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walking and falling

jennifer mills

More work

My partner, who recently completed a Masters subject comparing the evidence on first vs second language learning and adult vs childhood language acquisition, reckons the jury’s still out on whether it’s harder, but it certainly feels harder when I sit down to my homework after a long day of classes followed by writing. Two hours a day at Culture Yard is making a dent in my day but also in my ignorance! I am enjoying it. It is very humbling learning new things, and (slowly) very rewarding.

I wrote a little about failure in this essay reflecting on the digital writer in residence project that’s been published at if:book (I have never been described as a “bonus n00b” before!) I’ve been trying to take a leaf out of my own book, and enjoy the process of being stupid as an essential part of learning and being in the world. Starting to recognise a few more characters and build a sense, not of competency, but of the distant technical possibility that I may one day be able to read a street sign or set up my mobile phone without translation software – well, a person can dream.

In the spirit of trying to enjoy failure, I’ve gone back to the *redacted* novel-about-time, which I thought I’d finished in April, to find it still needs work. It’s grudging work, but it’s something I’m happy to do – I feel the book is somehow unreconciled with the idea of the book, and even if I don’t get it published, I will somehow make that reconciliation for myself, through the brute force of my own persistence. Some days I’m convinced it’s useless work, but I am being very Taoist about uselessness. Everything is ephemeral, after all. Especially words.

I’ve been reading some of the old Simon Leys essays that have cropped up after his passing, and trying to spend a little time before class each morning watching women practice Taiji in the park (dan bing in hand, of course). These things are keeping my mind in some semblance of order as it builds new neural pathways – not at the rate of Beijing’s infinite construction, but there’s certainly an affinity with the readymade metaphor coming up all around me. A glance out the window at the workers lifting huge cement blocks by hand on a rooftop in thirty-two degree heat is enough to put my own small labours in perspective.


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Have 自行车 , will travel

Have bicycle, will ride around in the pouring rain for three hours with the Beijing manflu, actually. But having a bicycle makes me feel instantly at home, especially here, and returning to Beijing is (despite aforementioned manflu) nothing short of delightful. Yesterday’s rain has cleared the air of smog, and I can see the mountains from my new office window on the 18th floor. Settling in well, despite the adjustment to a new climate, altitude, language, and routine. Not being able to communicate much beyond the simplest demands has reduced me to some kind of giant white baby. I’ve enrolled in intensive language classes, so hopefully the vocabulary will grow. But it’s very humbling for a writer to be so linguistically helpless, and it makes me stretch myself at the desk when I’m faced with sentences in English, when I can show off some of my moves.

Yes, for those asking, I am still fiction editor at the most excellent Overland, and will be co-judging the third short story competition soon. The magazine is celebrating its 60th birthday at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, and it’s been wonderful to be a part of the year’s commemorations, including the Fancy Cuts project – the next one coming up is a very powerful story from Christos Tsiolkas that plays with language and translation. It’s been incredible to watch him push himself – there is nothing so satisfying to an editor than to have a writer of his calibre take up her challenge and double it!

I was sorry to miss the Pay the Writers meeting in Melbourne the other day but there are notes from it here and you can get involved in the ways mentioned therein. It’s incredibly rewarding to see Pay the Writers go from a simple blog post to a full-scale campaign, and I’m very pleased that it has developed in the way it has so far.

Blogging has taken quite a back seat over the past six months – moving here has been like picking life up by the heels and shaking it until all the crap falls out. Some of the systems and connections that seemed vital and necessary have simply fallen away. There is something in me that has a physical need for this kind of process. I love to shed a skin, to disrupt my stability. Some of the losses have been startling, but it is all beginning to feel worthwhile now, and to make sense. The joy and terror of risk. I can hardly contemplate what it must be to begin again in a new country with nothing, from sheer desperation, and to arrive in a place that apparently wants you to lose your mind.


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Digital Residency

For the month of June, I’ll be the first Digital Writer in Residence for Writing Australia. There will be six of us over the next year or so, one from each participating Writers Centre. My first post is up over at the new purpose-built blog:

“What does it mean to be a digital writer in residence?

Personally, I see this month-long opportunity as half experimental/lab residency, and half outreach project. It means I’ll be tweeting from @digitalWIR for the month of June, participating in book/literary discussions, and offering insights and observations about my day of writing and reading. I’ll be blogging here at least twice a week with posts about craft, the digital writer’s life, freelancing for the internet, editing, and more;

It means I’ll be conducting two digital forums for writers, where I’ll be available over Google Hangout and Twitter for discussions with writers around Australia and the world with a focus on building community with regional South Australian writers (watch this space for details);

It means that after blogging for nearly ten years and tweeting for four, I’ll be taking some time to reflect on what living on the internet feels like, and whether it’s changed how I write and what I read and the way I think about storytelling;

It means I’ll be experimenting with digital formats for fiction, including Twitter and Storify, and sharing the results here for free;

And finally, it means I’ll be available and accessible for your questions about my work, this residency, or anything you want to know about the writing life.”

I’m certain it’s going to be a fun month of writing, connecting, and experimentation, and I’m keen to make this as participatory and broad-reaching as I possibly can. So head on over to the Digital Writer in Residence blog and leave a comment, or follow @digitalwir for updates and conversations.


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War poets, open letters, and other animals

A quick post ahead of this week’s no-doubt-hectic-as-ever Sydney Writers Festival. If you’re in town, I’ll be at Sombre the Night Is: The Poetry of the Great War reading and talking about the continuing resonance of war poetry, and at The Big Read for the announcement of the Best Young Australian Novelists of 2014, for which I was one of the judges. If you see me around, come and say hello!

Despite once calling for a general open letter ceasefire, I have signed my name to this open letter against the cuts to the Australia Council which are ahead in the next few years if this government has its way in the Senate. It’s a spiteful budget, full of cheap shots against the poor. I’m more concerned about changes to Newstart for the young, and health and education, as well as what looks like the removal of any help for renewable energy, than my own skin, but it’s worth mentioning most artists are poor and precariously employed too. Yesterday’s protests gave me a little hope that there are plenty of decent hardworking people out there who will stand up for fairness in Australian society against these mean-spirited attacks on the most vulnerable.

In writing news, I have a new review coming up at the Sydney Review of Books this week;

A new short story in the fabulous independent journal, The Lifted Brow (it’s about a woman with a phantom body);

Another coming soon in the ace Review of Australian Fiction (it’s about sharks);

And this much-anticipated (by me) writing workshop at the Adelaide Zoo on the 31st of May – a unique opportunity that will get your creativity howling, roaring and swinging from tree to tree. There are still spaces – just book online at the SAWC website, or give them a ring.


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