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Of book launches, creativity, life choices, Elizabeth Gilbert and me

The week I launched my third book, I finished Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’m not a reader of non-fiction and tend to be irritated by self-help books, but I’m a serious Gilbert fan. I liked Eat, pray, love a lot, and I adored The Signature of All Things, which I thought was a masterful novel – meticulously researched, unputdownable, deep and funny and true.

Big Magic (subtitled Living Creatively without fear) spoke to me. Gilbert has a playful, tough, honest approach to courting creativity. Not one for the myth of the tortured genius, she implies that although it is hard hard work, and disappointments are virtually guaranteed, the creative life is supposed to be fun. You do it because you love doing it, whether or not it brings you renown or financial rewards.

By creativity she means everything from taking up ice skating as an adult because you enjoyed it as a kid, knitting, singing even if your voice will never be brilliant, writing a book, tinkering on a guitar, taking an art class. She says that no matter how hard it is, despite the fact that you can rarely make a living from the creation of beauty, people will always keep doing it, because it is part of what makes us human.

Gilbert has no time for people who use their creativity as an excuse for shirking their responsibilities, for being an asshole. It is no excuse to neglect your partner or children she says. Most liberating of all, for me, she advises artists not to burden their art with the pressure of having to earn them a living. Don’t give up your day job, she writes, create on the side. ‘I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life,’ she says. ‘I’ve always felt that this is so cruel to your work- to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity was a government job or a trust fund.’

My book launch was a moment of gratitude, amazement and profundity in my life. For decades now I’ve been writing relentlessly, mostly with very little ‘success’ as the world sees it. I’ve often felt a bit apologetic about it, seen it, as best, as some kind of charming hobby.

And then, suddenly, somebody wants to publish my stuff in the paper, and people say it helps them, and another person wants to collect my stories and put them between the covers of an actual book. At the launch, my family, friends and well-wishers were – literally – applauding me for what I have been quietly, often frustratedly, often on-the-verge-of-giving-up beavering away on. They were saying, with their broad smiles and their clapping and their cheers and their spending money on my book: we honour you for doing this thing you feel called to. We are happy that you have done this. It is a good thing in our lives.

Reading Big Magic makes me feel more like a real artist. I have read so many writerly books that imply, if they don’t outright say it, that if you don’t risk everything for your art, you’re not taking it seriously. Give up paid employment. Risk hurting the ones you love.

I’ve always written alongside a day job. Partly because we needed the money, but more because I love having a day job. And my husband and children have always been a priority. Although this was sometimes frustrating, mostly it has worked well for me, or I wouldn’t have kept doing it.

I’m learning that although I make as many mistakes as the next person, mostly I have made good choices in my life. I have done things my way, and it has been good for me, for my family, for the little pool of humanity on which I have an effect. For so long I felt I wasn’t a real writer because I persisted in working four days a week in a job I loved and put a lot of energy into. But maybe, if Gilbert is to be believed, that’s okay. I still got the work done.

The wonderful thing about nearing the age of 60 is that I can see that on the whole, I did okay. I put time and effort into relationships. I put in at work. I was absolutely dogged with my writing.

The irony of all this isn’t lost on me. Maybe one day I won’t need a guru to tell  me to trust my own instincts, my own choices. Till then, I will take Liz Gilbert’s affirmation gratefully, and keep living the way I’ve chosen to do.



Guilty pleasures

As far as I can remember, I’ve never read an actual Mills & Boon or equivalent. But when I was a much younger woman, my mother introduced me to something close enough – romantic thrillers by English author Mary Stewart, best known for her brilliant trilogy on Merlin and Arthur. As a side line, however, she wrote ten books featuring feisty, clever and gutsy English twenty-something women in exotic locations. The general formula, with some exceptions, was that the devastatingly attractive bad guy turned out to be the good guy in the end, and together our protagonist and the bloke saved the day against baddies plotting dastardly deeds against everything from small countries to small children.

I adored these books and read them over and over, falling in love, through the printed page, not with the handsome love interest, but with places I had never been – Vienna, Crete, Corfu, the Isle of Skye, Lebanon and Syria, the south of France. As Mum (who had had her fair share of smart-and-feisty-woman-in exotic-locations experiences) used to say, ‘the local colour is marvellous’.

Because Stewart was writing in the 50s and 60s, the sexual action is limited. There are coy lines such as, ‘neither of us said anything for a very long time’. The books are dated in other ways too, of course, but there are fewer wincey moments than I expected. The heroines were physically attractive, sure, but that featured a long way behind their pluck and brain. They run rings around the men. In Stewart’s first foray into this genre Madam will you talk? written in 1955, our girl is a gun driver of fast cars; what’s more, she can disable the bad guy’s vehicle in a jiffy.

I’m not sure how my Mary Stewarts escaped my recent decluttering purges, which included a substantial number of books, but when I was struck down with the flu recently, I was so glad they had survived. Once I was over the worst, all I wanted to do was to curl up in bed with a Mary Stewart. I read five in a row, and when I ran out, as I was away from home for a couple of days, headed to the local op shop is desperation.

Home again, and with vastly improved health, I am still working my steady way through my Stewarts. And – further confession time – I have ordered all the ones I didn’t already own, on book depository.

This was published on 7 October in The Melbourne Age


Wounded and blessed

Like most of the towering heroes in the Bible stories, Jacob was not what we would call a decent person. A cheat and a coward, he nevertheless had two of the most powerful spiritual encounters described in the scriptures. There was the ladder reaching from his runaway resting place to heaven with angels coming and going – surely a metaphor for divine traffic linking us to God in the direst of circumstances. And then there was the all-night fight with a mysterious stranger – maybe his conscience, maybe an angel, maybe God.

In the story, Jacob, coming back to face the music in the shape of his wronged brother Esau, wrestles all night with an unbeatable foe. Towards dawn, both wrestlers are exhausted, and Jacob’s assailant strikes him in the hip, throwing it out of joint, and asks Jacob to let him go. Jacob refuses to relent until the stranger blesses him, which he does, giving him the new name of Israel, but refusing to reveal his own name. According to the account in Genesis, Jacob thought his assailant was God. A God who, as in Moses’ later encounter at the burning bush, refused to be limited to a label.

Jacob continues into his spectacular story, with a new wound, a blessing and a new name.

This weird and wonderful story resonates powerfully with me. This last year our family has struggled with some new challenges, including dealing with incurable cancer and its treatment. While we are profoundly grateful for this treatment, is a brutal thing to witness, let alone experience. It feels as though we have been wrestling, all year, with forces that haven’t defeated us yet, but nor will they let us go. We’ve not given up, but we are exhausted.

Hearing my husband - the one who has been so very sick - preach on Jacob recently was poignant as I drew parallels with this story from the dawn of time and our own current experience. Like Jacob, we have been struggling through a time that has sometimes seemed like an endless night. Like him, we walk away wounded. We will never be quite the same again – we have lost any blithe assumptions we ever had that life would all turn out well. I have seen my previously indestructible husband completely helpless and staring death in the face. At the same time, we walk away blessed, profoundly so. We are freshly aware of love and grace, both human and divine. We are closer to, more appreciative of, and gentler with each other. The simplest joys in life are sweeter than ever before, friendships more cherished.

All I know, through our experiences this year, is that life takes you on, and you are never quite the same again. But if you let them, the wounds with which you limp into the rest of your life can by God’s grace, be a blessing and the start of a deeper connection with Jesus, the wounded healer.

This was published in the October edition of The Melbourne Anglican



Of health and hubris

‘For once in my life, I’m indispensable.’ I said this to an experienced mother, in the first smug bliss of new motherhood. She smiled wryly. ‘I dunno, there’s always a bottle, and formula,’ she said, bursting my little self-important bubble.

I was reminded of this two weeks ago, when I heard myself saying to my husband, ‘It only happens once every 18 months, but at this time I really am indispensable.’ I was speaking of the big, five-day conference I am event manager for. It was the day before it began – ‘bump in day’ – and I was feeling decidedly fluey. The show was about to start and me, its director, was achey and shakey and barely able to think, or get out of bed.

I forced myself out and did a day’s highly ineffective work, probably being more of a liability than an asset. Next day, when the games were about to begin, I was at my post by 7am, papers in pigeon holes, urns bubbling, tables prepared, welcoming team briefed, computer systems up and running.

I suspect lots of people asked me questions that morning, and I have no idea what I replied, or if it made any sense whatsoever. BY lunch time I was running a fever and on the point of collapse and I headed for home, where I didn’t leave my bed, except to go to the doctor, for ten days.

Each morning I planned I would go back to work, each morning I woke and stumbled to the shower where I nearly passed out. Each morning I emailed reminders to the team about the various things that had to be done that day.

Needless to say, they were all over it. Needless to say, the conference went off without a hitch. We were well prepared; the team were wonderful, and I re-learnt a life lesson. No one is indispensable, not even a mother, not even an event manager. The show goes on, and if it goes on slightly differently than it might have, that’s fine.

I hated being so unwell and missing my event. But there was also something liberating about sinking back into bed, knowing there was not a damn thing I could do. I could not save the day and it didn’t matter – others were well able to.

What we each do is important, of course it is. But one day I will retire, and then another day I will die, and the world, and the jobs I’ve done and even the people I’ve loved will keep on going. It’s a good lesson to learn.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 25 September 2017


Made for walking

We make a big fuss about shoes. Not the fancy kind, with sky high heels and prices to match; I’m just talking plain old walking shoes here.

I first realised that you can walk a long way in rubbish footwear riding a camel in the Thar Desert in western India; our guide schlepped competently along all day in a pair of busted sandals.

In the epic solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail described in her book Wild, Cheryl Strayed walked for much of the 2000 kilometres with boots a size too small. Then one of them fell off the mountain anyway, and she walked to the next supply stop in sandals bound up in packing tape.

In Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall who is an advocate for barefoot running, points out that in the past, Olympic runners got about in unpretentious canvas footwear. He quotes figures proving that foot injuries have multiplied alarmingly since we all started paying megabucks for elaborate running shoes that are actually bad for our feet – feet that are constructed precisely to cope with rough terrain with their dozens of tiny, moving parts.

I’m no Cheryl Strayed, but when I went away for a week recently I only took one pair of footwear, and they fell apart on my second day. The walking boots that I bought 15 years ago and have worn endlessly in city, country and bush have been resoled, relined and stitched up numerous time by my local cobbler Greg who is cheery and never suggests I ditch old shoes and buy myself a new pair. In our throwaway society Greg is a treasure. Last year I was in the UK and Europe for seven weeks with just these boots and a pair of Birkenstocks, walking many miles a day, and they came home in one piece.

But this time I fear they might be beyond repair. The whole of the top has come away from the bottom in the right-hand shoe, and all the back seams are unravelling too. It grieves me, but I think they’ll have to go.

I walked all week in my broken shoes with no mishaps. On my third day, however, it poured. As the rain crept in and around my socks and the wind blew up and my toes never quite warmed up that day, I realised that low-tech, minimalist footwear is all very well, but when it’s pouring, shoes with no holes are a smart idea.

This was published on 7 September 2017 in The Melbourne Age