Writing Tip: Taste Life Twice

quote by Anais Nin against a night sky

“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

Writing Tip: Critiquing

woman lying on green grass while holding pencil

In the Saturday feedback group, we began talking about the ‘off with his head’ or ‘out-it-goes’ part of writing.  We acknowledged that as a group we’d always been very supportive and encouraging of each others work.  That was because we were all in it together.  Our critiquing was not telling lies; it was from a place of open-hearted acceptance.  Everything you put on the page is acceptable.

Sometimes someone says, ‘I want a rigorous no-holds-barred assessment of my work.’  But what do you say to them when the writing is dull and boring?  Don’t give up your day job?  It doesn’t sit comfortably with most of us to be directly critical of someone’s writing.  It’s like telling someone how ugly their baby is.  All of us find it hard to separate our writing from ourselves, and are prone to take criticism personally.

The feedback sandwich is a widely known technique for giving constructive feedback, by ‘sandwiching’ the criticism between two pieces of praise or compliments.

 

hamburger with cheese and two beef patties

Yesterday, as we passed around copies of our work (just a page or two) we started to address what William Faulkner famously said:

‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’

First of all, we looked for the juice in each piece.  Where did the writing come alive?  ‘Get rid of the rest,’ we said.  ‘Off with his head—out it goes.’   It’s very difficult to be this honest, and not everyone wants to hear it.  ‘I simply want gentle support and a few corrections,’ some of us might say.

Be willing to have the courage to look at your work with truthfulness.  It’s good to know where your writing has energy and vitality, rather than to spend a lot of time trying to make something come to life that is dead on the page.   Keep writing.  Something new will come up.    You don’t want to put your readers to sleep by writing a lot of boring stuff.

Do you have a writing group? Do you find it useful?

Writing Tip

man with hand on temple looking at laptop

It is essential to separate the creator and the editor, or inner critic when you practice writing, so that the creator has plenty of room to breathe, experiment, and tell it like it really is.  If the inner critic is being too much of a problem and you can’t distinguish it from your authentic writing voice, sit down whenever you find it necessary to have some distance from it and put down on paper what the critic is saying, put a spotlight on the words—“You have nothing original to say, what made you think you could write anything anyone would want to read, your writing is crap, you’re a loser, I’m humiliated, you write a load of rubbish, your work is pathetic, and your grammar stinks …”  On and on it goes!

Say to yourself, It’s OK to feel this.  It’s OK to be open to this.

You can learn to cultivate compassion for yourself  during this internal process by practicing Mindfulness Meditation.  Sit up straight, close your eyes, bring your awareness to your inner experience.  Now,  redirect your attention to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen … expanding as the breath comes in … and falling back as the breath goes out.  Use each breath to anchor yourself in the present.   Continue, concentrating on the breath for several minutes.  Now, expand your field of awareness to include the words of the inner critic.  Turn your attention to where in your body you feel the unpleasant thoughts, so you can attend, moment by moment, to the physical reactions to your thoughts.

 “Stay with the bodily sensations, accepting them, letting them be, exploring them without judgment as best you can.”—Mindfulness, Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

Every time you realise that you’re judging yourself, that realisation in itself is an indicator that you’re becoming more aware.

The thing is, the more clearly you know yourself, the more you can accept the critic in you and use it.  If the voice says, “You have nothing interesting to say,” hear the words as white noise, like the churning of a washing machine.  It will change to another cycle and eventually end, just like your thoughts that come and go like clouds in the sky.  But, in the meantime, you return to your notebook and practice your writing.  You put the fear and the resistance down on the page.

*

Do you struggle with an inner critic?  Any words of wisdom you’d like to share?

I Am Not the Stories I Tell

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Sometimes when people read my stories they assume those stories are me.  They are not me, even if I write in the first person.  They were my thoughts and feelings at the time I wrote them.  But every minute we are all changing.  There is a great freedom in this.  At any time we can let go of our old selves and start again.  This is the writing process.  Instead of blocking us, it gives us permission to move on.  Just like in a progressive ballroom dance:  you give your undivided attention to your partner—keep eye contact for the time you are dancing together—but then you move on to the next person in the circle.

The ability to express yourself on the page—to write how you feel about an old lover, a favourite pair of dance shoes, or the memory of a dance on a chilly winter’s night in the Southern Highlands—that moment you can support how you feel inside with what you say on the page.  You experience a great freedom because you are not suppressing those feelings.  You have accepted them, aligned yourself with them.

I have a poem titled ‘This is what it feels like’—it’s a short poem.  I always think of it with gratitude  because I was able to write in a powerful way how it was to be desperate and frightened.  The act of self expression made me feel less of a victim.  But when people read it they often say nothing.  I remind myself, I am not the poem, I am not the stories I write.  People react from where they are in their own lives.  That’s the way things are.  The strength is in the act of writing, of putting pen to paper.   Write your stories and poems, show them to the world, then move on.  The stories are not you.  They are moments in time that pass through you.

The Creative Process

woman in white shirt and blue denim short shorts sitting

Are you finding it hard to focus on a creative project while this health pandemic is sweeping the world? It’s hard to stop thinking and worrying about the horrific consequences worldwide.

Being able to create something new though, is a wonderful way to stop obsessing and to put your thoughts on to something constructive. Creative writing is a perfect example.

For myself, I can’t write about the world around me just now. It is still too raw and I need to process what is happening. So I am concentrating on coming up with other ideas for my stories and poems and novels.

I heard someone say, “The thing to do is put the idea in your subconscious.  Your brain will do the work.”

It takes time for our experience to make its way through our consciousness.  For example, it is hard to write about a journey while you are still in the midst of the adventure.  We have no distance from what is happening to us.  The only things we seem to be able to say are “having a great time”, “the weather is good”, “wish you were here”.  It is also hard to write about a place we just moved to, we haven’t absorbed it yet.  We don’t really know where we are, even if we can walk to the train station without losing our way.  We haven’t experienced three scorching summers in this country or seen the dolphins migrating south along the  coast in the winter.

“Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.  I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast  (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964).

So we take in experience, but we need to let things make their way through our consciousness for a while and be absorbed by our whole selves.  We are bower birds, collecting experience, and from the thrown away apple skins, outer lettuce layers, tea leaves, and chicken bones of our minds come our ideas for stories and poems and songs.  But this does not come any time soon.  It takes a very long time (three to ten years in the case of literary fiction).  We need to keep picking through those scraps until some of the thoughts together form a pattern or can be organised around a central theme, something  we can shape into a narrative.  We mine our hidden thoughts for ideas.  But the ideas need time to percolate:  to slowly filter through.

Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, summed up what could be the creative process when he wrote “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Each morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing and invite

them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

 

Jalaluddin Rumi, in The Essential Rumi

Translated by Coleman Barks, 1999

Our work is to keep rummaging through the rubbish bins of our minds, exercising the writing muscle, in readiness to answer that knock at the door when it comes.

As the author Vivian Gornick said, “The writers life is the pits.  You live alone and you work alone, every day I have to recreate myself.”  She paused and laughed.  “But when the work is going well there is nothing that compares.”

What about you? Are you able to force yourself to concentrate on creative writing projects during the corona virus pandemic?

What can you do while in isolation?

photo of a woman thinking

David Dale in the Sydney Morning Herald writes about Isaac Newton’s self-isolation during the plague year 1665-66 and how he passed the time.

 

‘Newton was 23, a student at Cambridge. When the black plague spread there from London, he retreated to his birthplace – Woolsthorpe Manor, near the town of Grantham (later the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher). During what he called his “annus mirabilis”, or wonderful year, at Woolsthorpe, Newton did three significant things:

He invented the mathematical system called calculus,

He drilled a hole in the shutter of his bedroom window and held a prism up to the beam of sunlight that came through it, discovering that white light is made up of every colour (and giving Pink Floyd an iconic album cover), and

He watched apples falling from the trees in his garden and theorised about a force called gravity, which keeps the moon revolving around planet Earth. (He later wrote: “I can calculate the movement of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”)’ – Sydney Morning Herald 

 

So what can you do while in isolation amid the corona virus outbreak to stay calm and centred and to concentrate your mind away from the current crisis? A writing project could be the answer.

What to write? If you’ve been wondering whether to write a short story or a novel, here are some thoughts on these two different forms of creative fiction:

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 here 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 of the form.  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.

Self-isolation can give us an opportunity to create something new.

Good luck everyone during this horrific pandemic and please take care.

World Maternal Mental Health Day

Renoir painting of mother on cane chair outside breastfeeding child
Pierre Auguste Renoir

Wednesday, 6 May 2020 is World Maternal Mental Health Day: raising awareness of maternal mental health issues so that more women will get treatment and fewer will suffer.

I responded to a call out for submissions of stories, essays and poems that address perinatal depression and anxiety.

I’m delighted to tell you that my short story ‘The New Baby’, first published in Quadrant magazine, has been selected for inclusion in this anthology.

The planned release date for the anthology is May this year, to coincide with World Maternal Mental Health Day.

What a privilege to be part of this important collection of 25 stories, poems and essays that will also be featured as part of PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Awareness) week in November.

Every November PANDA Week provides an opportunity to increase understanding in the community about an illness that is more common and more serious than many people realise.

Autobiography in Fiction

book cover, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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 Dell 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 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.”

At the launch of one of my books MC Susanne Gervay OAM 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.”

My advice to you, dear writer, 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 🙂

In the interview with Elizabeth Strout in the Guardian, Strout said:

“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.”

The Bigger the Issue, the Smaller You Write

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A quote: the bigger the issue, the smaller you write - Richard Price

A fantastic example of this writing advice is Kurt Vonnegut’s  Slaughterhouse-Five.

Poignant and hilarious, threaded with compassion and, behind everything, the cataract of a thundering moral statement. – The Boston Globe

book cover of Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse-Five'

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don’t let the ease of reading fool you – Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy – and humor. – Goodreads

Highly recommended. A masterpiece.

Book Review: ‘Stories from Bondi’

book cover of 'Stories from Bondi' showing people on the sand by the sea
Book reviewer Dr Beatriz Copello, D.C.A. (Creative Writing) U.O.W., Cultural Editor of Semanario El Español and Psychologist, has written a wonderful review of  my new book STORIES FROM BONDI.
She writes:

Stories from Bondi is a collection of short stories by Libby Sommer.  Libby Sommer is the award-winning Australian author of My Year with Sammy (2015), The Crystal Ballroom (2017) and The Usual Story (2018) and is a regular contributor of stories and poems to Quadrant Magazine.

The stories contained in this book are varied in tone, mood and themes and they go from the very light and funny to sombre and sad, and from the innocent to the complex.  Most of the stories are set in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney and for the inhabitants of this city it is fun to recognise familiar places and people from foreign places will learn about the beauty of  Sydney.

Australian humour is sprinkled over the pages as well as truly Australian expressions, typical social comments and comments about the style of clothing the characters wear. Some authors describe characters’ clothes in a way that is pedantic.  This is not the case with Sommer, the way this author dresses her characters emphasize aspects of their personality.

Various stories are about Anny, a well-defined character who the reader gets to know through her many and varied experiences.  Through Anny’s point of view the reader encounters reflections about modern women, their issues, concerns and sexual mores.

In Stories From Bondi the sea is ever present, as well as the seagulls … seagulls flapping wings, seagulls walking on sand or seaweed, seagulls flying … seagulls who are witnesses of Anny’s life.

Strong women’s issues are covered in some of the stories, but also issues that many women readers would identify as their own, issues such as body image, for example in “After The Rain” where Anny expresses concerns about her figure, the author writes:

“Although there are fans on the ceiling, it’s very hot in the restaurant.  Anny wants to take off her cardigan but she doesn’t want to expose her upper arms that is, that are less than perfect even though she does weights and other things at the gym.

She wears a jacket or a cardigan always now to draw the eyes and attention away from that part of her body that is growing larger at a more rapid rate than the rest of her, which is causing her much alarm.”

Sommer with her imaginative mind take us to places, where many women on their own would not dare to go, like lonely overseas trips or to Sex Clubs.  Yes, Anny visits a sex club in the story titled “Around Midnight”, story which is packed with the unexpected and with humour.  Although, I enjoyed reading this story I would have loved for it to have stronger and more explicit sex scenes.  Humour is also found in other stories like in “It’s Not Easy Being On Holidays”, she writes:

“Anny said, On New Year’s Eve I ran my hand up the inside of a man’s trousers from the ankles up and discovered he wasn’t wearing any underwear either.

You discover a little something?

A big something, she said.

They both laughed.”

In the story mentioned above there are also a few really funny passages full of innocence, one of these is when Anny phones her son to tell him about her holidays, Sommer writes:

“And Pamela and Annabel all over each other in front of me.  I can’t stand it.

Would it worry you so much if they were straight?

I can’t stand anyone being passionate in front of me — straight or gay.  It makes me jealous.  It’s inconsiderate of them.

Well, what did you expect going on holidays with two gays, two lesbians, a bisexual and a dog?

You’re right.”

Sommer has the ability to create believable characters and place them in real life situations, whether these situations are arranged or occur by chance. The ‘unusual’ sometimes is found in this writer’s narrative, like when she describes different types of Glutei Maximi, for those unacquainted with Latin this mean simply ‘bums’. Sommer is a good observer and as such gives us good descriptions of ‘bums’, the character Anny comments:

“Gradually the men on the beach sauntered towards the boat with money clasped in their bare hands.  They lined up one behind the other as they waited their turn, assorted body shapes and colours.  Tight firm bums, droopy wrinkly bums. Some with tell-tale underwear marks and others browned all over.”

Slices of life are brought to the reader with cinematic qualities: sceneries, the characters, the situations, all can be seen in the mind’s eye like in a movie. The following is a small example:

“Max leant back on his elbows nibbling on a bunch of grapes.  He knocked the bottle of red wine beside him.  The bright red liquid seeped into the white sand.

A fly buzzed around the apples.

A trail of ants marched towards the bread.

The Brie softened in the sun.”

The above paragraph is the ending of one of the stories, a simple ending that says so much.

In the collection there is one very sad story of abuse and growing up too quickly and not knowing how to stop abusers who prey on innocent girls.  There are also issues experienced by the characters which are very common to women one of this is the need to feel safe, the story “The Backpack” has that need very clearly expressed by the character:

“I knew my children would be pleased I had a base.  I didn’t want them to worry. It was the thing I wanted the most secretly, studying maps, absorbing travel books. To be safe, a desire whispered to the moon that moved behind my shoulder at night.  If you guide me to a safe haven, I promise to be happy.  And the moon listened.  I did my best.”  How many women would identify with this? Many it is my guess.

All the main characters in Stories From Bondi are women, mainly writers who are portrayed as intelligent, inquisitive, reflective and observant who experience an array of emotions, men would find the stories fascinating and would learn about what goes in women’s heads.

Bondi is not the only setting mentioned in the book, other Australian cities and small towns are the background of some the stories, places like Perth, Cairns, Wee Wa, Brindabella as well as European cities.

Sometimes the author transitions from omniscient narrator to first person narrator, this works in most of the stories but in some small sections this does not happen. This minor issue does not demerit the stories at all.

There is one experimental story in the collection: “Around The World In Fifty Steps” where the author writes sentences and short paragraphs and numbers them from 1 to 50. Some of the sentences are dialogues, others propositions, information about the character and suggestions. The result is positive, the reader gets to know the character and what is going on in her life.

Some of the stories mirror women’s fantasy about escaping the routine, pain, loneliness, disappointment and sorrows as well as those close relationships that can be so complicated such as between mother and daughter. Also the reader will find sad possible romances that never get anywhere like in her previous novel The Usual Story.

Stories from Bondi is a book well written, with an interesting narrative and with characters true to life. Again Sommer brings to light another book in which the reader can submerge themselves into place and characters. Highly recommended.

About the Reviewer:

Dr Beatriz Copello, is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, she writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The author’s poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish).

Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.