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.’

 

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.

Somerset: students, lamingtons and book cakes.

It’s taken me ten days to write this post because I have been having festival withdrawals. I find the weeks following a festival difficult. It’s hard returning to a life that does not include a buffet breakfast every day and constant book-centred conversations. You see, two weeks ago I was at the Somerset Celebration of Literature, held by Somerset College in Queensland. Basically the people of Somerset believe that books are so great they should be celebrated annually with three days of author talks, giant stationary sculptures and poffertjes (dutch pancake things that should probably be illegal.) There were also books made out of cake. In my opinion this is a feature grossly neglected by other literature festivals.unnamed-1

From the reactions of most of the students it’s fair to say they thought the whole thing was pretty freaking great. I agreed. The closest thing I ever experienced to something like this was when Mem Fox came to visit my school when I was in year one. I was so overwhelmed with awe that I couldn’t meet her, I just sat trembling in a corner gazing in her general direction in a way which is really only excusable if you are six.

To me, writers were like movie stars. In fact, if offered the choice between seeing Mem Fox or some megawatt Hollywood star face-to-face, I’m sure I would have chosen the woman who invented the disappearing possum.

Twenty six years later I am only marginally better at keeping it together in the company of authors. I find that I enter a surreal, hyper head space where I need little sleep and tremble constantly from excitement. I have come to know this as Festival Syndrome. Let’s be honest, I spend most of my time either alone staring at a computer screen or conversing with two small humans whose idea of a good time is to see how much spaghetti they can force up their noses. So any adult conversation is generally stimulation overload for me. At festivals these conversations tend to involve my favourite people: writers and readers. So yeah, my brain tends to go a bit haywire.unnamed

The thing that is so brilliant about Somerset (other than the book-cakes) is it’s all about the students. Most literary festivals have a couple of days worth of events for students before getting on to the real serious business of adult books for adult audiences. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily talk to anyone about books and writing with a microphone. I don’t care how old they are, it’s a privilege. But my favourite people to talk about this stuff with are teenagers. The Somerset Celebration acknowledges the wonderful truth that the books we read as youngens can shape us for the rest of our lives. It acknowledges the fact that young people are important, their ideas are important, their brains are important. It also does something else quite wonderful in that it takes a group of writers and plonks them fair and square in the middle of the school’s life. We wander around between talks eating poffertjes and fairy floss and are encouraged to mingle with the students.

I didn’t get to casually mingle with authors when I was at school. I came to view them as  etherial beings with unobtainable literary super-powers and it took me a good seven years after school to even begin to imagine that I could be a writer. It seems to me that one of the things young, aspiring writers need most is encouragement. They need to know that people who do this for a living often write crap. They need to know that everyone finds writing stories difficult. They need to know they they don’t need special super-powers to be writers. There is no better way to learn these things than by asking an author face to face. (And if the said author is feeling brave enough, they may even share some of their early, particularly bad writing.)

But for me it works both ways. I get as much of a kick out of meeting readers as they get out of meeting authors.

The opportunity to meet with ones readers is pretty great if you are like me and still have trouble comprehending the idea that you even have readers. (This isn’t something that necessarily wears off, so Thomas (NAME DROP) Keneally told me.) It’s great to read positive reviews written by adults. But they aren’t really who I write for. Nothing quite compares with being told – in person- by a scruffy, surly teenager that your book is ‘heaps good’. From time to time I have entertained the idea of abandoning YA to focus on writing stories about adults for adults. But Somerset reminded me why I write for teenagers: because for some reason (probably only understood by psychoanalysts) it is their opinion which I value the most.

At Somerset I met some amazing authors, many of whom I have admired for a long time. But the highlight of the festival, for me, was meeting a small group who had travelled six hours on a bus from their remote town to come to the festival. They came to see me speak in the morning and then flagged me down when I was on my way to get more poffertjes. Some had read The Sky So Heavy and liked it enough to want photos. With me. They talked about their favourite characters with an affection that I haven’t witnessed in anyone other than … myself. It was magic. No adult could ever match the enthusiasm these kids had for the book. They gave me lamingtons.

And if you remember anything about Possum Magic, you will understand why this is significant.

 

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.

What you looking at? On being a dickhead.

Well hello, dear readers. It’s been a while. I was going to spend this blog reminiscing about my top five books of 2013, but instead I am feeling quite cranky about the world and I know that I do my best writing whilst I have a bee in my bonnet*, so here goes.

Hey Australian young men, why have you turned into a bunch of aggressive dickheads? Seriously, what’s your beef, exactly? You used to have the reputation of being friendly, ‘laid back’ and slightly inebriated if there’s a cricket match on. Now you’re known primarily for your tendency to punch other people in the head for no particular reason.

On New Years Eve an eighteen year old guy was punched in the head for committing the offence of WALKING DOWN THE STREET. He’s now in a coma. This comes after this other guy was punched in the head for the even more heinous act of walking down the street whilst wearing a pink shirt. And of course after the tragic death of Thomas Kelly in 2012. It really makes one wonder what is going on with the psyche of young Australian males. Why is it that their sense of self-worth is so utterly fragile that they feel the need to randomly punch other guys in the head?

And it’s not that these punchy guys are picking fights. It not a case of ‘Do you bite your thumb at me, Sir’ but without swords and Leo’s tropical shirt. We know that chaps have been punching on, as it were, since the dawn of time – and I’m not about to wax lyrical about the philosophical aspects of Fight Club. This is completely different, this is a premeditated, brutal attack akin to shooting someone in the back. Fist or bullet, there’s no difference. The family of the latest victim have urged the media to stop referring to this kind of attack as a ‘king hit’ and call it what it is, a ‘cowards punch’.

So what’s going on? The defining factor that emergency department doctors point out is alcohol. These people are pissed out of their brains (the youth, not the doctors). Yes, Australians have always liked a drink, but rather than drinking as a means to facilitate merriment, youngens are drinking specifically to get staggeringly drunk. Which seems odd to me in many ways. And sad. Are they so utterly starved for conversation points that there is nothing else to do? Is it perhaps because they don’t know what to do with themselves now that no one dances anymore?

One psychologist blames a generation of under-fathered men. These guys have no decent role models beyond NRL players and ‘(no) respect for authority, little exposure to tradition or ritual and few, if any, skills in anger management.’ Now there’s an interesting thought: little exposure to ritual. It used to be that in nearly every culture there was some sort of act which served to pronounce a boy had become a man. I saw a show called ‘Tribal Wives’ where one Ethiopian lad had to run over the backs of five cows to mark his transition to manhood. (Let’s not get all romantic about other cultural practices, though. The same ritual involved whipping the tribal women until they were covered in open welts and gashes.)

I’m not too sure what the ritual used to be in Western society. It could have been something as simple as a guy getting a slap on the back from his father whilst said father smoked a pipe and said, ‘Well, son, now you’re a man.’ (Let’s not get too romantic about the olden days though, because this sentence was probably followed by ‘Woman, where’s my dinner?’ or something.) Or maybe boys were simply more exposed to the tradition of walking down the street with their father or grandfather whilst observing the way in which said grandfather refrained from punching anyone in the head.

So it seems we have a bunch of broken, fatherless people who don’t know how to relate to each other or define themselves beyond a proverbial masochistic big-dick contest. We also have a society that is as individualistic as it has ever been. We have no sense of being a part of anything greater than ourselves. If life is all about self-gratification there’s no reason not to punch someone else in the head if you feel like it.

And of course, as a woman I can’t help but think of the fact that if this is the way some guys are behaving toward each other in public, one can only imagine what their partners cop behind closed doors.

*This is only half a metaphor, I do actually wear a bonnet whilst writing. Jane Austen etc. etc.

You can’t be a feminist and buy fashion magazines.

This week a study reported that seventy-five percent of men, when they see a woman, don’t look at her face, they look at her body.* I for one an neither surprised nor enraged. I fact, I think that sounds quite healthy and imperative to the human race’s survival. I do like to imagine, say, Prince Charles trying to keep his eyes above the shoulders of every of the two hundred women he might greet at an average afternoon tea.

Meanwhile this video has been floating around. And it’s made me wonder about the opposite. Not women looking at men (everyone knows we are a bunch of salacious perverts and there is no hope for us) but rather women looking at women. Heterosexual women looking at women. That is a study that would be worthwhile.

I went to the beach this afternoon. I could tell you about ten different women I saw and what their bodies were like in detail.

I don’t think that’s healthy.

Ask any parent of young girls and they will tell you that girls start worrying about and evaluating their bodies as young as five. FIVE. I don’t need to tell you about the problems with the representation of women in the media. But just for good measure I challenge you to name more than three women regularly seen on television who aren’t the ‘conventional’ image of attractiveness. (i.e. a size eight) Now try men, yes, think of all the men you see on television who aren’t totally bangin’. List them. It should take about half an hour.

(Later, go and read Lisa Wilkinson’s Andrew Olle lecture on women in the media. She was the second woman in fifteen years to be offered the gig! Girl Power!)

I can’t help but wonder how this kind of visual onslaught affects the very physiology of the female brain. But chances are you could do a study and find out it damages us beyond repair and nothing would change.

So what can be done?

I recently went on a three-week beach holiday. My great weakness on holiday is Vogue magazine. Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, InStyle, Vanity Fair, Elle, I freakin’ love them because I love clothes. There are people who say they can see the magisty of God in a sunset. I saw God in Prada’s Spring/Summer 13 collection. I’m not joking. Some people think that clothes are all about vanity and trying to look good. To me, appreciating a well cut garment is no different to appreciating great architecture. My favourite labels are Prada, Alexander McQueen, Lanvin, Dries Van Noten and Miu Miu, in case you are interested. Do I own any garments by these said designers? Are you kidding? I’m a WRITER. (i.e. poor by western standards.) The closest I am likely to come to a Prada dress is gazing at a picture in a magazine. (Unless The Sky So Heavy sells like, 500,000 copies. Hop to it people!)

I only read fashion magazines on holiday because I’m a bit like a social smoker: I know they are going to do bad things to me, but if I don’t get my occasional fix I’m going to lose the will to live. And surprise, surprise within two days of gazing at these freakish women who just look amazing in McQueen, I decided I would give up dairy. Who cares about osteoporosis? I want to be skinny. When I realised there was dairy in chocolate I decided instead I would fast two days a week because I’ve heard that’s, like, really good at, like, flushing your body of toxins. (AND YOU CAN LOSE 10 KILOS.)

Never mind the fact that eating tissues is a known strategy used by models to manage hunger and maintain weight. Yep, when you’re next sitting down to a chicken sandwich (on wholemeal!) spare a thought for the fifteen year-olds who have replaced food with disposable snot-management products. And yet we snigger at the Victorian convention of strapping women into corsets. Those poor women! Someone pass me a tissue.

Never mind the fact that my body is perfectly healthy the way it is. Never mind the fact that I can swim two kilometres of freestyle. After two days of Vogue, I don’t care if I don’t have the energy to walk, I want to be thin! Yeah!

Keep in mind, I am a fairly intelligent person. I have a sound sense of self-worth. I have a dreamy husband who loves me the way I am and tells me so regularly. But, I know that the moment I pick up Vogue is going to be the moment I start to obsess about the size of my thighs. You want to talk about achievement? I would feel a greater sense of achievement if I could fit in to a size ten pair of jeans than I do about the fact I HAD A BLOODY NOVEL PUBLISHED.

Magazines are a fraction of a problem that infests every form of media. It stretches from the kinds of women who read the news to the kind that appear in music videos. If two days of Vogue reading can have such an effect on me, imagine the effect the kind of images our media is saturated with has on the mind of a thirteen year-old. She doesn’t stand a freakin’ chance. And if I starve myself and teach my sons that a woman’s worth is equal to her hip width, I am just as bad as the fashion editor who puts a forty-five kilo model on the cover. And she would have been airbrushed with Photoshop to get rid of that lump in her tummy area, WHICH SHE USES TO STORE THE TISSUES SHE EATS FOR SUSTENANCE.

If Marilyn Monroe were around today she would not get a single published anywhere except Who magazine, where they would have an arrow pointing to her stomach, asking ‘Baby bump?!’

Seriously what the FUCK, people?

So what’s it going to take, I wonder? This blog is just another voice in the chorus. It’s nothing you haven’t read before. So what can we DO?

As far as magazines go, bans on catwalk models under fifteen aren’t going to make a difference. Committees of fashion editors sitting around talking about the seriousness of the issue aren’t going to make a difference.

The power lays squarely with the consumer. Imagine what would happen in the fashion industry alone, if every woman in the country said enough is enough and stopped buying not only fashion magazines containing doctored images, but tabloid magazines that publish pics of post-baby bodies and highlight patches of cellulite with arrows.

Because I don’t think it’s an ethical issue any different to buying fair trade coffee or chocolate, or refusing to buy garments made in sweatshops.

This issue is no different to any other major feminist battle throughout history.

You can’t be feminist and buy magazines which fuel an industry that serves to make women feel inadequate, that peddles a body ideal constructed from digitally enhanced images that are no way realistic or obtainable. There, I’ve said it. I understand the love of Vogue and the like. I REALLY, REALLY do. But can you imagine if architects decided that buildings looked better with impossibly narrow doorways, so that the only way an average person could enter would be to have bits of their body surgically removed?

Something has got to give.

*Your going to ask where those results were published, aren’t you? I don’t know, I saw it on The Project. So lets just say the results are available for viewing on The Internet.

National Young Writers’ Festival: Stories, Smoke Machines and Yoof

Greetings readers. Apologies for the ridiculously long time between posts. I have been away on holiday for three weeks, a terrible thing to do because one inevitably has to come home again. However, I was lucky enough to spend the weekend up in Newcastle for the NYWF. There is nothing better than spending time talking with intelligent people about writing, especially when one has a microphone.

Just to clear up any misconceptions, a writers’ festival is not where a writer stands beside piles of their own book, with a microphone and amp, spruiking like a verbose and vaguely hipster version of a Bing Lee salesperson at Christmastime. Rather a large group of verbose and overtly hipster people gather to discuss various topics to do with writing, whilst other people listen. It’s more fun than it sounds. There’s beer involved.

Amongst the vastly talented people I heard speak and even spoke to (!) were Lachlan Brown, Summer Land, Amy Gray, Pip Smith, Kaitlyn Plyley, Eliza Sarlos, Tom Ballard… You get the idea. It was pretty much the best weekend of my entire life. But the best part? The students doing the Younger Young Writers’ program. They were the most annoyingly talented teenagers I have ever met and it would be easy to hate them but for the fact they were so unrelentingly eager.

I found these young folk particularly endearing. Probably something to do with the fact that they wrote down nearly everything I said, which has never happened to me outside of a cafe/restaurant environment. On Saturday myself and several other writers spent a few hours workshopping some of their stories and giving life advice like: ‘Ignore everything your parents/teachers advise you and study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Abandon your plans to become a lawyer and instead study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Some universities will throw money at you to get you to come study with them’ and ‘Being a writer is the most important and rewarding job in the universe and writers are fabulous people’. The last couple may or may not be true, but the students seemed to believe us.

I’m going to sound terribly old (as opposed to when I shouted at one of them, ‘Tori Amos is the greatest vocalist to have ever lived! You need to listen to Little Earthquakes IMMEDIATELY! I have it on tape!!!’) but I really wish I had the chance to do something like the YYW program when I was at school. The closest thing for us was Tornament of the Minds where six of us were selected to be locked in a room at a university for three hours and come up with a pantomine based around a Shakespeare quote; with only a packet of pipe cleaners and an old toilet roll to make all our costumes and set. After which we would perform our ‘play’ for a panel of judges including academics from said university. I was eleven. Torment of the Minds would have been a more apt title.

It seemed like when I was in school everything was either a competition or a test. As part of the Younger Young Writers’ program, these kids got to spend four days listening to writers speak about their work, interspersed with writing sessions where they got to work on their own stuff. The material they worked on was workshopped with professional writers. No one gave them a score. No one attributed a number or percentage to them based on their work. They weren’t shut in a room, seated in rows and told to produce a piece of creative writing  while the clock ticked and a supervisor paced. How the hell are you supposed to be creative under those conditions, let alone inspired?

The YYW program was a format that seemed to suit all sorts of personalities: the extroverts who ranted about their loathing of post modernism; the quiet ones who scribbled with a hand covering their work; the ones who can read that elf language that Tolkien made up. The writing that I read showed they had felt confident enough to experiment and go with their instincts, something that is very difficult to achieve in a classroom. We discussed Harry Potter and Austen. We argued about Fantasy and musical theatre. Their writing was clever and self aware. Some of it was witty, some downright scary – I read a sentence in one student’s horror story which made my stomach turn.

At various events held by the National Young Writers’ Festival I heard a lot of inspiring people discuss everything from the impact of isolation on creativity, to how not to be a douche when ones career starts to take off. I read and listened to short stories in the tunnels of Fort Scratchley with Penguin Plays Rough and met amazing people at the festival party with an over-active smoke machine. But – and I think you can guess where I’m going with this – the best part was sitting and talking to those kids talk about writing.

Bring on YYW 2014.

Deer Dairy: blogs, diary writing and appalling spelling

Social media is the death of society, no? There been loads of studies by people with Ph.Ds banging on about how we don’t communicate properly anymore. Apparently our only fulfilling relationships are with our communication devices rather than with the people they are designed to enable us to communicate with. (Note, I am generally referring to electronic gadgets such as phones, tablet thingies etc. Far less people are believed to be attached to their morse-code devices.)

I listened to a Radio National program this morning (it appears I have become a grown-up at some stage) which discussed social media’s relationship to the demise of writers’ diaries. Writers’ diaries being those fabled, leather-bound objects bursting with page after page of scrawled inner-thoughts, many of them private at the time of writing. These private, presumably genius, insights into the human condition are usually ‘unearthed’ after their writer’s death and promptly published for all the world to read. Yes Virginia Woolf was intensely private, but look! Here’s all her innermost dreams, fears and desires now downloadable from Amazon for only $3.99!

I suspect that if a similar fate were to befall my daily scribblings, the majority of the said book would be about the bread and Diet Coke that simply MUST be purchased post-haste. Do reminders scrawled on ones hand count? I wonder if Ms Wolfe referred to lists scrawled on her arm in biro. (Were biros around in her time? Questions, questions!)

Finish Mrs Dalloway

Remind Leonard to fix the tap

Buy gin

And what of the young folk? Do they still keep diaries locked with a flimsy keys hidden under their mattresses? (I kept one such treasure trove which today only stands as a testament to my appalling spelling skills and my relentless monitoring of Tim McCallum’s hairstyles, rather than pithy insights into the human condition.)  Now that they have FaceKick, Twitter and SMS and all that, do kids still keep journals or write letters to each other? DO THEY EVEN KNOW HOW TO HOLD A PENCIL?

For the entirety of years seven and eight my BFF and I kept an exercise book in which we wrote letters to each other. The cover was a contacted collage of teddy bears and pictures of a pre-teen Leonardo DiCaprio torn from Girlfriend magazine. We would take turns writing in it at home and bring it to school to hand over. I remember all too clearly the time it was confiscated by our Science teacher after we were sprung reading it in class. How dare you indulge in the sordid practice of daily handwritten communication, thereby improving your writing and general comprehension skills!!!! (The Science teacher did not speak like this, unfortunately.) I kept up my own journal writing for years afterwards: mainly declarations of love for various unworthy males, complaints about my physical appearance and complaints generally.

I don’t keep a journal anymore. But I do blog. And the knowledge that what I write may have an audience  generally keeps the standard higher and stops me droning on endlessly about the size of my thighs and how many pieces of banana bread I have or have not eaten. And that can only be a good thing.

It also ensures that I write whenever I can. If I set myself the vague goal to post a good few paragraphs once a week, I do my best to meet it. If I was only writing for myself, no doubt in one of the multitudes of overpriced notebooks I have purchased from Pentimento, I wouldn’t manage once a month. The fact that all those notebooks are still mostly empty only proves this.

ImageBut what if the knowledge of future publication sensors my brain and stops me getting to the pithy stuff? Well, I found one of the journals from my late teens and it includes a page with a movie ticket sticky-taped to it. Beneath it is written:

Just like in the movie ‘Elizabeth’, when Elizabeth I keeps Joseph Fiennes alive as a constant reminder of how she was blinded by the affections of her heart, so too will I keep this movie ticket bought for me by the one who has broken my heart. 

Because having ones lover plot ones death in a treasonous conspiracy is quite similar to when the guy that took you to two-for-one Tuesday at Penrith Hoyts dumps you. Bloody hell. I think that pretty much concludes the argument doesn’t it? (Excuse me while I vomit quietly into a bag.) I shall keep that diary as a constant reminder of how unbelievably melodramatic and indulgent ones private writings can be. Thank you, social media, for saving me from myself.