The Republic of Words 3 of 3: Writing, dogs and the meaning of life

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a book about writing and the relationship between animals and humans, was another perfect fit for me. It’s a novel but I thought it was a true story as it reads like a memoir and is, I discovered, the most autobiographical of Nunez’s book to date. It is a simple story but one that is multi-layered and full of literary allusions with an animal as the central character. It’s about a woman in New York – the narrator – who reluctantly inherits a dog – a Great Dane – when its owner, her friend, a womanising professor who has been married three times, commits suicide. Nunez, like the female narrator, both teaches and writes.  She has no social media accounts and leads a quiet life: “I became a writer because it was something I could do alone and hidden in my room.” She is an ‘old school’ writer who views the craft as a vocation and was surprised to find herself in the limelight as the winner of the 2018 National Book Award.

Nunez/the narrator has a dig at the proliferation of writers and quotes the deceased friend as agreeing with Garrison Keillor: “When everyone’s a writer, no one is,” a sentiment Nunez traces back to the pre-digital era: French critic Sainte-Beuve said in 1839: “To write and have something published is less and less special. Why not me too? everyone asks.” What would have Sainte-Beauve have made of self-publishing and blogging?

Anyone who has tried to write a book and bumped up against the self-doubt, angst and feeling of being a fraud will take comfort from learning that John Updike always felt he had got away with something when he saw his books in a store. For Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen the act of writing helped to ease pain and sorrow, whereas Philip Roth found writing frustrating and humiliating. And how surprising to learn that prolific writer Georges Simenon described writing as a vocation of unhappiness.  The most pertinent quote for me was from Rainer Maria Rilke: “If you were forbidden to write, would you die?”

I certainly don’t feel compelled to use my time out from work to write a novel, memoir or best seller – not at the moment anyway. For now, I am content to blog for the love of writing and to maintain the practice of crafting words. Although I do rather love the image of tapping away at a  book n a house by the beach with my dog at my feet…

The friend in the story refers not only to the deceased professor but to the Great Dane Apollo.  This is no saccharine story of puppy love, however. At first an unwelcome burden, the dog is a wise old soul who gradually becomes central to the narrator’s life – she even reads to him (something a holistic vet suggested I do to calm my dog Bertie!) – and manages to persuade her landlord to let her keep him in her tiny New York apartment. Much of the book is about the relationship between humans and animals: “They may know us better than we know them.” I also loved this: “I like that Aborigines say dogs make people human.” The Friend also references famous people who have owned dogs such as J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967) editor of BBC magazine The Listener. While he took a rather unhealthy interest in his dog’s heats and bodily functions (there’s a chapter in his book My Dog Tulip called Liquids and Solids), he spoke of his relationship with Tulip as a 15-year marriage, the happiest of his life. In similar vein the narrator in The Friend quotes a passer-by as saying: “Better a dog for a husband, than a husband who’s a dog.” Hear, hear, I say!

Although a fictionalised life lesson, I also enjoyed The Why Café by John Strelecky, partly because I read it in German – Das Café am Rande der Welt ­­– and tapped back into the language, and partly because it never harms to ponder the meaning of life! The narrative construct is that a stressed advertising executive runs out of petrol and finds himself in a café in the middle of nowhere. On the menu are three questions:

Why are you here?
Do you fear death?
Are you fulfilled?

Through conversations with the café owner, waitress and a patron, the book encourages readers to challenge their thinking. Are we being true to ourselves or doing what others wish us to do? Are we slogging away to earn money to amass belongings that we think will makes us feel happy? Are we keeping madly busy because we haven’t found our purpose or our calling? Are we waiting till retirement to do what we love? Do we swim with the tide or against it? What is our life purpose?

I sometimes wonder if writing is my calling or just something I love to do. Maybe dogs are my calling – or animals. Or maybe it’s writing funding applications to support animal welfare and conservation! I certainly find great solace in nature and love being away from screens and devices, chatter, noise and distraction. Walking out across the fields in Nottinghamshire yesterday, bright red poppies dotting the landscape and foamy cream hawthorn blooms bordering the path, I stood and ‘chatted’ with a cow, who stopped his meditational chewing and turned to look at me, its eyes full of knowingness. Mindful moments like those remind me how wondrous it is to be alive. And, for all the self-help and psychobabble, we don’t need to have all the answers. Another brilliant quote from The Friend by Rilke: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart… live in the question.”



Reflections on writing: only you can tell your story

I am always inspired when I hear writers talking about their craft. What always emerges is that there’s no hard and fast rule or approach. Like any creative pursuit, it’s highly individual and subjective. Although there is a plethora of information on writing – from blogs to podcasts, how-to manuals and modules, a formulaic approach will only take you so far. Working out why you want to write, what you want to say and why is an important part of the process.


How authors approach their writing differs according to their motivation. It could be therapeutic –personal journaling, for example, has become very popular as a way of expressing, releasing, even purging thoughts and emotions – and, more generally, making sense of the world. Some authors have been penning stories from a young age, it’s in their blood and part of who they are, while others are more strategic and have a business-like approach to writing a blockbuster.

Whatever the frequency or medium, one unifying theme I have observed is the importance of finding – and trusting – your own voice, being authentic, tapping into your heart and soul and mining your storehouse of emotions, experiences and memories. Included in Neil Gaiman’s top tips on writing is this one: “As quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell – because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you, but you are the only you.”

Looking back, I realise that the first book I wrote in 2002-2004 was clearly a thinly disguised autobiography. Titled Unknown Territory, it wasn’t bad for a first effort – had it been published it would have slotted into the Chick Lit section of a bookshop. A few years later I picked it up again and decided to be more honest and write more directly about my personal journey. I framed it as an A-Z – a kind of ‘my life on a plate’. Some of it was good, some of it was a bit forced by dint of having to come up with content for each letter of the alphabet, and I glossed over the darker and more difficult episodes in my life as I was so hell bent on making it funny. I did get interest and some very positive feedback from publishers but the consensus was that I needed to plunge the depths and ditch the A-Z format.

Neil Gaiman talks about letting go of the inner critic and the perfectionist: “If you are making mistakes then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.”   I would say that writing my A-Z changed my perception of my world and enabled me to re-frame some of my past in a way that made it more palatable even though I didn’t fully allow myself to write out some of the rage and more raw emotions.  I am glad it didn’t get published but now acknowledge that it was valid as an exercise in catharsis.


Earlier this year I heard author Kate Grenville speak at Clunes Booktown. When talking about One Life: My Mother’s Story, she said: “Being truthful about the past is a pre-requisite for walking into the future.” That struck a chord with me and I wondered if I will ever have the urge to write a full-blown memoir, one that is uncompromisingly honest and free of the fear of being judged – or even worse, of upsetting some of my nearest and dearest.  Other advice Kate gave was to never start at the beginning of a story but where it gets interesting. Contrast that more intuitive approach to the planned writer who plots out the story and characters before writing.

Jane Harper, whose murder mystery The Dry has become a bestseller enrolled in a novel-writing course and in 12 weeks produced a 40,000-word draft. She takes a no-nonsense, roll up your sleeves approach to writing: “Writing is a skill that can be taught and learnt.” How refreshing to encounter a writer unencumbered by angst, anguish and sleepless nights. “I approach it logically,” she says, “and just take it step by step.”  Although Harper trained as a journalist and so, arguably, had a head start, writing a novel requires a different skill set. What comes across in the article I read is that Harper is efficient and organised and applied to herself to writing a novel as she would to any other task.  For her, the hard graft and discipline paid off, but for some too much effort kills off the creative spirit.

Also speaking at Clunes Booktown was Hannah Kent author of bestselling novel Burial Rites. She values the importance of routine but also – and I found this very heartening – allocates herself sick leave and annual leave. “You can show up too much.”

Once again, it’s about carving out our own niche and tapping into our own rhythm and association of thoughts and ideas. By all means take inspiration from other writers, but never fall into the trap of trying to imitate them either in style or writing practice. I like Neil Gaiman’s advice to be kinder to yourself: “Write more. And remember that everyone who writes anything good, wrote a lot of bad stuff first.”

Write for Your Life but avoid the red flags

I’ve recently had a quite a bookish time: I had my first memoir mentoring session last Friday (in lieu of the workshop I missed), attended a session at the Victorian Writers’ Centre on how to craft a pitch to publishers – “Every writer should be prepared to explain their story in one sentence,” (a quote from a literary agent), and then on Monday I was back at the Writers’ Centre for a panel discussion entitled ‘All About Agents.’

Memoir-writing is very much in vogue at the moment which is good in some ways but also means more competition! One of the main things I took away from my mentoring session is to ignore the pesky critic that sits atop many a writer’s shoulder chattering away along the lines of: why would anyone want to read my story, I’m not good enough, I haven’t lead an interesting enough life (climbed Everest, sailed solo round the world, invented something new or changed the world) plus my family and friends might not approve etc.

Because we all have a story to tell – if we’re brave enough– and we all have our unique voice, style and perspective on life. The challenge, and I say this as someone who is good at glossing the tricky stuff and making it funny, is to connect with the raw emotion and to write from an authentic space. So, for example, if you’re writing about your childhood, you need to take yourself back to that time and channel the younger you, not the wise adult writing with the benefit of hindsight. It’s a fine line balancing the light and the dark. Spiri, my mentor, suggested I read “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo” by writer and comedian Luke Ryan. Have any of you come across it? Or does anyone have any good memoirs to recommend?

One way to stimulate and inspire life story writing is to draw on diaries, photographs and other memorabilia. When I shipped my remaining belongings from the UK to Australia a few years ago, I included a box of diaries, letters and other keepsakes. In the back of my mind I thought they might come in handy one day. I’ve had a lot of fun reading my diary from 1973. Interestingly it was quite a turbulent time in my family – marital mayhem and moving schools to name but a few challenges – and yet my entries are totally matter of fact: meals; visits to grandmothers; aunts; shopping trips; fun fairs; school; friends; and endless accounts of the weather ( I reckon I picked the weather obsession up from my mother!). Apart from describing a few horrable hedaches (my spelling had a way to go as you might expect from a nine year-old going on ten), a nasty tonsillectomy that made me throw up eight times and a not-so-good day or two at school, my daily accounts are almost devoid of emotion. I think that will change as I get older and my dairies become more private – as in lockable!


The pitching essentials workshop run by journalist and author Maria Katsonis was fun too. We did some practical exercises and had to come up with a 30-second elevator pitch for our book, identify comparison titles and develop a mini synopsis describing our story or concept in one paragraph. The pitch Maria used was: ‘A true story about me and my experience of mental illness set against the backdrop of growing up gay in a traditional Greek family’. She admitted that it took quite some time to come up with something as concise and pithy: brevity is definitely the name of the game. I cheated a bit as I had already come up with some of these pitches for my A-Z but I may have to change them as my new project emerges. As for comparison titles I have been saying – but again this may change – that my book is Eat, Pray, Love crossed with Bridget Jones meets Embarrassing Bodies (the TV show). Go figure…

Red flags to avoid include explaining how or why you came to write the story, how much you’ve wanted to write since you were a child and how much your family and friends love your work. Hmm… I’ve fallen into a few of those clichéd traps before now. And never comment on the quality of your work. Your writing should speak for itself – it’s the show don’t tell rule.

It was somewhat sobering to hear the agents talking. One of them confessed she gets up to 38 submissions a week, more than she can possibly read. The focus for agents needs to be on the commercial potential of your work – if they can’t sell it they don’t make any money (typically they take 15% of all sales) and on career longevity versus one shot wonders! I was amazed to hear that so many writers fail to read the guidelines on an agent’s website and send in strangely formatted works in all different fonts or submit more words than requested. All no-nos that will consign you to the bin.

But I’m a long way off red flags and the editorial bin. My homework for the week is to identify the key themes of my story and how they might group together and, from there, build some kind of overarching framework.

Every cloud – or cough – has a silver lining

I never got to the memoir-writing weekend workshop! Bertie came down with canine cough the day before. Poor boy he sounded as if he had something stuck in his throat and had been smoking Gauloise cigarettes! Apart from the hacking cough, he brought up endless amounts of frothy mucous – sorry too much detail – which he managed to deposit on my bed, his bed, the living room rug, carpets and floors. Luckily that phase of the virus has passed but he’s still coughing and so dog parks are out of bounds (canine cough is highly contagious) as is contact with other dogs. Try telling that to a two-year old… We sneak round the block for a very much reduced version of our normal walks, madly dodging other dogs by criss-crossing the road. And, before you ask, yes he was vaccinated but, like human flu, there are lots of different strains which can slip through the net.

As I couldn’t leave him with the dog-sitter (she has two dogs of her own), I tried to get someone to come and look after Bertie at home but it was too short notice. So that was that: workshop plans aborted. Although I had been very much looking forward to the weekend, I was pretty philosophical about having to cancel. Que sera, sera – and things often have an uncanny way of working out. In fact, the prospect of a weekend at home with no plans or deadlines was pretty attractive. Regular readers will be familiar with my ranting on about time or lack of it and my seemingly never-ending to-do list. So here was a chance for me to slow down a bit.

Needless to say, I filled up my time and studiously avoided writing. Because the truth is that I can’t think how or where to start with Project Rewrite! So I took myself off to a shopping mall, something I do very rarely – I think the last time was August 2014 – armed with the $50 voucher I received in lieu of soon-to-expire air miles. I needed some new winter boots and found the perfect pair on sale. While I was at it, I bought some heavily reduced pumps and sandals ready for next summer – there’s nothing like planning ahead. I also got some bits and pieces in a closing down sale and treated myself to some speciality teas, my favourite a crème brûlée black tea, and purchased new hair dryer at Kmart for my Airbnb guests

I also had a bit of a cook-up – soups and stews and poached fruits, all perfect for chilly autumn days. On Sunday night I invited a girlfriend and made slow-cook lamb shank soup which we ate with crusty bread. For dessert I stewed apple and blackberries which I served with the plum ice cream I had made over Easter; a perfect combination even if I say so myself!

On Monday I got in touch with the workshop facilitator, Spiri, who offered me a refund or the option of having a one on one meeting with her about my book and 3-4 follow-up phone or email mentoring sessions. I toyed with the idea of engaging a mentor a while back but then saw the workshop and booked on that instead. In truth, a few individual sessions will probably be far more valuable to me than a more generic group approach. What a bonus! Thank you, Bertie, for bringing that about!

You may delay but time will not (Benjamin Franklin)

Deciding to return to my book – a memoir-style life adventure arranged as an A-Z – is the easy bit. Finding the time to get to it is the challenge. The motivational coach giving the ‘Beginners Guide to Becoming an Author’ workshop encouraged us to get into the habit of writing 500 words a day. Surely we could find half an hour? That sounds reasonable but it often takes longer to write 500 words – depending on the space you’re in – and I don’t know about you, but sometimes that free half hour gets pushed back to the end of the day once all the must-dos have been accomplished, and the only thing that beckons is sleep.

I seem to have been chasing my tail for the last six weeks – Bertie and I have so much in common – trying to create space for some stillness where I can come back to neutral and just be. Once I get into that state, it’s easier to gain clarity and direction not to mention inspiration. I’m mulling over whether to convert my episodic A-Z into a more formal memoir or whether to flesh out the current structure and, as a friend suggested, top and tail the existing alphabetic entries to give the book more flow and continuity.

I tell myself that my new job will lose some of its newness and become a little easier and more manageable after the Easter break. I’ve had about 15 days there spread across two and a half days a week and have been head down from start to finish each time. No lunch breaks, faffing or chatting for me, a challenge in itself as I work in a very chatty office. I’ve been going a million miles an hour to get it all done – it’s called adrenalin.

In between the other bits of work and welcoming Airbnb guests, I spend a fair bit of time cleaning my house, making beds, re-potting plants, pruning enthusiastic shrubs that entwine themselves around my washing line, weeding, walking Bertie, washing Bertie (he does so love rolling in stinky stuff on the beach), cleaning my car (the worst job of all as it takes ages and is hard to do well – think smeary windows) and attending to all the other admin and household tasks we all have to contend with. Oh, and then there’s the socialising which has taken a back seat to everything else recently.

Anyway, today started well enough; I enjoyed a mini lie-in, something past eight instead of something past seven and had a cup of tea and a piece of toast with my guests. But Bertie had another agenda and was conducting a silent but messy protest at the later start and delayed walk. No wonder he was so quiet. He had chewed a hole in his mat and was pulling out the green filler. Never mind, the beach was glorious when we got there and Bertie had a ball in more ways than one.


Back home, I had a cuppa, watered the garden and put on a load of washing before sitting down to do a little outdoor meditation. Another one of those habits that we’re encouraged to fit into our day along with preparing healthy food, exercising, stretching, keeping up with social media and writing in our Gratitude Journal. Just ten minutes of this and that can change our life…. or make us late for work…

But here I was creating a bit of down time – at last. Peace and quiet. Stillness. Feet on the Ground. Deep Breath. No Agenda. No rushing. Soon, however, the dog child was up to more tricks. He was paddling around in the just-watered flower beds chewing sticks, growling and barking at something – perhaps a bird– and trying to jump onto my knee with muddy paws. I am breathing in, I am breathing out, I said silently in my head, ignoring him. Then I heard the dog flap open and close and realised he had gone inside. The next thing I heard was a scrabbling chasing kind of sound as he ran round in circles in my study spreading the love – and the mud.


He’s now worn himself out and is fast asleep on his bed – the one he didn’t chew up. And I have shown up at my desk. OK, so I will have to vacuum the floor but after that no more sabotaging the writing!

I’m currently reading a wonderful book called The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwaller, which is the story of an anchoress, a holy woman, in medieval England who chooses to ‘die’ to the material world and devote herself to prayer and to God. At the tender age of 17, she goes – with the door nailed shut – into a small stone hermitage attached to the village church. I’m not advocating total withdrawal from the world but writing is a discipline – for me anyway – that requires time and space away from other distractions. So I’ve booked onto a wonderful sounding memoir-writing workshop in Aireys Inlet, just down the road from my old haunt Anglesea, in April. What a treat to get away and be in the company of other writers with nothing but a blank sheet of paper and the opportunity to let the ideas flow. I think it was author Cate Kennedy who was quoted as saying: “Take the page and wreck it.” I intend to do just that.

Embracing Community and the Kindness of Strangers

As I approach the final furlong of my Sea Change in Anglesea (for new readers, my Melbourne house is having a bit of a makeover), I’m really getting into life down here. As a not-for-profit grant-writer, I often talk about promoting or creating community connectedness and a sense of belonging. Well, recently, I’ve had the good fortune to experience both.

Last Friday, I joined in a monthly ‘Big Sing’ in a local township – well more like a hamlet actually. I was welcomed with open arms and felt instantly at ease to join in the warm-ups which, a bit like at my Melbourne-based choir, require a total absence of inhibition – blowing out your lips like a horse, wailing like a siren and generally waving your arms around. We then sang in canon using the words of a GPS navigator to the tune of London Bridge. After a few gospel numbers, a Maori song to mark Anzac Day and an Aboriginal Stolen Generations song, it was time for supper. With candles dotted around and gum tree leaves decking the walls of the community hall, we tucked into home-made soup and crusty bread. This was definitely choir Country Style.

Then on the weekend I went to the Lighthouse Literary Fest at nearby Fairhaven. I had booked back in February (just as well as it sold out fast) and knew I would need to find childcare for Bertie; I couldn’t leave him in solitary confinement in the laundry for two days running. Nearer the time, something or somebody would turn up I told myself. But the dog-sitter I left him with on a return trip to Melbourne was booked up, my neighbours were going off to Hawaii and I couldn’t really ask 89-year-old Dolly over the road. As it was, Bertie had already barked imperiously at her when she put her bins out.


Early on in the piece, a lovely woman, Pauline, came up and admired Bertie when we were sitting outside a cafe. We got chatting and she told me her daughter had a cocker spaniel called Theodore aka Teddy. So when I bumped into her again several weeks later (she runs one of the thrift shops here), I mentioned that I was looking for a dog-sitter over Anzac weekend and wondered if one of her children might be able to help. It turned out that her kids were busy but, sure enough, Pauline and her husband Andrew volunteered. What’s more they refused to take any payment.

What I find so wonderful and generous about their gesture is that they hardly know me and yet they were happy to spend their weekend minding Bertie. Needless to say they fell in love with my boy who had – excuse the terrible pun – a ball. They took him to church, out to lunch, lavished him with cuddles, treated him to few choice snacks and several walk, and on the Saturday, invited Teddy down from Melbourne to keep him company.

All the while I was free to immerse myself in two days of cultural nourishment and stimulation. Much as I have loved all the beach and river walks, prolific bird life, friendly cafes and charity shop fossicking, I was ready for a bit of bookiness and bookish company. From the venue – a newly built Surf Life Saving Club with big ship-like timber beams overlooking the ocean to yummy paper bag lunches and a program of talks and panel discussions with actors, ABC radio presenters, journalists, film directors, emerging and established authors –it was a treat from beginning to end.

One of the discussions look at health and what makes us sick. Much of the discussion revolved around the corporatisation of food and the inability of those who are socially and economically disadvantaged to make healthy choices. We learnt about fast food producers and doctors being in cahoots on corporate boards and that wherever Coca Cola features on the world map, there’s obesity.

Other sessions explored memoir writing: how do we write about friends and people we know – do we disguise them (change their hair colour, sex and geography), do we write about them as they are and get their permission, or do we ultimately betray them? And how do we tackle writing about parents, whether dead or alive? Then there’s the dilemma of self-exposure for those that have written memoirs. Are we introverts (shrinking violets), extroverts (show-offs) or what American writer Susan Cain refers to as ambiverts, a mix of both?!

At the end of each session a musical double act, Nice Work, performed a song with a ukulele accompaniment. A bit like a sorbet cleanses the palate during a rich meal, the two young men (pretty much boys really) provided the ideal inter session refreshment.

The festival ended with a fascinating and humorous presentation by screenwriter David Roach in conversation with Graeme Simsion (of The Rosie Project fame). A chance meeting with a Master of Wine on a plane was the genesis of the documentary, Red Obsession, about China’s voracious appetite for wines produced by the great chateaux in Bordeaux. We saw clips of the film, one of my favourites featuring the owner of one of the big name chateaux (I forget which) in Bordeaux. He said it all came down to love (or lurv in his French accent) – loving the wine, loving drinking it and loving the cultivation of it grape by grape. He should know; he’d drunk something like a couple of bottles with lunch day.

Coming back to the kindness of strangers, I gave Pauline and Andrew a bottle of local Shiraz as a thank-you for looking after Bertie. Not quite in the same league as the top notch Bordeaux wines the Chinese are buying for up to $250,000 a bottle, but a token of appreciation nevertheless. I’m going to miss my new coastal community.