It’s my last night at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, and it’s time to round up what I’ve achieved over the last 2 weeks.
First and foremost, this residency has been about the writing.
I’ve managed a shade over 18,000 words on Ghost Tracks, more than doubling the novel’s length and taking the story through to approximately 2/3 of the estimated length. The plot is turning towards home, and I’m in a position to work the narrative towards the climax and resolution.
I’ve also completed one short story: Song of the Water, a supernatural take on CY O’Connor’s suicide, came in at just over 3000 words. I had hoped to write more shorts, in an effort to collate a collection of stories on a similar theme, but the addition of this one takes the collection above 25,000 words, and with work progressing well on Ghost Tracks I was loathe to put that down to swap horses. I did manage to get some research done for stories featuring Moondyne Joe and Tommy Windich; Frederick Deeming; and David and Catherine Birnie, so there’s stuff to be getting on with.
This week was heavier on professional commitments than last. I started by giving a mentorship session to an aspiring novelist on Monday morning. Luke is a guy with a fantastic ear for dialogue and he presented me with 10,000 words of a really intriguing YA haunted house story that had enough wrinkles and action to make me excited to see what he will accomplish with it. the hour-long session turned into 2 pleasant hours in front of the fire, talking shop and generally jawing about any aspect of the industry that took our fancy, and was a really pleasurable way to begin the week.
Tuesday night bought nearly 30 visitors down upon the Centre for a Christmas in July dinner. I gave a short talk to discuss my journey as a writer, and what inspires my work, and gave reading from Ghost Tracks and Song of the Water, to show what I was working on while at the Centre. Several peers were in the audience, including good pals Norman Jorgensen and Jan Nicholls, as well as members of the KSP board and a group of very lovely ladies who had travelled up from the Gosnells Writing Group for the evening. I hope they got their money’s worth: the Residency program is invaluable, and while I cultivate an air of idiot-savant-about-town, I do want to lend any reputational worth I can to good things. The night was a good laugh, at least, if only because I managed to mis-read a line about ships hitting the dock with a sound like slapping flesh as ‘slapping fish’. You know you’re on a winner when you manage to porn-mondegreen your own work……
Let the wild rumpus start: attendees at the KSP Christmas in July dinner patiently waiting for me to shut the fuck up so they can have something to eat.
With my beautiful wife, and pals Jan Nicholls and Norman Jorgensen
The following night saw me at Mundaring Library, delivering a talk on writing as abstract art, children’s reading habits, and the story behind Magrit. Sadly, some pretty inclement weather closed in: of the 21 bookings the library took, just on 10 braved the weather to attend. Some long-lost stand-up comedy instincts kicked in, and the night was some raucous fun, but it also prompted a long discussion with some attendees after we’d finished, so it was good to be the catalyst for some alternative thinking. or maybe they were just waiting for the rain to finish…..
Yap yap yap, blah blah blah. Does he never just bloody shut up?
And today was my Worldbuilding 101 workshop: three hours of discussion on story structure, the three Ifs, politics, culture, economics, belief systems, geography, and other aspects of creating a believable fantasy world. I love giving writing workshops. I’ve been exposed to an unbelievable amount of arts practice since I first started working in the arts industry in 1989 (Fuuuuuuuuuccckkkk……..). I’ve developed some pretty strong and solid theories over the years, and I find it increasingly joyful to pass them on to other artists and to engage in the dialogue that creates.
Working hard at the workshop. Now they have become death, the destroyer of worlds.
Part teaching, part performance, and part geeking out and talking shop, the workshop environment is a natural fit for my strengths as a communicator, and I find them a hell of a lot of fun. This was no different: at one point, three of us got caught up in a bit of impromptu verbal world-building around the concept of using urban design in an environmentally responsible, green future world to create safe travel zones for dwindling, isolated populations of bogans to drive their cars between each node so that they don’t suffer the effects of inbreeding. It was hilarious fun, and just shows what kind of synergy can be created in a live, give-and-take environment.
The only issue I have with workshops is that they leave me absolutely exhausted– I’ve always suffered a real crash after performing, and this is no different. I’m hypersensitive to any feeling that I’m not providing full value to participants, so a workshop such as today– where one participant in particular had some struggles getting to grips with some of the exercises– can keep me picking at it like a scab for weeks to come. It’s a big flaw in my personality (Just ooooooone?)– 99 people can tell me a positive, but the 1 person who tells me the negative is the one who worms their way under my skin and sticks.
Tomorrow I’ll be attending the Centre’s monthly SF group in the late morning, and then that will be it. Luscious will arrive, I’ll pack my box of unfinished muesli bars and cans of soup in the boot of the car, and I’ll be on my way back to the family I’ve missed and the familiar warmth of the wife I can’t wait to lie next to again at night (After 15 years, an empty bed is just wrong, wrong, wrong). And then it’ll be Monday again, and I’ll be back at my dispiriting day job and the struggle of trying to fit writing into the few corners of my day that aren’t already filled.
But for two weeks, I’ve been immersed in the life of writing that I hoped to live when I set out on this journey so many years ago– grafting towards word targets each day; interacting with organisations and individuals who share the same passion for literature and the proliferation of art; working towards the creation of something new to add to the weight of art in the world and encouraging others along the same path; and without sounding like too much of a wanker about it, living an existence that simply feels more elevated and worthy that the daily administrative plough I push on a daily basis. I’ve rediscovered what it is to be a writer. I’ve used mental and creative muscles that have atrophied because of the inaction forced upon me by my job. I’ve reconnected with many of the reasons I became an artist in the first place. I’ve rediscovered the love of the work, and of that white heat of creation. And I’ve written more words in 14 days than I have managed all year.
It’s been a special experience. I’ll miss it. I wish I could take it with me when I return to my family who are the only aspect of my day-to-day existence I have missed desperately– I wish, somehow, that I could combine both into something approaching a perfect life. But at least I had these two weeks.
The song follows Charles along the beach, as it has followed him for nearly ten years. His horse is nervous underneath him, tugging against his lead as if ready to bolt at the slightest provocation. He tightens his grip, nudges it ahead. He knows his destination.
The mothers are waiting for him at the water’s edge. The spray shines on their black skin, beautiful, so beautiful in the morning sunlight. They do not talk to him, nor he to them. Instead they sing, as they have always sung: their bodies still, their mouths closed. The song led him out to this stretch of beach, through Fremantle, along Cantonment Street, out here to where the old jetty once stood. Now it hangs in the air between them, swaying in time to the rise and fall of the waves upon the sand.
The horse whinnies and skips sideways. Charles lays a hand on its neck, leans down in the saddle to cluck calming noises.
“Tsh, tsh.” The horse rolls its eye back towards him, and calms. Charles rubs its neck. He has always been good with horses. He has always been good with things. His wife Mary would call it a gift from God. Charles was not so sure. Things he was good with, but people had always eluded him. That was a strange gift for a God to give, to be so good with things that could not rear up and attack you, and to struggle so much with those who paid you, commented upon you, and used their newspapers to smear your name into oblivion.
— From Song of the Water.
Paul sat on the back porch of the motel and pitched stones into the long grass that covered all the visible land between his perch and the broken fence that failed to delineate the boundary between the motel ground and the abandoned railway line beyond. He’d been stuck here for four days, now, ever since his grandfather’s funeral. Four days in a nowhere town of eight streets so far up the bum of the Western Australian wheat belt that even the grain trains had stopped rolling through town for lack of interest.
Four days with no internet, no TV, no video games, barely any phone reception, one café that closed between 1 and 4 pm and after 8pm, three books of which two were snaffled by his Mum and dad and he wasn’t allowed to read the other one because it was ‘too adult’, no kids his age, no kids of any age, no interest from his parents and worst of all, if he stopped to think about it too much—although he didn’t… couldn’t—no Granddad.
Paul had never been so bored, so isolated. Even when Mum and Dad weren’t around, which was pretty often, he’d been able to look after himself, make his own fun. But here… this town—he couldn’t even remember its name—made it impossible. All he could come up with was to sit on the back porch and let his fingers run aimlessly through the pebble gravel that served as some sort of lawn substitute until he found one large enough to pick up and flick into the forest of waist-high weeds that stretched as far as his disinterested eye could see.
— From Ghost Tracks
The fat man’s singing. It must be over.