Slow It Down

A short post today just to say that my friend Anna (you know her from such adventures as the yarn bomb trail, bats over Abbotsford Convent, and the mysterious case of the dangling shoes) has launched an Ezine, Slow It Down, which is dedicated to making time for the more thoughtful, imaginative and subtle things in life.

It’s beautifully designed, informative and interesting with articles on eco-friendly, sustainable living, street art, blackberrying and baking, to name just a few.

There’s also a cheeky wee article from me on there.


Friendly Fire – Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2012

“To be of interest to me, people have to expose themselves.”

This is what Marieke Hardy, author of the collection of autobiographical stories You’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead, said last Saturday at Friendly Fire, a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event. She was of course talking about memoir and about how much of the personal lives of yourself and others you can safely reveal.

This is something I’m very concerned about at the moment. I would never want to hurt anyone I know by writing about something they consider to be private, but it’s very difficult to tell my own story without reference to the stories of those round about me. I used to be very cautious about writing about others, but gradually I’m casting off my inhibitions in favour of telling the truth. Although this is difficult for me, I can see that revealing more of my thoughts and feelings about the people and events in my life makes my writing more interesting. And ultimately I think I am exposing only myself, my own flaws and weaknesses.

Nevertheless I am constantly worried about offending people, especially when I write about humorous situations. I’d hate for the people I’ve written about to think I’m making fun when the reality is that I have the utmost respect for them.

There’s no doubt that relationships can be destroyed through memoir writing. Another speaker at the event, Sloane Crosely, revealed that she had been uninvited from a wedding following something she had written in one of her books of personal essays. She admitted to exaggerating the characters a little since she was writing about them in the context of being suspected of having shat on her bathroom floor during a party.

She wouldn’t go back and change what she’d written though, stressing that “anything that happened to you, that’s true and strikes you as important” has a place in memoir.

Benjamin Law added that “Writing memoir it’s not a journalistic act. Memoir is your take on things and it’s not about getting everything right on everyone.” He gave the example of recreating dialogue when writing about events from his childhood in his book The Family Law. Of course it’s not possible to remember anyone’s exact words. The goal is to “get to some sort of emotional truth.”

Before publishing his book however, he gave his family copies of the manuscript to read and check if their memories roughly matched up with his. Hardy included in her book letters and e-mails written in response to her stories by some of the people featured.

Would I be brave enough to show people what I’d written about them if they’d come off a bit negatively? Probably not. At least, not at the moment, which makes me ask myself, do I have any business writing about these people if I’m not brave enough to show them?

Hardy’s advice was not worry about this until the editing stage. “I don’t know if I want to write thinking I don’t know if this should be there. It puts a bracket round your writing which I don’t think should be there.”

Best Australian Blogs 2012 Competition

Just a short post today to let you know that I entered my blog into the the Best Australian Blogs 2012 Competition, which is run by Sydney Writers’ Centre. You can support me by voting for my blog, Helen Caldwell: Living, working and travelling in Australia, in the People’s Choice round.

If you’re on twitter, the hash-tag for the competition is #bestblogs2012.

Thank you for your help!

Sprucing Up

I’m tidying up my blog a bit which is why the categories are a bit of a mess at the moment. Bear with me and I’ll get it all worked out soon.

I’ve been wondering about deleting some of the older posts where I’ve offered writing advice or an opinion that I no longer stand by. Do you think that’s dishonest? The great thing about blogs is that you can see how the author has progressed and grown over the months/years. Is hiding the messy past by deleting old posts cheating?

Then again, surely one of the advantages of writing for the web rather than for print is that you can delete things that in hindsight you wish you’d never written. God, wouldn’t it be great if you could do that in real life? Just erase things that you said in the past that you didn’t really mean or that make you ashamed now?  Did I really say I thought Atomic Kitten were good singers? ERASE! That’ll put an end to my sister’s mocking.

It turns out it’s a moot point. As I’ve been going through posts and recategorising them (trying to make things a bit more streamlined around here), there have been hardly any that I thought were bad enough to merit deletion, which is encouraging.

OK, I did annihilate two posts but I’m not telling you which ones and you’ll probably never miss them because they were crap anyway.

Anything you wish you’d never said/written? Would you undo it if you could?

Terza Rima

Let me precede this by saying I know my poem is rubbish so you don’t have to pretend it’s good, but if you could give me any tips on how to improve I would really appreciate it.

We were at a dance
You stepped on my shoe
If I had the chance

I would have kicked you
before you birled out of view

I think ideally terza rima should be written in iambic pentameter, but it was all I could do to think of enough words that rhymed, never mind get the right number of syllables in. Any tips on writing rhyming poetry? Or on writing in iambic pentameter? Thank you :)

Sunday Writing Challenge #2

I wanted to write about daffodils, my favourite flowers, but I couldn’t quite get it right. I was thinking of yellow stars and blazes of pollen like comet trails, or maybe an orchestra of silent trumpets. Anyway, that didn’t work out. Next I returned to an image from a short story I once wrote and came up with:

Branches a black scrawl
till the first buds pop
colouring in spring

I also wanted to try writing haikus with even fewer syllables. Simple, silent, calm – that’s what I was going for:

Bridges cast off
the sea har
reflect the sun

Sun lingers
Points of light
on the Forth

Did anyone else write a spring/autumn haiku this week?

For next Sunday I’m going to try writing a poem in terza rima. The simplest form, I believe, would be five lines with the rhyme pattern A-B-A,  B-B. You can have more verses – check out the wikipedia page on terza rima for the rules.

Sunday Writing Challenge

I was at a party last night and a friend asked me how the writing was coming along. “Well,” I said, “I haven’t done much writing recently because I’m very busy at the moment and I haven’t had the time.”

“I’m pretty sure you said that last year, too,” he replied.

And you know what? I think he’s right.

I can’t remember the last time I wrote a short story. Every time I think about writing fiction, my head immediately fills with reasons why I can’t write that particular piece: I don’t know enough about the subject, I can’t imagine how that character would think or feel or speak, my writing skills just aren’t good enough to pull it off.

This year I resolved to finish the novel I was working on for NaNo 2008. I decided to write a little each morning before work. Most mornings when my alarm goes off I snooze it and only get up when there’s just enough time left to get dressed and get out the door.

When I was doing shift work, I showed up on time for work at 7am every morning without fail.* I never ever snoozed the alarm clock. Why can’t I show up at my desk at 8am every morning to start writing? It’s less than a minute’s commute from my bed. I think it’s because no one is expecting me to be there. No one is expecting anything from me, writing wise.

The way to cure my general lack of motivation, I think, is to set myself some writing challenges. I really enjoyed writing that New Year’s haiku so I’ve decided that for next Sunday I will write a spring haiku. I think it will be easier to get out of bed that little bit earlier in the morning to write if I have a specific, short term writing goal. Also, writing a haiku seems a lot less off putting than writing a short story or a bit of a novel. I don’t have to worry so much about whether I can do a good job of it because I’m just doing it for fun, not with any hopes of publishing it.

So, next Sunday, expect one spring haiku from me. Would anyone like to join me in the challenge and post their own spring haiku, either in the comments box or on their own blog? Go on, you know you want to ;)

*There was one occasion when I slept in because my alarm didn’t go off. I dropped my phone and the battery fell out and when I put it back in and reset the time, I didn’t realise that I also had to reset the alarm. Doh!

The Value of Art vs Writing

A couple of years ago I went to see a Damien Hirst exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I was was really taken by The Last Supper series of screen prints which showed images of pharmaceutical style packaging with the names of the medicine replaced by names of food. I would have loved a print of Sausages, but unfortunately for me, Hirst does not allow prints of his work to be made.

I totally understand why he might feel that his artwork would be devalued by me hanging a photo of it on my kitchen wall. What’s interesting to me is that as far as an author is concerned, the more copies of their work that are made and bought, the better.

Is it a question of accessibility? One artwork in a gallery will be seen by thousands of people; a book will only be read by thousands of people if they can physically get their hands on a copy. But then, what if an artwork is bought by a private collector and only a select few people are able to see it? Does the artist care as long as s/he gets paid for it? There is a cover price on a book so the only way for an author to make a living from their work is to shift a lot of units.

This preoccupation with the value of art and writing was triggered by a recent trip to gallery Rhubaba, where there is currently an exhibition by Hannah James. Three of the works are slide projections which feature pots. According to the gallery directors, James found one of the images in a cupboard in a school where she teaches art. It shows two pots, most probably made by school pupils, side by side against a blue background. So she didn’t take the photo and she didn’t make the pots, but James is still recognised as the author of the work because she came up with the idea of projecting it onto a wall to a backing track of a purring cat (the exhibition is called Pots Purr).

Can you imagine if I found a short story written by someone else and posted it on my blog? It wouldn’t be called art, it would be called plagiarism. So the value of art and writing seems to be further complicated by the idea of ownership. The pots made by the pupils are valuable only to their parents. The photo of the pots lay forgotten in a cupboard for who knows how many years. The projection of the photo of the pots, as envisioned by Hannah James, is a work of art.

I don’t think any writer would thank you for reproducing their work uncredited, but I suspect that if a little kid were to visit a gallery and see their art project illuminating a wall, they might be very happy indeed.

Little Writing Distractions

I really enjoy having short writing challenges to turn to when I need a break from a longer piece. Last month I spent a few mornings working on this haiku for the Scotsman Hogmanay Poetry Competition:

Wings brushing wire mesh,
sharp beaks spray seed, pockmark snow
Birdsong in winter

I loved playing around with the words, exploring different sounds and rhythms. I think experimenting with different writing structures every now and again can give you the bit of creative energy you might be missing if you’ve spent a long time working with only one form.

Recently I’ve come across two mini writing challenges I thought I would share with you, in case you also like the occasional distraction. The first is A River of Stones, which I read about on Rachel Fenton’s blog. The idea is to write a “small stone” every day in January, which means taking a moment to observe something in precise detail and capturing what you see in words. The observations that Rachel has made in her stones are beautiful.

The second challenge is Next Best Page, a competition which aims to produce an innovative piece of theatre by uniting 52 different writers in the creation of one script. Every Monday a new page is added and you have until the following Saturday to write and submit the next page. The project will run throughout 2011 and resulting play will be staged in 2012. Page 8 was added today so check it out and see if you’d like to continue the story with your own page 9.

How do you like to take a break from your main writing projects? Are there any mini writing challenges you would like to recommend?

Know Better Now

(In response to Donna’s ‘It’s my birthday and I’ll suggest a Ramones themed anthology if I want to’ challenge.)

necklace“Honestly Mum, I didn’t do it,” I say as Mum is shown into the office by the same smug looking security guard who rugby tackled me as I left the shop.

Mum’s face is white. “I know you didn’t, Tracey. I’m sure this has all been a misunderstanding.”

The shop manager snorts. “We found this in her bag. The alarm went off when she tried to leave the store.”

Mum looks at the gold chain dangling from the manager’s podgy fingers. The quivering crystal drop deposits flecks of light on the desk. Colour rises in her cheeks. Only ten minutes earlier I had shown her that necklace and asked her to give me the money for it.

I know it’s looking bad for me. Mum does too. “What are you going to do?” she asks the manager.

“We can end the matter here, as long as Tracey agrees not to enter the store again. We have the necklace back and I think she’s learned a valuable lesson.” He smiles condescendingly at me. I wish I had a baseball bat so that I could smash his fucking teeth in.

“I didn’t do it, all right?”

The manager presses his fingertips together. “If you’re going to kick up a fuss we could always review the CCTV footage. I’m warning you, though, that if we see evidence of you stealing on camera I’ll have no choice but to prosecute.”

“Come on Tracey, let’s go,” Mum says.

I’m staring at the manager, hating him so much that he should dissolve into a greasy spot in front of my eyes. But he doesn’t. He stares right back at me, so I call his bluff. “Go ahead. Watch the footage.”


The black and white screen is divided into four. My stomach turns cold as I walk into view in the top right frame. Mum’s fingers wrap round my arm. “It’s not too late. Let’s just stop this now and go home.”

“Your mum’s right, Tracey. Why risk getting a criminal record when you’ve got your whole life ahead of you?” The manager is sweating. He knows as well as I do that the cameras may show nothing.  I can’t back down now.

Together we watch the black and white me on the screen lifts the necklace from its peg on the wall. I remember looking at it. I remember thinking, Mum would really like this. I remember how expensive it was.

Mum appears on screen beside me. There’s no sound, but our conversation is still fresh in my head. “Wow,” she said, when I showed her the necklace. I wanted her to have it but she said she couldn’t afford it. She’d just had to pay for my new school uniform and besides, when would she wear it now that Mike had dumped her? “If you give me my next three month’s pocket money in advance, I’ll get it for you,” I said. And she smiled and said that was very sweet, but I shouldn’t spend my pocket money on her.

Mum walks off screen. I’m still holding the necklace. I remember feeling the weight of it in my hand and thinking how easy it would be to just drop it. It would slither straight into the carrier bag over my arm. I glance round the shop to see if anyone is watching, then… I hang the necklace back up on the peg.

“See! I told you I didn’t do it!”

The shop manager has been perched on the edge of his seat, so sure that he’s got me. Now his mouth opens. For a moment he just stares, then he cries, “Wait a minute! Between this point and you leaving the store that necklace somehow got into your bag and I’m going to find out how you did it.”

He fast forwards, then stops when I appear in the bottom left frame. There I am, fingering some silk scarves when Mum comes up behind me. She’s telling me that she is going to Boots and I can meet her there when I’m done. Then, while I’m still studying the scarves, her hand reaches out, cupped like half of an oyster shell. She tips it downwards and the necklace flows into my bag.

The manager and I both turn to look at her. Her face is pressed into her cupped hands.