Tag Archives: writing

Kickstand

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of After Dark by Haruki Murakami in a library book sale. Five for a dollar! I peeled the duraseal off, scrubbed away the patches of glue it left behind, and put it away for later. (See: tsundoku.)

Flash forward four years, and I finally got around to reading it last week as part of my 2017 Only Reading Books From Years Ending in Seven project (the English translation was published in 2007). The book is slight, a diversion, although – in typical Murakami style – it does hint at an opaque world of unsolvable, half-drawn mysteries.

One such mystery particularly caught my imagination, and it comes not from the mind of Murakami but from a previous reader. Library books are supposed to have many readers, after all; you can usually only guess at how many, and who they were, and what impression the book left on them. This reader, however, made three notes over the course of After Dark’s 200-odd pages. Each is in the same black ballpoint pen.

Here’s the first, from page 47:

After Dark: a strong kick, why?

There’s plenty of overwriting in After Dark. Murakami quite indulges himself by giving his omniscient, disembodied narrator full licence to describe the least consequential aspects of a scene and wax rhapsodical about these tiny moments of city life and what it all means. This technique is effective in building a small world of rich detail, but it can make for dull reading.

This previous reader, though, got hung up on Murakami’s (and translator Jay Rubin’s) decision to modify the motorcyclist’s ‘kick’ with the adjective ‘strong’. Now, I’m no line-by-line editor, but this choice seems quite reasonable to me; it draws attention to the motorcyclist’s physical presence, and to the machine’s weight. I feel like underlining their ‘Why?’ and writing the same thing alongside it.

Later, on page 79:

After Dark: a big kick

Now the kick is ‘big’, and that’s caught the reader’s eye. There’s no annotation in the margin this time. I can appreciate that ‘big’ is not as descriptive as ‘strong’, but is its inferiority as an adjective the reason for its underlining? Perhaps the reader thought ‘strong’ was too much, where ‘big’ is just right. Perhaps the reader is a motorcyclist and takes issue with Murakami’s representation of ignition. We can only speculate, because the reader isn’t giving us any more.

Finally, on page 172:

After Dark by Haruki Murakami, with accumulated saliva on the floor

Now there’s an image worth underlining, an image with real feeling. (!)

(See also: Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library, a great piece in The Awl by Maria Bustillos. Now there’s a person who could write a good annotation.)

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Chaos out of chaos

Fluffy Chaos (via xdxd_vs_xdxd on Flickr)

Fluffy Chaos (via xdxd_vs_xdxd on Flickr)

I used to write in a journal every day, except I called it a diary. ‘Journal’ seemed too American. I, a stubborn an impressionable 16-year-old, was proudly aligned to British English after the influence of my crusading older brother and my Received Pronunciation-tinged mother. Both have either said or written the words ‘don’t forget your roots’ to me in the years since, usually in relation to a point of language.

(For some reason, ‘journal’ is acceptable to me now, and seems more appropriate than ‘diary’. Perhaps I have become Americanized, despite the best efforts of my kin.)

The storm of angst in my teenage head poured out into those Word documents at the end of each day. As I became more and more reliant on my journal to make sense of my thoughts, and of my burgeoning selfhood, I took to writing in it first thing in the morning, during free periods at school, and after dinner — whenever some frustration in my head demanded the indulgence of my complete attention.

The first few years of entries are often unreadable and fall largely into two categories: 1) angry screed against authority figure, or 2) hopeless pining for crush. Confrontation was too terrible to contemplate, and the idea of actually telling a girl how I felt about her was even more mortifying. Thank goodness I had my journal. Without it, I might have exploded and started a war by now.

I remember taking great pride in some of my entries, such that I wished I could share them with other people. But that was simply out of the question, as likely as walking down the street naked. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to keep my journal all to myself; to revel privately in my finer paragraphs.

Sometimes, even early on, I would address my future self directly, and as an authority figure. Don’t fucking write this off as the stupid fucking ramblings of a fucking teenager, etc. (I swore as much as possible.) I have to admire my committed defence of my thoughts, just as I would admire a carefully considered rebuttal of climate change, no matter how blind it were to the truth. I seem to have known exactly how immature my thoughts were, and sought to preempt criticism by firmly stating that my experience was nonetheless valid: that there was order in the chaos of my mind.

*

When I got into my first proper relationship, aged 22 and living in a foreign country, my journal faded into the background of my life. For years it had provided me with a non-judgmental space in which to bash out how I really felt about something. Now I was spending a lot of my time with another person, and often confiding in her, rendering the journal obsolete — except when I wanted to analyse our stuttering relationship, which occasionally brought me back to the keyboard. Fuelled largely by the fear of losing her, these entries were laden with far more painful frustration and inadequacy than the pining of my teenage years.

But these occasions were irregular. I feared she would discover my journal, and that was unthinkable, so I kept away from it as much as possible, only returning when things got really bad. You could chart the good times in our years together by the gaps in my journal.

She did eventually read the journal — without my permission — and was aghast as the tide of negativity swamped her. It didn’t matter, though. The relationship was already lost.

*

Since meeting my current partner, my journal entries have become even more sporadic than they were during that earlier relationship. The main difference is that I have less time to write in it. She refuses to waste any opportunity for a new experience, leaping out of bed on sunny Saturdays and planning a hike or some other outing, or planning a minute-by-minute itinerary for our holidays.

After some initial resistance, I have been swept up in her zest for exploration. Weekend trips away often transpire in a chaotic flurry of activity: of last-minute packing; of wrangling other family members; of board games and large meals and swims in the sea. My participation began as a somewhat grudging attempt to connect with her, coming as it did at the cost of the hours I used to spend sitting at home, but I now go willingly. Getting out and doing things gives me more satisfaction than staying in and thinking about them.

But what of the difficult times? In my previous relationship, the worst of both of us was privately poured out and dissected in my journal. The openness I share with my partner makes that analysis redundant. We aren’t perfect communicators, but where possible, we figure things out together.

I remember it all much less clearly than I used to when I noted and discussed everything I did in my journal. But the moments themselves are more vivid, like a sheer curtain has been pulled away. It’s a trade-off I happily accept, and my hope is that as we grow older, we can keep our experiences alive by filling the gaps in each other’s memories.

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A tribute to Peter Roebuck

Peter Roebuck © Cricinfo

Former Somerset cricket captain and respected cricket writer Peter Roebuck has died aged 55 in Cape Town. He was covering Australia’s tour of South Africa. Ian Fuge, managing editor for sport at the Sydney Morning Herald, a paper for which Roebuck was a regular columnist, said “Peter was a wonderful writer who was the bard of summer for cricket-loving Australians. He was also an extraordinary bloke who will be sorely missed.” [source]

For me personally, Roebuck’s death signifies the passing of a writing hero. I grew up reading the sports section every morning before school, hoping that if I wouldn’t some day realise my dream of being an All Black or a Black Cap, I could at least write about them for a living. Of all the sports writers I’ve discovered through those years and into adulthood, Roebuck’s byline is the one that will ensure I read the piece. He seemed such a naturally gifted writer, one who could’ve written about any subject he chose but found himself most entranced by cricket. He wrote honestly, never afraid to confront the darker aspects of ‘the gentleman’s game’, One could be certain that nothing less than the highest quality would be attached to his name.

Now that he’s gone, I am of course discovering that his exceptionally high standards were a hallmark of his career with Somerset, as well. From this citation for his being recognised as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year in 1988:

Roebuck in action for Somerset © Getty Images

His current vice-captain, Victor Marks, a friend of many years, said, He seems to thrive on contest, competition and conflict. He rises to the occasion, is very much alive and always reacts in a positive way. He has improved dramatically over the past few years, with the security of his position and the captaincy. He puts a great deal more energy into his job than most people could. Somerset’s coach, Peter Robinson, recalled many hours spent with the bowling machine, ironing out technical faults which he, Roebuck, had found.

Roebuck also contributed routinely insightful columns to Cricinfo. Fellow cricket writer Suresh Menon wrote of his work:

Roebuck’s short commentaries distill a lifetime of experience through history and anecdote. There is a purity in the form that is at once attractive and challenging. Of all cricket writers, Roebuck is the least imitated because he is the most difficult to imitate.

I suspect millions of cricket fans over the coming days will be scouring Cricinfo and the web for information about Roebuck and, like me, discovering things they might never have looked up had he not died so devastatingly young. As much as anything else, this could be a commentary on the incredible value offered by his columns: I never sought to know more of the man to whom such a distinctive, essential voice belonged. His ever-articulate words were enough to form a deep impression – of decent character, of high quality and of deep understanding.

May Peter Roebuck rest in peace, and all his fans continued to inspired by his words for decades after he’s gone.

*

Here’s an excerpt from what turned out to be his final column, about the Australians’ performance in an utterly bizarre first test. It is a technically minded piece, not the best representative of his work, which tends to be wide in scope and lofty in ambition. But notice the economy of language with which he makes his points:

Apart from technical flaws, the collapses raised even more fundamental issues. How long can Shane Watson continue as a front-line bowler and opening batsman? History provides few instances of a cricketer able to sustain both workloads. The time is ripe to put him in the middle order.

[…]

Brad Haddin also needs to rethink his batting. His reckless shot was a droppable offence and confirmed his confidence is in his boots. He, too, has a single match to turn around his fortunes. A new broom sweeps clean.

Ironically Johnson, a bowler, is the most likely player to be dropped. However the team for the first Test against New Zealand has become harder to predict. Mind you, a lot can happen in a week. It just did.

*

UPDATE: I’ve been reading a lot of Roebuck today. Here’s an excerpt from one of his 116 columns for Cricinfo entitled ‘Stuck in the middle’:

As a breed, batsmen are haunted by the prospect of failure. It hardens them, tightens them, sometimes exhausts them. A centre-forward unable to score can still chase and create. A tryless winger can tackle and support. A batsman must score runs: it is as simple and stark as that. No words can protect the player from this truth. His existence depends on his productivity. Arthur Miller could have written a play about it. Every time he goes to the crease, a batsman confronts doom.

[more]

Also, the cause of Roebuck’s death has not yet been announced, so conspiracy theories will surely follow – especially in light of reports that he seen talking with police and ‘in an agitated state’ on the same night. Whatever is written in the coming days, and regardless of what actually happened, I hope everyone can remember that we would do better to mourn a fine writer than play pseudo-detective. I’m sure Roebuck would agree. After all, he wrote in 2007 of his disgust at the hackery that followed Bob Woolmer’s death:

But let us not allow one man to carry the can. Although it was reasonable to accept the experts’ initial verdict that Woolmer had been strangled, too many of us were too easily prepared to believe that Pakistani players or at any rate supporters were the culprits. In our own way we were as guilty as those involved in the burning of the witches in Salem or the rounding up of supposed American communists in the 1950’s.

[…] At such times we must be thankful for due process, that a man may be condemned only by fact and not prejudice.

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In praise of Roger Ebert

'Life Itself' by Roger Ebert, on release this week

“But now it’s getting late, which means he has his own work to do. Chaz heads off to bed. Millie, for the moment, hasn’t been seized by night terrors, and the brownstone is quiet and nearly dark. Just the lamp is lit beside his chair. He leans back. He streams Radio Caroline — the formerly pirate radio station — and he begins to write. Everything fades out but the words. They appear quickly. Perfect sentences, artful sentences, illuminating sentences come out of him at a ridiculous, enviable pace, his fingers sometimes struggling to keep up.”
-‘Roger Ebert: The Essential Man’, by Chris Jones, Esquire, March 2010

Roger Ebert, more than anyone else, is the reason why I wanted to be a writer. I think most of us have an initial reference point from whence our passions arose, like a car enthusiast’s formative obsession with the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible or a young swimmer watching Michael Phelps sweep eight golds at the Olympics. I write because I have always written, since I was a small child, but I take my inspiration from Ebert above all others. His writing is honest, principled, informative and articulate, always entertaining, never boring.

When I first started this blog on Blogspot back in 2004, it was to practise writing film reviews, and I said in the first entry (since deleted, time wasn’t kind to those words) that I hoped I would one day be Ebert. I hadn’t actually been reading him for very long at that point – maybe a year or so at most – but he’d already become the standard to which I aspired, for reasons I’ll attempt to put into words further down the page. It was my plan to write reviews of most of the films I saw in an effort to get better at watching them, but my bigger hope was that I would at least become a better writer, if not a successful one.

Over time I’ve written less and less about film, and taken on a wide range of other writing influences. To my great surprise, it is India that has given me the inspiration, impetus and support to be a bit more successful as a writer, and not film. However, I’ve continued to read Ebert – who in fact has also written less and less about film, proportionally at least. In addition to the weekly film reviews he’s been filing regularly for over 40 years, and the other writing he’s compiled in the form of interviews, features and books, Ebert now has a blog, too. He writes on many subjects besides film, most of them aspects of his colourful life Every entry is a joy to savour. The blog was the main reason behind his winning the 2010 Webby Award for Person of the Year – not only for the quality of the blog entries he posts but also for the quality and depth in the comments he receives, which are sometimes even more fascinating than the entries themselves.

The definition of a good writer is elusive, and likely subjective. The standard of one’s readers, like the myriad folks who comment on Ebert’s blog, might be a pretty good one. But a definition that appeals to me is this: a good writer articulates thoughts in ways the reader might not have arrived at on their own. Even if they are thoughts with which the reader strongly disagrees, the writing itself can still be compelling in the hands of a vivid wordsmith. Take, for example, Arundhati Roy’s work in recent years, which can be as misguided as it is literary. On the other hand, saying what a lot of people are thinking can be even harder; one has to work the words on the page into a form that somehow impacts on a reader who agrees with them before he or she even reads them.

With Ebert, whether I completely disagree with him, completely agree or am ambivalent (I usually agree), there is always something new to discover in his words. Perhaps some film fact I never knew, or the name of a new actor to watch; most often, it is the sentences themselves that offer the greatest delight. They frequently surprise me, flicking a ‘how did he do that?’ switch in my head.

I find Ebert’s words returning to me at unexpected moments as a way of articulating what I see before me, or to offer something of value to a conversation with someone else. Ebert’s words are often so tightly formed that they sometimes seem to have always existed, like he plucked them from the sky and set them before me. And his words become part of me even as I read them.

After decades of getting those words in small chunks (though nowadays, with his blog and Twitter and Facebook etc, those chunks arrive more frequently), now we have Roger Ebert’s memoir ‘Life Itself’. Thousands upon thousands of those words, all arriving at once, and I am certain they will be just as much a joy. Thank you, Mr Ebert, for being such an inspiration.

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Filed under Books, Film

The Land of Open Expression

Over in the central Palace Hall, there seemed to be more of a calm that befitted such a princely and tradition-filled room. I remained there for the rest of the weekend as part of an extraordinarily varied audience. There were: distinguished local retirees with a passion for language; twentysomething Malayali men asking me for my mobile number within minutes of meeting; young tourists in summer dresses and sunglasses; local professionals, well groomed and dressed; adolescent children sitting unusually still; fellow resident foreigners of all backgrounds; and many of the authors themselves, catching another speaker’s session.

…read more at The NRI…

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Writing a NOVEL now, wahey

I just realised that I self-promoted my National Novel Writing Month all over Facebook, Twitter and the NaNoWriMo forums, but didn’t make it obvious on my own site… so in case you didn’t know about it, and are interested in how my NOVEL is progressing – with all the searing insights gleaned thus far – click on ‘NANOWRIMO’ in the buttons at the top of the page.

If you can’t be bothered scrolling all the way up to the top of the page, or are sneakily reading this via Google Reader or similar, click here.

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“the blog has given me a reason and the freedom to enjoy writing again”

Jill Haszard is the author of Just Bung It In, a blog about being a mum, wife and PhD student. She is also my sister-in-law, married to my DJ brother, and mother to my nephew and one of my nieces. After spending a few years in Sydney in the early part of the 00s, she and her family decided NZ was the place they wanted to be and started making a life in Dunedin; her posts reflect the various aspects of family life in NZ’s deep south – school, work, holidays, the neighbourhood, renovating, househunting etc.

Her words and photographs are obviously very meaningful to me as a close family member, but my enjoyment of them is not merely obligatory. I feel her writing style has just the right amount of detail and is very easy to get lost in – not to mention some charming experiments with the structure of her posts. Seeing my niece and nephew grow through her blog is an important part of my life, and it’s also fascinating and informative to learn more about her PhD study in nutrition.

Like most of my interviewees, Jill is a very busy person, but still found time to answer my questions. I suppose that busy people are much better at getting things done!

***

Why did you start blogging?

To connect with friends and family that live far away. To share photos of my children with those that I want to be a part of their lives.

Have you ever kept a personal journal? If so, do you see Just Bung It In as an extension of that journal?

I have kept journals in the past but I think the blog is quite different because it has that immediate audience. However, I do see my blog as a diary of sorts. It is a record of bits of my life and I really enjoy reading over past blogs and looking at the photos, as I would a photo album or a scrapbook.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

When I was 5 years old I wrote a story that was at least a whole page long. I drew a picture to go with it and I felt that I had written this epic masterpiece. Mum sent it into the local newspaper and they printed it – I was so proud but it was a reality check to see my story printed in only two lines…. I guess my hand-writing was quite large when I was 5.

I’ve always enjoyed writing to some extent. What I’ve lacked is the confidence that I’m any good at it and I eventually came to the conclusion that it will never be a great skill of mine. However, the blog has given me a reason and the freedom to enjoy writing again.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

There are only two things in this world that actually make my tummy flip with their beauty: my children. Sorry to be such a cliché Mum!

My daughter’s smattering of freckles; my son’s brown eyes; their knees; their necks; their skin; their lips; all the little parts that amaze me. When they are busy and lost in their own little worlds I don’t want to take my eyes off them because they are absolutely stunning to me and perfect in that moment. Nothing in this beautiful world even comes close to the beauty that I see in my kids.

You maintain a posting frequency of about once or twice a week, despite being very busy. Do you set specific time aside in your weekly routine to write, or is it whenever you get a chance?

If I go for longer than a week without posting a blog Mum rings me up and complains. I write for my Mum!

I do prioritise blogging because it is something that is important to me. I also know that if I left it three weeks, or more, it would become this massive task to catch up and I don’t have the time to do that. So even if it is just a small story, a thought or a stack of photos, I keep it chugging along so that things don’t get away from me. I don’t put too much pressure on myself to make it perfect, I just do it (hence ‘That’ll do’) and that works for me. Usually a Saturday night offers itself to blogging.

Has your blog helped you in other areas of your life?

Interesting question. I’m going to say yes to that one because it helps to form my ideas and thoughts more. When I’m mulling over something I want it to develop and mature a bit before it becomes a blog topic. Also, having a blog about my life helps me to see the good side of things. It helps me to see myself as worthwhile. Oh, and I can’t forget that the regular writing will probably have been a good thing when I come to write my thesis – eek!

Do you feel that you have complete control over ‘Just Bung It In’, that it has a life of its own and evolves on its own, or somewhere in-between?

I feel I have total control over it. It’s my life story really and I pick what goes in there!

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

No I don’t think so. The blog posts that I enjoy rereading the most are the ones with pictures of holidays and the little stories of things that my kids and husband do. In the end, this blog is for me.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

At this time in my life I have no pressing urge to travel the world. I love New Zealand. My dream holiday is the one that we take every Summer: camping on a classic NZ beach with friends and family. If I won Lotto I wouldn’t change the destination, I would only buy a bigger tent and a flasher beach lounger.

Ask me this question in 10 years and it may be a different answer!

Do you believe in God?

I believe that every individual has their own reality so God does exist for some. I don’t deny the existence of God for others. However, my reality does not have a God. I believe in nature and the wonder of the world. I believe that there is more. But I don’t believe in a God.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click here.

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