Art and the Writer

In each of my novels, published and as yet unpublished, I have a character who loves visual art. James, the protagonist of The Golden Hour, has a passion for graphic design. Meg, the anti-hero of my unfinished adult dystopian trilogy, loves visiting art galleries and her daughter is a professional artist. In my YA time travel novel, Evernow, one of the two narrators, Emmi, loves to draw nature.

I ask myself why this is a sub-theme in my fiction. The most prosaic reason is that visual art was a significant influence in my birth family. The deeper, perhaps truer, reason is that art and creative writing are close cousins.

I recently curated a community visual art event. It was not something I am formally qualified for or ever expected to do. But it was an uplifting experience and, though I say it myself, a great success.

collage of community arts event - some artists and their work

The success was in measures of artist and audience engagement in the context of a faith community that hasn’t given any attention to the visual art makers in their midst. It was a revelation to many that so many were so capable and so inspired to create art. The artists felt they were now seen, something they value is more recognised, and their joy shared. It was a community-building experience.

In current Western culture, or at least in Australia, art is seen as a pleasant hobby for those so inclined, and only valuable in terms of money and fame (relevant to a very small subset of artists). The value of the process is paid lip service or relegated to ‘therapy’, and its benefits in all other areas of human endeavour are overlooked.

I do not make visual art. My parents did, my adult children do, even my husband does on occasions. But visual images are the backbone of good writing. A wordsmith must be able to see in her imagination, and describe in words that paint the images in the minds of the readers. The more a writer appreciates visual art and grows her ability to truly see (which is the first critical element of producing visual art), the better her capacity to evoke imagination in her readers.

I tend to write with a focus on the mind and emotions of characters. It’s akin to creating abstract art – less about the physical world, more about experience. Nevertheless the material world is the source for the swathes of colour, line and form that express inarticulate emotion in a way someone else can ‘catch’:

Quotation from The Golden Hour by Claire Bell: I was a piece of rigid flotsam

Do you engage visually with written story? Does it play like a movie in your imagination? Do the images remain after the words are forgotten? I’d love to hear how the combination of vision and word work for you.

A language for the lesser senses

I have been trying to find words for the simple experiences of day to day life, and find to my chagrin that there are too few words available in English. This is a ridiculous claim to make of the rapacious language that English is, with its 171,476 words in current use and its multitude of linguistic sources.

In order to make a scene or a poem ‘live’ for the reader or hearer, writers use concrete images to express everything from physical experience to abstract ideas. Metaphor and other comparative devices are stock in trade. But what if you want to simply describe something you experience with one of your five senses?

I ran into trouble with the sense of smell. The olfactory sense, as it is properly known, is the most fleeting of the five (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell) and yet it is a powerful memory link. Many of us associate certain smells with the highlights and/or pain of our past – one whiff and you’re back in that place again. It might be the smell you associate with your mother from before your conscious memory was formed, or a particular acrid stench from an experience you would prefer to forget.

A couple of years ago I enjoyed a day trip to Deep Creek Conservation Park south of Adelaide, a rugged corner of the Fleurieu Peninsula. We parked the car at one of the campgrounds and took the hike down to Deep Creek waterfall and the creek itself. It was a blustery autumn day, overcast and chilly. Different sections of the trail brought different delights to the senses (and challenges for my not-very-fit body): the unexpected vista of a dark ocean horizon between steep wooded hillsides, the red-rimmed Red-rimmed heart shape of an Australian grass tree's stem when cutheart-shaped core of truncated grass trees, white lichen designs on embedded granite stones, the frolicking song of the narrow creek where we crossed, the cries of birds hidden in the dense vegetation carried on the wind. It was a feast for the senses.

I remember much of it because I tried to capture it in a poem when I returned home that afternoon. I won’t share the result because the only goal I achieved was a sharpened memory of the place. And my point for this post is this: I cannot really recall the scent that produced my most ecstatic moment of the day – because when it came to describing it, I could not find suitable words. Continue reading “A language for the lesser senses”

Words cannot express…: a writer’s confession

Words are commonplace… and powerful. We use them every day, tens of thousands of them, to speak, to write, to think. We sing them and ornament clothing and décor with them. With words we persuade, sell, educate, entertain. The English language is particularly rich in vocabulary, thanks to its many cultural influences over millennia, giving us plenty of choice to express ideas in any number of ways. Writers, of course, trade in words. They’re our primary tool, and we love to play with them, tease them, test them, and make them work.

An oval mirror on grass with a reflection of sky and birds. Overlaid words are quoted from Patricia MacLachlan's award-winning children's novel Sarah Plain and Tall.

I recently listened to the soundtrack of Lord of the Rings again. I have read the books multiple times and seen the movies as many times again. The scenes and characters are etched into my personal mythological foundations. But listening to the soundtrack, my emotional imagination travelled instantly to places I have never been even via the words of an inspirational novel like Tolkien’s most famous fantasy.

Sometimes I think that with so many creative people making so many creative artefacts, we must be approaching a boundary, a limit to new expression. But creativity doesn’t seem to work that way, perhaps because we live in a world utterly extraordinary and still so little-understood.

Black and white desert dunes from above. A yellow-gold text box with words by TS Eliot from his poem 'Journey of the Magi': And I would do it again, but set down/This set down/This: were we led all that way for/Birth or Death?

Story, whether in novel, movie, poem, visual or performance art, takes the listener to new places while exploring age-old themes of human life. We never tire of story (though adults might become bored with the same story told the same way). Humans crave transcendence, defined by the Oxford dictionaries as ‘existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level’.

Mountains against an apricot-streaked sky and a village below, with words by Muriel Barbery overlaid, a quotation from her novel, The Life of Elves, ending with 'hamlets that dangle from the web of the sky'.

If I tried to express in words where the music from the soundtrack took me, it would require many words. I’m not sure I could even describe it then. Such moments of inspiration find me struggling to put the deepest, highest truths into words at all. Metaphors, symbols, mythologies and ancient lore don’t necessarily need words – every creative branch has its tools and each seeks to connect its viewers to abiding truth. For the matters of Truth are far more than mere facts and ideas, and every human heart has a Truth sensor, whether we have learned to use it or not.

Words can, of course, do the same as awesome music, and sometimes a word-picture or an especially powerful juxtaposition of ‘ordinary’ words does the same for me as that soundtrack. The images scattered through this post are some of my favourites.

 

Do you have some favourite words that take you to places unimagined or thrill you with their Truth?

Review of The Name Thief of Neverland, a children’s novel by Dimity Knight

The Name Thief of Neverland is a children’s novel, a spin-off from JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy in the time-honoured tradition of fan fiction. I think Barrie would have been very pleased with Dimity Knight’s tribute to him in the form of this novel.

Cover of the children's novel by Dimity Knight called The Name Thief of Neverland

I had the privilege of launching the book in early December 2018, and what follows are mostly excerpts from my speech.

The Name Thief of Neverland joins a large family of stories which have been spawned by JM Barrie’s novel Peter Pan and Wendy. That novel was published in 1911. It started life as a play by the same name, first performed in 1904, with immediate success that has never diminished.

The curious thing about Peter Pan and Wendy is that it’s not exactly a children’s story. Particularly in the narration of the first three chapters, it speaks to adult readers (and the mostly adult original playgoers) with a satirical air. The key to the charm of the conceited, lovable boy, Peter Pan: he is the embodiment of the magic of our childhood imaginings. Barrie writes for all of us who have forgotten or almost forgotten that magic. He says in Peter Pan and Wendy: ‘Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.’ Barrie writes to remind us of what we started to leave behind when that knowledge came to us.

Knight’s Neverland, or rather that of her main character, Holly, is a little different from the one Barrie portrays but there is a close family resemblance. And Knight has written for children. Nevertheless, she emulates Barrie’s style convincingly, in a more modern way, so to read The Name Thief is to take up where Barrie left off. So satisfying!

The Name Thief of Neverland quickly launches us into a dramatic scene in Neverland. We see Holly and her friends stealing the pirates’ treasure, and more significantly, Holly stealing Captain Peter’s name. Thus begins the complex relationship between Holly and Peter that shapes the novel. Names are highly significant in this story. Continue reading “Review of The Name Thief of Neverland, a children’s novel by Dimity Knight”

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”

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!