If you are reading this blog post, I am no longer here.
I have a new and improved website at www.jocasewrites.com.
Please visit me there for all my latest blog posts and book information.
If you are reading this blog post, I am no longer here.
I have a new and improved website at www.jocasewrites.com.
Please visit me there for all my latest blog posts and book information.
Yesterday morning began in ABC studios, waiting on a chair outside the tardis booth, to speak to Natasha Mitchell in Sydney for Life Matters. (Fun fact: the doorbell for the tardis booth is decorated with an image of a dalek and plays the Doctor Who theme tune when pressed.)
This was my first radio interview about my first book, Boomer and Me: A memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s. I’ve done radio before – including a year of weekly book reviews for Triple R’s Breakfasters.
But it was weirdly different being there to talk about my own book, rather than reviewing someone else’s. (The last time I was on radio, I talked to Books and Arts Daily about Harp in the South. Which was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, as I love that book with a passion.)
I always crib the night before a radio interview … which I’ve revealed in my book, so I might as well say here. I like to think of the kinds of things I might say and write down possible answers. Then I edit those answers into brief points. And then, I usually edit down those points to a few crucial ones.
On the way to an interview, I rehearse those points silently in my head, or read over my notes. If I’m feeling cocky, I might just stare out of the window and sip the takeaway coffee I inevitably have with me.
I wasn’t feeling cocky yesterday – even though the points I was studying up on were, in a way, knowledge of my own life. (You’d think I should be an expert on that!) So I silently rehearsed as I sat.
When I go on air, all that research goes out the window. I don’t look at it, or consciously think about it. Which is as it should be. That doesn’t mean it was a waste.
I’ve heard writers say – about writing fiction that requires a lot of research – that the best approach is to research like crazy, then forget it as you write. The idea is that it’s so embedded in your consciousness once you’re finished that it’s there for you to draw on, when you reach in for answers. I feel the same way about preparing for a talk or interview.
Even if it’s akin to a placebo, I don’t mind. It makes me feel relaxed and prepared, and that’s the main thing.
Inevitably, this means I leave thinking about all the better things I could have said, all the great points I never made. But that’s okay.
This happened to me yesterday, too. (Oh, the things I could or should have said …)
But I enjoyed my chat with Natasha, did not stumble on my words, and left feeling like I’d made a good start to a week of talking about my book, my life (or, a sliver of a version of it) and Asperger’s Syndrome – both having a child on the spectrum and being there myself.
If you want to hear the interview, there’s a podcast right here, on the Life Matters website.
1. What is the working title of your next book?
Boomer and Me: A memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s.
2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
When my son, Leo, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – and again, when I received a provisional Asperger’s diagnosis – I looked everywhere for a book that spoke to my experience, and didn’t quite find one.
I wanted a personal story that would echo my experience in some way, and perhaps provide insights into it. I liked the idea that Asperger’s could explain aspects of Leo and me, rather than define us; that it was a thread in our personal stories, rather than the story.
I found snippets of recognition and comfort. A New Yorker essay by music critic Tim Page, ‘Parallel Play’, was one of the best. John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye didn’t exactly speak to our experience, but it was warm, funny and positive – and a book you might read just to meet the narrator on the page.
But many of the memoirs I found were useful in terms of learning raw facts about other people’s lives – other people with Asperger’s – but didn’t strike any chord of recognition, and didn’t introduce me to the whole person. The people I read about were more like walking diagnoses.
I thought about writing my own book, one that would introduce my son Leo as a smart, funny, idiosyncratic and warm person who happened to be Asperger’s. But as someone who had worked in and around publishing for over a decade, I was aware that: a) not everyone has a book in them, b) just because you think you should tell your story, that doesn’t mean other people will want to read it.
Then, while doing an RMIT Professional Writing and Editing course, I got the courage to submit some writing based on personal experience to the Age, and it was published – two opinion pieces and a personal essay. The essay was on Leo, Asperger’s and football (his then-obsession); a few months later, my now-publisher, Rose Michael, emailed to ask whether I’d thought about writing a book about Asperger’s, and to express her interest in publishing such a book. That gave me the confidence to believe that writing a memoir might not be an entirely narcissistic exercise.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Ah, this is fun! I really identified with the character of Frankie in the Foxtel series Love my Way: the artist who shares half-time custody of her child with her ex and lives in a sharehouse with an eccentric chef who is like family. (Replace ‘artist’ with ‘aspiring writer’ and that has been me.) So, I’d choose Claudia Karvan to play me. I can’t think of any seven-year-old boy actors who’d suit Leo … but I think Nicholas Hoult would’ve been perfect at that age. (This is fantasy; surely I can time travel in my casting?) I think I should choose Ryan Gosling to be my husband Tony, because he has a serious man-crush on him. I’d prefer Ben Mendelsohn or Mark Ruffalo, though. Sally Field would play my mum, because she looks like her, and the matriarch Field played in the series Brothers and Sisters was just like her.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
With honesty and humour, Boomer and Me explores what it’s like to raise a child (and be a parent) with Asperger’s Syndrome, exploring the everyday challenges of 21st century motherhood – like juggling career, family and self – along the way.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My agent is Jenny Darling. I’m being published by Hardie Grant, in Australia (April 2013) and the UK (May 2013).
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Roughly a year, I think. Though I had written sections of it as stand-alone pieces (nearly all unpublished) in the years before I began the book as a serious project, so I had plenty of material to build on. I also had several diaries and a long-running blog to draw on, which helped.
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I’ll describe my aspirations and inspirations, rather than any concrete comparisons – I’m too close to it to be able to make comparisons.
Within the Asperger’s genre, I was inspired by Tim Page’s essay Parallel Play, in the New Yorker, and Rachel Robertson’s essay Reaching One Thousand, in Australian Book Review. (I deliberately didn’t read her book of the same title until I’d finished writing and substantially editing mine). Of course, I was also inspired by John Elder Robison’s Look me in the Eye, a memoir by an Asperger’s man who is challenged by his Asperger’s, but also derives enormous advantages from it. His book uses storytelling to hook the reader in, and it doesn’t patronise or catastrophise.
Within the genre of creative non-fiction/memoir, I was primarily inspired by Helen Garner, who is a fearless master of observation, insight and character, and Susan Johnson, whose motherhood memoir A Better Woman blew me away in all these aspects. I was so thrilled when Susan agreed to read my book and to endorse it if she liked it – and even more so when she cited Helen Garner in her endorsement. If I achieve nothing else with the book, that will continue to make me happy.
I was also inspired by Rachel Cusk’s non-fiction writing, particularly her book on motherhood, A Life’s Work. It’s sometimes savage in its analysis and observations, but that’s balanced by passion, and by a breathtaking honesty and insight into that early challenge to the essential self that motherhood poses.
And I loved Benjamin Law’s The Family Law in its portrayal of family life in all its complexities. Ben is hilarious, but his stories are not simply LOL-funny; they’re also insightful and true and not afraid to occasionally delve into the darkness. My book is very different from his, obviously, but I was inspired by the love for his family that shone through it, and the way he used humour and storytelling. Again, I was very lucky to have Ben read and endorse my book.
When my publisher, Rose Michael, asked me to meet with her to discuss my fledgling book, she asked me to bring with me a book (or books) that I wanted mine to be like in some way. I brought John Elder Robison’s Look me in the Eye, Susan Johnson’s A Better Woman and Benjamin Law’s The Family Law.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My family. My love of books. My publisher. All the writers I’ve ever admired.
10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Another central theme of my book is family. (At one point, I even tried to squeeze ‘family’ into the already-crowded subtitle.) Just as I explore the ideal of the perfect mother, and the reality of the ‘good enough’ mother, I have tried to show my family as one I completely adore not because they have no flaws or we have no arguments, but despite the flaws and arguments. And I was interested in the idea of the families we create, and what they can look like. My husband Tony’s parents are divorced and so are mine; my family also incorporates my ex – Leo’s father – and his wife and child.
I guess I’m trying to interrogate the idea of what ‘normal’ is in different ways – family, motherhood, and of course, Asperger’s. It fascinates me, maybe because I’ve realised, time and again, that what I experience as ‘normal’ is, in fact, not. I’m interested in the degree to which this is true for other people. I suspect that it’s not as unusual as you might think. ‘Normal’ is a very narrow category. It’s the ways in which we’re different that make us interesting.
The fact that I’m writing a book often comes up in conversation, usually in the context of answering, what are you doing this weekend? (Writing my damn book.) Inevitably, this prompts the polite question, ‘So, what is your book about?’ At which point, I regret having said anything.
‘Oh, it’s a memoir.’ (Cue feeling hopelessly narcissistic.) ‘About Asperger’s Syndrome.’ (Oops, that doesn’t make it better. Now I’m a cynic leaping on the latest literary bandwagon.) ‘About my son, he has Asperger’s.’ (Strike three! I’m a smug, self-absorbed mum who thinks others are as interested in her child as she is.)
By this time, I’ve built my coffin, climbed into it and nailed it shut.
I am officially a Literary Lightweight/Try Hard/Too Lazy to Write a Novel.
No one ever says so directly; they’re too polite. But I’m painfully aware that it’s the prevailing orthodoxy in literary circles.
The thing is, though I do feel variously guilty of all those things when it comes to my own book, I’m instinctively protective of the memoir as a genre.
Write a memoir only if you have been to the moon, served as President of your country or climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro after losing both legs to a Mako shark. Otherwise, use your imagination and make something up.
Novelist and literary editor Chris Flynn recently gave this answer to a question asking what advice he would offer to writers. I asked the question, as part of a quick-fire interview for my day job, at the Wheeler Centre. It was a throwaway comment, meant humorously. But it touched a nerve (despite no such intention on Chris’s part) and got me thinking, as it spoke to my greatest fear: Who am I to write a memoir? I’ve heard that kind of comment – meant seriously – on the fringes of many a conversation.
But I think it’s a grave mistake to dismiss an entire genre – any genre.
There are cynical, shallow memoirs hijacking the latest trends; there are beautifully written memoirs where nothing of any significance or resonance happens; there are ‘stunt memoirs’, where the author embarks on some kind of wacky quest in order to write about it. (A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically, specialises in these.) And there are memoirs that trawl through the most salacious details of horrible childhoods, drug addictions or abusive relationships in the style of an Oprah or Jerry Springer episode. (Think Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It.)
But there are also literary novels that are beautifully written, but go nowhere and seem to be about nothing much more than the writing itself. There are novels that are experimental without seeming to know what they’re experimenting for, what they’re trying to express. (I liken them to stunt memoirs.) There are – as we all know – novels, both literary and popular, that ape trends rather than expressing their own ideas or attempting to tell their own story.
Does this mean people shouldn’t write novels?
Yes, there’s a flood of memoirs on the market these days. But at least some of that increase is because it’s become more acceptable to publish in the genre, instead of masking your experiences in fiction.
Richard Yates’ posthumously celebrated masterpiece Revolutionary Road had a significant element of autobiography, including borrowing from his first wife’s childhood, her brother’s mental illness and the difficulties he was experiencing with his marriage. Sybille Bedford’s two autobiographical novels, A Legacy (about two eccentric, upper-class German families before the first World War) and Jigsaw (about growing up in the south of France with her beautiful, neglectful morphine-addicted mother) are among my very favourites. (I’m not alone: her fans include Evelyn Waugh, Hilary Mantel and Ian McEwan.)
And of course, literary history is stacked with great autobiographical novels, as diverse as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and, more recently, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip.
Some of the most forgettable memoirs are by people who’ve done extraordinary things – subjects worth writing about, but rendered dull on the page, as anything is if it’s not done well.
For me, the best memoirs combine great writing with some kind of insight into what it is to be human. This can be the kind of insight that makes you look at elements of your own life anew, or sparks a twinge of recognition (yes, that’s what it’s like!). Or it can be the kind that shows you what it’s like to be someone else, to live another kind of life. And those insights can be anchored in something as intimate and universal as the experience of being different, and how that shapes a person (as found in many writers’ or artists’ memoirs); of growing up in a particular place at a particular time; or it could be as alien as suffering a mental illness or experiencing extraordinary circumstances.
The strengths of a memoir are in its particulars, including its psychology. And in how well a writer uses all those storytelling tools that a novelist must also master: structure, language, voice, character, dialogue, sense of place.
It’s not about what is said, it’s about how the writer says it.
I’m currently immersed in the memoirs of Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club, Cherry, Lit), and she is absolutely brilliant; one of the best writers I have ever read. The Liar’s Club tells the story of her early childhood in a small industrial town in Texas, with a brilliant, eccentric Nervous (read: bordering on insane) mother and a loving but taciturn blue-collar father. Events include her mother burning their possessions in the backyard and bending over her and her sister with a knife; inheriting a modest fortune, which she blows on silly extravagances and alcohol; and Karr having to intervene when her mother tries to shoot her stepfather. These events could place it in the dreaded subcategory of misery memoir. But it’s saved from that by Karr’s razor-smart, blackly funny voice, blended with a carefully judged pathos. And it’s elevated to the category of art by her brilliant command of language, detail and storytelling structure.
That spring Mother started walking around the house again buck naked. Daddy wore nothing but boxers, and Lecia and I alternately went flapping through the house either bare-assed when Daddy wasn’t home, or wearing some combo of pyjama tops and underpants (we called them undersancies) when he was. Don’t get me wrong. We hadn’t turned ‘naturist’, though Mother did once shock the Leechfield PTA Mother’s Circle by claiming to have played volleyball on some nude beach in New Jersey. (That was the last time my school formally invited her anywhere, after that she occasionally gate-crashed the Christmas play, but otherwise was a vapour trail at school functions.) …
Our staying undressed came from insomnia. As a family, we just couldn’t sleep. From this state of constant, miserable exhaustion, we took up the hazy idea that sleep might come more often – it only arrived in spurts – if we were dressed for it, or rather, undressed. Our bare bodies were walking invitations to any nap that might claim any one of us.
See how much this small excerpt tells you about the characters, their relationships, and the flavor of the book. It’s eccentric, funny, stylish and affecting. Packed with detail, but not a word wasted.
Karr’s other books are just as good (okay, Cherry – about her adolescence – is not quite as good, Lit – about being an alcoholic and becoming a writer – is even better).
On every page, I am in awe of what she does and how she does it. For me, her books serve as a corrective to all those Memoirs are rubbish comments. I’m not trying to copy her (I couldn’t anyway) but she’s there as a gold standard, to remind me of how good a good memoir can be.
Earlier this year, I was knocked out by a memoir that, at face value, is one of those you might sigh and roll your eyes at as ridiculously on-trend. Composer Joshua Cody’s [sic] is an extraordinary cancer memoir. It tells the story of his discovery of the disease, his diagnosis, his long treatment and his final exit into recovery. It’s a trajectory that’s been told a hundred times. But his voice is so original and exciting and absorbing that the book is, too.
It’s as much a meditation on art, mortality, creativity and the way we make our own lives as it is about illness; it has the rhythm of poetry (or composition), with long, swooping sentences (some spanning a page or more) mirroring his panic in some sections; in others, stark, clipped observations about what is happening to him reflect his analytical, detached state of mind. Here’s an example of the former:
Let’s just say, for example – and this is what happened to me, this was how I found out – you feel a pulled muscle in your neck after lifting weights like a good young man of Midwestern stock does, and you ignore it and then you notice it again a few weeks later and you go to a doctor who tells you it’s a virus and it’s sure to go away, but for some reason you have a nagging feeling about it so you go and see another guy who pushes a needle into your neck and tells you it’s probably just a virus but it could be a tumour but even if it is, it’s probably benign, and then he goes to Barbados for a week and comes back and says, tanner, that it is in fact malignant, and then you go see a third doctor, but the first doctor with a mustache (for that matter, a mustache and a bow tie, as if his office were in a building of cast iron and glass, with a skylight in the ceiling and a fountain at the bottom, as if he would sing with his friends in a tavern after work), and he says you should do chemotherapy twelve times a week at two-week intervals.
[sic] may be a memoir about a subject that’s been extensively (exhaustively) covered, but it’s as stylistically inventive as any novel.
There have been some impressive memoirs published in Australia in the past decade, too. Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons is ostensibly about a gifted student embarking on a career as a musician; it focuses on the journey to success, not the destination, following her years of hard work, from the age of nine and up, and her relationship with her dedicated piano teacher. It’s also about adolescence, about fitting in, and about the difference between being very good at something (which can be achieved with talent and practice) and achieving excellence (which takes dedication and sacrifice). Goldsworthy beautifully inhabits her story and weaves her themes subtly – but certainly – into a character-driven narrative. It’s a wonderful meditation on creativity and achievement.
Craig Sherborne’s Hoi Polloi and Muck tell the stories of his childhood and adolescence growing up in New Zealand and Australia, with his eccentric parents. They’re fairly ordinary coming-of-age stories on one level; on another, they have all the zing and appeal of a terrific character-driven novel, thanks to the distinctive, blackly comic, voice of the narrator, who is alternately knowing and naïve.
A good memoir depends on the ability to inhabit yourself, to return to the past in such a way that you can evoke it in the details that bring it to life. But more than that, you need a critical distance from that self, to be able to see it with a cold eye – to see yourself and your intimates as characters, to question, examine and explore their motives and relationships as you would if you were writing a novel. You need to be able to look at the events and moments of your life as building blocks of narrative and impose a structure that will express the story you’re trying to tell. And of course, you need to have a reason to tell that story, a reason why others might be interested in what you have experienced.
That reason may be that your experiences were so extraordinary that no one else has had them, that they are novel and interesting. But it might also be that you have an insight or perspective on those experiences, or a way of writing about them, that is novel and interesting – that communicates something. That something might be as simple as entertaining storytelling.
David Sedaris is wonderfully eccentric, but the main reason so many people read and love him isn’t his eccentricity. It’s his storytelling; he is a terrific stylist. And of course, his special gift for humour. He often blends his unique perspective with small, identifiable human moments that readers can empathise with. (A dad who you never seem to be able to impress, or who is embarrassing, annoying siblings, a shitty job.) All of this applies equally to his closest Australian counterpart, Benjamin Law.
If I rubbished science-fiction writers or romance writers or thriller writers, I’d be labeled the worst kind of literary snob. But if you do the same with memoirs, you get a round of high fives.
I’m a bit sick of poor memoir-writing copping it.
I’d just signed a contract for my book when I found the (admittedly, very stylish) New York Times demolition of the memoir by Neil Genzlinger, ‘The Problem with Memoirs’. In a review of four newly published memoirs, he calls for, ‘A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up’, before embarking on a tirade against our ‘current age of oversharing’. He makes some good points, and his marks against the books he disliked seem entirely fair. But the generalisations (and declaration of war) made me uneasy. The following passage chilled me to the bone:
If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it. Imitation runs rampant in memoir land. There can’t be just one book by a bulimic or former war correspondent or spouse of an Alzheimer’s sufferer; there has to be a pile. And lately, the biggest pile of all has been books by parents, siblings and teachers of people with autism.
Do I think I have better credentials than anyone else? Well, no. But I do think I have something to add.
When my son was first diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I was overwhelmed by a sticky despair, exacerbated by the sheer uncertainty of it all. I spent many, many hours at my laptop, looking for information that would anchor me in this new reality. I needed desperately to know what it was like, being Asperger’s, having a child with Asperger’s, for other people. I wanted to be rescued from feeling alone.
Web articles weren’t enough. I wanted personal stories; I wanted to enter the worlds of other people, to walk around in them for a while. I needed books.
I read everything I could get my hands on. But like Goldilocks, I didn’t find anything that was just right. I found a lot of books that gave me a vague sense of what I was after, but most of them were not written by writers; they were written by people who had been through this experience. So, I got the outlines of what I wanted to know, but not the insight or the empathy I was looking for. These books showed me what it was like on the surface, but they didn’t transport me inside their experience.
One book and two essays came close. John Elder Robison’s Look Me In The Eye, about being Asperger’s (and an extraordinary life – he’s Augusten Burroughs’ brother) was funny and moving, but this quirky electronics genius was too different to me – or Felix – to be quite what I wanted. Tim Page’s New Yorker essay ‘Parallel Play’ came closer: in beautifully formed, evocative, analytical prose, the music critic wrote about what it was like to be Asperger’s in a way that resonated with me, maybe because he’s a creative type.
And finally, Australian Rachel Robertson’s essay ‘Reaching One Thousand’, about parenting her autistic son, was my Eureka! moment. She was smart, funny and told her story in a way that not only brought me inside her experience, that made me feel as if I knew her and her child, but was entertaining with it. I liked her and I liked her son; this was writing that told me being Asperger’s was different, but not defective. I found out earlier this year that Rachel’s essay was to be a book; it was released in April. I haven’t read it for fear of influence, but some friends have read it for me. They tell me it’s excellent, but different from my book. (There is, they say, a point in my going on.)
In my study, crowded with diaries and photo albums and scraps of letters, I keep the closing quote of ‘The Problem with Memoir’, as inspiration and warning.
That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.
Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.
And so, anyway, I’ll keep looking, keep questioning, and keep polishing.
But I don’t think my success or otherwise will depend on whether my book is a good memoir. It will depend on whether it’s a good book, regardless of genre.
“So, you’re doing sex ed, huh?” I said.
We were having brunch at a Williamstown cafe, after picking Leo* up from drama class. Tony was buried in the sports pages. Leo had just discarded the Good Weekend in disgust, declaring that reading about babies pooping in supermarket aisles and people spitting on the floor in restaurants was not helping his appetite. The David Sedaris article could wait, he said. I had wrested myself from my own segment of newspaper, deciding I should make conversation with my son.
“Yeah,” said Leo. Scowl. Squirm.
“What do they teach you?”
“Do they tell you how babies are made? Or do they figure you already know that?”
“Yes! That’s exactly what they do. They showed us an animated video of Where Did I Come From and we had to watch the parents having sex. It was really lame.”
Tony looked up from the cricket scores. We both laughed.
“Yeah, that does sound a bit lame.”
“I mean, I read that book when I was three!”
“I don’t think you were three,” said Tony, sceptically.
“He was five, I think,” I corrected.
“Did anyone not know how babies are made?”
“Nah. Course not. We’ve all known that for years.”
“I guess they had to start there. Just in case someone didn’t know.”
Leo snorted and reluctantly agreed. He told us that they’d all had to come up with other stories that might be used to explain how babies are made: the stork brings them, found one in a cabbage patch, they come out of mummy’s belly button, found it in daddy’s beer glass. He began to enjoy himself, just a bit.
“We had to draw pictures from the film,” he said. “It was so embarrassing!”
I have to admit that we laughed. It did sound pretty awful.
“What did you draw?”
“I drew a baby in a beer glass. It was the only thing I could do so I didn’t have to draw naked people.”
By this time the food had arrived. Eggs on toast with accompaniments for me and Tony, vegetarian lasagne for Leo.
“I hate doing sex ed,” he said. “It’s the worst inquiry we’ve done!” All through primary school, they’ve been given broad themes to study over a period of weeks each term, a kind of focus for their learning. They’ve had ‘where we live’, environment, myths and legends. “Why can’t we just do advertising?” he moaned theatrically. “What’s wrong with advertising, huh?” He’s been reading The Gruen Transfer book all weekend and telling us snippets about product placement and hilarious ads.
He was beginning to raise his voice, stabbing his fork in the air.
“Ssssh,” I said. “The whole cafe doesn’t need to hear.”
“So, what else do you talk about?”
“We had to come up with as many slang names as we could think of for penis and vagina.”
“Yeah. So embarrassing.”
“What did you do with them?”
“Ms S wrote them all on the board.”
“Ah. I wonder why she did that?”
“It was probably to remove the stigma,” said Tony. “Normalise it. You know, when you talk about these things, they’re not naughty any more. They become kinda boring.”
“That sounds sensible,” I agreed.
“Then,” continued Leo, “she rubbed all the words out and said, we are NOT to use any of those words. We’re just going to use penis and vagina, she said.”
Tony and I lost it.
“It’s a good thing to be doing sex ed,” I said after I’d composed myself, trying to claw my way back to being a proper grown up rather than a sniggering kid. “Even if it feels lame and embarrassing, which I totally get. It means that you’ll all end up knowing the same things. It means you won’t get caught out and embarrassed when your friends are talking about things you don’t know about.”
“I guess.” He sounded unconvinced.
“When I was a kid, that happened to me,” I told him. “Once when I was in Year Nine, I was talking to a boy who was a friend of mine, a boy I liked, who was looking a bit scruffy. And I told him he needed a good headjob, when I meant a haircut.”
Tony spluttered. Leo looked confused. I wondered why on earth I was telling this story. It was some kind of misguided effort to enter the spirit of candour and talking openly about sex. And I’d wrongly assumed I wouldn’t have to translate. I was kind of glad that I was wrong.
“It actually means a, erm, a sex act,” I explained, lowering my voice, suddenly intensely aware of the friendly waitress behind the coffee machine and the people at the neighbouring table. “Anyway, he was like, do you even know what you’re talking about? And I said, Yeah, of course I do, even though I realised I obviously didn’t. But I was too embarrassed to say. I think he knew I had no idea. But what I’m trying to say is, that it would have been good if I had known what I was talking about. So, maybe sex ed means you won’t make mistakes like that!”
Leo laughed, half amused and half embarrassed. Suddenly, I didn’t quite know where to look. I felt bad about having laughed at his teacher’s efforts at sex ed. I felt quite sorry for her.
“So,” I said. “Are we all ready to go, then?”
On the way to the car, which we then drove around the corner to the supermarket carpark, Leo said, “Ms S said it was interesting that, when we finished, there was a long list of slang names for penis, but hardly any for vagina.”
“That is interesting,” I said. “Did they have the C word?”
“Hmmm. Did they have hoo-ha?”
“It’s an American word. Americans have all sorts of crazy words for vagina, because they’re embarrassed about saying it. Like hoo-ha. And vajay-jay. Did they have vajay-jay?”
“I think maybe.”
“Americans are weirdly coy,” I said. “Do you know that when they need to go to the toilet, they don’t even call it a toilet? They say bathroom.”
“No, they call it a restroom,” corrected Leo, aficionado of The Simpsons.
“Oh yeah. That was what I meant to say.”
“That’s so dumb,” he laughed. “You don’t go there to rest.”
“So, did they come up with Johnson?” asked Tony, as we pushed a trolley around the supermarket.
“That’s an old-fashioned word for it.”
“Did they use trouser snake?”
“Did they say snake?” I asked.
“Did they use John Thomas?” asked Tony.
“NO! That is so stupid,” said Leo. “John Thomas! Ha! I am going to call Ben John Thomas next week and he’ll have no idea why.”
He told us one of his best friends came up with the most names for the list.
“Really?” I asked. “Why?”
“Because he reads so much,” said Leo. “Of course.”
“Right. Makes sense. You read a lot. Did you have lots of names?”
“No!” said Leo. “I knew a lot, but I didn’t say them.”
“I do not want to be known as the guy who can come up with the most slang words for penis. NOT!”
Later, putting the groceries away in the kitchen, Tony looked at me seriously, touched his hair, then asked, Do you think I need a head job?, before doubling over in laughter.
More than one person has joked, on hearing that I’ve stayed in Newtown when in Sydney, “Why do you bother going to Sydney and then stay in the most Melbourne part of it?”
I like Newtown a lot. It has the attractions of Melbourne suburbs like Fitzroy or Brunswick – lots of cheap, good eateries, bookshops, record shops, pubs – with Sydney’s glorious climate. There are more trees than Melbourne. While the main strip, King Street, is a winding concrete vein of shops and cafes, the side streets that form its arteries are thick with trees – gums and jacarandas. The air is jasmine sweet.
From the first floor balcony of our apartment, the branches of a nearby gum tree formed a screen of shade above the table I worked and ate at. The fence separating the nearby train station from the street was hung with a thick tapestry of jasmine, spreading to form a carpet of white flowers along the path that led to the underpass.
We walked to an art gallery in nearby Enmore one night to hear a group of musicians making electronic music before a packed crowd, playing laptops like turntables. The crowd drank free wine from a bottle with a kangaroo on it and sat cross-legged on the concrete floor to listen. One of the musicians played barefoot. For the second act, a long single file of teenagers appeared as a group and trooped down the steps to the basement stage. I looked around at all the young, rapt faces and realised how old I am.
There are lots of Doc Martens boots in Newtown. Black ones, red ones, candy pink. I saw a girl walk by with pink hair and pink boots to match. The pink was fading to the colour of fairy floss, with white-blonde roots seeping through.
At a cafe next door to the high school on King Street, in a building that kept the facade of an old theatre, we sat to order a late lunch. The waitress sashayed over to us, palm-sized spiral notebook in hand. Her head was shaved underneath, her long tangle of slightly matted perm combed to the side like early Madonna. It was a hairstyle I’d already seen twice that day; once behind the counter of a shop further up the road. She had a pierced nose, with black stockings and Doc boots under a floral dress unbuttoned at the cleavage. Young-looking, maybe sixteen. She handed us menus, humming loudly to the music, wriggling her body like a disturbed cobra.
“What would you like?” she asked, fixing us directly with her gaze, her humming and dancing intensifying the longer we sat there. I ordered as quickly as possible in order to make her leave, then dragged Tony to sit outside for the same reason.
At the high school, a labelled performance space was visible behind the gates, which were hung with a sign supporting the ALP.
“I reckon that’s a performing arts high school,” I said. “And she’s a student.”
“I don’t think so,” said Tony. “It’s a public high school. See?”
The girl drifted back with Tony’s salad and my iced coffee, still moving to the music.
“En-jooooy it,” she sang as she placed the glass on the table, then mercifully disappeared.
One night, Tony’s friend texted to offer us free tickets to see a band at the Enmore Theatre, a beautiful old venue. The people we met there all lived in the same inner-west neighbourhood nearby. When told we were from Melbourne, they nodded, like Melbourne people might if an acquaintance revealed themself as a New Yorker.
Tony’s friend had told us before the gig that he hoped to live in Melbourne one day.
“This is pretty much the only area I could live in Sydney,” he said, as we sat outside a gelati bar and drank from glasses packed with ice. “In Melbourne, there are so many great neighbourhoods, all over the city. Like Flemington, Brunswick, Coburg.” Then he told us that he’d had trouble parking outside his house that evening because there’s a swimming pool on his street and on hot days, the parks are filled by pool-goers.
“Do you go there much?” I asked.
“Nah. I used to. It’s too busy. Sometimes, after hours, we climb the fence and swim in the dark. Every once in a while, someone cuts a hole in the fence with wire-cutters and for a while we don’t even have to jump the fence.”
“Maybe we could swap houses?” I joked.
In the break between the support act – a friend of Tony’s friend, hence our free tickets – and the main drawcard, talk turned to the Newtown Festival, which had been on earlier in the day. The consensus seemed to be that it was a bit rubbish. We’d thought it somewhat better than the festivals at home, though just as claustrophobic.
The Newtown Festival was held in a park, with a mini writers’ festival in a tent, bands on a stage, and rows of stalls, selling food, craft, jewellery, hats. It was run by a community group and you made a gold coin donation to charity as you came in the gates. The Yarraville Festival is run by the street trader’s association and is held on the streets, with the purpose being to drive as many people into shops as possible. If you live in the neighbourhood, what it really means is that you have to fight your way through crowds to get your groceries and queue to get your morning coffee.
“We went to the festival this afternoon too,” I said. “Well, we just popped in and then left again because it was too crowded.”
“I’m sorry,” said one of the inner-west dwellers. “I feel embarrassed that you came from Melbourne and saw that our festival is so crap.”
“Our festivals are more crap,” I said. “It was okay.”
But he didn’t seem to hear.
1. The facts really do get in the way.
If I was writing fiction and I discovered a gap in the narrative, I could invent something to fill it. Writing from life, I find myself scouring old emails, diary entries and notebooks, searching for clues. My husband kindly let me sift through his inbox (I’d purged mine of all emails before 2008) to forward myself long, gossipy emails I’d sent him while he was overseas. Mostly, there are a few sentences in them that are useful. I look through old photographs, hoping to spark a memory. I rang my mother on the weekend, picking her brain for details of an incident I had mostly forgotten. (Only to find her memories were hazier than mine.)
The result of this reliance on fact is that the story I can tell is dictated to a surprising extent by those incidents and memories that I took the trouble to document – the more incidental detail, the better. Of course, there are some key moments I need to write about that I don’t have much material on. These moments are posing my current challenge.
2. It’s harder to write a book than to write a blog.
This sounds self-evident. Of course it’s harder to write a book. For one thing, it’s longer. For another, it demands a certain – and consistent – kind of structure, which a blog doesn’t. And it needs to be far more carefully crafted, to ensure the writing is good, that it’s worthy of the investment a publisher would make. Every piece (now: every chapter) needs to tell a meaningful story, in the most precise and effective way possible.
But it’s more than that. What’s really hard is the weight of expectation that all of the above brings. When I was blogging about my life, I would easily write a 3000 word memoir-essay within a matter of hours. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be a reasonable first draft. And I enjoyed it. Now, it feels more like work. And all that expectation is blocking me from entering that headspace where I produce the work.
3. It’s tough to nurture that chip of ice in the heart that every writer should have.
My husband told me that I shouldn’t worry about what people think – I should just write it as I saw it.
“But you always read what I write about you and tell me I imagine things,” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered, “but everyone sees things differently. You can write anything you like about me. Don’t worry about what I think.” A couple of weeks ago, I showed him a chapter I’d written. Afterwards, he was very quiet. Later that day, I got up the courage to ask him what he’d thought.
“It was okay,” he said. “I didn’t come across too well.”
When researching my faulty memory with my mother on the weekend, I recalled something my dad had done on a particular day I was trying to reconstruct.
“You’re not putting that in the book?” she said, alarmed.
“Yeah. Of course.”
“He might be offended.”
“He probably will be. He’s easily offended. But it happened.” She was quiet.
“Will you write things I don’t like?” she said eventually.
“Probably,” I told her. “I can’t just write nice things about everyone. I can’t make them sound perfect. Nobody’s perfect in life. Why would anyone want to read my book if I do that?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t make me sound perfect either.”
“Okay,” she said, resigned but wary. “But can you at least warn me?”
I agreed to do so.