Saradha Koirala

Tag: writing

“To be alive and to be a ‘writer’ is enough.” (Katherine Mansfield)

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Saradha as Virginia Woolf

It’s been a difficult couple of months. Individually, universally. Hell, it’s been a tough few years if you really want to start scraping back through it all and trying to remember the last time you sat still, looked around at your personal, professional and creative life and thought, Yeah, things are okay. I wish I’d made better note of those moments of contentment, but perhaps that would have shifted them out of the present and it’s being present in those moments that makes one content.

I’ve been counting words – proud of a year spent launching a novel and working on two more. Gathering poems into a third collection and reading everything I can find. But in there somewhere I lost count. Lost track of how to hold onto what was mine, lost count of the number of job applications, inquiries and rejection letters, the social interactions cancelled or rain-checked beyond redemption. I can’t bear to try and count the heartbreaks and moments of self-doubt of the last few years.

I have, however, counted the flights. 21 international flights in the last two years, 10 since moving to Melbourne. There have been adventures and family celebrations and always something good waiting at each end – but counting and losing count has made me exhausted.

My last flight back to Wellington landed 24 hours before the 7.8 quake last month and as lovely as it was to see my family and friends and know they wanted me there so they could check in, hug me and try to settle me after what felt like a complete life-fail, I got the strong sense Wellington was trying to shake me free. Again.

But slowly the after-shocks stopped and things seemed to shuffle into a shape I could make sense of. The feeling that home wasn’t quite home anymore, the outrage or compassion my friends expressed on my behalf at the situation I’d found myself in, the daily routine and purpose my brother provided and the obstacle-ridden journey my mum endured to come and see me, care for me and give me a copy of Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me all helped me feel like me again.

There’s something pretty special about Sarah’s book. Reading about her journey juxtaposed with that of our shared literary hero, Katherine Mansfield, reminded me of what I need: To stop counting, stop flying, sit still again and write. To be somewhere that could become home, somewhere bright, open, flat and stable beneath the feet. Somewhere I can keep putting my words down, one after the other and build something, anything, that looks like a life. And sure I need love and connections; to be honest with the people around me, to ask for help and show others I can help them too, but right now I just need to stay alive and to write.

Back in Melbourne and every day I feel slightly different. Last week, when the moment felt right, I cycled round to look at a spare room in a cottage on Mansfield Street. Stained-glass bay window, picket fence. In Thornbury, but it would not be out of place in Thorndon. I thought of Sarah moving to New York and Katherine moving to London and me, now, with all this hope and determination despite what feels like months of disappointment.

So I’ve moved to Mansfield Street, into a room of my own. The wifi’s dodgy and we don’t have a kettle, but my optimism is boundless. It surprises me sometimes.

The Best of Adam Sharp – by Graeme Simsion

I spent my Saturday finishing reading The Best of Adam Sharp. On Sunday I caught the train to Yarraville to attend the book’s local launch in the chilly-but-welcoming Masonic Hall. Yarraville is adorable, I had no idea. The hall was full of intimidatingly accomplished writers whose first novels have been optioned by Sony or Universal. The launch began with a reading from Jane Rawson, a novelist whose debut is purportedly “Australia’s most underrated book” As I drank my cup of sav, held in still-gloved hands, I wondered if that is in fact the greatest literary accomplishment I’ve ever heard of.

It was wonderful listening to Graeme talk about his writing – the rush to fame The Rosie Project brought him and the philosophical way he’s had to deal with Hollywood and oddly out of touch US publishers.  The descriptions of the writing process for The Best of Adam Sharp made the novel all the more real and I even squirreled away some tips for developing an original plot.

There was an intriguing connection for me here too – Graeme sent me a signed copy of The Best of Adam Sharp after finding my book and recognising the Dylan reference of the title. I liked that link a lot. It’s the kind of thing that musical references should do and is hugely fitting when thinking about The Best of Adam Sharp – a book so imbued with the sentimentality, nostalgia, subtext and at times obsession that songs and their lyrics can be responsible for in our lives.

At one point Adam recalls his dad’s advice after he’s been caught out, “Think about what you sing in the shower” and I’m reminded of my Grandad (who passed away a year ago today) whose mood and thoughts could apparently be traced easily to the tune he was whistling. The songs in our heads are not set to random and they are liable to tell tales on us.

But of course we will cherry-pick the lyrics that have the most significance for us, Adam reminds us. We can connect with a song on even the most tenuous level if we are truly and desperately looking for a connection.

I really enjoyed The Best of Adam Sharp. The soundtrack made me feel like Lonesome When You Go had found its nostalgic and somewhat rueful parent; the scenes in France felt cinematic, making me want to be there, perhaps not for the drama but definitely for the wine; and the themes of second chances, what if, longing for something that never quite was could bring tears to your eyes.

Dylanesque symbolism for this theme crossed my mind briefly as I waited on the Yarraville platform for the train home.

Yard Duty

I’m teaching again. Students smile at me and say hi as we pass in the corridor. Sometimes they ask how I am. When we’re practising writing they might ask me the name of that feeling like butterflies in your stomach, but not excitement. It’s anxiety I tell them. Oh, anxiousness, they say.

On Monday and Wednesday lunchtimes I’m on yard duty. I have to shoo all the students out of the corridors and I have a walky-talky that I assume works, but have never used, except to pretend to call for back-up when someone’s trying to ask too many questions of me. I hold it near my mouth and make a fake static noise. Kkkkkk. They get the idea and move on.

Today a bird was trapped inside. There was a warm breeze and the sun was out, but that bird was obsessed with the unopenable window at the top of the stairs; wouldn’t move from the windowsill. It fluttered its wings like the butterflies in our stomachs, oblivious to the door we’d opened at the end of the empty corridor.

Digging – Writing, Work and Sci-fi Stereotypes.

At the start of last year I was sifting through some old posters in the English department, trying to make the classroom walls less grim, and found a laminated copy of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging.’ Perhaps a poem about potato farming wasn’t quite the thing to liven up the walls, but it was a nice reminder of my love for the work of the poet who had just died a year and a half earlier. I felt strongly it was a poem I needed to share with my classes.  It was my tenth year of teaching (a fact I found many opportunities to proclaim with both pride and astonishment) and, as it turned out, my last. For now at least. Teaching is hard work.

I’ve used the word “work” twice there very deliberately, of course. And I’ve been thinking about Digging again. There is such respect in Heaney’s poem for the hard labour of his father and grandfather, who “cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog.” It’s not the kind of work the poet will do, but it’s purposeful, necessary and skillful work nonetheless “Nicking and slicing neatly,” – there’s a craft to it.

The comparison between physical labour and intellectual / creative pursuits is pronounced in this poem and it’s easy to feel defensive of the latter as equally worthy, even if the results are not always as palpable.

Recent Netflixing of Sci-fi films brought up a discussion point in our house that the scientists, analysts, intellectuals and academics in movies are often portrayed as either very rigid in their thinking or a little bit unhinged. They have social anxieties and neuroses and we could attribute their obsessive interest in their particular field back to some childhood incident that needs resolving, rather than a sheer love of it. There’s little respect for curiosity and wonder.

Meanwhile, the ‘heroes’ of the films tend to be the working class – soldiers, tradespeople, the deep-core drillers who are the only ones who can save the world from an in-coming asteroid with their highly-trained and specific skills. They are physically, not intellectually, strong and they’ll need to be – combat is key to world-saving. It’s a triumphant uprising of the blue-collar as sparked by 90s Hollywood. These characters have hardships too, but they toil, construct and contribute. Science is both mocked and idealised as the final victory lies with the most ordinary, humble and unassuming character who’s just doing his job the best he can. Albeit with highly sophisticated, carefully researched, meticulously designed technologies.

Of course Sci-fi films are known for their extremes and Hollywood notorious for unrealistic and unfair portrayals of all kinds of members of society. It almost seems pointless to even bring it up, except that it feels like a constant and powerful theme.

Perhaps this is partly why I often find myself trying to justify the importance and effort involved in the work of the writer and end up reading all sorts of reassuring articles about writing, such as these ‘non-rules’ for writing by Elizabeth Percer. The third of her rules seems to fit nicely with what I’ve been thinking (daydreaming, wondering, lying around contemplating): The idea that writing work looks different to other kinds of work. Percer says,

About 80 percent of the writing I do looks nothing like writing. It looks like reading, or daydreaming, or driving, or drawing, or listening to music, or lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.

Many other authors have discussed their ideas about writing as work (e.g. Ford, Eugenides) and often approach it as a desk job or nine-to-five. But to Heaney’s father it must not have looked like he was very busy at all, with much of what he did being possible from the same seat all day and hardly sweat-raising stuff.

As my students read Heaney’s poetry last year they discussed ideas about the importance of writing especially during difficult times, as Heaney was doing; writing as a craft or calling as worthy as potato digging when potato digging needs to be done; and that constant voice in our heads trying to tell us that what we want and do is just as valid as what anyone else is wanting or doing with their time on this earth. It was a fine moment for an English teacher to ‘retire’ on.

Heaney ends his poem with the decisive lines, “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests. /I’ll dig with it.” It moves me every time.

When so much in the world is Hollywood constructed, media-manipulated, target marketing and just plain inauthentic, to find moments where people are doing what they do because they genuinely love and believe in the value of it – well, it keeps me digging, “down and down / For the good turf.”