And then I heard the call of home

“Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

There’s a scene in The Wind and the Willows when Mole, despite all his exciting adventures with Ratty and Toad and Badger, is unexpectedly reminded of home, and then that’s all he can think of. Badger’s Wild Wood and Toad’s Hall lose their shine. He just wants to go home. He longs for it. But his travelling companion Ratty is distracted by something new and Mole loses his chance. It’s wrenching; both because Ratty realises he’s inadvertently broken his friend’s heart and for the violence of Mole’s grief.

‘I went away and forgot all about it–and then I smelt it suddenly–on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat–and everything came back to me with a rush–and I WANTED it!–O dear, O dear!–and when you WOULDN’T turn back, Ratty–and I had to leave it, though I was smelling it all the time–I thought my heart would break.’

Mum used to read this book to my sister and me when we were kids and I found it completely devastating. It imprinted itself on me as one of literature’s great tragedies at the time, and it has stayed with me. But I’ve had my own problems this week. Overnight, I went from flitting gaily through Montpellier, bonjouring anything that looked in my direction including random pigeons, to curled up in bed wracked with homesickness. I cried. Told my husband I wanted my mum. Cried again. Stuck my head in the bag of lemon-scented gum leaves my sister sent me for Christmas for so long that I nearly asphyxiated. Read old books. Not The Wind in the Willows, obviously. I’m not a masochist.

I embraced the sensation as passionately as I had embraced being a visitor in a new and beautiful city only the day before. But even as I pined, I felt a little bit embarrassed. There’s a kind of insubstantial air to the whole idea of being homesick in my case. I’m not young, leaving for the first time. I have a home to feel sick about, I can leave by choice and know it’s there to come back to. I’ve never been displaced or uprooted, home has never been too far or too dangerous to return to. My daughter is grown up and my grandkids have stopped wanting sleepovers. My husband is here to offer his shoulder and top up my champagne.

Homesickness for people like me, well steeped in comfort, brings to mind insipid things like, ‘having the vapours’. In my mind’s eye, I might as well be wafting about in a tie-dye singlet dress, pining for a pie and sauce, reading Tim Winton wistfully on a park bench, hoping someone who speaks my language will happen by and coax me into a game of footy or pour me a large glass of wine. White with ice, please.

I’ve noticed it doesn’t take much to set me off on a bout of mal du pays. Especially in a new country where I don’t speak the language and people I meet don’t speak mine. The following incidents reduced me to a wreck this week;

  • A young boy working at the supermarket laughed in my direction while I was packing my shopping bags. (Here, clearly I was doing something foolish in his eyes, when I had been trying so hard to either fit in or be politely invisible. What an ill-bred tosser. Laughing at a vulnerable old lady. His mama et papa would be mortified, no doubt.)
  • A woman in a fabric shop emitted a definite air of being annoyed or at least not effusively thrilled to see me when I walked in and wandered around browsing. So much so, that I approached the counter so she wouldn’t think I was a time waster, babbled something and mimed in a kind of hacking motion with my hand – do you sell cheese knives? She said coldly in English. No. We don’t. Which, to be honest, I took as a bit of a slap in the visage. And then when I left I accidentally banged the door really loudly on the way out, so in an effort to be conciliatory I pushed it open and shouted pardon! she didn’t wave or smile or in any way acknowledge my largesse. (Speaks for itself.)
  • The Irish man at the local we have begun to frequent because, let’s face it, sometimes you just don’t feel like trying, politely asked us to sit somewhere else because we were blocking the service counter at the bar. (This was the worst. When one of your own turns on you. Likely he was hoping to insinuate himself into the affections of the locals at my expense. I’m onto you matey.)

The combination of all the above was enough to tip me over the edge. The uncomfortable whiff of someone not too far from where I’m sitting being tres sensitive doesn’t help. It only makes me more snivelly than I was to start with and adds a day or two to my recovery. Someone has to feel sorry for me and I have endless patience for the job.

Happily, previous experience has made me aware I’m vulnerable to both homesickness and a tendency to lean in to even benign misery and I had done some preparation in order to get mon tete out of mon cul. Before it set in too firmly.

Far from my romantic visions of self drifting through French flower shops smelling the imported wattle and shedding the odd elegant tear in response, homesickness makes me nervous as much as anything else. I think I underestimated how tiring it can be to brace yourself for everyday tasks, well, every day. Once the novelty wears off, it gets to be a bit of a slog. It becomes more of something that’s good for me and I have to do, unless of course I don’t want to eat or I’m happy to let my husband treat me like les enfant. So setbacks so minor they could be mistaken for entirely fabricated become wearisome.

I indulged myself with tissues and sleeping in and calling my mum but I also noticed other side effects, nothing fatal, but certainly more insidious. I was feeling anxious about going outside, tackling the tram system, going to a shop I didn’t know, trying to make myself understood, preferring to stay in. The idea of facing the market I’ve shopped at most days, felt, if not terrifying, a bit of a bridge too far. The Post Office, ok, definitely terrifying.

A friend at home, who is very well-travelled, unlike myself, tells me homesickness comes in waves, and just when you think it’s unbearable, it changes and turns into something new. My oldest friend, who has been living in Germany for several years now, takes the same approach. And my mum once described childbirth in a similar way, just before I was going into labour with my daughter, and it helped me then too. If you aren’t managing, hang on for a bit and things will change. There’s a lot to be said for pushing it a little bit. Not trying to do everything, but also not giving in to the urge to do nothing. It’s not about feeling completely comfortable or completely uncomfortable. It’s about trying something small to get going. Even when you don’t feel like it much. Especially when you don’t feel like it much.

So, after a fabulous start to my travels, then a tiny, ok big, bout of homesickness, today has been good. I took the tram for the first time on my own to shop, I had a lovely chat in broken French and broken English with a woman at my favourite fruit and vegetable stall and I braved the dreaded Post Office and bought a box and stamps. Huzzah! I couldn’t make myself understood well enough to find envelopes but to quote the great philosopher, Scarlett O’Hara, tomorrow is another day.

I miss you beautiful Fremantle. I miss my loves, (my other loves). I can’t wait to sit on my back deck at home under a high Western Australian sky and breathe the salted air. It’s where I always feel safe. How brilliant right now though, to be a little scared, sometimes.

“Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

Je suis un enfant terrible

Confessions of an unseasoned traveller.

I had all sorts of lofty plans to do more writing when I got to Montpellier, but I have been unable. I have forgotten how to speak English. I even forgot this isn’t new, whenever I go to a country where I don’t speak the language I somehow forget how to speak my own as well. It’s like a syndrome or something. I have stood at shop counters and in bars in countries other than my own waving my hands around and – this is deeply embarrassing, please don’t tell anyone – I have been known to utter the words…’ow you say..’ in a bad accent of questionable origins while searching for a word in a language I don’t know. Like a cartoon version of myself. As though mauling an accent makes me more likely to be understood. It is a testament to the enduring patience of the French people that they haven’t yet cancelled my visa.

It’s not just language, my brain doesn’t work quickly with anything when I’m travelling. I certainly don’t know how to function as a French person and I forget how to function as an Australian too. Small things. I walk on the wrong side of the road and faced with even the slightest hint of someone coming in my direction, I dart in front of them in a panic. I cry in public, as noted in previous musings, overwhelmed with beauty in the form of…. well anything really….small children saying ‘papa’ in French accents, dogs in handbags, anyone holding a baguette obviously, bridges set me off for some reason, old buildings, chefs in aprons standing in doorways smoking cigarettes and scowling. I’m apologetic for taking up space. I wear unattractive shoes.

I am slowly improving. This is after a harsh lesson on my honeymoon in Paris in 2012, learning after a month the mea culpa phrase I was saying to endear me to the locals, Je suis desole queue tu ne parles pas Francais, parles tu Angalis? was in fact informing native speakers of the language how sorry I was that they didn’t speak French and did they speak English? If I was looking for an easy way to make a tit out of myself, I may as well have taken to shouting ‘garcon’ and clapping my hands to get a waiter’s attention in restaurants.

In Montpellier where I have landed with my husband for the next ten weeks, the locals are a delight. People have been so friendly and kind. Not everyone speaks English, or they only speak a little, so I’m challenged a lot trying to bumble through basic life tasks I never have to think about at home. It’s a beautiful city, the Old District where we’re staying is a glorious rabbit warren of rambling, narrow streets that shoot off every which way, seemingly at random. It’s easier to get lost here than in any other city I have seen. After a few days, it makes its own kind of sense and it has a fascinating history that explains the layout of some of the original areas that were built in medieval times. I love it here.

I’m trying to use my best manners. I’m sorry to say it’s my fourth visit to France and it only just occurred to me this week that I might make an effort to find out what might actually qualify as good manners as opposed to assuming I know because, yunno, isn’t it obvious? I started by researching ‘etiquette in France,’ and by ‘research’ I mean I googled so I realise I won’t be getting a Legion d’Honneur medal anytime soon. I did read across many sources that it’s both normal and good manners to say hello and thank you and goodbye, have a nice day, in almost every public encounter, from asking directions to buying bread. I’m also sorry to tell you that in the past unless people were smiling broadly at me and sounding clearly friendly when they were saying bonjour, I assumed they had clocked me as a foreigner and were being sarcastic. But here, even people who look like they’re having a crap day and can’t be bothered with you, will still be polite. It’s shamefully revealing that using basic niceties when you approach a stranger has been a huge revelation. And even for someone who is terrible with language, it’s not so hard to learn hello and thank you.

I’m having a slight crisis of confidence where I’m suddenly remembering many, many instances of appalling manners I have displayed not just in the last week, but in the entire 56 years of my life. My brain may be mostly mush but oddly my memory of my own disgraceful behaviour is sharper than ever. So there’s that discomfort. But I’m also loving it. My life has become so much simpler, really fast. I feel like I’ve regressed to some kind of inner childlike state that hippies I grew up with in Fremantle would pay thousands to replicate. I’m moving slowly, I’m not collapsing on street corners howling into my hanky so much, but I am pausing to appreciate so many small moments of wonder I come across all the time. Things I’d overlook at home because of the familiarity or because I’m busy. I face the day with no loftier intention than wandering through beautiful Montpellier, going to the market, buying milk for coffee and not being an asshole about it. I considered it a highly successful series of events yesterday when I found the local swimming pool, bought a ticket and swam. I had a nap to recover. It was glorious.

So I beat on, a boat against the current of my own ignorance, to misquote F Scott Fitzgerald. The impact of my learning on the lovely people of Montpellier is not completely lost on me, so I’m trying to keep my footprint small and spend my money as liberally as I can afford and as locally as I can. I’m trying to learn as much of the language, even badly, as I can manage in ten weeks. I’m in a lot of uncomfortable situations. But also, I’m having so much fun. I haven’t been so effortlessly mindful in years. Decades. I feel happier, less shy, less fearful. And not in any way that means anything at all to anyone but me, I feel a tiny bit braver than I did a month ago. Although I did just that second have to check if I’d spelled ‘braver’ right because it looked weird on the page.

Merci, au revoir et passe une bonne journee.

Going where I’ve never been

Today I cried in Oslo. I was surprised, and then I remembered that I’d done this before. I’ve burst into tears on bridges in Paris, making snow angels in Switzerland, clambering over the rocks on the shores of Kinagoe Bay in Donegal and at the southernmost tip of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. Mostly, I just well up, but it doesn’t take much to tip me into proper tears.

Despite the overwhelming emotion, Oslo is not what I expected. It’s much more industrial. It has a whole lot of Nordic Noir vibe going on, offices, apartments, towering hotel blocks, bus stations and vast landscapes of train tracks; it’s a grey-and-white city of ice and shadows. The fjord is either frozen or the surface is like oil, it’s thick and moves in slow pewter ripples.

We arrived just after sunset around 3.15pm. The bloke on high alert as the train pulled in, deeply worried I would not be able to step from the train onto the platform without skidding and falling on my arse. It wouldn’t be the first time. In my defence, growing up on sandy beaches has left me ill-prepared for icy footpaths and we had a hair-raising time in Switzerland on our honeymoon trying to walk the 50 metres from the train station to our hotel, him manfully attempting to hold me up and carry both our suitcases, me clinging to his arm while my feet skidded under me every which way like I was drunk and auditioning for the Christmas blooper reel on Strictly Come Dancing.

Happily, Oslo heats the sidewalks. It’s the most civilised practise I have come across since I discovered a swimsuit-drying contraption in a Nottingham hotel pool last week. I can walk unaided here, at least on the main drag, though I still get around even on well-gritted paths at a slow shuffle, staring desperately at my feet while cyclists, small children and the elderly zip smugly past.

We made it to the hotel with me still standing and the bloke only mildly bug-eyed with tension. Headed straight out again for New Years Eve awash with excitement because small clusters of fireworks had started blooming across the sky from late afternoon. We had strong expectations as a result, but they were quickly crushed when we overheard a barmaid incredulously asking the couple ahead of us what they were doing in Oslo for New Years. It’s apparently not really a thing here. That’s despite the later night efforts of a group of lads who threw a clutch of bangers into the foyer of our hotel which caused no small amount of noise, smoke and general alarm. They were sharply apprehended by local police who caught them so quickly they must hover outside hotel foyers expecting this kind of thuggery. It wasn’t exactly the peak of the crack criminal masterminds I’ve come to expect from Nordic Noir but it was still exciting.

What is a thing here is swimming. Inexplicably. Given the forecast is between zero on the warm days and minus ten degrees when it gets serious. Along the fiord just outside the Opera House – an unmissable architectural triumph, all clean lines and high glass windows, plus you can walk on the roof by the way – anyway just past that you come across what looks like a series of small wooden boathouses which are actually sauna pods. Tourists and locals alike gather in these to sweat themselves silly then plunge off the dock, literally cracking the ice as they land in the water. Then they climb out again, everyone around them cheers and takes photos and they stand there shivering and looking incredibly proud of themselves and invigorated. It’s almost enough to make you want to have a go yourself, but we went and bought wine and four-cheese pizza instead and were ok with that.

In Oslo, it is both very very cold, and very very expensive. I think it must cost a lot to heat those pavements and I for one am all in favour of doing my bit to support that end of the economy. A basic beer costs around $15 – $20 and a standard burger will cost you $30. The food is delicious though. The aforementioned pizza was the best I have eaten anywhere and there’s nothing like crushing poverty to make you really savour one glass of wine all night long.

The cold is fine, I fancy myself well-placed for chill weather with the exception of the whole walking anywhere business. I’m remarkably good with cold weather. Even for a girl brought up on the coast in Western Australia, where peeling the skin off your sister’s sunburnt back was a weekly ritual because Bunbury in the 70s was more a reef oil and face foil than hats and sunscreen kind of town. The sun puts me to sleep and cold weather wakes me up. I love it. Still, today I wore the bloke’s Long Johns as pants with tights and socks and tomorrow I’ll be wearing more socks.

There are white swans here as well as England and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to them. They are both pretty and weird. And the seagulls are enormous and very dignified compared to our gulls back home. There was no sign of any ungainly squabbling over chips. The bloke offered one likely prospect a small piece of his baguette, but it just stared at him and sat there, clearly bamboozled as to why a giant hairy puffball was tearing off bits of his sandwich and hurling them on the footpath. And yes, I did tell the bloke bread is terrible for their digestive system but apparently when I’m around birds I get all interested, full of facts and apparently quite dull so he stopped listening years ago.

Oslo is beautiful. It’s austere, and a little grim in the promise of an exciting seedy underbelly kind of way. But I read a lot of Jo Nesbo, so I am probably just getting carried away.

The art is insane. It’ll melt ye face. Norway clearly values art and funds it. Oslo is alive with art. I’m particularly obsessed with the glass shipwreck in the fjord outside the Opera House. It’s a sculpture called She Lies by Italian artist Monica Bonvicini, it’s enormous and it looks different from every angle, in every light and half light it offers a different vista.

She Lies – the glass shipwreck by Monica Bonvicini

It’s also the home of many more copies of The Scream than you’d think; Mr Munch has his own museum here plus a good part of the National Gallery down the road reserved for his work, and apparently he quite fancied his own work in The Scream himself so made more than one. It’s based on a friend’s expression as he walked over a Norwegian Bridge and there are various studies of a similar expression. The Munch Gallery itself promises at least one of the three they alone own will be on display while the rest are locked up safely in the dark. The gallery is astonishing. He was prolific in his painting, sketches and woodcuts.

At the end of next week, we take the train to Bergen and I think it very likely I’ll howl again. There’s something about mountains and snow and landscapes I did not grow up with that fills me with emotion. It creeps up on me and before I know I am welling up and clutching the bloke’s sleeve and needing a sit-down. Or at least a moment to stop and absorb.

Because, I will never get over the fact that it’s me, here, so far away from home, seeing things I never thought I’d see, with a love I never thought I’d find, and a life I am no longer always too busy to enjoy. And besides, the world is beautiful.

I am utterly overwhelmed.

Sauna then a plunge into the frozen fjord
The Mother by Tracy Emin

The call of the wild

I’m in storied country. Fort Augustus at the edge of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. The stones that line the shallows of the Loch, the trees dripping with lichen lace, the fir trees dressed green and warm for winter. Everything is steeped in myth and you can feel you’re walking ancient paths. It’s so beautiful.

We are staying at an old converted Monastery on the very southern shore of Loch Ness. Today we woke to see the mists rise off the water and settle around the crest of the hills that surround them. They’re not so tall as the mountains, we passed Ben Nevis on our way in, which was mountain country, snowy and rugged, with waterfalls at every turn and the high arched stone bridges you see in movies. Spectacular. There’s no snow yet on the hills around Loch Ness where we’re staying, they’re red with what I assume is heather and lined with the firs. The lichen is such a delicate pale green it’s nearly yellow, it frills everything that isn’t smothered in moss. We saw an apple tree dark with frost, it looked dead except for the russet apples still clinging to its branches. Like a spell had been cast. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a witch slink from the shadows nearby.

We haven’t ventured any further afield today than a short walk around the village. There are five locks on the canal that runs through town and a swing bridge that literally swings away from the road to let tall boats through. There was a ribbon of traffic winding through the whole town today waiting for the man working the bridge to signal for the closure to reconnect the bridge with the road. He did this, not via any technology though I’m sure there’s a lot involved, but with a clear shout that rang across the canals like a bell.

I stalked a robin near the boathouse. Hard to get a good shot, they move so fast. The birds look hardy. The deer stood still for me and the ‘hairy cows’ barely blinked in my direction.

I could stay here a while. I can feel it in my bones.

First star on the right, straight on till morning

I read Peter Pan for the first time when I was about eight years old. I won a paperback copy in a German language class exam at North Cottesloe Primary School circa 1974. Aside from counting from one to ten and being able to offer the observation, das is ein hund in a questionable accent should the need arise, the book was the only substantial impact learning German had on my life. But I was utterly transformed through the gift of reading that book.

I was mesmerised by the boy who could fly and who never grew up. I would do anything to join him. It felt very possible. Maimie, his first friend who appears in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Wendy Darling, were long gone by now, I figured. Neverland was ripe for a Gillian. And if Peter wasn’t coming for me, I was prepared to go to him. Like most children of Irish Catholic heritage in my era would do, I began by praying to God to help me learn to fly.

I said prayers every night before I went to sleep. It was quite the convoluted process even without my aviation ambitions. I recited the Our Father, then the Hail Mary and followed that with a list of family and friends for God to bless if he happened to cast his Almighty eye their way in the night. You couldn’t be too careful. I did this mostly in order of personal preference, swapping mum and dad into first place on alternative nights to be fair, my sister in next and my cat, Tiddlywinks last because I wasn’t really sure how God felt about pets. At the end, I’d add a personal wish list that up until this moment consisted of anything from a pair of patent leather Mary-Janes in powder blue or Gloria and Dawn Paper Dolls exactly like the ones my friend Jenny Harvey got for her birthday.

Those minor desires were discarded forever once I discovered Peter Pan. I wanted to fly. To Neverland. To see fairies and lost boys, pirates and crocodiles and Indian princesses who wore fringed leather dresses and their hair in long black shiny plaits. Most of all to be friends with Peter. I knew the way there, from the helpful instructions supplied by Mr Barrie, first star on the right and straight on till morning. All I needed was a way to launch. Asking God to help out seemed a reasonable first step. I knew it was a big ask, so it came with a promise that if he would grant me this one wish, I would never bother him again. Mum, Dad and my sister and the cat could look after themselves.

Praying was only the start. I also practised on swings, which was the closest I could get to the feel of flying as I imagined it might be. I’m not really sure what I was aiming for, some kind of transcendental crossing of sorts, I guess. I’d swing as high as I could and while I was whizzing back and forth with no small amount of determination, I’d sing the words to the Peter Pan song from the Disney cartoon of the same name which, I took for some kind of incantation. I cringe so much to remember it now because I really put my heart into it. It went as follows…

Fly, fly to Never Neverland

You and I

To Never Neverland

No worries, no cares

Just fly everywhere

And you can live happily

I was oblivious to any audience I may have had on the ground, so focused was I on attracting the attention of a passing Peter or Tinkerbell. Who knows what the other kids waiting for their turn on the swing thought about it, but safe to say it’s a surprise I wasn’t beaten up more often.

I saved up my pocket money and spent it on small tubes of glitter available at the local shop for around 5 cents a vial. To my child’s eye, it looked like genuine fairy dust and even though it took all of my popsicle cash, I thought it was a fair bargain. I would arrange myself on the edge of our veranda, balancing precariously on the railing, scatter the contents over my head and leap off, the very picture of optimism. When I crashed to the ground, I was undeterred. I tried over and over in the hope that one of these pots of glittery gold would come through and I’d finally be borne aloft into the clouds and spirited away. I felt a twinge of guilt about poor mum and dad who would no doubt wonder where I’d gone, but children disappear in fairy tales all the time and adults get over it pretty fast so I wasn’t too concerned.

None of it worked. Eventually, I gave up and accepted my fate as a groundling. Most people would consider my efforts a failure because I never learned to fly. If that’s how you measure such aspirations, then yes, all I got was a reputation as an oddball, a twisted ankle, glitter that would never completely come out of my hair and a shortened sleep cycle because it took such a long time to get through my prayers. But I learned how to dream. And believe in magic. And once that belief is embedded deep, it sticks fast. It may be lost for a time, but it’s never all that far away.

I found it again only yesterday in fact. My husband and I arrived in London for the start of six-month-long trip we have waited for, for a long time. There was a thick snowfall right across the city. Our hotel is on the doorstep of Hyde Park and the first thing we did was walk through to Kensington Gardens to find my holy grail. The statue of Peter Pan commissioned by J M Barrie in 1912. Kensington Gardens in the snow. It was magical. It was as beautiful as I imagined it would be.

There’s a moment in Peter Pan where he tells Wendy that fairies are born when a new baby laughs and every time a child says they don’t believe in fairies, somewhere a fairy dies. Near the end of the story when Tinkerbell herself lies dead, Peter in his grief brings her back to life with his longing and his conviction that she is real. It’s a beautiful literary moment when we are reminded of the power of belief.

If you are worried about the state of the world, or you stopped believing in fairies too many years ago to remember, you can be assured of this. There is power in magic and wonder, however you choose to find it. For me, it was waiting here in Kensington Gardens, just behind the big lake where the white swans glide. And the stories and dreams that have given me wings all of my life, saw a statue for the very first time and remembered.

Grief, a dog and sunburn

My dog died and I’m bereft. So I got drunk and took my clothes off.

I’m a well-known vampire. In my youth, I had a shot at fitting in with the cool crowd. This involved donning the smallest bikini I could squeeze my triple-a cup “breasts” into, slathering myself in reef oil, unfurling an alfoil reflector to aim at my face to increase the uv rays from blistering to radioactive and then laying out under a high white Australian sun until nicely browned. Except I didn’t brown. I turned a mottled purple, peeled like desiccated coconut and eventually reverted to a blinding shade of white that would rival the late Shane Warne’s smile.

I accepted my fate early on and went Goth instead. It was so much better for my complexion and I didn’t have to try to smile at boys. Even in the most sweltering of heat, I’d clad myself head to toe in black, including my well-soaped sticky hair which was teased into a Sideshow-Bobesque spiky cloud that doubled as a sunshade. I walked in shadows like the night all through my teens and subsequent decades thus avoiding for many years even a coy flutter of sun on the palest parts of my person.

Then my dog died.

I don’t know what you do when your dog dies. What are you supposed to do? Coping with death has happened before and it is not a case of practice making anything more than its own perfect kind of hell, frankly. I miss him so much. My husband is heartbroken. In the last two years, both of our beautiful dogs have left us and we are not ok. We have become a household without dogs, a soulless, grim, too-quiet affair without smelly beds and barking for no reason at odd hours, without grime marks on the wall or hair all over the sofa. Without the weight of a purposeful steady gaze at precisely five to four every day just before dinner. Without a wet nose pushing under our hands to artfully guide us into a pat, without the clatter of claws on the floorboards at night, without the scrape of a paw at the door to come in, seconds after we had let him out.

Our Huey sunk into a deep depression when his brother Jo went first a couple of years ago at 17. Huey aged quickly then, he slept a lot and struggled to walk any distance. But he still loved the beach, he still visibly perked when he saw us get into our bathers, he still erupted into the water like an arrow from a bow, he still swam in circles around my husband then rested in his arms in deep water, staring calmly into the blue as he had done every single swim since he was a puppy. He still dug for his ball or carried it into the shallows to drop it in water only to snatch it up, drop it and snatch it up again, over and over in a game only he understood. He still waited in studied nonchalance on the shore with his ball in his mouth, ever hopeful another dog might try to steal it away so he could thwart them with a clever feint and dodge. He still loved us. He still sat at my husband’s feet, gazing up at him, chin resting heavy on his knee or his foot in an enviable satisfaction with his lot in life.

When Huey got sick, it was fast. A terminal cancer. We made the terrible decision quickly, without too much doubt. We are both of the opinion if your dog has an incurable disease, is facing any prospect of suffering and you try to keep them alive then you really have to ask yourself who you’re trying to protect. But certainty doesn’t help. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t help the guilt, and it doesn’t stem the grief.

Both of our boys died in their later years, and I know we should be thankful. I know to nod or try to smile in agreement when someone well-meaning tells me he reached a good age or even sounds surprised he lived as long as he did. I feel so savage when I hear it. There is no good age. There is only his age. There is only his absence. There is only our grief.

We did not cope. First, we took ourselves across the country to inflict our sorry selves on friends celebrating significant events. A 50th birthday, a belated 50th birthday, a wedding. So much joy and our hearts were full for them. And these were real friends, who take you even, especially, when you’re broken. I’m glad we went, even if we weren’t great company. But you always have to come home, and that’s where the shadows lay in wait. We have been like dogs in pain ourselves since, turning in useless circles, pacing, restless, bewildered, snappy and impatient with each other and ourselves.

We have a lovely love though, even or especially when adrift. However wretched we might feel we can always fall back on this truth. It’s a love that allows for imperfection, it offers room for sorrow and all the various uncomfortable and ugly ways it can manifest. We tread softly when we need to. And we have needed to a lot. Often we have to stop and remind each other, but it’s been the spine of our love for such a long time now, once we remember, we find our way back to what matters pretty quickly. I am very grateful for that.

So, after a stretch of uncomfortable manifestations and no small amount of imperfections, one recent Saturday coincided with the first sunny day Perth had seen for some time. We’d had a long winter, bleak, grey, relentless rain. We had a couple of days with no commitments and the sun emerged, shyly and with perfect timing through cloud like a friend.

Gosh it felt like a long time since we’d had any fun. (Though in reality, we had a very good time at the aforementioned parties even if we did frighten the horses now and then.) We felt renewed, hopeful, like the light could wash us clean. Obviously, this called for champagne. And a lot of it.

Maybe it was the sun, maybe it was the company, maybe it was the three (or was it four) bottles of champagne. Who can say? But suddenly it seemed like the greatest idea in the world to whip off our dacks and sit there in our respective glory, listening to music, soaking up the rays. How we drank, how we laughed, how we cried, how we sang, how we barely ate a thing to soak up the booze, how we didn’t consider the precarious state of our grandchildren’s mental health should they arrive unexpectedly and come round the back. It was, insomuch as I remember, a wonderful, wonderful day.

It was not until the next morning when we woke with piercing headaches, my love arose to make me a coffee and I repaid this gesture of merciful devotion with a wild shriek of mirth. “You’re burnt,” I said, charged with the righteous confidence of one who is so sun-conscious and self-conscious, they never take off their neck-to-knee swimming costume or their wide-brimmed hat even in the dead of winter. “So are you,” he said in return, oily with the glee of one who is handed immediate and welcome revenge. Was I ever. The only parts of my skin spared the sear of the sun were the underside of the rolls of fat on my menopausal belly. I looked like a previously undiscovered species of striped sea slug.

A week or so later the blinding glare of the tomato hue has faded to an unattractive dull magenta and the stripes remain. But worth it. I am reminded there is joy in the ridiculous, peace to be found in speaking your heart aloud to someone who loves you, and that given that I am female, over 50 and invisible, I can wear what I like. Including nothing.

I still miss our dog. I miss our dog. I miss our dog. I love you my boy.

Feeling flash? Getting started in short, short fiction

A beginner’s guide to writing, learning, publishing, entering flash fiction competitions and building your writing community.

This is an article for beginners. Flash is a fantastic genre if you want to get your work published or have a shot at one of the many competitions that are run all over the world. Or just for fun. This article will offer links that will help you write flash fiction, source competitions and journals to submit your work to, plus there’s a reading list at the end. Like anything, there are also a few pitfalls to be aware of. Read on!

About me

My name’s Gillian, I’m a journalist, writer and professional reader. I’ve been writing flash or short fiction for several years now, before that I was a radio and news journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Perth. Journalism is a great background for any kind of writing because it teaches several useful skills: getting words on a page; editing your own work with a dispassionate eye; submitting stories and dealing with rejection. I love the genre of Flash fiction, it allows room to experiment, and to try new ideas without the huge commitment of attempting a novel and it demands very tight language. You’ll find the editing process is as rigorous as the initial draft, probably more so. It’s fun and challenging.

If you’ve always wanted to try writing fiction but don’t know where to start, flash offers brilliant pathways for new writers and will hone the skills of even the most experienced authors. Famous fans of the genre include Pip Williams, George Saunders, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway.

What is Flash Fiction?

Flash fiction is generally accepted as being a short story under 1000 words. It’s an umbrella term for short fiction in general, so it’s also known as nano fiction, short fiction, short shorts, etc etc. Micro-fiction is stories under about 300 words. Don’t stress too much about this. If you’re new to the genre, it’s pretty much all flash fiction. It doesn’t even have to be fiction, it can be a memoir, non-fiction or a mix of both.

Flash stories are complete narratives, so unlike prose poetry or vignettes which might describe a scene or a moment, flash has a beginning, a middle and an end. Even if the action is implied and a lot of the story happens off the page, flash is always telling a story. Good flash has conflict and a sense of urgency, so you’ll find it’s often ( but not always) written in present or even future tense. You’ll often hear the expression; start in the middle, in reference to flash. Because stories are so short, you don’t have time as a writer to faff around with backstory or to paint intricate settings to draw your reader in before you get to the action. You’re looking to make an impact quickly, to offer stories that linger and to capture a glimpse of a rich and fully realised world that exists beyond the page.

The best way to get a sense of short fiction is to read it widely. There are some suggestions for starting points at the end of this article. Then, like ripples, they will lead you to more and more brilliant flash stories, journals and lovely people in the writing community.

Getting started

There are so many online resources for writing and publishing flash fiction. Try googling ‘flash fiction’ and you’ll be inundated. There’s so much. So, it’s a good idea to whittle them down into something manageable. There are some great courses you can pay for but you’ll also find endless opportunities that don’t cost anything. A good craft newsletter is a goldmine of useful and free information.

Here is an excellent overview on how to write flash fiction from the author, editor and teacher, Matt Kendrick in Lucent Dreaming. And another, written by Kathy Fish for the prestigious Bridport Prize.

Online resources

Here are a few places to find more resources. Note: this list is by no means exhaustive. These are simply sources I have used myself and found useful.

SmokeLong Quarterly is an international flash fiction journal, edited by the incomparable award-winning author Christopher Allen. This journal is the pinnacle for many flash writers looking to place their work, and if you want to write good flash fiction, as with any other genre, you need to read good flash fiction. This is where you’ll find it. They do really useful author interviews which are excellent if you want to pick apart a particular technique. They run amazing courses and workshops and fabulous competitions throughout the year.

Kathy Fish is a writer, teacher and the internationally accepted Queen of Flash Fiction. She is a guru and if you want to work in this genre, you should immediately follow her on  Twitter: @kathyfish and sign up for her Substack: artofflashfiction.substack.com where you will find heaps of free resources including craft essays and writing prompts. She also runs workshops but they’re so popular participants are chosen by lottery. I have yet to crack that one! Writing prompts if you don’t already know, are a brilliant way of igniting your imagination, finding story ideas and learning some of the different techniques you can use. Highly recommended.

Matt Kendrick is a writer, editor and teacher based in the UK. His workshops are sought after, brilliant for any writer and really good value. He also has a free and brilliant newsletter packed with writing advice and craft tips. He writes for Lucent Dreaming, a great site for craft essays and competitions.

Tommy Dean is the editor of Fractured Lit flash journal and an award-winning author and teacher. He runs courses and competitions through Fractured Lit. He also has a free craft newsletter which has loads of useful craft advice, writing tips, and prompts.

Retreat West is an online writing community, they do workshops, publish and hold really good competitions. You can join up for a fee or dip in and out of their free resources. Their monthly micro competition is a fun one to start with and it doesn’t cost a lot to have a crack.

If you’re in Perth (where I am based) and keen for some face-to-face action, Night Parrot Press (which is run by the brilliant Linda Martin and Laura Keenan) holds workshops for beginners and prints a flash anthology every year, plus they run the annual Flashing the Cover competition with Writing WA. Laura and Linda have pretty much single-handedly introduced Western Australia to the genre and are local legends. I learnt most of what I know through their workshops, and had my first ever publication in their first anthology, Once. Check out their website for workshops, craft advice and upcoming opportunities. They have a new anthology coming out in October which will feature new work by established and emerging Western Australian flash writers. They are also publishing acclaimed WA author, Susan Midalia’s new collection of flash, Miniatures in July.

Competitions

Competitions are a fun way to put your work out there and potentially get published, either online or in a hard copy anthology. Even if you don’t make the winner’s list, they give you a focus to write, a word count, often a prompt, and a deadline, so a reason to stop tinkering and submit that sucker. That said there are a lot of dodgy dealers out there, so make sure you choose a reputable comp.

Be wary of competitions that cost too much to enter, ($20 is the top end of what you should expect to pay in my view and the prize money should match.) Many lit mags are run by volunteers and use income from competitions to keep afloat, so it can be a good way to support the writing community, but it’s ok to be wary. They will often have some free entries for those who can’t afford the entry fee so worth checking.

Lucent Dreaming via Betas and Bludgers has a very handy spreadsheet of available comps, inc. word count, prize money, deadlines and entry fees. You’ll find it here.

If you’re in any doubt about a comp’s credentials, feel free to drop me an email and I’ll try to investigate for you.

Books

The glorious hard copy book of craft advice is still one of my favourite resources. They’re few and far between in this genre though. There are a couple coming out soon, highly anticipated works by Kathy Fish and Tommy Dean.

Nancy Stohlman’s Going Short is contemporary and very comprehensive. (pub: Ad Hoc Fiction, 2020)

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers and Writers in the Field. (The Rose Metal Press, edited by Tara L Masih, 2009)

Unlocking the Novella-In Flash by Michael Loveday (pub: Ad Hoc fiction, 2022)

Twitter

Look, I know what they say about Twitter, and they’re right. It IS a minefield of unfettered outrage and a conga line of keyboard warriors. But it is also a great resource for the writing community, you’ll find lit mags to read and submit to and you’ll make friends from all over the world. Other writers might share your work and will cheer you on. If you aren’t sure, maybe start with some of the journals and writers I have already mentioned. You’ll soon find more.

Also check out, El Rhodes, an award-winning author and teacher from the UK, who is a delightful angel who befriends new flash writers like myself. Just shadow her every move online, like I do. She hasn’t had me arrested yet. Plus Amy Barnes is a great writer and editor, and occasionally posts excellent craft essays on her Twitter account. And Mandira Pattnaik blogs great material for beginners also. It’s a rabbit hole of resources and great contacts, and most importantly brilliant stories you can read and wring out for inspiration for your own blossoming writing career.

If all else fails, follow me at @GillOshaughness and stalk who I stalk- just be prepared for obsessive Freo footy chat as well as flash fiction.

Submitting your stories

Most writers want to be published. It’s a joy. There are countless lit mags that specialise in flash fiction, some will pay for stories, some don’t. Be very wary of lit mags that ask you to pay a submission fee to have your work read. Make sure your work is as polished as it can be first, try to find someone you trust to read it for you, check it for errors and give you honest feedback. If you think your story is ready, don’t just send it to every journal out there. Look for one that you think is a good fit. You will know this by reading the publication first, to get a sense of the kind of work they publish.

Every good lit mag will have submission guidelines. Read these carefully. They will give you word limits, formatting guidelines, let you know if they pay, and other really important information you need to know. Many read blind for example so it’s important you don’t put your name on your story, it will be instantly rejected. Look for publications that offer respectful and professional communication, including, (especially) when it comes to rejections.

Don’t take rejections personally, they are much more common than acceptances and don’t argue. Be aware many publications can take several months to get back to you. Again, their guidelines will let you know. Always be professional and polite also. It’s a small community.

Like anything, it’s good to know if you’re submitting to a reputable journal. There are many. This list put together by author and editor of Flash Frog, Eric Scot Tryon is a wonderful start. As he says, it’s by no means exhaustive, but it will give you a good firing-off point to read and submit your own work.

Readings

This is such a small snapshot of the resources available. If you have any other suggestions, I’d love you to add them in the comments.

To finish off, here are a very few of my favourite examples of the genre. I will add to this list as more come to mind to build a collection of great work and fabulous journals, so check back. This is just a start. Again, if you have any suggestions, I’d love you to add them in the comments.

Company by Patricia Bidar in Atticus Review

Seven Minutes by Eric Scot Tryon in Longleaf Review

in ache by Melissa Llanes Brownlee in SmokeLong Quarterly

19 Owls by Elisabeth Ingram Wallace in The Forge Literary Magazine

Undergrowth by Melissa Bowers in SmokeLong Quarterly

I’m Vincent Van Gogh and I Painted That Way Because I knew it Would Look Really Sweet on a Mousepad by Audrey Burges in McSweeney’s

Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild by Kathy Fish in Jellyfish Review

A Practical Guide to Making Rain by Myna Chang in The Citron Review

The Shoal by Jiksun Cheung, Wigleaf.

Sticks by George Saunders

The Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Wants a Divorce But Does Not Want To Be The One To Ask by Jo Withers in X-R-A-Y

Between the Nail and The Skin by Hema Nataraju in Janus Literary

The Diamond Factory by Helen Rye in Matchbook

Romans Chapter 1 Verse 29 and Crushing Big by Kit de Waal, Bridport Prize.

Chicago by Kathy Fish, in Wigleaf.

Black Annis by Matt Kendrick in New Flash Fiction Review.

How to Tell a Scary Story by Sara Hills in X-R-A-Y

Hold Pressure by Eliot Li in SmokeLong Quarterly

Alice, Some of the Time by Abbie Barker in Atlas and Alice

Seeing Ghosts at Bed, Bath and Beyond by Kristina T Saccone in Twin Pies Literary

Lawn and Garden by Timothy Boudreau in Monkeybicycle

Matzo by Kelle Clarke in Flash Frog

Thirteen Letters by Stephanie King in Ghost Parachute

‘DP Camp 713, Aschaffenburg, August 1948’ by Alexandra Otto in National Flash Flood

A Succession of Silences by Electra Rhodes in Books, Ireland Magazine

Suburban fruit trees are for the birds

I planted a nectarine tree in my garden and regretted it almost immediately. It turned out to be more work that I thought. No-one told me all the fruit would ripen around the same time. I’d go from nothing edible to a glut of hundreds in days. You can only eat so much fresh fruit and make so many jars of chutney.

Fruit fly are a headache. Almost impossible to control, they can ruin entire crops of thin skinned fruit like the nectarine before it’s ripe. It’s an eternal battle, the pesticides are all (rightfully) banned, baits are useful only to a point and netting is a big job. But you have to keep fruit fly under control or they spread over your fence to your neighbours and infestations get out of control. I end up taking most of the fruit off and binning it while it’s not much more than a twinkle in its mother’s eye.

Every year, I wonder if it’s worth the trouble. Think about pulling it out and planting something less needy.

Then it blossoms. And I’m back in love.

It’s not just the mass of glorious pink flowers that crowd the view from my loungeroom window. It’s the variety of life that descends overnight and the soap opera that ensues. For the short time it flowers, it’s a riot of birds and insects, either oblivious to one another or bickering delightfully over the booty on offer.

There are hundreds of bees every day, too busy to care if you stalk them, you can get close enough to count the veins that thread through their clear wings and see the glassy membrane turn to rainbows in thin winter sunlight. Close enough to see shiny black antennae and the bright yellow fuzz that haloes their heads. Among them, small spiders work tirelessly, spinning webs hoping to catch bees and other insects, never discouraged, not even when their delicate work is shredded endlessly by all the other activity.

The birds are especially winsome. I could watch them for hours. I have two striated pardalotes that pop in and out, so small they’re easy to miss but for the cheeky sound of their chip-chip call and their bright white brow against yellow and black plumage. I can walk right up to the tree and they’ll hop nearer and nearer to get a better look, their tiny heads tilted to the side as if they’re as curious about me as I am about them.

The Honeyeaters arrive en masse in the late afternoon, squabbling and shrieking, jostling for position and dangling upside down to bury their thin curved beaks deep into the heart of each blossom. One particularly bolshy bird of the New Holland variety, distinctive with its air of perpetual outrage, arrives early and hates to share. He’s never too distracted or too sated with nectar to guard his stash, chasing off any other bird that dares approach while he’s feeding. It’s like witnessing a particularly persistent Imperial TIE fighter in pursuit of a rebel cruiser.

I love the way these small birds cling to twigs and hop so lightly from branch to branch. If there’s a particularly enticing flower on offer, they hover like hummingbirds, wings a-blur, to get a good angle. They love to dive into the birdbath below the tree and nip back into the blossom to dry off, ruffling up like small wet dogs, into shaggy balls of feathers, tiny bright eyes peering out, ever alert. Then back to feeding with their usual studied intensity.

For these beautiful creatures that can struggle in cold weather, when flowering trees aren’t as abundant, blossom trees can be really crucial food sources. And of course, there’s all sorts of life that thrives on and in the tree that I don’t notice in the same way at other times of the year, but is equally important. And I get so much out of those few weeks when the tree is not simply a mass of stunning flowers, it’s a hive of very visible activity. It’s mesmerising and soul soothing. I try to take photos but you can’t capture it really. You don’t see nature in quite the same way when you’re looking at it through a screen, even on a camera. So mostly I simply enjoy the show.

It’s worth it.

My year of writing dangerously -or how to write fiction when you don’t know what you’re doing.

A few days ago, a Facebook memory popped up in my feed, back when I was shortlisted in a writing competition for the first time. Hurray! It was the London Independent Story Prize in the UK and a piece I wrote about a golden-orb weaver spider. I didn’t win but it felt great. I get the same feeling anytime a fictional piece I have written gets published. I think it’s to do with making something from nothing.

I’ve been writing short fiction for over a year now. For the most part I’ve been feeling my way as I go, learning what I can from people who know more than I do. I’ve had some small successes but the vast majority of my work remains unreadable, well out of the public eye in bulging folders on my desktop or in the many notebooks I have lying around the house. You can’t have too many notebooks. I’ve been crippled by writer’s block and emerged from the other side scarred and fragile. What a ride.

In that time, I’ve met lots of fellow aspirational wordsmiths who want to have a crack but don’t know where to start. Not everyone has an idea for the great Australian novel but there are so many different ways to explore creative writing that don’t involve huge debt or another degree. Obviously there are many, many experts on the subject and I am not one them.

What I do have, is experience in being inexperienced, I remember what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by the weight of my own expectation, deeply shy, with only a vague sense I wanted to try, and no idea how to do it. I have been that new leaf ready to unfurl and turn its tender face to the sky only to be scorched into ashes under the harsh glare of a burning sun so fast, it barely knew it was ever even alive. It’s called journalism. It teaches you how to write tightly, but just as importantly, it teaches you resilience and it was an excellent background for this particular new leaf.

I thought I’d share, a year on from diving in, some of the excellent advice I’ve been given that has helped me as I venture into writing short fiction.

Journalists (hopefully) learn to not take themselves too seriously pretty early on, and I can’t tell you how brilliant that life lesson is generally and when it comes to writing. Take the work seriously, but not yourself. For every time you start feeling too pleased with yourself in a newsroom, there’ll be a sub-editor to wave your carefully crafted copy in the air over their head, (back in the days when we wrote on paper) shrieking WHO WROTE THIS CRUD in front of your colleagues. They’ll summon you to stand over their shoulder as they peer at your story with narrowed eyes, shake their head in apparent wonder such incompetence could exist in a professional workplace, eventually flex their shoulders as if bracing themselves for the Herculean task ahead, and tap out a new version in seconds that makes, you’ll both agree, much more sense. You can’t take it personally. A thick skin is useful in any environment.

Start small if you want. You don’t need to write the world. I wish I could sit down and bash out a novel, have a solid story in my mind and the will and drive to write it. But we can’t all be Craig Silvey. It’s absolutely ok to write for fun. In fact, given by far the vast majority of writers won’t earn enough to pay for a new set of shoelaces you might as well decide to write for fun from the outset, then anything else is a bonus.

Choose your genre lightly. Try some different stuff and see what you enjoy. It all helps. The skills you learn from writing essays, short stories, flash fiction are transferrable. I have never got further than that but I’m going to assume those same skills will come in handy if I do ever decide I have a compelling idea for a book. I love short fiction, for myriad reasons and it lets me experiment without committing myself to a huge project.

Everyone I imagine, goes about it in their own way. Use your computer or try handwriting in a notebook. Keep a journal. Give yourself a time limit, maybe ten minutes, whatever works. I like to write to prompts or tasks. It helps me if someone tells me to write about chickens for example, something in my brain responds well to direction whereas if I am left to my own devices I get a bit lost. You can get prompts by joining a writing group, google writing prompts or advice for writers. There is so much out there when you look.

You don’t need to get caught up writing a complete story to start with. Just get some words out. I like to start with fragments of a memory, then make things up and I don’t stop for anything. You can go back and worry about spelling mistakes and narrative arcs later.

Once you have some words on paper, you can edit. I always start new drafts in a separate document and keep the old version in case I get carried away with my flame thrower and wreck the story. This is why most of my writing is not very good. I keep it all. My notebooks and computer are full of half written stories that go nowhere, a gazillion drafts of a gazillion stories, it doesn’t matter. Editing is so much fun if you can get past your own head telling you every word you write is either a luminous gem to be nurtured at all costs, or the worst thing anyone in the history of the world has written. Neither of these is helpful.

Put yourself out there. Even if it’s just reading a story aloud to a writing group. It’s terrifying but it gets easier. Look for small micro or short fiction competitions like Furious Fiction which is free to enter and runs every month, there’s Retreat West, Reflex and Bath. You don’t need to win, although that’s brilliant, it’s about developing the habit, having deadlines and a purpose if you’re starting out and you aren’t really sure what you want to write. I promise it will help you. Join Writing WA or the equivalent in your area to keep updated with competitions and resources and sign up for newsletters or author websites where writers offer tips to help you improve. For flash fiction, my genre of choice, I highly recommend Kathy Fish and Tommy Dean and Matt Kendrick. Also, SmokeLong Quarterly and Fractured Lit have excellent examples of short fiction and great craft articles. Many offer fantastic short courses.

Link up with other writers. Twitter has a terrible reputation for snark but it is a fabulous source of good writing communities. I am in three writing groups, two of them are small with trusted close friends who fill me with joy every time we meet, one is much bigger and I use it for resources mostly, but we all support each other as well. You’ll know a good writing buddy when they offer specific solicited advice that makes your work better and they lift you. Anyone who offers unsolicited negative advice should be crushed under the iron heel of your stony indifference.

Writing is such a lovely thing to do. Don’t suffocate your passion by worrying about having something important to say or even who might read it. You’ll find out soon enough if you enjoy it if your only motivation is the writing itself.

Editing is a process you can learn and it’s a really valuable skill. There’s also lots of good articles and resources online free. Hemingway is one good option.

Here’s some of the editing advice I’ve been given over the last year or so that’s worked well for me.

  • Focus on the first and last lines. Make them really strong.
  • Look for cliches and cut them, find a new way to say what you want to say.
  • Look for filler words like ‘that’ and ‘just’ – and cut them if you can.
  • Look for any words or phrases that are repeated and change them or make sure you know why they belong.
  • Add detail. The more precise the better, smell, sound, a tiny image. A window is a window, but a wooden window where the paint has peeled and the glass is cracked, takes you somewhere specific.
  • Burn your adverbs. Burn them all. If you don’t want to because you are convinced they make your story sound better, try taking them out for fun to see. Then burn them fast before you’re tempted to put them back in. (I think there are 24 in this piece- it could use a good edit.)
  • When you think you have something that’s ok, read it aloud. Print it out. Get the Read Aloud function on your computer to read it to you. WA author, Susan Midalia gave me this advice and it’s a jewel. It’s something we always did at work with news copy or radio scripts, and it works with fiction, you pick up mistakes you don’t otherwise see and it’s a good way to see if your writing is conversational. Changing the font, (thank you Megan Anderson) helps to see your work with a new eye as well.
  • Remember for every rule, there is an exception.

By far the single most helpful piece of advice I have found that I come back to time and time again is this. If you know who said it, I’d love to have the reference.

“You aren’t required to write something good every day, you are only required to keep showing up and hoping.”

Painting: Mavis by Deborah Watt.

‘A Room of One’s Own.’

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Virginia Woolf.

In all my 54 years I have never had a room of my own. Until now.

I have wanted one all of my life. But there’s always been something in the way. As a kid I shared a room with my sister, to be honest that was harder on her than it was on me. I was messy, she was tidy and her makeshift room dividers consisted, at various stages of our childhood, of a line of cupboards down the middle of the room or masking tape and if neither was available, an imaginary barrier marked out by herself held in place by threats. None of these methods worked for long. We both felt ripped off.

At 19, I had a daughter on my own and not much money to say the least, so anything extra went into trying to give her as much as I could with what I had. I had an old table for a desk in my bedroom but as anyone who has coveted a room of one’s own will know, it isn’t the same. I was working too hard to think about it much.

A proper room of one’s own is more than an area in a house. It’s an attitude, a decision, a philosophy, a political act. It’s making space and time for yourself, having even the most humble of means to do it, without the relentless pressure of something else or someone else being always more important. It is massive privilege on myriad levels. For many women, this is the story of our lives.

So here I am, 54 years old and for the first time I have created a room of my own. How did that happen after so long? I’ll tell you.

First, I gave up my job last year. It was a great job, and I’m immensely grateful, it just stopped being a great job for me. It took all my time, left nothing for my family or my friends let alone myself, more energy than I had to give and I had done it for so long it didn’t excite me in the same way. I had stopped feeling occasionally afraid in that way you do when you try something new and you don’t know what you’re doing. The kind of afraid that reminds you why you’re alive. Which is not to say I had nothing left to learn, I had just stopped wanting to learn that job at that time. I wanted to learn something new. And when a series of opportunities came along to do that, with a small income, not huge by any means, but enough to mean I wasn’t setting my life on fire when women my age are in the fastest growing demographic for poverty, I took it.

Then I started trying all the new things I did want to have a crack at. Some of which made me very nervous. I gave a keynote speech, took some writing classes, wrote some short stories, submitted them, accepted a part time job, made marmalade, picked my granddaughter up from school and took days off to stroll into Freo on a weekday for breakfast, holding hands with my husband.

Another step was a writing competition I won. Hurrah! It paid just under two-thousand Australian dollars and I bought myself a writing desk. It wasn’t an expensive piece, I bought it from a Swedish chain furniture shop but it was mine and I bought it with money I earned doing something I love for no other reason than I wanted to. My story was inspired by my grandma, Molly, who suffered severe depression and died when I was four. She had no room for herself, even in her own head. In a way I can’t articulate, I felt connected to her through this process.

Slowly I have taken over the spare room, and I’ll note again, a spare room and a room of your own have very little in common. I cleared out the junk, put up pictures I love, arranged the furniture how I like it, placed my desk by the window where the northern light streams in, it’s the only room in the house that gets that glorious sunshine. I bought a cheap day bed and a bright yellow rug. I buy myself flowers (the first hyacinths of winter this week) and arrange them in a vase on my desk. And on Monday I drove north of the river to buy the glorious quirky secondhand bookshelf you can see in the picture. A hundred and fifty bucks and I did not haggle. The fact that my husband looked at me quizzically when I proudly unveiled it because it is not to his taste, only makes me love it more. I love the home we have built together, but I also love having a small place where only my opinion of the furniture counts.

What I have is not just a room in a house with my stuff in. I have taken space for myself. It could be a corner in our bedroom, or a regular trip to the library if needs must and circumstances don’t allow anything else. Even that small shard of freedom is beyond many. The point is it’s deliberate, I can, without apology or explanation, do what I want to do with some of my time. Well mostly without apology or explanation, I am still new to this. Which is not to say being a mother or a wife prevented that, my husband and my daughter are the loves of my life, and would be the first to applaud. Because I have more time in my day for everything I love, it’s been easier to add myself to the list of things I need and want to take care of. And now I’m there, I think it would be really hard to take myself off that list too.

Virginia Woolf in her essay, A Room of One’s Own was making a complex point about women finding their way in a literary space dominated by patriarchy, essentially summed up by that enduring quote above, it’s among the most significant contributions to gender equality in literature. My own particular interpretation here is not an urgent feminist manifesto or anything close but more a quiet realisation and a series of small personal observations I have made in the last year or so.

As it happens, this is the first time in my entire adult life I have have been able to make some big choices based on what I want to do, not what I have to do to get by. The only thing standing in my way now, is myself. I have been interested to see how ingrained old habits can be. And what a difference small changes make. Like buying hyacinths and cheap second hand bookshelves just because I like them. Small things, profound privilege. And a very full heart.