Short Story: Alfresco

 

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Hope you enjoy reading this short story ‘Alfresco’ first published in May-June Quadrant 2017.  It took me a year of rewrites until finally reaching a publishable standard. What gave me the idea for the story was that I’d booked into a yoga retreat in Queensland and thought I’d probably get some creative writing ideas when there. But what happened was the retreat was cancelled due to lack of bookings. As I’d written a beginning for the story already I had to make the rest up. It had amused me that you could make a booking for a room with an ‘alfresco’ bathroom: 

She remembers the exact moment she agreed to go to the mid-winter yoga retreat. Her friend Vivian had been there before and said she would come back a new person. Transformed. Continue reading

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Autobiography in Fiction

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When people ask me where I get my ideas from, I tell them I use the world around me. Life is so abundant, if you can write down the actual details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else. Even if you relocate the French doors, fast-spinning overhead fan, small red laptop, and low kneeling-chair from your office that you work in in Sydney into an Artist’s Atelier in the south of France at another time, the story will have truth and groundedness.

In Hermione Hoby’s interview with Elizabeth Strout in the Guardian newspaper the Pulitzer prize winner said her stories have always begun with a person, and her eyes and ears are forever open to these small but striking human moments, squirreling them away for future use. “Character, I’m just interested in character,” she said.

“You know, there’s always autobiography in all fiction,” Strout said, referring to her new novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. “There are pieces of me in every single character, whether it’s a man or a woman, because that’s my starting point, I’m the only person I know.” She went on to explain: “You can’t write fiction and be careful. You just can’t. I’ve seen it with my students over the years, and I think actually the biggest challenge a writer has is to not be careful. So many times students would say, ‘Well, I can’t write that, my boyfriend would break up with me.’ And I’d think, you have to do something that’s going to say something, and if you’re careful it’s just not going to work.”

In 2016 at the launch of my debut novel My Year With Sammy the launcher said: “Libby’s level of detail creates poignant insights into character and relationships. If people know Libby they may find themselves subtly entwined in one of her stories.”

On Goodreads’ website they locate The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath under “Autobiographical Fiction” and describe the book as Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity:

“Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.” – Goodreads

My advice to you is to be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. So here it is. I’m at a Valentine’s Day party. It’s 33 degrees outside. The hostess is sweltering over a hot oven in the kitchen. She is serving up cheese and spinach triangles as aperitifs. Relax, enjoy the party, be present with your eyes and ears open. You will naturally take it all in, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to remember just how it was to be eating outside in the heat under a canvas umbrella, attempting to make conversation with the people on either side of you, and thinking how you can best make an early exit.

“I don’t want to write melodrama; I’m not interested in good and bad, I’m interested in all those little ripples that we all live with. And I think that if one gets a truthful emotion down, or a truthful something down, it is timeless.” – Elizabeth Strout, the Guardian

What about you? Is there autobiography in your fiction?

Short Story: On Valentine’s Day

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On Valentine’s Day was first published in October 2017 in Quadrant magazine. It is set in Perth, Australia. I like my stories to have a strong sense of place, so used a visit to this city to research the setting. Usually it takes me two to six months to write a new piece of fiction of 3,000-5,000 words. This one took about a year of recrafting until the story reached a publishable standard. I was so happy when it was finally accepted. I’m not sure what inspired the story itself. I usually come up with a character and then work out what happens to him or her as the story progresses, but ‘place’ is what grounds me in the story telling.  Continue reading

Writing Tip: Don’t Tell, but Show

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An old one but a good one: don’t tell, but show.

What does it mean exactly? It means don’t tell us about loneliness (or any of those complex words like dishonesty, secrecy, jealousy, obsession, regret, death, injustice, etc) show us what loneliness is. We will read what you’ve written and feel the bite of loneliness. Don’t tell us what to feel. Show us the situation, and that feeling will be triggered in us.

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When you take your child to school on their first day you may find yourself teary and relieved at the same time. Put into words what you see: the child’s face, the wave at the gate, the other mothers saying their goodbyes, another child coming up to take your son by the hand. We will get what you’re trying to say without you telling us directly.

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When you write, be conscious of the senses and how they connect to the experiences you are writing about. Use sight, sound, smell, touch to create concrete pictures. The senses allow you to get as close as humanly possible in words to the wedding, the sunrise, the dog, the suitcase. It’s the best way to penetrate your story and breathe life into it. Don’t tell us about something, drop deep, enter the story and take us with you.

I hope this post on show, don’t tell is useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

A Hammam in Marrakech

 

Some consider a hammam to be the ultimate Moroccan experience.

A hammam is a steam bath where you wash yourself down, sweat out the dirt of the day and then scrub, with an optional massage afterwards.

Because I’d heard the scrubbing can be a bit too strong for fair sensitive skins like mine, I chose the massage-only option. I’d had a good scrub under the shower back at my riad.

My massage at La Maison Arabe in Marrakech (pictured above) was the most luxurious massage I’ve ever experienced. A big strong woman used scented oil to massage every inch of my body (apart from the privates) – around the stomach, around the breasts, all over the place. It was SOOO relaxing and very sensual.

‘In past centuries hammams were the only source of hot water in the medina. Traditionally they are built of mudbrick, lined with tadelakt (satiny hand-polished limestone plaster that traps moisture) and capped with a some with star-studded vents to let steam escape.’ – Lonely Planet

For many Moroccans hammams are as much a social occasion (particularly for women) as they are about bathing. In some of the public hammams non-Muslims are not accepted. Or you can go to a private hammam.

‘Public baths were first introduced to Morocco (and the rest of Africa) by the Romans and adapted to fit in with Islamic ablution rituals – foregoing the communal Roman bathing pool to use running water to wash under instead – after Islam gained a foothold across the region.’ – Lonely Planet

On my 5 day visit to Marrakech I stayed at Riad Daria in the Kasbah. A perfect calm retreat from the chaos of the souks. The souks are the medina’s market streets, criss-crossed with smaller streets lined with storerooms and cubby-hole-sized artisans’ studios.

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Riad Daria in the Kasbah

Riad Daria is an authentic riad with a courtyard garden divided in four parts, with a fountain in the centre.

So here I am back in France on my month long writing-retreat-for-one after a short visit to Marrakech needing to concentrate on WIP again. Who knows? Maybe my trip to exotic Morocco will inspire me to write a book about loneliness, madness, love and existentalism like ‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles.

 

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“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

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“Paul Bowles masterpiece reminds me of some alternate, trippy, version of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, but instead we see the other side of the Mediterranean. Tangier and the deserts of North Africa take the place of the South of France. A different love triangle exposes different forms of loneliness, madness, love, and existential expats.

The thing I love about Bowles is he brings a composer’s mind to writing. His novel isn’t propelled forward by a strong plot (although it has plot) or attractive characters (none of the characters are very attractive), but the music of his language alone pushes and pulls, tugs and compels the reader page after page. It felt very much like I was floating limp and languid in Bowles prose as his hypnotic sentences washed over me and drifted me slowly toward the inevitable end.” – Darwin8u, Goodreads.

Hope you too get to travel to exotic places for inspiration and rejuvenation.

Writing Tip: taste life twice

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Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and the details.”  – Natalie Goldberg

quote by Anais Nin against a night sky

So here I am on a month away from my Sydney home wanting to recharge the creative batteries. I’ve just had a 4 night visit to Marrakech, Morocco. I got back to Villefranche sur Mer, where I’m renting a writing studio, last night. It’s a 3 hour flight between Nice France and Marrakech. So seeing as I’d traveled all the way across the world, I thought it a good time to visit Marrakech. Wow! What a creative experience. All the senses are awakened. Maybe I’ll live life twice and write something set in Morocco.

For now I’m feeling grateful to be able to travel and experience other cultures. The Marrakech-born people I met have never left their country. In the photos you can see me and Morad, the night manager at Riad Daria in Marrakech, one of the very kind and welcoming Moroccon’s who helped me during my stay. We’re pictured on the terrace of the riad. After the chaos of Marrakech’s souks, there’s nothing like a calm retreat. Below us is a corner of the rooftop terrace.

The first pic is the famous Jardin Marjorelle, the beautiful garden once owned by Yves Saint Laurent and home to the Berber Museum. He gifted the garden to Marrakech, the city that adopted him in 1964. Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge bought the electric blue villa and its garden to preserve the vision of its original owner, landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, and keep it open to the public.  A memorial to the French fashion designer was built there. This year a new museum dedicated to him was opened next door to Jardin Marjorelle. I was lucky enough to visit. The museum retraces Saint Laurent’s forty years of creativity, the world of fashion he created, some designs influenced by his life in Marrakech. He too tasted life twice.

 

 

Does solitude enrich creative work?

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I’ve been living for two weeks now in Villefranche sur Mer a small fishing village on the French Riviera. This is the fourth year I’ve rented an apartment here and had a month to  myself to read and to write and go for long walks around the stunning coastline of the Cote d’Azur.

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I’ve had my ups and downs, but what’s new? I love being in this magnificent part of the world but find it challenging being alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. I have tried to learn French, but languages aren’t my forte. It’s certainly a good opportunity to dig deep in silence.

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Check out this article in the Huffington Post on Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain.

As our internal and external environments become louder and louder, more people are beginning to seek out silence, whether through a practice of sitting quietly for 10 minutes every morning or heading off to a 10-day silent retreat.

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It’s mild early winter here on the Mediterranean and on sunny days people still swim and sunbake on the beach. The Bay of Villefranche, reputed as one of the five most beautiful bays in the world, is anchored by two major cities – Nice and Monaco – on either side. Villefranche is still a traditional Nicoise fishing village, pedestrians-only in the Old Town.

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Twice a week there is a fabulous fresh market in the garden square. I especially like the cheese man on a Saturday where I buy Roquefort and Camembert. On Wednesdays I buy Italian Parmesan from the Italian man. Villefranche is close to the border with Italy, so we are able to enjoy a few special Italian treats like pizza and capuccinos. The Wednesday Italian man sells charcuterie and fresh pasta too. Another man cooks and sells socca and pissaladiere, two traditonal favourites of this area. And then there’s the man selling tapinades. The black olive tapinade is my favourite. And, of course, being a fishing village, there’s the fish monger with his freshly caught catch of the day.

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Surrounding Villefranche’s large bay are cliffs and steep hillsides, brimming with olive and citrus trees, Mediterranean pines, bougainvillea and flowering plants. The lush vegetation meets the water’s edge where the shades of blue are dazzling.

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The stunning light levels here on the French Riviera have long attracted the artist and writer community (Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Renoir, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chanel, Cocteau and Nietzsche, to name a few).

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I’ve gone a bit overboard on the sunrise and sunset shots as seen from my apartment Sur le Toit (under the roof), but the colours are so stunning they are one of the highlights of my time here. Inspirational.

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‘In the neutral state of aloneness, the psychoemotional line between solitude and loneliness can be as thin as a razor’s edge and as lacerating to the soul. How to draw it skillfully in orienting ourselves to the world, exterior and interior, is what poet, novelist, and memoirist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in a beautiful poem she penned ten days after her twenty-sixth birthday, decades before she came to contemplate solitude in stunning prose. Originally titled “Considerations,” the poem was slightly revised and published the following year as “Canticle 6” in Sarton’s second poetry collection, the altogether sublime Inner Landscape (public library).’ – Maria Popova

 

CANTICLE 6
by May Sarton

Alone one is never lonely: the spirit
adventures, waking
In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there;
The spirit adventures in sleep, the sweet thirst-slaking
When only the moon’s reflection touches the wild hair.
There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone:
It finds a lovely certainty in the evening and the morning.
It is only where two have come together bone against bone
That those alonenesses take place, when, without warning
The sky opens over their heads to an infinite hole in space;
It is only turning at night to a lover that one learns
He is set apart like a star forever and that sleeping face
(For whom the heart has cried, for whom the frail hand burns)
Is swung out in the night alone, so luminous and still,
The waking spirit attends, the loving spirit gazes
Without communion, without touch, and comes to know at last
Out of a silence only and never when the body blazes
That love is present, that always burns alone, however steadfast.

I’ve brought with me to France on this writing-retreat-for-one the first 40 pages of my novel-in-progress and am working on the story, line by line, to add depth and characterisation. Am having difficulty concentrating on my manuscript though as I struggle with the emotional rollercoaster of jetlag and then a leaking apartment. Feel more settled today since I moved out of Sur le Toit and down to the waterfront. A good night’s sleep helps.

I returned to my manuscript and wrote a new sentence 🙂