Lovers of Philosophy accepted into 2015 HARDCOPY program

HARDCOPY+tag_CMYK_workingI’ve just heard some wonderful news. I am one of 30 lucky writers to be selected into the HARDCOPY professional development program for Australian writers.

As a result I will soon be getting some precious feedback on my Lovers of Philosophy project from the HARDCOPY selection panel, which includes Australian nonfiction authors Paul Daley, Dr Jen Webb, Dr Frank Bongiorno and Biff Ward.

But that’s not all! Along with the other winners I will be heading to Canberra later this month for a three-day project/manuscript development intensive masterclass with professional freelance editor Nadine Davidoff.

In September, I’ll be invited back to the nation’s capital for ‘Intro2industry’, a three-day seminar on all facets of the publishing industry.

Ten of the 30 applicants will proceed in November to Round 2 of the program, which involves one-on-one consultations with publishers.

I’m very grateful for this wonderful opportunity to further develop my manuscript and writing skills. And of course, I can’t wait to meet the other emerging writers and hear about their projects. I’ve already found one of my fellow winners on the blogosphere – Michelle Scott Tucker.

Thank you to the ACT Writers Centre who run the HARDCOPY program. My thanks also to The ACT Government and the Australia Council who support this program.

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First public reading of Lovers of Philosophy

It’s my pleasure to announce that on Saturday the 7th February I’ll be doing my first public reading from my work-in-progress Lovers of Philosophy.

This will be at a free salon event hosted by the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC). Thank you Aimeé Lindorf and all the crew at QWC for supporting emerging writers such as myself, and giving us an opportunity to share our work.

There will also be a reading by poet and short fiction writer Carmen Leigh Keates, and a Q&A with special author guest fiction writer Inga Simpson. The afternoon, set in The Fox Hotel in South Brisbane, will be topped off with a musical set by O’ Little Sister.

If you’re in Briz Vegas on that day and are able to come along, I’d love to meet you. All writers and readers welcome!

Details are as below:

What: Whispers is a reading salon hosted by QWC throughout Queensland.

Date and time: 3:00–6:00pm on Saturday 7 February 2015.

Venue: The Fox Hotel, 73 Melbourne Street, South Brisbane.

Transport and parking information is available on the SLQ website.

Price: Free.

Full details: On the Facebook event page, https://www.facebook.com/events/602930773140737/.

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The Sorbonne – Simone de Beauvoir’s university

IMG_1967The last stop of my visit to Paris exploring the old haunts of the French philosophers is the Sorbonne. A beautiful and ancient large sandstone building, it dominates the Latin Quarter’s bustling urban terrain of cafés, bookshops and boutiques.

My daughter Alex and I first spot it while riding northwards towards the Seine on the wide arterial of St Michel Boulevard, along with Paris’s other peak hour traffic of motor scooters, bicycles, Citroens, Peugeots and pedestrians. We gasp at the sight of it rising up to our right, its majestic features brought into spectacular contrast by the rays of the setting sun.

Simone de Beauvoir was a student at this venerable institution in 1929 when she met Jean-Paul Sartre. It was here that she studied for and passed the agrégation, the highly competitive national examinations in philosophy. Passing this entitled her to lifelong tenure teaching philosophy in France’s high schools. By 1943, however, she had managed to lose this privilege in scandalous circumstances when a parent complained she and her partner Jean-Paul Sartre had both seduced their teenage daughter while she was Beauvoir’s student. Beauvoir and Sartre had got away with such behaviour previously with other students, but on this occasion it led to Beauvoir having her teaching licence permanently revoked. This sanction didn’t have much of a negative impact on Beauvoir’s life, however, as by this time she had had developed a considerable reputation as a writer and as Jean-Paul Sartre’s celebrity partner and co-spokesperson for the new philosophy of existentialism.

The Sorbonne, founded in the mid-12th century, was one of the very first universities to be established in Europe, and has been a centre of intellectual activity in Paris ever since.

More recently, the Sorbonne was the central stage for the notorious uprisings that brought Paris to a standstill in May 1968. These protests, which began with students occupying the Sorbonne’s buildings in response to government policies about university administration, spread like wildfire amongst other students, teachers and workers throughout France culminating in a general strike of a staggering ten million workers. Throughout the weeks of civil disorder that took France to the brink of collapse, the Sorbonne became a battleground for bitter hand-to-hand fighting between students and riot police. Makeshift barricades of furniture, cars and street debris were erected by the Left Bank’s protesting students just as they had been in the French Revolution two hundred years earlier. For several days, the whole country held its breath, fearful of a another revolution, until eventually a very rattled President de Gaulle accepted the resignation of his Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and called for a general election, finally diffusing the mutinous mood in the streets.

Today, my hopes of exploring the interior of this venerable institution are frustrated by a uniformed security officer guarding the entrance. So I resign myself to taking in the view from the outside as a steady stream of students and teachers come in and out. In front of the building, the Place de la Sorbonne — a large busy square open to the public — is abuzz with young students milling among its sidewalk cafés and bookshops.IMG_1959 A sign that says Libraire Philosophie announces a bookshop devoted solely to philosophical texts, a sight I have seen more than once on this trip to Paris but never in my home country of Australia. The bookstore appears to be connected with the university, as it has a poster announcing the Sorbonne’s philosophical courses and the associated recommended reading. The philosophy of Sartre and his philosophical predecessor Martin Heidegger feature heavily. Phenomenology and existentialism still appear to be fashionable in this part of town.

As I bask in the beauty of this glorious building and its changing colours in the fading sunset, it occurs to me that all the places in which Sartre and Beauvoir studied, wrote, dined, drank, conversed and made love during their years as Paris’s favourite intellectuals are within walking distance of this square. They were even buried only a stroll away in the Cimetière Montparnasse.

In front of the aforementioned bookshop, I catch sight of two young lovers deep in an embrace.IMG_1956 I imagine that Sartre and Beauvoir would have sometimes met in this exact place during the heady early days of their lifelong love affair.

I grab my camera, thinking the scene before me might just be a perfect cover for the book I have recently finished writing – Lovers of Philosophy – about the love lives of Sartre and other influential European thinkers.

I wonder, as I capture these two paramours on film outside the philosophy bookshop, could they be a Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir of the future?

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Why are adverbs considered to be evil?

Great advice below from K.M.Weiland (with a little bit of help from Mark Twain) about how the best writing shows rather than tells by avoiding adverbs (and adjectives)

Answer by K.M. Weiland:

Amongst writers, one of the ever-quotable Mark Twain’s most quoted witticisms is the succinct bit of advice (which could just as easily have referred to adverbs) found in Pudd’nhead Wilson: “As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.”

Ah, modifiers! What writer hasn’t had a joyous fling or two with that most seductive of all parts of speech? In an effort to convey the brilliance and vividness of our prose, we hand out modifiers like candy at a Fourth of July parade. After all, it’s imperative that the reader understand that the barn in question is big, red, and rundown. That the kid on the playground is fighting wildly and ferociously. That the ship’s white canvas sails are billowing in the wind. That’s all need-to-know information, right?

Well, maybe. No one will argue that modifiers clarify mental images. At least, that’s the message we absorbed during all those grade school years of diagramming sentence after sentence chocked full of adjectives and adverbs. What we probably didn’t learn from all those years of diagramming is that modifiers are the sign of a lazy writer. Modifiers break the cardinal rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell.

In the three sentences mentioned above, never once did I show you what the barn looked like, or the kid who was fighting, or the ship’s sails. With the help of my modifiers, you probably got the general idea, but how much more vivid would those sentences have been had I taken the time to show you? What if I had allowed you to see the dust swirling in the shadows of the barn, the pigeons roosting in the patches of sunlight that spill through the holes in the roof? What if you had seen the kid on the playground smacking his fists into someone’s face, blood splattering from his opponent’s nose? What if the wind had whipped the ship’s sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow?

See the difference? By deleting my modifiers, I was forced to dig deeper for specific nouns (pigeons, fists, nose, froth, prow) and vibrant verbs (swirling, roosting, spill, smacking, splattering, whipped, bursting, churning). These are words the reader can sink his teeth into. Suddenly, we can hear the flutter and coo of the pigeons in the rafters, we can feel the warmth of blood against our skin, we can smell the salt and seaweed of an ocean voyage.

But does this mean that the modifier is dead? Should we avoid them completely? Of course not. Modifiers, like all parts of speech, serve their purpose. Another quote from Twain:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” ( Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880)

Adjectives and adverbs exist in the English language for the sole purpose of refining it. We cannot show the reader every detail, both due to time and space constraints and the simple fact that some things—such as colors—are impossible to show on the written page without a bit of telling. When added to an already strong scene, modifiers can boost the description into precision and vibrancy.

Take, for instance, one of our example sentences. The new description of the ship doesn’t indicate that the sails are white canvas. I didn’t include those details because most readers will assume this to be the case unless told differently. But what if my ship belonged to the Dread Pirate Roberts who always lofted black sails when he went into battle? Suddenly, we have a vital detail that could only be conveyed with a modifier:

The wind whipped the ship’s ash-black sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow.

Notice that this sentence conveys everything the original version did (and more), yet it contains only one modifier.

Even when modifiers are necessary, economy is vital. It’s ridiculously easy to get carried away with modifiers. When we write phrases about “the remarkably, incandescently, breathtakingly gorgeous woman,” we not only smother our reader in repetition, we also drown out the already strong modifier “gorgeous.”
So, in short, while we probably need not go to Mark Twain’s suggested extreme of extermination, our writing can only be better for a careful pruning of adjectives and adverbs. Modifiers do their job best when used sparingly.

Why are adverbs considered to be evil?

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16 Things I Wish I’d Known as a Beginner Novelist

Some great tips below from Jackie Lea Sommers for anyone considering writing a novel or long work of narrative nonfiction. If you want to comment go to jackieleasommers.com or click on Jackie’s link. Thanks Jackie.

JACKIE LEA SOMMERS

16 things1. This journey is probably going to take longer than you think.
In fact, you might bust your butt on something that never sees the light of day.  It’s okay.  You become a better writer by writing.  I had to write a novel to prove I could write a novel before I could write a good novel, if you follow me.

2. Write because you love it, not because you want to be published.
You might never have your work published.  If you write because you have to write, because you’re a writer in your bones, then this won’t matter.  (Or at least it won’t matter enough to stop you!)

3. Write every day …
Establish a writing routine, even if some days you only get ten minutes to write.

4. … but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t.
I’m still learning this.  GRACE.

5. If…

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Breaking into the École Normale Supérieure

photoFor as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with the École Normale Supérieure. So many French philosophers I have read about have studied there. Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Hyppolite, Althusser, Beauvoir. In fact, Sartre and Beauvoir first met here in 1929, when both were studying for the agrégation, France’s toughest exam for want-to-be-philosophers. Throughout the twentieth century, this most elite of Paris’s educational institutions has been a breeding ground for new bold new ideas, a hotbed of -isms, including existentialism, humanism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism and more recently, postmodernism.

Naturally, when I was in recently in Paris doing research on the lives of French philosophers for my book Lovers of Philosophy, I wanted to visit the place where so many prominent continental philosophers developed their initial ideas. So, along with my 14-year-old daughter Alex who was travelling with me, I found myself cycling through the Latin Quarter in search of this esteemed institution. It’s usually more fun looking for places that are off the tourist track when travelling, and this journey was no exception. Before long, we found ourselves on the Rue d’Ulm, a narrow tree-lined backstreet with cheap and battered bicycles chained up along the railings of its wide pavements, a clear sign we were close to a place frequented by poor and struggling scholars. Sure enough, we soon saw increasing numbers of young people in that universal student uniform, jeans and T-shirts, walking along singly or in twos and threes, books and bags in hand. Then we came across what we were looking for, an old nondescript sandstone building with a faded sign across the top of its entrance. The sign said École Normale Supérieure.photo 1

I had travelled 26,000 km, all the way from Brisbane on the other side of the world, to visit the place where Sartre and Beauvoir had met ninety years ago, but now I faced an unexpected obstacle. There was a boom gate and security guard at the university’s entrance, with access only allowed to authorised students and staff. I thought about just trying to discreetly walk in as a student let himself out, but my conscientious, rule-abiding and embarrassment-averse daughter got visibly nervous when I mentioned this idea, and I had to admit I didn’t fancy the prospect of being handed over to French authorities for trespassing in a school of philosophy.

Eventually I decided to just ask the security guard. I explained that I was interested in visiting as I was writing a book on Jean-Paul Sartre and other philosophers who had studied here. His English was nonexistent, and the little of the French language I knew departed me at this crucial moment. Consequently, I made no headway at all in trying to communicate an idea clearly beyond my limited linguistic capacities. So I resorted to the age-old technique of tourists, especially of the American variety, of repeating myself, getting louder each time. ‘Sartre! Sartre!’ I boomed, gesticulating meaninglessly and unhelpfully at the young and bewildered security guard. Clearly he had never heard of the esteemed philosopher, but he started looking up his computer database to see if he could find a student or staff member by that name. Knowing he was unlikely find the name of a student who hadn’t been there since the 1930s, I shook my head, waved my hands, and tried another tack:

‘Can we just go in for 5 minutes?’

‘Sure’, he nodded, and opened the gate.

Easy as that, after all.

Somewhat exhilarated, we walked through the security gate and up the stone stairs into the institution’s front building. Inside we found several highly intelligent-looking impossibly young philosophers of the future going about their business. ‘Try to look like a student’, I whispered to my daughter, who was thoroughly enjoying our adventure by now. Posters of upcoming philosophical events graced the walls.photo 4 One poster featuring a large full-length photo of Jacques Derrida looking wistful on a beach announced a talk that day about the recently deceased father of deconstruction.

The foyer then opened up into a beautiful garden, in which students with laptops, papers and books sat here and there on park benches and tables. It was a beautiful sunny day, and a lovely light breeze rustled through the trees and shrubs in the garden as students murmured softly and earnestly to each other. I couldn’t make out whether they were talking about philosophy or their social lives, but I did notice one attractive-looking young female student looking at her paper with a middle-aged man, presumably her professor, sitting very close to her as he pointed at the unwieldy manuscript on the table before them. I instantly recognised what appeared to me to be an example of a notorious and age-old pattern in university teacher-student relations.

photo 5I sat with my daughter on the edge of the garden, in a stone recess in one of the four walls that bordered the garden. Both of us tried our best, with a spectacular lack of success I suspected, to look inconspicuous.

I then realised that this was probably the very garden in which Beauvoir had first met Sartre many years ago. I recalled reading an account of her visiting the École Normale Supérieure one day from the nearby Sorbonne University where she was studying, whereupon she saw a student pouring a bucket of water from a second storey window on to his fellow students below, whilst shouting ‘Thus Pissed Zarathustra!’ The twenty-one-year-old Beauvoir was most impressed with this young man’s mischievousness, not to mention his knowledge of the philosophical work Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher whom she was familiar with and greatly admired. The water-pouring prankster was, of course, the future existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Within weeks he and Beauvoir would team up to become the most renowned philosophical couple in history.

photo 2

Nizan’s name is a third-way down the centre column

I wandered out of the garden into an exit on its far side, which led into another foyer. On one of the walls of this large sandstone room I found a large memorial board of the type that sadly one sees frequently throughout Europe. This board listed the names of previous students of the École Normale Supérieure who had perished in the Holocaust. Amongst this list I recognised the name Paul Nizan. I remembered from my reading that Nizan was one of the students whom Sartre had poured water on in that fateful prank in 1929. He was one of Sartre’s closest friends at the École, and became a close friend of Beauvoir’s, too. He, along with Beauvoir, was part of a small group of students that met regularly at Sartre’s place to discuss philosophy. It was at this group’s meetings that Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship blossomed. It came back to me on seeing Nizan’s name on that board, that I had read how he had been detained during World War Two and transported to a concentration camp, never to be seen again.

In her autobiography, Beauvoir would later write of the shock and despair she and many others experienced in the wake of World War Two:

‘It was a ravaged world… No blade of grass in any meadow, however I looked at it, would ever again be what it had been.’

photo 3

The start of a love affair at the ENS in 2014? Sartre and Beauvoir started theirs here in 1929

It was into this ravaged world, in which people had lost faith in institutions such as the church, the state, and even science and technology to guide them, that the existentialist philosophy of Sartre and Beauvoir, based on the idea that each of us must create our own meaning in life, would later flourish and become the philosophy de rigueur on the streets of post-war Paris.

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Sartre and Beauvoir’s Final Resting Place

Sartre and Beauvoir's grave in Montparnasse cemetery

Sartre and Beauvoir’s grave in Montparnasse cemetery

Jean-Paul Sartre and his lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir were both buried in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, just south of their old stomping ground in St-Germain-des-Prés. When Sartre was buried there in 1980, an incredible 50,000 mourners came out to bid farewell to their favourite intellectual. Soon afterwards, Beauvoir, despite her many illustrious achievements as a writer, philosopher and pioneering feminist thinker, would rate her greatest accomplishment as her relationship with her beloved Jean-Paul. Beauvoir died in 1987, and was laid to rest beside her late partner.

Recently, along with my fourteen-year-old daughter Alex, I visited Paris to retrace the footsteps of this extraordinary couple. On an uncharacteristically warm and beautifully clear sunny day in October, we hired some bicycles and pedalled our way along the wide boulevards of Paris’s Latin Quarter in search of the cemetery where the objects of our pilgrimage were buried. Using our map of Paris to guide us, we eventually came across its entrance, nestled in Montparnasse on a quiet tree-lined residential street.

We secured our bikes, and proceeded into the grounds to be greeted by a little, slightly crumpled Frenchman sitting at the gate.

Je voudrais voir Sartre et Beauvoir’, I explained in my hesitant French.

He produced a well-worn laminated map and pointed out the location of Sartre and Beauvoir’s plots on it, over on the other side of the cemetery.

Merci’, I replied, at which point he suggested in thickly accented English:

‘Would you like to take the map with you – you can return it when you come back.’

I took up his kind offer, and as we set off into the cemetery grounds, I noticed as I read the guide he had given us that there were many other esteemed people buried here, including the French writer Marguerite Duras and the American critic Susan Sontag. There were a few other visitors strolling through the grounds, some like us looking for famous people, others paying their respects to deceased relatives and ancestors.

‘This is actually a really nice cemetery’, my daughter observed with an air of pleasant surprise (she had earlier been quite sceptical of my suggestion that visiting such a place would be a good way to spend the morning). I had to agree with her observation. Sunlight that filtered its way through branches and leaves of old plane trees that graced the cemetery grounds warmed our skin as we wormed our way through scattered headstones, some old and neglected, others well-tended with fresh flowers. Birds twittered serenely in the foliage above us as we traversed through this expectant landscape of cement tombs and inscribed stone.

After some time following the directions we had been given, my daughter called out that she had found it. Sure enough, there before us lay a faded sandstone grave bearing the names and years on this earth of our two philosophers. Beauvoir’s headstone was covered with lipstick kisses, lovingly placed there by a previous visitor. Both graves were littered with notes and objects from others from all around the world who had come here before us to pay their respects. I felt compelled, too, to write a note of thanks for the inspiration their works and lives had given me. I folded the handwritten message and left it there amongst the others. My daughter took a few photographs of me standing beside my muses.IMG_3845

In the twenty minutes or so that we lingered at the grave, a few other people came along to pay their respects in the warm silent Paris sunshine. A family speaking a language I didn’t understand arrived, chattered loudly, and pointed at the graves for a while before dispersing, guide book in hand. A young female student came and stood there quietly for a long period in deep reflection. An older lady and then a younger man, both on their own, turned up and stood there in silence. None of them wanted to talk. Each of these solitary pilgrims seemed to want to spend time alone with the thinkers, just as they had when they had read their books. After they all left I too spent some time alone with the writers who had filled my imagination years ago with stories of a bohemian and bustling Paris before, during and after the war.

My daughter and I left the graveside and proceeded to make our way back to the cemetery entrance, whereupon we came across a funeral service, where forty or fifty well-dressed mourners smoked cigarettes, talked and embraced quietly around the grave of their beloved. I found myself imagining the day when Sartre was buried here, when tens of thousands of mourners filled the whole cemetery to capacity. On that day Paris’s citizens had scrambled across headstones and climbed trees in chaotic scenes, trying to get a glimpse of their beloved hero before his casket was lowered into its grave. According to newspaper reports of the service, there was mayhem in the now-quiet cemetery that day as many in the crowd surged to see their philosophical idol before he was laid to rest. And in front of them all, given some space as a sign of respect, had been Simone de Beauvoir dressed in black, kneeling at the graveside and convulsed in grief.

I found myself wondering, as I returned the map to the man at the cemetery gates and cycled off with my daughter into the gloriously sunny day, whether a time would ever come again when thousands would turn up to say good-bye to a man or woman of ideas, or whether those days had passed into history forever.

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