‘Painstaking Progress’ revisited

 

sunset over the ocean

‘Painstaking Progress’ is another of my stories, like ‘Art and the Mermaid’, that was first published in Quadrant Magazine. It shows the difficulties of the writing process for the narrator as she tries to make sense of  her family history and agonizes about the relationship with her young lover.

Painstaking Progress

by Libby Sommer

I’m imagining a cloudy autumn morning.  There’s a room.  Half office, half bedroom.  Not too large and not too small.  The windows of the room face east and look out towards the ocean across the expanse of a green gully.

I picture a woman sitting on a bed with pillows behind her back.  The windows are open.  Perhaps it is Saturday morning.  On the bedside table is a mug of tea and a photograph of the woman’s daughter on her wedding day.

The wind begins to stir the big trees outside and the morning haze is beginning to move and for a short moment the sun lightens the carpet and heavy dark wood furniture.  The shadows of the curtains’ curves darken the floor, almost invisible to the woman on the bed.   The morning sun lightens the CD player, the alarm clock, the piles of books stacked on the revolving Victorian bookcase.

She looks out at the water and at the triangle of beach.  Sometimes it seems that nothing much changes out there, although on some days the waves break close to shore and at other times further out to sea.  She can see it all from the bed, even at night time.  The bed faces the beach and the ocean, and so does the desk.  The room is like standing at the rail of a ship.

On the radio:  ‘Waves, to me, are a reason to live,’ says the surfer.  ‘When you see the roar, the jaws, there is nothing that touches it on the face of the earth.’

In June the twilight begins in the afternoon.  The days close in on me, here in

this room.  The infinite possibilities in the sky and the sea and the possibility of nothing.

What is this writing life?  It tears me to pieces every day.

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Have made it to the top of the mountain

red and black book cover 'The Crystal Ballroom' by Libby Sommer

Have finally made it to the top of the second-book-publication mountain. Received pre-release copy of The Crystal Ballroom this week. Looking good. You can order copies now through the Ginninderra Press website . Also available as an ebook from Amazon, Book Depository and other online sellers.

‘Libby Sommer lays bare the foibles of human nature in her finely observed stories of love and loss in the singles dance scene. Brilliantly drawn with wit, compassion and poignancy, the characters you meet in The Crystal Ballroom are sure to remind you of someone—maybe even yourself.’ – Jan Cornall, Writer’s Journey.

 ‘Libby Sommer exposes the secret lives of the singles who dance at The Crystal Ballroom. Authentic and powerful, this unique book will be loved by the dancers and readers.’ Frida Kotlyar, ballroom, Latin and Argentine tango dancer.

 Happy happy me.

What’s stopping you?

two men trying to push truck out of mud

How many wonderful ideas have we had in our lives that never became anything more than ideas?  What stopped them from becoming reality?  Probably lack of drive, or fear, or both.

If the idea of writing a story, writing a memoir, or writing a blog lights a spark within you, sets off a signal, causes you to drool—or fills you with unspeakable anxiety—then you are ready to write.  What is holding you back is not lack of drive, but fear.  Unadulterated, stark fear.

  • Fear of what?
  • Fear of being unable to write well and being criticized by others?
  • Fear of being unable to stay on track long enough to get to an ending?
  • Fear that you just don’t have what it takes to maintain focus to tell a good story?

Research into the way the brain operates has revealed that there are two sides to the brain, left and right.  Much of our fear of writing comes from the way these two sides do or don’t work together.

“We might term the right brain ‘the creator,’ for apparently it allows us to do creative things—make connections, manifest ideas, imagine situations, see pictures of events.  The left side analyses, categorizes, recalls words, and performs its learning functions in a step-by-step manner,”  Bernard Selling, Writing From Within.

The analytic left brain has a compartment that houses the “critic.”  He or she is the person in us who says,

  • Watch out!
  • You can’t do that!
  • You’ll fail, so don’t even try.
  • You know you’re not good at that!

“If those two voices in you want to fight, let them fight.  Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place.  Unfortunately, those two fighters often come with you to your notebook since they are inside your head.  So you might have to give them five or ten minutes of voice in your notebook.  Let them carry on in writing.  It is amazing that when you give those voices writing space, their complaining quickly gets boring and you get sick of them,” Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

It’s just resistance.

Sometimes, the harder you try, the more you become stuck in your own negativity.  It can feel like car tyres spinning in a bog and you just can’t move forward with ‘the work’.  Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write.  That’s when you need to say ‘stop’ and put it aside for now.  Look for another outlet for your energy before starting again.  Take a break and read books by wonderful writers.  When I get stuck I turn to contemporary poetry for inspiration – thoughtful and passionate poems about living in the modern world.  Some of my favourite poets are:  Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Les Murray and Joanne Burns.

Sometimes I start another writing project before going back to the original one to get more perspective on things.  Other times I will study the beginning and endings of books to get inspiration for a new beginning or a new ending, or sometimes work backwards from the ending as a way to restart.

But don’t get caught in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure.  When it is your time to write, write.  Put yourself out of your misery and just do it.

What about you? Any tips you’d like to share about overcoming the resistance to write?

Header image:  Creative Commons

Fortnightly Story: Art and the Mermaid

mermaid swimming deep in the sea

I wrote this fishy tale as part of a series of stories set in Bondi:  

Once upon a time it came to pass, so it is said, that an enormous storm swept the coast of New South Wales, doing extensive damage to the ocean beaches – destroying jetties, breakwaters and washing away retaining walls.  Mountainous seas swept Bondi Beach and dashed against the cliffs carrying ruin with every roller.  At North Bondi near Ben Buckler a huge submerged block of sandstone weighing 233 tons was lifted ten feet and driven 160 feet to the edge of the cliff where it remains to this day.

One day a Sydney sculptor, Lyall Randolph, looked upon the rock and was inspired.  The sculptor was a dreamer.  Let us, he said, have two beautiful mermaids to grace the boulder.  Using two Bondi women as models he cast the two mermaids in fibreglass and painted them in gold.

Without Council approval and at his own expense he erected The Mermaids for all to see on the giant rock that had been washed up by the sea.  The Mermaids sat side by side on the rock.  One shaded her eyes as she scanned the ocean and the other leant back in a relaxed fashion with an uplifted arm sweeping her hair up at the back of her neck.  Their fishy tails complemented the curves and crevices of their bodies.

It so happened that less than a month after The Mermaids were put in place, one was stolen and damaged.  The Council held many meetings to decide if she should be replaced using ratepayers’ money.  The council had previously objected to the sculptor placing the statues there without Council permission.  The sculptor had argued that before placing The Mermaids in position he had taken all necessary steps to obtain the requisite permission.

The large boulder at Ben Buckler, upon which The Mermaids were securely bolted and concreted, he said, is not in the municipality of Waverley at all.  It is in the sea.  According to the Australian Constitution high-tide mark is the defined limit of the Waverley Council’s domain.  The Maritime Services Board and the Lands Department both advised me they had no objection to the erection of The Mermaids.

One Waverley Alderman said he wished both mermaids had been taken instead of only one.  Someone else said the sculptor didn’t need the Council’s permission to put them there in the first place and the The Mermaids had given Bondi a great attraction without any cost to the Council.  The sculptor said The Mermaids had brought great publicity to the Council.  They had been featured in films, newspapers, television and the National Geographic magazine.

The Mayor used his casting vote in favour of the mermaid and she was re-installed.

For over ten years the two beautiful golden mermaids reclined at Ben Buckler, attracting many thousands of sightseers to the beach.

Poised on the huge boulder they braved the driving storms of winter until one day one was washed off.  The Council saw its opportunity and removed the other.

Today, only the remnants of one mermaid remain – but not on the rock.  In a glass cabinet in Waverley Library at Bondi Junction all that is left of the two beautiful mermaids is a figure with half a face.  There’s a hole instead of a cheek, a dismembered torso, part of an uplifted arm, the tender groove of an armpit.  And there, down below, a complete fish’s tail.

Copyright © 2017 Libby Sommer

First published in Quadrant

Header image:  Creative Commons

 

Is it a short story or a novel?

white laptop,black and white notepad and pen, white mobile, on desk

Is a novel a short story that keeps going, or, is it a string of stories with connective tissue and padding, or, is it something else?  Essayist Greg Hollingshead believes that the primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene.

“It’s not baggy wordage that causes the diffusiveness of the novel.  It’s this long-distance haul of meaning.”  Greg Hollingshead

There is a widespread conviction among fiction writers that sooner or later one moves on from the short story to the novel.  When John Cheever described himself as the world’s oldest living short story writer, everyone knew what he meant.

Greg Hollingshead says that every once in a while, to the salvation of literary fiction, there appears a mature writer of short stories—someone like Chekhov, or Munro—whose handling of the form at its best is so undulled, so poised, so capacious, so intelligent, that the short in short story is once again revealed as the silly adjective it is, for suddenly there are simply stories, spiritual histories, narratives amazingly porous yet concentrated and undiffused.

When you decide you want to write in a particular form—a novel, short story, poem—read a lot of writing in that form.  Notice the rhythm. How does it begin?  What makes it complete?  When you read a lot in a particular form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit at your desk to write, you produce that same structure.  In reading novels your whole being absorbs the pace of the sentences, the setting of scenes, knowing the colour of the bedspread and how the writer gets her character to move down the hallway to the front door.

I sit at my desk thinking about form as a low-slung blanket of cloud blocks my view of the sky.  Through the fly screen I inhale the sweet smell of earth after rain as another day of possibility beckons.

We might write five novels before we write a good one.  I wrote five book-length manuscripts before one was finally accepted for publication. My skill was in the short form. I’d published dozens of short stories in prestigious literary journals. So it made sense that my first book, ‘My Year With Sammy’ (Ginninderra Press) is a novella –  a small book.

What about you? Is your skill in the short form or the marathon?

book cover My Year With Sammy

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