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Vantage points, vanishing points

I came to the end of 2015 feeling a little disappointed. I was angered by the Australian government’s attacks on the arts, annoyed with some of the institutions I’ve been dealing with over the last couple of years, and frustrated with the cloud of misapprehension that seemed to hover over my writing. Two ironies: that a book about time should take so long to find its place in the world, and that the fate of a book about foresight should be so unpredictable. But after three weeks offline and away from home, I can see the year more clearly. I can see everything else that got done under that damp cloud. And it’s not nothing. It even looks good from here.

I’ve almost completed a new short story collection, which happened as if I wasn’t looking – I am still so in love with short fiction, partly for this ability to sneak up on me. Of all the forms I work in it makes me happiest. I have also unearthed the ore of a new novel which I can’t tell you about yet, only that it’s been taking shape for months now and I’m itching to get started on it properly. This work has carried on amassing itself while much of my forebrain was occupied with earthly anxieties, and that persistence is something to be proud of. So even without the additional honours of time at Yaddo and support from the Australia Council, the two shiny gold bones that 2015 threw me, it was a pretty productive year.

I had some great adventures in between working, of course. I traveled a lot, and I felt damned fortunate to be doing so in a year when refugee crises became so much more visible. I breathed some good air and some terrible air and watched the world’s creaking efforts to move away from fossil fuel dependence with a mixture of hope and dismay. Laughing in the face of some low-grade nihilism, I flippantly started an advice column for writers, hosted over at Overland. I love the advice column as literary form, and Cursive Letters reminds me of the fun I had when I was writing the horoscopes at New Matilda. Do you want some advice? I am pretty good at dispensing it. If you don’t have any real problems, you are welcome to make some up. We’re all fictional here.

Apart from not losing my nerve, the thing I’m most proud of is the achievement of something like functional literacy in Mandarin. I’ve been going to classes on and off since I got here, in six-week intensive blocks, backed up by my own study in between. This time last year I was overwhelmed by how far I had to go: what I knew felt like specks of dust floating in a multidimensional fog of ignorance. Now it feels like a structure, like a net. Speaking – negotiating, questioning, apologising – makes me human, to myself and to others. I’m not civilised or graceful in Chinese yet, but I’m getting better. I am still an idiot, and still regularly overwhelmed by how far I have to go, but I can figure things out, and even play a little. Language milestones are sprinkled gravel, so it’s important to stop and be amazed now and then. Learning to read as an adult continues to be very humbling, and is among the hardest things I’ve ever taken on (I sometimes joke that I decided to learn Mandarin because writing books wasn’t driving me crazy enough). It’s been an object lesson in the many social and personal values of language, a mindfucking experience of outsiderness, and a win for the brick-by-brick strategy, the child’s lesson I seem to need to learn over and over again, that ‘slowly but surely’ is always the only way to get anywhere.

So I have slowly admitted that Dyschronia, the problem child, needs to be set in the corner for a while so I can work on my two new manuscripts, and I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll subject it (or myself) to another draft. I wish I had more solid news but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I took a huge risk writing it, and I have learned a lot about writing from it. I’m still very proud of what I made, and that matters more to me than whether it has a life outside my office. Maybe it’ll find its time and place eventually, and maybe it won’t. Writers, especially writers with advice columns, talk a lot about living with failure as a part of the work, but even though it’s a constant companion, it can rear up at times, feel overwhelming. I try to offset this by working on a couple of projects at a time and deriving satisfaction from other sources, like study and printmaking. With that in mind, I’ve planned my year fairly well in advance in order to avoid both excessive focus and excessive multitasking. Writing that sentence, I can already hear myself laughing this time in 2017, with the benefit of future hindsight. But between now and then, I have work to do! And I am very fortunate to be able to keep doing it.

Happy new year, friends and readers and survivors – wherever you are, whatever you’re working on, I hope you have started the year with good perspective.

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