Every so often something happens to remind us that words – those little symbols on the page, the tools of trade of every writer – are powerful weapons.
Recently the doors of Causeway Books in Hong Kong were suddenly closed when its five owners and employees were detained by mainland security forces for selling books that offend the Chinese Government – primarily political biographies and economic analyses. Causeway Books is well known as a source of factual books on mainland China. It appears that the propaganda ministry has banned emotionally charged words (such as ‘slump’, ‘spike’ and ‘collapse’), and has warned against any analysis or assessment of economic circumstances.
So as we writers agonise over word choice – as we do every day – spare a thought for writers in other countries who are trying to get their message out under very different circumstances.
Years later she still wondered about him. It was one of those chance encounters that you never forgot. She’d been in Canada, bussing out of Kingston on a cold, grey, sleety morning. Suddenly a panting, dishevelled man flung himself on board at the last minute and collapsed into the seat beside her.
He started to talk. He seemed to need to. She didn’t have much choice but to listen.
His fingers twisted, his face worked as he talked. He’d been released from the Kingston jail that morning after fifteen years, he told her. Fifteen years? She couldn’t bring herself to ask what he’d done to deserve that. He’d got used to it, he said, it was all about routine. He’d worked in the kitchen cleaning the stoves. For ten hours a day, day after day, for fifteen years. It could have been worse.
Where was he going? He was going home, he said. To his father. His mother had died while he was in prison. He hadn’t seen either of them since he was put away. They’d never visited. Neither had his sister. His father had refused to collect him in Kingston. But he had nowhere else to go. As the miles flew by beads of perspiration appeared. The closer they got to his destination the more agitated he became. Finally he called out to the driver, retrieved his little duffel bag and glanced down at her. His face was tortured. Good luck, she said. I’ll need it, he replied. She glanced back. No one was waiting at the remote bus stop beside the windy highway.
He is a story waiting to be written.
Stories rain down on you at Christmas. It’s a time when families become a magnet for us all – however distant the family, whatever cracks may have appeared in its fabric during the year, its the family we need to be with at Christmas. In a country the size of Australia many of us travel many thousands of kilometres to be with our families – by air, by rail, by road, sometimes by all three. Then there are those family members living overseas who cover ten times those distances – just to be home for Xmas, however briefly.
Divorce, remarriage, and melded families have complicated Christmas for so many of us. Sometimes the planning around Christmas in these households requires almost military precision, to cover multiple family bases on the day. Often not everyone wants to visit every point, but Christmas has its own protocols.
Whoever we are, each one of us is writing our own Christmas story. It’s up to us to plan ahead for a happy ending.
My Christmas will be spent at the beach in midsummer heat, with family coming and going – as have so many other Christmasses in the past. That’s what feels like Christmas to me.
However you spend your Christmas, I do hope your story is a truly happy one from beginning to end.
She was behind the counter in a coffee shop beside the highway – except it had run out of coffee, so we had icecreams instead. She was keen to chat. She needed to tell her story. She needed to be heard. She was desperate.
She and her husband were sharefarmers with his two brothers, she told us. But schizophrenia ran in the family, times are tough in the drought-stricken bush, and one brother had committed suicide eighteen months ago. The other two men had struggled on, trying to support all three families; the women found such work as they could – always involving a long drive for low wages. Tears started trickling down her cheeks.
Then, she said, a month ago the other brother killed himself. Now she and her husband are trying to support all three families from the one farm with only one worker – him. They couldn’t afford to buy in labour. So they decided to sell the farm, carve up the proceeds and get out of there. To anywhere.
But there are no buyers. Not now. Not until the drought breaks, at least. Perhaps not even then – there are so many farms on the market. They are all trapped. The trickle of tears became a flood. We murmured useless phrases of sympathy, empathy – but how could we city slickers relate to an existential situation like that?
Travel opens so many windows on so many lives, and the glimpses inside can be horrifying. She has haunted me every since. What story would we have heard if we had stopped at the next little struggling eatery? How could it possibly have been worse than this?
I started my ‘Postcards’ page as a way of keeping the website fresh. It’s a long time between books, after all! But creating postcards seems to be becoming an end in itself for me, feeding my twin passions of writing and photography. As well as taking or hunting out photos that can be cobbled together to tell some sort of story, I’m finding that I’m using fewer and fewer words to tell that story, and in a much looser structure. I’ve always admired those fiction writers who are also poets – they seem to pack such a punch with such economy. Perhaps I’m nudging into their territory? Would that I could! At the same time, I’m looking at my photos with a different eye – the image needs to be very simple, and very clear, to work in this context. Lots of cropping needed!
Anyway, I hope you’re enjoying reading the postcards as much as I’m enjoying creating them.
I often think of her when I walk past her house. She’d be long dead by now. We were neighbours many years ago. Probably she was around sixty then, and her husband was in a wheelchair; their fights were frequent and loud. I was young, busy, out and about. The day I moved in she demanded a new fence. Broke, I asked her to wait until I could afford it. The next week a new fence was constructed and the bill put in my letterbox. It wasn’t a good start to the relationship. I soon learned she was the neighbourhood spy, reporting every minor event to any authority she could think of, interfering in everyone’s business. I dealt with her simply by ignoring her, after I finally paid for my share of the fence – a cheque accompanied by a sharply worded note.
All these years later I can see that her world had shrunk to her street. She was bitter, lonely, disappointed in the hand life had dealt her. She wanted to be significant. In retrospect I couldn’t have chosen a more hurtful response. She even screamed at me one morning when I was backing out – you pretend I don’t exist! I had no answer to that, and just swung off to work.
One day she will appear on a page. One day I will explore the nature of her particular brand of unhappiness. Although I have long since moved and moved again, ending up nearby, in the meantime I see her scowling at me every time I walk down that street.
A rendering of a question mark maze
I needed a reprint: the last reprint of ‘Loose Ends’, the first novel in my Annie Bryce series, ran out and the original files were no longer available. Orders are still trickling in, though, so perhaps, I thought, I should produce a revised edition. After all there were a few errors in the first edition, which should at least be corrected. So I reread the book for the first time for years. It was first published in 2006, and of course written a couple of years earlier. How technology has changed in that time!
So here’s the dilemma: how far should an author go in a revised edition? Should I attempt to update the whole text where technology was concerned? I decided against it. I did, however, remove some of the detail about communications, photography and other technology. That should be a lesson for the future. Whatever technology I’m using today will be obsolete tomorrow, so the less said about it the better, unless its integral to the story.
There’s a lesson to be learned every day when you get in to writing and publishing.
The obstacles to writing are rarely major ones – at least for me. Personally I find that getting sidetracked is all too easy. For the last few weeks I’ve been sidetracked by entertaining a house guest, spending more time than I should on photography, talking about writing, talking about photos, and even getting myself organised to get news of my latest collection of short pieces, ‘Pick and Choose’, out and about.
I tell myself I’ve reached a turning point in the novel I’m writing, so it will pay dividends to put it aside for a while. Perhaps it will. Or not? Every time a treacherous thought like that creeps into my mind I’m reminded of Sinclair Lewis’ famous advice to all aspiring writers: The art of writing, he said, is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.
If there is another way of writing, I haven’t found it!
The world of authorship has many facets. Once a book is finished, there’s a whole new other world you have to face up to – getting it ‘out there’. Suddenly you’re sucked into a technological vortex.
And that was how I found myself spending an hour with a ‘website optimiser’ – not to optimise my own website, but just to get a better handle on how the whole business of how search engines work. I learned a lot.
On the way home I reflected how the world has quickly changed to demand that people with very different backgrounds, mindsets and skills find ways of working together harmoniously and productively. That’s a big ask for us all. Suddenly writing a book seems the easy bit!