Writing Residencies

This year I was lucky enough to be selected for 4 writing residencies:

The Arteles Creative Centre in Finland

The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Perth, Australia

The Vermont Studio Center in the United States, and

The Can Serrat International Art Residency in Barcelona

In March this year, I spent three weeks at the Arteles Creative Centre in the Finnish countryside.

This was the first residency I had ever attended. Although excited and honoured to be selected (the application process is quite competitive), I was actually a little apprehensive before I left my comfortable Brisbane home. A few fears started doing the rounds in my mind:

Would I get writer’s block with all that time on my hands? Three full weeks without distraction, with nothing to do but write. The terror of the blank page started to haunt me before I even began.

Would I be lonely? Although I was looking forward to being away from my family to focus on my manuscript, would I miss them?

Would I be cold? I’d never been to Europe, let alone one of its northernmost countries, during winter.

Would I be able to feed myself? This is a bit of an embarrassing question to admit to, but I had been depending on my partner and daughter, who are much better cooks than me, to look after the bulk of my nutrition at home. The residency was in a remote location, with weekly drives to a grocery store about half an hour away, and residents expected to cater for themselves. How would I fare?

As it turns out, none of my fears were warranted.

In fact, I ended up having one of the best times of my life. I felt a deep happiness and joy at Arteles that I had not felt for years. What was so good about it?

Being able to write, create, ponder, and go deeply into my project all day, every day, without interruption.

Meeting other writers and artists from all over the world.

The beautiful environment — pristine, quiet, still and white. Just what my creative soul needed.

Nothing to do but write…

walk in the forest…

or watch the sunset.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And I still have three residencies to look forward to over the next year. In Perth, Vermont and Barcelona.

Although I’ve had a few ups and downs with my writing career (I’m still looking for a publisher for my longer works), I feel blessed to have been selected for these opportunities. I was also selected for the Yale Writers Conference last year, but was unable to attend due to family commitments.

The recent residency at Arteles reminded me that the most rewarding thing about writing is writing itself. To be absorbed in the reverie of creative flow for hours on end provides a joy like no other.

Have you ever been to a writers residency? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience:

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Searching for Henriette Herz

Earlier this month, I flew to Berlin to conduct some research for my next book, SalonnièresSalonnières explores the lives of seven women who hosted literary salons in Europe: Isabella d’Este, Catherine de Vivonne, Marie Geoffrin, Henriette Herz, George Sand, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf.

I was in Berlin to learn more about Henriette Herz. There is very little information available about her in English, even on the Internet. A brief Wikipedia entry tells us she lived in Berlin from 1764 to 1847, and was one of the first women to establish a salon in that city during the Jewish Emancipation.

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Detail from Bildnis Henriette Herz by Anna Dorothea Therbusch, 1778. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Public Domain.

A generation earlier, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn kicked off the Jewish Enlightenment when he came out of the ghetto and engaged in regular philosophical discussions with his non-Jewish peers. Herz’s salon continued this tradition; her guests included Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, Mirabeau, and the theologian Schleiermacher, who eventually persuaded Herz to convert to Protestantism. Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter, the novelist and translator Dorothea Schlegel, also attended the salon.

On arriving in Berlin, I had very few leads to guide my research. Apart from the Wikipedia entry, the only useful resource I could find online was a photograph of Herz’s grave with a caption indicating its location.

And so, on a quiet grey morning in Berlin, I found myself standing outside a rather neglected-looking cemetery in lower Kreuzberg with a sign on its front wall — Kirchhof Jerusalem und Neue Kirche — that matched the caption on the online photograph. The gates of the cemetery, however, were securely locked, and there wasn’t another soul in sight. I then remembered it was a public holiday in Berlin, Whitsun Monday.

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I had travelled all the way from Australia to find Henriette’s grave, but now all I could do was look through the wrought-iron fence to the wild array of headstones and monuments inside, wondering if hers was amongst them. I made my way around the perimeter of the graveyard, trying to find a way in. Eventually, I came across a side-gate that didn’t appear to be locked. I pushed it open and, after checking there were no police or other authorities around (was it an offence to break into a cemetery in Berlin on a public holiday, I wondered?), I let myself in.

Soon I found myself surrounded by the implacable silence of the dead. Gravestones and memorials for Brechts, Bernsteins, and Fischers in various states of disrepair stared blankly back at me. After about twenty minutes searching, I came across the heavily signposted gravesite of Moses Mendelssohn’s grandson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. This discovery gave me hope that I must be getting close to Henriette.

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But she eluded me. I wandered past grave after grave, straining to read the names on the heavily-weathered headstones. I started to wonder if I was even in the right cemetery.

A strange, but surprisingly peaceful, feeling came over me as I traipsed through this seemingly never-ending field of nineteenth-century bourgeois Jews. This feeling was accentuated by the fact I was the only one in the cemetery at that time. All I had for company was the rustle of the trees and an occasional flitting sparrow. At one point a nervous-looking squirrel crossed my path before scurrying away into the undergrowth.

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I was just about to call off my search, when I decided to look in one last area. An unruly, heavily-overgrown section in the cemetery’s south-eastern corner that didn’t look at all promising. It had no signage, only a few small headstones, and was almost completely covered by weeds.

Then, behind a large tree, I saw it. Henrietta’s grave, just as it had appeared online, with its headstone and cross rendered in dark, charcoal-grey marble. In front of her grave, rather impudently, lay an empty beer bottle, a indignity I found quite discomfiting given all the trouble I had undergone to come and pay my respects.

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Still, at least I could be alone with her now. I felt like a detective who has just solved a major crime, or an archeologist who has unearthed a long-forgotten relic. I sat down before the resting place of the woman I had been imagining for the past two years, where she had been lying, undisturbed, for more than two centuries. There was a small sign at the foot of her grave. It read:

Henriette Herz 5.9.1764 to 22.10.1847. Saloniere. Sie leitete einen berühmten literarischen Salon. Ehefrau des Philosophen und Arztes Marcus Herz.

(Henriette Herz 5.9.1764 to 22.10.1847. Salonnière. She led a famous literary salon. Wife of the philosopher and physician Marcus Herz.

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After spending a good hour silently communing with Henriette, I slowly walked back through the cemetery grounds, and on to the noisy, jostling Kreuzberg streets outside.

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Doing a Structural Edit

Recently a writer friend of mine asked if I could read through his manuscript and provide him with some feedback.

On taking on this task, I decided it was time for me to really try to understand what is involved in a structural edit. I figured looking at the overall structure of my friend’s work would be the best way I could help him.

I knew deep down it would also be a good exercise for me, because when I try to edit my own work I invariably get stuck at the level of the sentence rather than standing back to consider the big picture, the overall narrative of the story.

And I’ve read many times that once you’ve finished a first draft, the next thing you should do is a structural edit. It’s no use finely editing sentences that may never see the light of day in the final edit.

For what it’s worth, this is how I am approaching my first attempt at a structural edit of another writer’s manuscript:

  • Print out the whole manuscript and bind it (if I edit on a computer screen the tendency to copy-edit every second sentence becomes too tempting)
  • Find a nice place, away from my usual writing workspace, to sit down and read the manuscript, just as I would with any book I was looking forward to reading
  • Read through the manuscript as fast as I can to get sense of the flow of the work (this is really important for a reader such as me, who generally likes to read slowly and carefully)
  • Keep a pencil handy to make notes in the margin (but in my case I keep the pencil just out of reach so I only bother to note stuff that really matters; otherwise I have a tendency to over-edit)
  • Give myself a few pages to settle into the writer’s world. I often find, even with the best books, it takes me a few pages to get my bearings and get used to their way of telling their story. Having said that, in these days of shortish attention spans and competition with social media and click-bait, it is important that the opening pages are engaging, fresh and free of clunky grammar and typographical errors.
  • The most important thing of all for me is to read the manuscript as a reader rather than as a writer. I take note of when I am being drawn into the story, when I’m hurriedly turning pages and when I’m feeling totally immersed in the world the author has created. I also note when my attention lags, and when things don’t feel natural. If I suddenly become aware of the presence of the writer, that’s usually a bad sign. In the best writing (except for some literary and avant-garde works), the writer is invisible.

I’m sure professional editors would have a much longer list of what to consider when doing a structural edit. Even though I’m only part way through the one I’m doing, I can already tell it will have immeasurable benefits when I return to editing my own manuscript. The manuscript that sits patiently in my drawer waiting for me to return to it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about structural editing.

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Essay on Sartre wins Writers’ Award

I was thrilled to be told recently that my essay ‘50,000 at a funeral’, about the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre, has won a New Philosopher Writers’ Award. As a result, it will be published in the upcoming May 2016 edition of New Philosopher magazine.

I remember the first time I saw this bright new beautifully designed magazine. It was a few years ago in a pie shop in Byron Bay, of all places, and I was delighted to see such an inviting-looking publication about philosophy and ideas, rather than celebrities, movie stars, diets and trivia. Since its first edition on the 5th August 2013, the magazine has gone from strength to strength, increasing its distribution to outlets across Australia, the UK and North America.

A little while ago I went to a talk by the editors, Zan Boag and Antonia Case, hosted by my favourite local bookstore Avid Reader. At this talk, Zan and Antonia explained how the idea for the magazine came to them whilst travelling through South America. They have shown by example that if you have a dream, and are willing to work at it, amazing things – like this magazine – can happen.

If you want to know more about New Philosopher, go to their website here.

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The Leopard by Tomasi Di Lampedusa

leopardI started reading this book whilst on a holiday in Sicily late last year, and it beautifully portrays the unique world of that ancient island, a land of abandoned statues, overflowing gardens, bright baking sunlight, olives, lemons, flowers and pomegranates. Lampedusa’s classic work also helped me to better understand the lifestyle and attitudes of many Sicilians – slow, unhurried, suspicious of modernity and the mainland. Set in the mid-1800s, this work is a sad and nostalgic account of the last vestiges of aristocracy before the descent of democracy on to the reluctant island-state. The author, described in the book’s front blurb as a ‘literary dilettante’, wrote the book in his early sixties in 1957, just before he died of lung cancer. In a poignant parallel to the author’s imminent demise, the account in the book of the last dying hours of the protagonist Don Fabrizio is as fine a piece of writing as I’ve ever seen. Deserves the accolade of classic in my view.

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Reading your book aloud in public

Earlier this year I was invited by Krissy Kneen, events coordinator at my favourite bookstore, Avid Reader, to read from my work-in-progress Lovers of Philosophy at a salon event. Krissy, who is a fantastic author in her own right, invited me and other emerging writers Meg Vann and Rebekah Turner to read from our works to help launch Stephanie Bishop’s ‘The Other Side of the World’ (Hachette Australia Books).

Fortunately, I had actually received some training in how best to ensure such a reading goes as well as it can. That training , in my case, was provided by the wonderful Aimée Lindorf at the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC). This training was part of the QWC/Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program which I was fortunate enough to be selected for last year.

Here are some of Aimée’s helpful tips for reading your work out aloud:

  1. Select an appropriate passage
    • It needs to be self-contained enough to work as a stand-alone read
    • It should have a small cast – no more than 4 characters including the narrator
    • End on a cliffhanger if you can (You want to leave your audience wanting more)
  2. Read the passage out aloud before the big event
    • There’s nothing like reading your writing out aloud to sharpen your editing eye. Get rid of clunk and make sure your prose is clear and rhythmically pleasing
  3. Warm up your voice and your body
    • As all singers know, your voice is a physical instrument and resonates and projects much better if you do some deep breathing, vocalising and other exercises before you go on stage. Especially considering how much nervousness can pinch off your vocal cords and make you sound like Elmer Fudd.
  4. On the big day, read SLOWLY
    • Remember. No-one has heard your amazing words before. Read SLOWLY so the audience can hear them and follow your story. Consider using slightly different tones or inflections of your voice for different characters (but don’t overdo this). Pause for effect where appropriate.
  5. Have fun!
    • I made this one up. But having done a couple of readings now, I can vouch that there is nothing more enjoyable than reading your words as if you want others to hear them, and hearing their gasps, expectant silences and laughs. As writers we all want to share our imagined worlds with others so that they can be transported to another place, another time, another world. that IS the magic of writing. A public reading allows you as a writer to have a rare and precious experience – hearing readers’ reactions to your work in a public setting – after all reading is usually a private activity.

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Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson: A Brief Book Review

Hmmm. I was a bit underwhelmed by this book that I was told was a classic of post-cyberpunk. It was the first of Stephenson’s books I’d read – he’d been recommended to me by a couple of people in my book club as a master of his genre.

I should declare I’m more a lover of literary fiction than genre fiction, but I like to think I’m open-minded to good writing, whatever its form. There’s no doubt the author has a a vivid and rich imagination, and his ability to predict the online virtual future way back in 1993 when he wrote this is pretty impressive, but I found reading the book a bit of a struggle to be honest. The biggest problem was I couldn’t really get myself worked up to care about the two-dimensional cartoon-like characters.

Having said that, the author’s exploration in this book of the origins of language in the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian civilisations, and how he neatly ties that up with the binary machine code that underlies all computers, including, in this account, the brain, was fascinating.

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