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Narrative Voice: Adjusting the shadows

Voice and other questions: Part Two

For our Issue  8 blog series, we are exploring narrative voice. We asked Headland authors featured in our latest issue some questions around narrative voice: do they write with a particular message in mind or greater thematic purpose? Is their writing for art’s sake or do they have another driver? In the first post, Sandra Arnold, author of ‘When the wind blows’, shared her thoughts.

Next up we Emma Robinson,  author of ‘Shelter’: Emma grew up in Wellington and is a graduate of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School. In 2015 she completed the short fiction paper at IIML (Victoria University of Wellington). ‘Shelter’ is her first published story.

Adjusting the shadows

The stories I have written share a domestic setting and focus on relationships within families. It might be the family we are born into or one we create with our partner, children and friends.

When I started thinking about this post I remembered that I used to write a diary, the first being when I was about ten years old. My early entries veered between overly descriptive passages about the weather and lists of what I had done that day at school. By my teens I had moved on to what I had eaten, interspersed with rants against a parent, friend or sibling who did not understand. As I got older my diaries became journals with sporadic entries detailing specific “momentous” events. Every January the previous year’s volume was added to the pile stashed in the back of a cupboard.

One winter about a decade ago I hauled out the box containing the ramblings of my younger selves. After four hours of cringing I drove to a friend’s house and fed most of them into her open fire. As I watched my words turn to ash that would later be added to her compost and hopefully assist in the creation of delicious potatoes the following spring, I wondered who all that writing had been for?

I grew up in a family that liked to read. Lugging boxes of books up winding Wellington paths is a signature memory of my childhood and has made “good access” one of the key things I now look for when moving house. There was always a book in our Christmas stockings, a tradition I continue with my partner and my daughters.

Writing was a means of expression but not one I considered sharing. I saw myself firstly as a performer (studying acting at Toi Whakaari) then moved behind the camera to directing and production work. Yet I carried fragments of stories in my head for years. The persistent nagging of these incomplete tales led me to apply for the short fiction paper at IIML (Victoria University). The trimester spent on the course gave me the confidence to continue. It also unearthed a desire to take my writing out of the hidden notebooks and find a form that I could share.

I began to jot down these ideas and images. Walking to school, new Roman sandals rubbing at your heels. Your cousin says that the sound you hear, the whine of wind through overhead power lines, means it’s earthquake weather. Boarding the last bus outside the Mr Wimpy burger bar on Willis Street. A girl leans her head against the window and rides the bus to the end of the line. She walks slowly up the street to where her mother is not expecting her.

During the IIML course some found their way into my portfolio and have since been refined. Others are waiting to be carved out. The insistent ones are like Wellington’s southerlies finding any exposed skin, and when you try to wrap up and ignore them they morph and burrow into your stomach causing a dull ache. At some point it becomes easier to allow them the form and structure they crave. The process moves from bloodletting to something more akin to an archaeological dig. I sift through the facts as I know or imagine them, then listen for where the story wants to take me.

To answer one of the questions posed by Headland, I don’t start out with a particular audience in mind or a message I’m trying to express. The characters in my current stories are all searching for a place they belong but this wasn’t something I deliberately set out to explore. When I started writing Shelter it was in the first person from Lily’s perspective. William Brandt (IIML course convenor) suggested moving the story to a third person narrative. Changing the perspective allowed me to shift the focus and write a stronger story.

The process of editing and rewriting which led to the changes in Shelter is similar to the way I develop a photograph. The first draft is what I capture “in camera”, the editing is processing. Adjusting the shadows, deepening saturation or lifting the clarity can all improve the image, while cropping allows you to choose what your audience sees. The adjustments and corrections are no less important than the instinct to click the shutter at a given moment.

You can read Emma’s story and more in our current issue.

 

 

 

Narrative Voice

Voice and other questions

For Issue 8 we’re exploring narrative voice. We asked a couple of Issue 8 writers some questions about their ‘voice’.  Do they write with a particular message in mind or greater thematic purpose? Is their writing for art’s sake or do they have another driver?

First up is Sandra Arnold,  whose story ‘When the Wind Blows’ is featured in Issue 8: Sandra is the author of Sing No Sad Songs (Canterbury University Press), Tomorrow’s Empire (Horizon Press), A Distraction of Opposites (Hazard Press). She has a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. She was the recipient of the 2014 Seresin Landfall Otago University Press Writers Residency, the winner of the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Week Short Story Competition, short-listed for the 2016 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, and was on the Honourable Contenders List for the 2016 Bristol Prize. Her flash fiction has been published or is forthcoming from Jellyfish Review, Flash Frontier, The Linnet’s Wings, Flashflood Journal, The Story Shack, Fewer than 500, Fictive Dream, Olentangy Review, Zero Fiction, We are a Website, North & South and Headland. She was a finalist in the 2016 The Short Story Flash500 competition, long-listed in the 2016 Flash Frontier competition, and Highly Commended in the 2016 North & South Short Shorts competition.

 

Narrative voice

My fiction often draws on environmental elements and their impact on people’s lives. Some of my short stories are set in the Arabian Gulf where I lived for a year and saw ancient buildings buried by the desert wind, and in Brazil, where I watched wind-fanned grass fires disfigure the Cerrado. In New Zealand, scorching nor’west winds rage across the Canterbury Plains in spring and summer, uprooting trees and sucking moisture out of the earth. During one such blistering wind, I saw, scored into a wooden plaque in the local butcher’s shop, the following quote from Gogol’s Dead Souls: ‘The air is torn and thundering as it turns to wind and everything on earth comes flying past.’ Soon after, I read Jan DeBlieu’s book, Wind, where she describes the different names hot dry winds are given in various parts of the world and how they affect the inhabitants and the landscape. She relates advice from medical professionals about avoiding major decisions when wild winds blow. With all this in mind I wrote the short story that appears in Headland 8, When the Wind Blows, which deals with the effect a prolonged nor’wester has on several families who live on the Canterbury Plains.

Castle Rock, Canterbury

When I was 12 I watched a film on television about a herd of wild horses galloping through the surf. The film was in slow motion and I was mesmerised by the way the horses’ manes and tails caught the sunlight and sea spray, and the way light and shadow turned their eyes into dark hollows. As soon as the film finished I ran up to my room to write what I’d seen, thumbing through a dictionary to find new words to help me express my awe. I kept coming back to this story over several years, polishing and re-writing until eventually, six years later, I submitted it for a college assignment in creative writing and received a Distinction. That’s when the idea of becoming a writer seemed less nebulous.

My love of language grew from my father’s storytelling. He had been in the Merchant Navy and had travelled to exotic lands. When he exhausted his store of tales about the places he’d seen I gave him the titles and themes of stories I wanted him to make up. He also loved reciting the epic poems of Kipling and Longfellow. The books he gave me were of the adventure type that he had loved as a boy: Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines. Not surprising then that my first career choice was archaeologist. Though the career plans changed, my interest in what lay hidden beneath the surface remained. In my late teens I read my way through the Brontës, Austen, Eliot, Hardy, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Hugo, Colette and Woolf. In my twenties, I taught, travelled, married and wrote, mostly poems I had no intention of showing anyone. In my early thirties, after moving from the UK to New Zealand, I began writing short stories for broadcast and publication, drawing on the landscape and interior/exterior worlds.

My first novel, A Distraction of Opposites, published in 1992, also excavates beneath the surface. What began as an image of a big black spider lurking in the centre of a web became a metaphor for how people can become trapped in sticky situations. The novel examines the world of the subconscious in parallel with the conscious and the story is narrated by the female protagonist trapped by the ‘spider’, a mentally unstable male. I completed this novel while holding the inaugural Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary. My second novel, Tomorrow’s Empire, explores the rise of a religious fundamentalist in Turkey and the culture clash between East and West. This novel took ten years to write, off and on, as I needed to do a great deal of research and travel through Turkey. It is narrated through the voice of the Turkish male protagonist and was published in New Zealand in 2000, two years after the Iranian President Khatami declared he no longer supported the killing of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, though the fatwa would remain in place. The previous ten years had seen book burnings in the UK and bombings and killings elsewhere. Sensitivities about Rushdie’s book still ran high. When my publisher tried to have Tomorrow’s Empire published in the UK, not surprisingly, he was unsuccessful.

 

Queen of Sheba’s Palace

A year after Tomorrow’s Empire was published my youngest daughter, Rebecca, was diagnosed with appendix cancer at the age of 22. She died 13 months later in 2002. In the year following her death I could no longer read or write or listen to music. In 2003 my husband and I decided to change our environment and the opportunity came to live and work in Oman for a year. It was a good decision and I filled notebooks with the characters we met, the situations we found ourselves in and the beautiful lunar landscape of Oman. We returned to New Zealand via a short visit to Brazil, a country we’d lived in a few years earlier. Back in New Zealand I completed, with High Distinction, a Master’s degree in Creative Writing through CQ University in Australia. Some of the short stories which resulted from this, set in Brazil and Oman, were broadcast on Radio New Zealand and one, The Stone, was included in The Best New Zealand Fiction, Vol. 4. This story was inspired by finding a stone with our daughter’s initial on it as we swam in the Indian Ocean on the second anniversary of her death.

 

Found by Chris while sitting in the sea at AsSeif exactly 2 years after Rebecca died.

My reading at that stage consisted solely of books about grief and I found that although there was no shortage of literature on grieving young adult death from suicide or accident, young adult death from cancer was so rare that there was very little material available. I thought that writing my own book might go some way to filling that gap. Because of the amount of research necessary it made sense to tackle the subject as a doctorate. I completed my PhD in 2010. The creative non-fiction part of my thesis, which details my own experience of parental bereavement, was published in 2011 by Canterbury University Press as Sing No Sad Songs. After producing several papers from my exegesis and attending conferences delivering them I was finally able to move on from this topic. In 2013 I began writing a new novel and completed the first draft while I was the recipient of the Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writing Residency.

 

The Selwyn River

When I finished the final draft of this novel in mid-2016 I discovered the New Zealand flash fiction journal, Flash Frontier and its store of beautiful short narratives. I loved the use of language in many of these stories and the way so much could be implied in so few words. I decided to set myself the challenge of writing in very short forms. Flash fiction generates a continuous flow of ideas and I have found it to be excellent discipline for writing longer pieces too. Looking at the flash fiction and short stories I have written over the past few months I see that many of them deal with loss of various kinds, but also suggest new possibilities. The ideas for these stories come from diverse sources – newspaper articles, fragments of conversation, images, memories – but some appear perfectly formed, apparently out of nowhere. An example of this is The Gatherers in Headland 7. This appeared one day as I walked by the Selwyn River with my dog. The sky was vivid blue, the Southern Alps glittered with snow, the tracks were covered in wildflowers, and the only sounds were bees and birds and the dog splashing in the water. These things filled my mind. And The Gatherers arrived.

Read Sandra’s story and more in Issue 8 available now.

 

This is how it ends

Let’s Talk About Endings: Part Two

We are continuing our discussion of endings for our Issue 7 series. Regardless of whether you have a preference for the way stories end, we can all agree that the way short stories draw to a close is important. The feeling that the reader is left with, and the impact of the work often rests on the final sentence or paragraph. We often talk about the endings of the stories we receive (thank you, keep them coming!). Occasionally we receive stories that end abruptly, or with an out of context dramatic flourish, or introduce new information that causes the reader to go back thinking that they must have missed something earlier. Stories don’t have to end with drama. Nor do endings have to tie everything together neatly. But we do like an ending that is in keeping with the work, and leaves the reader wanting to think about the story, with an afterglow of sorts. It’s a lovely feeling when a story lingers, no matter the subject.

Previously Andrada Coos, author of ‘Mr Tanaka Says Goodbye’ noted in our previous post: “You have to at least see the shore to find some level of satisfaction when you finally reach that last line. And if a writer has the power to land you safely on a new coast at the end of their work … well, that is what I call fine writing.”

We’re lucky to have Carolyn Gillum, author of the haunting flash piece ‘The Anagram Man’ featured in Issue 7, wrapping things up with her own take on story endings.

Carolyn was awarded the 2016 Winston Churchill McNeish Writer’s Fellowship to travel to Arctic Norway to complete her first novel. Her work was Highly Commended for the 2016 Yeovil Literary Prize, shortlisted for the 2015 Flash500 Novel Competition, and longlisted for the 2016 Bath Novel Award. Her flash fiction has also been longlisted for the 2016 Fish Flash Fiction Contest and Flash500 Competition.She is based on Waiheke Island.

 

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This is How it Ends

 

Or is it? Maybe it’s like this. Or this. Hemingway famously wrote forty-seven endings to ‘A Farewell to Arms’, and no wonder. A great ending illuminates the whole story, it gives meaning to what comes before. A writer needs to get it right. Get it wrong, and – well, a bad ending is like a burst lightbulb. And who hasn’t wanted to smash or gnash something after reading an unsatisfying or clichéd conclusion? Such was the genius of the Twistaplot and Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth. Not only did the reader get to go back, choose a different path and reach a more riveting finale, but writers got a chance to use all those endings.[1]

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Yet, surely there is more than one great way to end a story? In an interview with The Missouri Review, American writer George Saunders described handing his creative writing students a Vonnegut story, truncated by three pages. He asked each of them to write an ending. Apparently even his poorest students came up with ones that impressed. “The ending of any story,” he said, “is just a kind of flourish. It’s the first two-thirds of the story that really matters.”

But flourish or not, it’s Elizabeth Bowen’s famous advice that endings should be unexpected, yet inevitable, that rings truest to me. Great endings linger. They make you want to go back, sift for clues that foreshadow that inescapable end, uncover hidden layers of meaning. One of reasons I’ve read ‘The Great Gatsby’ so many times is because of Fitzgerald’s famous last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” A hauntingly poetic way to release the characters into the reader’s imagination, it simultaneously implores the reader to return to the start. The end of ‘The Great Gatsby’ echoes the end of the beginning, where we first met Gatsby and the green light of his doomed ‘orgastic’ future.

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It’s unsurprising then, that the end is often where writers begin. Thriller writer Richard Condon says, “I always work backwards. Everything the characters do, how they react, where they go, what happens to them—is all focused and channeled to how they end up.” Toni Morrison says, “I always know the ending. That’s where I start.” Of course readers also start with the end in mind – they read to find out what happens.

When it comes to writing short fiction, I too begin at the end. It’s usually the nucleus of my idea. The story begins when I ask: Why? How? I knew the ending – and the title – of ‘The Anagram Man’ before I knew the story. I’d been thinking about cultural appropriation and identity when the idea came to me. Anchored by the title, the end of ‘The Anagram Man’ signalled like a reverse-purpose-lighthouse as I wrote, helping me navigate the story.

It also felt apt that Headland asked me to write a post on endings just as I was coming to the end of my Winston Churchill McNeish Writer’s Fellowship – a trip to Arctic Norway to complete my first novel. I’d been pondering endings for weeks, trying to uncover one that was right for my work. But it felt like sailing toward an ever-moving horizon, tacking this way and that, staring into the unreachable distance; as futile as waiting for the summer sun to set.

When Swedish writer Cecilia Ekbäck struggled to uncover the ending to her book ‘A Month in the Midnight Sun’, an artist friend told her to trust the process. “And then,” she says, “as I came to the ending, it was just there for me to write. It was not more complicated than that.”

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 So it was perhaps inevitable, if unexpected, that this was also how I discovered the ending to my own novel. It was late summer and the sun had begun to nudge the horizon when I gave up the search. Because endings are also about letting go; and when I truly trusted the process, when I let go of unrealistic, unworkable ends, I saw the lighthouse had been there all along, signalling patiently through the mist. And finally I knew: here it is, this is it, this is how it ends.

[1] In a literary twist on this concept, a 2012 edition of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ includes all of Hemingway’s forty-seven endings.

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Read Carolyn’s story and more in Issue 7!

The End

Let’s Talk About Endings

Oh, endings. That tricky final paragraph or two of a story, that can tie things up for the reader, click the last piece of the puzzle into place, gently ebb away, or entirely unravel the story. You can insert any other outcome here. The point is endings can really affect the way that we respond and feel about a story. How stories end is something that we pay a lot of attention to, and discuss frequently as an editorial team. As readers, we’ve all read a story that we were really feeling, right up until the last paragraph to suddenly find something entirely new and unrelated has occurred, or the whole story abruptly ends. Leaving us with more questions than answers. And we’ve read stories with endings that made our hearts sing, and there is a good kind of quiet that hovers over the piece after it is done.

We were really curious to hear what a couple of our writers from Issue 7 think about endings. First up we have Andrada Coos, author of ‘Mr Tanaka Says Goodbye’: Andrada is a graduate of Brunel University’s Creative Writing program, studying under the excellent Fay Weldon. Originally from Romania, she has been studying and working abroad, in Europe and Asia, for over 7 years. She recently won a literary debut contest (Incubatorul de Condeie 2015) in her home country and hopes to publish her first novel this year. Her short stories have been published in the Pins & Needles Literary Journal, Suspense Magazine, on the Juke Pop Serials and Short Bread stories websites and read at Liars’ League Hong Kong events.

 

The End

To me, both as a writer and a reader, endings have always been about harmony and an unnameable feeling of elation, as if you’ve been holding your breath the entire time and a great sigh, shuddering with the pent-up emotions of a literary journey escapes you when you reach that final phrase. The end.

Many books have endings that function as epilogues rather than the ultimate climax, but I always found works that finish on the greatest reader engagement to be the most memorable. At the same time a bad ending can ruin a story especially when it seems to lead nowhere except a point past which the author appears to have lost interest in his or her own creation. As a reader, it makes you feel cheated, as if the writer tricked you into investing time and emotion in a story only to leave you stranded in the middle of the journey. You have to at least see the shore to find some level of satisfaction when you finally reach that last line. And if a writer has the power to land you safely on a new coast at the end of their work … well, that is what I call fine writing.

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As for myself, I tend to write stories in two different ways: one starts from a simple idea that I develop as I go along and naturally reach the culmination of, and the other is when I already know the beginning and the ending and I just have to fill in the blanks. But knowing where you’re going before you start can be a curse, especially since, as your story and characters take a clearer shape, you often come across inconsistencies and you may find difficulties in shifting the momentum of the story towards your initially desired conclusion. That does not however change the destination, but makes for a more exciting exercise in creativity.

I think endings are very important and when I sense that one is weak and lacks impact or meaning, I feel like my story is incomplete. Like a disharmonious symphony someone forgot to strike the cymbals at the end of. In this way, I suppose, for me, endings have an instinctual rather than a rational element to them. Because of that, once I’m satisfied with a conclusion, I’m unlikely to change it.

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It is not uncommon that I am asked to elaborate or change one of my endings. I remember the first story I ever published in a local newspaper in my hometown; the editor took it upon himself to add an additional explanatory phrase at the end of my story without consulting me which, needless to say, my 14-year-old self did not appreciate. It made me feel like the story was no longer truly mine. I’ve also had the misfortune of missing out on publishing opportunities because editors asked me for the meaning of an ending and found that my explanations were far too removed from their own conclusions and therefore changed their perception of the story completely. That being said, sometimes editorial comments have helped me realize there was a better, earlier point to conclude a story and maximize its impact, everything after it being nothing more than unnecessary excess.

The truth is I am sometimes deliberately ambiguous when I write an ending. You will find this to be true of Mr Tanaka Says Goodbye, the story that appeared in Issue 7 of the Headland journal. This is sometimes due to a problem I keep stumbling across as an author. I tend to fall in love with my characters as I write them. Most advice about writing you’ll read will tell you things like “kill your darlings!” but I often find that even if I have decided on the death of a character as I start to write a story, I falter in going through with it when it comes down to it. How can you kill a friend? So what’s the solution then? Most times that death is essential to the story and cannot be eliminated as a plot device. What I usually do is I put the fate of the character in the hands of the reader. I make endings that are interpretable based on a reader’s level of optimism. That way, the character is like Schrödinger’s cat, alive in the minds of some, not so in the minds of others. Although I often find that it frustrates readers and their immediate reaction is to write to me and ask: but what really happened? I never tell them, I just ask them what they think and then agree to it.

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Read Andrada’s story and more in Issue 7.

Extras: Interview with Zoë Meager

Second in our new Extras series, Headlander Allan Drew interviews New Zealand writer, and Headland alum  Zoë Meager. Zoe’s flash fiction story ‘How it Ends’ appears in Issue 7.  

Zoë is from Christchurch. Her flash fiction and short stories have appeared in several journals, at home and abroad. Her work was recently shortlisted for National Flash Fiction Day 2016, and for the 2016 Overland VU Short Story Prize. There are links to her work at zoemeager.com. 

What is Extras?  Allan Drew brings you bonus content through our blog to complement the works in our issues. Commentary, stories, and more. Allan is a PhD student at Victoria University Wellington, where he studies creative writing and English literature. His short stories and poems have been published in a number of journals and magazines, and he has won or been short-listed in several writing competitions.

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Zoë Meager is a Christchurch writer of fiction of all lengths. I suspect she also writes poems, simply because her fiction leans towards the poetic rather than the prosaic. I haven’t seen any of her poetry, however—at least not lineated poetry—and this statement is supposed to serve as a bit of a dare for her. Zoë’s flash fiction ‘How it ends’ appears in the most recent issue of Headland, and demonstrates, I think, her determination to face life front-on in her work. I talked to Zoë after the release of Headland 7.

Allan: How long have you been writing flash fiction?

Zoë: About five years, since I started reading flash-dedicated publications like Flash Frontier and Nano Fiction. Before that, funny driftwoody things that were something like flash fiction would show up on the page now and then, but I never picked them up.

Allan: Can flash fiction accomplish things that longer form fiction can’t?

Zoë: Yeah, flash is the plunge pool of fiction. As the writer you don’t have the breadth to get any water ballet happening, but at its best, the reading experience is totally immersive. A real rush of fiction to the head.

Allan: Your story, ‘How it ends’, begins with an ending. In fact, I feel like the story prefers to think of an “ending” as a verb. That is, a story doesn’t have an ending; rather, it ends… and that action of ending can start right at the beginning, if need be. The question for you is: do your stories wait until the end to end, or do they begin ending at the beginning?

Zoë: I suppose that’s a kind of momentum isn’t it? Short fiction needs to be rolling somewhere all the time, towards something. But I think we get a bit obsessed with endings too, which was a starting point for writing How it ends.

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Allan: You live in Christchurch. Given the recent history of that city, do you feel an obligation or duty to set your stories in Christchurch?

Zoë: I had a flat for six months overlooking the Arts Centre, so I spent a lot of time sitting at my kitchen table, writing and watching the rebuild. Before the earthquakes the Arts Centre was one of my favourite places in Christchurch, so it was a thrill to see it being saved, except there was something unbearable about watching the decorative stone bits on the roof being replaced, in particular. They started at one end and worked their way along. This new-scrubbed white stone creeping across the roof, filling in where the original weathered stone used be. Like a losing chess game. It’s still not finished, and I just want them to leave one gap, and let the pigeons keep living there.

Someone said that writers are the slowest to process the earthquakes into art, which is probably true. I think we enjoy the liquefaction too much. Plus, I don’t usually put really real places in my work, but Christchurch is a very odd place to live these days, so surely some dust will be blowing around and get in the fiction.

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Allan: Robert Hass wrote, “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” I’ve read quite a lot of your writing, and what would your response be if I said that you always write about loss?

Zoë: I’d probably feel a bit worried and like I should be writing about broader themes. But hey, at least I know I won’t run out of material anytime soon (or perhaps I’ll always be running out of it..?).

Allan: What’s driving you mad right now?

Zoë: I don’t own a dog but I really feel like do, you know? My heart keeps asking, where is my dog? It’s a bit of a Kubelko Bondy situation.

Allan: What do you like least about writing?

Zoë: Writing’s perfect, it’s just keeping the real world at bay long enough to get time for it that’s a pain.

Allan: Do you like being interviewed about your writing?

Zoë: It wasn’t too bad, thanks!

 

Check out Headland 7 and Headland 3 to read some of Zoe’s writing, and find her—and more importantly more of her stories—online at www.zoemeager.com. Follow her thoughts on Twitter @ZoeMeager.

What’s in a Name?

Talking about Titles

In our Issue 6 blog series, we’re talking about titles. Do they affect they way you read a story? Are they important to you? Previously, D.A. Hosek shared his thoughts on naming his stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Titles

Now we’re handing over to Emma Sloley, author of ‘The Things They Left Behind’: Emma is a New York-based travel journalist who has written for many US and international publications, including Travel + Leisure, New York, W, Conde Nast Traveler and Harper’s Bazaar Australia, where she was an editor for six years. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and is currently at work on her first novel.

You can read Emma’s story and 11 other works by New Zealand and international authors in Issue 6, available now.

What’s in a Name?

 

When it comes to fiction, everything and nothing. Like most writers, I agonise over titles, because what you name a story is the first interaction readers have with it. A title is a writer’s calling card, a way to get invited in or shut out in the cold by someone pretending not to be home. A great title pulls you in, seduces you, promises you the world. There were surely many complicated and laudable reasons why Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love became a global phenomenon, but that killer title surely had something to do with its curb appeal. (It’s hard to imagine it being as popular had it been called, I don’t know, My Year of Swanning Around Europe and Asia.)

 

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On the other hand, some of my favourite books of all time have strange or not particularly catchy titles. Peter Høeg’s best-selling Danish thriller Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and yet it remains one of my greatest literary influences. The pared-back language; the razor-sharp insights into the human condition; its grappling with themes of cultural isolation, loneliness and the weight of familial baggage—I reread it at least once a year just to try and work out how he does it. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours reveals very little about its subject matter to a casual book browser: there’s no intimation in that simple title of its exquisite intertwined stories of thwarted dreams and the gulf between our inner lives and the outside world, but it’s a book so transcendently wonderful that even if it were called Don’t Bother Reading This I’d still treasure it.

 

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As a young reader I went through an intense John Irving phase, and while his epic, Dickensian tales of family and relationship dysfunction contain multitudes, their titles were always what made them irresistible. Irving famously considers titles crucial: “I have them before I have books that belong to them,” he said in an interview with The Paris Review. It’s not hard to believe. A Prayer for Owen Meany; The Water-Method Man; The Cider House Rules: Irving’s modus operandi is heavily evocative titles that generate curiosity and tease a question—Who is this Owen Meany and why does he need to be prayed for? How does the water method work? What’s a cider house and why does it need rules?—that you simply must have answered.

On a more subtle level, the great Edith Wharton was fond of naming her novels in discreetly ironic ways. The House of Mirth; The Age of Innocence; Summer: such sunny, upbeat titles for stories about decidedly unhappy people constrained by the conventions of society. Jonathan Franzen employs a similar subtlety in naming his doorstopper novels: both The Corrections and Freedom riff on the many variations and definitions of their titular nouns, and it becomes an Easter-egg hunt to find their different meanings throughout the book.

 

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When it comes to my own work there are no hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes a title will come to me as if by osmosis, before I’ve even begun writing. Other times I’ll wait until the themes of the story fully reveal themselves before I put a name to it. I’m drawn to titles with dual meanings, literal and metaphorical. The title of my story The Things They Left Behind was suggested both by the childhood of my protagonist’s lover—who grew up above a pawn shop playing with borrowed objects—and his desire as a grown man to live a life free of emotional commitments. (Nothing, least of all naming things, occurs in a vacuum: subconsciously, I was probably inspired by The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War novel, although I had never read it!) The title of the novel I’m currently working on, The Green Zone, refers both to the heavily fortified section of Baghdad used by American military forces during the Iraq War (where the novel’s antagonist, a war reporter, spends a lot of time) and a less tangible notion of safety that the novel’s protagonist seeks.

But in the end titles are just window dressing. Like our grandmothers always assured us when we were going through our awkward teenage years, it’s what’s inside that counts.

 

 

 

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Titles

A Rose By Any Other Name

Story titles: something we discuss as an editorial team often. Sometimes a title can make you love a story more, or a little bit less. The right title can lift a story up or even fill in the blanks about a question you have about what it means, or provide a clue to what happened.  With this in mind, we were curious to ask our Issue 6 authors about their decision-making process in choosing a title, and if there are any they have loved.

Our questions: How important is a title? Does a title change how you feel about a story? What is your process for a choosing a title for your stories? Are there any that stand out for you from your own reading and previous writing?

Over to D. A. Hosek, author of ‘Our Lady of the Freeway’: D. A. Hosek has an MFA in fiction from the University of Tampa and lives near Chicago. His fiction has previously appeared in The Southampton Review, Monkeybicycle, The Journal of Microliterature and Every Day Fiction.

You can read D.A. Hosek’s story (we loved this story, and its title!) and more in Issue 6 of Headland.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Titles

IMG_0016

Factions may disagree on whether Raymond Carver’s stories were better in their original versions as published in Beginners, or as edited by Gordon Lish in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but it’s hard to dispute that one of the incontrovertibly good choices Lish made was to change the title of one of the stories (and the collection) from Beginners to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

This title, pulled from a passing bit of dialogue in the story, has had a stunning resonance in culture. A quick Google search of “what we talk about when we talk about”-love gave 236,000 results and revealed titles that included, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Common Core”, “…Talk About Cancer”, “…Talk About Apple and Compelled Speech”, “…Gun Violence”, “… Torture”, “…the Common Core”, “…Books”, “…the Tube: The District Line”, “…God” and “…Demagogues”, and that’s just the first page of an endless stream of results.

Few, if any, of these actually engage with Carver’s original work (the most notable exception would be Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which echoes not only the title but the structure of the story to good effect), which ultimately speaks to what a remarkably strong title Lish gave the story.

What makes the title Lish chose so good is that it works beyond the story-within-the-story which serves as the heart of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but also manages to capture what happens in the rest of the story. This is what makes a perfect title: the ability to capture in a few words the essence of the entire text as well as provide something that becomes further illuminated upon reading the story. The ideal title is a three word poem, a text of its own which opens a gateway to new realms of meaning.

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Find out more about Issue 6 and our contributors here.  Want to submit a story? Take a look at our submissions guidelines. The deadline for submissions for Issue 8 close 8 October.

Introducing Extras

Extras

 Introducing Extras, bonus content through our blog to complement the works in our issues. Commentary, stories, and more curated by Headlander Allan Drew.

First up, we have ‘Sociology’ from the man himself. A sequel to his story ‘Anthropology’ which features in Issue 6.

Allan is a PhD student at Victoria University Wellington, where he studies creative writing and English literature. His short stories and poems have been published in a number of journals and magazines, and he has won or been short-listed in several writing competitions.

Sociology

 

By the time I texted her, I’d forgotten what she looked like. Amelia, I mean. That girl from the party. I could put the individual facts of her appearance together—her accurate hair, her collarbones, legs, that straight mouth—but I couldn’t assemble her in my mind.

Pete gave me her number. Asking him to get it for me was a little session of torture. We were watching cricket. “Pete?” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Can you get me Amelia’s number?”

“What?”

“Amelia’s number.”

“Who?”

“Amelia. From that party. You said you could.”

“That party last year? Symphony’s mate?”

“Yeah.”

“Fuck,” he said, and stared at the TV. So did I.

“So?” I said.

“What do you want her number for? What precisely are you going to do with it?”

“Call her.”

“Oh, really?” He was going to go on, I think, but began yelling at the cricket instead. The Sri Lankan captain was caught at second slip. It was a relief for me too, the wicket and the interruption. And then, suddenly, Pete rose from the couch, announced, “I’m going to the gym,” and left, leaving his phone on the cushion and a dead sausage on a plate.

I was alone with the TV. A Bunnings ad came on, with a narrative as follows: If you shop at Bunnings you save money therefore you can buy more stuff therefore you can get more done therefore your wife will love you more. I got caught up in it for a second—I found myself threaded into its twisted logic, tiptoeing along its haltering non sequitur. I felt a surge of panic. But I don’t have a wife, I thought.

 

A few days later Pete left a note for me, stuck to the kitchen bench with a plug of bacon grease. It said, Wade, go get her, with a phone number written on the bottom.

So I texted her. It was quite long. It said, hi amelia its wade we met at a party last year I used to know symphony who used to go out with a friend of mine, and actually I still know symphony, I am the guy who told the story about the rats, was wondering whats up and maybe we could catch up for a coffee or something but only if you’re not too busy let me know cheers wade

After I sent it, I deleted the message from my sent items to remove the agonising possibility of reading it again, and then immediately retrieved it from my trash folder and restored it to my sent items. I reread the message. Rats? Jesus. Nothing more memorable about me than the rats? Then, for fun, I panicked about my use of apostrophes.

Amelia replied about two minutes later. Her text said, Call me later. At work now.

It was a Thursday, that day when I texted her, and I was alone in the flat. First day of the second test match. Sri Lanka were mashing our faces into the dirt. It was humiliating.

Another Bunnings ad came on. Surely, surely, one day, surely one day everything that needs to be DIYed is going to have already been DIYed, and then Bunnings is going to be right in the shit. Home improvement cannot be an inexhaustible resource. What’s the long-term value proposition?

Pete got home around 3pm. He was on fire, like he gets sometimes. He stormed in and yelled, “Worms!”

“Worms?”

“Those little segmented bastards. Mouth at one end, arse at the other, and a straight-through tube for turning mud to food.” He thrust his arm straight out and tilted his hand vertical when he said “straight-through”. He held this gesture while he pivoted and pointed towards the fridge. He opened the fridge and found a sausage. He took a bite of it, then shook the remainder at me. “They’ve got whatever sex parts you might want. It’s all on for man and beast. Take it as it comes and any which way, loose as you like for my dirty tubular purple wormy buddies.”

“Okay.”

“Worms! Holy shit!”

“All right.”

He walked back to the fridge, grabbed a beer and opened it. He came back into the lounge flipping the bottle top like a coin, shaking his head. “Those little hermaphroditic bastards. Good on them. Good on them.” He walked around the lounge for a bit, thinking about worms no doubt, then sat down beside me to look at the TV. “Oh fucking hell.”

“I know,” I said.

“Those Sri Lankan pricks.”

“I know,” I said.

Pete said, “You see I got you Amelia’s number?”

“Yep, thanks.”

“Did you call her, sausage?” Pete sometimes calls me whatever he’s eating at the time. It’s weirdly intimate.

I didn’t feel much like talking about Amelia to him. I was ruffled by the rant about worms. So I just stared at the cricket, thinking about puking because of the cricket and also because of my overly long text messages and the state of my life.

“Wade, mate?” said Pete.

“I texted her.”

“And?”

“She texted back and told me to call her later.” Pete turned to me with a serious look on his face like he was going to tell me that maybe he had terminal prostate cancer, and said, “High-five,” and put his palm towards me. Despite my terror of high-fiving, I went through with it.

“I’ve been thinking about her, Wade, and am ready to give you my opinion. Stand by.” He went to get a beer. On his way to the fridge he accidentally kicked the wheel of his bike that was leaning against the kitchen bench. He didn’t make a sound but pulled an outrageous face, like a cartoon character in silent, indescribable pain.

The sad thing was, I was nervous about what he was going to say. Instant anxiety. And even worse, he knew it. He got the beer, then walked with an exaggerated limp back to the couch, and waited, I guess to elevate the tension, I guess to stretch out my anxiety. He used a beer burp to focus my attention, like a judge uses a gavel, then said, “Therefore, be advised: she’s a honey.”

“A honey. Okay.”

“Aaaaa-ffirmative.” He saluted.

“I’m so glad,” I said, with heavy sarcasm that I didn’t feel. I was relieved, even against my desire not to care what he thought. It must have been that relief, that feeling of mateship you get when you get another guy’s approval, because before I even had a chance to stop myself I blurted, “I like her collarbones.”

This comment filled the room. No-one moved. The atmosphere grew heavy and still, the air mouldering. Then, after exhaling through his nose, Pete said to himself, “Collarbones,” and got up off the couch. “I’m going for a shower.” He stopped before he left the room though, turned and said, “Wade, you’re not a hermaphrodite are you?” and then, abruptly, “Don’t answer that!”

 

The front of our flat faced south, which is why it was always dark, and the back of the flat faced north, so that’s where the sun was and that’s where the landlords had built a small balcony. From there, Mt Eden Road ran narrow and busy through the village.

Pete took a sack of Mad Butcher sausages out of the freezer. Pete mostly ate sausages. You wouldn’t know, because he was so buff, but it’s a fact. He cooked them in bulk, straight from the freezer, and they lasted a few days, sometimes a week, depending on how many he cooked. I followed him out to the balcony where the BBQ leaned against the rail. He put forty sausages on the BBQ, in four rows of ten, and stood, prodding.

“Where are you taking her, on your date?”

I didn’t know. I was a complete amateur and needed to be euthanized for my own protection and to prevent me from breeding.

“I hadn’t thought about that,” I said.

Pete put down his tongs. He held up the palm of his hand as if it were a mirror and said, in a plain tone, “Oh my fucking God.” He then picked the tongs back up and poked at his sausages, rolling them all over a quarter-turn, revealing incomplete parallel black stripes. I had a fairly strong surge of nausea.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Straightforward. Go to the whisky tasting they have at The Forkers. That way, if she hates you she can at least get drunk, and if she likes you, the booze can loosen her up and increase your chances of giving her the worm.”

His logic was infallible. Except: “What if she likes me but I don’t like her?” At that, Pete pretended to throw his tongs at me. “That’s the spirit.”

 

It would’ve been better if I could have remembered what she looked like. But the harder I tried, the worse it got. By the time I made the call, she was nothing but a disembodied haircut.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hi, Amelia? It’s Wade.”

“Hi.”

“So, you remember me, right? From that party at”—Jesus, I couldn’t remember the guy’s name—“from that party last year?”

“Yes, of course, I remember. You shook my hand when I left.” That was right but not right. She’d shaken my hand. But now that I heard her voice, I remembered what she looked like. I saw her there, in that dress carrying her shoes to the door and saying goodbye. Shaking hands.

“Ha, yeah.”

“How’s Pete?” she asked. I had somehow forgotten that she knew him, but of course she did.

“He’s—he’s the same.”

“And how’s your study going?”

My study had stalled because I was supposed to be writing the final version of my research proposal and I wasn’t, because whenever I sat down to start writing I felt a sudden and expansive combination of sleepiness and humiliation. I was avoiding my supervisor in person and sending him emails detailing the progress I wasn’t making. “Pretty well,” I said.

“Anthropology, right?”

“Oh, yeah. No, actually. I changed my major. Sociology now.”

“What area?”

My supervisor had rejected the first three projects I’d come up with, and it looked like I was headed to do some sort of qualitative study of social factors affecting people’s emotional responses to public transport, which meant I was probably going to be asking strangers on the street what they liked about the bus. “I’m still nailing it down.”

“Uh huh.”

“But it’ll be in urban psychological sociology with a tie into public health.” I sounded, suddenly and predictably, like a wanker.

“Right,” she said.

“How’s work?” I asked, hating myself.

“Work’s work. Busy, draining. So—”

“Yeah?”

“You want to catch up for a coffee, then? That’s what you texted, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. But, no, do you know The Forkers?” Oh, shit. Shit. It was all shit now. I had forgotten, when Pete had suggested The Forkers, that I had originally asked her for coffee. Now I was pushing the Forkers plan, throwing the coffee out the window. But I had to proceed. “They have whisky tasting once a month, I thought we could check it out and sample some of what’s on offer.” It sounded pretty much like I was trying to get her drunk. Or implying she was an alcoholic.

“I don’t really like whisky.”

“Oh. You can probably drink something else.” To satisfy your alcohol addiction, Amelia, obviously.

“Right, but—”

“Oh,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

The Oh had meant, oh okay, I see it was tolerable for exactly half a second and then I ballsed it up and it doesn’t really matter but it’s all gone straight to hell and I’ll let you go.

“Wade?”

“Yeah, I’m here, sorry.”

“You said about coffee in your text?”

“Yeah,”

“Wade, will you meet me for coffee, then?”

“Yes.”

“Sunday after next?” She talked a bit more. My hands were on my forehead, and I was squeezing the phone to my ear with the point of my shoulder and my cheeks ached with whatever facial arrangement I had adopted.

“Okay, see you,” she said.

“K bye thanks see you then,” I said.

About ten minutes later I realised I hadn’t listened when she gave me the details. I had a subclinical panic attack and then made a plan. I would text after a suitable period of time and say my idiot flatmate has thrown out the piece of paper on which I had jotted down the details, and could you please remind me again where and when we were going to catch up?

I reckoned it would work, the text plan, and I drafted the message right then and there. I swapped details for deets, then swapped it back again, and saved the text to drafts. It was about quarter to nine, but I went to bed anyway. I lay awake until 4:30am, at which time the neighbour got home and puked into his shrubbery and slammed his door, so I got up.

 

It was Sunday afternoon, the Sunday before the Sunday when I was to have catch-up coffee with Amelia. I didn’t know where yet, or what time—that draft text was still unsent.

Pete and I were sitting outside on the front veranda, in the shade. Pete had a bad hangover, so I was keeping things quiet. I was thinking about my research project. I had agreed with my supervisor that by Monday I would create the formal project outline and complete the draft of my questionnaire. I’d done none of it. On Friday night Pete and I had got Chinese from the smorgasbord place down the road and watched American Idol. On Saturday I did nothing at all during the day and then at night I played video games until about 2am. Pete had gone out.

Even though I was sitting there thinking about my project, I wasn’t contemplating actually doing any work. I was thinking about how to explain my project to Amelia next week and still sound like a worthwhile human being. I hadn’t cracked that nut yet.

“I fucked up,” said Pete. His eyes were closed.

“How?”

“Symphony hates me.”

“Symphony?” He hadn’t talked about her for a long time. They’d broken up two years ago.

“I saw her last night.” His eyes were still closed, and he didn’t say anything more for maybe a minute. “I’ve been stalking her, you know?”

“What?” I said. Pete opened his eyes and looked at me and sort of half smiled.

“Not really stalking. Just thinking about her. And watching a bit.” Another pause. “And sometimes I phone her.”

“That sounds like stalking,” I said.

“I told you, I fucked up.”

“Okay.”

“I saw her last night,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. He tried to sit up straight, failed, and slouched down again, easing back into his hangover, and closed his eyes.

“I talked to her the other day, you know, to get Amelia’s number for you. I had to call her about five times before she would talk to me. So once she actually rang me back and gave me Amelia’s number, I asked if she wanted to go out on Saturday.”

“And?”

“She told me to fuck off, but after I made a cock of myself for asking so many times, she gave up, and we met for a drink. I think she pretty much just wanted to see me so she could tell me to fuck off in person. She left pretty quick. Then I met up with some of the guys and just drank.”

“So, okay.” I figured that now was a good time to ask. “Why did you and Symphony split, anyway?” I asked.

“I was too much of a man for her.”

“No, really.”

“Yes, really.”

“No, really.”

He looked at me. “What does it matter?” he said. I shrugged and he closed his eyes. “She figured she had had enough of sleeping with someone she hated.”

“Why did she hate you?”

“Why does she hate me, present tense.”

“Okay, why does she hate you?”

“Fucked if I know,” said Pete, “You’d be better asking her. Why don’t you, she liked you.”

Huh? “What do you mean?”

Pete took in a long breath, like an inverted sigh, and raised himself off his chair. “Look, last night I told her thanks for giving me Amelia’s number to give to you, and she said she couldn’t work out why you and I were friends anyway, and why a guy like you would bother hanging around with a fuckwit like me. No, hang on, she didn’t say fuckwit. She said wanker. She said why’d you hang out with a wanker like me. So I said ‘What makes it so Wade isn’t a wanker?’ and she said you were ‘good to talk to’.”

When Pete said “good to talk to”, he made inverted commas in the air.

He continued. “Oh yeah, she also said you looked at her titties all the time.”

“What? Hang on—”

“Okay. Fair play. She didn’t say that. What happened was I said ‘Oohh so he’s sooooo good to talk to is he?’—look I was being a real prick by then— and she said ‘Yes!’ and then she like whacked me with her fist, and then I told her that Wade probably looks at your tits when you’re not watching, and she said that she wouldn’t care if you did. Or wouldn’t mind. Or something.”

“Which was it?”

“What?”

“Care, or mind?”

“What? Look, what does it matter? She has had a gutsful of me and there’s nothing left to say. Jesus I have a massive fucking hangover.” He paused for a while then said, “I’ve got to get out of this house.”

Blood surged in my temples. I ignored it. “We could hike it up the mountain?” I suggested.

“I don’t see why fucking not,” he said, so we got up and walked up Mt Eden. By the time we were at the top, Pete was sweating something shocking and I could smell last night’s alcohol on his breath and seeping from his pores and probably evaporating off the gunk in the corners of his eyes. He really stank.

 

Over the years, Pete has called me, among other things, Nana, Grandpa, Womankind, Girl, Liberal-Arts Enthusiast, Baby-Baby Doll, The Journeyman, Princess, Prince, and The Count, along with all sorts of foodstuffs, and all at different times depending on his mood. From that day when he first studied worms, he sometimes called me Hermaphrodite, which he shortened to Herm, and then re-lengthened to Herman. When I said I was going shopping for clothes for my catch-up with Amelia because all the stuff I owned looked like Mum had bought it for me, he called me Eunuch.

“Balls and clothes shopping are incompatible.”

“You buy clothes,” I pointed out.

“But I don’t go bloody shopping.”

It’s a sad business, a single male in a shopping mall searching fruitlessly for items of clothing to make him appear to be anything other than what he is. Looking for trousers that give him some sort of an arse, a shirt that gives him some sort of pecs, and shoes that imply he is better in bed than his hair might suggest. Excuse me Miss, do you have any clothes that can change your physical and metaphysical being? Do you do lay-buy?

I tried on a shirt and had decided I didn’t like it, and, just as I was just taking it off, I bled all over it. From my nose. Sometimes things happen in real life that are so outrageous or unlikely or sad or unfortunate that you don’t believe it even when it’s happening to you.

I get bloody noses. I used to get them all the time, when I was a kid. I had to have the blood vessels in my nose cauterised when I was eight years old, which means that a doctor carefully and precisely set fire to my nostrils. It worked for a while, then those nose bleeds returned. When I moved in with Pete, I was getting them maybe ten times a year. The first time he saw it he asked me how often it happened. “Once a month, on average, I’d say.” From then on he called them my nose periods. “You should get yourself some nose tampons, mate,” he’d said. And he actually made me some nose tampons out of toilet paper and cotton buds. He put them in a zip lock bag and decorated it with flowers from the overrun garden out the front. Sometimes, when he gets on to something, he just won’t leave it alone. I used those nose tampons the next time I got a bloody nose. They worked, too.

I took the shirt off and walked out to the shop assistant to show her. She had been nice to me when I was browsing, and smiled as I approached.

“Hi there. Sorry, I accidentally bled on this shirt.”

“What? Why?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Oh my gaaarrd,” she said, taking half a step back when I showed her.

“Yeah, sorry, I’ll buy it, of course.”

She nodded and said, “But are you okay?”

“Yes, it happens sometimes.”

“Really?”

In the end, I was mostly just glad when the eftpos machine said “Accepted”. It had cost more than I had been planning to spend.

She packaged it up nicely, putting tissue paper around the still-fresh blood stain so it wouldn’t spread. I was, for all intents and purposes, an invalid who was trying to retain his dignity and she was the nurse cleaning me up after I’d soiled myself. But, in the end, it was just another shop I couldn’t go into again. No big deal. I guess, in some ways, the whole blood-on-the-shirt thing saved me the time I would otherwise have spent looking for the mythologically perfect shirt.

I took the shirt home and washed the blood out. Blood comes out okay, when you know what you’re doing. I decided to wear the same jeans I wore to the party when I met Amelia. They had a small tear at the right knee, in the place I put my foot when I cross my left leg over my right, but they actually fit me almost properly.

 

On the Thursday before the Sunday of my coffee-date with Amelia, I was sitting on the couch, watching the third test match finish. It was going to be three-zip to the tourists. I got a phone call.

My phone was in my back pocket, so I’d been sitting on it when it started ringing. I lifted that butt cheek and pulled it out and looked at the little screen. The screen said Amelia.

In about a ring-and-a-half, I worked out what was going on. Amelia was calling to say she’d made a mistake, that when I’d called her she thought I was Pete, and that she’d figured the other guy, who was actually me, would never dare to call her and ask her out, and it was only when Symphony said, no, Wade was the strangely overweight skinny guy who had arms like wrinkled sausages and who hung around with Pete, and it was Pete who was the big guy with the arms and the pecs and everything, and therefore she would have to cancel our catch-up because she wasn’t interested after all and sorry to have taken up my time.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hi, Wade?” When I heard her voice I remembered her again, what she looked like with her collarbones and her thin wrists and the smooth skin of her neck that glowed like clouds backlit by the sun.

“Yeah, hi Amelia.”

“How’s it going?”

I was miserable. “Good.”

“Hey, I’m really sorry but I have to cancel our catch-up.”

“Oh, okay.” I said. It’s equal parts horrifying and satisfying when your anxieties turn into realities.

“Not cancel, really, just postpone.”

“Oh, right.”

“I’m in Sydney. I had to come over for work. I’ll be here for at least two weeks, but not sure exactly how long. Could be longer. Maybe give it some time and call me in a month or so.” She sounded distracted, like she had turned her head away from the phone.

“Of course, yes, I mean, no worries.” I said, and began worrying. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to ask her out for a second time. I’d put more or less everything I had into that first text.

“Okay great. See you soon,” she said, and she was gone.

“Sweet.” I said, after the connection had died.

On the television the teams were walking off the field, shaking hands and patting each other on the back. I thought about all the blood I spilt, like a warrior, on that shopping trip. I wondered if maybe Amelia would stay in Sydney, permanently, and if that might not be better for everyone. She could easily find some enormous Australian lawyer with huge hands and tanned shoulders and nuts like cannonballs. They’re everywhere over there.

Pete got home maybe an hour later, and I was still on the couch. He asked me what happened.

“I see,” he said. “So. Beer?”

“Alright.” He brought me one from the fridge, and poured it into a glass. We usually only drank from glasses when we wore collared shirts.

“Sausage, sausage?”

“Alright.” And he trotted off back to the kitchen and microwaved a sausage and brought it to me on a little plate. It had sweated in the microwave and a brown oily liquid had seeped from the small tears in the casing. Pete sat down next to me and muted the TV.

“Cheers,” I said.  We sat for a while.

“You know what might help?” Pete asked.

“What?

Showgirls.”

“No.” We sat for a bit longer. Evening slid into the room.

“Want to go get drunk?” Pete asked, half-heartedly.

“Nah.”

“Me neither,” he said.

I looked out the window to what I could see of the sky above the treeline.

“Want to climb the mountain?” he asked.

“Yeah, alright.” It was quite dark by then, and the air had a chill that felt good as we walked outside. Mt Eden wasn’t really a mountain, but you know all about it when you climb it. It’s a big bloody hill. About half way up, Pete began running, so I did too. It was just a jog to start with, but then we picked up the pace until, near the top, we were sprinting. We were side by side until just before the summit, when I overtook him. We stood by the monument to catch our breath. He took longer.

I went to sit on the bench but it was damp with dew, so I stood on it instead. The crater of the volcano plunged away from my feet like a cliff. A helicopter scooted across the horizon, buzzing towards the cranes at Mechanics Bay. If I could see around corners, and over great distances, I might have been able to see across the Tasman, to Sydney, and to Amelia.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Message from Symphony, it said, underneath her Facebook profile picture. We had been Facebook friends for a while. Years. I hardly ever looked at her photos, though. Almost never.

I stared at the picture. This was the first time she’d messaged me. I tapped the screen.

—tell P to go fuck himself

My fingers felt big as I typed on the tiny keyboard. —I think he already did

—tell him I told u to tell him again

—ok

I looked up from the screen and called to Pete. “Symphony says to go fuck yourself.” I held up the screen as evidence.

Pete squinted. “But I already know.”

Symphony buzzed my phone again. —what r u doing

—standing on a park bench up mt eden

—why

I wondered, and replied with —what are you doing?

—messaging u

—why?

She ignored that one, and wrote —did u call amelia

—yes

—and

—she’s lovely

—why did u not ask me for her number ur self

—I don’t know, I wrote, although I did. How can you ask one beautiful girl for another beautiful girl’s number?

The thread ended. One crease in my brain held the idea of Amelia, and another, so recently sparked, held the image of Symphony. I was horribly in love with both of them, without any hope of resolution or reciprocation, and all of life, at that moment, was delicious. And there, right there, was my perennial problem.

“Wade, you’re terminally heterosexual,” said Pete, out of nowhere.

“Really?” It seemed kind of accurate, at that moment.

“Yes.”

“Why is heterosexuality terminal?” I asked.

“Not just hetero. All of them. Lesbian, gay, bi, queer, trans, hermaphrodite, they’re all terminal.”

“What if you’re asexual?”

“Terminal,” he said.

I wondered now, standing on that bench looking down on my friend, and with Amelia wedged in one fold of my cerebrum and Symphony in another, about Pete. I had the habit of thinking of him as my guide, but all he ever offered, or could give, and all he ever wanted, was friendship; he just wanted to know me, and for me to know him. From my prospect on that wonky seat he seemed now to look an awful lot like me, a kind of clown with ruffled hair and worn-out shoes.

I looked at the horizon. The lights from the city were blinking and flickering.

“So?” Pete said.

“What?”

“What can you see from up there?”

I took another look around. “I can see all of it,” I said.

Observations, Aphorisms and Rules for Writing

We asked a couple of our Issue 5 writers, “How much of an island are you when it comes to your writing? Are you part of a writers group, do you seek feedback on your work, or do you predominantly work alone? Do you have a writing mentor?”.  In the first piece ‘Community and Positive Black Holes’  Kathie Giorgio shared her love for her writing community that she founded and directs.

In this second post, Sian Robyns author of ‘I Guess This Is It’ shares her thoughts on writing solo and with a community. Sian is a PhD candidate in literary translation studies at Victoria University of Wellington, where she is working on an annotated translation of Le Complexe de Caliban by the French writer Linda Lê. Sian has worked as a journalist, a press secretary and public sector communications manager (with an emphasis on economic development and innovation policy) and has finally got round to calling herself a writer. Her translation of Linda Lê’s Conte de l’amour bifrons will be published by Mākaro Press in Wellington in 2016.

 

Observations, Aphorisms and Rules for Writing

The question was, “How much of an island are you as a writer?” And as I began thinking about it my internet feed filled itself with observations, aphorisms and Rules for Writing. Here’s one from the Swiss writer Robert Walser: “Anything great and bold must be brought about in secrecy and silence, or it perishes and falls away, and the fire that was awakened dies.”

 

shells (1)

 

Then there’s Walter Benjamin who, in the second of his thirteen theses on writing tells us we may talk about what we’ve written but mustn’t read from it while it’s still a work in progress. “Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.” (He also recommends treats at key milestones and an abundance of good quality papers, pens and inks.)

 

pebbles - headland

Pithiest of all, as you’d expect, is Stephen King’s advice – to write with the door closed and to rewrite with it open. I like this. It sits nicely beside the advice they give you in post-grad orientation programmes, that writing is thinking on paper. Who can think clearly when the world is tugging at your clothes, saying that sentence is too long (which in my case, it probably is), that bit’s confusing, why don’t you do this, you should do that…I need to think with the door closed. Once I know what I think, once I know what the story looks like, what it wants to look like, I’m ready to open it, to share it with my writing group and trusted reader.

 

Island Bay, Wellington

So yes, I’m an island when it comes to first and second drafts. But not an isolated pimple of rock in the middle of the ocean, blasted by storms, spattered by guano and littered with the skeletons of lost sailors. More an island in an archipelago, within easy reach of other islands. Or perhaps one of those islands just a little way offshore, that seems to move closer to land as the light and the tides and the weather change.

Read ”I Guess This Is It’ and other stories by talented New Zealand and international authors in Issue 5, available on Amazon.

Community & Positive Black Holes

Are You an Island?

We love reading your submissions. They make us think a lot about writers’ processes and about preferences (if you’re curious about our selection process, check out ‘How Do We Select Stories’). We asked a couple of our Issue 5 writers, “How much of an island are you when it comes to your writing? Are you part of a writers group, do you seek feedback on your work, or do you predominantly work alone? Do you have a writing mentor?”. There is no correct answer to this question, but we were fascinated enough to see what a few of you thought.

Kathie Giorgio, author of ‘Out of Hibernation’ shares her thoughts on writing with a community with us. Kathie’s fourth book, a novel titled “Rise From The River”, was released by the Main Street Rag Publishing Company in 2015 while Kathie was Visiting Author at Carroll University. In 2016, MSR will be releasing a book called “Oddities and Endings: The Collected Stories of Kathie Giorgio”, a collection of 40 of Giorgio’s stories previously published in literary magazines. Her first two novels and a short story collection were also released by MSR. “Clocks” received the Outstanding Achievement award by the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Awards Committee and was nominated for the Paterson Fiction Award. “Lifetime”, the sequel to “Clocks”, debuted to a standing-room only audience of over 200 people at the 2013 Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, where Kathie was the welcoming Keynote. “Hearts” was selected as one of the 99 Summer Must-Reads by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2012. Giorgio’s short stories and poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines and in many anthologies. She’s been nominated for the Million Writer Award, the Write Well Award, and for the Best of the Net anthology and has been interviewed for articles in Poets & Writers magazine. She is the director and founder of AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop, an international creative writing studio.

You can read Kathie’s story and 9 other pieces of short fiction and creative non-fiction by New Zealand and international authors in Issue 5, available through Amazon for Apple and Android now.

 

Community & Positive Black Holes

So I admit, when I was asked to write a blog on the subject of whether writers need community or if they need isolation, I laughed. After all, besides being a writer, I am the director and founder of AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop, an international creative writing studio that offers workshops and classes in all genres and abilities of creative writing, as well as coaching and editing services. Above all, AllWriters’ is a community – a thriving, passionate community of writers that spans the globe. The support and encouragement felt here is incredible, and the knowledge shared is priceless. So I think I would fall on the side of community!

However, as I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room three hours away from my home. The door is locked, the Do Not Disturb sign is up, the social media is turned off, my cell phone is turned off, the television is turned off…all for isolating myself to get some much-needed quiet and a chance to work deeply and creatively.

 

IndianaRetreat20166

 

So do I think that writers need community? Or do I think that writers need isolation? Yes. To both.

When I first formed AllWriters’, the motto or tagline was, “Writing is an act of isolation, but writers don’t have to be isolated.” Over time, another sentence was added to that: “If you’re a writer, welcome home.”

What we actively do as writers is very different from what most people do with their jobs. Writers don’t have coffee breaks, lunch breaks, gatherings around the water cooler where they can lift their heads from their work and talk with others who are doing the same thing. When we are at our desks and we lift our heads, there’s not usually anyone there. If we go downstairs to the fridge for a cold one or the coffee pot for a hot cuppa, there’s no one to talk to about what we’ve been doing. Even if we’re a coffeehouse writer, we’re surrounded by strangers; there’s no one to share with, commiserate, moan and groan and rejoice. You finally figured out the epiphany your character has to have? High five! But with no other palm. You’ve guttered to a stop on a sentence because you can’t think of a way to describe the blue of a Wisconsin sky in August at three o’clock in the afternoon, just after a rainstorm? Talk it out…but to yourself.

Writing communities such as AllWriters’ provide that palm and that listening ear. We share our work and receive expert help. We talk about our acceptances and rejections and receive a cheer or a pat on the back. When we talk about how a character simply refuses to do what we want him to do, we get boisterous understanding. Talk about something like that with a non-writer, and you receive a blank look and then a suggestion for the nearest therapist.

So yes, writers need community. Without a doubt. Over twenty years of teaching, and eleven years of running the studio, I’ve watched friendships and bonds grow deeper and deeper. Thanks to the glory of the internet, my students connect with each other, no matter where they are. And when they do meet face to face, the joy is boundless. I don’t feel like I run a business. I feel like I sit at the head of a massive dining room table, filled the entire length with family.

But then what about isolation? Why am I all alone in a hotel room if community is so important?

I believe the act of writing, the act of creation, needs isolation. You need to be alone with your thoughts and your imagination. When we write, we dive into a part of our brains kept hidden from public view. And we disappear into it for a while. Particularly with fiction writers, but I believe across all the genres, we enter a positive black hole of sorts. Something mysterious, something unexplained, but something wonderful. Our own personal worlds disappear and the world we’re writing about surrounds us. It’s what we see, it’s what we hear, and we lose ourselves in the writing.

But sometimes, it’s hard to lose oneself in the middle of life. We start to write, and the dog asks to be let out. We start to write and the child has to be picked up from school. We start to write and we hear the mailman come and we wonder if he brought any acceptances and wouldn’t that be wonderful. We start to write and the phone rings. We start to write and our partner chooses just then to decide to become amorous, and well, who’s going to turn that down?

And so for me, this hotel room. AllWriters’ is three hours away. So is the studio phone. My daughter is at home and so is my husband. I’ve learned that in order to really get down and dirty and get some work done, I have to completely remove myself. Though even here, well…there’s this blog, you know…

In general, writers don’t have to go to such extremes to get some isolation. I heartily recommend setting up your own spot to write, preferably with a door. Let others know that you’re going to be working and unless someone is bleeding or dying, you are not to be bothered – and then stick to your word. Send away the teary, but non-bleeding child. Put up with a dog puddle on the floor. Dive!

Years ago, when my big kids were little, I had one of those hairdryers that you sit under. When I sat under that, the heat on and roaring, even in the middle of July, my kids knew that Mom was in her inner sanctum and she was not to be disturbed. A physical sign like that does wonders to the outside world. Find something – a closed door, like I said, or a hairdryer – that says to the world, “Not now. Talk to me later.”

That isolation is important for the creative process. It’s where the best work comes from. The chance to be profoundly immersed allows you to become your writing. To be the writer. Drop all of the other roles and responsibilities aside and just revel in creation.

Well, now I’ve gone all Yoda on you.

So I see it like this – during the actual writing of the piece, writers need isolation. During the finessing of it, the high polishing, writers need their community. And while living the ups and downs of the writing life, writers simply need other writers.

Writers need a heaping helping of both isolation and community. We’re kinda weird that way. But lovable.

I’m diving into my black hole now. I’ll be out in a week. And then I will embrace my community. See you then.

 

 

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