I'm an educational author dipping his toes in the murky waters of literary and contemporary fiction. I mostly write short stories and novellas around themes of love, loss, guilt and banjos, set in coastal and rural Australia. Working on that first novel.
Do you ever find that your creative projects take you to unexpected places? I get that all the time. It’s one of the reasons I’m a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ in my fiction writing. When I start writing a story, I never know how it’s going to end.
I don’t want to know yet: I’m telling myself a story. If it turns out okay, I’ll refine it and tell it to others. The ones which turn out too odd, too personal or too grim — I keep those to myself.
Thus also in the visual arts. In woodcarving I had many ‘happy accidents’ where the timber ‘wanted’ to go in a different direction to where my eye and hand directed the gouge or chisel to take it. (Some unhappy ones too, of course. We don’t talk about those.)
Last night I was exploring ideas for a masthead to my new monthly newsletter for Tall and Tiny Tales — my Substack fiction project.
On the occasion of my wife’s birthday, we’re in Melbourne for the week. For the first time since COVID hit our shores, we find ourselves in the CBD with time on our hands.
Suze likes to spend hours poking around markets; I’d sooner stick wasps up my arse, frankly. Luckily, we’re accustomed to giving each other space to do our own thing, rather than approaching every outing as a joint activity.
Fear not: we also have a shared calendar of events with multiple highlights and points of interest and time spent with friends – those who haven’t contracted COVID in the last couple of days. I’m not leaving the poor woman entirely to her own devices on the august occasion of reaching three-score years and ten.
So anyway, this morning, Suze was buying music-themed socks at the Vicky Market (hey, it’s her birthday) and trying to work out the location and name of that pub she went to with the girls that one time that sells Belgian cherry beer: an absorbing task for a woman with scant sense of direction and a love of Kriek.
I have no idea whether I’m going to click ‘publish’ when I’ve finished this. Perhaps it will languish as a draft for weeks; perhaps it will be published in the small hours of the morning. Then I may tear back the bedcovers with a resounding ‘Nooooooo!’ at break of day and rush to my computer to delete it.
It wouldn’t be the first article of mine to meet that fate, not by a long chalk, so you’d best read quickly, hypothetical reader.
Let me start by acknowledging that this is written in a wider context in which my petty sorrows and existential trivialities are of infinitesimal consequence. Further, that I have, as an individual, an Australian, a person of pinko-grey complexion and the possessor of a Y chromosome to go along with my X, much to be thankful for.
That said, as individuals we must walk and chew gum: strive to be both decent members of our multiple overlapping communities and attentive to our own emotional housekeeping. Each is perhaps the corollary of the other.
And all is not well in my untidy inner household. It has not been well for a long time; perhaps it has never been well. I suspect that goes with a writer’s job description. To distil my current malaise into a single sentence:
Reflections on a first attempt at writing a historical novel
‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953
Out of my comfort zone
I grew up an Englishman on English soil. The past of the land I lived on was my past; I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I understood it intimately, intuitively.
These days, I live on the other side of the world, in a country where, until 1788, there were no Englishmen, other than a tiny number of whalers and sealers at a few points around our continent’s vast coastline — and no Englishwomen at all, as far as is known.
Stolen land, stolen history
The ‘settlement’ of the land that I live on, here in Victoria, began in 1835 with the landing of John Batman and his party.
It’s so close that I feel I can almost reach out and touch it. There are still descendents of the first settlers living on the same land their ancestors took possession of. Let’s not mince words: the land that they stole, with the connivance of the British Crown.
Launching a Substack storyletter — progress and plans
I decided towards the end of last year that I was going to launch a fiction newsletter on the Substack platform. Tall and Tiny Tales went live on 1 February.
Substack seems to be rather the flavour of the month, although evaluations differ, and some, if I may say so, miss the point entirely. Substack isn’t really a community like Medium. It’s primarily a publishing platform. Your potential readership isn’t other Substackers: it’s anyone who likes to read your genre online. (Truly: forget about other Substackers. Stats on them are irrelevant.) The snag is: you have to do all the publicity for your publication yourself. No friendly algorithms are going to carry your word to the masses.
When I was young and silly, I had an absolute terror of making a fool of myself in public. Like most of us, I got over this by doing it repeatedly.
Mostly, I didn’t jump — I was pushed.
Piss-poor in Wigan
Six months into my first job as an editor, my friend and colleague Stefan saddled me with giving a talk on ‘Trading with Germany’ to the worthy members of the Wigan & District Chamber of Commerce.
He’d given one a few months previously and they’d asked him back, but he was coming down with a cold. As he was German, this required languishing at home for a week, being pampered by his lovely Dutch girlfriend.
I had neither a cold nor a lovely Dutch girlfriend, and I was the company’s other ‘German expert’.
‘It’s easy, Steve, you just stand there and talk a bit, then answer questions. They’re very friendly.’
My wife and I are regular visitors to Port Fairy, Victoria. As a daughter of a Western District farming family, Susan has connections aplenty there. No less than three of her cousins have holiday homes in the town, including the little bluestone (basalt) cottage on Sackville Street, in the heart of town, that we often stay in.
The cottage, the town and the coast feature often in my fiction, as they do in my life.
It’s just 10 hours before my new storyletter Tall and Tiny Tales goes live with its first episode and podcast.
I think I’ve done my groundwork well: it’s a good concept well-executed, with some strong material … I think. My attempts at promotion have been moderately successful: I have over 60 subscribers on board. That’s not a bad start!
But what if it’s crap?
Will I see my subscribers desert in droves?
Who am I to think that I can reinvent myself as a fiction writer anyway?
Am I making a fool of myself?
Similar thoughts are often at the back of my mind when I try to do something that I haven’t done before.
Self-promotion doesn’t come naturally to me. I am, after all, British by birth, and my natural inclination is to mumble disparagingly about my accomplishments.
‘I … err … write the odd short story from time to time … Nothing much, and you probably wouldn’t be interested … but if one day you don’t have anything better to do, then maybe … ?’
This is a recipe for not getting read until I am dead. In my obituary I will be hailed as a literary genius and riches will be showered on my bemused heirs. Heirs, I might add, who never showed the faintest interest in a darned thing I wrote …
Meanwhile, in the real world: I’m not a literary genius, but I am a half-decent teller of short stories (laying British modesty aside), and it is something that I enjoy doing.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy it more, though, if someone actually reads my stuff. If they’re not my wife or my mum and I haven’t had to employ emotional blackmail – bonus points!
A morning at the surf beach is a satisfyingly complete sensory experience. It quickens the pulse and floods the nervous system with endorphins, the brain with dopamine, leaving the conscious mind in a happy daze, sinuses and skin refreshed and ears abuzz.
So why do we go there so infrequently? When we first moved here, nearly 20 years ago, we went often. Over the years … well, life has got in the way, with its clutter and preoccupations. This seems a good morning for decluttering!
Our morning begins with the short drive across the peninsula to Ocean Grove. As we approach the last of the low ridges upon which the seaside town sprawls — ancient sand dunes — we are rewarded with a first glimpse of the sea.
What awaits us? Long, regular lines of rollers, or broken surf? A greyish, surly sea under a leaden sky, or a mirror of cerulean with barely a ripple overlaid on the long swell?