.

And now Life has turned and changed, as it does, yet again. For me, it’s been the end of one day job and the beginning of a new one, in an entirely new, demanding field. I know others in the sisterhood have been tangling with the Writing-Monster, too. A new baby will do it. Or a move to another country. Change: it’s what life is made of, it’s what it does, and it’s what stories are made of, too.  It’s just sometimes the living, breathing unfolding story/monster of Life takes precedence over the ones that we lure and capture into the cage of the page. Sometimes you just have to put the pen down and live a little. Let life live you.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.

I do, however, have a deadline to meet. So the monster and I are going to have to come to some sort of understanding, soon. This blog post is a start.

A Long Waffle About Stories, Stargate, Suicide and Soul by Sally

Well, I toyed with the idea of writing a blog about Stargate … but … listening to a radio program about suicide has changed my mind. Stargate fans, don’t worry, though, I’ll do my best to bring it in somewhere!

I’ve been spending the morning poaching plums in wine, baking a creme caramel and making pastry for a savoury tart to feed a friend of mine who is coming to dinner tonight. She’s a disability support worker at the same place I am about to start work, and I want to pick her brain about what I’m about to plunge into.

The radio has been playing most of the morning but nothing had engaged me terribly much until the program I just listened to – Encounter on Radio National – http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/encounter/suicide/3915540 – which dedicated an hour to a discussion of suicide. The numbers are still ringing in my head. Well, not the numbers exactly, I’m a word-girl and numbers don’t tend to stick. But this did: suicide is the highest cause of death for Australian men aged between 15 and 44 (I think it was 44. 40-something, anyway) and I’m a bit more vague on the women but I think it’s the highest cause of death for Australian women aged between 24 and 34. Isn’t that shocking? Higher than car accidents or cancer or any of those other causes of death that get so much attention in the media.

As I listened to this program, which featured the voices of people who have lost loved ones to suicide and people who have attempted or contemplated suicide, I found myself reflecting on a whole bunch of stuff. None of it very new. In fact, that was part of what was wonderful (I know – wonderful and suicide don’t really go together, but bear with me) about the program, it was like a continuation of an ongoing conversation that I feel I’ve been inside of for quite some time, maybe all my life, and maybe it has waxed and ebbed over the years, and maybe just now it’s a little more to the forefront than it has been in recent times. It’s a conversation about meaning, about spirituality, about true enjoyment of life and expression of true self. Big stuff. Sometimes – often vague or subtle, delicate stuff. But despite the vagueness, terribly important. Without meaning, without true enjoyment, without connection, without expression of deep self … I feel I might as well be dead. When I have felt lost and distant from any sense of these sometimes vague and subtle things, these have been the hardest times of being alive.

Not so very long ago at all, I felt myself on the brink of another of these times. Here and now is not the place to go into the triggers or reasons for that, and I loved what one of the men on the radio show said about ‘depression’ – that while it may have been triggered by a traumatic event, it was something that was always, already there, slumbering. And another man gave depression another name, he preferred the term ‘psyche-ache’ which I think is quite beautiful in that it expresses the experience in terms of pain rather than as illness (and hence, the often inferred ideas of weakness). The pain, this man said, is the pain of un-met needs of our psyche, what some people refer to as the soul.

What I love about this word, this idea of ‘psyche-ache’ is the way it makes room for the individual. We all experience pain differently, uniquely. We all make sense of it and deal with it, or not, in our own ways. We can each have our unique story of what makes our psyche ache, and what eases and heals that ache. This is beautiful to me. It opens things up, both ’causes’ and the means to heal.

Just another reason to love language, to respect semantics, the power of a particular word and the wondrous baggage of ideas each brings with it.

Anyway, where was I? Waffling on. Ah, that’s right … the means to heal.

I just finished reading a book called ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery http://murielbarbery.com/, a French woman. My mum loaned it to me. A dear old friend of hers gave it to her, who has suffered from intense periods of depression throughout her life. I put off reading it. It wasn’t speculative fiction, for one thing! It reeked of the Literary, and of middle-class middle age. I was quite sure it would bore me. I was very wrong.

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is a quite lovely book, and a little bit odd. It’s a celebration of art and literature and ideas and the piquant pleasures to be found in these, and more than pleasures – the relief, the balm, the medicine that art and culture can be to the sensitive, inquiring soul. My own soul felt kinship with Renee, the grumpy old concierge with her hidden passions for philosophy and beauty and enquiry. And it felt amazed and warmed to learn that this odd book, full of gnarled thoughts and not always an excitement of plot, could be a bestseller.

The other main character in the book is Paloma, a precociously intelligent twelve-year old child of privileged parents who is contemplating suicide. There it is again – that word. That very real act.

The message that came so clearly (yet not at all preachingly) in both the Encounter radio program and this book, is that depression/psyche-ache and the act of suicide, are not merely medical conditions. They are conditions of the soul, or the psyche, or the innermost self.

Language, literature, story, art, craft, expression of ideas and emotions, these are ways that we can connect with each other and with our souls, our innermost selves and each other’s innermost selves. In a world where so much is ruled by the marketplace, by needing to sell in order to get by, where so much is shallow, meaningless and disposable, these heartfelt expressions of our humanity (which includes our animality) can literally be life saving. I know this.

What I also loved about ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ was the recognition that snobbery has no place at all in the realm of medicinal culture. Blockbuster movies and manga comics can be just as relief giving as a symphony or a classic Russian novel. Which is just as well, because I do count Stargate as one of the things that gives me balm, right alongside the sound of the creek that runs by my house and the comforting companionship of my dog, and the home-made Easter buns my Mum made me, and the wonderfully heady book of lectures on Ovid’s Metamorphoses I’m currently re-reading.

Things I love about Stargate:

  • The women are strong and active and respected and complex
  • Science and intelligent thought frequently saves the day when military fails or fucks up
  • The Stargate team/world/universe/humanity is always threatened with non-survival but it always makes it through by the end of the episode (well, nearly)
  • Science and intelligent thought, and even compassionate thought, doesn’t always work. Decisions have ramifications, sometimes morally fraught and complex.
  • Friendship and a sense of camaraderie and family are central. No one gets left behind.
  • Weird shit happens.
  • It goes on for about a billion episodes.

What I am loving about my current writing project is that it somehow includes all of this disparate stuff that I find medicinal.  I’m writing a suite of short stories that have the common theme of animal-human metamorphosis/blending. The one I just finished has pelicans in it, pelicans that are like angels, that are angels, in a way. It is a story about spirit, about loss of meaning and re-finding it in an unlikely place. It’s not particularly plot-heavy and is kind of ‘literary’ and ambiguous. Whereas the one I wrote prior is strong on plot and humour and action and is pretty direct. Both of them I found deeply enjoyable to explore and tell.

Anyway … I really could waffle on forever here, as you can probably tell, and i’m probably boring the shit out of you all. I guess all I really wanted to say was – stories, of all shapes and kinds, help us to stay alive, by entertaining us, and by connecting us up to the big stuff, the subtle stuff, the strong stuff. Hallelujah for stories and for all the souls that tell them and love them. That is all. 😉