The Root of all things

dark roots

CATE KENNEDY – Dark Roots

“The butcher becomes my friend. All day he bashes up the carcasses of dead things, and I’ve never seen the smile off his face. Now there’s a puzzle for you.”

Not only is that my little homage to my own smiley butchering Hubbie, but it beautifully represents the regular juxtaposition the following book presents… that beneath the common every day, lies something unknown, deeper, darker…

Dark Roots.

I came across Cate Kennedy and her work in a round-a-bout way. The year was 2013, and I was about 6 months pregnant.

It was also Hubbie and mine’s wedding anniversary, and on top of that I was going to a writing workshop up in the Dandenongs, hosted by none other than the above, yours truly.

I had been writing my young adult novel for a while, and when I heard about the workshop, was more than intrigued. More so because it was in a location we had been to the same time last year, and it was the foundation of this picturesque setting, that I decided to take a day off work, and take myself out of my comfort zone, and to a place, both figuratively and literally speaking, where I would be alone, vulnerable and at the mercy of possible harsh elements.

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Not just the bush, but the critics.

The day was eye-opening in many ways. I learnt much, discovered not to compromise my style, whether in life or in writing, and found that as much as some people there were truly lovely and supportive, others eyed me off judgmentally and with deep critique.

It’s to be expected when there are many of the same field in the one room, and abundance isn’t the universal language of all.

At the end of the day, I purchased a book from Cate, as I had never even come across her name or style. Dark Roots it said, and she wished me well in the inside cover.

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And finally, I started reading it over a year later, once baby girl was about 6 months old.

Let me start by saying that reading darkly-themed stories isn’t probably the best idea when you have a newborn.

Not to say the themes were horror and kept me up at night, when I already had a little monster doing that for me – no, not at all. Cate’s short stories embody a sense of unease about the world, about life, where people are placed in unfair situations, and in many of these they stay there. There’s a deeper meaning, a greater picture, a portrait to paint of the human condition. And it ain’t all fair and pretty.

Even when the endings are happy, and there are only few, they are so only by being bittersweet, where the happiness is tinged with just enough sadness to make you go, “oh, damn.”

Three things became apparent to me as I made my way through the stories. The first was how bleak the stories at the beginning of the book seemed, and how mid-way through they seemed to lift just that little bit to keep me going.

The second was the double-meaning of the story titles. Habit became an early favourite of mine, and very cleverly penned, both about drug use and a Nun. Resize becomes not only about resizing your wedding rings, but resizing your entire relationship. And The Light of Coincidence was another enjoyable one, talking about a favourite topic of mine, but one that showed the incredulity of life and how sometimes, things can work out in the most remarkable of ways. A game I started to play at the beginning of each story was to try and determine why the story name was as it was, only to find out it in fact had two meanings, almost every time.

However my third observation and confirmation, came early on in the realisation that I was not cut out for short stories, even more so, ones that had ‘dark roots.’ I prefer to fall in love with a set of characters and a different world over a period of time, where I dedicate myself to their path, rather than the quick chop and change, 15 or so pages dedicated to each story in this book. Having said that, Kennedy is one who performs this niche art form like the artist she is, capturing your attention, your heart and your mind, making you feel for a character who may be insane, pathetic, or a murderer, and make you root for them the whole way. She has an innate ability to pull at your heart strings by showing the rawness of life, and it’s because she does this so damn well, that I just can’t fathom the sadness of it all.

Her ability to represent life in its true form, either through dialogue or description is on key. She also brings an acute awareness to every day tasks, things that you wouldn’t normally think about, but reading her words you think ‘I get it.’ For example, in the first story the main character is climbing out of bed:

“This is how you slide from a bed: move your foot out and over the edge, find the floor, slide sideways supporting yourself on the bedside table, your fingers touching the fake antique lamp your parents gave you a pair of for a wedding present. Haul out from under the doona…”

And suddenly, I was the one climbing out of bed. Not only does she paint the picture as if she were watching you try to stealthily get out of bed undetected, but the addition of those physical descriptors, not just the antique lamp, but FAKE antique lamp from your parents no less, well here lies another back story…

Another story has a man fishing, and the visual imagery is so beautifully striking in its sadness:

“The trout lay there drowning in the air, and I could see the miraculous gills opening and closing, its eyes moving as it gulped the wrong element, two old scars on its big mottled back, and then everything slowed down and I reached my fingers, fumbling with agonised realisation, into the trout’s mouth to get that hook out, and I snatched the fish up in both hands and threw it into the water.”

And finally, when I read the following:

“Three years ago I tried some street coke and the hit was just enough, through the glucodin and speed percentage that seared into my nasal cavities, to make me make a vow to myself. I decided that if I ever had the chance, I would try the real thing: the purest, whitest, Colombian cocaine available to the casual buyer.”

I had to question, how did she know this so accurately?

However I had to remind myself of the funny fact I had once read, that writers become a neuro-blah expert on whatever they have set out to research, often overnight! It is just the life of a writer, to be as real as you can be about a subject matter… whether from living it, or studying it like hell.

In the story Habit, I found myself rooting for the protagonist to get through customs with their drugs, even before I knew they were dying, and needed the drugs! How does she do that? And when all became even clearer at the end, without giving too much away, suddenly all the Godly mentions and phrases had a double meaning that shone with heavenly clarity 🙂 I absolutely loved it, and it was probably the first ‘kinda’ happy ending that hit me, right there.

But many times, there was no ending. The story was just a window into another person’s world, their often difficult, uncertain life. There was the woman in Soundtrack, who suddenly had a child many years after having her first daughter, and how the ambulance couldn’t get there in time, so her teenage daughter helped deliver her child. And then life kept on going, to the soundtrack of life in the background. Then there was the story The Correct Names of Things, where Ellen worked in a Chinese shop in the 80s paying her way through uni. Another piece on how life is lived, and how you learn and attach names to things, where I had absolutely no idea where the story was going – it seemed, nowhere in particular, since it appeared to be more an explorative piece.

In Kill or Cure, the description of farm life was so meticulous, that I recalled Kennedy mentioning her own life on the farm many times, and suddenly it all made sense. The story of a woman moving to a farm with her farm husband, trying to adjust to the land, the life, and be accepted by him, the town, and his best friend, the dog… it was all so melancholy and lonely, I also had to wonder again, how much of it was fiction. Even without a proper ending here, you couldn’t not feel.

But for many of these stories, it didn’t appear to matter whether they had a purpose or ‘real’ ending, or not. They served their purpose by just providing a snapshot into another’s life, and I realised without my usual necessary closure need, that I kind of enjoyed it. The journey, and not the destination.

It was common to feel achy, sad and despondent when going through the book, like in the short story Angel, where the assault of a young child is hinted at and made definite by the direct retribution that happens after, and also Cold Snap, where a young boy is ridiculed and made to feel inferior. Here the boy is laughed at, with others saying in his earshot “it looks like the light’s on but there’s no one home,” so when those same few get what they deserve, you smile menacingly, while still feeling a pang of longing for a boy who doesn’t exist, and yet somehow, you know somewhere, he does.

Kennedy’s pace is fast, as suddenly you are here, then you are there, but it all happens in such continuous fluid motion that you didn’t even know you moved until you realised the sun was on your face as opposed to the bed you were just sleeping in. I felt like I could learn a thing or two from her genius. But I guess this is the way that short stories have to be, and when they are like this, they work brilliantly.

Her language is telling and cheeky too… like in the story Resizing, ‘lubricate’ is used in the context of getting a car started again, and yet it means so much more in a steamy car of a formerly fighting couple on the verge of reuniting. In The Testosterone Club, a house wife concocts some comedic revenge on her untrusting husband and his friends in the form of slowly curing pickles, which says so much about manhood and the ‘flaccid’ nature that it can fall into. Here, the routine and mediocrity of a boring housewife existence was captured well, recorded as so monotonous and regular, and yet so unexpected in its satisfying final outcome.

But, I found as I read, and continued to look back on my notes for Dark Roots, that there was Hope. Both in the form of me finding a short story that I really liked, and then the realisation that I might too, want to dabble in and try my own hand at short stories. I found my inspiration brewing in her story The Light of Coincidence. Not only did my home town and its landmarks feature prominently, but so did an area of speculation and great interest to me: Coincidence, fate, and how they play together. From the middle:

“Let me tell you a story, a connoisseur story of coincidence. There I was trundling down the ‘down’ escalator at Flinders Street Station, jammed into crowds of people, when who should I see but an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen in ten years going up the escalator across the way. She was in blue. Oblivious to my calling and waving, she disappeared up the moving stairwell. I was seized with an overwhelming urge to say hello, and at the bottom I turned and raced back up her escalator and was deposited in the whirlpool of commuters on the ground floor. No sign of her. I raced outside and saw her blue jumper, sixty or so metres up Swanston Street, so I barrelled across the road and caught up. Tender greetings followed.

‘What a coincidence,’ I said. ‘I just looked up at the right time to see you on the escalator in the station.’ A puzzled frown crossed her face.

‘I wasn’t in the station,’ she said.”

Chills, or what? The goosebumps I got from reading that grabbed my attention, and kept it more firmly for a good while after. Because when a writer develops in you some kind of emotion, whether that be sadness, grief, or more happily, belief and Hope, that is when one tends to turn up more often, and listen.

And after reading this book, I am listening.

There is Hope (and coincidence) for me just yet.

Kennedy’s short story title accurately portrays the content which you will find inside. Surface level will show you the every day, whereas when you go beyond this, and to the roots of the matter, you will find that in the character’s thoughts, lives, and ideas, some darkness lives. In doing this, she helps us teeter on the thread of human existence, where on one side it is sunny and well, and the other shows the motivations, fears and hopes that drive us, with the overwhelming blackness that can sometimes unify and occupy us all.

I see short stories in a different light now. Much lighter than the Dark Roots they came from, and I have Kennedy to thank for that. I am now looking forward to reading her other short story collection, ‘Like a House On Fire,’ waiting for me on my bookshelf.

I guess it takes time, but often things will work themselves out like that. Like the closing sentence in my favourite story, The Light of Coincidence:

“I slide it out and fit it into place, feeling the whole configuration resist, and move slightly out of skew. I move it back with the flat of my hand, feeling it shift. Strengthen. Interlock.”

Please let me know your thoughts on Dark Roots in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you 🙂

 

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Why we do what we do

Writing.

Why do we do it? We feel that we need an expressive, emotional outlet.

We have a story to tell.

We want to engage with others.

We want people to feel, how we have, when we have read a life-changing book.

We just have to. We just have to get it down, and out of our heads.

That’s some of the reasons why we write.

Have you ever questioned though, what you write?

I did. Yesterday, and quite a few times last week.

Because yesterday, I was at a funeral. It was heartbreaking. There is nothing as humbling and life prioritising, as when you are seeing somebody laid to rest, long before they are due.

Leaving a wife behind. Leaving young children behind.

Just days ago a family member of Hubbie’s recounted how her own Dad lost his Father, when he was only 10.

I remember thinking “shit. Death has been unfairly happening for centuries. It has been unfairly happening FOREVER.”

And it will continue to. UNFAIRLY. HAPPEN. FOREVER.

It’s something we can’t escape. And when faced with questions of life and death, with our subsequent inevitable mortality, and how we should spend our life, making the absolute most of it, I kept thinking of what I love doing, and how I like spending my time…

Where I put my energies, and how I am making a difference.

And that’s where the insecurities began.

Maybe I should be writing about incurable terminal illnesses. Maybe I should be promoting the lack of funding, and urging people to donate, for medical authorities to put more money into research and funding and preventative measures.

Maybe I should be exploiting the child sex trafficking trade, highlighting to the world how absolutely disgusting and soul-wrenching this inexplicable market is. Maybe I should be going to these places and trying to take the kids off the street, shaming the dealers and screaming abuse at them for all to hear, and all to see.

Maybe I should be writing about violence against women. I sure as hell have mentioned it before, but maybe I need to write a book about it. Maybe I need to track down victims and gain statements in order to name and shame the perpetrators, and expose it for the world to see, so the instigators are prevented from repeating their offences, and so that future perpetrators can gain some kind of insight into why it is NOT OKAY TO ABUSE WOMEN.

Or maybe I need to be writing about politics. I mean, Trump. Australian issues. Refugees. Supporting our own farmers and flood victims, versus supporting the unfortunate in disadvantaged countries. I mean, who should be helped? Our own, or people in other countries? Aren’t those abroad also, our own? Isn’t that our human privilege, to be able to help others less fortunate? Or do we just worry about our own backyard?

And yet, what have I been writing about? What have I been pouring all my energies into the last several years?

Why, young adult fiction. Teenage fun, teenage issues. Coming of age stuff. Also, a blog or two, about food, books, and life as we move through it.

Not very life-changing is it?

I stood there in the freezing cold yesterday, pondering all this as a man’s body was lowered into the ground. His life was over. We had seen him only months ago, and there appeared to be so much promise, so much hope for his future. He would beat the bastard disease.

But instead, now, there was nothing. Just memories and a hyphen.

Nothing makes you question life and what you do with it, quite like the death of someone. It provides a warning, an alarm bell, for all those still around to witness it.

No one knows why death happens unfairly. Is it the absence of luck? Is it fate? Is it God? Or is it something greater, or comparatively, something worse… in fact, NOTHING AT ALL?

Could it be just nothing? We’re all just a step away from death, and if we are lucky enough to avoid it all our lives, we have done well???

I don’t know. I spent my time yesterday thinking of why I do, what I do, and I came to this conclusion…

I love to do, what I do. I do it because it makes me happy. I don’t spend hours researching and analysing, trying to change the minds of the authorities and the mass media, trying to sway them to change.

Sometimes an issue will grab me, and I WILL speak out. But my writing is done for my own enjoyment. It’s my own personal brand of therapy. I have to get the words out, the thoughts that stew in me. Whether it is my personal words for my blogs, all the things I like and dislike, what I am appreciate of, and what foods I like to eat and books I like to read, I do it for ME.

If anyone else gains anything from my writings, from my insights, then that is GREAT. That is something special.

As for my fiction… that is also done for my own purposes. My own entertainment. I like the story I see in my head, and I just have to get it out. If the only person who ever reads it are my kids, and they go “Mum that was pretty cool” well, WOO HOO. That is awesome. Of course I will try over the years to try get other people to see it… but at the end of the day, if the only people who see it are me, myself and I, and even if my kids never ever read a word I write… well I don’t deny, I might be a bit sad about that. But it won’t stop me doing what I’m doing. Because what I’m doing is for me and me alone, and no one else. I will gain the satisfaction of knowing that I produced that… and I will be pretty darn happy.

I don’t do it for others. That’s the key. That’s not to say I don’t help, or want to help others or other causes, and try to make a difference elsewhere when my heart cries out for it… but what I mean is I listen to the voice within me, and answer to that voice, that need, alone.

I don’t do things to make other people happy. I do it for me, first and foremost. And when you think about it, that’s the only person in this world you have to keep happy, right? Yourself. You have to keep yourself happy, yourself enriched, because YOU are the only person YOU have to answer to. You and You alone.

And if I’m doing these things, and they’re enriching my life, and making me happy, and filling me with joy – that’s enough, isn’t it? That’s a happy and fulfilled life. Writing about things that aren’t me… what is even the point of it? Who are you doing it for? Why are you doing it for others? It just doesn’t make sense.

Note that the above applies to EVERYTHING in life. If it’s not making you happy… well then find the thing that does, and do it RIGHT NOW.

Start today. We only have one life to live, and nothing is a guarantee. A quote from the author Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic is relevant now:

“You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome. You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome.”

And that says it all.

 

When you are a writer…

and you’ve been sitting at your computer for a while, and inspiration is lacking in your head, and your fingers don’t hit at the keypad properly, words like remainding suddenly appear to be gramattically correct, until the red line appears under remainding, and you highlight it and you go ‘oh that’s right, it’s remaining.’ And then you question whether it’s two ts, or ms or ls in gramattically, and which is meant to go where, and you refuse to put the comma between the t and s even though the spellcheck is going bezerk, but you tell the spellcheck that it’s not a possessive its a plural so suck that, then you ask yourself ‘how does one spell bezerk?’ And begin a google chase over its origins and find out it is actually a word in the dictionary and is spelt berserk, and does not have a z making it all rap/hipster. Then you wonder why you even thought it was urban, the term berserk, and remember that urban dictionary website that you once checked out telling you about all the street lingo, and discover the term ‘procaffenating’ which pretty much means “But first, coffee” but less poshy. Then you realise the computer has gone all red line on you again, and instead of writing your novel you have been googling and procrastinating with terms like procaffenating and have just come upon the term ‘jeanjerking,’ and seriously now it is time to go.

Showing Up when it’s Hard

I’d been struggling with a lot of things lately. Friday night I found myself tired, run down, feeling flat about the next few days, and depressed that I hadn’t written for a while. And it wasn’t my blog, or my journal that I was feeling down about. It was my main project, my book, the one that I actually need to knuckle down on, push my sleeves up, and get into the nitty gritty of. I’d been feeling uninspired for several weeks, and though I do, genuinely, always have something to do, the words ‘no excuses’ kept circling around in my head. These words made me angry at myself, because I knew it to be true.

I’ve written on my blog before that I find it hardest to write when I’m sad, or feeling down and depressed. I was so shitty with myself on Friday, that I decided to prove a point to myself, and I really wanted to get out of my funk too, despite the hard reality that when you’re in a hole, it’s really quite difficult to pull yourself out of it. It’s like looking for a rope to climb out of your hole from, only there’s no rope in sight, only mounds of dirt threatening to bury you.

I opened my laptop and journalled my angry thoughts for about 20 minutes. That purge seemed to help. Next I opened the Miranda Kerr book I’ve been getting through in times of much needed motivation: “Treasure Yourself.” I went through about 20 pages of motivational quotes and affirmations, before ending on one talking about taking advantage of the sunshine. I knew it was going to be a beautiful day the next day, and so I left it at that.

Then the most daunting of them all. I turned back to my laptop and opened up chapter 1 of my book, my second book in the series as it were, and re-read it, in the hope that some glimmer of inspiration, of a fantastic idea and great sprawling plan would start to eventuate and I would know how to progress my characters onto the next part.

And the most amazing thing happened. Ideas, scenarios floated into my head. I weighed up one, I weighed up the other. Words, thoughts, conversations started to roll… and I started to write.

An hour later and I was previewing the fact that I had doubted writing at all, and had instead ended up with just over 2 pages. And it wasn’t too bad.

I’m continually amazed at the power of the word. I know it can be very different for other writers, but so often when I think I’m not in the right zone, don’t have enough time, or am lacking the ideas, if I just ‘show up,’ the rest flows. A good 70% of my first book wrote itself. I just had to dedicate myself to sitting down long enough for it.

And I was so proud of myself. I’d been so down and out, and had all by myself, without any help or interference from anyone else, pulled myself out of it. Like the crippled donkey stuck in a hole, being buried by its owner for being disadvantaged, who took the soil being heaped upon him as stepping stones to make his way out, so I too, the proverbial donkey, found my way out by looking around me and asking ‘what can I do to help myself?’

Only you can help yourself. Don’t rely on anyone else for YOUR happiness.

Know you will have off days. Accept this, and live in the moment of being sad. IT’S OK to feel like this.

Don’t make yourself feel bad for not pursuing your goals, ALL of the time. You are only HUMAN. As long as you get back up, it’s fine.

Just SHOW UP. Showing up is more than half the work.

I’m really going to dedicate myself to moving my characters forward now. The writing bug has come back and I’m over the moon. If I’m not blogging, writing about food or reviewing books, it’s ok: I’m still here, reading Austen and eating out (though I’m probably re-visiting tried and true restaurants rather than new establishments). I just need to focus on this other (really important) part of my life now.

I never go far from the art of writing. It makes me happy, so it makes sense that I should do a lot of it.

As my coffee mug tells me: “Do what you love, love what you do.”

Up in Lights

I just had a weird thing happen. I just saw the title of my yet-unpublished-bound-to-happen book as part of a title of a television series.

It was, without saying too much, only kind of, yet exactly the same as my title, though there is another section to my book title that wasn’t there, as simultaneously there was something in the TV series title that is not in mine.

Still. I just kind of stared, letting the image of the name burn into me, recognising that the name is there, out there, in television land, in this other medium, in a media form as such… it exists.

Just not as mine. Not attributed to me. Not yet.