In the mood with joyce carol oates

True for me, mostly

“One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’ In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.”

Joyce Carol Oates, The Art of Fiction (an interview with Robert Phillips) in The Paris Review, Issue 74, Fall-Winter 1978.

Some thoughts on blogging

It’s been fourteen years.

I began this blog back in 2005. I was on research leave at a university in Texas and started blogging to keep track of my reading. It has stumbled along from there, reinvented a few times over but still going.

Blogging is a particular form of writing.  Though I still do it primarily for myself, it’s not journaling. It’s more public than that. By its form, a blog looks for an audience and seeks approval. At its most ordinary, it can be just another ‘Look at me!’  When I first began blogging, I did so self-consciously and almost hoped no one would notice.  Though the self-consciousness is gone, the virtual stutter lingers. Perhaps that’s why I am more prone to quote the words of others than form my own.

Recently I re-read an essay by the great English novelist George Orwell, one that I last read thirty years ago. Titled Why I Write, the essay begins with Orwell’s unnerving admission:

“I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.  I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” 

To some degree, I begin in the same place. My personal “facility with words” is paltry by comparison. Regardless, writing is a way to speak — carefully, deliberately, sensitively — without being interrupted by more brash or charismatic voices.  It’s a way to be heard.  Perhaps I would replace Orwell’s “failures in everyday life” with inadequacies.  I have my share of those.  Writing has always been a way to communicate when my ability in other mediums comes up short.

Orwell goes on to outline what he calls the four great motives for writing:

  1. Sheer egoism: the desire to appear clever, to be talked about and remembered. “It is a humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one.”
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm: the pleasure one takes “in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.” 
  3. Historical impulse: the desire to find, gather, report and store up for posterity.
  4. Political purpose: the desire to “push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Honesty means acknowledging that the act of writing envelopes all of the above, each one rising to the surface at different times.  I keep at it, hoping that over time the more virtuous of these motives bubble to the surface.

I hope so.


On writers

“Most of today’s best never expected to be widely read but wrote anyway. They write not because they think that a writer is something somebody like them really ought to be, but because they can do nothing else without betraying their own spirit. They write because if they don’t get the words out, they would be eaten away from the inside. They write because they have no choice.”

Penny Laurie, “Why I Write” in Overland, no 216 (2014), 3-9.


It’s been a while.

Though I’ve done this blogging thing for a decade +, seasons of quiet are par for the course. I’m not sure why: weariness, busyness, distraction, not much to say. Or all of the above. For whatever reason, the last four months have disappeared – wordless – without a trace.

It’s not just the blogging. Journaling, poetry, reading: it’s been zip on all fronts. The inkwell has been dry, and honestly, when arid sets in you begin to wonder why you do it at all. Except I know, deep down, that being wordless is not a state of health. Not for me.

“All those things for which we have no words are lost.” I’m not sure the sublime Annie Dillard had in mind my dearth of blogging when she penned this sentence, but it strikes a gentle blow no less. Words make flesh. Words remember. Words name and hold things secure. It’s a reminder, too, that when all is said and done, I write for me. Indulgent it might sound, but writing is how I find myself.

So, hear I am again. Blogging for year #12. In search of a word or two … or three.

I can’t help myself

After twenty-eight glorious days of writing leave, I’m back at work. Though it’s been a bumpy landing, I’m glad to come back to a good job, good colleagues and a terrific community, and all in Melbourne’s best neighbourhood. I’m grateful, too, for an employer who still believes writing is worth my time.

Just today I dropped by the regular Friday morning café for my weekly liturgical meal of eggs and mushrooms. Away for a month, it was nice to be missed.
‘Where did you go?’ my waiter asked as I took my seat.
‘What did you do there?’ He’s a pushy bloke; a Frenchman with not a skerrick of reserve.
‘Write?’ he asked, his eyebrows raised. ‘Really? Why would you do that?’
I laughed. ‘Because I can’t help myself.’

I can’t really. In fact, the older I get the more I need to write. I don’t know why. It’s not because I’m especially good at it. ‘Ok’ has to be good enough most of the time. There is nothing like the exceptional writing of others to keep aspirations modest. And it’s not the need to be read either. Truth be told, ninety-percent of what I write will never see the light of day. It has something to do with the way I’m built. If I’m not writing, I’m not doing well.

Laurie-Penny-007Before I went away, I read a piece by the English journalist Laurie Penny titled, ‘Why I Write.’ It was timely, a good dose of encouragement to take with me. In the midst of her writerly wisdom, there were two things I packed away.

First, the normalcy of this obsession. As with with all compulsions, I suppose, those who are struck with it are those who understand it. Like singers who sing or runners who run, those who write know the urge from the inside. ‘Most of today’s best never expected to be widely read but wrote anyway,’ Penny says. ‘They write not because they think that a writer is something somebody like them really ought to be, but because they can do nothing else without betraying their own spirit. They write because if they don’t get the words out, they would be eaten away from the inside. They write because they have no choice.’

So, I’m not completely odd.

Second, the permission to keep at it. Honestly, sometimes I feel guilty about writing. Surely, I think to myself, it’s only the precociously gifted who can justify the time it demands. Not so, Penny says. In this, the ‘golden age of writing’, never before have so many written so much and published so easily — from the inane to the sublime and everything in between. No longer do we inhabit the age of the Alexandrian library, a ‘finite and fragile’ collection all shelved within easy reach. ‘We are in a vaster, stranger place altogether,’ Penny writes, ‘and the number of stories yet to tell sends recalcitrants into a delicious panic.’ And then this: ‘The shelves are stacked with the sacred and the profane, the tragic and the obscene, slush and trash and death notes and love letters, and somewhere in the dark of the farthest stacks are volumes yet to be written. One of them is yours. Make it count.’

I’ll keep trying.

Writing and cafes

Decades ago, while ferreting away at a doctoral thesis, I came across the confession of a writer whose name I cannot remember. ‘I write best,’ she said, ‘when I am in places of low level human activity.’ While the profound metre will barely twitch for most, it was for me a kindred moment.

I have always written most easily in cafes. While I love a good library — the older and grander the better — and the book-lined study is a gift, there is something about the right cafe that ratchets up my creativity, even my concentration. Of course, the wrong cafe is just wrong — the one where the music is too loud, the tables crowded and spaced too greedily together. Or those where lingerers are clearly unwelcome. But the right space is as wonderful as it is rare.

In an essay on writing, the poet and novelist Jay Parini describes his own right places, diners mainly, where for the price of a coffee he has felt the hospitality to spend hours lost in words.

‘What I liked about Lou’s was the distant clatter of dishes, the purr of conversation, and the occasional interruption of a friend. Restaurants provide a kind of white noise, but — unlike real white noise — the sound is human. Noses are blown. People cough. You’re reminded of the world of phlegm and disgestion. And you feel connected. There is also a strange but unmistakable connection between cooking and writing — writing like cooking, is a bringing together of elemental substances for transmutation over a hot flame. It seems fitting that writing and cooking should be going on simultaneously under the same roof.’

‘As people are quick to point out, writing is a desperately lonely activity; although writing in restaurants doesn’t exactly solve that problem, it somewhat softens it. Surrounded by people you don’t necessarily have to interract with, you feel free to concentrate. Once I’m involved in the tactile process of writing — the pleasurable transference of emotions and ideas into language — I find that I don’t really have to worry about concentration. If I can’t concentrate, it means I’m working on the wrong thing or I probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Whatever the reason for not writing, I don’t blame the restaurant.’

Another kindred moment.

jay_pariniJay Parini, ‘Writing in Restaurants’ in A Slice of Life: Contemporary Writers on Food, ed. Bonnie Marranca, New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2003, 57-61.

Some thoughts on writing from someone who knows better than me

Colin Nissan offers some sage advice for people who write, or perhaps better said, those who aspire to write but are too busy thinking about it to actually do it. Can’t say I endorse it all (blush), but it’s food for thought!

tumblr_m9e8kfbG0Y1rekivho1_1280WRITE EVERY DAY

‘Writing is a muscle. Smaller than a hamstring and slightly bigger than a bicep, and it needs to be exercised to get stronger. Think of your words as reps, your paragraphs as sets, your pages as daily workouts. Think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals. Because that is what writing is all about.’


‘Procrastination is an alluring siren taunting you to google the country where Balki from Perfect Strangers was from, and to arrange sticky notes on your dog in the shape of hilarious dog shorts. A wicked temptress beckoning you to watch your children, and take showers. Well, it’s time to look procrastination in the eye and tell that seafaring wench, “Sorry not today, today I write.”’


‘It’s so easy to hide in your little bubble, typing your little words with your little fingers on your little laptop from the comfort of your tiny chair in your miniature little house. I’m taking this tone to illustrate the importance of developing a thick skin. Remember, the only kind of criticism that doesn’t make you a better writer is dishonest criticism. That, and someone telling you that you have weird shoulders.’


‘A writer’s brain is full of little gifts, like a piñata at a birthday party. It’s also full of demons, like a piñata at a birthday party in a mental hospital. The truth is, it’s demons that keep a tortured writer’s spirit alive, not Tootsie Rolls. Sure they’ll give you a tiny burst of energy, but they won’t do squat for your writing. So treat your demons with the respect they deserve, and with enough prescriptions to keep you wearing pants.’

Melbourne and its writers

writer-wretchI only went to make up the numbers. Though a member of Writers Victoria for a few years, I’ve never ventured into an AGM. I only did so this time because of a last-minute email plea for participants to make quorum. I felt obliged.

What I found was a small but passionate group of people practically committed to the life and work of local writers. An idiosyncratic crowd for sure, but inspiring no less. Addicted to this writing business myself, it was reassuring to meet a sample of this previously amorphous community ‘in the flesh’.

There are similar groups to this in every state and territory of Australia, but Victoria’s membership dwarfs them all (AGM attendance aside!). What is it about Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, and the written word? One of its writers Sonya Hartnett describes this city as uniquely and historically ‘bookish’, and another, Sophie Cunningham, ‘a city that lives in its head.’ According to historians, it has ever been so. Even in the early days of the colony, artists, writers and ‘bohemians’ were drawn here in significant numbers. Today, I am told, Melbourne is home to a third of Australia’s writers, a third of the nation’s bookstores, and accounts for over 40 per cent of national book sales.

With great fanfare, Melbourne was officially recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature back in 2008, only the second city to be designated as such after Edinburgh. Today we share the podium with six other cities around the world. In a recent essay in the journal Meanjin, the authors note the qualifications unique to each of these cities, Melbourne’s being tied less to its literary history and more to the bookish interests of its residents. They have us tagged!

I’m not sure any of this means much. As for the cache of ‘urban cool’ this bestows upon us, I suspect it’s more in our imagination than anywhere else. Indeed, the above essay makes the suggestion that the diversity of Melbourne’s current literary interests is as much a result of the city’s ‘less-than-lovely geography’, a factor that keeps us all indoors and reading, than anything more glamorous.

Still, however we got this way, I like it. A bookish city. That’ll do me.

Sonya Hartnett, Life in Ten Houses: A Memoir, Melbourne: Penguin, 2012, 9.

Sophie Cunningham, Melbourne, Sydney: New South, 2011, 7.

Caroline Hamilton & Kirsten Searle, ‘Great Expectations–Making a City of Literature’ in Meanjin (1/2014), 142-151.