The Story Behind the Story

I’m in the process of writing up my exegesis. My novel Open Cut, apart from minor edits, is finished, and I now have to explain how my novel came to be this way. I’m actually enjoying doing this more than I thought I would. As part of my English Honours degree I had to write many essays on other writers, W.H.Auden, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. The essays were often focussed on the biography of the writer and on the finished novel, poem or short story, not on the creative process that was used to construct the work. Literature courses are directed towards the end product, the published article, as if the context in which it was written has no bearing.

I have to examine my own novel, and illuminate the process I used to write it, the story behind the story. QUT lecturer on Practice-led research, Daniel Mafe, said that we have to know our own work as well as we know those that we have studied. But, of course, I know my own work much more intimately. I know how certain scenes developed, I know where I was when I wrote them, I know if I wrote them in long hand, or typed them straight onto my laptop, in short, I know my novel.

A few weeks ago, in one of my final lectures at uni, I read a couple of sections of my novel to the class. When I’d finished, someone said, ‘Despite the intimate details, it was obviously easy for you to write.’ This assumption could not be further from the truth. It has been an excruciating process that has taken place over a period of five years. But I suppose one cannot be blamed for thinking that the writing of the novel was easy. I’ve listened to enough writers to know that myths still abound about creative writing: the idea ‘just fell from the sky’, it just ‘came to me’, the character ‘spoke to me’, it was like a ‘dream’, and so on. I don’t blame writers for not wanting to tell about how they write. It is an ugly, messy, painful process, or, at least, it is for me. I’ve been brave enough to write the novel, now I have to be brave enough to tell its story.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

I’ve recently finished reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. It is the story of the inner world of a group of mismatched people living in a small American town in the south. It was first published in 1940 and was written by McCullers when she was just twenty-three.

I first came across the author when one of my supervisors recommended I read The Member of the Wedding for my exegesis. It’s the story of a young girl who watches on the sidelines as her brother gets married. She feels left behind and longs to be a part of the big event. In her novels McCullers writes about the inner world of her characters, noting with poignant detail their idiosyncrasies, loves, hopes, and dreams. The characters are loners, wanderers, never feeling at home.

In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, one of the main characters, Mr Singer, is described as a ‘deaf mute’, to whom the others go to vent their feelings and frustrations. In his small rented room they opened up, telling their desires, wants and needs to the man who merely nodded sagely. His inability to communicate was interpreted as a deep understanding by the other characters, who wanted someone with whom they could connect, and who would listen to them without judgement. They wanted to be heard, and the irony is that they told their stories to a man who was deaf.

Other characters, Biff, a café owner, muses, ‘Blount and Mick made of him a sort of home-made God. Owing to the fact he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have’. He could be anyone, to anybody. ‘The rumors about the mute were wild, rich and varied. The Jews said that he was a Jew … A lone Turk who had roamed into the town years ago … claimed passionately to his wife that the mute was Turkish’. We take little pieces of people and say they are ours – we are the same, ignoring the differences, though they may be as wide as chasms.

The small town invented a background for the mute, he became their own creation, something that he was not, in order to fill a need in themselves. It was selfish. Everyone who came across him believed they saw something of themselves reflected in him. They wanted so strongly to connect they imagined their own likeness in the other person. Each character who visited the man was self-absorbed and knew nothing of the other. Indeed, in the only scene in the book when all of them are together in the mute’s room, they do not speak.

In some ways writing a blog is like talking to a ‘deaf mute’, someone who won’t interrupt, who will, perhaps, listen. I’m free to tell my thoughts and ideas. Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones, ‘’Think of sharing your need to talk with someone else when you write’. This is the overwhelming need of all the characters in Carson’s book. The need to talk, to be heard, to have a voice.

At the end of the novel, Singer commits suicide and the whole town mourns. He had no idea what he meant to the people who visited him. Even his funeral brought envy, as one character says, ‘I certainly hope that when I’m dead and gone as many peoples grieves for me as grieves for Mr Singer’. Reading that I was reminded of the time when I worked at an engineer firm at Spring Hill not long after I’d left school. Only a few weeks before I had been promoted from the ‘print girl’ to a tracer, and my old job fell to new girl. She had been there for just under two weeks, when, stepping out from the sidewalk to cross the street she was hit by a bus. The incident affected me greatly, mainly because I’d kept thinking, that could’ve been me, and then felt a sickening, overwhelming guilt for being so heartless. The girl survived but had severe facial injuries and had to undergo reconstructive surgery.

A few days later I had to ring up an office to put an order in and the woman on the other end, knowing what firm I was calling from, starting speaking about the girl who’d been hit.

‘It’s such a dreadful accident, I’m so, so sorry. I can’t believe it happened. How awful for the poor girl,’ she said.

On and on she prattled. ‘She’s not dead,’ I snapped.

‘Oh no, I know,’ she said, ‘it’s just that everyone here loved her, she was always so nice,’ she said.

At this point I realised that the woman on the phone had been talking about me, because the new girl had only been with us a short time. Everyone in the office was listening to the conversation and I covered my face as I began to cry, listening to her sing my praises.

‘I think … I think you mean me. You think I was the one hit by the bus, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t hit. We got a new girl last week. She was the one hit. Not me.’
I could hear her shouting out to people in her office. ‘It’s not her, she’s not the one hit, she’s not the one, it was someone else. Not her.’

There was cheering in the background. Tears were streaming down my face. This is what it’s like, I thought, hearing people talk about you in revered terms, as if you’re dead, saying how wonderful you are. If only people did this when people were alive and well, before it was too late.

Sometimes I think we bring our loneliness upon ourselves, we live trapped by our own insecurities afraid to let anyone know our thoughts, thinking that no-one else could ever feel the same way, when of course they do. Someone somewhere has felt the same as you feel right now, everyone is linked by our own humanity. Our experiences are different, but our emotions are the same. We hold on to our hurt and pain as though they make us unique, but we’re not, essentially, we’re the same.

Overall Positions

The OPs are out and status updates are going crazy on Facebook. Most students seem thrilled with their results with only the occasional suicide threat casually thrown in. There are the inevitable jokes including, ‘OP24 fml’ from a student who didn’t even go for an OP, and another which stated ‘OP, yeah, well I got one’.

Last night I put up a status saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what OP you get you are all winners’. I received comments back ranging from: ‘Rubbish Nolan’, to the pragmatic and knowing advice given by past students that your OP doesn’t matter once you get into uni, or when you start work. Your Overall Position is a figure specific to a certain time and place in your life. George Negus said the other night on The Project that seventeen is a ridiculous age to expect young people to sit alone in a room and study, with all the hormones raging and pressures of trying to be an adult.

I know it’s clichéd but there are many highs and lows in life and your ‘position’ is ever changing. Perhaps thankfully, it will never be made so public again. The advice adults give ranges from, ‘don’t worry it’s not the be all and end all’, to ‘your whole life depends on it’, no wonder it’s all so confusing and stressful. I guess the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes.

My status update may have seemed a bit lame, okay it was, especially after Charlie Sheen has made ‘winning’ seem a lot like losing. What I’d meant was you don’t need to get an OP1 to be a wonderful human being. It’s just a number, and there are lots of avenues you can take to get where you want to go. To me, everyone who actually completes Year 12 is a winner; it is more than I did when I was their age.

I still remember the day I left school, May 1981, the year I was in Year 11. I went to St. John Fisher, a Catholic private school, at Bracken Ridge, and loathed it. I hated the tediousness of school, the rules that seemed ludicrous, the monotony, and the mind numbing boredom. I left feeling bitter, not knowing what the future would bring, and not caring. At sixteen, the future was the next Friday night, getting together with friends and going out. As we drove along Bracken Ridge Road, heading home, my mother turned to me and said, ‘You’ll regret this for the rest of your life.’ To some extent, this is true, but at the time I didn’t listen. I wanted freedom, or what I thought was freedom. But the freedom I got was as vacuous as the catchcry of ‘freedom’ Young Liberals spruik from the comfort of their parent’s middle class homes.

I had thought of writing this blog, dedicated to my Year 12 2011 students, because the idea of writing sixty-five individual good-byes overwhelmed me. Yet as a write this I feel like I want to make mention of them all, because in some way they have all impacted upon me. This year I taught three Year 12 classes: Modern History, English and English Communication. Picking a favourite class is like choosing a favourite child, it’s an impossible task. They were all wildly different, and the students within each class were also unique. They have all taught me something.

This has been the most challenging year of my teaching career. A new syllabus has been implemented since the last time I taught Modern History seven years ago. I began with no resources, and a class of ardent learners and critical thinkers who kept me on my toes.

I have been fortunate, I think, to teach in the public school system, because it is here that diversity is valued, where students of different races, religions, and cultures can sit side by side and hear each other’s stories, thoughts and ideas. It is well and good to learn these things from textbooks and websites, yet it is quite another to sit alongside another person whose life is different to yours, to rub shoulders with them.

One of my English students, Jessey, a Jehovah Witness, came to my Modern History class and explained her beliefs and values, and everyone listened enthralled, including those who considered themselves Atheist. Another student is Jewish, another Baptist, while another is Agnostic. Their political views have also been widely varied, encompassing all parts of the spectrum from conservative to socialist, which often created intense debate. I’ve left the classroom invigorated, my mind drumming with their brilliant ideas. One student wrote in a card he gave me that this is true learning, not the use of whiteboards and PowerPoints, and I agree. I really don’t know what I’m going to do without Jai, who I constantly deferred to, in the class next year.

Some of my students have suffered sorrow in their lives these past five years, ranging from minor disappointments, to tragic, life altering loss. There have been the bouts of flu, glandular fever and pneumonia. Yet they have all worked hard and remained at school until the end, tenaciously going to a place every day that many of them hate.

Some of them know exactly what they want to be: doctors, lawyers, teachers, town planners, fridge mechanics, carpenters, journalists, writers. I envy them this knowledge at such a young age. Of course, their goals may change and they may find themselves on different paths, but they’ll reach their destinations in the end. Though I teach English and the humanities, some of my students are focussed on science and this will lead them into careers in medicine and engineering. Yet they also care fervently about people and the world around them, and I love them for that.

Some of them achieved huge success out of the classroom. Renae is a Tai Kwon Do Champion. Josh is a delegate for UN Youth Australia, and is soon to travel to Europe to participate in a UN modelled conference. Mitch competed in the Australian Rock Climbing Championships. Dan is a Queensland Representative hockey player, who taught me how to break down knowledge and explain things more clearly, if only in an attempt to stem his constant flow of probing questions. That’s the amazing thing about students, if you listen to them, really listen, they will tell you what you are doing wrong.

There are those who are quieter, who don’t shout their views loudly, and who sit back and watch, considering everything that goes on. I see and hear everything standing at the front of the class: the text messages; the hands loosely held; the notes surreptitiously passed. I see the tiffs between best friends, the hurt or dark looks of students when they enter the classroom, and I know immediately that something has happened at lunch, or in the previous class, or at home the night before. I see myself in many of the students. The anguish and pain of not fitting in. The barbed remark either cruelly and expertly placed, or randomly and carelessly said.

I remember a comment made by Tom, who said, ‘Miss, I was sitting at lunch feeling depressed, and then I remembered I had English and I felt happy.’ I think that is the most beautiful thing a student has ever said to me, and I will never forget it. Despite the weariness I sometimes feel, teaching is so rewarding; there is nothing I would rather be doing.

My English Communication class did not receive OPs, and one of them commented, tongue in cheek, on my status, saying, ‘I was in your Com class, don’t you care about me?’ The truth is I loved this class. They were the most gregarious bunch of students and I always looked forward to having them. There was Sean who couldn’t stop swearing in class, but was the first student to yell a greeting out across the playground. There were the boys whose Grand Final football game I saw when they were in Year 10; the euphoria on their faces when they won the game is one of my best memories. There was Jess, the only girl in a class amongst seventeen boys, and she dealt with it so well, though the level of testosterone in the room was overwhelming. There was even a student who wrote in his graduation speech that English Com was his favourite class (this was for assessment, and I was marking it, but still …).

Earlier this year, I visited my Year four and five teacher, who also happens to be the mother of a childhood friend of mine. Mrs Hunt was by far my favourite teacher, she made learning fun and it was obvious how much she cared for us. I can still remember the feeling of warmth in her classroom, and I hope my students remember me this way.

I don’t have advice. I’m not a counsellor or a youth worker, and heaven knows my own life is far from perfect. But I wish all my past students well. The quote ‘One Hundred Years from Now’, by Forest Witcraft may seem a bit presumptuous, but I hope that I’ve been a help to some of my students along the way.

One Hundred Years from now
It will not matter
what kind of car I drove,
What kind of house I lived in,
how much money was in my bank account
nor what my clothes looked like.
But the world may be a better place because
I was important in the life of a child.

When Instinct Becomes Knowledge

It has been over a year since I’ve written on this blog. What can I say? I’ve been busy. I’m still writing and editing my novel, Open Cut (part-time), and I’m still teaching secondary school (full-time). Teaching and writing are both very draining and, I’ve always thought, quite different jobs. Both require a lot of planning, preparation and time. I’ve tried hard in the past to keep these two activities separate, struggling to do each well. But I’m beginning to realise that there are some valuable links.

Last term I went to some professional development sessions on Dimensions of Learning run by the Australian National Schools Network. Put simply, this is a framework that enables teachers to give students strategies and processes with which to organise their thoughts about the subject they are being taught. It provides a common language for both teachers and students. It reminded me of what I already knew about teaching. All teachers have tricks up their sleeves – graphic organisers, PMI charts, mind maps – with which they encourage creativity and higher order thinking amongst their students.

The Dimensions of Learning made me more cognisant of why I use certain methods at certain times in certain classes. It was interesting to hear teachers discuss what they do in the classroom during the sessions. The classroom is very much like a writer’s room: private, no-one is watching. Of course, there are the thirty students, but you’re isolated from your colleagues. My students’ results show the work I have done, and this can make me horrified and proud in equal measures. Teachers rarely talk about the process of teaching. They might share resources, discuss what they’ve taught, without explaining how they’ve taught it. As if this is explicit, when, of course, it isn’t. I’ve spent many seminars listening to other writers talk about their craft, but not teachers.

Of course, teaching has none of the glamour of writing. People want to hear writers impart their wisdom, and will pay good money to do so. I’ve seen writers barraged with questions from those wanting desperately to know how they do it: how do they think of ideas, how do they plot, how do they find time? No-one really cares about what teachers do, not the parents, not the media, and certainly not the school administrators. They’re only interested in results, in the data that the My School website makes public, and how many OPs 1-15 the school produces. Yet teaching is as creative as writing. We all teach from the same syllabus and curriculum frameworks, but how we teach is different.

Before I began my masters I went to see a writer speak who had recently won a Premier’s Award. Her novel was part of her Masters and she was in the process of writing her exegesis, and was lamenting this fact. ‘I just wrote it,’ she said. ‘Why do I have to explain it?’ Probably without realising it, she was perpetuating the Romantic myth that writers are imbued with special gifts, and that once they sit down at the desk to write, something magical happens, and the words simply spring forth. It just happened. Like my students’ results, the work stood for itself.

I also have to write an exegesis about my writing practice. I’m doing a ‘practice-led’ research masters, which means that my writing practice (the how, what, when, why, and where I write) informs my research. One of my QUT lecturers explained that you have to know your own work as well as you know the work of others. The exegesis involves explaining how you came up with the premise for the novel, and what is it about your own background and beliefs that allowed the idea to germinate. I should be able to explain how the ideas developed and why I wanted to write this book.

I’m teaching Modern History for the first time in seven years. As part of their assessment the students must complete a research journal where they write about the resources they’ve chosen to include, and where they reflect on what they’ve learnt throughout the process of completing the assignment. This is very similar to writing an exegesis. One teacher made the comment that the journal consisted of ‘all the stuff that used to be scattered all over the floor.’ And that’s true; it used to be what you threw out, all the scrappy notes that you didn’t want anyone else to see because it was too embarrassing. Now these thoughts are used to document and reflect upon the writing and research process, to create a greater insight into how ideas germinate into a finished product. Exposing the mess and clutter helps to debunk the myth that writing happens magically.

Much of what I teach is spur of the moment, not written down, instinctive, but then is lost. I can’t clearly articulate to another teacher how I had taught a particular skill, or explain clearly what I actually did in the classroom. It cannot be passed on, and it’s not written down for future use. Teachers are very busy people and often don’t have the time to plan their lessons properly before they walk into the classroom. If a lesson goes well it’s a happy accident.

At different writers seminars I’ve heard the sage advice ‘just write’. I’ve found this about as practical as Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan. In the novel I just finished reading, The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the protagonist tells a young girl, who has aspirations about being a writer, ‘Inspiration comes when you stick your elbows on the table, your bottom on the chair and you start sweating. Choose a theme, an idea, and squeeze your brain until it hurts. That’s called inspiration.’

When I was young, my mother taught me how to knit. She was quite good at it, but I never progressed from knitting scarves. In fact, I never actually finished a scarf. I would just knit and knit and knit until I got sick of it and then I’d pull it all out. I never learnt how to shape the wool into a piece of useable clothing. I didn’t mind knitting; I just never made anything worthwhile.

The early stages of writing my novel had been similar. I would write passages that fit together more by accident than design. I was happy with some of what I wrote, but when the novel reached around 20 000 words it became unwieldy. I needed to work all the chapters I had written into a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, and I didn’t know how.

When most people begin to write a novel they stop after the first few chapters, just as I stopped knitting. It became too hard and achieved nothing. Though my two metre long scarves gave me practice knitting, they had no form. I was simply knitting the stitches, just as I had been simply writing words that did not hang together coherently.

When I did the Year of the Novel and an editing course with Kim Wilkins at the Queensland Writers’ Centre, she gave practical tips on how to transform the words on the page into a full blown work. I remember the light bulb moment when she said that chapters are like a series of related scenes in a film. My honours degree was in film so this analogy made sense to me. It helped me understand how paragraphs, scenes, and chapters link, how they should move the story forward, and if they don’t, they should be cut.

I had been doing this unknowingly, but when I became conscious that this was what I needed to do, it became easier. It takes time to plan and plot the story and it is harder than just writing freely. I’ve read work that is beautifully written, but that has not plot, no shape, and no story. I still struggle sometimes, but having a plan has made writing so much easier. I used to sit at my desk and begin to write without having clearly thought about how the scene would begin, where it would be set, and how it would fit into the overall work. But taking the time to plan frees up time, both in the classroom, and at the writer’s desk, though it takes discipline and determination.

Kim Wilkins is an extraordinary writer and teacher. She is generous with her knowledge and shares it willingly with others who wish to write. She has written twenty-one novels. Her most recent work, Wildflower Hill, written under her pseudonym, Kimberley Freeman, has made its debut in America and Canada by becoming the Target Book Club pick, which gives credence to the adage you get back what you give out.

Wildflower Hill - Target Book Club Pick

Many writers hesitate about talking about the writing process: the isolation; the draining, sometimes soul destroying, pain of it. Writing is messy and ugly, and frankly, so is teaching. But Kim isn’t afraid to put her methods out there, as she says, ‘I am bold enough to do it’. Kim’s strategies make writing easier, but at some point all writers must work on their own. Teaching using the Dimensions of Learning is similar, I can give the students strategies to categorise their notes and ideas, but they must be prepared to put in effort on their own.

Not everyone is able to write a best seller or a Pulitzer Prize winner, and not every student will obtain an OP1, no matter how many different strategies the teacher uses. Dimensions of Learning is not a magic bullet, it is a tool, something to organise your thoughts. One strategy may work one lesson, and not the next; just as one writing technique may work one week, and then not the next. I see my students balk at writing all the time. They hesitate before writing an opening sentence, wanting to get it perfect. One of students told me recently, ‘I don’t write anything till I’ve got it right in my head.’ Consequently, he always leaves his drafts to the very last minute, having spent the previous five weeks locked in a debilitating spiral of procrastination, guilt and self-doubt.

E.M. Forster said, ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say.’ Planning a novel, an essay, or any piece of writing, may start with something as simple as a bubble map of ideas. But these ideas must be taken from your head and put down on paper, so they can develop and coalesce into sentences and paragraphs. Writing courses can equip you with the tools you need to shape your writing into a coherent work, and the support you get from other writers is priceless.

Robert McKee, author of Story, tells the fable of the millipede. ‘When asked how it walked so easily with one thousand legs the creature wondered, “Yes, how do I do that?” As she turned to look back, she fell off the bough of the tree. Then with determination and effort she thought about the moves she made that allowed her to walk so skilfully, and began to walk with even more grace and fluidity.’ Knowing explicitly what you are doing, allows you to do it better. It allows you to be aware, to be conscious, and to be present. Sometimes you need to be reminded of what you know. The awareness of what I’m doing will surely make me a better writer and teacher.

Kind of Temporary

My brother Danny was always trying to leave. When he was fifteen he stole the family car and drove from Charters Towers to Brisbane.

Years later he told me, ‘It was a hole. There was nothing there.’

So he left. The incident, my mother always said, caused my father’s first heart
attack. In his desperate desire for the next adrenaline rush, the next high, Danny left cities, friends and family. He brutally tore people from his life, burned bridges and left behind a trail of bruised, torn flesh and wounded souls for those brave enough to follow. I was not. He was violent and quick tempered—the black sheep. People always said that I was just like him, and it wasn’t meant to be taken as a compliment. It was usually said after I had done something that was considered impulsive or stupid. His ultimate rejection, when it came, was final. In the early hours of the morning, in a lonely, isolated picnic area in Wooloongong, he took his own life. He was forty-five.

Danny led an exuberant life, quite remote from the life I lived in the sleepy seaside town of Sandgate. But there were similarities too. His first job was at the local Woolworths. It was also where I worked after I dropped out of school halfway through Year 11. Like me, he didn’t last long there, and moved quickly through various jobs. He was a radio technician for 4IP, working with the early ’80s radio celebrity, Waynee Poo. Next he was a bouncer at night clubs. Hours spent at the gym and sculling protein drinks had given him a massive physique. He worked the door of the Homestead in Boondall, standing legs-apart, triceps bulging, daring anyone to take him on. Formidable. He also sold life insurance; a conservative, dull job he loathed. None of these jobs held his attention. When he was twenty-four, he decided to do a photography course. This was a brave move. We were a working class family. You worked, you didn’t take photos. Halfway through the course he was already earning an income as a photographer, so he didn’t finish, though he still managed to top the class.

Recently, over a couple of drinks, I asked Gary our eldest brother, about Danny.

‘Things came too easy for him—mental things. But he just wasn’t practical,’ he said.

Gary bought himself a surf ski and for two months took it down to Cabbage Tree Creek to practise rowing in it. He laughed as he recalled how the wash from the trawlers always knocked him off.

‘But I’d just get back on,’ he said.

Perhaps trying to emulate his older brother, Danny also decided to buy a ski, but instead of taking it down the creek to get the feel for it, he took it straight out into the surf. There had always been fierce competition between the two brothers.

‘He nearly bloody drowned. And the next day,’ Gary said, shaking his head in disbelief, ‘he sold it.’ He stared off into the distance. ‘He wouldn’t stick at anything. If he couldn’t do something straight away, he’d just give up.’

Danny was a gifted photographer and within a year he had saved enough to go to America. He loved America, idolised it; “The Land of the Free.” He lived there for two years and when he next appeared on our doorstep, with a New York Yankees cap perched on top of his balding head, I was fifteen.

His eyes widened in shock and he took a step back as he said, ‘Look at the jugs on you!’

It was another couple of weeks before I spoke to him again, though he visited daily, so I missed out on the first batch of stories. I didn’t mind. Danny had often been absent from our lives, though never for as long, and he would always return like the prodigal son regaling us with stories. But neither he, nor the stories, seemed real to me. Danny had always seemed remote, worldlier than the rest of us, and after he came back from America the chasm widened.

He would come to visit with a girl on his arm, younger and prettier than the last. I would watch Michael, ten years younger than Danny, salivate as he eyed them, hoping that some of his older brother’s glamour would rub off on him and these girls, who must have seemed so unattainable to him, would also see something desirable in him. I saw them as life-sized Barbie dolls. I relished the discomfort of the girls as they sat in our two bedroom, weatherboard house wearing their designer clothes, smiles straining on their heavily made-up faces. It seemed obvious to me that the two worlds didn’t mix.

People flocked to be near him. I couldn’t understand it. I never wanted to be part of that world. It seemed fake, forced. I think he too wondered why he was given so much attention. He was a fashion photographer but the “real” money came from photographs taken for men’s magazines: Playboy and Penthouse.

I often said that I didn’t understand how women could do it—pose nude for magazines—and he replied, ‘They love it.’

I overheard Michael telling his mates about a photo shoot taken with a girl who had been a year ahead of me in school. It was on Stradbroke Island and he told them how she had been so turned on that Danny had to ‘keep wiping away her come with a towel.’ I could hear the titillation in his voice, his laughter low and crude. This first hand knowledge had earned him the respect of his mates, all Catholic private school boys. I felt sickened.

Danny both loved and hated women. He loved having control over them, turning them into sexual objects, humiliating them. When he had a camera in his hand he was the one in power. He could look at these women from a safe distance, detached and unemotional. They probably seemed as unreal and unreachable to him as they did to Michael. They never lasted long in his life. Nothing did. Perhaps that was why he became a photographer. So he could capture the object and claim it as his own for a brief moment before it disappeared.

There was always a sense of sadness around Danny. He made a lot of money and went out with models, but nothing seemed to satisfy him. His passion burned fiercely, so it couldn’t last. The surreal world of pretty young women, wealth, sex and drugs promised moments of intense pleasure, if not happiness. Our world must have seemed quite boring in comparison. How could it compete with the intoxicating, glamorous world he chose to inhabit? Yet it is his quiet moments that I remember most clearly. Moments when he believed no one was looking, when his thoughts were turned inward and his eyes stared ahead, unseeing.

In a black and white self-portrait, taken while he was at college, he looks down, away from the lens towards the right. He averts his eyes, knowing too well what secrets the camera is able to reveal. Shirtless, his broad shoulders are just visible, a hint of the huge strength contained within the body unseen. The full mouth does not smile. In a moment of repose, Danny had exposed himself: wistful, introspective and doubtful. He caught himself unawares, capturing the person he was trying to avoid.

Danny drank a lot. He also gambled. A lot. I remember going to the Gold Coast Casino with Danny and in half an hour he blew a thousand dollars. I looked around the room and saw the sallow, creased faces. Under the harsh lights their naked desire for money burned in their eyes and glistened feverishly on their brows. The fierce intensity of their gaze never shifted from the table. They were mainly men—the breadwinners of the family. I felt awkward watching them, their vulnerability exposed, raw. I was filled with anguish and awe, knowing my brother was one of them.

The last time I saw Danny he turned up on my doorstep, drunk. He had his daughter Brooke, who was about two, in his arms.

‘I’ve had a fight with Danielle,’ he slurred, and began to call his wife a string of vulgar names. I let him in. Reluctantly. He was at his worst, caustic and cruel. My boyfriend hovered in the kitchen and I flushed hotly with embarrassment. I listened to him beret Danielle for over an hour. Too drunk to drive home, Danny stayed the night with Brooke. Chris and I finally escaped upstairs.

‘I just wish he would leave,’ I said. In the morning Danny was gone.

Two years later Danielle’s sister rang and said he was dead. While she was still speaking, I hung up the phone and went, dazed, into my neighbour’s house, saying my brother had died. I hadn’t found out at that point how it happened; all I knew was that he was dead. I had already had so much death in my life: my father, my mother, and now one of my brothers. My neighbours came over to sit with me while we waited for the next phone call that was sure to come. One of them asked how old he was. I hadn’t seen him in two years and I had to think for a minute—how old was he?

‘Forty-five,’ I said. And then it hit me that he was the same age my father had been when he died. ‘I bet he killed himself,’ I said.

Five minutes later the phone rang. He had committed suicide by gassing himself in a car. He was there ten days before he was found.

Even then, some part of me felt a sense of relief. There would be no more knocks on the door. No more smarmy debt collectors calling at odd hours wanting their money. Sometimes I forget about him completely, and then someone will mention suicide and I remember. Danny is no longer simply my brother; he is the embodiment of the word people whisper in fear: suicide.

Suicide is often said to be genetic. I have heard of families whose histories have been traced to reveal the tragic deaths of at least half a dozen members. You are genetically more like your siblings than anyone else on the planet. Your biological codes are more similar to theirs than they are to your own children. When my daughter left Brisbane to live with her boyfriend in central Queensland, over a year ago now, the thought of suicide went through my mind.

I don’t seem to be able to keep people around me. It is not me who leaves, but them. They die, or the relationship changes, or simply fades. I am always the one left behind. Never enough to make someone want to stay, I’m abandoned, left alone with memories and my own thoughts of death. Just once I want to be taken along. So I recreate Danny’s last hours, minutes, moments.

I thought a lot about Danny in those first few months without my daughter. He took the detour to the truck stop, clutching a photo of Brooke. He connected the hose to the exhaust and thrust the other end through the gap in the window. I saw him slump back inside the car, slamming the door, sitting, ready, waiting. He must have felt alive then, really alive. I listened to his heart pound as he realised there was no going back. I watched him struggle to breathe as carbon monoxide seeped silently into the car. Then I placed myself beside him so that he was not alone, because that is how he must have felt, utterly, unbearably alone. Just as I do.

‘Kind Of Temporary’ was first published in Liars Make the Best [Lovers] Writers: New Writing From QUT. Edited by Sam Martin et al. (2007)

A Sense of Place

I’ve mentioned Kim Wilkins a few times in previous blogs. Along with doing a MA at QUT Creative Industries, I am participating in the Year of the Novel, which is run through the Queensland Writers Centre. Kim is the writer who is running the course. I had the pleasure of listening to her and Kate Morton speak in the Writers’ Hub at the University of Queensland’s Centenary Celebration Day a couple of weeks ago. It was the third time I had heard Kim speak at a public event, and the second time she has signed copies of her novels for me. Now that she knows me ‘online’, I was able to introduce myself as one of her students. It was so exciting to talk to her, and I even got a photo!

My enthrallment with Kim began just after I had completed seven long years of study at UQ, which left me with three degrees. It was the Xmas holidays right before I was about to embark on my teaching career. I stood in a bookshop holding a copy of The Resurrectionists, one of Kim’s novels. It had been a long time since I had read for pleasure. I was used to reading heavy texts on Feminist and Marxist literary theory, and staying up till 3am in the morning trying to get novels read before the tutorials. I had forgotten how to read for enjoyment. I had totally lost the concept of reading for fun and entertainment.

I vividly remember standing in the bookstore with the novel in my hands and turning to the inside cover. It said that Kim grew up in a seaside town in Queensland. I grew up in Sandgate, and I immediately began wondering where she lived, she couldn’t be from Sandgate, I thought. Queensland has a long coastline, so of course, the town could have been anywhere between Port Douglas and Brisbane.

After I finished the novel I spoke to a friend about the great book I had just finished. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘yeah, I know her; she was in my medieval literature tutes. She’s from Redcliffe.’ I couldn’t believe it, a writer from Redcliffe! To have read a novel by someone who lived that close to where I grew up seemed amazing to me. She wasn’t writing on the moors, or dying of consumption in eighteenth century England, she was literally just over the Hornibrook Bridge, fifteen minutes away.

I think my awe of Kim Wilkins comes in large part due to the fact that she grew up geographically close to me. I suppose in some way it makes me feel that if is possible for her to be able to write, then why not me? Her stories are not set in Brisbane, however, she chooses to write speculative fiction, set in exotic, ancient worlds. My favourite one is Angel of Ruin. Nevertheless, she is from Brisbane.

David Malouf also spoke at The Writers’ Hub. In a panel discussion with Nick Earls and Larissa Behrendt the topic turned to a sense of place in novels. David Malouf said, ‘The place which is most exotic is the place from which you come from and is most familiar to you.’

When I first read his novel Johnno, I was 23 years old, and an adult student at Hendra Secondary College in Brisbane. In the novel a street in Hamilton is mention. I cannot remember the name of the street now, but I recognised it at the time because about six months before I had been to a psychic reader who lived in that same street.

It was my first experience of reading a novel set in Brisbane and the fact that this street existed in the real world seemed amazing to me. I grabbed the book, hopped in the car and drove there. I remember sitting in the car as I was parked in the street, clutching the book. I got out of the car and walked a short way up the street, wondering in which house David Malouf has actually stood. I felt self-conscious at the time, worrying that someone would see me and wonder what on earth I was doing. But I had been compelled to go there. It was a profound moment for me. The moment when fiction and reality collided.

I’ve told this story to people before and they have looked at me a little oddly. But don’t people travel from far and wide to walk the moors near where the Bronte sisters lived, and can’t people actually walk the route taken by Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses? I felt the same sense of wonder walking along this street. Nick Earls said, ‘The exotic is close at hand. We are too close to see it.’ As I shifted my gaze from the book, to the street, Brisbane took on another dimension.

Brisbane was where I grew up, and apart from the three years I spent in Moranbah, it is the only place I have ever lived. At that time, I realised that words on a page could be about places I had seen, that it didn’t have to be the stuff of legends, and knights, and swooning girls in Victorian gowns. It could be about something ordinary. My life could be in a book, my city, people I recognised, because they were important too.

The panel chair told David that when her father read Johnno he said, ‘I could feel the humidity seeping off the pages.’ When I write about Moranbah I want people to feel the heat and smell the dry, barren earth. I want them to be in the moment, seeing and feeling the pulse of the town, as I saw and felt it when I lived there. In the first week that we arrived in the mining town, my daughter and I sat outside a bakery in the blistering heat and I turned to her and said, ‘This place is amazing, I have to write about it.’

At the Writers’ Hub David Malouf said, ‘Every place has richness put there by how odd people actually are.’ At no time is this more apparent than when you have just arrived at a new place, seeing everything for the first time. Over the next three years Moranbah lost its ‘exotic’ edge, it became familiar. It was home. In her book Becoming Qualitative Researchers, Corrine Glesne explains, ‘The strange becomes familiar in the process of understanding it.’

Reading Johnno, and becoming aware of a published, female author from Redcliffe, were powerful moments in my life. Writers were not other worldly creatures. They actually resided in my own town. I realised I could write about what I knew. I could represent things I had seen and experienced. When I do this, maybe then I will be able to venture out further into new worlds.

Meeting Kim Wilkins at the Writers' Hub

I also met Janette Turner Hospital at the Writers’ Hub. Though she now lives overseas, she also grew up in Brisbane, and went to school at Mitchelton State High. Her novel Oyster has a large focus in my literature review.

Janette Turner Hospital at the Writers' Hub


Janette Turner Hospital signing my copy of Oyster

Author Interview

A conversation between Jade McLeod, the central character of the novel Open Cut, and author Leeann Nolan.

You are a 44 year old woman, how are you going to write about a girl who is 15-16 years old?

Well, believe it or not, I was that age once. I’m also a teacher and so I’m around young people constantly, so I have a good idea of how they talk and what sorts of things concern them. I also have a daughter, who is now 23, and I saw her go through similar experiences to those I had as a teenager. In order to write the novel, and to get into the head space of a young girl, I will try and remember what being that age was like: the insecurities I felt about wanting people to like me, wanting to fit in and be part of a group. These issues are not new. I think that there is a need in every person who feels insecure and lonely, to belong to a group. It’s part of our humanity. Fundamentally I don’t think this changes. The context, suburb, state, decade may change, but the emotions one feels are the same. Strong emotions are what make Shakespeare still relevant today – anger, jealousy, fear, love – we all feel them. When we get older perhaps we get better at masking them, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still feel them. When I shut my eyes I am still in my bedroom at Sandgate, hating my mother and all my teachers, who I felt constantly picked on me. We don’t forget some things are etched on our minds forever. Perhaps that is why mistakes are repeated; because adults pretend that these things didn’t happen ‘in our day’. We try to forget, suffering from cultural amnesia, but the memories are there.

What of your own experiences will you draw upon to write the novel?

I grew up in a town called Sandgate, on the north side of Brisbane. It was predominately a working class area back in the late 70s and 80s, though it has become quite gentrified in the last ten to fifteen years. Twenty years ago it was very much like Moranbah. The people I hung around were similar to people in the mining town. I was friends with a group of boys who referred to themselves as ‘The Brighton Boys’, some of them were quite rough, I suppose. But I felt I belonged to that group. One of my best friends was gang raped when she was about 13 years old by two of them. It was never talked about it and was not even considered rape; she was seen as a slut who asked for it because she was drunk. There was a very sinister side to life in the town. Girls were treated as possessions by boys who would refer to them as their ‘woman’. It was often about ownership and control.

What made you hang around those types of people?

I didn’t have a very happy home life. My father died just before I turned seven, and my mother never really recovered from this. I had three older brothers, and so, for the most part, I was really comfortable around boys. I grew up surrounded by violence, watching my two eldest brothers beating the hell out of each other, and it was normalised for me to a large extent. I think being the youngest and a girl, I often felt a bit of an outsider, like I didn’t really fit in with my own family. The Brighton Boys became like a family, though they were rough, they were also very protective, and fiercely loyal. I felt happy to be part of a group.

In what way was Moranbah similar to Sandgate/Brighton?

Sandgate, when I lived there, was very working class, and so is Moranbah; however, Moranbah is unusual because although it is working class, it is extremely wealthy. I think that most males in the mining town still idealise the Aussie ‘working class man’ that Jimmy Barnes sings about. You would see miners down at Coles covered in grease and coal dust in their work uniforms. They were worn with pride, in the same way that stubbies and ‘wife beaters’ were worn with pride by the Brighton Boys.
It was funny also because when I was sixteen my favourite bands were The Angels, The Radiators and AC/DC, and in Moranbah that was still the kind of music you would hear on the radio five years ago. It was like the town was in a time warp. So it really reminded me of my youth.

In what ways do you think I am similar to you?

You are a very shy, insecure girl, who is desperately seeking approval and a place to fit in. You want to be accepted. I think sometimes I still feel like this, even now, but at fifteen the need to feel connected to friends is very strong.
Like you, I fought with my mother, often violently. My mother died when I was 23, and I still miss her greatly, but I can still remember the intense hatred I felt towards her at times.
You also feel more comfortable around boys. I think this is because they are often less judgemental than girls. It can simply be easier to be around them.

What character traits do I possess that you like?

I like that you are smart, clever, that you try to be a good person, though you often aren’t. I really like that you are forgiving, because I definitely am not. I like that you are passionate, that the people you care about, you love intensely. I like that you are very good at maths and science, because they are things that I have absolutely no understanding of at all. I always think that it is great to see a girl being able to do things that are predominantly seen as things that only boys can do well.

What character traits do you dislike?

I don’t dislike any character traits, but I suppose there are ones that could be described as negative, or that have negative impacts on you. The fact that you are shy can hold you back. I would like you to be more confident and self-assured, though I know that few teenagers are. I certainly wasn’t. I hope that by the end of the book you will have gained strength, confidence and the power to be yourself.

Why do you want to write about me?

I think your story is the story of many girls and it is one that is not often heard. You had to move away from friends and begin again at another school, which would have been extremely difficult at fifteen. You have also lived in housing commission, which is an environment that is often negatively stereotyped. It is mainly made up of single women and children who have often been abused by men. You have also lived in a mining town which is dominated by men.
Having said that, I think the things you went through transcend the environment/setting of the mining town, and are experienced by young girls in all socio-economic areas all over Queensland, and indeed, Australia.
I strongly believe that we need to acknowledge our own past in order to be able to move forward. Perhaps that is why I want to write about you, I felt silenced, shame, when I was young. I wouldn’t have the courage to do what you are doing. It would be very difficult to trust another person to represent you; to give up part of your own power so that your story can be told. I want to ‘get it right’, to tell your story as honestly and openly as I can. I think sometimes stories about young girls, particularly those in mining towns, have been silenced, and I would like to give you, and them, a voice. I also want to make sense of my own past and ‘write out’ my own demons.

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