My First Published Short Story in 2000

Libby Sommer with her book The Crystal Ballroom in book store
At Harry Hartog Bookseller

I’m very happy to say that I have been publishing short stories and poems in literary journals for 21 years.

‘Around the World In Fifty Step’ was my first published story. It appeared in Overland Literary Journal Autumn, 2000. Since then, more than 40 have been published.

Have a read of this first one. Hope you enjoy it.

Around the World In Fifty Steps:

  1. Joanna lives in a Sydney suburb with her two sons. It’s 1992 and Australia is in recession.
  2. “I’m sick of licking arse in a service industry,” she says of her marketing business. “And I’m fed up with financial insecurity, the feast or famine of too many projects or not enough and chasing new business and getting clients to pay their bills.”
  3. “I’m thinking of renting the house out and travelling,” she tells her grown up sons after reading “The Pitter Patter of Thirty-Year-Old Feet” in the Sydney Morning Herald.
  4. “You’re ready to leave home are you mum?” said one son.
  5. “Why don’t you just go on a long holiday instead,” said the other.
  6. “I want a new beginning, a change of career, a new home, a community of people, an intimate relationship with a significant other, that sort of thing.”
  7. “You could always get yourself a dog,” suggests a friend.
  8. Her son moves out when she puts his rent up.
  9. “Are you going to wait till he buys a new house for cash before you ask for a decent rent?” her mother had said.
  10. “I’ve decided to go and live with Dad for a change,” says the other son.
  11. “I’ll be away for six to twelve months,” Joanna says as she throws her client files on the rubbish tip.
  12. She spends the spring in Italy. The summer in England, Scotland and Ireland. The autumn walking the gorge country of the Ardeche in France.
  13. In the winter she rents a studio apartment in Villefranche on the French Riviera. The studio belongs to a friend of a friend so she’s able to get it at a good price. She works as a casual deck hand on one of the luxury cruisers in dry dock for maintenance. “The first thing I want you to do,” says her boss when she arrives at work on the first day, “is blitz the tender.” After a backbreaking morning of hard physical work cleaning the small run-about she goes to lunch. She orders a salad nicoise and a coffee and realises her lunch will cost her a morning’s pay.
  14. A young and handsome French man who lives in Paris but comes to Villefranche to visit his grandmother most weekends, pursues her. Joanna comes to realise that French men love and cherish women as much as they appreciate good food.
  15. She shops at the markets, paints and reads and falls in love with the light and the colours of the south of France.
  16. “I’m able to live contentedly alone without a regular job, without a car, without speaking the language,” she writes to her friends back home.
  17. In the summer she moves on again before the tourist masses arrive and the rent goes up.
  18. She gives away to her new friends in Villefranche all the things that won’t now fit in her backpack but keeps her paint brushes and pallet knife.
  19. On the Greek island of Skyros she joins a group of landscape artists led by a famous English painter.
  20. “My purpose in leading this group is to help everyone find their own unique style,” says the woman.
  21. Joanna spends the autumn in London meeting with other artists from the island and the woman becomes her mentor and they meet for a cup of tea every week and talk about the isolation of being an artist as well as many other things.
  22. “It’s important to stop and regenerate before the creative battery runs flat,” she says.
  23. Joanna paints every day and goes out with an English man named Clive.
  24. “Your painting is vivid and alive,” says the famous English artist. “I’ll write you a letter of introduction to my contacts in Australia when you’re ready to exhibit this collection.”
  25. Clive has a strong face with chiselled square cheekbones. Dark brown eyes and dark hair that falls in a square fringe on his forehead. His fingers are long and sensitive for playing the piano.
  26. “What are you doing there?” her mother asks on the phone from across the ocean.
  27. “I’m painting,” says Joanna.
  28.  “But what are you doing?”
  29.   “My mother is like a poisonous gas that can cross from one side of the world to the other,” Joanna says.
  30. Joanna dreams about her sons every night and Clive tells her she cries in her sleep.
  31. She yearns for the bright Australian light and for the sound of the ocean.
  32. She returns to Australia for her eldest son’s wedding.
  33. In Sydney, Joanna supplements her income from the house rental by getting a job as a casual for a clothing company. She unpacks boxes and steampresses the garments. Her back, neck and shoulders ache and she suspects she’s getting RSI from the steampresser.
  34. Clive rings to say he’s coming to visit her.
  35. In preparation for his arrival she moves all her furniture out of storage and rents a small place near the beach hoping that he’ll love it in Australia and decide to stay.
  36. Two weeks before his arrival Clive rings to say he’s not coming and Joanna finds out through a friend that he’s met someone else and is moving in with her.
  37. She tears up his photos and throws his Christmas present at the wall.
  38. Joanna stops painting.
  39. She reflects on the past and all that she’s lost.
  40. I thought when love for you died, I should die. It’s dead. Alone, most strangely, I live on. Rupert Brooke.
  41. Joanna stays in bed most days but still feels so tired that she can only remain vertical for four hours in any twenty-four hour period.
  42. The phone stops ringing.
  43. She rehearses her own death by going to the edge of the cliff.
  44. From the edge she sketches the waves breaking on rocks, the lone seagull on the shore at the water’s edge.
  45. At home she fills in the drawing, blending black charcoal and white pastel reminding herself the darkest hour is before the dawn.
  46. And, after winter spring always comes.
  47. Joanna sells the house where she lived with her children and spends half the money on a home unit overlooking the ocean and the rest of the money on Australian shares.
  48. Her new home faces the east and she can smell the salt from the ocean.
  49. “It takes twenty years to be a successful artist,” echoes in her mind.
  50. On a new canvas she drags the colours of the sunrise across the blank white space.

Copyright © 2000 Libby Sommer

9 Tips for Managing Writers’ RSI

Repetitive strain injury often starts gradually but can soon become severely debilitating. But there are ways to nip it in the bud – and alleviate the worst symptoms.

1. Take Frequent Breaks

Take short, frequent breaks from repetitive tasks such as typing. A 10-minute break every hour. Use the computer only as much as you have to. Small hand movements, like scrolling on a screen, seem to set off RSI.

2. Type using both hands

It’s like playing the piano; correct fingering is essential. We tend to overuse one side of the body.

Become ambidextrous, e.g. use the mouse in your other hand, lift the kettle with the other hand.

3. Move

Get up from your desk every 30 minutes and move your neck and shoulders to release tension.

4. Use a Fountain Pen

When writing by hand, use a thick grip fountain pen that flows really well, rather than a ballpoint pen. Needing to push down on the pen, even lightly, makes the inflammation of RSI worse.

5. Check the ergonomics of your work station

Keep wrists straight and flat when typing. Sit with thighs level, feet flat on floor (or on footrest), sit up straight, shoulders relaxed, upper arms at sides, not splayed out, forearms horizontal or tilted slightly downwards, so knees and elbows are at a right angle. Keep the top of your screen at eye level and adjust the position of your keyboard, so it’s easy to reach without stretching or hunching. Don’t slouch. Use good posture. To keep wrists straight and flat use a gel wrist rest for the keyboard and the mouse.

6. Keep wrist straight when sleeping

Don’t curl your hands into a fist when sleeping. Some people wear a brace to keep their sore wrist straight.

7. Strengthen the supporting muscles

A physio will give you exercises to do to strengthen the arms. e.g. bicep curls

8. Stretch

Stretch neck, shoulders, arms, wrists. I find yoga is excellent for a full body stretch. The downward facing dog pose can cause discomfit in the hands, but I try to remember to flatten the knuckles to reduce pressure on the wrists.

9. Massage

Like yoga, a regular massage helps keep the body aligned and pain free.

Hope you find these tips useful. Good luck.

Writing Tip: Flash Fiction

Have you tried flash fiction yet? What does flash fiction mean?

‘A flash fiction piece is a self-contained story (beginning/middle/end), 1,000 words or less, that can entertain, intrigue, and satisfy a reader during an F5 tornado. That’s it. No genre restrictions, age requirements, or prior experience needed. Just quick, clean stories.’ – Writer’s Digest

‘Part poetry, part narrative, flash fiction–also known as sudden fictionmicro fiction, short short stories, and quick fiction—is a genre that is deceptively complex.’ – The Review Review

‘Flash fiction is a fictional work of extreme brevity that still offers character and plot development. Identified varieties, many of them defined by word count, include the six-word story, the 280-character story, the “dribble”, the “drabble”, “sudden fiction”, flash fiction, nanotale, and “micro-story”.’ – Wikipedia

I like writing in a short form. I’ve been told I have the sensibility of a poet because I have the ability to distill, so the short form suits me. You may be more of a long distance runner, rather than a sprinter, and prefer the long form of a novel.

Have a read of my flash fiction titled It’s Pot Luck When You Move Into A Unit, winner of the short short fiction UTS Alumni Competition a few years ago. Hope you enjoy it.

It’s Pot Luck When You Move Into a Unit

A nice quiet weekend? the woman downstairs said.  What do you mean? I said, through the open back door, a bag of rubbish in each hand.  She smoothed her ironing on the board and said, They weren’t around over the weekend—with the baby.  She looked happy.  I’m lucky living on the top floor, I said.  She nodded towards the other side of the building.  Jim isn’t so luckyhe’s got the woman upstairs, she said, When he plays the piano and she thumps on the floor.   She put the iron back on its stand.  She’s heavy-footed, that woman.  Bang, bang, bang.   I hear her coming down the stairs every morning at six, and the slam of the front door. 

That night the wind knocked my vase off the window ledge.  I lay awake wondering if the noise of the smash had woken up the people underneath—the ones whose barbecuing sends smoke and disgusting meat smells into my unit.  Nothing clings to your furniture like the stink from last week’s burnt fat.   Sorry about the crash, I muttered to the floor, It was the wind.

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2018

Why not try your hand at writing in this short form and enter a flash fiction competition. Good luck.

Writing Tip: Spirituality and Creativity

What is the relationship between spirituality and creativity? The discipline and focused attention cultivated through meditation help us do one thing at a time, totally and absolutely, which greatly enhances our writing.

‘Contemplative practice, daily nature walks, and still, silent listening can be among the best natural meditations. They help clarify our minds and uplift the heart, dissolving our ordinary preoccupations and mental states that dissipate the fertile spirit within. Such daily disciplines are also excellent tonics for our agitated, febrile brains and weary bodies. When we ease into the realm of non-doing–what Chinese Buddhists called wu wei–there is more room for our mysterious, unfabricated inner self to naturally emerge.’ – Lama Surya Das

It’s tough being a writer. Very tough. As Thomas Mann says, A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Dinty Moore, in his book The Mindful Writer, Noble Truths of the Writing Life, says his lifelong pursuit of writing and creativity has helped to open him to the path of Buddhism:

‘Find inspiration and insight on writing as a spiritual practice through astute quotes, thoughtful advice, and productive exercises on both mindfulness and craft.  This isn’t your typical “how to write” book. Author Dinty W. Moore, a well-respected writing coach and teacher, thoughtfully illuminates the creative process: where writing and creativity originate, how mindfulness plays into work, how to cultivate good writing habits and grow as a person, and what it means to live a life dedicated to writing.’ – The Mindful Writer

Here’s to Mindfulness and Meditation to help us on our way through our roller coaster lives as creative writers.

Writing Tip: At the Beginning, Pen and Paper

When I used to teach classes to beginning writers, it was good.  It forced me to think back to the beginning to when I first put pen to paper.  The thing is, every time we sit down and face the blank page, it’s the same.  Every time we start a new piece of writing, we doubt that we can do it again.  A new voyage with no map.  As people say, it is like setting off towards the horizon, alone in a boat, and the only thing another person can do to help us, is to wave from the shore.

So when I used to teach a creative writing class, I had to tell them the story all over again and remember that this is the first time my students are hearing it.  I had to start at the very beginning.

First up, there’s the pen on the page.  You need this intimate relationship between the pen and the paper to get the flow of words happening.  A fountain pen is best because the ink flows quickly.  We think faster than we can write.  It needs to be a “fat” pen to avoid RSI.

Consider, too, your notebook.  It is important.  The pen and paper are your basic tools, your equipment, and they need to be with you at all times.  Choose a notebook that allows you plenty of space to write big and loose.  A plain cheap thick spiral notepad is good.

After that comes the typing up on the computer and printing out a hard copy.  It’s a right and left brain thing.  You engage the right side of the brain, the creative side, when you put pen to paper, then bring in the left side, the analytic side, when you look at the print out.  You can settle back comfortably with a drink (a cup of tea even) and read what you’ve written.  Then edit and rewrite.

Patrick White said that writing is really like shitting; and then, reading the letters of Pushkin a little later, he found Pushkin said exactly the same thing.  Writing is something you have to get out of you.

I hope this Writing Tip is helpful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.

Writing Tip: Start Writing

When I used to teach classes to beginning writers, it was good.  It forced me to think back to the beginning to when I first put pen to paper.  The thing is, every time we sit down and face the blank page, it’s the same.  Every time we start a new piece of writing, we doubt that we can do it again.  A new journey with no map – like setting off towards the horizon alone in a boat and the only thing another person can do to help is to wave from the shore.

So when I used to teach a creative writing class, I had to tell them the story all over again and remember that this is the first time my students are hearing it.  I had to start at the very beginning.

First up, there’s the pen on the page.  You need this intimate relationship between the pen and the paper to get the flow of words happening.  A fountain pen is best because the ink flows quickly.  We think faster than we can write.  It needs to be a “fat” pen to avoid RSI.

Consider, too, your notebook.  It is important.  The pen and paper are your basic tools, your equipment, and they need to be with you at all times.  Choose a notebook that allows you plenty of space to write big and loose.  A plain cheap thick spiral notepad is good.

After that comes the typing up on the computer and printing out a hard copy.  It’s a right and left brain thing.  You engage the right side of the brain, the creative side when you put pen to paper, then bring in the left side, the analytic side, when you edit the print out as you settle back comfortably with a drink (a cup of tea, even) and read what you’ve written.

Patrick White said that writing is really like shitting; and then, reading the letters of Pushkin a little later, he found Pushkin said exactly the same thing.  Writing is something you have to get out of you.

typing writing on a pink background

Whether writing a story or writing a blog, start writing, no matter what.

My Flash Fiction, Sober Sixty

Libby Sommer and 'Grieve" anthology

Have a read of my flash fiction ‘Sober Sixty’ first published in the August 2020 Grieve Anthology, Stories and Poems of Grief and Loss.

Sober Sixty:

Samantha’s single women friends were envious, although she assured them Johnny wasn’t perfect. Mood swings, challenging stuff like that.

Nobody messed with Johnny. Nobody knew better than he did, he was always watching YouTube and learning new facts and figures. Also, he rode a motorbike and practiced shooting at weekends. There were Facebook groups for bike riders and a rifle range nearby. Johnny was proud of being a rev-head and a good shot with his gun, and not many people could disagree that he had unusual interests for a man his age.

‘Sober since forty and counting,’ he said about his sobriety. They didn’t talk about his twenties and thirties.

There’s a photograph of the two of them from Christmas day. Johnny had tried to lower himself to Samantha’s height for the photo so they’d be on the same level. ‘Stand up tall,’ she’d said. ‘Stand to your full height.’ ‘That’s right,’ he’d said. ‘You like things big.’

‘What does ATP in ATP Cup stand for?’ was the type of thing Johnny would call out while she poured him a glass of water before setting out on a stroll around the block.

Samantha thought she knew the answer, but didn’t want to risk being wrong. She’d learnt to tiptoe around his wildness and dreaded the fighting when she wasn’t attentive enough to his needs. Dry drunk, AA called it. The unpredictable rages were doing her head in. She knew she needed the courage to walk away.

Now she’s getting by a day at a time.

Her friends say she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s dodged a bullet.

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2020

Grieve 2020 Anthology available from Hunter Writer’s Centre website or Booktopia https://hunterwriterscentre.org/bookshop/

Books on Writing Process

 

One of my favourite books on the writing process is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, a small and passionate guide to the terrain of a writer’s world.

Dillard begins:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

Annie Dillard has written eleven books, including the memoir of her parents, An American Childhood; the Northwest pioneer epic The Living; and the nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek winner of the 1975 Pullizer Prize.  A gregarious recluse, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“For non-writers, The Writing Life is a glimpse into the trials and satisfactions of a life spent with words. For writers, it is a warm, rambling, conversation with a stimulating and extraordinarily talented colleague.””–Chicago Tribune””A kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer’s task…Dillard brings the same passion and connective intelligence to this narrative as she has to her other work.”– “Boston Globe””For her book is…scattered with pearls. Each reader will be attracted to different bright parts…Gracefully and simply told, these little stories illuminate the writing life…Her advice to writers is encouraging and invigorating.”– “Cleveland Plain Dealer””The Writing Life is a spare volume…that has the power and force of a detonating bomb…A book bursting with metaphors and prose bristling with incident.”– “Detroit News”

Which books on writing process have you found to be inspiring?

Writing Tip: Use Declarative Sentences

 

 

speech bubble: I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse

This declarative sentence was spoken by Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) in the movie The Godfather (1972).

We don’t always make declarative statements. It is not uncommon for women and other minority groups to add qualifiers to their statements. Such as ‘Parents need to stop organising every minute of their children’s spare time, don’t you think?’ ‘I loved that movie, didn’t you?’ In our sentence structure we look for reinforcement for our thoughts and opinions. We don’t always make declarative statements such as:  ‘This is wonderful.’ ‘This is a catastrophe.’ We look for re-enforcement from others.

Another thing we do without realising it, is use indefinite modifiers in our speech:  perhaps, maybe, somehow. ‘Maybe I’ll take a trip somewhere.’ As if the speaker has no power to make a decision. ‘Perhaps it will change.’ Again, not a clear declarative sentence like, ‘Yes, nothing stays the same.’

It is important for us as writers to express ourselves in clear assertive sentences. ‘This is excellent.’ ‘It was a red dress.’ Not ‘The thing is, I know it sounds a bit vague, but I think maybe it was a red dress.’ Speaking in declarative sentences is a good rehearsal for trusting your own ideas, in standing up for yourself, for speaking out your truth.

When I write poetry I read through early drafts with a critical eye, taking out indefinite words and modifiers. I attempt to distill each moment to its essence by peeling off the layers until the heart of the poem is exposed. We need to take risks as writers and go deep within ourselves to find our unique voices and express ourselves with clarity.

Even if you are not 100% sure about your own opinions and thoughts write as if you are sure.  Dig deep. Be clear. Don’t be vague on the page. If you keep practicing this, you will eventually reveal your own deep knowing.

What about you? Have you noticed this tendency to qualify in your conversations with others, or in your creative writing, or in your blog posts?

Ground Your Writing In Place

person holding silver retractable pen in white ruled book

Here is an important writing tip:  ground your writing in a sense of place, whether landscape or cityscape.

How often have you heard someone say of a book they loved:  ‘I felt like I was there’?

Even if you relocate the poodle tied to a fake-cane chair, the sound of a game of tennis, the table of older men after their regular Sunday match at the café overlooking the tennis courts at Cooper Park that you drank a lemongrass and ginger tea at in Sydney into a café in a story in another state and time, the story will have originality and believability.  ‘But that café was in Sydney, I can’t transport it to Adelaide.’  But you can.  You can have flexibility with specific detail.  The mind is able to transport details, but using actual places that you experienced will give your writing authenticity and truthfulness.  It grounds your work in place, giving life and vitality to your writing, rather than a whole lot of exposition that floats in the air.

 If you don’t create evocative settings, your characters seem to have their conversations in vacuums or in some beige nowhere-in-particular. –  Jerome Stern

Creation of the physical world is as important to your story as action and dialogue.  If your readers can be made to see the hand-knitted socks or the row of vitamins on the kitchen benchtop, the scene becomes alive.  Readers pay attention.  Touch, sound, taste, and smell make readers feel as if their own feet are warm under the cold sheets.

Place situates the story in your reader’s mind.  Fiction that seems to happen in no particular place often seems not to take place at all.’ –  Jerome Stern

Do you agree?