Mindful reading

Mindfulness, the practice of being fully present to current experience, has become popular. It can help us counter the pressures of busyness, constant distraction and always thinking about ‘what next?’ I like the principles of mindfulness because they connect with other things I love: being in nature, living slowly, noticing detail, cultivating gratitude, and finding joy.

Reading is one of the slow things I like to do. I have posted previously about why I read, so today I thought I’d reflect on how reading can be enhanced by mindfulness. I’m inspired by a recent experience of participating in a tea ceremony with a world tea artist.

The World Tea Gathering is a collective of artists who first gathered together in Iceland in 2014, and agreed to continue indefinitely and spontaneously. Their mission is ‘ to understand the essence of tea traditions and translate it into the contemporary world’ (https://www.worldteagathering.com/).

The wisteria arbour of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens where a tea ceremony was performed as part of the World Tea Gathering 2018

The experience I had was curated by the Art Gallery of South Australia and held in various locations in Adelaide last week. I attended one ‘performed’ by Yumi in the wisteria arbour of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, with my adult son, a tea connoisseur. But performance is not the essence of Yumi’s activity. It was hospitality, welcome, community, rest and refreshment.

There were never more than six participants, and each who came was included whenever they arrived during the hour or so Yumi was available. We had tourists, a new migrant, long-time locals, a guide dog trainer, young and old. It was quiet, a beautiful spring day, and we watched and drank, speaking little but fully engaged. I could have stayed there for hours.

The modern tea ceremony is measured, patterned, rhythmic. The only tension is in the finely controlled movements of the artist and the patience of the participant. The art celebrates the use of natural materials (bamboo, pottery, stones). On a log in front of her, serendipitously found by her assistant even as we waited to begin, Yumi arranged hand-worked pots and a pottery cup filled with earth and a sprig of fuchsia she had found fallen nearby. When ready to begin, her collection of pots and implements was spread out before her on her flowered green, yellow and white overskirt. We sat on the woven grass mat next to her. Each bowl of bright green matcha tea was individually prepared and offered. There was no compulsion to try, no shame in politely refusing.

Grass mat with pottery and tin vessels for tea making as part of the World Tea Gathering in Adelaide, South Australia, November 2018.

At one point a colourful fly landed on the mat. Yumi stopped what she was doing and simply rested a pointing finger on the mat near it, without words. I initially thought she was shooing it away; then I realised she was drawing our attention to it. We looked until she returned to her tea-making. I don’t especially like matcha tea but I drank two bowls gladly. The experience of the tea ceremony touched all my senses and my spirit too.

The tea ceremony is a framework I can use for other activities, such as reading and writing. Reading: observing but at rest, learning by immersion, a communion of readers, writer and characters. Writing: natural, playful, with a focus on being in the moment more than working for a goal.

Continue reading “Mindful reading”

Advertisements

The boundaries of science fiction

I recently participated in a panel discussing science fiction and its relationship with fantasy. I was a little surprised to be invited as I didn’t consider myself a sci-fi writer.

A couple of my earlier posts (What’s your book about? Novel released!) discuss genre in relation to my published novel The Golden Hour – a difficult question, but the answer is definitely under the umbrella of ‘speculative fiction’. The usual sub-genres under that umbrella include science fiction, fantasy, speculative horror, paranormal, and variations on those. I have decided my sub-genre is ‘speculative realism’ – a hybrid of realism and speculation that is, it turns out, typically on the sci-fi side.

Four authors show their novels, variations on science fiction as a genre
From L to R: Claire Belberg, Ian Miller, PH Court, Morton Benning

So there I was sitting among the sci-fi writers and those who love to read it. We talked about those boundaries and if they really mattered. My take is that they’re largely marketing categories, because readers want to know the ‘feel’ of the book they’re buying. There is a huge range of ‘science’ in sci-fi, which gives rise to the idea of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ science fiction. ‘Soft’ means the science is light on, more in the areas of social science. ‘Hard’ means more detailed descriptions of imagined technologies and reference to principles of physical sciences and mathematics.

I am a social scientist by training and inclination. It’s what makes humans as individuals and groups do what they do that interests me. I have learned that one of the abiding definitions of sci-fi is that, regardless of its level of ‘hardness’, the story is about how people are impacted by its scientific theme.

My co-panellists mix their genres too, writing what might be better termed ‘science fantasy’. Morton Benning is the author of Playing God, in which he puts a fantastical world inside a computer, thus producing a fantasy layer and a science fiction layer. Then the science fiction starts to bleed into the fantasy…Ian Miller’s Emissary of the Oppressed trilogy is built on some solid physical science, in keeping with his university training in the hard sciences and a love for astronomy. The worlds he imagines are, however, imbued with a strong spiritual nature and it’s the effects of that on his scientist protagonist that drives the stories. Does the spiritual angle in his work move the genre from straight sci-fi to science fantasy? Readers will have their own ideas about that, as did the audience at our panel presentation. (The fourth person in the photo is the chair of our panel, Pete Court, who writes urban fantasy, which is more of a fantasy-realism mix. He’s shown holding his novel, Sub Urban Tales.)

My as-yet unpublished stories are more clearly sci-fi than my first novel. Evernow, the YA novel I’m just finishing, asks what might happen if someone could move between two time tracks. Would he be remembered? Would he remember the original time stream? How would the memory or the forgetting impact the people left behind and the teenager travelling?

I love to read fantasy, so it comes as a bit of a shock to realise my own writing is more related to science fiction than fantasy, albeit a ‘soft’ form of science: psychology. But in the same way that fantasy imagines a different world in order to understand this world better, my speculative realism plays with what is ‘real’ in order to understand people in indisputably normal settings.

 

What’s your reading preference? Do you read fantasy, science fiction or other speculative stories? Or do you prefer realism? What is it about your preferred genre(s) that draws you to those works?

Listening to the River

Listening is a rare skill. Most of us would love to feel we have been heard, by which we mean that we are known and understood and accepted. The things that matter most to us are often difficult to articulate, and many don’t get to try anyway because no one wants to know.

I see my role as a writer as one who tries to listen well. I write to make sense of what I see and hear, and sometimes to echo or amplify the voices rarely heard. Sometimes that writing is personal; sometimes it is fictional.

Recently I went on a journey of the last section of the Murray River, the South Australian stretch of this river which runs just over 2500km (1558 miles) from its sources in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. This river system sees enormous amounts of water, some of which eventually empties into the Southern Ocean at a little SA town called Goolwa.

I was on a tour called Living Water to hear some of the voices of the people of the SA Murray River regions and to reflect on the water of life, physical and spiritual. We heard from fruit growers, an irrigation trust, an indigenous resident whose memories of the river span many decades, a lavender grower and restaurateur, and a Ngarrindjeri leader from the Lower Lakes and Coorong. I tried to listen to the river itself. Each speaker had a story they believe needs to be heard. Their stories do not all fit neatly into the other narratives.

For my nation, the only way forward is if we learn to listen to the voices that have been drowned out or garbled by popular media with financial and political agendas. The loud must make silence for the quiet, the popular must give the limelight to the unpopular, the comfortable must be willing to become disturbed by those who do not have the luxury of complacency. Only when we have truly listened to each other, wrestled with divergent world views and methods of communication, can we find enough respect and common ground to build a future together.

I don’t know how this will emerge in my writing but I hope my own wrestling with these challenges will produce fruit in the stories I tell, my own and my characters’.

Here is a collage of the beautiful Murray River, South Australia’s only significant river, and the third longest navigable river in the world; and also the Coorong, a 130km stretch of saltwater lagoon near the Murray mouth. I hope all the voices can work together to bring this waterway back to health.

Murray River Living Water - photographs of the Murray River in South Australia

 

You might like to reflect on the significance of water to you and your community, in words or pictures. I’d love to hear your story.

The autobiography of fiction

Virginia Woolf's words on a photograph of the Backstairs Passage, South AustraliaThey say that every first novel is autobiographical. Beyond that, it’s generally accepted that writing fiction is an expression of the author’s own life and personality, no matter how many books or short stories she writes. In that sense, all fiction, maybe all writing, is more or less autobiographical.

‘They say’ a lot of things. Another truism is that writers should write what they know. But, as Madeleine L’Engle was fond of saying, you don’t know what you know. Many writers write to find out what they know, to explore what is hidden and fold it into something meaningful. To be honest, we don’t even know ourselves all that well. It was Rilke’s advice to ‘Go into yourself’ in order to find something to write about. There’s a rich and inexhaustible vein of strange and wonderful knowledge that keeps growing as long as we live.

We, writers and readers, all have different capacities for self-revelation. I don’t know how all those people who put themselves into reality TV cope with millions of people forming opinions about them. I hide in my figurative attic and write – and it turns out that by publishing it, I’m also putting myself out there. How do I cope with that? I love to connect with readers, but connection cannot form between people without some degree of self-revelation. So if some of who I am in my writing elicits some of you in your reading, I’m glad to be known to that extent. It’s even better when we get to talk about it together.

It fascinates readers that writers have the ability to imagine worlds and characters that seem real. Writers are often asked how they get their ideas. I think what people mean is not usually ‘Where were you when the idea came?’ or ‘What was the thought process that led to the story?’ but literally ‘How? How do you end up with something that seems so real to the reader that it’s impossible to think it never happened?’ It is a mystery. I don’t know the answer for my own stories. I can trace a process, pin down when notions appeared in my journal and my moments of waking up with an ‘aha’. But I don’t know how a thought one day ended up as people, places and events that seem as real in my memory as if they happened in the material world. Creativity is a profound mystery, the kind to be enjoyed, not unpicked and demystified. Continue reading “The autobiography of fiction”

An early influence: books we read in childhood

I typically write speculative realism – real life that bumps into another sphere our secular humanist culture says isn’t ‘real’. That other realm may be understood as spiritual, metaphorical, the stuff of dreams or of nightmares.

I wonder what inspires me to write like this? In part it’s what I read as a child.

I always enjoyed novels with magic, fantasy, and strange spiritual occurrences. I lived a very ‘real’ life – our family was not involved in religious practice, superstition, or looking for luck. It was a very ‘modern’ life, all about here and now. But I wanted something beyond that.

One of my enduring favourite children’s novels is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, an English writer who published many books from 1934 until 1970. I have a 1949 edition that first belonged to my mother. When writing this post I learned that this was the only novel Goudge won a significant award for (the1946 Carnegie Medal for best children’s book by a British author), that it was a favourite of hers, and that it was also a direct influence on JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

The Little White Horse is a fairy tale with fairies, a unicorn, God, and a passel of Norman invaders. The characters are charming, the setting evocative, and it has a happy ending after a suitable amount of drama on the large scale and in personal relationships. While it received due accolades, some of Goudge’s writing was considered sentimental (I agree) and shallow (I disagree). This was recognised as a critical bias when one of her ‘failed’ novels was plagiarised well after her death, reset in India by an Indian writer, and gained rave reviews in the US. A curious observation of how we perceive books and authors…

Artwork by C Walter Hodges in the 1949 edition of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, specifically the title page, endpapers and frontispiece.
Title page, endpapers and frontispiece by C Walter Hodges in the 1949 edition.

Here is what Goudge herself said about the modern tendency to depressing ‘realism’:

“As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.”

In the twenty-first century, when fantasy has a huge following, affirming the value of the imagination may not be needed, but her comments regarding happy endings and reality being broader than the material world are still pertinent. I write speculative realism because in the fairy tale of The Little White Horse I found hope and faith in something more than I could see and measure. We need to believe that happy endings are possible, and we need charm, beauty and mystery even as we contemplate hard and ugly things in the world and ourselves. The sad and the happy, the magical and the measurable are all real. I hope my stories can help readers see reality beyond the material world as Elizabeth Goudge did so well.

Charming illustrations by C Walter Hodges in the 1949 edition of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
Charming illustrations by C Walter Hodges in the 1949 edition

Do you have a favourite book from your childhood? What kind of influence might it have had on your life?

I get by with a little help from my friends

I’m making a discovery that many people will think is pretty obvious – life is easier with friends. It’s not that I haven’t appreciated my friends. I have been blessed with many amazing people who demonstrate friendship on all different levels. But I’ve been so habitually independent, it’s been a slow journey to letting those friends in to the more vulnerable places of my life.

Last weekend I did something I’ve never done before. I was invited by our local fruit and vegetable shop to hold a ‘book signing’ event. My book is nothing to do with fruit and vegetables – the only food mentioned is pizza – but this lovely young family celebrate and support everything local, including this local author. Their support has been amazing, from posting about me on their rapidly growing Facebook page, to keeping my promo postcards and talking about me to customers at every opportunity.

I was thrilled to be invited and very nervous because I didn’t know what kind of reception I would get. I don’t like running the gauntlet of sales people when I just want to enter a store, and I didn’t want people to think I was hell-bent on selling anything. Sure, selling books is sort of necessary for signing them, but I also wanted them to feel free to just chat or move on without engaging. I also hate being ignored, so that left me in a tough spot.

Book signing table and posters outside a local fruit and vegetable store
Book signing with my friend Jenny who helped me set up and stayed for three of the six readings.

I asked friends if they would sit with me for a few minutes as I read an excerpt of my novel The Golden Hour each half hour. One friend per reading was my goal so I didn’t have to read aloud to the air. The friends I approached were so encouraging, recognising the courage needed to put myself out there, supportive even if they weren’t available to help. Enough were available that I had one or two friends at every reading, often sitting with me between readings as well. We had some lovely chats with customers about personal challenges, writing, growing vegetables, moving house – and even sold a few books. It was fun!

In the past, I have felt that asking friends to be with me when I faced a challenge like this would have been admitting weakness or presuming on them. I understand that the message behind those ways of thinking is shame at not being confident to manage these things on my own. I’m not listening to that message any more. I’m going to invite my friends to be part of my learning curve as an author and a human being who accepts that life in community is more satisfying, less lonely, and makes room for collaborative creativity.

 

Do you have a story about friends making something easier for you? Is there a friend you would like to celebrate for going above and beyond to help you become more truly yourself? Encourage us with your story!

What is your book about?

It’s not surprising when an author is asked this. It’s the question I have prepared for and practised an answer to hundreds of times. It’s the question I want people to ask me. But it throws me every time I am actually asked.

My book is like a person I know well: it’s difficult to limit my description to one or two main characteristics. In different moods, I want to emphasise different aspects of the story. To different audiences, I want to bring out the elements that are likely to be of most interest to them. Which is difficult when I don’t know the person who asked.

My novel, The Golden Hour, is hard to describe in common catchphrases. It doesn’t fit, as I’ve written before, typical marketing categories. Should I describe it as a ‘crossover’ novel (i.e. for audiences crossing from teen to adult)? Is it more a mystery than a psychological thriller, a contemporary drama or speculative fiction? It’s all of them. But that’s not what the questioner wants to hear.

It’s about a boy growing into manhood. Should I describe it as a coming of age story? It’s about living, dying, and how one influences the other. It’s a ‘what if…?’ about being stuck in a locked room. (That’s enough to put claustrophobia sufferers off!) It’s about how we react in crisis and how that affects others.

A colourful stack of books and a black one leaning against them with a big white question mark on its cover
Image by Crencils via Flickr

The novels I’ve been working on for the last nine years and haven’t finished yet are another case in point. They’re set in an alternative future, a dystopia, a place where technology is perfectly integrated and life is easy – if you’re willing to accept the limits of the totalitarian regime. These stories are also about a woman experiencing midlife crisis. She’s a journalist who has styled herself as an activist and is now facing the hard questions: ‘Have I made a difference? Is real change even possible in my lifetime? If I could do it differently, what would it look like? Can I find a way to make the rest of my life meaningful?’ Which of these factors is the best way I could describe these stories? Should I just describe the first novel or the theme of the series?

Then there’s the novella I have been planning for a few years and just started writing. It’s YA, speculative about parallel time zones, and explores the power of love to change the ways we believe. You can tell I don’t know this one very well yet – the previous sentence poured into the keyboard without a struggle. I can characterise it easily because I have only written one chapter and the outlines of the rest. Ask me in a few months what it’s about and maybe I’ll think of five things to tell you before settling on one.

But ask me anyway: What is your book about? I’d love to tell you.

 

Do you have something you have written (fiction, non-fiction, published or just personally significant to you) you would love to tell people about? Tell us in the comments. I’d really like to hear about it.

 

Poetry review: Of Llamas and Piranhas by Valerie Volk

I have never been to South America nor seriously considered doing so. It’s a long way from Australia and I really don’t know a lot about it. But having read Valerie Volk’s recent poetry book recording her impressions of the continent in poetry, my interest is piqued. Shortly after I read the book, a social media friend took a similar trip, posting photographs which picked up so many of the images in the poems it was uncanny.

of-llamas-cover

Thirty eight poems, each with a black and white photograph, tell the story of Volk’s travels from Australia to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, and home again. Each day she records impressions from that day’s sights and experiences, vividly, personally, sometimes humorously, often challenging her own culture’s values and accoutrements.

Travel to South America from Australia crosses the date line, that ‘contrivance of the calendar’ (‘En Route – Flexitime’), which Volk uses to bracket the story, to reflect on our relationship with time and our experience of day, night, memory and future.

From the first days in Chile, she is uncomfortably aware of the:

modern buses crammed with tourists
as rapacious as any who have plundered
in former centuries  (‘Plaza de Armas’)

This theme recurs, both of the plundering colonials of South American history and the impact of tourists on traditional lifestyles today. Visiting the Plaza de Armas and the Pre-Columbian Arts Museum in Chile, the favelas and a bird park in Brazil, and Machu Picchu in Peru, Volk notes the generations of history as one empire is overcome by another, and reflects a sense of loss as she admires what remains of the earlier cultures.

Volk frequently uses contrast to shape the content of her poems: contrasts between past and present, tradition and modernity, threat and nurture, the tourist and the local inhabitant, one animal species and another, indulgence and simplicity. In many of these, she comes off the worst in her reflection, asking herself:

we who walk among them,
do we have the right to drive away,
return to luxury hotels,
download our photos
for display to friends back home,
while shaking heads in wonder
that anyone can live like this?  (‘In the Favelas’)

There are tantalising word pictures:

the reed beds, floating
in a glassy mirrored sea
with all reflections gilded
like a fabled Incan temple,
seemed insubstantial
in the glorious dawn  (‘Moving On’)

and:

its slow plume
of black smoke hangs beside us
as we round the river’s curves  (‘On the Train’).

In turns majestic, ominous, beautiful, wistful, the scenes Volk paints are like cameo insets from a grand, rich canvas.

Amidst the scenery and the sensory are a couple of rare, intimate pieces that acknowledge an earlier love:

Yet still that pang,
when I look up to watch
the two macaws fly off together  (‘On the River’).

It is this mix of tourist vista and personal memoir, with humour, philosophical reflection and humility that make Volk’s collection so much more than a travelogue.

In the poem ‘Homeward Bound’, one of the two Transit poems at the end of the book, Volk reflects on the journey she has made, and rightly describes the experiences revealed in the preceding poems as a ‘kaleidoscope’. Whether she was plundering or simply observing, she was ‘gathering…memories of gold.’ Indeed, this collection, Volk’s sixth poetry book, is an opportunity for those of us who have never visited South America to participate in the gold of her memories.

Of Llamas and Piranhas is available from Ginninderra Press and other online bookstores at the recommended retail price of AUD$22.50

Note: This review is independent. The reviewer gains no financial benefit from the sale of the book.

Have you read a book or a poem that has inspired you recently? Please tell us about it in the comments. Your recommendation can spread the joy!

Small voices – promoting the arts in our own communities

Drawing an audience is the subject of umpteen articles, books and videos. I’m no expert and I’m not going to give you a how-to. My book sales are progressing slowly, and my opportunities to speak about the story are few. Everything I read tells me I have to make it happen, and I’m trying to. That’s not pleasant for those of us (most authors, I believe) who would prefer to leave the promotion to someone more outgoing and entrepreneurial.

The author’s journey is similar to that of every other kind of artist. The ‘break’ into publication/exhibitions/gigs is just the beginning, because the break does not necessarily bring the audience.  This year has been a steep learning curve as I’ve negotiated the trail of being an author. Though my novel, The Golden Hour, was printed mid-year, the journey began in January. And it never ceases.

Along the way, one factor has become apparent to me – we are all potential promoters. I read, I watch movies, I buy goods made by local artisans, I attend exhibitions, and I have friends who create all of these. And I have a voice.

Cacti and Crochet is a home business run in Adelaide, Australia by my daughter and her husband.
A home business my daughter and her husband run. They have a Facebook page and she writes an occasional blog on crochet.

It’s a small voice – the circles of friends in my community and on social media – but it’s something. To be honest, I’m not a great salesperson and I don’t like writing reviews. But I like my friends, and I believe in them, their hard work, their creativity. So I’m starting to use my small voice to promote them as creative producers. If I engage with their book, I’ll write a review on Goodreads. If I love the crocheted beanie I bought, I show it off and make sure my friends know who made it and how to find that artisan. I’m learning to boast in my friends’ work, when I genuinely see its value, and I hope my friends will do the same for me.

Of course, we could take it further. Some people are active in giving ratings for products they buy, and more and more sellers offer that option. But I’m talking about community here, the more local and personal version of that. Most artists don’t have an agent or a company with a market presence, which makes it really difficult to let people know about what they make.

There’s a woman in my community who does not see herself as particularly creative (though I have to say her home and garden are lovely). She loves beauty and creativity and makes a point of going to every event held locally by local artists (visual, performing, written, sculptural, you name it) and she regularly buys at local craft markets. I asked her why and she said that she loves her community and wants to encourage creative people to do what she cannot. She’s using her presence and her small voice. One couple I know went the extra mile and recently threw a public garden party at which they invited all their creative friends to sell work and at the same time raised funds to support a local family through the sale of afternoon tea.

Selling the novel The Golden Hour by Claire Belberg at a friend's garden party
Selling my novel at a friend’s garden party

Let’s show our support for local creative producers – authors, visual and performing artists, craftspeople – just as we do for our favourite local eatery or winemaker. Let’s show ourselves to be in solidarity with them as they work to draw an audience, using our small voices in whatever way we can.

Is ‘boasting in the creativity of your friends’ something you can see yourself doing? If you do already, let me know how you do it so that I can try it too!

I have a dream…

You could say my life is characterised by dreaming. And until recently that was something I felt embarrassed about.

I am a dreamer. Not the socio-political dreams of a Martin Luther King Jr but daydreaming. No, I wasn’t the kid in class who didn’t pay attention (another stereotype bites the dust) but I daydreamed to the rhythm of swings, imagined other worlds while I puddled in the creek at the bottom of the hill where my childhood home stands, and read, read, read. I have long enjoyed the world of my thoughts and the ‘what ifs’, and I cultivate dream sleep. I’m not into lucid dreaming, just imagining, letting my mind float, wondering.

Adelaide Hills creek where I grew up - a dreaming place
The creek I grew up by – a personal dreaming place

Why did this embarrass me? We live in a culture that says we’re meant to be usefully busy, achieving tangible goals, making a difference. We’re told not to waste time, have nothing to show for it, or be ‘so heavenly-minded we’re no earthly good’ as an acquaintance once described me to a friend.

There was also reading guilt, grown, I suppose, out of the many times my mother called me and I’d ‘just finish the chapter’ two chapters later.

In my fifties now, I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m not likely to achieve anything in this world that makes people think, ‘Wow, she made a difference’. No more than the next person, at any rate. And, to be honest, I don’t think my imagination is going to take the reading world by storm either. So how can I justify being a dreamer?

I don’t have to. It’s just what I am and that’s okay. I dream for the same reasons I write – to understand myself and to enjoy story. Dreaming isn’t all I do but it’s an important part of what I do, even if it doesn’t change the world or make me look like an asset to the neighbourhood. And maybe something more will come of it, when a story or a poem emerges that others enjoy too.

What about you? Do you like to daydream? Do you have other ways of challenging the ‘must look busy’ mentality of our culture?