Giant Story, Medium-Sized – Wisdom Tree #3 Vancouver

A few years ago, I got into the habit of telling stories about giants to the four-year-old son of friends. I told him one and he liked it and asked for more. So I got online and found a few. Then my own son arrived and I got to use them a second time. Some of them were ancient stories – fables from all over the place, cautionary tales, adventures – but the second time around I made a few up myself.

Then I thought, what about writing a giant story? A story about a really, really tall human and – here’s the brave bit – not for kids. What about someone who’s father brings a giant home when the central character is young enough and small enough for the visitor to seem enormous, like a storybook figure?

Why would someone’s father bring a giant home? (So much of writing is about finding the questions and facing them, and occasionally they’re questions you could never expect. Questions weird enough that you sit there thinking, ‘Really? That’s the question I have to answer now? Why would someone’s father bring a giant home?’)

Because it’s the 70s, he’s made a packet in the Poseidon nickel boom and he’s been looking out for his next fabulous money spinner. And, in a bar in Brisbane, he meets a Texan who sells him the Australasian rights to American football. Part of the package is a crazily tall young quarterback with a wrecked shoulder, and the quarterback and the father travel the country trying to sign up franchisees for the individual teams.

I liked that idea, a wide-eyed young narrator living this weird life because of his father’s lucky break, being the only kid at school with a giant – an actual giant – at home.

The story of that time came pretty easily – the giant who lives under the house and who benchpresses old concrete laundry sinks but who tells the narrator giant stories and who wants to be a writer. The giant who gets bronzed for a photoshoot, who is good for one huge pass but who then needs his shoulder put back in. Plenty of ideas came along for that part of the story, but I wanted to do more.

So I thought, bring it to now. Close to now. Years pass without contact, but then my narrator and the giant are back in contact again. The giant’s a professor at a US liberal arts college and known for his microfiction. The narrator’s a writer too. Maybe those childhood stories were an influence. But something’s not right. It’s not a straightforward joyous reunion. Something else is going on. For some reason, the narrator needs the giant.

So I got to thinking: when, where, what is the reason? It’s happening in America, so I thought of my own experience as a writer in America. My big break there as a novelist, and the bizarre timing that made it go wrong. And I thought, I’m dropping him in that. I’m giving him my awesome meeting in the Flat-Iron Building in New York and the deal that came from it, and I’m giving him what happened next when it went wrong.

And I’m dropping that – moments from some of the more unsettling weeks of my life – into part two of my giant story.

How has the narrator changed? How has the giant changed? How has the world changed? It was a great chance to explore all of that. And to look at stories, and how they work their way into us, and what they can mean when the certainties of the world turn out to be way less certain than we’d hoped.

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Thirsty? Not This Century. What’s With Our Unquenchable Thirst For Bottled Water?

The soft-drink manufacturers got wise early, though I thought they were crazy. Water? How is that your next big thing? Have you not noticed taps pretty much everywhere? Plain water? In bottles? It’ll never sell. Not in countries with safe tap water. We have water already.

And now there’s an island of plastic bottles bigger than Texas wandering around the mid-Pacific. Okay, there isn’t. Not quite. No island. But there’s an awesome amount of plastic swirling around out there, and among all the billions of tiny pieces there are water bottles, and way too many of them. Whatever the shape or soup-like state of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I could not have been more wrong about the potential market for bottled water. I would have guessed it would have been not much larger than the market for bottled air. (Bottled air, did you say? Why, yes, there’s a market for that too. Bottled Canadian and British countryside air is now selling well in Chinese cities …)

Look at the maths. At Brisbane residential prices, a cent buys you four litres of water. Entry level bottled water (own brand 24-pack supermarket water, for instance) comes in at a mere 188 times that. Buy the story of snow-capped peaks and pristine streams and it’s not hard to spend 2000 times what you’d pay for water from a tap.

When I was young (cue squeaky rocking chair), water was only consumed when combined with cordial, that perfect mix of sugar, artificial colouring and artificial flavouring. And when you outgrew cordial, if you drank water, it came from a tap. And if there wasn’t a tap, well, you waited until there was one. During which time you might get a little bit thirsty. In the developed world in the 21st century, mild transient thirst is practically a human rights violation.

There must always be water! On any table set up for a press conference or writers’ festival session: water. At any meeting: water. On any five-minute plane flight: water. Every child is pursued by a water bearer. Everyone who is momentarily between mouthfuls of water must have water available, just in case. A car is now a transport vehicle for humans and their water. I know ours is. At least I re-use the bottles.

It’s not that I’m against hydration, but it is all right – even survivable – to be more that five minutes away from your next fluid. Supermodel Wisdom tells us all our luminescence is owed to drinking eight glasses of water a day. Supermodel Wisdom also tells us there’s something sexy about transparent skin and once you get past your anger to your mother, you will begin to excel at volleyball. Being a supermodel in no way precludes genius, but the eight glasses thing is not typically advanced by supermodels with relevant science quals. So, where does it come from?

In 1945, the US Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council analysed the American diet and determined that that was a typical and functional amount taken in by Americans each day, in liquid form and also in food. Somehow that got skim-read, all the water in food got forgotten about and this morphed into a mandated eight glasses of water a day.

Now, don’t go thinking I don’t drink water. That I’m a wizened desiccated husk peeing kidney stones, bitter that I didn’t invest in water futures long ago. I do drink water, but I don’t count it as I go because life’s way too short and I don’t panic if my mouth is momentarily dry.

How about we ease up a little? How about we get over the idea that every human in countries with totally safe tap water has to carry water everywhere?

Alternatively, can I interest you in a litre or two of my eau de Brisbane? Water fallen on the semi-wild slopes of the nearby hinterland, filtered through nature’s own gravel (and, um, other things), and piped lovingly to my humble rustic cottage in the inner suburbs for bottling …

I’ll even draw you a picture of a frosty peak with a stream running from it, if you’d like a label.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared on Huffington Post Australia.)

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On Launching John Birmingham’s How to Be a Writer (Avid Reader, 9 June 2016)

Why, when things have changed so much in the publishing industries, listen to someone who started writing 30 years ago whose book is being launched by someone else who started writing 30 years ago? Because JB has lived, like any thinking writer, with the fear of obsolescence, marginalisation, bypass and oblivion for all that time, developed far more smart ideas than most about how to turn words into dollars, and no one’s stopped him yet.

Some ideas from 30 years ago are still great, and they’re in here. Some great ideas only came into existence while John was going through the page proofs, and they’re in here too. He’s a lot more agile than he might appear at the moment, sitting comfortably on his chair down the front her. This is a writer who has found ways to thrive in two centuries, very ready to tell you how to survive in this one.

There are plenty of books giving advice about how to write well. This isn’t really one of those. They’re about art and art is great, but this is about money. About having a job. This is about how to pitch, what to pitch, who to pitch to, and what to do if they say yes. It’s about puling your head out of the clouds and making that novel/article/column happen.

My first proper conversation with John came after he’d had big success with He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco. He told me he had publishers lining up offering good money for him to write another four or five of those, and that he wasn’t going to take it. It takes a smart writer, and an uncommon writer, to decline to sign up for diminishing returns for decent upfront money.

He wrote Leviathan instead, that is, he shut himself away in a library for years and wrote a big fat multi-award winning history book. A writer is almost never able to pull off that kind of gear change, but he did. For that move alone, he’s worth listening to. And then he did it again. While deep in the trenches working on Leviathan, he occasionally allowed his mind to wander, and in one of those wanderings he read Matthew Reilly’s first novel and happened to come up with a blockbuster idea about a future aircraft carrier dropped back in time into World War Two. As the master of the pitch, he couldn’t help getting pitchy. He ran his pitch by a friend who happened to be an agent, who said, ‘I reckon I can sell that in New York’. The agent took it on as a dare, and soon JB had to learn how to write genre fiction, and about half a million words of it, for Americans who were paying good money and required him to mean business.

He took it on, he plastered aircraft carrier floorplans all over his office and he made it work. And even now, he’s continuing to develop new ideas to keep getting material out to the readers he lassoed with those books. Amazon may have done well enough to fund Jeff Bezos’s space program, but on the side it’s funding John Birmingham’s solid-gold hovercraft program and they don’t even know it.

He’s also motivational in this book. It’s likely a lot of people here want to make at least some part of their living out of writing. For you, John will be your Michelle Bridges or Commando from The Biggest Loser, as the sweat beads on your forehead and your stocky legs get no traction in the sand through which you’re trying to pull some stupidly large object that makes for great and also mortifying television.

That thing where you’ve got the greatest novel idea ever, but don’t know how to get started? Where you’re facing the tyranny of the blinking cursor on the blank screen and all that’s in your head is the best first lines of the best novels you’ve ever read? Time to take some medicine from Doctor John. Reading his chapter on self-doubt will kick start some stalled first sentences, and that alone justifies the existence and purchase of this book.

Whether your plans are fiction or non-fiction, this book will get you focused and increase your chances. If you’re wanting to make a living as a poet … Well, if you’re a real poet you weren’t going to shell out hard-earned cash on a successful author’s book anyway, because you hate him too much already. You already only pretend to buy your friends’ chap books, and they pretend to buy yours and you all know. And you get together and lament the miserable state of the poetry market in Australia, each one of you thinking, ‘If only every one of you miserable bastards would buy my chap book that would at least be a start.’ But the experienced poet needs no advice from me on how to handle a book launch. For the emerging poet, it goes like this: don’t buy the book, stand around looking supportive, make dinner out of the nibblies and take a quick glance at page 59 – for there is actually a chapter entitled ‘Be a Poet’ – before sidling off into the night.

Novels, columns, articles? This is a manual for embracing that writing life in the 21st century. It is a privileged glance at the algorithms driving one of the most varied and successful writing careers in the country and, chapter after chapter, it will deliver both a kick in the glutes and a whispered insider’s secret or two and, even as you feel John’s steel-capped toe in your buttock flesh or whiskey-flavoured breath on your neck you will know you have some new tools to work with and your chances of earning some kind of living as a writer are better than they once were.

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In The Name of Art – Wisdom Tree #2 Venice

A few years ago, my friend Terry Whidborne (also my co-conspirator on the Word Hunters series) signed up for an art exhibition. Each artist was paired with another, and together they had to come up with something connected with the number four (it was the fourth exhibition in the series). Terry and his partner decided to create Four Horses of the Apocalypse. Terry, as is his way, created striking and intriguing work, which you can glimpse on his blog, along with a hint of what he went through to get the horse skulls.

Exactly how, in Brisbane in the 21st century, do you get yourself some pristine horse skulls to make art? Terry told me about his journey into the Sunshine Coast hinterland to source the heads, and it stuck with me. He said I could give my own version of it to a character. So, I had an artist to write about. An artist planning something. And there the idea sat, for a while.

Then I decided the narrator wasn’t the artist, but someone running an errand for the artist. Who was that going to be? Was that person by themselves? No. I’ll put someone else in the car, so they can talk about things and so there’s more potential for story. So, who’s my narrator? Why is someone else along for the ride?

Filed away, I had a separate idea for a story about someone retrenched after the collapse of the mining boom and living with his rich sister and brother-in-law, and how small his world gets and what it’s like to find meaning in it. At the time that occurred to me, Coles supermarkets stopped stocking Maggie Beer’s Burnt Fig, Honeycomb and Caramel ice cream. I was a huge fan. Still am, in principal, even though my access isn’t what it used to be. I contacted Coles, urging them to reconsider. I realise the text of that complaint now appears as a footnote to any dictionary definition of the expression ‘First World Problem’.

I decided to give my character my fandom of that ice cream, and my moment of learning it was no longer stocked, but give it to him at a time in his story when he’s just had his low self-esteem lowered a little further. He goes out for a walk to buy that ice cream, has to settle for another brand and sits on a wall eating it, pondering, trying to deal with how stuck he feels.

It could have been a short story, but I thought, that’s the guy. The guy sent on this odd errand to the hinterland for horses’ heads. His sister’s the artist, his brother-in-law’s a dentist, he’s living with them and feeling purposeless. And now he’s picking up horses’ heads.

Who’s he with? Clive Frost, a cranky 90-year-old WWII veteran. I read corporate outplacement material and it pointed out that it can feel positive to do something for others. So, Clive’s a guy my character, Ryan, takes shopping weekly – he’s been matched with him through a community program. And they’re also with Ryan’s four-year-old nephew, Harrison, who he’s minding.

So, what’s Harrison like? He’s lost in a big house, a bit crap at swimming lessons, obsessed about a range of things on his LeapPad tablet, particularly science facts, but with no one who’s got the time to talk about them, as his father works long hours at his dental practice and his mother works on an installation for a gallery in LA and waits to hear if she’s been chosen as Australia’s rep at the Venice Biennale.

Venice looms exotically. The story never goes there, but the prospect of Venice permeates the house and makes Ryan’s world and life feel smaller. His sister Natalie has her sights on a city of almost mythical proportions, and on national honours, while he’s lost his Sydney-based job and ended up in her downstairs flat in Brisbane, with what appears to be next to nothing.

The more I developed the nephew the more potential I saw for story there. Clive got smaller and smaller. He still got written, but he got pared back with each draft until, near the end of editing, I cut him altogether, and the road trip was just Ryan and Harrison. A man and his nephew, on a road trip to pick up horses’ heads, two adults and a foal, for Natalie’s installation on the theme of ‘family’.

Two smallish lives with prospects, I thought, if I put them together and sent them off on a mission.

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The Rapper, the Journalist and the Glue I Found to Join Them – Wisdom Tree #1 Gotham

I’ve always found rappers an interesting phenomenon. It’s that classic rapper-story mixture of difficult childhood, brashness and bragging, sudden wealth and fame and a complete lack of preparedness to deal with it, plus a risk that the whole thing could be gone in less time than it takes to bust a rhyme. In your face and fragile at the same time. Ego the size of a planet, but it’s a fake planet and that thing you just called ego is hiding something.

But how to get into a rapper’s head? How to write a first-person piece from a rapper’s point of view? A teenage African-American rapper’s point of view …

Then it occurred to me that maybe it’s more interesting if we don’t get there, if we don’t get the access-all-areas pass. So, who could I put up close to the rapper who would give us an interesting look at him?

An Australian journalist. An Australian rock journalist around forty, twice the rapper’s age. He’s interviewed everyone. Not that he’s jaded, but he knows what he’s doing. He knows how to look for a story, and where to look.

So, it’s about the two of them, Na$ti Boi and Jeff Foster. It’s about that big writer question: what’s at stake for the two of them?

Where does it happen? Where am I going to find them? Somewhere a long way from home for Jeff, somewhere Na$ti wants to claim. Somewhere that makes a statement. New York makes part of that statement, and the Bloomingdales flagship store makes the rest. New York is Na$ti’s home, and Jeff has come to him and to the venue and at the time of Na$ti’s choosing. It’s not Jeff’s first trip to the city, so he’s not wide-eyed about it, but it’s still New York, and there’s a feeling every time you go there that you’ve arrived in a place confident in its belief that it’s the centre of everything. And the store is an icon. The young rapper temporarily in command of the Bloomingdales flagship is very different from Jeff meeting him at Bloomingdales in Skokie, Illinois.

The story starts at Bloomingdales, with an after-hours fully concierged shopping spree for the huge store’s only customer. Its working title was Cargoes, since the shopping spree would come unstuck over cargo pants and I decided both Na$ti and Jeff would be carrying some baggage.

So, what’s Jeff’s story? What’s the baggage? There’s more to him, more to this trip to New York. I recalled my last trip there, in 2013. I wrote a travel piece for the News Ltd Sunday papers in Australia, on the topic of New York with an under-five. My son, Patrick, was almost four and hugely into superheroes. And New York, Gotham City, is surely superhero central. He’d look out of the hotel room window or up from the streets at the rooftop water towers, and it was entirely plausible to him that Batman or Spider-Man might be there.

When I took his photo coming down the granite slide in Billy Johnson Park, of course he stuck his arms out, a superhero in flight.

I looked at that photo with my characters in mind and I thought, why does Jeff’s son or daughter need to be a superhero?

And I had it. I had my story.

So, Jeff has a family story, his partner Lindsey and daughter Ariel, across town at the Beacon Hotel, living a very different New York experience. Na$ti has a family story lurking beneath the surface. And, to bring them together, we have Na$ti’s manager and cousin, Smokey. Smokey’s wife has just gone into labour and Na$ti messes him around in a variety of ways that night, the long night of the interview.

Now, that’s a cast of characters – that’s the novella, these two stories circling each other, sparring with each other, coming together in, I hope, unexpected ways.

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Locum Earls and the Four-Hour Job

In 1992, towards the end of my short career in general practice, I found myself doing sessions in a clinic built mostly on tax evasion and medifraud. I was one of the new brooms brought in by new owners who played it totally straight, serviced patients instead of their hoarded Medicare cards and, soon enough, we realised viability was an issue.

As the practice limped along, I picked up one-off sessional work elsewhere through one of Brisbane’s bigger locum agencies, with the agency knowing I was up for a new permanent part-time job if the right opportunity arose. Soon enough, the ideal opportunity seemed to present itself. These were the days when general practice had recently been freed from the old rules that said a doctor or doctors always had to own the place, so entrepreneurs were trying their luck. The job was to be half-time – exactly what I wanted – in a brand new clinic on a main road on Brisbane’s inner southside. There were a couple of well-established practices right nearby – places with veteran GPs with good reputations – but in those days the entrepreneurs were deafened by the seductive ca-chunk of Medicare cards being processed and always felt we could grow the pie and bag our slice of it.

The new place, my workplace, was in a building that had been a real estate agency until a few weeks before, but it had been kitted out pretty well and seemed to have what I would need. The receptionist was ready to make appointments and set up files, had been trained to use the autoclave and was keen for me to dirty an instrument or two so that she could put it to use. The owner called around 8.32, two minutes into the job, and said, warmly, ‘Treat this as your own practice. We want this to be a long-term thing. We want people to feel you’re their GP.’

For the first two hours nothing happened. Down the road in both directions, at the established clinics, turnover was no doubt steady. The neighbourhood had already found its GPs. I sat at my desk editing the short story I had brought with exactly these circumstances in mind. I resisted the urge to make personal phone calls.

At 10.30, my first patient fronted up. I could hear mild excitement in the receptionist’s voice through the wall as she got the paperwork together. I opened my door, accepted the file optimistically numbered 000001 and asked him to come in.

He had heartburn, pure and simple. A mild case of it, typically at night. Nothing to find on examination. Job done in pretty quick time, no matter how thoroughly I did it. I gave him advice about weight loss, elevating the head of his bed and some over-the-counter antacids, and I advised him to return in a couple of weeks if he wasn’t noticing progress. He checked that I’d still be there and I assured him I would be. This was to be a long-term thing.

By the time I opened the door, I had legitimately had him with me just long enough to bill a standard consultation.

As I settled back into my editing, I wasn’t really paying attention when the receptionist made a phone call. I could hear her voice through the wall, but muffled. Then my phone buzzed. She said the owner was on the line and wanted to speak to me.

‘First patient, then,’ he said, as if I’d take the conversation from there.

I had no idea where it was supposed to go, so I just said, ‘Yes.’

‘But you didn’t make a follow-up appointment.’ That warm welcoming tone seemed to have gone missing.

‘No. It wasn’t indicated.’

‘But I thought you’d always do a follow-up appointment.’

‘Actually, you only do that if there’s a medical reason.’ This was the downside of working for the person who owned the building, rather than someone who knew the score. ‘If you did it routinely, it would be over-servicing, and the Medicare people would be onto that pretty quickly.’ Or not so quickly, if the fraud-based practice I was working for across town was any guide, but that was beside the point.

‘But what was wrong with him?’

At first, I thought I couldn’t have heard him properly. I got him to say it again. I asked him, quite sincerely, if this was doctor-to-doctor, and he actually had a medical degree I hadn’t been aware of. Red rag, meet bull.

‘But I’m the owner,’ he said, as if owner trumps all.

The call ended in the stand-off it was always going to. I explained confidentiality, he explained ownership. I told him the files were his property but not his business. He was outraged. He hung up on me.

Five minutes later, as I sat weighing up my options and wondering what quasi-medical hell I had got myself into, the phone rang outside. The receptionist put the call through to me. It was the agency, saying they’d just copped an earful from guess who about Locum Earls and his insubordination, lack of respect, etc, and that Locum Earls would be leaving at lunchtime and not coming back. My new name cranked the surreal feel of it up one more notch I didn’t need.

I set the agency manager straight. She got it, of course. Which immediately led to more outrage, but all on my side.

‘I’ll make him pay you for at least the whole day,’ she said. ‘Maybe the week. And I’ll be telling him why I’m not sending him anyone else. And then I’ll let the other agencies know.’

At precisely 12.30, with file 000002 still on the receptionist’s desk optimistically awaiting a name, I left and never went back.

I’ll never know how patient 000001 went with his reflux. But I do know that, if he returned a couple of months later, he would have found a real estate agency where a medical clinic had once, fleetingly, been.

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When Email Becomes Eek-mail

Okay, enough time has passed that I can now confess. Every so often, an email blunder occurs that is of such grand proportions that it goes viral and does several million laps of the planet before settling down. For each one of those, there must be thousands with less gas in the tank that leave the perpetrator flamingly red-cheeked in the privacy of their own workspace. I own one of those.

I am not the Ray White real estate executive who tried to test his new work email system by sending his wife an email entitled ‘Show Me Your Tits’, and who accidentally sent it to everyone else in his database as well (including at least one News Ltd journalist).

I am not the English school principal who, on receiving from a staff member a forwarded complaint from a woman whose house backed onto the school, replied ‘Tell her to get stuffed,’ not realising (a) the original sender had been copied in on the email sent to him and (b) he had hit ‘reply all’ instead of ‘reply’.

But here’s what I did. First, some background. There are times when I deal with a lot of incoming event requests. This is a good thing, even if it’s not always easy to keep on top of. Request numbers increase when I’m already out doing a lot of events (eg, on a book tour), and unfortunately that’s also when have less capacity to deal with them properly. So, I have a system. I pass them on to my agent, and we have a triage system for assessing them. To make it into my diary, as well as working with what’s already scheduled, an event has to make it through one (just one) of the following hoops:

1. Will I be at least reasonably well paid?
2. Will I sell a lot of books?
3. Will the event benefit a cause I support?
4. Will it be an adventure?

So, sometimes I earn some money (#1), sometimes I make a fool of myself as Mal Meninga’s partner in a celebrity canoe race (#4).

That checklist came to mind when I received an email from a private school asking me to speak (for no fee) at their father-and-daughter breakfast. I was mid-tour, on a street in Sydney. My choice was to flick the email to my agent then and there or let it languish, perhaps until well after the event. So, I flicked it, with the shorthand message my agent would expect in the circumstances. In an implied request to look through the detail of the original email from the school and weigh it up according to our criteria, I simply said:

Can you think of a reason why I would do this?
N

She would take that at face value. She would read in detail the email which I had only glanced at on my phone, and she would see if there was a compelling reason to say yes. Was there a charity benefiting? Was there room in my dairy? Etcetera.

But I botched the forward and my email instead became a reply to the original emailer:

Can you think of a reason why I would do this?
N

All it really lacked was an emoji of a raised middle finger.

But once it’s out, you can’t suck it back. Oh, yes, another email followed. A crawly, explanatory email with a salutation, loads of apologies, the full ‘N i c k’ in the sign-off. But I don’t even have to tell you that, not only did I not speak at the breakfast, I haven’t been back to that school.

I told my agent about it. She said at least it was better than the author who had meant to forward an event request to his agent but who hit reply instead and went with the message ‘I’d rather have another colonoscopy’.

Anyone else ready to confess?

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Beyond ConTact

I used to think contacting books – the application of a sticky sheet of protective plastic – was a punishment parents put themselves through, but now I realise it’s the school. It’s the system. And I’ve just faced it for the first time. I’ve just had my first wrestle with the giant sticky multi-limbed heartless beast that is contacting schoolbooks and, since it’s possible others didn’t make it out the other side, I’m reporting in.

We were told at the parent information night on Thursday that it’s to make sure labels on the front of the book stay stuck on properly. Heard that yourself, have you? Apparently that’s often how it starts, but don’t be fooled. If it’s the case, why not just stick them on properly in the first place? Why slap a label on in some dodgy way to start with, then require someone else to do something infinitely more complicated to keep it there? And then judge them for their handiwork? Because be in no doubt about it – there’s judging going on. In the classroom next to my son’s, the teacher has already sent some contacting back to parents to be re-done. Which, having just escaped the ContTact chamber, seems to me like sending an omelette back and asking for it to be returned as two eggs.

‘What is this contacting books?’ the parent next to me said, recently arrived from a distant land. ‘How do you? Is this reading she is talking about? Contacting books?’ In the movies when a platoon arrives on a planet inhabited by unseen but deadly aliens, there’s always one guy you know will be taken first. Phew. In our room, I wasn’t that guy.

So, I spent a day or so in denial of the gravity of my mission, and then I did what any first-time contacter would do. I turned to Facebook for help.

Fifty-six comments later, I determined I had to go in. The advice was mixed. Of course it was. ‘Rebel,’ some said. ‘Get those slip-on covers … Just don’t do it … Life is already too plasticky.’ (‘Yes, yes it is,’ I heard the nagging voice of doubt say in reply. ‘More plastic in the sea than fish soon, I read that …’)

Rebel? Well, sure, but I’d be pitching my son into the middle of my revolution, and he didn’t choose that. Make him the one hold-out in a class where every other child is parented by ConTact-adept suck-ups? It took me straight back those three years of Indonesian at school, when everyone else had bought exactly the right Indonesian-English dictionary in time, but I’d got to the shop just after the last one sold, to be told the next would come on a slow boat who knows when. I ended up with a brightly coloured Malaysian-English dictionary instead, since it was apparently ‘near enough’. Near enough? There’s no near enough. For three years I confused my untuks and my untoks and I still can’t eat satay without breaking out in a sweat.

So, I took the best practical advice given to me, attempted to compile a summary and went to cross-check it by googling other sources (as also advised). There I realised my first mistake. Years ago, I’d gone and got myself a Y chromosome. Every site on how to contact seems to have ‘mum’ somewhere in its URL. Contacting apparently isn’t a job for men at all! Perhaps, in some other bi-gendered parent teams, men stand by with nets and flamethrowers and stuff (warrior-like, semi-tough but useless) as the ladies boldly face the beast. But not at our place, apparently.

I settled for the illustrated contacting process at ‘mouthsofmums.com.au’. If these challenged mums were gamely pushing on and contacting books with their mouths, I should be brave enough to step up and try with two hands.

So, I’ve done it. I’m back, somewhat scarred by the experience, and here’s what I’ve learned:

• I’m an ace ConTact cutter, but a dud ConTact applier.

• It’s the application that’s the real skill. Therein lies to path to ConTact glory and/or unmitigated disaster.

• First ConTact is crucial. If the line of the book’s spine doesn’t land correctly, you’re already sunk. The book will end up like an ultra-sticky spitball, your child will probably be failed out of grade one, have to repeat, lose contact with his/her peers, be fire-setting and harming small animals by eight and, of course, be lost to a life of crime soon enough. Other than that, first ConTact isn’t crucial at all.

• Book covers are actually animate, sentient and wilful, and sometimes flap when they want to, bellyflopping onto that ConTact sheet with all the precision of a drunk with his eyes shut tripping over the edge of a swimming pool. Again, this is a trivial matter (see outcome above). No pressure.

• ConTact has its own limbs, and reaches out for the parts of the book cover you least want it to.

• ConTact is almost certainly an aerobe, seeking to trap as much oxygen as it can between itself and the book cover.

So, how did I fare? I’m guessing if you’re having to use your chin or your knee to hold something down, you’re doing it wrongly. Unless ConTact was designed to be applied using at least three limbs and no one on the interwebs told me.

I can’t say I did well, but the job is done. And it would have been even worse had it not been for Facebook guidance and the Mouth Mums. Yes, I used the ruler to smooth, as directed, but it turned out to be only a partial remedy for flaws on the scale of which I was capable. Only once did I contact the ruler to the book. Only twice did I clip off a tiny bit of book corner when trimming, but we won’t mention that again. They’re less likely to hurt people now, anyway. Untrimmed corners can be very pokey, right?

I have to admit that parts of some covers ended up like tactile maps of river deltas, but that’s just how it is. Put me down for a D in contacting, teacher, but there ain’t no re-do.

Ah, ConTact. We’ll only do this eleven more times and then it’ll be over between us.

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Facebook: Are We Turning It Into FOMObook?

Recently, it seemed as if half the people I knew were skiing in Japan, while I was close to home, in various parts of southeast Queensland. I had little to complain about – it was a mix of short beach holidays and staying at other people’s houses while our floors were re-surfaced, and every place had airconditioning, a pool, etc, etc. I had it good. But was everyone else having it better?

That’s what Facebook told me. Even without meaning to. Even when not one of the people involved meant to.

The lives of my peers were defined by awesome wintry vistas, mad grinning on chairlifts, more mad grinning apres ski. And my life appeared not to be.

Not so long ago on Facebook I saw a post by a writer I admire (talented writer, smart person), who said she’d just had Facebook envy when glancing over her partner’s shoulder at a screen. He was checking someone out on Facebook. The cover photo was autumn in Paris (leaves all bronze and copper, the Tour d’Eiffel beyond those roofs that could only be Paris), the profile pic maybe had the profilee on a different occasion rugged up and standing in snow about to throw a snowball, the pic at the top of the status updates was similarly envy-inducing. So, this writer responded appropriately, with envy. And then realised it was her own Facebook page. She had been envying herself, in the way she had, she realised, become accustomed to envying the Facebook lives of others.

Because perhaps that’s what we do when we post pics on Facebook, without ever have the intention of doing anything but sharing. We go to Paris once, we throw one snowball, and suddenly our life, to the casual observer, is all Belle Epoque and crazy snow frolics and grinning. Even when we spent way more time that year doing laundry than we did in Paris. Even though we got only one good snowfall wherever it was, and by lunchtime it was all slushy and unskiable and some of it suspiciously yellow. Or the snow was great but the jetlag hammered us and we spent way too much and, yes, it was maybe even the holiday of a lifetime, but even then the pics don’t tell the whole story. Because they never do.

This week it was back to school photos. Amazing cute kids with beaming smiles and, actually the start back at school in our house this year went really well, but did it go that well? Did it go Facebook well? Our really good start back at school risked looking less than amazing and, well pretty average, maybe a bit below it, in fact.

Which made me appreciate Rebecca Sparrow’s Facebook back-to-school pic all the more. It was a lovely photo of two happy parents and their happy daughter. Could have been in a magazine. And the caption read ‘Our annual first-day-of-school-on-the-front-steps photo with Ava. Good luck to all the kids heading to school today. Treat each other with kindness and you can’t go wrong.’ It could have added to anyone’s ‘Oh, crap, our start back at school was only 80% amazing’ nagging doubts. It could have added to the groans of any family whose start had been 90% awful, as some surely were.

But then Bec came back and added something herself: ‘EDIT: this photo looks serene. Let me assure you that in the background it was FIGHT CLUB with Fin and Quincy … it’s on like Donkey Kong between those two’. I thanked her for that addition and she said ‘There is NO SERENITY IN MY HOUSE AT ANYTIME. Facebook is deceiving. Somehow that photo makes it look calm. It’s total false advertising. I live in a zoo.’ I’ve been to her house. It’s a great zoo and she is a zookeeper par excellence, but it’s a few years off having a clear shot at serene.

So, how many of us have ever scrolled through our Facebook feed and, without ever feeling something as unseemly as jealousy, come away feeling our own lives are a bit less shiny for the experience? Subliminally believing, without stopping to dismantle it with logic, that other people are having close to maximum fun close to all the time, and in way more exotic places than we happen to be?

Even if a ski trip is 30% travel, 20% bad weather, 20% arguments, 20% over-priced meals that didn’t live up to expectations, 8% getting up the mountain and only 2% getting down it, is that how the photos play out? No. And nor should it be.

But some of us are going to have to take some effort to tell ourselves, on a semi-regular basis, that the truth that we see on Facebook is usually a partial one. If we can accept that, maybe we can also live with the occasional Japan ski trip someone else has that actually is as 100% amazing as the photos suggest (everyone grinned, all the time, even the plane trips were maximum fun).

And maybe our own lives are, like those of other lucky people (people in safe places, with enough money and food coming in and only a rare jolt of tragedy), straightforward most of the time, but offering us an occasional glimpse across the Paris rooftops or a few days on the slopes with the snow crunching under our boots. Things worth sharing, which is why we share them, but not the whole story.

Alternatively, I’m pitching a new mood disorder to the American Psychiatric Association for DSM-5.1 (the next update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorders), and it goes like this:

Facebook FOMO Dysphoric Disorder
Episodes of somewhat depressed mood following exposure to peers’ Facebook photos
Presence of two or more of the following:
– a nagging feeling, particularly following Facebook exposure, that the subject’s life might not involve as much ‘fun’ as the lives of others
– a persistent feeling of incomplete fulfillment, or that the subject is lacking the true satisfaction experienced by others
– recurring feelings that the subject should be in Paris more, or skiing
– episodic feelings that there is less family-wide grinning in the subject’s life than in the lives of others

Not that I’ve got that, of course, but I seem to have a pretty good idea of how it might work.

How about you? Ever been there? Or have you been having way too much fun in Hokkaido to think that way?

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On the Efficacy of Mess

It only took five years, but I recently worked out that my personal Facebook page didn’t have a cover photo. What could I put up there, I wondered, that might represent me fairly? Then I remembered this pic, taken at the end of a longish book tour:

shed in usual disarray

It’s not how my office looks all the time, but it is how it looked that day – no styling involved – and I have to admit that tidy’s not my thing. Tidy, in this room, happens about once every two years when the junk load gets too much for even me to bear, and I devote a solid day to (sort of) fixing it, digging down through strata of junk until I hit, say, the fully loaded 1993 Bart Simpson Pez dispenser (Pez all crystalline and fused together …) or the two $2 notes I’m holding for two friends in connection with a wager they made in 1986.

Okay, so there was one awkward time when our house was broken into and one of the police took a look in there and said, face all well-practised empathy emoji, ‘Yeah, I can see they really trashed the place.’ To which I had to say, ‘Actually, they didn’t get to this bit …’

I thought my new cover photo would pass unnoticed but, while one person asked if there had been any casualties, posting the pic also unearthed a tribe of writers just like me – some claiming to be even more messy – authors who have managed over the years to have published (collectively) hundreds of books, carve out careers and who, outside their shambolic writing environments, present as acceptably groomed and almost punctual people who manage to prepare for and deliver almost every event in their diaries.

So, how can this be, when my Dad can’t see an untidy workspace without coming over somewhat judgy? (Or maybe that’s just mine, every time he sees it …) He’s of the ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’ school, and he’s far from alone. My shed looks, to his kind, like an oversized dumpster into which I’ve dived, not like the sort of place from which anything worthwhile might emerge. And yet, thoughts happen there and come together and end up, through a series of sometimes surprisingly meticulous processes, as something as organised as a book.

His workplace remains neat, his pencils sharp and straight. I’m sure even his hard drive has barely a speck of clutter (he has occasionally used some awesome software he’s got to tidy mine, for which I’m grateful, and prepared to cop a previously negotiated amount of tutt-tutting). He cannot fathom how a work day might begin in a workplace like mine. But he is a management consultant and IT expert and I am a writer, and maybe it’s a simple as that. Perhaps we need to think in different ways.

Okay, I have to admit that some writers might actually be neat. I don’t understand those people, even though I like some of them a lot. There’s even a (closed) Facebook site where writers post pics of their workplaces. There are some kindred spirits of mine to be found there, as well as some who embrace tidiness and others who faked it for the few minutes they took the photo (those latter two groups are hard to tell apart, and I’m not sure either is to be entirely trusted …).

It turns out that there’s some evidence to support me using the information management model that I do. Ergonomist Mark Landsdale, now a professor at Leicester University, some years ago looked at the information management of ‘messy’ people. (See how I’m slapping quote marks around that now? Those people aren’t messy, it turns out – they have a system. I have a system.) I’m going to paraphrase him. Don’t be shocked if a hint of bias works its way in.

Filing, it turns out, is often arbitrary and forgettable. One piece of paper might have five different files into which it might appropriately go and, once it’s filed, most of us forget which one we chose. We come back for it later, can’t find it, rummaging begins, stress ensues.

But the other way, our way, my way, is the method Prof Landsdale has called the Volcano. In the middle of the volcano is a small clear area in which work occurs. Around it is a heaped arc of papers (lint, Pez dispensers …) which, in evolving, has developed a kind of order to it. Frequently needed items tend to be near the top and centre, infrequently needed items sink and drift to the peripheries. Documents are often near where they were last put down and often, through use, come to cluster with related documents. In its own way, it’s a kind of system and, unlike a filing cabinet, it’s chock-full of memory cues. It works! It works, Dad!

So, on the wall behind my desk, is a photocopy of a newspaper article talking about Prof Landsdale’s model. Of course, it’s completely obscured by plies of paper at the moment but, one day, I’ll clean deep enough to find it again and make my Dad read it.

‘Untidy desk, untidy mind?’ I’ll take both, thanks. Making a novel is not a tidy process. It branches everywhere. It’s a thicket you need to find your way through, but that’s exactly what it needs to be. If it’s not a thicket, it’s not a novel.

So, what works for you. Are you reading this in your neatly pressed Team Tidy T-shirt, or are you with me in the volcano?

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