Writer’s Diary #4: Build a bridge and find your inner engineer

An engineer taught me to write. I tell this story to anyone who asks me for advice about writing.

Years ago, when I was struggling to start writing my novel, The Occidentals, a structural engineer of close acquaintance told me that, in his mind, writing was fundamentally the same thing as building a segmental bridge.

At the time, this accomplished young engineer was working on a big elevated expressway that required thousands of prefabricated concrete segments to be precast off-site and then trucked in piece by piece. We would see the trucks, trundling along and not elegant at all, taking up space on the road and disturbing the traffic.

In its entirety, the engineer said, the project seemed vast and overwhelming. But once the design, construction plan and calculations were done, it was better to manage the project day by day than to think of it as a whole. So, he had goals for how many segments needed to be completed daily and weekly, in order to finish the project on time. As he explained, eventually, if you meet your target most days (and use others to make up ground), you have your finished bridge, ready for the public.

So, he said, he reckoned that if you attacked the writing of a novel the same way, you’d soon have your completed manuscript. Think about how many chapters (segments) you want and about how many pages will be in each. Set a deadline and work out how many chapters you want to finish a month. Perhaps you have 20 chapters and you will do two a month of about 20 pages each. Thus, you must write 10 pages a week. You have Saturday and two evenings a week to devote to writing. So, say, each Saturday you will commit to writing four pages, and each available evening to three pages.

After 10 months, you will have your completed 400-page manuscript, ready for the next stage, editing.

I’ve been thinking about this advice again, lately. I think there are more similarities between bridges and books than just a work ethic. Both bridges and books are more than the sum of their parts. When you look at a beautiful bridge like this…

The completed Pierre Pflimlin Bridge, which was opened in 2002.

The Pierre Pflimlin Bridge, opened in 2002, over the Rhine.

…you probably don’t think about the concrete, water, labour, segments and so on that made it, unless you’re an engineer. In other words, you don’t think of it under construction, like this:

Construction of the segmental Pierre Pflimlin Bridge over the Rhine in 2001. The bridge was opened in 2002.

Construction of the segmental Pierre Pflimlin Bridge in 2001.

Similarly, when a book is published, readers don’t think much about the blood, sweat and tears the author went through, first to write it at all, and second to get it published. Nor do they consider the work of the publisher in taking the novel from manuscript to book. A good book is, rather, a thing of beauty, a work of art, and like a bridge, a symbol of humankind’s infinite creative capabilities.

A monologue in Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind here:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!  how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

[The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene II. Text presented following the First Folio, 1623; published by Rex Library, 1973.]

 

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Travel Theme: Walls

In response to a theme suggested by Where’s my backpack?

I’m fascinated by walls. I like brick, stone, glass and wooden walls, and I especially like tiled walls. I like walls with wallpaper from the 1960s and 1970s, and from Victorian times. I like crumbling ancient temple walls and glittering Thai palace walls. I’ve taken lots of photos of walls, and I’ve begun to feature walls in my artwork inspired by these photos.

This one is of an ancient wall at the temple ruins of the old capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya (1350-1767). It’s a miniature, the size of a business card, and is part of a set of four I did of temple walls and windows in Thailand.

Ayutthaya-1

In November last year, I visited the Grand Palace in Bangkok for the first time in 11 years. This is a pastel painting I did depicting part of a tiled wall at a temple within the palace grounds.

GrandPalace

 

The physicality of walls as man-made structures pervades most cultures—so much so, that when there are no walls, or when walls are knocked down or fall down, it is something to be remarked upon. Walls can keep enemies out, imprison those within, or conceal secrets. Walls are the key to privacy in the modern era, in which access to personal privacy has become paramount.

In pondering the significance of the wall across various cultures, I came up with these lists:

Geographical locations

Great Wall, China

Berlin Wall, Germany

City walls to keep out invaders, eg Chiang Mai, York

Wall St, US

Hadrian’s Wall, UK

Maginot Line, France

Western Wall (Wailing Wall), Israel

Wall of Remembrance, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

 

Virtual Walls

Facebook wall

The Virtual Wall Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The Virtual Wall of Fame to celebrate Manny’s music shop in New York, the “original music superstore”, 1935-2009.

Remembering Our Fallen: The Virtual Wall of Remembrance for US service people in all conflicts

Woolworths Australia’s Virtual Walls for Christmas

US-Mexico virtual-wall border

 

English usage of the word “wall”

Interestingly, many languages differentiate between exterior walls and interior walls, but English does not.

“If these walls could talk…”

“The walls have ears”

Wallflower

Wall eye

Wall of fire

Wall of water

To drive someone up the wall

To hit the wall

Wall of sorrow

Wall of shame

Wall of fame

Wall of honour

To put up (psychological) walls

Wall-to-wall, as in carpet, but also TV coverage

Off the wall

To bang one’s head against the wall

To have one’s back to the wall

To take something (such as a business) to the wall

Climbing the walls

Hole-in-the-wall bar

Sea wall

Fly-on-the-wall

Stone-walled

Wall hanging

Wallpaper

 

 

Bambi, the dentist and the Mona Lisa

How lovely it was for me when last Sunday, while I was on vacation in Fremantle, Western Australia, a crown on one of my teeth fell out during breakfast.  For the rest of our time there, mostly spent seeing family on both sides, I had to be careful not to smile too widely, lest I look like a pirate.
We returned to Melbourne in the early hours of Thursday morning, and this morning (Friday) saw me at my excellent dentist, Dr L., his able assistant, Ms K., and friendly administrator Ms V. “You’ve presented me with a challenge,” Dr L. said cheerfully. I won’t go too deeply into what had to be done, save that  it involved a “slow drill” and something called a “para-post”.
It’s all completely painless, of course, thanks to local anaesthetic. I read a lot of historical novels and it’s the one thing that makes me glad I wasn’t born before the 20th century. Anyhow, although dentistry doesn’t hurt now, it’s not particularly pleasant. So, I close my eyes and try to divert my mind. I used to think about a beautiful beach—white sand, turquoise water, a yellow umbrella. Then I played too much of an iPhone app called Distant Shore, and got sick of the perfect beach.
So, what do I think of now? Bambi. That is because Bambi is the sweetest little thing in the history of fictional characters, and Disney captured perfectly this essence of sweet innocence in its portrayal of the fawn in the 1942 movie.

Bambi
I’ve been wanting to write a piece about Bambi for a while, because suddenly, everywhere I look, are images of him. The protagonist of one of the earliest anti-hunting pro-environmental novels seems to be making a comeback—if he ever went away, that is. My earliest memory of Bambi is probably the Little Golden book with the Disney animation characters, but the story was first published in German in 1923 as a novel,  Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by the Ausrian-Hungarian writer Felix Salten,  who sold the film rights for $1000 in 1933.

Bambi_book_cover
Just before Christmas, I saw a 1950s ceramic Bambi ornament for sale at a shop near me called Retro Active, which sells 20th-century memorabilia, jewellery and furniture. It was $30 but, it being Christmas and not my birthday, I thought it wasn’t good form to buy a present for myself. However, shortly after Christmas, it is my birthday, so when the shop opened after the break, I went back to buy Bambi. Guess what? Bambi was gone. I imagine that dear little deer sitting now on someone else’s mantelpiece. Since then, I have seen a Bambi lamp for a baby’s room, and a fantastic Bambi book sculpture, which you can see here.
So synonymous has the term “Bambi” become with innocence and goodness, that to say something is “like killing Bambi” is to brand it just about the worst thing possible. So I was horrified, while researching this piece, to come across a discussion thread on the internet which started with the question, “Is it illegal to shoot a baby deer?”

Perhaps Bambi is making a comeback because, in this commodified, mediatised world in which we westerners can have just about anything we want, limited only by the size of our wallets, Bambi represents what is seen as a simpler, more honest time in which the goodies and the baddies were clearly delineated.We tend to apply this sentimentality or faulty nostalgia for “a simpler time” to many long-gone eras:   I mean, it’s all very well, for example, to look back to the early 19th century through sumptuous TV mini-series of Jane Austen novels and envy the seemingly peaceful and uncomplicated rural lifestyles back then. What we don’t see are the realities of life without all we take for granted today: electricity, refrigeration, and modern medicine, for example; and anaesthetic for visits to the dentist. Before 1844, dental anaesthetic was unknown: routine, reliable local anaesthetic without too many nasty side effects was not introduced until as late as the 1940s. More about that here.

Lack of proper anaesthetic meant restorative dental work was extremely limited before the 20th century. So, if the heroine of  the 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, had toothache, she would simply have had the tooth pulled out. As my late father, a dentist, told me: a real Elizabeth Bennet would have lost many of her teeth by her 20s, and those she still had would probably have been brown with rot. She would definitely not have had a mouth full of white, even teeth. I never could persuade him from his view that period dramas should present characters with teeth like they would really have had.
He was always convinced he knew the secret to the Mona Lisa’s smile. “It’s obvious,” he said of the early 16th-century painting. “It’s because all her teeth would have been rotten or missing, and she smiles that strange way because she has chronic toothache.”

Mona Lisa

In Bambi’s idealised world, all the goodies, of course, would have perfect teeth and would never need to go to the dentist. I hope this is my last dental visit until my usual six-monthly check-up is due. Fingers crossed.

Writer’s Diary #3: Into the unknown

Let your writing take you into the unknown. (By the way, I visited this jungle path, at Queen Sirikit's palace grounds on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in November. I didn't realise until I got home that I had been there before, 20 years ago).

Let your writing take you into the unknown.
(By the way, I walked along this jungle-like path at Queen Sirikit’s palace grounds on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in November. I didn’t realise until I got home that I had been there before, 20 years ago).

I’m not the first to say “Don’t necessarily write about what you know; write about what you don’t know”, but I am still in a minority, as conventional advice tells writers to write what they know and what they know about.

This seems strange to me, since writing is a journey of discovery, a journey into the unknown, even if you know your subject matter. There is always something mystical about good fiction writing: it is more than the sum of its parts.

More important to creative writing than knowing about your subject or theme is being passionate about them and being able to write about them in a way that no one has written before.

However, you do have to do your research. While it’s tempting to jump right into the writing, doing some research before you start is a huge help because it enables you to concentrate more on the writing when the time comes.

When I moved to Thailand in the early 1990s, I decided I would write a novel set in 19th-century Siam. I knew almost nothing then about history in that part of the world, except highly romanticised (and mostly incorrect) information from popular western culture.

When I found the Siam Society, a club in Bangkok promoting the study of South-East Asian culture and history, I was on my way. They had a library of 20,000 books, many of them on old Siam. I did six months’ research reading these books and taking notes before I started writing The Occidentals. In those days, research was not generally done on a computer screen or using the internet, and we kept track of our research using an index card system, as I wrote about here last week.

Actually, writing the first draft of my novel took me only three months—half as long as it took to do the research (though when it was accepted for publication, my editor asked me to add 100 pages, so I had to go back to my research, and I spent another three months on the addition). I wrote every day, six days a week, for five hours, 12.30-5.30pm.

The six months’ ground-work had ongoing benefits: I used it as the start of research for my PhD in the 2000s, which in turn became my second book, Imagining Siam: A Travellers’ Literary Guide to Thailand, and which has led to an academic career.

In saying don’t be afraid to write about what you don’t know, I’m in good company. For more on writing about the unknown, see this article in The Atlantic by Harvard Creative Writing Faculty director Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d love to hear from you about your launch into the unknown for the sake of your writing.

My life in TV

Going, going, gone: some of my old TV Week clippings that I don't need any more.

Going, going, gone: some of my old TV Week clippings that I don’t need any more.

You know how an old song can conjure up images of where you were in the past when that song was popular? I have the same memories when I see old TV programs. I was an entertainment journalist from the 1980s to the 2000s, and browsing through my clippings file is like a walk through the history of Australian and New Zealand television and associated events in my own life.

I worked for Australia’s then-most popular entertainment magazine, TV Week, from 1989-1990 and from 1993-1997, becoming assistant editor in 1994. I kept all my clippings—probably about 1000 articles—from that time, and a fair few of the magazines intact, particularly the editions for which I was acting editor.

After my father died in 2006, my mother gave me their collection of seven years’ worth of TV Weeks that I had written for. This collection took up eight drawers in my home office.

Recently, I’ve been trying to streamline my household and get rid of stuff I don’t wear, don’t read, don’t look at, don’t need. As the Canadian writer Fransi Weinstein said in her blog Three Hundred Sixty-Five this month, it’s about “living simpler”.

So, some of those old TV Week magazines had to go. As journalists, we were taught from the beginning to keep all our clippings. They are a record of your work and you need them when you apply for a new job.

Today, however, no one would be interested in my clippings from so long ago. And if I need clippings for a job application, I have more recent ones that I can simply provide a website link to.

I don’t have children, so there’s no sense that I would need to keep something for posterity. Yet, always before when I’ve tried to cull this collection, I’ve become lost in sentimentality and nostalgia, and have ended up putting the mags back in the drawers.

Not this time, though. Last weekend, I got rid of 60% of the magazines in the eight drawers, plus about half of my clippings, keeping only the more notable among them. I also threw out lots of clippings from my work as a news reporter in the 1980s, again keeping only the important ones.

Now I have extra storage space in which I can accrue more stuff.

A Writer’s Diary #2: Goodbye, dear little filing system

1990s writer's filing system

Ye Olde Worlde Filing System, c1991.

Remember this? If you’re under 30, you’ve probably never seen one: it’s an index-card filing system. Before the internet, this is how we used to file our research. This is the one I compiled when I was writing my historical novel, The Occidentals, set in 19th-century Thailand.
I did six months of full-time research before I started writing the novel. This involved reading and indexing information from 42 books and hundreds of articles. Then, say, when I wanted to know about transport in Bangkok in the 1860s, I would look up the index card labelled “Transport”, and it would tell me the books, articles and page numbers where I would find the information.
Though I have not used this index since the late 1990s, I feel sentimental about it and have kept it all this time in my office. I’ve tried to throw it away several times, but something always stops me doing it. However, finally, I’ve agreed with myself, something once so useful has become just a waste of space.
So, I thought I would take a photo of it and write an obituary for my dear little filing system. Goodbye, you served me well, but now it’s time to go. Xoxo.

A Writer’s Diary #1: Finding time to write

Books by Caron Eastgate Dann (previously James)This year, I have determined that I will find time to work on my creative writing, instead of just thinking about it. This will mean writing every day, even if I am tired and overworked from my day job.

I know I can find the time because of this: nearly two years ago, I took up painting as a hobby. Since then, I have produced more than 40 finished paintings, variously  in oils, watercolours, acrylics and pastel. I paint four or five evenings a week, sometimes only for 30 minutes, sometimes intermittently over five hours.

Writing after hours is more difficult to do because in my job as an academic, I am on a computer screen much of the day, working on scholarly articles, lectures, and so on, or I am standing in front of a class of up to 60 university students. I don’t feel like writing at the end of the day. I feel like watching TV, eating pasta and painting pictures.

So, my best option is probably to get up an hour earlier and write before the rest of the day starts. Or, just make myself write at the end of the day for an hour. Sometimes I don’t feel like painting at first, but if I just set out my equipment and start, I am soon engaged by it. Maybe it will be the same with writing.

My other problem is that I have made significant (but slow) progress on two novels, and I think it is better to choose just one to work on. They are both historical novels, and one is a sequel to my first book, The Occidentals, initially published as long ago as 1999, then in German editions in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Where has the time gone?

While I’ve done much of the research for these two new books, there is always more to do. Some time, however, I have to stop researching and get writing. I constantly toy with the possibility of writing a contemporary novel, too, and my head spins with ideas.

Ideas, however, do not a novel make; constant hard work every day does. Writing a novel is like climbing a mountain: then having to revisit the mountain and climb it all over again when the editing starts.

My new writing program starts on Thursday, January 10, because it’s the day after my birthday. Also, my day job doesn’t start until February, so I should have the time I need to get a good start on my projects. I’m looking forward to a fruitful writing year.

Bloggers for Peace: Rediscovering the inner peace of childhood

This post for Bloggers for Peace is inspired by a photograph taken by my childhood friend, the New Zealand actor Yvette Parsons. She took it while lying in a hammock during her annual break on Waiheke Island, off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand. This looks like paradise to me, and she agrees. It brings back to mind those simple pleasures in life: a good book, warm weather and a gentle breeze, an unspoilt view, nothing much to do but go for a swim, read a few pages and doze the day away. It took me, in fact, back to my own childhood in New Zealand.

The view from a hammock at Kennedy's Bay, Waiheke Island, New Zealand. Picture: Yvette Parsons

The view from a hammock at Kennedy’s Bay, Waiheke Island, New Zealand. Picture: Yvette Parsons

Remember childhood, and how easy it was to find inner peace, even though you didn’t know that was what you were doing? Provided you were lucky enough to have a great childhood, like I did, peace was something you took for granted. As I see it, peace is about safety, shelter, freedom, love and comfort. I was so lucky to have found all these things at home.
To illustrate this, I’d like to share in this post some of my favourite childhood memories:
*Deep, long sleeps, and next morning bouncing out of bed, eager to meet the day ahead. On Sundays, I was told not to get up too early, so I’d lie in bed listening to the children’s requests story hour on the little red transistor radio my parents had bought me.
*Our “under the house house”. This was something my brother, Phillip, and I put together. Under our house was a basement, not big enough for an adult to stand in, but big enough for a child. It ran the length and breadth of the house and contained the wooden foundations which, upstairs, divided the house into rooms. Mum and Dad used the front space by the door to store the lawn mower and gardening equipment. They never went further back: if they had, they would have found our secret house: rooms with curtains (cadged from discarded material), book cases, tables, cusions, cups, knives and forks. It was like a giant dollhouse. Phillip and I would allow only the two neighbouring kids, a brother and sister about the same age as us, to come in. We’d think it hilarious to hear Mum or Dad above, calling our names in vain, not knowing we were right beneath them. Then we’d hear, “I don’t know where they get to”. We never did let on, and Dad eventually found the “under the house house” many years later when he was preparing to sell the Auckland house. He found it just as we’d left it, and it must have been sad for him: I had moved out of home at 17 to become a journalist, and Phillip was killed in a motorbike accident when he was 17 and I was 19.
But to continue with some happy memories from childhood:
*Finishing a homework assignment, and having the rest of the day to play.
*Sprinting across a field, running as fast as I could.
*Ice skating to disco music, skating very fast with the wind in my hair.
*Rolling over and over down the freshly mown lawn at my grandparents’ house, then sitting with my grandad on the deck, sharing his binoculars to watch the yacht races on the Hauraki Gulf.
*Reading Famous Five books under the covers, with a torch, when I was supposed to be asleep. It was like being in a tent.
*That lovely feeling that, no matter what happened, Mum and Dad would make it right. No matter how many kids were mean, or if you’d fallen over and hurt yourself, or been disappointed with a classroom grade, when you got home, you were in that magical world again, our own domain.