So Much to Tell You* (Hi from the psych hospital. No really.)

First up: if this post raises any concerns for you please, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or if you’re a young adult you can visit www.headspace.org.au

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Hey people. It’s been a really long time. It’s been a long time since I met any readers, visited a high school or did a festival. I have three books sitting on a desk in my hospital room. I wrote them all. My name is on the cover. I have them here to remind me what my mind is capable of because  none of the author stuff – the festivals, the workshops, even the actual writing – feels real anymore. But I must have done it, because there those books are, on my desk as well as on shelves in people’s homes and bookshops. (Forgive me if my sentences are a little clunky, there are a lot of meds doing a lot of funny things in my brain right now.)  The Protected  even won The Prime Minister’s literary award, the CBCA Book of the Year, the Victorian Premier’s Award and the WA Premier’s Book Prize! That’s a lot. And it’s a bloody great height to fall from, but here we are. Or here I am.

Early one Friday morning in July I was in the car on the way to do a school visit when I got a sudden sharp achy pain in my chest and found I couldn’t breathe properly. This was accompanied by a strange liquidy hot swooshing sensation that flooded my chest, limbs and brain.  At first I thought I must have drunk my coffee too quickly. It had been such a long time since I’d had any issues with anxiety that it took me a while to realise it was a rather acute panic attack. I started to cry, consumed with the most potent terror imaginable. I pulled over. I breathed slowly and deeply. I waited for it to pass, drove to the school, did three talks on auto-pilot and a (hopefully) convincing impression of someone who is completely mentally sound. (I’ve had a lot of practice at that. I don’t know if that’s the right spelling of the word ‘practice’ in this context. I don’t care.)

I came home, had pizza and watched TV. I looked forward to the next day. But the next morning, and the morning after that, the panic was back: a great snarling black monster squirming through my body squeezing my chest and turning all the lights out in my mind.

Initially my doctor chalked it up to exhaustion. That didn’t really make sense to me because in the weeks leading up to this point I had felt better than I think I ever have in my whole life. I was super motivated, I was writing lots, drawing and painting lots, and had become very, very enthusiastic about house plants. I really wanted to believe it was exhaustion. That meant I just needed to rest and I would be sweet.

I rested. I rested really hardcore. But it didn’t make any difference. I’d have a week or so of classic anxiety, panic attacks, then sobbing and hideous depression; only for it to lift as suddenly as it had started and I’d go back feeling totally fine. This went on, up and down through July , August and September like the most hideous, poorly designed and possibly deadly rollercoaster you can imagine. (My simile game is weak at the moment, forgive me.)  Every time I thought I had come good and the glitch in my system had passed, it would bowl me over again.

I had to pull out of Byron Bay Writer’s festival. I had to cancel school visits and all my bookings for Book Week. That was the worst. I hate letting people down. I hate pulling out of commitments. I got an email from a devastated reader who had been looking forward to seeing me in Byron. I cried while I read it. I’ve been composing something in reply over and over in my head ever since, but I can’t get the words right. I like to get the words right. It’s kind of my job.

We thought maybe it was a series of viruses. We thought maybe it was something to do with meds. (Which I have taken diligently for years and up until now have served me very well.) My doc ran tests. Maybe it was my thyroid. Maybe it was diabetes. Maybe it was a brain tumour!

The MRI showed no tumour, which was good. But I longed for an answer.

(My GP, I should add, is amazing. But it’s hard to diagnose the bizarre array of symptoms I was experiencing. I was also in complete denial that it was anything wrong with my mental health, it was far more appealing for me to believe (and insist) that this was something that had gone physically wrong in my body.)

I did make it to Melbourne Writers’ Festival where I did my sessions in a daze, signed books on auto-pilot then went back to the hotel, curled in a ball and wailed. Like really ugly snotty crying, not at all dignified or glamorous; even though it was the Sofitel, which is a really, really fancy place.

I went on a European holiday with my husband and sons. We used a bit of the prize money from The Protected to go to Amsterdam, Berlin and Italy. We had some really fun times. I also had some of the absolute worst times I’d ever experienced – it’s a very special thing to have a prolonged panic/anxiety attack in the Van Gough museum while looking at the paintings poor bloody Vincent did when he was losing his own mind.

About ten days ago the rollercoaster threw me off and I was left crumpled on the floor. I couldn’t battle it anymore. I couldn’t do anything except cry and think horrible, catastrophic thoughts. All the lights went out.

So here I am in a psychiatric hospital. God has been very gracious and kind to me. If I hadn’t won those prizes I wouldn’t have been able to afford it and trust me, anyone who has ever been in a public psych ward knows you need years of therapy to get over the experience of being in a public psych ward. This hospital is a really nice one, it has good food, a gym and wifi. It is staffed with kind people who are skilled in caring for those of us who have had a run in with a rollercoaster. (That metaphor really is all I got right now, apologies.)

I’m okay. The word ‘bipolar’ is being used and that’s scary, but it’s an answer to the truly baffling experience that has been my life since July. Also, Stephen Fry has bipolar and he seems to be managing, right? I mean, the constant reruns of QI are excruciating, but I would like to have him to a dinner party. (Him and Jesus. And Truman Capote. And Rob Brydon. And Felicty Ward.)

The main reason I am writing this post (which is the only thing I have written since July) is because it’s really super important to break the stigma about mental illness. It’s very easy when you’re really down or anxious to think that everyone else in the world has it together and you are the only one not coping and therefore there is no way out for you. Do I need to list the awards again? (I don’t mind, really.) This shit can happen to anyone. Talk about it. If you are feeling like you’ve been thrown off the rollercoaster (Oh yeah, I’m still flogging that one.) tell someone. If they don’t take you seriously, tell someone else. Tell your parents, a sibling, a teacher, a friend, your doctor, or that weird aunt with a lot of house plants. Speak up. They won’t think you’re a drama queen, a freak, a nut job, or weak. They will think you are human.

Claire x

*Title is a homage to one of the writers who made me want to be a writer, John Marsden. I tried ‘Looking for Claire Zorn’ in honour of Melina Marchetta but it didn’t have the same ring to it.

The Madness in the Method – on creativity and mental illness

Like many humans, I sometimes have conversations with other humans. (Real ones, not the imaginary ones I converse with for money.) Inevitably when chatting with someone new, the question of occupation comes up and that’s when I get to tell them I’m an author. It’s wonderful. My twelve year-old self (who couldn’t spell or do sums but had a catalogue of imaginary worlds and characters in her head) does backflips of glee. I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I don’t love my profession, yes writing novels is difficult, but it is a privilege and I still have a file of rejection letters in my study to remind me how blessed I am.

Sometimes the news that I am an author is met with questions about what I write, how I got published, how much money I earn or when I find the time to write. Sometimes the response is, ‘Wow, you must have a big imagination!’ This always seems to me like telling Usain Bolt that he must be quite athletic. Yep, I have a big imagination. Most humans do. I put mine to work everyday, which strengthens it and a lot of the time my imagination is very useful to me. But sometimes it can be dangerous. (This is where the Bolt analogy falls apart, unless he starts using his speed to rob banks.)

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits recently and I usually tell students that I think primarily in pictures and I see a story in my head play like a film. The pictures come easily, finding the words to do them justice and communicate them effectively to my reader is the hard part. My mind’s ability to build intricate, detailed scenes is what allows me to write novels. This is helped along by a long-term memory bank which seem inexhaustible; I can remember what colour sweater my husband was wearing on our first date thirteen years ago, for example. Do I remember my son’s school library day is Tuesday? Never. img_0815.jpg

But like it is for a lot of creative people, my mind is a double-edged sword. It can build intricate, detailed pictures of chaos so well that the worst case scenario in any situation seems highly plausible. I recently contemplated getting a quote for someone to clean my kitchen and bathroom once a fortnight, but I decided not to incase the cleaner turns out to be a serial killer. I then flicked through the handy mental list I have of female murder victims from the recent past (admittedly, there have been a lot to choose from) as evidence that inviting a stranger into my home was certain to result in my death. This is kind of funny to read. It seems ridiculous.

I’m still nervous about the cleaner.

Yep, I’m a master of catastrophic thinking. So good, in fact, that I have made a living out of thinking up catastrophes and following them through until the very end. Ever wondered what it would be like to live through a nuclear winter? I wrote a book on it. Read it and you won’t have to wonder anymore. What does the death of a sibling do to a person? I’ve got that covered too. The next book has a grief-stricken boy navigating the world after the sudden death of his mother. Guess what? I have sons.

But sometimes I can’t organise all my anxieties into a narrative. Sometimes they are so real and so threatening that they take over my existence altogether and I have trouble functioning because my mind is so busy worrying and despairing and reliving every distressing event I’ve ever experienced in that same excruciating detail that apparently makes my books win awards. Last year The Protected won three major awards. Everyone kept telling me that I must be so thrilled and excited and walking on air. I was. A bit. But it was coupled with the knowledge that within a month of being offered the publishing contract for that book I was in a psychiatric ward and that the giddy high from the awards came rapidly after one of my most gutting lows.

A huge part of managing my mental health is the acceptance of medication. I was on a very effective regime until about six weeks ago when I thought I might try to get by on a little less. I could write award-winning novels and visit schools and raise two boys and lead the music every week at church. Look at me go! ‘I’ve got this,’ I thought. ‘And imagine how much better I would have looked at the PM’s awards if I didn’t have the extra 10kgs that all the meds bring along with them!’ Yep. That was an actual motivator.

Yeah. It didn’t work. As some guys in skivies once sang, hello darkness, my old friend.

Creative work is the pursuit of perfection. I am not perfect. That sucks.

There is a lot of stuff out there about the link between creativity and mental illness. I don’t know if I can have one without the other. But I do know that with all the problems my mind brings into my life, it brings a lot of good stuff too. It makes me who I am. And to quote from one of my favourite writers, Alice Munro, ‘I am extremely okay.’

 

In which I consider a career in hip hop. For realz.

Last time we met I mentioned that I go to the gym. This is true. I am one of these annoying people who is actually addicted to exercise, specifically I just love pumping iron. True fact. I love answering questions from the audience at writers’ festivals, but what I’m really waiting for is someone to challenge me to an arm wrestle.

The key to a good weights session (stay with me, the light’s coming, I swear.) Is music. As I previously wrote, I attend a gym largely patronised by blokes, many of them (so-called) professional athletes. This can be a touch intimidating. The weights room is completely male dominated. A lass can feel like she’s trespassing on some primitive male ritual. I stick out amongst all the bronzed, oiled (eww) biceps. I am a gangly, fluro-white girl in glasses. But like I said, I like doing weights and Fernwood is about twice as expensive as a mixed gym so I have developed an effective method for keeping my cool (I use this term only as strongly as can be applied to someone who works out in an old maternity bra and tattered ‘Overland literary journal’ t-shirt.) What’s my secret? Hip hop, peeps. Rap. That cray cray ghetto thayng. Mos def.

Yes, in order to feel on par with the super-tough titanium lifters (Do they lift titanium? Is it even heavy? Let’s leave that little illustration alone.) I recruit the help of the Beastie Boys, sometimes De la Soul, and more often than not, a heap of Gwen Stefani. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

I don’t feel intimidated if I have Mike D rapping in my ear. It makes me feel like I have a little posse following me around telling these annoying 20 year old posers to get off my leg press, man. Never mind that the remaining beasties are now in their late forties.

The problem is, I have run out of music. I have listened to Hollaback Girl 68 times in the last month and I now know every word of every Beastie Boys song that’s got a fast enough beat to elevate the heart rate. Massive Attack? I know every thought that ever entered Tricky’s mind. Same for Jurassic Five. I am in that weird place where I am out of the loop and don’t know what to listen to. This is a problem exacerbated by the fact that I refuse to listen to anything misogynistic. That rules out about 70% of hip hop. Also, I have kids, so there can’t be too many expletives. Or if there are, they have to be easily masked as something else. For example, you can sing along to Hollaback Girl if you pretend Gwen is really passionate about her ‘ships’: ‘OooOoo that’s my ship, that’s my ship.’

So, I hear you say, why not try something else, there’s a lot of hip hop out there. Modern stuff: Jay Z? Kanye? That Snoopy Dog fellow?

Yeah. But the problem is, it all sounds very plastic, slick, sharp. I was a teen in the 90s. I cut my teeth on a grungy, fuzzy, rough-around-the-edges sound that comes from people making music it their parents’ garage. Without Pro Tools. I made the jump from guitar driven grunge to hip hop via the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, which owes more to Nirvana than it does N.W.A. That song was my bridge. I was able to ease myself in. I don’t want no computer generated, auto-tuned, slick sound. Also it seems that most people in the hip hop business today have lost their sense of humour. It’s all very earnest, either about popping caps or using hoes. It all sounds rather fake to me. The only caps I pop are Panadol and I use a hoe in the garden from time to time, but generally I just can’t relate.

I’m going to sound old now, but I remember De La Soul rapping about poor hygiene and the beasties mentioning their grandmas. Gwen Stefani had her tongue firmly in cheek on a permanent basis, as did Charlie Tuna. I miss those days. Now everyone seems super keen to prove how tough and mean they are and how much cash they’ve got.

What about Aussie hip hop? You may ask. The Pez Dispenser chappie? 360? Look, I’m going to be brutally honest, and I realise this is some cultural cringe thing I need to overcome, but I can’t stand rap with an Australian accent. I have an Irish friend who says I need to get over this. Easy for him to say, he’s Irish.

Recently I came across Iggy Azalea. She’s Australian, but you wouldn’t know it from her accent. She raps like Kelis or Nicki Minaj. She is clearly inhabiting an imaginary persona, but I don’t see the problem, musicians have been doing that for years. No one blames David Bowie for being fake because he never lived on a space station. Aside from the Minaj-esque accent, ‘Fancy’ sounds like it could be Gwen Stefani, so that’s a win. It’s also got a sense of humour about it. ‘I’m so fancy’ is a funny line, if for no other reason than it uses the word ‘fancy’. Iggy claims to be in the ‘murdder business’, but we know she’s making it up because she makes no secret of the fact she’s from Mullumbimby.

In fact, I like that song so much I bought the album. Trouble is, the rest of the tracks maintain the whole, ‘I was poor, now I’m a rich and l might shoot you’ narrative, funny for one song but tiresome over a twelve track album. Yes, yes, Iggy, you started out on your own with no friends and now you’re a success everyone wants to come around and drink your champagne. That aspect may be true, but it’s not entertaining. There’s nothing lyrically clever about it. While we’re talking white rappers, I have a lot of respect for Eminem. He’s a clever guy. But I can’t buy an album which glorifies beating up a woman and stuffing her in your car boot. No matter how linguistically sophisticated it is.

(It made me consider making my own hip hop. I would rap about books, a really nice skirt that I bought from Cue a few weeks ago and how much I love Spike Jonze movies. Maybe also horses and how expensive they are to maintain. But I’ve kind of committed to the whole writing thing for the moment and besides, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make a very convincing rapper.)

rapperIt seems that the only stuff around that doesn’t feature expletives does feature a fellow called Pit Bull, who is so manufactured he makes me want to shout expletives, which kind of defeats the purpose of listening to clean stuff in the first place. I have a big problem with music that’s marketed as family friendly and clean, but features a guy in a suit surrounded by gyrating semi-naked women. Call me picky.

On the upside, The Roots have released a new album, ‘And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’ which harks back to Faithless and other trip hoppy stuff like DJ Shadow, it even has a flavour of Portishead to it. It is largely a response to the shallow, braggy, materialistic hip hop which is so prevalent. If you want to read more about the comment it makes on hip hop and black America today, The Roots’ drummer, Questlove (he of the fantastic hair) wrote this piece for Vulture. It’s pretty freaking great. As for me I know it’s risky to cast any judgment over contemporary hip hop, both Lorde and Lily Allen have been accused of racism because of comments their music makes about mainstream hip hop culture. But that issue is another blog altogether.

 

Whistle-Blower Edition: The Truth behind the Dragons and NRL

There’s been a fair amount of whistle-blowing in sport lately, in all senses of the word. (See what I did there?) What with drugs of all varieties, bribery, corruption, players passing out and ploughing into parked cars, not to mention the small issue of Qatar hosting a world cup when their average temp for July is 75 degrees C*. (Nothing sus going on there. AT ALL.)

What I’m about to tell you shrinks all of these into insignificance. Let’s not kid ourselves, I am not a sportsologist of any kind. (That’s the right term, yeah?) But I feel the need to share a piece of inside information with NRL fans, specifically fans of the St George Illawarra Dragons. There are a lot of sad Dragons fans out there at the moment. I know because I live with one and I also live in the Illawarra, so I see a lot of fans in Dragons jerseys openly sobbing while they go about their day-to-day activities. Another tell-tale sign is the scoreboard. This afternoon the Dragons got beaten 36 nil. I’m pretty sure even I could manage a better score than that. (This is not meant to be derogatory to the Dragons because I am a woman**, but rather because my #1 objective on the sporting field is to keep as much distance as possible between myself and a ball.) In fact, considering the fact that last week they were beaten 38 to 6, I wouldn’t be surprised if the NRL introduced participation certificates specifically for the Dragons, or perhaps started a new arm of competition where no points are recorded and everyone’s a winner by virtue of the fact they had a go. Perhaps this is all a little harsh and mean-spirited, like I said I’m no expert. Perhaps this is part of a long-term strategy in which the Dragons bore their opponents into a semi comatose state, at which point they – the Dragons – then score some points. Any points really would be an improvement.images-1

Problem is they are experts. They are paid for this stuff.

So here’s the inside scoop, folks. I have observed the Dragons training and even I, with little to no knowledge of Rugby League, can identify exactly where they are going wrong.

My insights come from spending time at the gym, the same gym as the Dragons frequent. (This was not by design on my part, but I doubt many young ladies who patronise the said gym could say the same.) My time observing the Dragons started out fairly positively, one would oft sight them all lined up on the exercise bikes, peddling away whilst a fellow with a clipboard helped them out by setting the resistance and timer and what not. Sometimes they would have a go in the pool, each with their team’s name proudly displayed across their rear; for safety purposes I presume,  if should one be found wandering, confused and lost by the tennis courts, they could be identified and returned to the fellows with the clipboards and whistles. They put on the show one would expect from professional sportsmen, had all the right gear etc.

But then one day I witnessed something distressing. Was it Josh Dugan getting stuck in the turnstile? No, although I did witness this and it’s fair to say it was more amusing than distressing. No, dear reader, one day I was heading across to the gym, passing some shrubbery when, what should I spy there amongst the bushes? Two Dragons, in full regalia, puffing away on sneaky durries like a couple of year nines behind the Science block at recess. I thought I was seeing things. For months I told myself that the gents responsible for a large portion of the Illawarra’s collective mental health would never spend money paid to them to PLAY SPORT on cigarettes and then smoke said cigarettes during training. But then just last week I spotted a Dragon there amongst the trees by the oval, having a little rest, a little breather. Perhaps finding inspiration in nature or contemplating the more meditative aspects of maneuvering a ball around the field for cash. Unfortunately, as I neared, the plumes of smoke around his head area signalled that while he was taking a breather, it wasn’t air he was focused on breathing.

That information is shocking I know. Take a moment to process that mental image while I feed you another truth nugget: THE DRAGONS ARE AFRAID OF RAIN. Yes, just days after the second smoking sighting, as I was making my way from the gym to the car park, I was caught in a bit of a downpour – as is quite common in this temperate region (FIFA, take note.) Also caught in the downpour, mid-training session, were the poor Dragons. Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen NRL players in the rain before, carrying on with the game in the mud like gallant soldiers at the Somme. Not these ones. No, these ones had fled the field and were cowering, bone dry, under a small awning. They weren’t even puffing in any sense of the word. It was as if they had been taking only a brief turn around the grounds in the manner of Elizabeth Bennet or similar. Granted, Benji wasn’t there. And we all know he isn’t afraid of anything. But even the most talented player is rendered useless if all his teammates have fled the field for fear of messing up their hair.

So all I can say, Dragons fans, is if you thought these last two weeks were bad, heaven help you if it should rain.

*Rough estimate

**Some women are kick-arse at League, I know one, she’s a size 8 but could put most men to shame with her tackling skills.

Uncovered – On finding the perfect book cover and losing it

Twelve months ago I was going to do a blog about cover design for The Sky So Heavy. But I couldn’t because I was just feeling too many feelings. I’ve always found the process of book-cover design overwhelming. This goes back to high school days and ‘design the cover’ assignments. The expectation that I would put on myself would be crippling, so determined was I to get it perfect. I was a drawer and a reader, so it should have been my thing, right? RIGHT??!! To get it wrong was unthinkable. THE SHAME! The potential for me to produce a work of stunning insight was only equalled by the potential to fail. (I’m not sure that was as profound as I’d hoped it to be. See? I’m struggling. This is why I haven’t written about this before.)

When my own book is concerned it’s about a thousand times worse – if that’s even possible without full psychological breakdown. (First World Problems, anyone?) Imagine if you had to sit down and decide what you wanted your child to look like. That’s the kind of brain explosion I experience when it comes to discussions about cover concepts.

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If Fin got his shirt off more I could have had something like this for The Sky So Heavy. Shame.

Just to be clear, writers generally don’t design covers for their own books. (If you’re unsure as to why, check out the self-published book covers tumbler. Or just look to the left. There’s a reason professional designers have to go to uni for three years.) Book cover design is tricky and could well be the catalyst for a full-scale psychological breakdown if the level of neurosis exhibited by my fourteen-year-old self is anything to go by. But editors do have a discussion with the author about what they would like or any ideas they might have. As well as what they don’t want.

For The Sky So Heavy I really had no idea. I wanted to put it in the too-hard basket. I eventually nutted some vague ideas out with my editor and we ended up with something that I don’t love, but which seems to be selling well. Which means I’m finding my readers, so the cover’s done it’s job. It’s also worth pointing out that the process took place in the first year of my youngest son’s life, so it’s fair to say I had other priorities and only so much (read: very little) head space to devote to the whole thing.

Then along comes book two – not a sequel, but a stand-alone on which I have worked, off and on, for the last nine years. I have rewritten The Protected completely, not once, but twice. I guess you could say I’m kind of attached to it. (UNDERSTATEMENT.) I have also been far more emotionally present during the whole publishing process this time around, compared to The Sky So Heavy. I won’t go into details, but if you understand the level of pressure I put on myself when it came to designing an imaginary book cover when I was in high school, you can probably guess how my brain copes with the pressure of raising a tiny helpless baby. It’s not pretty. (There’s not going to be a trilogy as far as that narrative is concerned.)

The initial design the publisher sent to me for this next book was one they were very keen on, but I was not. My reasons for disliking it were partly to do with ideas about gendered book covers and partly to do with my aversion to dark close ups of pretty girls’ faces. My editor was gracious and understanding, so sent me another alternative. Which I absolutely loved. Really, truly, loved. We were in agreement, it was done. Over the last two weeks I have gazed at it on and off for long slabs of time in which I probably should have been doing other things.

But then my editor discovered another YA book, newly released in the US, with the exact same stock photo on the cover.

So it’s back to the drawing board, quite literally.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you want to read more about cover design and the myriad of aesthetic travesties that have been created in its name I highly recommend Caustic Cover Critic. Here you will also find many examples of unfortunate cover double-ups that weren’t caught in time…

Creativity can be a total bitch.

Philip Seymour Hoffman died. But you probably know that already. People far more eloquent than I have already written many words about it in places like the New Yorker. But there are still things to do with his death churning in my head, so I’m afraid I must subject you, dear reader, to a few of them.photo (4)

I share the opinion with many others that Hoffman was not only one of the greatest actors of our generation, but one of the greatest actors to have existed full stop. I’m pretty sure the first thing I saw him in was The Talented Mr Ripley, but the first time I really noticed how amazing he was and thought, ‘Oh that’s that guy!’ was in Punch Drunk Love with Adam Sandler. I generally avoid Adam Sandler, but Punch Drunk Love, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson is fopping brilliant. It includes the line ‘I love you so much I want to scoop your eyeballs out and eat them’ – so that’s pretty much case closed.

Then Hoffman played one of my favourite writers, Capote, in the film of the same name and cemented his place in my all time top five. He won the Oscar and everyone finally cottoned on to how great he was and I had that weird thing where you feel a strange ownership of someone because you know you were a fan way before almost everyone else.

I haven’t seen him in the second Hunger Games instalment. I pretty much lost my shit when I saw him in the trailer all those months ago.

And then, as you know, Monday came. I was starting to get my five-year-old ready for his first day of kindergarten when my husband read the news Philip Seymour Hoffman was dead. Heroin.

It seemed too droll for someone so brilliant. I also found it unnerving, probably not unlike when someone who has survived cancer hears of someone who hasn’t and finds themselves shaken. I have never had a drug addiction, but I have been in the place where it feels as though anything that can dull the mind is a good option. I don’t know if Hoffman suffered from depression or anxiety. But I doubt people take up heroin because they are feeling content in their existence. He clearly had a monstrously creative mind and such minds don’t often lend themselves to stability.

Creative minds are capable of accessing, quite readily, all sorts of labyrinthine tunnels of thought. These can come in very handy if you are trying to create an imaginary world, or compose a piece of music, or access an emotion so you can appear to be another person entirely. These tunnels can also present potentially catastrophic scenarios. They can unearth thoughts that would seem ridiculous if they weren’t so bloody terrifying.

The creative engine that makes a person who they are can be the very thing that destroys them.

Some people are dismissive of the idea that highly creative minds are more susceptible to mental illness, but in my opinion, the long list of people who have self-destructed in the clutches of their own creativity speaks for itself. If I were given a choice between artistic ability and perfect mental health I’m pretty sure I would choose to keep my creative brain. But then there are days I’m not so sure about that.

Either way, there’s no getting around the fact that Hoffman has joined that long list. And that, dear readers, totally sucks.

 

Oh the places you’ll go: on clothes and shoes and eating my words

A few weeks ago I made the declaration that ‘You can’t be a feminist and buy fashion magazines’. This is the bit where I backpedal.

My grandmother was a dressmaker. To be more specific she made couture gowns for high society in the 60s and 70s. She also made a lot of wedding gowns and taught pattern making at East Sydney Technical College. I have a memory of standing next to her in a department store, probably David Jones, while she made sketches of designer gowns so she could copy them later.Image

I inherited her love of a well cut frock and was a little obsessed with clothes as a child. This was back before you could buy voluminous tulle skirts in any kids clothing store, she made made them for me herself. I would do drawings of dresses that I dreamed up and she would make them for me. My strongest memory is of standing on her coffee table while she took pins from between her lips and pinned the hem of the calico toile she had made for my First Holy Communion dress. She later made the final dress from taffeta and lace that we chose together from a fabric store in Cabramatta. I wanted a strapless sweetheart neckline with a fitted bodice and full, billowing princess skirt. I got my wish, with the compromise of a long-sleeve lace overlay which was deemed more suitable for ones first communion with the Eucharist.

Later, when I was fifteen, I bought my first fashion magazine: a September issue of Harpers Bazaar with Christy Turlington on the cover. I sat at the dining room with Grandma and we poured over the pages together while she used the nebuliser which was keeping her alive. (She called fashion magazines Wish Books.) We discussed the dress that she would make for my year ten formal, folding the corners of pages for later reference, we would take this hemline, that neckline, this waist. She passed away soon after and I went to the formal in a store-bought dress: fitted bodice, flared skirt, black lace overlay.

I suppose what I am saying is what so, so many women have said before: some items of clothing are much more than items of clothing. I was taught to look at clothes the way an architect looks at a buildings. Some clothes are invested with meaning and carry the ethereal power of possibility. Yesterday I went to the sales with my dear, London-dwelling bestie. We tried on designer labels and I got that giddy light-headedness that one gets when one stands before an iconic painting or meets a super-duper movie star. For a few moments, in the changing room, I wore McQueen. It has never happened before and probably won’t happen again. My bestie bought McQueen and DKNY at ludicrously low prices. I bought a pair of outrageous canary yellow heels by Sass and Bide. They’re not really the sort of thing that will fit into my day to day existence. I won’t wear them to do the groceries. But that is clearly not the point. I may not spend much time strolling by the Eiffel Tower in incredible shoes, but I now have some ready to go should the occasion arise.

Lest to say, trying on clothes like that is not something I do often. Magazines remain my only regular portal into the Fashion Dreamland which I will only ever fleetingly inhabit, even then with a security tag attached. So for now I shall dismount from my high horse (his name is Fred, he’s a bolter). I shall try and remain self aware and on guard to the risks associated with repeated viewing of images of very thin people. And in a little while I will probably backpedal again.