A Recipe for Porcupine Pie – How We Assess Creative Writing in Schools

In his days at the Brill Building songwriting factory in the early ‘60s, Neil Diamond became accustomed to writing songs against the clock, but even he had his limits. Those limits even have a name: Porcupine Pie. I heard an interview once – so long ago it doesn’t exist in the searchable world – in which Neil Diamond explained the song’s origins. As a challenge to their finely-honed Brill skills, he and a few other songwriters decided to see if they could push extreme songwriting to the max and, in a period that might have been ten minutes, come up with a technically complete and playable song of at least two minutes’ duration.

Neil came up with Porcupine Pie. Everyone else papered their bottom drawers with theirs. To be honest, I don’t mind Porcupine Pie. The Wiggles’ cover of it is one of their finer moments. But I’ve yet to find a list of Neil Diamond’s best songs that includes it, it appears on quite a few ‘Worst Songs Ever’ lists, and his rendition of it on Hot August Night suggests that, even when it was new, Neil Diamond felt less than proud of it.

From what I recall of the interview, he started the song-in-ten-minutes challenge with a melodic hook in mind, but no lyrics, so where did it end up lyrically? It goes like this: the title three times, vanilla soup, some indecision, fruity blue cheese (rhymes with ‘please’), the title three times, concern about getting it on your jeans, the cautious approach required to eat it, the title three times, its infiltration of your dreams, advice to leave room for chicken ripple ice cream (rhymes with ‘dreams’).

It’s a bucketful of awful, a stoner riff on rhyming words, a clever way to ridicule the ten-minute songwriting game as the game it was. But look at it. It might be a great bad song, but it’s still a bad song.

I’ve had my own Porcupine Pie moments. In 2015, at Sydney Writers’ Festival, over the course of an hour, I wrote a story almost live on air on ABC radio. The studio and listening audience offered words or topics they wanted me to include and, every fifteen minutes, twenty of those were placed on a huge chook wheel and spun, and I had to work the three that were chosen into my next chunk of story.

How did it go? Porcupine Pie, but less melodic. I took narrative ideas from TV shows and stories in the news and made sure the borrowing was visible, I ripped off my own past novels and I relied far too heavily on a running gag involving Tony Abbott’s budgie smugglers. It was as awful as it sounds, and as awful as it was expected to be, because that was the game we were playing. The audience loved it, mostly because they loved the desperate badness of it, and that an author had been prepared to put their dignity on the line to play the game.

But no one would ever assess someone’s writing based on a process like that, would they? No one would say, ‘Let’s assess creative writing by trapping you in one spot for an hour, throwing some stimulus material at you and expecting you to deliver a non-awful completed story by the end of it?’ No one would do that, because that kind of process is the antithesis of how creative writing works. It’s the enemy of creativity. Creativity requires contemplation. Creativity requires exploration. Creativity requires some room for trial and error. Creativity is not one of those realms where you can reasonably argue that greater pressure will consistently produce diamonds.

Putting serious time pressure on creative writing turns it into a crapshoot. Unreasonable time pressure sees us all resort to familiar tropes and types and templates – and the uncreative writing that comes from that – because, in the absence of luck, we’ve got nothing. And there are no marks for a blank page.

I recently posted on Facebook that ‘Assessing creative writing “under exam conditions” makes about as much sense to me as assessing tap dancing thigh-deep in a vat of baked beans.’ Think about it. Put all your student tap dancers, one after another, into the beans, and tell them to give it their best shot. The tap dancing will all be pretty awful, but some of the talented dancers will stay upright and show some moves that suggest that, in a normal environment, they might have promise, while others will flounder, face plant and require saving. That is, the process will give you something to grade (phew), and it doesn’t have zero correlation with the skills you’re trying to test, but it’s not tap dancing, and there will be casualties.

Most of the responses to that Facebook post (overt and covert) came from teachers, mostly Queensland English teachers cheering and expressing dissatisfaction with how they assess creative writing. That’s a problem, surely.

I go into schools regularly. I know at least something about what teachers do when they teach creative writing. I have a nine-year-old, so I’m now into my fifth year of having primary school in my life again. I know he learned about Sizzling Starts in Year One. I know teachers do a lot of clever things to develop the writing skills of their students, and I’m greatly encouraged by some of the developments, since I was a student myself, in the way creative writing is taught, and the thought that goes into the writing opportunities created for students.

I’ve been in perhaps ten schools this year with the thing I’m now calling my Narrative Toolkit, and I’m aware that I’m usually there to build on years of solid foundations that teachers have put in place. Much of what I say is what they’ve all been saying, but I say it in a practitioner’s way, making each piece of advice into a tool for each student writer to keep in their kit and use, consciously and deliberately. Sometimes I can see lightbulbs go on, and exciting things end up on the page (as well as things that show a good grasp of the tools).

My tools are even designed to work in situations of adversity – writer’s block, time challenges – but, still, all the best tap dancing is done on dry land, and not in the beans.

Which takes us beyond how teachers teach creative writing to how schools assess it. Some teachers who contacted me said they didn’t think narrative writing should be assessed at all, and I get that. But the Sunday Mail is never going to let us get away with including something in the curriculum and not assessing it, so we’re probably stuck with the incongruity of asking people to create art that we will then put a grade on. I can’t say I love that, but I prefer it to not including narrative writing in the curriculum. Because writing is thinking. It’s problem-solving, it’s imagination, it’s linguistic dexterity, it’s an exploration of the ways humans work, and all of these are important. They help make great citizens, not just future novelists.

But how to assess it? I claim no expertise there. I have concerns about some things I have learned, but they are the concerns of a practitioner – someone who has written twenty-seven books and a creative writing PhD, who has experience of being assessed by readers, reviewers and award judges, and who has had cause to think long and hard about writing over several decades. I’m speaking up here and now because my comment provoked a response that suggests there are teachers unhappy with the way they’re expected to assess creative writing, and that makes the conversation worth having, wherever it leads.

I hear about students in some years of high school being given a task and stimulus material, a week or so to write a draft, editorial feedback and more time to write a final draft. More advance notice would be preferable – a couple of months might say we place a value on contemplation, before getting seriously down to business – but this approach, as it stands, also has its pluses. It shows a healthy awareness of some aspects of how creativity works, it embodies some of the essential elements of the creative process, and it does that in a positive way. The benchmarks of its structured marking can be transparent, even-handed and stand up to moderation. They are often reasonable and always well-intentioned, though perhaps more inclined to reward writing that ticks the technical boxes than writing that knocks us back in our seats. That’s a shame, as the real world of reading is more about the latter than the former, but technique is important, and particularly so among writers at the early stages of learning their craft.

But that’s not the whole story, is it? What about Year Seven and Nine NAPLAN and its five minutes of prep, thirty minutes of writing and five minutes of editing? What about senior students writing in exam conditions, in the classroom, against the clock? A totally appropriate choice, if you’re shooting a mid-twentieth-century period drama set in a school. But as a way to fairly and reasonably assess creative writing now? Beans, a vatful of beans. Me, and Tony Abbott’s budgie smugglers, meeting the ABC’s benchmark of a few cheap laughs, while we all pretended the story wasn’t dire.

Writing under tight time constraints is not so unreasonable if it reflects practice – if you’re writing five-hundred words of news journalism or a blog post on an issue of the day. But crafting fiction that way? Assessment under exam conditions is convenient. That’s its biggest attribute. It limits the scope for parental help (and parental writing). It can be standardised. It gives you something markable on a national scale. And it can be modified, somewhat, by being scheduled as multiple hours under exam conditions spread across a couple of weeks. But that’s still far from a conducive environment for imaginative writing.

It’s the Brill Building, but with a greater sense of duress, since the stakes are higher, and that’s not a model fit for purpose. It’s great if you’re churning out songs on the understanding that the money made by one hit more than compensates for hundreds of duds, but the objective of assessing student writing isn’t to come up with an album’s worth of hits across the country, with every other piece failing to make the cut.

It’s tempting to say it’s an assessment approach designed by people who know a lot more about examining things than they do about creativity, but that would be glib, unfair and surely inaccurate. It’s more likely a horrible compromise that can no longer even see the distant line it crossed.

What’s worse is that, to combat the fundamental mismatch of the examination environment with the craft, many diligent teachers prepare their students by allocating much of the curriculum’s finite creative-writing time in Years Seven and Nine to NAPLAN writing drills, and in Years Eleven and Twelve to story-under-duress scenarios. In four of the six years of secondary school, messages about what good writing is and how it works are set aside and even skewed by drilling students in NAPLAN and exam survival skills. Only in Years Eight and Ten do students have the freedom to write without an eye to exam prep.

It’s such a disappointing approach to have settle for, and it lets students and and their teachers down. Both are worth more than a default to convenience. It’s a great way to turn out a lot of Porcupine Pie, but surely that’s not what any of us wants. Our students, their creativity and our teachers all deserve better.

(An earlier version of this post was published in August 2019 in Words’Worth, the journal of the English Teachers Association of Queensland.)

UPDATE: I’m now getting the chance to turn this rant into some action. No, I haven’t been invited to overhaul the curriculum, but at least I’ve been offered the chance to developed a targeted way for Qld students to deal with it as effectively as possible. Edvantage Qld brings significant expertise in curriculum and assessment, and the tools for students to create work that will tick examiners boxes. We’re merging that with my narrative toolkit to create a new 90-minute session for years 10-12 called Creative Writing for Academic Success that aims to maximise students’ chances of turning out quality writing that will also achieve great academic outcomes.

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Losing Andrew McGahan

I can’t say I really knew Andrew McGahan, but he wasn’t really one for being known. He lived his life in a way that made it clear that wanting to write and wanting to be part of the writing and publishing industry are not actually the same thing. His public face was his writing, and his writing speaks for itself, and is today being lauded, as it should be. His private world was, I believe, a small one. He was very selective about who he let in, and it’s those people I’m feeling most for today.

I don’t think I spoke to him after the 90s, but circumstances – or, more accurately, literary event organisers – put us in the same room a few times back in that decade, back before he worked out that that he could set a limit of one interview and zero events per book and his publishers would still want him anyway. Very few of us have turned out writing that would let us get away with that.

Those times when I did speak to him, he was gentle, thoughtful and considerate, not things I had expected at first, and not things we’re inclined to do well this century. These are attributes those close to him will miss having in their lives.

I’m not sure if we’d met before we were put together on a Brisbane Writers Festival panel in 1993. He was there reluctantly and because of the significant successes of Praise. I was there needing to take any chance that came my way, and because my otherwise-vanished short story collection from the year before, Passion, had been shortlisted for an award.

In question time, someone asked why he’d handled the Brisbane in Praise the way he had, dropping local place names in as if the world would know them already. Andrew explained that a lot of what he read was set in places like New York, and New York writers always did that, so he figured he’d do it too.

That stuck with me. The stories in Passion didn’t really find their feet because I had quite a bit to learn about writing, but also because I thought good writing happened elsewhere and my characters had mostly ended up inhabiting some ill-defined elsewhere, and I had never seen them clearly enough in their worlds to write them well.

Brisbane had been a city writers left and, if those departed writers wrote about the place, it tended to be a Brisbane too long gone for me to recognise. But Andrew wrote a book set in Brisbane in my time, and it broke through. And then John Birmingham wrote Felafel, and it broke through.

And I looked at my pile of notes for a story about a guy who’s been dumped by his girlfriend and I remembered what Andrew had said about those New York writers and I thought, might was well try to own my share of this place, since nothing else is working for me. And, instead of living vaguely elsewhere, my character found a home in Red Hill, and the name of his street became the title of the novel, and the novel broke through.

Andrew’s answer to that question has been in my head for 25 years and I still quote it to emerging writers. It still counts. It stayed in my head despite me seeing him quoted at other times saying things that seemed to contradict it. He’d said it that day, and there was a truth in it for me, and there still is.

In the late 90s, in the conversation that I think ended up being our last, I mentioned that answer to him, and told him how it had got me thinking. And he said, ‘Really? Did I say that?’ and he blew some smoke out of the side of his mouth, and laughed.

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Nobel Prize Winner Steals Festival Director’s Pillows

Or so the story goes. And it’s not alone. It’s one of those stories that circulate among writers, but don’t usually make their way into the wider world.

With a new book about to come out, the experienced writer marshals their best anecdotes about it and gets them ready for telling. And then tells them and tells them and tells them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The best anecdotes can make some of the best radio, or best TV, or best podcast, and that’s in everyone’s interests – the writer’s, the broadcaster’s, the audience’s.

Writers talk about the new book, their processes and their writing lives in varying combinations across the interviews, festivals and other events that come together to make up a book tour. But what do writers talk about when they’re off-mic, writer-to-writer, in a festival shuttle bus or while hoovering up the sandwich platters and choc mini-muffins in the hospitality tent (and pocketing the per diem)?

Welcome to the Green Room.

The Green Room, on RN’s The Hub on Books, is me talking author-to-author with some writers who have done more than a lap or two of the circuit. It’s a chance to lift the velvet rope – or scrawled note on a repurposed piece of corflute – that often separates the private conversations of writers from the public, on the occasions when writers are corralled together at festival time. Forget the sucking up and the editor-love we come out with in public, how do writers really feel about the editing process? Who are the biggest divas on the tour, and what’s earned them the crown? Even the most glittering of careers have their mortifying moments, and greens rooms are a chance to bring them out and debrief – let’s have some of those stories too.

But getting those stories out is a bigger trust game than falling backwards and hoping your motley crew of workmates will catch you. How would we create a safe-ish space that might lure an author or two closer to full self-disclosure, in a very public way?

Here’s how. Pick authors who have done so many interviews that they’re bursting to talk about something different. Agree to go on the ride with them, and to spill my own guts along the way. Show them the net before they step onto the tightrope – give them all the possible questions in advance, and let them choose which to answer. With the proviso that they don’t play safe, and instead pick the ones that’ll lift the lid on their best stories.

Which questions did they pick? Which did they avoid? As you listen, feel free to mark them against the complete list below and see for yourself.

The Green Room is a chance to get to know a different side of some otherwise very well-known authors who are no strangers to interviews or the tour circuit. It’s a chance to give their best untold stories an airing, along with some quality gossip and a glimpse or two behind the scenes of publishing.

And, yes, one of my guests even confesses to pillow theft, though in a rather more considerate manner than the Nobel Prize winner. All will be revealed …

Here’s who’s coming up, at The Hub on Books on RN at 10am Tuesdays:

22 May Cory Doctorow
29 May Anita Heiss
12 June John Birmingham
19 June Toni Jordan

If you’re out of range or the timing’s wrong, it’ll be available as a series of podcasts, very likely from the moment the first interview is broadcast

The Questions
What are the best and worst green rooms/hospitality suites you’ve found yourself in at festivals? Who are the most unlikely people you’ve met in them?
 
In public, most of us talk about how much we appreciate what the editing process adds to our books, but how do you really feel the moment you read your editor’s feedback letter?

What’s the most brilliant story idea you’ve ever had for a genre in which you know you’ll never write?

What’s your most awkward interview moment, or experience in front of a live audience?

What’s the oddest venue you’ve appeared in on tour?

Writers tour with publicists to keep them on track and allow them to focus on nothing but the job. How bad are writers’ life skills really? Any examples? (please feel free to include yourself, and equally free to mention others)

How low are people’s expectations about writers’ life skills, and what’s the most patronised you’ve ever been by a minder who thought you had none?

It’s said that at least one author prefers his Mars Bars peeled. From all those you’ve heard, what’s your favourite example of author diva behaviour?

What’s your own most diva-esque demand? (regular, or one-off moment of diva madness)

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever been asked to write on a book at a signing?

What’s been the nicest thing a fan’s ever done to you or your work, and what’s been the weirdest?

What’s the most ludicrous contract clause you’ve ever been asked to agree to (and did you end up agreeing to it)?

Is there anything you’ve buried deep in a book that, as far as you know, no one’s picked up yet?

Which have you preferred: writing [breakthrough book] or being the writer of [breakthrough book]?

Free choice. Is there any story you’re desperate to tell, but have never told because the trigger question hasn’t been invented? Invent the question and I’ll ask it.

Note: A big thanks to Sarah L’Estrange from The Hub on Books for asking if I had any segment ideas, willingly going with this one, and handling all the technical aspects to make it happen. And being great to work with.

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On Unplugging (At Least Sometimes)

Brisbane’s last walk-in video store is about to close. I can’t say I realised one was still open, but it’s not a bad time to pause and note the transience of an industry that started from nothing only 40 years ago, became a staple of suburban life, seemed irreplaceable as recently as the turn of the century and then skidded abruptly into the ditch of obsolescence.

It’ll be put down to streaming, but it’s more than that. It’s life. Yes, we stream, and we stream plenty (I’m sounding like someone with out-of-control rhinitis, but bear with me), but there’s more going on. We’re also spending time on YouTube and other infinite sources of online content, but there’s more to it than that too. It’s the arrival of a world of apps in our pockets, all on one convenient device. When the machines rise to take over, they will come in the shape of phones in our pockets, not red-eyed terminators with carnage on their minds (or cyber equivalent of minds).

I think my brain is different now because of my phone. And there’s some evidence to say I could be right.

Yes, I still watch drama on screen, the way I once did with videos and DVDs, though now it’s typically Netflix. Lots of us do. But how are we watching? Is it the way we did a decade ago? For may of us it’s not. Because our phones are always there. Apps ping to get our attention, and we respond. Something in the show we’re watching arouses our curiosity, and do we ponder it? Do we discuss it? No, we instagoogle, because we want to know now, and we can.

Are we thinking less? Have we stopped trying to remember things?

Our phones have become ‘memory partners’ and we devote less effort to remembering. We navigate around town by phone and, next time we go to the same place, we navigate there by phone again. We don’t work it out, and we don’t learn how to get there. We’ve never studied to be London cabbies, but we all have or own version of The Knowledge in our heads – tracks through our own cities, learned in pre-digital times. But phone navigation makes us less likely to learn more.

The average American checks their smartphone 80 times a day. If the average period of use each time was three minutes, that’d be four hours a day. See how quickly your day just got eaten? But we don’t realise it. People underestimate phone use by 50%.

But what if you’re growing up now, and this is the world you’ve arrived in? I’m a writer for several reasons, but a big one, surely, is that I was often allowed to be bored while I was young. I had time for my mind to wander, and hours to fill, and I developed the capacity to create stories. I was not merely a passive recipient of someone else’s stories on screen, or a game fiend, or a social media addict. I developed a partial case of each of those things after I picked up the fundamentals of storytelling. After I’d spent years in my own head. After I’d read a lot of books (on paper, with no beeping anywhere nearby).

A couple of years ago, I read a Nielsen survey that stuck with me. It looked at Australian reading habits, and its headline message was not to worry, we were reading more than ever. But dig only slightly deeper and it was clear that the pattern of reading had changed.

Of course we’re reading more. I’m totally into your Facebook posts, checking my curated newsfeed more than twenty times a day, googling every second thought that crosses my mind. (‘Burrito’? What’s the etymology of that? Could it really be ‘little burro’, ie, ‘little mule’?? Yes, yes it is!! Thank you Wikipedia. Another fabulous factoid absorbed. A burrito apparently looks like a mini version of a mule’s saddle bag.)

But back to Nielsen. When they looked at book reading, the figures were different. As I recall it, their survey five years earlier showed 55% of Australians reading at least one book per quarter, and the new survey showed this was down to under 51%. All things considered, they thought this wasn’t bad. Let’s put that another way. If we see their question as drawing a line between readers and non-readers (or lapsed readers), a million Australians shifted from the reading category to non-reading in just five years. And surely it’s only accelerating. An that was seen as not bad. Yay for books, holding on. Almost.

As an author, that’s a nightmare. I’m the video guy standing at my counter, wondering if I should shelve that Veep box-set my last customer brought in two days ago, or just save the effort and bin it. But, ultimately, it’s not about me.

Books mean something. Books do something to your brain. And this is not a point about the vessel the book comes in. There will be no segue to olde book smell here. Books can work across platforms, if you block out other inputs. It’s about the story that takes you deep, connects, makes you see and think. Watching even great TV drama (and there’s plenty of that at the moment), particularly watching it while farting around on your phone, doesn’t work your brain the same way. Reading is a more active process at a neurological level. And there’s evidence that deep reading of character-based fiction makes us better humans. Well, it makes us more empathic, because it puts us, however briefly, into the lives of others, and I’ll take that as betterment.

So, what now? I suggest a revolution in which we all drop large rocks on our phones and live like the olden days? No way. I love this century. I love my social media, my ready access to anything, my factoids. But a little balance maybe. Some screen time over a screen life.

So, here’s my plan:
– unplug often when I don’t need to be plugged in (read a book and put the phone in another room, watch awesome Netflix drama and put the phone in another room)
– wear a watch (checking the time on your phone is a slippery slope with an app orgy at the bottom of it, and we all know it)
– think before I google
– don’t live on my phone newsfeed unless I’m running a country* and really need to know all that stuff.
– add one more app to my phone to monitor my use and check my progress (Quality Time, since it’s Android – I think the Apple equivalent is Moment)

Yesterday afternoon I went on ABC Brisbane Afternoons to talk all this through with Katherine Feeney (who admitted to a multi-screening habit herself – like me she’s all over wikipedia during The Crown). I think I agreed to go back on some time to report on my progress. So, let’s see if I can get my brain back.

And how’s yours doing, by the way? Are you managing the balancing act better than I am?

*I will never be running a country, so therefore I should not live on my phone newsfeed.

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20 Things I Wish Teenagers Knew

For the Celebrate Reading conference in Fremantle late last year, I was asked to prepare something on the topic of ‘What I Wished Teenagers Knew’. This list sort of wrote itself:

1. Try to eat food made of ingredients rather than numbers

2. Many successful people are not in the habit of making their beds

3. Be a friend to your bowel and the many organisms that live in it, and they will all be friends to you

4. Don’t panic

5. If there is such a thing as godliness, cleanliness is probably not next to it

6. Listen more than you talk

7. Don’t be too concerned about hair – as time goes by, your body will give you more where you don’t want it and less where you do

8. Monotasking is under-rated. Sometimes it’s best to concentrate on one thing and do it really well

9. Any time you’re tempted to fall for the wisdom of crowds, remember that concept started out as just one person’s idea, and remember that sometimes the crowd is a mob

10. It’s okay to kill plants. It’s fun if they live, and you get herbs and vegetables but if, year after year, every plant dies on your watch, it’s okay to accept that you’re not a plant person

11. Choose evidence over anecdote, opinion and random statements, with the exception of these random statements

12. Be nice to old people, because I am one now and you will be one eventually

13. Flossing is a real thing and dental health or lack thereof has implications

14. I have friends in their 40s who still say quin-oh-ah, and it’s okay if you do that too

15. Tattoos are no way as reversible as you think

16. Your body is okay as it is. It is a vehicle you get around in and it is well worth looking after, but it is not the best bit of you

17. There is no justification for throw cushions on beds

18. Porn is not a reliable indicator of activities that people actually want to do

19. Read because it makes more you more empathic, more knowledgeable, more intelligent, more attractive and less gullible

20. Read my books because I have a seven-year-old to feed, clothe and put through cello lessons

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Letter to the Nobel Prize Committee

Dear Nobel Prize Committee,

First, let me be clear that I’m not here to enter into the debate as to whether or not this year’s (current) recipient should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Enough frantic typing has gone on about that one already. Besides, we know you make interesting choices sometimes, and we still think you’re great and that scoring a Nobel would be ace. Yes, there was that prospective Peace Prize for Barack Obama when he’d just scored the big job (I gather that was a bit like granting a new CEO options that only vest years hence if certain performance hurdles are met). And there was the Literature Prize for Churchill, best known word-wise for cracking oratory that didn’t really fit with the Peace Prize, zingers Dorothy Parker would have been proud to call her own and a five-volume bio about his ancestor that, had it been submitted by another author, might well have been edited back to a single fat hardback.

But enough of that. I have heard that this year’s recipient briefly put a line on his website about the award, and then removed it, and that he hasn’t returned your calls.

So, it’s time for me to come out and say something many writers (or at least several) have thought, but none has yet dared to put into words: if your preferred candidate isn’t really interested in being this year’s Nobel Laureate for Literature, it’s okay to pick me now. I WILL TAKE YOUR CALL. I WILL COME TO STOCKHOLM.

Though I might have to hire a suit. But leave that with me. Not your problem. (Appreciating the ultra-low-maintenance, yet massively enthusiastic, vibe being put out by the new potential candidate yet? Sure you are.) I do have one suit that fits, but it’s a business-type pin-stripe from the 90s that my dad gave me, and I think for your dinner the code is black tie. Or white. Either way: easy. I also have my grandfather’s tailcoat, made by Austin Reed of Regent Street in 1937, which survived numerous Med Balls (and other balls) in the 80s, but I don’t exactly fit it now as I’ve porked up a little since then or, as I like to call it, ‘broadened across the shoulders’.

Okay, so some might think you’d rank thousands of writers around the world (including many in Australia) ahead of me. This needs to be addressed. I’m probably flattering myself by saying only thousands.

But let me present my credentials:
– 26 books (yes, this writer does books – no room for debate there)
– extreme willingness to accept award, make a big deal of it, turn up at the dinner, talk up you Nobel folk pretty much forever (totally setting aside that whole ‘funded by explosives’ thing) and permanently bold the line mentioning the award on my CV
– have been compared with a total of one (1) other Nobel Prize winner for literature, that being VS Naipaul (yes, a surprise to both me and Sir Vidia, but one of us was happy to take it)
– author of one novella recently called ‘the most perfect novella in the history of the format’. Yes, I’m the one who kicked Boccaccio’s arse. And all those other arses. We’ve had 653 years of novellas, you know.
– only writer included in the Age’s 2012 list of 10 greatest living Australians (along with Shane Warne and Warwick Capper)
– 12th in a national poll for Australia’s favourite novelist in 2013.

Okay, so that was the year I whored myself most shamelessly for votes the length and breadth of this here interwebbage, and therefore my highest position achieved to date. And, yes, coming 12th could be seen to imply that there were 11 ahead of me, though several are sadly no longer with us – and therefore DQd – and who, among the others, has taken the bold step of expressing willingness?

I’m confident I’m the highest-ranked author in that poll to have contacted you and offered myself as a solution to your awkward situation. Semi-confident.

Anyway, you know where I am.

Nick

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What Counts As Beautiful Now? – Wisdom Tree #5 NoHo

I’ve had my own (limited) experiences of Hollywood and, fortunately, haven’t been required to be other than my shabby self to do it. The writer gets a lot of visual latitude.

Some days, everyone you meet there tells you they’ll make your book into a movie, while desperately scrambling to find someone else’s money to do it with. ‘I’m definitely going to make this movie. I haven’t read your book yet, but I read the entry in your publisher’s catalogue and I’m definitely going to make this movie.’ Someone actually said that to me. As a good thing.

But the actor side of it is far more interesting. What it does to you. How it makes you contort yourself. How it puts mirrors in front of you all the time, and then tells you what you see. How it tells you you’re perfect, but in this instance not quite good enough, but here’s a course/coach/photoshoot/operation that might just get you there. Families spend months, even years, chasing the dream for one of their children, when most have no prospect of it turning real. But there are success stories, against the odds, and these end up chanted with religious fervour.

A lot of us at some time or another have seen reports, even entire documentaries, looking at the child-actor ‘industry’ in Hollywood. It’s not easy to tell who’s driving it, and it often looks as if everyone has a hand on the wheel – the studios and moviemakers, casting agents, portfolio photographers, accommodation providers, coaches of all kinds, parents and the kids themselves. Some movies need child actors. It’s impossible to imagine a world in which every character is over 18 and played by someone over 18 (or not over 18, but played by someone over 18 anyway). Some parts of this industry around child actors seem supportive, some enablers of fantasies, some simply there to make a buck from people whose prospects are low and irrelevant to the buck-maker.

It’s an industry based on our need to have young characters in some stories, and our need to have those young characters played by children. Coming at it in a rush from the other end are the many, many children who want to be in the movies. Who would do anything to be in the movies. But at the same time, the movie industry is like almost no other in its capacity to hold extreme and arbitrary ideas about beauty, enforce them rigidly and judge people ruthlessly by their appearance. While simultaneously smiling, lying to them constantly and forever inflating their hopes. Everything you do is fabulous, but no one ever gives you a job.

I wanted to put an Australian family there, right in the heart of that scene. I thought I’d send them to the Oakwood Toluca Hills, since its child-actor program has produced a line of stars over years, and has been covered by TV and documentaries. Also, it seems not remotely sleazy. Sleazy would have been too easy. I wanted a place that seemed decent, and had simply identified a gap in the market that it was setting out to fill.

And I decided, not for the first time with these novellas, to have a narrator one step away from the spotlight. Cassidy is from Australia and determined to make it as an actor in Hollywood, but her brother Charlie is telling you the story. He’s eleven – a perceptive eleven, but still naive enough not to pass judgement on everything he’s telling you. That seemed like an interesting perspective, way more interesting than saying something adult and knowing and direct.

So, Charlie’s there with his wannabe-star sister, who is making all the right moves with the utmost seriousness, and with their worn-down mother. He’s shifted his life to LA, but it’s still his life – there’s school to do back in Australia, though now by Distance Ed, dislocated from his old schoolfriends. He witnesses Cassidy’s travails and resilience, without necessarily putting a name to either, and he makes some kind of LA life for himself, dumpster diving within the Oakwood complex for cans and bottles he can redeem for cash, hiking when the chance comes in the hills behind the apartment blocks. It’s an LA made up of small, odd details, and I loved the chance to see the place from his POV (Charlie’s heard enough to know that’s film talk for ‘point of view’) rather than mine, or anyone else’s desperate for a break. So we get bits of music, the Wisdom Tree trail in the patch of wild country behind the Oakwood, the birds in the trees, as well as his reporting on Cassidy.

Then Cassidy gets a call-back while Charlie’s at an art gallery in North Hollywood (the NoHo of the title) doing a school assignment, and the change of plan that follows shakes his world of small safe details and perhaps pulls a few things into sharper focus.

This family in this place seemed like a great combination to finish the series, looking at family and what we value and the fascinating skewed world in which we can find ourselves.

And then, once it was done, along came the irony of me providing work for a child actor, as the reader of the audio version of this novella. And there’s a process to make that happen. Of course there’s a process. And there should be. So the recording studio, the intended actor’s mum, Child Employment Services and I all went through the piece word for word, searching for, as one email said, ‘adult themes and curse words’. We found ‘boobs’, ‘bullshit’ and several mentions of peeing, but that was as extreme as it got, and Flynn Curry got to step up to the microphone and do a great job.

And with that, the series is done. Thanks to all of you who have come along for the ride.

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