Big Thoughts

Posts where I grapple with topics such as feminism, politics, life in general, and other complex ideas

Old School

I am still one of those people who follows blogs through an RSS reader, setting aside a portion of my day to process a whacking great chunk of data from around the internet. My feeds are pretty carefully curated and sorted into categories, so I can narrow my focus down to writing advice, say, or SF Authors, or weird science stories that are likely to inspire stories. I still lament the loss of google reader and the google dashboard homepage which used to kick off every day with my email, feed, and project notepad laid out before me.

My feee contains approximately 200 post a day. On average, I read about twenty of them in detail, or open them up and save them in a file to process later when I’ve got the time. Some of those links find their way into social media feeds, some of them prompt discussion here or in my new email newsletter where I bang on about behind-the-scenes stuff, and some are just things that look interesting.

It is the nearest thing to sitting down and opening a newspaper every morning that I can think of in this day and age, and its already an archaic habit.

I didn’t even realise RSS feeds were a thing until my late thirties.

Some Things People Keep Asking About After Reading “To Dream of Stars: An Astronomer’s Lament”

Somewhere along the way, one of my stories got put on a HSC prep exam somewhere in Australia. On one hand, this is cool – I didn’t get into this gig to write things that do not get read.

On the other hand, it also means I have reached that point where I get semi-regular emails between June and September asking questions about what is a fairly obtuse story. Some of these emails ask very smart questions, which is great, but they’ve they’ve now become common enough that I rarely have time to deliver anything meaningful as an answer. To that end, I figure it will be useful to have a stock response I point people towards/show up if they Google the story, so I’m throwing some story notes up here on the blog that I can refer people to.

FIRST, SOME GENERAL CAVEATS

In general, when it comes to these sorts of questions, I am entirely the wrong person to talk to. I generally come from the same school of thought as Neil Gaiman in this matter, back when he regularly took questions on his blog:

  1. I won’t do your homework for you. Just pretend I’m a dead author and in no position to answer your questions — I won’t mind.

Actually, I’m worse in some respects, ’cause I’m used to teaching undergraduates in universities, so I’m firmly in the camp that believes critiques in English and literature studies are rarely about the authors intentions, but rather the reader response.There’s is absolutely no guarantee that anything I think in regards to the story will actually be useful within the context of an English paper. I fully subscribe to the theories put forward by a guy named Roland Barthes which state that the author is dead, and what an author intends with the story is actually pretty useless, since a large portion of the meaning is brought by the reader (this is a pretty good overview of this whole idea inside of 5 minutes).

In addition, the gulf between what writer intends with a story and what actually exists on paper is frequently wider than any writer would prefer, and usually involves a lot more “this seems like a good idea” than the answers below would imply. Mostly, writers tend to absorb a whole bunch of theories and ideas, then let them influence the work subconsciously, trusting that things will mostly turn out okay. It’s why writers generally blink and look confused when they get asked questions by English teachers. Especially since first reason I write anything is pretty simple: I have bills to pay, and I figured someone would buy the story when I was done 🙂

All of which is basically the long way of saying: you had a response to the story, when you first read it. Your response to the story is 100% correct, regardless of what I say here. Use that as your starting point. Especially since your English teacher is unlikely to take a blog post on the internet as a credible source.

All clear? Good. Now we can move on and look at some of the things I’m routinely asked about.

WHAT’S UP WITH ALL THE MENTIONS OF “THE OTHER?” WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?

The Other is a term that gets used a lot in cultural theory, particularly when looking at issues of gender and colonialism. The basic theory is that in order to have a sense of “self,” there must also be a sense of “the other/not-self.” The wikipedia article on the theory is actually a pretty good overview of the theory, and the core ideas I was playing with in To Dream of Stars.

The bit I was really interested in related to this: in order for their to be a notion of what it means to be male/masculine, there’s a corresponding idea of a non-masculine Other, which has created all sorts of problematic ideas of masculinity in contemporary culture where the tradition notion of masculine was also associated with being in a dominant and privileged cultural position, but the culture is opening up to other narratives and re-positioning parts of the culture as Other (by virtue of race/gender/socio-economics).

SF has a long tradition of looking at metaphors and taking them literally within the text, so the metaphorical framing of The Other as alien became literal within the world, and from there became a way of looking at the way notions of masculinity and colonialism change when The Other becomes dominant and the colonizing culture.

The question of whether I did this well is entirely up in the air, especially considering I am a white, well-educated, middle-class bloke who is not traditionally regarded as Other by western culture. Plus, this story was written nearly a decade ago, where these discussions were not as widespread. Part of the joy of being on the internet over the last decade has been the rise of people talking about things that used to be tools of cultural critique and bringing them into the general conversation via tools like Facebook, tumblr, and twitter. Hell, it still blew my mind that I could read Facebook on my phone in 2007. And I still held a grudge against Facebook for taking over Livejournal’s section of the social media market.

But I digress. In short, the way we talked about notions of the Other and othering is different here in 2017, which often means the conversation needs to be more nuanced than it is here. Stories, in many ways, are a product of their time.

DISCONTINUOUS/POST-MODERN NARRATIVE

The narrative of To Dream of Stars is not particularly linear, largely because I tend to enjoy stories that are not particularly linear. I like the idea of treating story as a jigsaw puzzle, leaving gaps where the reader can make connections of their own. Within the context of this particular story, I was also interested in the idea that one of the key aspects of Othering is the idea that there is only a single story to be told about the Othered. Spreading the narrative across multiple points in the timeline is an attempt to create a sense that there are multiple stories instead of a singular one.

It’s also the reason why there are multiple aliens presented within the story, rather than a single alien species.

One of the things that fascinated me in 2007 – and continues to fascinate me today – is what a theorist named Jean-François Lyotard called the Collapse of Grand Narratives and the turn to small, local narratives as part of the post-modern condition. The stories we tell each other – the things that give our life meaning – have become increasingly broad and diverse instead of singular. There is not one truth, but many truths.

At the same time, we’re still fighting against a host of grand narratives that still govern our lives, especially the narratives that have built up around religion and statehood and government. As the internet is fond of saying, we “don’t know how to adult,” because adulting used to be a far easier concept to wrap your head around when there was only one way to do it.

WHAT GENRE IS THE STORY?

I get asked – quite a bit – if I’d call this story magic realism or surrealism, which largely makes me happy because I got fuck-all kind of discussion along those lines in high school and it wasn’t until university that I finally got exposed to the really good stuff.

For the record: I definitely wouldn’t this story magic realism, but it’s not quite surrealism either. There’s a branch of SF called Slipstream, which is probably the best fit – it’s basically focused on the strange and interested in the effects of post-modernism, and work that sits in weird spaces between genres.

Here’s the thing about genre though: they’re very, very flexible. They’re based on your ability to see connections between the work you’re reading, and other works you’re aware of. Slipstream is a useful term for people deeply enmeshed in science fiction, who occasionally want a way of distinguishing the weird stuff from the space-stuff from the near-future cyberpunk stuff from the honest-to-god-alternate-history-where-people-do-a-lot-of-research-instead-of-inserting-aliens-to-cover-their-arse.

WHY DOES “X” or “Y” HAPPEN IN THE STORY?

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Which, incidentally, was way back in 2007 according to my notes, and I barely remember why I made certain narrative choices in things I wrote in 2016. I’m afraid I can’t get give you any specific answers for this one.

WHAT ABOUT <<INSERT QUERY THAT IS NOT ON THIS LIST>>?

Well, then, we’re out of the bounds of the broad scope answers I’ve got prepared and into specifics I probably don’t have time to answer. Feel free to try your luck asking in the comments, but be aware that my ability to respond will largely depend on how busy I am and how many deadlines I’m chasing at any given time.

Writing Series Works in the Age of the Internet

I picked up the first book in C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy from a remainder table when I was fourteen, part of a five-books-for-ten-bucks deal where I deployed my limited teenage resources. Over the years that remainder table introduced me to many books I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise, but Black Sun Rising was one of the few that I still hold onto. Tattered and torn after twenty-seven years of ownership, largely unread after the age of eighteen, but still tucked away on my bookshelf alongside Forgotten Realms novels as a reminder of where my reading tastes used to live and breathe.

I picked up the second book of the Coldfire trilogy three years later, recognizing it by the cover art and the familiar, embossed-gold font. The repeated motif’s are a distinctly nineties approach to fantasy: dark, twisted trees; a blonde warrior with a magic sword and improbably styled hair that suggests fantasy worlds have access to good conditioner; keywords on the cover blurb like Adept, Sorcerer, Devouring, and Darkness.

When True Night Falls is in better shape, its pages a little yellowed with age. Plus, I’m not actually sure I’ve read it. I remember the first book clearly, with its mix of Fantasy and SF tropes, magic derived from an alien energy running through a colonized planet, but I have no recollection about what happens in the second book or how it sets up the third. I think I was waiting to track down the third book before I engaged with the series again.

This sounds perfectly reasonable, here in 2017. Back in 1994, when the internet was still fascinated with getting Coke machines online and Amazon was in its first year of existence, waiting for the third book of a series twice-remaindered in Australia was an act of deranged optimism.

But I was young. I knew nothing about the way publishing worked, or how books found their way to bookstores. I thought my decision to wait for the third book was perfectly sane and reasonable, because the first two books of a trilogy meant the third would show up, eventually.

They were telling a story. The third book was the end of it. That was how things worked.

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I’m spending a lot of time thinking about trilogies and serials and series at the moment, courtesy of my PhD. I went in explicitly looking to better understand the craft side of things. The initial germ of the idea came when I was kicking around a few series ideas, and friends were kicking me volumes of ongoing trilogies or series to critique, and I figured that understanding how series works would allow me to write and critique in a more useful way.

It’s taken about six weeks of reading to realise that it’s virtually impossible to divorce the writing of series from the publishing realities that surround them. I’m not exactly blind to the effects digital technologies have had on the publishing industry – a large part of my gig at the Writers Centre involved talking about the impact and advantages of ebooks – but it’s at its most interesting when we consider the impact that a shifting publishing landscape has on the decisions writers make.

At its simplest, publishing is a system of exchange between three stakeholders. A writer produces intellectual property in the form of a book. A publisher provides the financial capital to produce the book, along with the human resources to handle the the refinement and production of the book. They also leverage a network of promotion and distribution arms that the writer, by themselves, doesn’t have, in order to get the book into the hands of readers craving a particular reading experience that they’re willing to pay money for. When everything goes well, the writer, the publisher, and the reader all feel like they’ve made an even exchange, and everyone goes home with something they want.

The reality was almost never that simple. Economies of scale become part of the equation, because it costs money to store books and it costs money to ship books and it was impossible for any bookstore to carry a copy of every book ever written. Books that didn’t sell enough to justify those costs had a very short shelf-life. Books that weren’t ordered in sufficient qualities to justify keeping them in a warehouse would end up pulped or remaindered, which is how they found their way to a five-for-ten-dollar bin at my local store.

None of this is news, if you’ve got a working idea of publishing, but what’s been interesting me this week is an essay from 1999, Tracing the Adult Series, which appeared in the TechNicalities journal. The author, Maureen Nimmo, talks about the difficulties of tracking series works for adults in library catalogue. There’s one bit that leapt out at me in particular:

Catalogers aren’t the only ones at fault here. Book publishers don’t always give sufficient information within individual books to help. Series information in the books themselves, based on personal observations, is scanty and inconstant…Standard series title pages are rare in this sort of literature. Instead, catalogers are left to glean what series information is available from flyleaves (assuming it isn’t discarded before the book gets to the cataloger) or blurbs printed on the back of the book. There may be nothing on the cover or the title page of the book to alert the readers that the book is part of a series.

This intrigued me to the point where I dragged Friedman’s books off the shelves and looked for the things that overtly identified it as a trilogy. Once you discarded the trade dress, there were only two: all three grouped the books together “The Coldfire Trilogy” in the section up front devoted to the time-honored Also by C.S. Friedman, and the bears The stunning conclusion of the Coldfire trilogy” on the cover. The second book does identify itself as a sequel to the first, but doesn’t actually mention the word Trilogy anywhere else.

This lack of information makes perfect sense in a publishing environment defined by scarcity and limited space. If books have a small sales window and shelf-life, then you absolutely want to have your cake and eat it too. Slapping “Book Two” on the cover is a red flag to anyone picking it up that they’ve missed what’s come before. While you want existing readers to find it, you don’t want to be limited to existing readers when it comes to sales.

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If you planned on writing fantasy in the eighties and nineties, you planned on writing a three-book trilogy. It’s like the structure of Lord of the Rings passed into the genre’s DNA, becoming part of the conventional wisdom shared by writers and readers alike. I didn’t need to be told Friedman’s work was a trilogy when I stumbled across it at the age of fourteen, because I simply assumed that most fantasy stories were told in three parts (It will still be another year before I encountered David Eddings, and my mind was peeled open by the fact you could tell a story in five parts).

And with that knowledge came the patience required to search out parts of the series. The assumption that if I missed the boat on first release, I’d be spending quality time searching for the missing instalments over the new few years. Friedman’s trilogy was one of the few that eluded me in that time. I couldn’t find the third book new, lurking on the bottom shelf of a bookstore I’d never visited before. Nor could I find it second hand, or tucked away in a remainder bin like the first two instalments had been. After a while, it ceased being something I looked for at all, just an unfinished trilogy sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for the day when serendipity finally finished my collection.

In the end, it wasn’t luck that brought the third book to me. It was stumbling over the first two books tucked away in my own bookshelf, then spending sixty seconds ordering a copy of book three on Amazon.

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There’s a really useful idea in John B. Thompson’s study of the publishing industry, Merchants of Culture, where he takes Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of The Field and applies it to the publishing industry. The Field is…well, lets go with Thompson’s description:

A field is a structured space of social positions which ca be occupied by agents and organisations, and in which the position of any agent or organisation depends on the type and quantity of resources or ‘capital’ they have at their disposal. Any social arena – a business sector, a sphere of education, a domain of sport – can be treated as a field in which agents and organisations are linked together in relations of cooperation, competition, and interdependency. Markets are an important part of some fields, but fields are always more than markets.

Which is really just sociologist for publishing is an enormously complicated network of stakeholders, all of which are linked together in a web of interconnected business relationships. What’s useful about Thompson’s book is the way he takes the concept of the field and breaks down the five kinds of capital at work in publishing.

More importantly, it provides a framework for understanding how the field of publishing has shifted as a result of technology, which makes the study of series considerably more nuanced than I’d first expected.

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I keep circling back to the Coldfire Trilogy when I think about this, and in particular that decade plus period where I couldn’t find the third book. For two books I contributed very little economic capital to the publishers behind the series, picking volumes up second-hand or in remainder. By the time I did actually purchase the third book through Amazon, it was via a sales chain that would have seemed unthinkable when the first volume when to print.

On the other hand, they were a series of books I thought to finish purchasing over a decade after the first two volumes were acquired. It was on the list of things I meant to read one day, if only I could find all the books.

I’d started my thesis with a pretty clear idea that the advent of Amazon and ebooks had led to a big jump in series works, particularly among the indie publishing crowd who talk about series works a kind of default strategy. The Field has its own logic, which affects the way people consciously and subconsciously apply their capital to gain desired effects, and the capacity to have a single bookstore that stocks everything cleans up a lot of issues with series works.

But it’s not just having everything available that’s shifted the field. Trilogies and ongoing series works have always held a kind of value, but it wasn’t until the advent of Amazon and widespread ebook use that the kind of capital they accumulate with readers valuable enough to overcome the costs of keeping the book available. Series works always accumulated social and cultural capital – and publishing has often capitalised upon that capital  – it’s just that they weren’t positioned in a marketplace capable of translating that capital into financial gain in a cost-effective way. The limitations of printing, storage, and distribution worked against the form.

But once the problem of availability is solved, labelling series works as part of a series becomes infinitely more attractive. The search algorithms of Google and Amazon are considerably more nuanced than old library systems. More importantly, the internet opens up the conversation that surrounds books.

At fourteen, I talked about the fantasy novels I loved with a half-dozen friends with similar reading tastes. At forty, I share my reading with blog readers, facebook friends, GoodRead followers, Instagram followers, and a dozen other places. The social capital surrounding a trilogy or series is considerably higher today than it was back in the early nineties. My suspicion is that this shift is one of the reasons why the fast roll-out of a series became a thing in recent years, attempting to capitalise on the conversation and keep the book visible.

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Friedman’s trilogy has been sitting on my couch for two weeks now, ever since I started thinking about all this. At some point, I need to read it. I just don’t know whether that’s going to be during the PhD or after it.

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Poem

It’s 1994 and I’m sitting in a cinema with tears on my cheeks. Gareth has just died and Matthew is at the pulpit, reading W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues as the eulogy for his friend. It wrecks me as few things have wrecked me, in my young life. John Hannah delivers a performance that makes me a fan for life. A fan that will follow him through the third Mummy film and Sliding Doors, professing an affection for both.

Three years later I see Auden’s poem on the page. I’m twenty years old, studying poetry, getting ready to spend two years writing an honours thesis about poetics and space and the city I live in. I’ve been published, as a poet. Performed my work at festivals. I wander the streets with notebooks in my backpack, writing draft after draft, hundreds of poems every year. I embrace the idea of quantity as a means of learning craft. It turns out, that’s not a bad way to learn.

I write some okay poems in those two years. I write a lot of bad ones. They were about girls, mostly. That’s why I started with poetry, why I kept at it for years afterwards. I was young and awkward and funny-looking. I didn’t know how to talk to people at all, let alone the opposite sex.

And I was foolish enough to believe that writing poetry would be my way of forging connection with the world around me. And foolish enough to happy, when that finally worked.


My favourite poem begins from a place of heartbreak and sorrow. Pablo Neruda doesn’t bother trying to hide it; everything is right there in the opening: Tonight I can write the saddest lines. He sets the parameters and everything progresses from there: the night is shattered; the immensity of loss grows larger; the inevitability of change is both a hurt and a solace.

I read Neruda as younger man, long before my heart was even bruised, let alone properly broken. I admired the exquisite longing of his words, back then. I craved the intensity of the feeling.

Years later, after my heart had been properly broken, re-reading Neruda’s poem wasn’t the same. I didn’t crave intensity anymore, could barely handle the feelings that roiled inside me. All I wanted was a release, the promise that the hurt would stop.

I read it again, very recently. It’s brilliance is dimmed, after all these years, but there is no doubt that it still shines.


In his book, Making Your Own Days, Kenneth Koch outlines a theory that explains poetry better than anyone else I’ve read. Poetry is the language inside language, he says, his analogy inherited from Paul Valery. It’s the language we turn to when words themselves are inadequate to the task.

It’s the language we turn to when I hurt is not enough. When I love, or I grieve, or I feel will not get the job done.

Poetry is the place we turn when words can no longer contain our sentiment, and we need the other elements of language to pick up the slack.

You can tell a good poet from a bad one by their ability to recognise more than this. To acknowledge that poetry conquers the immensity of feeling through more than the recognition of feelings.

A good poet see through the emotions and looks to the feelings, searches for ways to wring more meaning from words through tone and rhythm and language. They create structures, edifices that bolster the words and hold the weight of meaning upright.

A good poet works magic with all the diligence of a stage magician, utterly aware of how they’re directing the audience’s attention in order to pull off their trick.

And when they’re done, you don’t see the training. You don’t see the smoke or the mirrors or anything but the trick they want you to see.


It takes effort to love poetry. Books are hard to track down, and skew towards the classics. You spend more time reading the poets of yesterday than you do the poets of tomorrow. You trawl second-hand stores, breathing in the smell of dust and cellulous and lignin.

You find other poets and talk to them, because they talk about poetry in ways that other people do not. ­


My second favourite poem begins from a place of warning. Alice Walker states it clearly:

Do not give you heart
to someone who eats hearts
who finds heartmeat
delicious.

I read that poem for the first time just before the end of a relationship. Right before my heart was properly wrecked, like a car driven over the edge of a cliff and left to burn in the chasm below.

That opening sucked my breath away, left me trembling as it dawned on me that things in my life were not good. The rest of the poem barely mattered, although I found myself reading it again and again as the years went by. Slowly, I saw the other verses, building to more than heartbreak.

Years later, it occurred to me that I had more in common with the carnivore in Walker’s poem than I ever had with the victim.


At twenty, I would have told you that I wrote poetry to meet women, and it would have been true enough that I would not feel like I liar. It’s easier to retreat behind true statements, even if they aren’t the whole of the story.

At thirty, I would have told you I didn’t write poetry anymore, and that people are reluctant to let you stop. For years after I gave up writing verse, people would introduce me using poetry alongside my name: this is Peter; he’s a poet. Poetry stained my life the way ink stains the fingers, and it proved even harder to scrub free.

Today, I sit on my couch and gather books around me. I re-read Auden, and Neruda, and Walker, and other poems I loved almost as much as those three. I think about the years I devoted to writing verse, pursing poetry with a dogged persistence I’ve never truly brought to any other form of writing.

Not because I wanted to meet women, or because I loved the poetry itself. Not because of the attention, although I craved that for a while. Not because I thrilled at the magic of poetry, or enjoyed the diligent study of form and structure that came with it.

Our motivations for doing anything are far more complex than any of that. I wrote poetry for all those reasons. I wrote poetry for none of them.

I wrote because I wanted to be heard and the discovery that I could be was heady as drinking my first glass of wine. I wrote poetry because I craved connection, and was not good at establishing it in any other way. I wrote poetry because it presented me with opportunities, gave me a way of navigating a writing degree that wasn’t quite sure how to handle my proclivity for writing fantasy, connected me with other writers I could not connect with any other way.

I wrote poetry, drew what I needed from it.

Then, I stopped. Acknowledged that I wasn’t a poet, not in any way that counted.

I regret nothing about that decision.

It’s one of the few I can say that about, with any degree of surety.


What I love about Neruda’s poem is this: there is nothing special about heartbreak and longing. We all want. We are all denied. Even before your heart is wrecked, you know what is coming. There is nothing interesting in the longing.

But we want it to be special. We want our pain to be unlike any other. We want to be unique. For the world to acknowledge that we hurt like no-one has ever hurt before.

That feeling is there, in Neruda’s work. For years, I adored that recognition, blind to the obvious irony.


It’s 2016 and I’m sitting on my couch, watching youtube. I’ve searched for John Hannah and Funeral Blues, revisiting the moment I first truly fell for poetry. I’m not crying, this time. The room is brightly lit. Hannah is still magnificent, and so are Auden’s words, but they don’t feel the same at thirty-nine as they did at seventeen.

What gets me, this time, are the words before the poem, the acknowledgement of poetry’s necessity. Matthew describes his friend through other people’s eyes, then turns to his own feelings: Unfortunately, he says, there, I run out of words.

There, I run out of words.

For nineteen years now, the words have been there. I make my living articulating things, making them pretty and comprehensible, arranging things so words do what I want them to do.

And I know that it will not last. It cannot last. Words have been adequate for the situations I find myself in, but there are situations coming where they will fail me. I have both parents. I’ve lost no-one close to me. The day will come when those are no longer true. A day when I need words to be there, and they will not bend to my will.

When that happens, it’s comforting to think that poetry will be waiting for me, ready to fill the gaps. And John Hannah, reading Auden, will no doubt make me weep again.

melbourne-parks

Flight

It’s not that I’m afraid of flying. I am okay with being in the air. I like airports, and I like planes, and I like being in transit. There is a freedom to being between places, with little to do but wait. I read a lot, on planes, with a speed that I will never manage on the ground.

Nor, as the old joke suggests, am I afraid of the landing if things go wrong, although I do think about it as we taxi down the runway. I close my eyes and picture the moment of impact. Or, rather, a moment of impact, as I expect the image in my head bears no relationship to the reality of connecting with the ground. In my imagination the human body is like a squishy china vase, tipped from the edge of a table and allowed to hit the floor. In my imagination we do not squish, but shatter. We disintegrate on impact, reduced to wet, pink shards that scatter and take considerably effort to clean up.

But I am okay with that ending. It seems messy, but very quick.

What bothers me is falling. The helpless moments as I tumble, watching the inevitable rush towards me. What bothers me are those terrifying seconds when the end is coming and panic seems a perfectly sane response, because there is nothing at all I can do to stop me and the ground from connecting. There is time to think, as you fall. To realise what will come.

And it’s this that keeps me awake, the night before I fly. The terrible, awful but what if that is still less likely than being hit by a car.

It’s eight in the morning. I’m flying to Melbourne. I’ve already been awake for far too many hours.

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The friends I love keep moving to Melbourne, and so I go down to visit. Rarely, at first, when I was young and broke. Now I am heading down for my second visit in six weeks. Melbourne has become an old friend, filled with old friends. Filled with people I trust with secrets, and hurts, and slices of my history, in ways that I can never trust the people I see every week.

When I tell friends at home that I am going to Melbourne, they ask the usual questions: what are you going to do? What are you going to see?

The answers are mundane: couches; friend’s cats; cups of tea and cups of coffee; board games and train lines that will get me from lounge room to lounge room. The occasionally café, in the city, when the logistics of getting around make it easier to meet somewhere central instead of visiting a friend’s home.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was younger, the appeal of Melbourne was the city. The book shops, the lane-ways, the novelty of a city with a population to support the weird and the niche. I grew up on the Gold Coast, dreaming of places like this: art galleries and theatre and comedy and books. When you grow up young and arty, in Queensland, Melbourne feels like an obligation. It’s the place you run to, first chance you get, in order to find your people. It’s a place where you feel like you belong, instead of fighting for space.

I thought it was inevitable once, and the lure of the city is still there. “When are you coming down?” Friends ask me, and I used to have an answer.

“One day,” I’d tell them. “When my job working with writers is done.”

But I’m done with that job now, and Brisbane keeps me still. Keeps me by dint of a mortgage and new gig; by dint of friendships that filled the gaps after older friends moved away; by dint of its familiarity, the feeling of home when I walk down the street, but also its ability to surprise me when I remember to pay attention.

These days, when I’m in Melbourne, I think of the bits of Brisbane I love. I think of the trees on the side of the road in Adelaide street, which I had not noticed for the first decade I lived in Brisbane. I think of my café where the owners know me, and the bookstore where they know my tastes. I think of my routines, and my small flat, and my train line.

And I think, you now, I’m happy there. Happier than I thought I could be, once upon a time.

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The first time we flew to Melbourne, we took an early flight. I was not a morning person back then, and I was not comfortable on a plane. Fear made me irritable, when combined with the lack of sleep. I loathed the cabin crew for being too perky. I loathed the short, painless flight because I was stuck in a window seat. I hadn’t yet learned the pleasure of being in-transit. I didn’t read, and I didn’t write. I just sat and brooded and killed the time. Felt the pressurised steel shell around me and imagined them peeling away, folding back like the lid of a sardine cane before you shake the contents free.

I pulled down the window blind so I wouldn’t look at the ground anymore. Tried not to picture ten thousand empty meters I’d need to fall through in order to reach the ground. Tried not to do my back-of-the-envelope mathematics: terminal velocity averages out at 60 meters per second; that’s a whole lot of seconds to live through on the way down.

We did not crash. We landed in Melbourne. I went to my hotel room and removed my shoes, made fists with my toes just like Die Hard taught me.

There was no-one I knew in Melbourne back then, except for the friends who were travelling with me.

#

An incomplete list of things in Melbourne that have, at times, been used to convince me it’s a good place to live: the bookstore on Collins Streets; trams; The Maltese Falcon; the Azteca Hot Chocolate at San Churro, before the chain spread across Australia and you could get their hot chocolate everywhere; Minotaur Books; All Star Comics; the cocktails at the Americano bar, where one doesn’t so much order as suggest a flavour profile and let an expert do their job.

An incomplete list of things in Melbourne that actually tempt me to move: walking across the Yarra on the William’s Street Bridge; jacket weather; scarf weather; the presence of deciduous trees and a regular Call of C’Thulhu game; the baked beans I used to order, in this café down in Brighton, which were smoky and thick and served with crusty bread, even if the coffee that came with them wasn’t the coffee that Melbourne boasts about.

In truth, if I go, it will be none of these things that does it. The friends who truly want me to move don’t bother selling the city. I’m a writer, and not the wildly successful kind, which means I don’t have money. The books and the cocktails and the cafes are extravagances, easily afforded on a holiday but too unlike my ordinarily life.

The friends who want me to move simply sit me on a couch and give me a cup of tea and proceed to talk about things. They remind me of who they are, and how they haven’t changed, and exactly why I miss them.

#

I told a friend about my fear of falling, once. About the empty seconds where the air whistles in your ears, giving you time to think about what’s waiting below.

“At thirty-thousand feet,” they said, “you’re probably not going to be conscious. They pressurise the cabins ’cause there’s not enough oxygen. I think you’d pass out for some of it.”

I don’t know if they were right about that. I prefer to not know for sure. Any second I don’t have to be thinking sounds good, when I am falling.

#

I made plans to move to Melbourne once. I had the date, and the budget, and nothing left to loose. Brisbane had not been good to me, after being good fro a very long time. My heart was broken, and other parts of me joined it.,I felt the lure of being somewhere else, where the past didn’t dog my footsteps. And so I set my sights on Melbourne and hoped that it would change things. I would move there, and I would find myself. I would move there, and I would belong. I would move there, and if I was wrong, it did not matter how I landed. Breaking matters less, when you think you’re already broken.

I recruited friends to move down with me, sold them on the city and set their plans in motion. Their plans went through, and mine did not. I got a job, and my heart scabbed over. I figured it for a short-term thing, that the job would end and I would move. Instead, I stayed. Bought a flat. Worked at my job. Looked at the things that broke me, and tried to fix them, one by one. It’s slow work, gluing yourself together. It’s never as fast as you’d like.

Now, it’s six years later. It’s eight AM and I am flying, sitting in a window seat with a notebook, a novel, and a weekend with friends ahead of me. The cabin crew do the seat-belt demonstration. We taxi down the runway. I lean back in my seat and close my eyes, feel the lurch as we take off and the plane begins its ascent.

We rise, and we are flying. Me and a plane full of people. There is space underneath me. More space with each passing second. And I’m not so afraid of falling now, although the fear’s still there. I open my eyes and I keep breathing, watch the seat-belt sign and wait for the moment when tray-tables can be lowered and my writing time has started

I should write about Melbourne, I think. I should write about flying.

Then I pick up my book and start reading, because the seat belt sign is illuminated and none of things can happen until it has been switched off.

xander

Beard

I was thirty-nine years old when I saw my father’s beard for the first time. It happened quite by accident – he’d gone to the barber, asked for a close shave, and the beard he’d worn since I was a baby suddenly became this close-cropped fuzz covering the lower third of his face. Still a beard, if you wanted to get technical with the definition, but thirty-nine years is a considerable length of time to go without seeing a man’s chin. Its sudden appearance, as a visible entity behind the hair, made it a thing people commented on when they saw him.

I had my own brush with facial hair when I was twenty-two. It should be noted that I didn’t inherit my father’s propensity for thick, chin-hiding facial hair. Mine grows in patches, leaves broad swathes of the cheek unaffected. When I did grow a beard, at the suggestion of a woman I was dating, it mostly grew underneath my chin rather than on it.

I was not suited to facial hair, but I kept the beard until the end of that particular relationship, and I have never enjoyed the act of shaving quite as much as I did the day we finally broke up.


I would tell you my father, without a beard, does not look my father, but there are so many lies in that statement that it bears only the faintest whiff of truth. He doesn’t look like my father, with his chin visible, but the man sitting in the lounge chair with the freshly short beard was already so different from the father of my memories.

My father is in his sixties. He’s had a heart bypass, takes a series of meds for Parkinson’s disease and problems with his blood. He’s thinner than I can ever remember him being. He has trouble standing and moving, has trouble speaking at a volume the rest of us can hear. He’s not dying, specifically, but he has reached the point where the inevitability of death is always right there.  There is no longer any way to pretend that he will not be gone, one day.

The father in my memory isn’t a big man, but he is vital; a man who is strong and omnicompetent, underneath the omnipresent beard. He’s a man who surfed and played squash, all through my childhood; a man who built coffee tables and fishponds and canoes in his garage; a man who read The Hobbit to the kids in his classroom, and sang while he played guitar,

An ex-girlfriend once met my father and compared him to a dwarf. “He’s the kind of man you expect to fighting goblins with an axe and a beer,” she said.

And he was, back then, before illness started taking from him. He already had the beard.


There was a time, when I was younger, that people insisted the only difference between my father and I was the beard. Once, when I was seven or eight, a teacher actually put me in a fake beard to test the theory. These are the kinds of things that happen when you’re raised by teachers, and the people responsible for your education are also your parent’s friends.

It was assumed, perhaps, that the beard was inevitable. That one day I would grow one and the transformation would be complete. Instead, if I skip shaving in the morning it’s unlikely people will notice. If I skip shaving three days in a row, I start to develop the first hints of stubble.

There are men who can grow facial hair, and those who cannot. My father is the former, and I am not.


It shouldn’t be a surprise when your parents grow older. It’s right there, in stories. In television shows and films. Time marches on and people get older.Your parents become different people than you remember from your childhood.

Stories try to prepare you for that reality, but somehow, it’s not enough. Somehow, it’s still a surprise when you see your father’s chin, and it’s something that keeps bugging you long after his beard has grown back. Warned is not the same as prepared. It’s not the same thing as ready

And you adapt. You get to know the man who exists now, who is not the man you remember. And it is sad, sometimes. And happier, sometimes. And different, always different, even on the days you catch a glimpse of the father you remember in the man you talk to now.

You learn to embrace the duality. The man who is still your father, but is not the father of your childhood memories. The man who has become someone else, as everyone always does.


When I shave in the morning, I study my face. I notice the first grey hairs and the wrinkles around my eyes, the little patches of stubble that I missed yesterday because I still don’t shave with anything resembling a level of competence. It took me years to learn the very basics: shave with the direction of the hair; use shaving cream to soften the hair before you apply the razor; start with the cheeks and leave the chin for last.

It feels absurd that this is something that I still need to figure out, but it is. I do not shave well, and I cannot grow a beard. Not really.

So, instead, I study my chin. Try to imagine what it would be like, if I suddenly grew one of those beards I covet.

And somehow, I can’t quite make that image work. At worst, I can picture another patchy goatee, itchy and horribly uncomfortable. At best, I picture the rest of my life spent clean-shaven and comfortable.

Neither feels like much of a victory. Not today. Not right now.

So I rinse my face and get on with my day, rubbing my thumb over my face in search of the stubble I missed this morning in the hopes that I will finally – finally! – be completely clean-shaven when I leave the house.

Beardless

 

Dear Culture: Please Make Up Your Fucking Mind About What You Want Art to Be

No government ever lost an election by attacking the arts. It is, after all, the part of our culture where most people assume there is some combination of high levels of entitlement and low levels of actual work. This is the legacy of centuries of magical thinking when it comes to the art, associating the creation of artworks with genius or the muse.

No-one cares when the arts get less. In Australia, in particular, it’s right up there with attacking refugees, young people, and the unemployed as a safe tactic for the right and the left alike.

The last few years have been bad for the Australian arts sector. Not just in terms of the visible stuff: cuts to funding, attacks on the nature of copyright, a general hostility from the sitting government towards all things creative and its creation of a discretionary slush fund that is poorly managed and generally there to buy votes; no, the invisible stuff has been even worse.

When you cut funding, without notice, the way the government did last year, there are knock-on effects. The cuts happened, and the Australia Council responded, just as everyone was putting in four-year funding applications for funds that were no longer there. Hundreds and hundreds of organisational hours lost, then work that needed to be redone under the new model.

More work, because the increased competition means more competitive applications, which means the hundreds of organisational hours that were just spent now need to be re-spent getting a new application together.

The disruption is immense.

So, yeah, it’s a bad time to be an artist in Australia.

Today, ArtsHub released a list of organisations that had been de-funded in the latest round. 62 arts organisations in total. Approximately one-third of the applicants, and I doubt this is anywhere near the full list.

None of these organisations are 100% reliant on funding to operate, but the lack of funding will definitely mean that a bunch of them are going to close. Particularly those on the smaller end.

But the names are an abstraction. It’s easy to overlook the actual cost.

It’s easy to look at some of the literary journals on that list – Meanjin; Express Media; Griffith Review – and think, well, who cares? No-one reads that shit. Two of those three are big, literary magazines. Express Media, too, except it deals exclusively with writers under 25.

It’s easy to look at the small theatres and dance companies and think, well, if you can’t find an audience…

It’s easy to look at the bigger things – Brisbane Writers Festival, State Galleries – and think, well, they’ll find funding elsewhere, ’cause the audience is there…

But, honestly, all that is bullshit. New artists need spaces to explore their work, so they can develop and find their audience. Big events and institutions need funding so they can take a chance on newer works and artists, which may not get a look in when keeping the lights on is the main priority and established artists are a bigger draw.

This is not going to get better. I don’t expect this election to be fought on arts policy, although it would be nice if people did actually give enough of a shit to realise it’s a thing worth fighting.

This is a sideline, to the main problem.

If you want the arts to be treated like a business, you have to FIX THE GODDAMN SOCIETAL PERCEPTION THAT IT ISN’T.

You have to stop treating artists like creative weirdos, inspired by genius and the muse.

You have to build in facilities that help artists build their businesses like a business, and support them the same way you support other businesses like manufacturing, mining, or sport..

You have to stop telling artists that the creation of work is a gift, and they should not feel like they out to get paid, and you have to tell the culture around them the same thing.

You have to stop attacking copyright and suggesting shit like fifteen years of copyright, then you’re done, even as the entire system of how artist make money shifts to make life+seventy-five years an increasingly valuable thing.

You have to fix the cultural entitlement around the arts, which says, this exists, therefore I can have it for free. You have to make it clear that creators deliver value, and deserve to be compensated, even if it isn’t under the models that have been around for the last few years.

Stop telling artists this thing you’ve created has value, but we do not want to compensate you for it. If you want us to embrace arts as capitalism, treat us like any other fucking capitalist and pay us for our services. 

Basically, motherfuckers, you cannot have it both ways. The arts can be a cultural gift, or they can be fucking commerce.

Honestly, I do not care which. I just want you to make up your fucking minds.

Anger

Some days, you wake up incredibly angry at your country. You sit in your bed and you read the news on the your phone and you’re just, like, fuck, really? This is who we’ve chosen to become as a fucking nation?

I don’t like that anger. Not because I feel any particular sense of patriotism, but because I believe that we are facing complex problems in the world and I recognise the need for complex solutions. I want to look at all sides of the argument and figure out, really, where seemingly stupid political decisions are coming from, so at least I can be sure they’re a bad idea. I like to believe, on the whole, in government. In the ability of the assembled political leaders of the day to come together, find a compromise, and lead the goddamn country.

I do not get that luxury, these days.

In the last week alone, I’ve sat through incredible ongoing abuses of asylum seekers perpetuated in my name by the Australian government; I’ve sat through broadside attacks on the industry I love, by the productivity commissions, which proposes shit so absurd that I’m not worried about it being implemented, but I am worried about they’re hoping to grab as they back down from the blatant overreach; I’ve sat through the details of the new Australian budget, which basically continues the trend of the last three years when it says hey, young people, FUCK YOU.

I mean, unemployment as an internship scheme? FUCK THAT SHIT. The solution to the problems with Mutual Obligation was not making that shit FUCKING WORSE.

Seriously, god-fucking-damn it, FUCK THAT SHIT TO HELL.

I’m not even a young person, these days. I do not have kids. It’s not going to affect me. But it makes me incredibly angry. Because you give up things that matter by increments, ceding ground inch by inch, and it feels like the things I always appreciated about my country are working their way towards the end of the plank.

I want to understand where the decisions are coming from, even if I don’t agree with them, but politics in Australia has become extraordinarily bad at that on both ends of the political spectrum.

It may be time to start digging out my Herd CDs and start taking their lyrics much more seriously.

It’s Complicated

Nothing is easy. Everything is complicated. And no, you’re probably not imagining it: things are more complicated than they used to be.

Take writing. In the old days, before the internet, answering how do I become a writer was easy. There was the work, and there were publishers, and you did the work until you found a publisher and that was how your book went into the world.

You, as the author, did not have to have a one-on-one relationship with your readers. The book-stores had that, with the folks in their local area, and you had a one-on-one relationship with your agent, your publisher, or the reps from your distributor.

Today? It’s complicated. You can go with the traditional publishers, or you can work the proliferation of small presses that are springing up, or you can publish your book on your own and have access to distribution models that make self-publishing effective.

Choices.

Lots of choices.

And none of them are simple. They ask you to factor in how you work and what you want to work on and what your long term goals are and what’s your business plan before the useful answers even begin to show up on the radar.

And yet, people still seem to think it should be easy. They set forth to argue that traditional publishing is the one true path, or that indie publishing is the best choice for authors, or…fuck, I don’t know, whatever their preferred catechism is when it comes to writing and publishing.

We all have them. I have them. You see them seeping through into this blog every day, but I will opening admit that I know fuck all and my articles of faith, when it comes to writing, are exactly that.

Thing is: in writing, we have it easy.

Things that are more complicated than they used to be, when you first heard about them: feminism; equality; every strand of politics and economics.

Because, like writing, we used to focus on the one story. The equivalent of write a good book, find a publisher, get it out there. You’ll hear them echoed in the speeches of politicians: this is the way the family unit should be; this is how relationships should be; this is who belong here, in our country, and this is who should not; this is how you should be an adult; this is how you should earn a living and be a productive member of the capitalist culture that surrounds you.

We have old, worn-in stories about the way we live in the world that people are trying to change. And it’s not easy. If dismantling the patriarchy were easy, the first wave feminists would have done it and gone out for waffles after.

But making that kind of change, especially if you’re the kind of person who has benefited from those old, worn-in stories? It means you need to get comfortable with the idea that things are complex. That no-one is going to come out with an easy answer, any time soon.

You need to get comfortable with the idea that one story, one way of doing things, isn’t going to cut it.

You need to get comfortable with your own discomfort, ’cause complexity ain’t exactly easy to embrace; we are, after all, a path of least resistance kind of species.

Whenever someone says I have an easy answer, punch them in the throat and run. Odds are, they’re trying to sell you something. Or win an election.

 

 

Dopamine Hits and a Dopier Me

Facebook

The side-effect of Facebook is clicking on things. This works to the site’s advantage, since it’s a tool for sharing information, collating recommendations from friends that come loaded with a kind of social authority. There are interesting posts I’ve read purely because they were linked to on Facebook. Stuff I’d never find on my own, or even consider searching for it.

There are people who find their way here, most days, in much the same way.

This is one of the reasons I go to Facebook. Why it replaces my carefully curated RSS feeds, some days, when I’m feeling particularly lazy.

Yesterday I found myself hovering over a link where a poster took Australian gossip magazines to task for their portrayal of two local celebrities. An automatic reaction on my part – if there is a link, and it’s vaguely interesting, then I’m inclined to click on it. Facebook isn’t inherently interesting in and of itself; it’s at it’s best when there is conversation. Interaction. Connection with others. It cannot be consumed passively in a way that is satisfying for me.

But I have no interest in the local magazines, or the celebrities in question. I had no interest in joining the conversation. I was clicking it ’cause it was there, ’cause a conversation was happening and I didn’t want to be left out.

This bothers me about Facebook. It’s not just the things shared on my feed by friends – their advertising algorithm has become too good, able to play to my darker impulses and deliver me things I’m willing to click upon. Links that take me to content mills where a simple list-post is split over fifteen goddamn pages, each of them filled with advertising and little that’s truly worth reading.

Facebook is smarter than I am, now. The signal to noise is high. Not yet unbearable, but I can see that day coming. Facebook has become a place of habitual behaviour. It’s a place I visit because it’s a habit, more than any particular desire to be there. It’s a steady stream of little pleasures that come from connection, and snark, and Pavlovian rewards systems.

Facebook’s particular genius is reading who I am at the moment, and catering to those desires. It’s all about the little hit, the micro-reward, the dopamine economy. But my usage is dropping. Still registering in the hours of time there, every week, but it’s in the single-digits when it started in the double.

Facebook’s failure, in the end, will be the gulf that’s generated – the moments where I think, when did I become this guy? How do I stop this? 

My threshold for being the guy who clicks gets lower every week.