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walking and falling

jennifer mills

Reading Ursula Le Guin

Cleaning up my office today, now that it’s cool enough to move again. Found this piece I wrote about Ursula Le Guin’s influence on my writing (perhaps ‘my thinking’ is more accurate), for the NSW Writers Centre magazine’s ‘Writer on Writer’ column. A couple of people asked for it, so I thought I’d share it here. [pdf]

It’s rare to have the opportunity to write about reading and books in a non-review context, as a fan of books and as a human being (as opposed to a “critic”). So it was a real treat to be able to write about someone whose work has been so important to me, who has made the horizon of the impossible shiver and dissolve. A fantastic excuse to reread The Dispossessed, too. In my post-book intellectual flailing – think of a spider loosing the beginnings of a web to the wind – I am almost tempted to begin a series of essays…


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Three thousand hours

I am about to embark on the process of listening to myself read the finished draft of my book while I scrape and scrub and plaster my way through repairing the house ahead of our move to Adelaide. Six days into the year and already great changes are afoot! I have a good feeling about this one.

I have equivocal feelings about the book. At this point there is a set of calculations at work – how much more can I do to it before I stumble over the invisible line of too much work (in terms of the prose, and the mental taxation). It’s very strange to start to mark out the work from the outside, to attempt to approach it as a stranger would. I am doing things deliberately differently this time around, trying to experiment with my own process before it sets into inflexible patterns. I’ve always read my work aloud at the late stages, but this is the first time I’ve tried it with the additional cringe factor of recording my own voice.

(Yeah, I took a year off making podcasts for this blog, but I’m planning to go back to it when I go back to the happy place of being focused on short fiction – any minute now!)

I have ten hours and thirteen minutes of audio. I can never resist the temptation to measure, so I did the maths: this book has taken me three years’ worth of half days, about three thousand hours of work. And I write relatively quickly. It’s a little absurd, really. You really have to love the process to feel that this is a worthwhile enterprise.

But then the more I think of it, the more it seems to me that this is how long things are supposed to take. The handmade nature of a piece of fiction gives it its beauty, as opposed to the quick No More Gaps of content generation. The evidence of work (and of a mind at work) is what makes books worth reading. It’s the expectations of instant gratification that are absurd.

This old house has taught me to be patient. As I patch the render and soak the floorboards in tung oil, I keep thinking about timber being cut and stone quarried and the things that are built in the old way, to last. And I do love the process; it’s the process that gives the most pleasure and meaning in the end, and not the outcome. I guess that’s what is meant by writing as a craft: the way it teaches you to trust your materials and take your time.

It’s about time I wrote about time, I think.


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A List

1. The new Meanjin is out (#72) and it includes an essay I wrote ‘On Quitting Poetry’ which is among the least comfortable things I’ve ever written (it’s also got the best list of references I’ve ever written):

Having escaped from the Last Supper without lasting stigmata, I sat in my hotel room and examined my soul, which ought to be a poet’s favourite pastime. There was clearly something missing in my relationship with poetry. I had not simply lost hold of it, as happens from time to time; I was disgusted with it. Surely I had once felt the required reverence, surely on some level I still did feel it, otherwise, why write at all?

Not for the first time, it occurred to me that poetry was just a sophisticated form of humiliation (on second thought, scratch sophisticated). I wondered why we expect poets to purge the raw feelings of their inner lives. What was it about the confessional mode into which we were being coralled that was so terrible? I sensed there was some deep masochism being demanded of me that I had not consented to. It was weird.

2. The new Overland journal is out with the winners of the 2013 Short Story prize and they are all superb (you can read them online, although you’ve obviously subscribed to the journal by now if you’re halfway smart). I wrote a judges’ report. Here’s an extract:

It takes confidence and skill to drop the reader right into the thick of things – and to haul them out again. A failure to pin down a story’s voice can unravel the whole. In addition, a voice that needs approval can turn the reader away. Confidence in one’s craft ultimately comes only with practice.

The winning stories have nerve. They avoid these pitfalls, and do something more: they surprise and delight, and they bring us into the places writers need to go. They take us past the stereotype, past our expectations, and into the blurry vagueness of life, with all its bewildering contradictions.

3. Volume 8 of the Review of Australian Fiction continues: last week there were excellent short stories from Tara June Winch and Mary Anne Butler, and the forthcoming issues have more brilliant contributions from Caroline Reid, Marie Munkara, Bruce Pascoe and Siv Parker. I’m very happy with it, and I hope you all subscribe;

4. I am not far away from finishing the next book, which will have taken me three years come January 1st, and is making me a) very tired b) very excited and c) regularly dream about cephalopods;

5. I’m running a workshop about voice at the SA Writers Centre Fiction Bootcamp tomorrow morning (it’s sold out);

6. I am fully aware that I neglect my blog (see 1-5);

7. I’m moving to Adelaide for a bit in 2014 because Adelaide is where it’s at;

8. If you are a person who does Christmas presents, please buy some good, independently published Australian books and literary journals for your loved ones. Thank you.


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The lost

I wrote about extinction grief for Overland journal:

In Hobart last week for the Emerging Writers Festival, I went to pay my respects to one of my favourite tape loops: the video of the last thylacine in captivity, which is on permanent display in the new thylacine room. You can watch it on YouTube, courtesy of the Archives Office of Tasmania.

The video is shot from the thylacine’s height. It begins with his signature yawn. Forty-three seconds of pacing follow, and a scratch of the belly with a back leg before he gnaws at a bone. The marsupial nose is pressed against its meal. I watch an animal inhaling and processing an understanding of meat that is now permanently lost.

I find myself writing a lot about dead animals lately…

Read the rest of this post at Overland, and while you’re there, do subscribe to the finest of literary journals. It’s the annual Subscriberthon, so if you sign up this week there are loads of prizes. Every subscriber wins the pleasure of a year’s worth of ideas and reading, including wonderful fiction, hand-picked by me.


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