you can go home again, while you can

It’s been nearly a year, I realised. Somewhere around the halfway mark, I was scrolling through podcasts and checking cruise control and I thought, It’s almost December. It had taken me twice as long as I’d planned to return home, and even then, I wasn’t really returning home, because my parents had sold home and found another building with a driveway and a garden and a deck and named that “home” back in April. I’d only seen photos. Heard stories about the wildlife in the paddock next door. Listened as my mother explained plans for renovating, and failed to comprehend the scope. But I hadn’t seen it. Which made me the minority in my family.

It’s always a spontaneous decision. Never premeditated. I spend an evening considering the drive, calculating the cost of fuel and the time involved – totally non-committal, no particular reason – and the next morning I can’t not do it. It’s all I want. Like I’m a wind-up toy, something in me unfurling so slowly I don’t notice until it isn’t, can’t feel it until it stops. And that’s it. I pack a bag, bring the washing in, fuel up and go. It takes half an hour, if that. I remember my charger, razor, slippers. I’ve done it too many times to leave anything behind.

I pull a jumper out of storage and find a coat I haven’t worn in months. I think about packing my Rossi’s, but didn’t. (I regret that now. I knew I would). I wonder if it will rain as I drove into town. It does that with such consistency – starts a downpour, however slight, the moment I pass the airport some ten minutes before city limits – that I’m convinced I could arrive in January and break a drought by doing so.

I’d forgotten just how long, how dull, how frustratingly necessary the actual journey itself is. Waiting for overtaking lanes and wondering when 110km/h started to feel insufficient. Driving past a series of signs advertising road works and speed limit reductions, and getting pissed off at clueless tourists who actually obey, not realising the road works are long finished and the signs just unclaimed relics whose only remaining purpose is to torture regular commuters with their redundancy.

I’d also forgotten the feeling. At first, it’s anxiety, pure and simple. This weird, small, isolated seaside hometown has never inspired anything less than a complicated reaction from me. I’ve claimed to hate it. I’ve claimed to love it. Mostly, I fluctuate between the two, and I know I will never quite decide, no matter how much a definitive ruling would put me at ease. But the more distance I put between myself and my adored, thriving metropolis (so-called by me, at least), the more this bizarre, calm feeling moves in on anxiety’s territory. It’s so damn vast out here. It’s just paddocks and trees and shrubs and gravel and a thin strip of bitumen splitting it all in two. And sky. You can’t forget the sky even if you wanted to. It’s two-thirds of anything you look at. There’s something reassuring about it. Something constant.

But the anxiety circles back soon enough, and it’s not so much for the place as it is for my place within it. Every time I leave I am changed and every time I return I am different again. I can’t help knowing this. I’m a fucking writer, the most self-aware of the self-aware, second perhaps only to actors, bless them. Growing up here I was painfully shy, totally void of the confidence post-schooling life permits us when we stop trying to define ourselves by using our equally uncertain peers as yardsticks. I catch myself regressing into this person at a speed directly proportional to my proximity to the offensive, colourful cinema that sits on the outskirts of town. I’m aware so many of those peers still live in this place. That my odds of running into any one of them on the street are high. Very high. That I don’t know how to tell them I’m not the same person I was at school. That I don’t know why I care whether they know that or don’t.

And then the airport passes on my left and a thick forest on my right and the temperature is low and the sky is dark and there it is. It starts to rain. Right on cue. Just like I thought it might. Just like I knew it would. And the only thing more predictable than that, more reliable than this ridiculous, contrary, infuriating, loveable rogue of a place that keeps bringing me back no matter how many times I swear to never make the trip again, is my reaction to it. My eyes go watery. I feel like an idiot, but I’ve known this place for too long, spent too much time with it, that I can’t help but prescribe some greater meaning to everything it does, deserving or not. And I can’t mistake the rain for anything other than what I know it to be, deep down. I want to ignore it because I feel like I don’t deserve it, but I can’t. I’m being welcomed home in the same way my mother will welcome me in a few more minutes. With the knowledge that I won’t stay, but I can go, because it won’t mind, and when I fail to come back when I said I would, it will wait, and when I’m ready, it will be exactly where I left it, patient, warm and overjoyed to see me return, as if I never left at all.

On the main street, I see my old geography teacher – who walks with a stilted limp, courtesy of a motorcycle accident many years earlier – crossing the road. I watch my old boss enter the building I used to have a desk in (he’s still there, of course), pass the restaurant where I got my first payslip (different owners, now), and when we arrive at dinner, I recognise one of the bartenders. We worked together at another restaurant, years ago. He moved to Perth, I thought, became an accountant. But he’s back, too. It seems this place has a way of doing that.

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the harsh truth about first drafts

Your first draft is going to suck.

A lot.

Shut up and listen.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a screenplay, a theatre script, a short story, a poem, a recipe, a shopping list, a to-do list or the passive-aggressive note about the dirty dishes you leave on the fridge for your housemate, the first version of it will be utterly irredeemable rubbish. I would use it as kindling in winter when the icicles make the windows go foggy, but I’m worried the smoke will be purple and I’ll wake up two days later in a bathtub with a dry mouth and a missing kidney.

You can’t prevent it. You can’t make it slightly less true by writing a first draft so uncharacteristically stellar that the second draft will essentially write itself. Neil Gaiman said the truth is a cave in the black mountains, and I say it is a freight train winding through them (it could also be a cave. I will not argue with Mr. Gaiman). You can’t stop it. You can’t.

Oh, but try. Please, go right ahead. Do all the things you know you have to, from reading unqualified advice in blog posts just like this one.

Read books, both fiction and non-fiction. Learn the craft. Practice makes perfect. Buy Stephen King’s On Writing and read it twice, armed with a highlighter and Post-Its. Read all the books you hate because you hate them, armed with the same, because you learn as much from what you don’t like as you do from what you do, and all the books you hate because you’re jealous, armed with starry eyes and if-wishing-made-it-so and what could become bitterness, one day, if you aren’t very careful. Go to workshops. Act like you are the only person in those workshops. Sign up to online courses. Get top marks.

But you’ll fail. You can’t do it. You just can’t. That’s the bad news.

The good news is, nobody else can either. Because writing is not writing. Writing is – you know this one, or you bloody should, if you’ve read all those books on the craft in your efforts to write the Holy Grail of first drafts – rewriting.

So, you have heard that, right? Right. But you’d also heard that no first draft is perfect before now, because I am not a genius and I did not come up with it, and you’ve made it into this paragraph, and you’re still foolishly railing against that basketball-sized nugget of wisdom like you’re a two-year-old on a sugar high in the lolly aisle. I know because I was once you. I still am, by and large, because change takes time and people are stubborn, no more so than writers and artists, who can feel inextricably linked to the work they create.

Sit down.

Look at these words very carefully:

Writing is rewriting.

Writing.

Is.

Rewriting.

God, I love it. Look at the way the R and the E and the W and the R and the I and the T and the other I and the N and the G all line up like that:

REWRITING

 

oprah rewriting

rewriting depp

rewriting toy story

(it works on every. single. meme.)

This is the singularly most important, horrible, unavoidable, fucked-up, tawdry, bitch-slapping, unfair, gleefully underrated, wonderfully godawful piece of writing advice you’ll ever ignore.

Yes, ignore.

Because you’re a two-year-old in a lolly aisle, remember?

You think you get it now – OKAY, LIZ, YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO MAKE A HILARIOUS OPRAH MEME TO GET YOUR POINT ACROSS – but er, yeah, I did, because you still don’t understand. Not because you’re thick, can’t read, television’s distracting you, etc. etc. It’s because you’re a human, and the truth is harsh. The idea that you can spend weeks, months, years on something – anything, but in this case, a first draft of a creative pursuit that has until this point lived only in your mind – and have someone tell you it’s anything less than mind-blowingly orgasmic is a massive kick in the teeth.

Here’s the thing, though. The sooner you understand it, embrace it, give it big ol’ kiss and a cuddle on the couch while you watch your programs, the sooner you can move the hell on and do better, be better. Because here’s the thing I’ve learned about the writing process, something that’s really hit home for me in recent months, something that sounds really bloody obvious, when you say it out loud, but something I wish I’d had drilled into my skull years ago:

Your first draft? Tip of the iceberg.

I’m not saying this because I don’t want you to write a phenomenal first draft, or at least try very hard to. Some people actually can. A select few very, very rare rainbow-coloured unicorns with blue pelts and horns made of platinum. This is not for them. This is for the yous and mes of the world. The people who don’t know what they don’t know with such unknowingness that it’s almost evangelical. The rainbow unicorns only have knowingness because they’ve gone through the drafting process a billion times and cottoned on to the tricks and shortcuts and avoid potholes wherever possible, in the same way a clever 17-year-old can ace a History exam with only a night’s study and a working knowledge of the curriculum.

Don’t worry, though. Rainbow unicorns aren’t born. They’re made.

You will write your first draft and you will put it away and forget it exists for at least a week or two, because all the good books tell you to do that, too, and they’re right. After your trial separation is over, you’ve caught up on House Of Cards and you can spot the difference between forest and trees, your work as a writer begins.

You’ll start off by un-splitting your infinitives and killing your adverbs. You’ll replace commas with semicolons and delete a few superfluous lines of dialogue. That sentence on page 47 now makes sense. You’ve thought of a title for Chapter Ten.

And then you’ll read it again, with the feedback your Inner Circle – the lucky friends who get to read your work long before anybody else will, who get the first chance to provide high praise and thoughtful analyses and warm dotings – have finally given you you. This is the best part. This is the worst part. This is the fun part.

Characters you spent months breathing life into, pages and pages of unused dialogue and writing exercises just so you could get to really know them and their voice, will be deleted, leaving not even a blank space in their absence, as if they were never there at all. Only the people who read your first draft will get to meet them, or the people you tell, sobbing over your dinner at a family gathering weeks later, still knee-deep in the mourning period for a fictional entity you fucking loved but had to erase. Because ultimately – in your heartest of hearts – you know that deleting them makes your work better. Your story stronger. Your still-existing character arcs can arc their guts out because of it. So, yes, you deleted a character. You’ll do this more than once. It won’t hurt less the tenth time.

Story arcs you fleshed out within an inch of their lives are replaced by that throwaway line in scene three that some keen-eyed fucker has picked up on, and they’ve planted the seed and you can’t get the thought out of your head now. Hey, I know that was just a joke and all, but what if his sister really did know something about his girlfriend’s death? they say. Maybe that’s why she’s so keen for him to move on, you know? Because she’s worried about getting found out?

These people are the devil. They will ask you questions and make you think. You will delete pages and pages and pages and write so many more because of these people, and they’ll turn your story into something it wasn’t when you originally started stumbling around in First Draft Land: good. Surround yourself with these people and know they want your work to be as amazing as you do and be grateful.

Do not develop thick skin; develop low-grade adhesive skin.

Let some things stick and others clatter to the floor where you can jump up and down on them with reckless abandon.

Some won’t like your Working Title and some will and some won’t understand it and some will have suggestions. You will write a list. You will narrow that list down, then think of enough alternatives to populate a new list. You will pick one, and repeat it to yourself in the quiet emptiness of your home, when nobody else is around, and it will be yours and yours only. You will watch TV to celebrate and forget about it. It will crawl back into your mind to be hated and discarded the next day. Rinse and repeat, you poor bastard. You’ll settle on something eventually.

Because like your first draft, your first title will probably suck, too. Nobody will hardly ever know or care what it once was. You can’t go to Dymocks and buy the first draft of Animal Farm and you don’t want to. You want it to be done. You want it to be the best possible version of itself before it ends up in the hands of a reader, reviewer, publisher, ex-lover, whoever. You owe your work that. You owe yourself that. And you will not get that without writing the shittiest first draft you possibly can, and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until you’re so close to the horizon you can’t see the shore anymore.

I haven’t even told you the best bit. The best bit is, if your first draft is set to be inescapably awful, then guess what? The pressure’s off. The world knows it’ll suck. Let it. Just get it all out. Write and write and write and don’t think, not too much, not yet. The thinking comes later, in draft five or ten. The first draft is for you, and your Inner Circle. Let them hate it. Let them see its promise. Let them tell you to get rid of everything between pages five and fifty and delight in highlighting the whole goddamn section and slamming your finger into the delete key like an unmerciful God. You’re on the path to making it better. To make it great. To make it loved. There is nothing more exciting than that.

It takes courage to create something and more courage to share that something. But to willingly invite criticism of that something, for the sake of its betterment, takes a certain amount of insanity, it’s true.

Welcome to the asylum. It’s a lot more fun that it sounds.

theft, sincerity and pink hair: a day-late christmas carol

Somebody stole my phone today. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

The details don’t matter. I joined the masses trawling the ailses for Boxing Day savings, I made sure my handbag was zipped, I avoided flashing around the envelope with my Christmas cash inside, and then I was texting my mother, and then it was gone.

I think I put it down on the counter when I got served, but only in front of me, just below my hands, which held my wallet. Somewhere between my friend, who was right next to me the whole time, remembering to give me a voucher I was yet to use, and then me confusing the poor lady serving me because I presented it too late and changing my mind to avoid complicating things further, someone who is not me or my friend picked it up and walked away with it. And that was that.

I think. The truth is, I don’t know.

I am not a careless person. I keep my phone in my back pocket (because women don’t get to wear jeans with front pockets big enough to fit anything more than lint and fury, AMIRIGHT LADIES) at all times. I’m in the habit of sliding it straight back into that pocket the moment I’m done with it, so I don’t lose it, misplace it or, you know, get it stolen. Perhaps I did it then, before I took my wallet out of my bag, and fell prey to a skilful as hell pickpocket. It was, after all, a JB Hi-Fi on Boxing Day. Everybody there was a sweaty, budget-breaking sardine, and every time you moved in any given direction, you walked into someone or something and found yourself apologising to them or it.

I realised all of three seconds after being handed my receipt that something was amok. I didn’t recall putting it in my handbag as opposed to my pocket, but then I rarely do, such is the nature of a deeply-ingrained habit. My handbag is deep and pocket-y and finding anything inside quickly is impossible, so I shouldn’t have been concerned at that moment, but there it was: the voice of cynicism, rearing its head in the darkest corners of my brain, like a red flag billowing in an unlucky breeze. I’d been had, and I knew it. I just had to wait for the rest of me to catch up.

I bolted back to the counter, knowing I would find it next to the Eftpos machine, knowing if it wasn’t there, the girl serving me would’ve seen it and put it aside, knowing if she hadn’t, the kindly fellow shopper who came after me would have handed it to the security guards at the front of the shop, who would take it to the centre’s concierge desk, who would do an announcement over the PA, and it would be like in a Nora Ephron movie except I’d be running towards the iPhone 6 I’ve only had for two months and not Tom Hanks.

None of that happened, of course. The realisation that somebody had done something so undeniably shitty as this the day after Christmas made me cry, just for a bit, when I rang my mother, who was fresh off the plane on a much-needed holiday and suddenly faced with spending part of it liaising with our insurers. The Christmas correlation is a whole other blog post (I subscribe to the “I don’t know why we only put aside one day of the 365 in a year to give thanks, remind our family we love them and get all misty-eyed at our shared humanity, but one day is way better than none, and also stop buying so many damn presents” school of thought on that), but I think we can all agree: you don’t fuck with the festive season. Twelve hours ago, my cousin had announced to my entire family she’s pregnant with her first kid, and nobody stopped smiling until they went to sleep. Now, I’m in a parking lot with the smokers and skateboarders, tearfully telling my mother I want whoever did this to die and almost half meaning it.

Be a shitty human in your own time. At Christmas you’re on Baby Jesus’ time.  

I’m undoubtedly and without shame one of Those People who consider a piece of technology to be their fifth limb. I use it always and for everything. Texting, tweeting, emailing, reading, browsing. Checking the time. I say “without shame” because my kind get chided for being “glued to our phones”, I don’t think, within the boundaries of politeness, that there’s anything shameful in actively keeping in touch with both loved ones and current events. My phone is the medium through which I do both, because I’m not made of time and also I actually like technology. So, it goes without saying I felt headless when I realised not only was it Gone, it wasn’t Left-It-In-My-Car-Again Gone, Fallen-Between-The-Couch-Cushions Gone or Folded-Between-The-Pages-Of-The-Last-Book-I-Was-Reading Gone. It was Not-Coming-Back Gone. For reasons completely outside my control, for motivations totally beyond my comprehension.

And comprehension is a big part of what threw me in all this. Beyond being just plain rattled, I was shocked. Astounded. Downright befuddled and only capable of talking in questions consisting of just one word: “What? How? Why?”, like some primary school teacher deconstructing Diary Of A Wombat with her class. The feeling wasn’t unfamiliar. A few years ago, somebody reversed into the side of my car while I was at a show, and when I came out I had to crawl over the gearstick because the driver’s side door wouldn’t open. They hadn’t left a note, but I worked for the local newspaper at the time and needed no excuse to do a Lois Lane, writing an inside cover piece on the whole debacle. The day after we printed, a woman rang my editor to say she’d seen it happen on the night and written down the guy’s license plate, simultaneously ensuring I’d get his money for the extensive repairs and restoring my shaky faith in humanity. In spite of my inability to do a full Lois Lane this time around, it turned out there’s a Nice Lady Reading The Paper Who Did The Right Thing in this story, too.

She has pink hair.

She’s about my age. She wears outrageously cute floral dresses and a smile that strikes me as vaguely cheeky, as if grinning to herself almost constantly at something funny in her head. She’s skinny and she has a lanyard on with a name tag I can’t read. I ask her if she’s already serving someone because she’s walked towards me with a lot of purpose for somebody doing nothing, and she says she isn’t, with an expectant lilt about her, which makes me realise I might look as lost as I feel. I ask her for the cheapest, nastiest phone she has on offer, and she considers this a fun challenge immediately.

She takes one from the cupboard she’s unlocked, thinks it over a moment and decides she can “do better than that”, and by “better” she means “worse” and we both know it so I chuckle and just like that she has made me do what I have so far failed to: laugh. In the face of the person who took something that didn’t belong to them. At the idea of somebody who barely remembers what VHS means using a phone invented before Bluetooth. For not realising it could have been much worse, and it wasn’t, and it will at least make a good story one day. With the knowledge whoever did it is already far worse off than me for having done it, because some people are their own punishment, or maybe they simply needed it more than I do, in which case, I really hope it suits their purposes.

When the cheapest, nastiest phone has emerged from its hiding place, the girl with pink hair tells me she’s going to discount it to the point where I can almost pay with the coins I’ve accumulated in the cup holders of my car. She also says she can restore the phone number I suspended sometime between calling my mother again and filing a police report to the new SIM card, and I sincerely tell her she has made my day. At some point, she hands me an invoice with a flourish, and tells me, “We’ll split and meet back here”, like she’s Nancy Drew and I’m whoever Nancy Drew regularly had adventures with. I sincerely thank her, and sincerely smile, because sometimes I worry there’s not enough sincerity in the world and if there was maybe people wouldn’t steal phones off retail countertops while the owner’s handing over the voucher their Nan tucked into a Christmas card. When all is said and done, I ask her what her name is with my hand extended to shake hers in thanks, because I’ve read her name tag by now and I’m not sure how to pronounce the three letters written on it.

The thing is, there’s only one reason a writer will ask someone they’ll never see again for their name: they want to name a character after you. You’ve earned it. This is trade-secret stuff and I might get kicked out of the club for saying so, but you’ve inspired them, as weird as it sounds, for reasons good or bad. Maybe that character will die a thousand deaths and maybe they’ll meet a kind face in a bookstore on a rainy afternoon. Her name is pronounced unlike how I would’ve predicted and I file it away, and her handshake is strong and friendly and pointed. Handshakes of that kind might be rarer and more important than sincerity.

I left wondering if I might not replace my iPhone at all. The thought lingers. Now I have a Nokia in my life, and we all know how bloody brilliant they are. It doesn’t have email or a camera and it needed me to change settings before it could automatically update the time, but it has actual buttons, and it hasn’t been charged since I took it out of the box and couldn’t care less. I’d compare it to the phone I got when I was ten, but it doesn’t have Snake. You can’t have everything.