Recently I was having one of those days. You know, when it’s all a bit crap and you can’t get your mind off the negative. I turned to something that (for me) invariably flips the ‘I’m over it’ switch in my head. A good comedy series.
I grew up on British comedies. My parents watched the ABC religiously, only flicking over to ‘Sale of the Century’ as an allowable aberration. ‘Are You Being Served’. ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’. ‘Porridge’. ‘Open All Hours’. The one I particularly adored was ‘Fawlty Towers’; and so it was to this classic I turned for some distraction. As expected, it transported my mind to a happy place the other afternoon. As I sat there smiling merrily on the couch, I found myself pondering why this politically incorrect, frustrating and in many ways excruciating comedy still ticks all the boxes. Having recovered my joie de vivre I did a bit of research.
‘Fawlty Towers’ was famously penned by John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, first airing in 1975. The couple were to divorce after the first series but valiantly still worked together to produce the second in 1979. Only six episodes were written for each, with the scripts meticulously worked and reworked by Cleese. Just this year “The Radio Times” poll revealed that, yet again, it remains the most popular British comedy of all time. Why?
Well it’s certainly not visual production values. There are wobbly walls, the odd visible boom mike and the most unrealistic Siberian hamster/rat puppet in shot. The acting performances are of good quality, but some of the delivery is a touch stagey by certain characters. The magic is in the writing. In particular the creation of Basil Fawlty. Who is expertly portrayed by Cleese.
Cleese encountered his inspiration for Basil in 1970 when travelling with the Python crew. They had the misfortune to stay at a Torquay hotel run by a man named Donald Sinclair. Cleese was fascinated by Sinclair. He and Connie Booth stayed on for several days to observe him after the rest of the cast had left. By all reports Sinclair was rude, obnoxious and clearly disliked running a hotel. He appeared to resent the guests and see them as an imposition. He was a man with absolutely no filter. Comedy gold.
It is accepted that comedy scripting has a basic formula. “A beginning, a muddle and an end”; as aptly described by poet Philip Larkin. Cleese and Booth honed this beautifully. They also created a character that you love to hate. Basil is very dislikable, but you sympathise with his dysfunction. There’s a bit of you that wants him to triumph. There’s a part of you that has Basil Fawlty days… where you just want to squat in a hallway, cover your head and make like a demented frog. When Fawlty comes out ahead betting on a horse you know he cannot prevail. You realise that Irish builder O’Reilly’s seemingly successful rectification of a building blunder can only end in further humiliation. The man’s life is a misery, and a misery of his own creation in the most part.
The scripts have an exquisite tension to them as they progress. In the majority there is a ‘false’ resolution of tension at the end of the exposition or beginning. This causes you to relax as the viewer. You then enter the middle of the writing and get swept up in the ‘muddle’ which is unrelenting and cringe worthy. Whilst there are elements of slapstick, it is not so overdone as to not have stood the test of time. The plot resolution is fairly swift in each episode. Each character does not change in their hierarchy throughout any of the stories. There is a comfort in knowing that is safely established. I describe ‘Fawlty Towers’ as the comedy where you can’t look …but you can’t look away either.
It is hard to know if people will still laugh at the plight of Basil Fawlty in another forty years time. It’s refreshing that in an ever changing world, where even language is morphing at a rapid rate, a classic still stands.
I would venture to say the American equivalent may indeed prove to be ‘Seinfeld’. Once again, the magic is in the writing. A consistency of plot quality and character creation that does not age. It too still tops the charts twenty years after its final season aired. There’s a grounding in real characters who were carefully observed and then honed to fit the comedy genre.
They say laughter is the best medicine. Trite, but in my experience somewhat true.
I am going to open with a somewhat hackneyed sentiment. Creating a piece of writing is rather like cooking a meal. It may be a short story starter, a main meal novel, a cheese platter communications project or a dessert comedy script delight. Whatever you are working on, you start with a whole lot of ingredients that are put together. Some time after you’ve opened the pantry and slaved over the creative stove; you silently pray you’ve created something your figurative diners enjoy. Hopefully they’ll leave a tip ….and it won’t just be editing advice and a rejection slip. It’ll be in your bank account and paying for next week’s groceries.
I like cooking and I like writing. I’m a much lazier cook than I am a writer, which isn’t a total disaster. That’s what Youfoodz is for. Shove it in the microwave and away you go. There isn’t really a parallel shortcut in the writing arena. If you chuck something together with minimal care it will read that way. Once an editor or prospective employer has read one mess, they are not likely to return for more. That’s like going back for a second round of bad curry.
So. Let’s say you’ve decided to write a short story. You have characters in mind and have jotted down all the main elements of the planned piece. The timeline, the world in which the story takes place, those key players and the essential plot. You have your introduction, your middle and your end. You’re all set to go and you perch at your computer and write those 2000 words (or whatever the brief may be). Once that’s done you re read. Tweak. Re read. Tweak. Re read. Tweak. Is it improving or are you actually wrecking it? Are things missing? Are they relatable characters? Is the protagonist likeable, or really irritating? Is it readable? Are there errors in spelling and syntax that you are not picking up? Hard to tell. You’ve been staring at it for two days now and you’ve either created modern day Dickens or a disaster.
Time to request……….. A CRITIQUE.
In some circumstances a writer can be in the advantageous position of having a professional editor at their disposal. Perhaps one has been provided as part of a brief with a newspaper, magazine or book deal. A writer may be a tad cashed up… oh #happyfantasy … and has privately engaged an editor to check their work. Or in the world of reality, you are seeking the opinions of fellow writers or understanding friends for insight with regards to your recently created casserole. This is where it gets tricky. We’ve all watched the carnage of shattered egos on ‘My Kitchen Rules’. No one wants to hear their soufflé sucks.
Any writer who really wants to evolve and hone their skills will seek those risky, critical opinions. It is relatively impossible to evaluate your own work with unbiased eyes. You often know if something has real potential or is (in essence) a lemon. Fine tuning however, is very hard to do completely on your own. That does not mean you take on absolutely everything offered. Blindly rewriting anything and everything. Three different people can have three quite different opinions on what works and what doesn’t. Instead, see if there is uniformity in any of the criticisms. If anyone has offered something that you can clearly see yourself when looking at the piece with rested eyes. That’s what often brings the lightbulb moment. Something goes from average to well above with some intelligent editing.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. (Aristotle)
Critiquing someone’s work is tricky and another topic for another day. There may be little to offer as the writing is excellent. You may have just read a real stinker. (I’m tempted to offer some blue cheese quip here, but I think we’re done with the food analogies). If you are tremulously offering up your writing for criticism, there is no harm in giving your friendly editing team a few guidelines. Key points to ask for are spelling, syntax, their impression as a reader, does the plot make sense and were they engaged by the characters. Constructive criticism is the name of the game. If they liked your literary laksa (sorry…. couldn’t help myself… this is fun), then it is most helpful if they give you the reasons why it appealed. Those can often be built upon during a final rewrite.
I had this experience the other day when I roped in a few victims to read something I am working on. The idea has been simmering in my head for some time, and I’ve been thinking about starting to make some inroads. Jotted down all the essential elements and then wrote a first draft. I had bashed it out and then fiddled with it….. it was hard to tell how it was really shaping up. The good news is my readers seemed to enjoy it. The other good news is, although there were various suggestions, one observation regarding my protagonist was uniform. Yes it was a criticism (how very dare they), and yes it was utterly valid. Fascinatingly, I had been blind to it as the character is my own creation. Therefore, she is already fully developed in my own mind. I know her trajectory and potential for growth from the outset. As a result, I had omitted certain necessary facets of her character at her introduction. In the second draft the lady in question is much less one dimensional- and more interesting as a result.
Survived the critique. Learned something. We’re all still friends. Win.
Offering a critique or receiving one are both tricky negotiations. Both are excellent exercises for writers as you learn something every time. No writing is ever totally wasted, even if it winds up not being a best seller. It’s an ever evolving skill.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to microwave my dinner. It’s time to write chapter two, and I don’t have time to be all Masterchef with actual food.
Here’s a fascinating fact for all of you taking the time to read this little article. (Well, define fascinating).
Thus far everyone following along knows I am a dog obsessed, shoe loving, childless, divorced woman who loves to write. It is additionally apparent I am not averse to the odd drinkie. If I didn’t know me, I’d kinda think I sound like fun. Truth be told, I am rather fun a lot of the time …. but I’m also somewhat more complex than blogland portrays. A dog obsessed, Cosmo swilling, shoe loving divorcee sounds like someone who was smoking the odd Alpine behind the bike sheds at school. Swigging their uncle’s scotch when no-one was looking. Climbing out of bedroom windows to go drink a goon bag with friends when mum and dad had gone to bed.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. My liver went unsullied for nigh on three decades.
I was actually a teetotaller for many more years than I have been a bubbles and Cosmopolitan consumer. I may have blurred the lines with designer shoes, champagne and Pomeranians these days – but I am the girl who remembers everyones’ teens and 20’s for them. When others of my generation were going to clubs and ripping the pants off whoever they fancied, I was living a cloistered life. I had very strict parents. I came from a family where pants stayed ON and alcohol was 100% not acceptable. Thus passed all of the 80’s and much of the 90’s. Securely clothed and temperate.
I was led to believe I was allergic to alcohol by my elders for many years. Eventually social pressure won and I had my first swig at 29. TWENTY-NINE. Truth be told I wasn’t enraptured on that particular occasion. Then I had a French champagne at around thirty and the floodgates were partially opened. By about the age of 35 I had a real handle on the joys of a nice beverage, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
What has been fascinating is being the person who recalls everyone else’s youth with total sobriety. I was the girl who held girlfriend’s hair back as they lost their dinner by 10pm. I called cabs, sat people in gutters and picked up their discarded handbags. My party trick is to remember key events for them. I recall one notable occasion where a friend and I were talking to a fellow we came across at a social function. He’d last been spotted about a decade beforehand.
“Why do I know him? There’s something weirdly familiar”. “Darl, you banged him in 1996”. “Oh…….. sh*t”.
NADK Flinders University tell us that Australians aged 18 – 24 years generally drink more standard drinks on a single occasion than any other age group. Those aged 70+ are most likely to drink 2 or less standard drinks. This leaves me in the No Man’s Land of age related drinking. I missed the binge years, but I haven’t got to the pension stage either. I’ve thrown off the shackles of my restricted youth but truth be told, I’ve never gone on a bender. I had the spins once after a Christmas party and had to sleep with one foot on the floor. The next day I staggered into work and realised at coffee break (when squintily visiting the loo) I had put my undies on backwards. It wasn’t pretty and neither was I. I swore off alcohol for a week; and then someone offered me some Moët. There endeth my exciting, drinking stories.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that in 2003 the average age of first use of alcohol was about 14, compared to about 17 and a half in 1965. Which does illustrate the prevalence of drinking young has increased with time. It doesn’t matter what website you consult, or what generation you examine, having your first bevy at 29 makes you an oddity. I used to almost hide it like a dirty secret; which is an interesting social response to being a teetotaller. These days it’s just a part of my story and persona.
I respect whatever take you have on alcohol, as long as you don’t lecture me with it. It’s in the same category as religious views. Non drinker? Have a lemonade. Wine enthusiast? Behold my wine rack. What I have always hated is either being berated by a non drinker (or reformed drinker) for knocking one back; or being relentlessly coerced into drinking more than is my personal limit. Once I think I’m looking down the barrel of a backwards underpants scenario… I’m out. Once was enough.
A glass of bubbles and a Cosmopolitan will forever be my poison. (With the odd white wine and gin infused something or other for variety). Do I wish I’d had a rocking, alcohol soaked youth? Yes and no. I think being a non drinker saved me from various mistakes; but it also precluded me from that certain social ‘freedom’ that comes with having a drink or two. The teenage parties and University Bar mishaps. A certain rite of passage into adulthood. I don’t have any outrageous stories or escapades. As they say, no great story starts with “So we all went out and I ate a salad…..”. or …..”Had a big Saturday night on the Diet Coke”.
However, I am the biographer of various persons who rely on me to jigsaw together the pieces of their Coolibah soaked younger years. Or a few that need me to piece together more recent events. Like the Night of the Killer Cosmos. One day I shall tell the great story of poor Kate and her chuck bucket. But not yet. It remains a thing of whispered legend. On that fateful evening in September 2017, the struggle was real. Poor wee Kate hadn’t fathomed my cocktails can floor an elephant. *see below*
I missed out on the early years, but I’m certainly enjoying the catch up. I figure my twenty-nine was everyone else’s eighteen. My liver is positively youthful with such a late start. These days it’s good friends, good times and good memories with a glass or two. If it ever all goes horribly wrong and I’m found with undies on backwards clutching Kate’s bucket…. we’ll just call it a second adolescence. Bottoms up.
When we read a book or see a film (and love it), we instinctively know it had a formula that worked. What we don’t consciously realise is that the formula used is one that has in fact, run endlessly on repeat. A magical writing potion utilised in the majority of films and books we have loved. An intrinsic tool in successful novel and script writing for generations.
Ladies and gentlemen I give you…… “The Hero’s Journey”.
What? Like the Prince kissing Snow White when she’s in her glass coffin?? She wakes up, spits up some apple and defeats the Wicked Queen??? He’s a hero.
Well not exactly, but you’re in the ball park.
This ‘formula’ was identified by Joseph Campbell, who outlined his theories in his book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” (1949). Campbell sets out that the great historical myths and stories all share an underlying structure he names the ‘monomyth’. When I first read the odd quote from Mr. Campbell I went….. meh. It was all a tad Dungeons and Dragons for simplistic me. However, I studiously started looking into how it works as it is so widely recognised and used. The steps have been clarified by smart people for the, ‘I don’t have time to wade through all that’ kind of person. Such as myself. I read through those steps – and then thought about many of the films and literature I love.
Revelation! Mr. Joseph Campbell was bang on.
Of course it’s easy to look at a work retrospectively and think, I see what they did there. As a writer, the challenge is to create characters and plot that seamlessly integrate the theory. You can’t just put together a pile of badly written hooey following the steps, and expect success. One writer who came into my mind as soon as I had my mini revelation was the magnificent Tolkien.
Now, my classroom teacher in Grade 6 was rather an idiot, but I can thank him for one thing. Once a week he sat us down and read us a chapter from “The Hobbit”. I was enthralled. Little Bilbo Baggins and his epic journey. Gollum, Gandalf, Smaug the dragon, a collection of dwarves and a magic Ring that made you disappear. What ten year old wouldn’t be enraptured. To me, it was simply an incredible story and I recognised it as really well written. What I didn’t recognise was that I was being read a rather expert version of the “The Hero’s Journey”. As the book was written in 1937, Tolkien wasn’t even using the template. He was just a damned fine writer.
So what are the steps? There are various interpretations available. I give here a nice, clear version from What is the hero’s journey? (screenwriting.io). They give us the twelve step model.
1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where 2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE. 3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but 4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to 5. CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where 6. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES. 7. They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold 8. where they endure THE ORDEAL. 9. They take possession of their REWARD and 10. are pursued on the ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World. 11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience. 12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World.
It’s still a tad Dungeons and Dragons because of Campbell’s emphasis on mythology. So is “The Hobbit”, which makes that classic little book an excellent study. Tolkien nailed it all again with stunning expertise in “The Lord of The Rings”. (Which isn’t so little……..) ..
The steps themselves can be adapted and tweaked for almost any setting and most genres. The hero must have capacity for change and must face an ordeal. Considering no-one really enjoys a book or film where the protagonist is static and learns nothing, “The Hero’s Journey” is quite an intrinsic part of good storytelling. I’d been chucking it about in a clumsy kind of way for years before I consciously knew what I was doing.
In the case of Bilbo Baggins of Hobbiton, his ordinary world is his little home in the Shire. His call to adventure is the arrival of the dwarves and the unexpected invitation to go on their quest as a burglar. He refuses to go but, with Gandalf as his mentor, crosses the first threshold and sets off. Thus begins his tale of tests, allies and enemies as he travels. He crosses the second threshold and encounters both Gollum and Smaug as his ordeal. His reward is the infamous Ring, and recognition as an honoured member of the party and successful burglar. His party are pursued but victorious and he crosses the third threshold resurrected and changed by all his adventures. He will never be the same little domesticated, sheltered hobbit of old. He returns home to the Ordinary World with the treasure of the Ring.
Snaps for Tolkien. Magnificent effort. I unconsciously learned much, hearing this tale in Grade 6. Sadly I didn’t ‘unconsciously’ learn any maths at the same time, a subject which still eludes me to this day.
Once you know the drill, you can merrily analyse all your favourites. From “Aliens” to “Gladiator” (both by Ridley Scott who is a master) the steps of a journey from the ordinary to the extraordinary are all set out. The first is in outer space and the second is set in Ancient Rome. Makes no difference. Sometimes that final journey and victory can be pyrrhic. At the end of “Gladiator” Maximus doesn’t make it out alive. Yet he is rewarded and resurrected through his journey into the Afterlife to join his murdered wife and son. He restores Rome to the people through the Emperor’s death, thereby giving the Ordinary World a treasure through his actions. “The Hero’s Journey” is a versatile and wonderful device.
So there you have it.
Just thought I’d leave you with a picture of Russ. Not for educational purposes. The man has many faults, but it has to be said….. Whilst sitting on a horse in a skirt looking sexy growling, “What we do in Life, Echoes in Eternity”, he has a certain something that makes me go all thing. Academically, I’ll put it down to his portrayal of a great character in a film epitomising “The Hero’s Journey”. In truth, I think it’s mostly the burly buff biceps. Good storytelling with heroic, gruff allure. Five Academy Awards can’t be wrong.
I’ll just pretend I never watched “Les Miserables”, wipe that troubling memory and keep the Crowe magic alive………
As little girls we are very often given a baby doll to play with. A birthday gift perhaps, or a present wrapped under the Christmas tree. Little boys get a racing car or a truck. You might think I am about to launch into a debate on gender appropriate toys; or state that little girls like trucks and cars to play with just as much as boys. That male children can be extremely happy playing with dolls and gender specific toy giving is sexist. All relevant topics worthy of discussion. But we’ll shelve that for now and take it as a given.
I’d actually like to talk about the first time as females we are expected to respond to the concept of being a mother. It is worth clarifying at this juncture that I am highly in favour of kiddies – but have never had one of my own.
My paternal grandmother gave me my obligatory baby dolly. After she had been excitedly unwrapped I dutifully named her ‘Anne’. I examined the little feeding bottle and potty she came with whilst grandma looked on proudly. I recall my immediate concern was if I put water or milk in Anne’s head end with the bottle provided for that purpose…. it would consequently shoot out Anne’s opposite end and make a mess. I didn’t have siblings and I was rather an uptight child from an uptight family. I didn’t do mess. Nnoooooooooooooo. Having politely thanked my grandmother, I tenderly plonked baby dolly on her potty and moved to my next birthday gift. Poor Anne continued to perch on her pink plastic throne for many years in my toy cupboard. I’d bring her out into the light of day when my grandparents came for tea. As well as being an uptight child, I was unerringly polite to my elders. Even if I proved somewhat of a failure as a baby doll parent.
I did enthusiastically play with dolls. I loved doing their hair and dressing them up. Anne’s ‘potty situation’ however was a total non starter as far as I was concerned.
The truth of the matter was I had no interest in Anne, or her bottle or her potty. I was a feminine child who loved pretty dresses and dancing and music lessons. The older dolls, and subsequently Barbie, with their outfits and accessories were my personal bag. Babies really held no interest for me. I determinedly stalked the neighbourhood cats and dogs constantly for pats (as my parents wouldn’t allow me a pet). If someone had a new puppy or kitten I was instantly clamouring for a cuddle. If someone had an infant sibling I was habitually polite, but never asked to hold them or see them. I’d slip away from the circle of parents and children and go occupy myself elsewhere. (Most often with the family dog who was looking forlorn in the backyard). High school years arrived, and friends were talking about how many kids they’d like when they grew up and got married. I always confidently replied I was not getting married and not having children. (Got it half right). As a teen there was no circumstance where I could envisage myself with a flesh and blood ‘Anne’. As I was an affectionate child, it was assumed this was a phase and one day I too would decree, ‘I want a boy and a girl!’. Yet school years passed and my opinion did not alter. Ditto my University years. I was valiantly sticking to my guns.
Obviously as life chugged onwards, the girls of my generation began to have families. I was always very happy for them. I attended baby showers, bought gifts, sent cards, handed out hearty congratulations. This was what my friends wanted and I was incredibly happy for them. I was still a bit of a youngster, so my statement I would not be joining the motherhood train was not taken that seriously. I was becoming aware however, that it was starting to be viewed by some as less of a ‘quirk’ – and more a character flaw. My grandma had handed me that baby doll for a reason. It was my apparent destiny as a woman to eventually desire a live ‘Anne’ of my own. Tendrils of inadequacy started to wrap around me that I found difficult to shake.
I did marry. #dontmentionthewar. I went into that union being transparent that I didn’t want a family. About a year in, my ex husband stated (in not wildly pleasant terms) that he expected I’d now have a change of heart. He had subsequently decided that he wanted a child and expected me to comply. Nnnoooooooooooooo. I had quietly wondered if I would experience some invisible ‘click’ somewhere along the line. A sliver of me secretly hoped my baby gene would magically kick in and I’d join the club. That unpleasant marital exchange was a pivotal moment. I decided that, even if my biological clock started ringing, I would shut it off again.
It had a mild jangle a couple of times but never enough to be of any consequence. The faint dinging was only heard on about two occasions when I saw a very doting and protective dad with his bubba. At those times I ‘got’ what it was about. It had no bearing on my own circumstances though.
Being childless was a burden for many years. I dreaded every baby shower, every birth announcement and every awkward question which now bordered in the invasive. People wanted answers. Why was this seemingly nice woman who obsessively mothered her dogs not producing offspring? My favourite was, “Can’t you have children?”, to which I retorted, “I don’t know. I’ve never tried”. I became an aunt to two little ones, which gave me great happiness. Still does to this day. They were the first two babies I ever held. My terrified countenance as I cuddled them is forever recorded as you see here. I was very concerned I’d drop said tiny infant…. or its head would fall off. Both are now old enough to drive a car and survived the ordeal.
My marriage failed, but not for reasons linked to lack of offspring. I am immensely grateful I stuck to my ‘no baby’ guns. It was one of the only times I stood firm in those early years. It was simply too important a fight to lose, despite incessant berating and pressure. A baby is a little person who deserves things to be done right. I was never going to be a mum if I wasn’t confident it was the right choice. It would have been a catastrophic choice.
I have cried tears of joy for friends who have fought terribly hard to have a baby and finally succeeded. Tears of sadness for those who have wanted it so badly and it never happened. The person I have never cried for is myself. In my own circumstances, to be childless was the right path.
I am single and older now. The baby ship is inevitably heading out to sea due to age; and enough arthritis drugs on board for the last decade that cause birth defects to make things impossible (even if I were espoused). The awkward questioning is growing silent, although it still pops up. Had #dontmentionthewar ended sooner, perhaps I would have met someone different and changed my mind. Perhaps he would have been the protective, decent type of guy who made my alarm clock ding on occasion. We’ll never know, and it is not something I have ever dwelled on.
I have learned one thing. I think as women we all ‘mother’ in many ways. I’ve realised I am brimming with maternal instincts that are used in other capacities. I may have rejected poor ‘Anne’ with her bottle and potty…. but I have still been a mother. I have mothered my nieces. Most notably I have mothered my fur children to bits; and will undoubtedly be doing that for the rest of my life. (And they’ve made much bigger , stinkier messes than dolly on her potty could ever have achieved).
A message I would send out into blogland is to never ask people too many questions on the baby topic. Unless you are personally invited into their story. You never know what raw nerves you may be pulling. Only now can I answer the difficult questions I was asked as a young woman. Indeed, it is only now I can begin to sort out the jigsaw in my own head of exactly what my journey was.
They say “It takes a village to raise a child”. It’s always lovely to be part of that community. My little duties as a villager have all been precious. No regrets. 🙂
For those of us who love to read, there are always those books which have the title of having turned you into a book worm. For those of us who love to write, there is also the author that you first realised had a mastery of words you could only aspire to.
As a youngster I had three favourite authors. Although I have expanded my horizons over the years, those three have remained my biggest influences. (Unless you count Enid Blyton, to whom I was addicted from about ages 5 to 12).
I go back and read these three writer’s works regularly. I invariably see bits of their style creeping into my own blather. It’s an eclectic mix.
The first is Gerald Durrell. British naturalist and zookeeper who changed the face of zoos around the world. The book that got me started was “My Family and Other Animals”, which was on our reading list in first year high school. Obviously the animals were an attraction, but what mesmerised me was his use of English and his mix of humour and pathos in exquisite measure. You knew his characters. Durrell’s use of imagery took you to the heart of the places and people within his recollections of a childhood spent in Corfu. That book led me to all his other books. Animal collecting expeditions, zoos, failed marriages and various adored yet unsavoury relatives and friends. I devoured them all, and I still do. Sadly he passed away in 1995 from a love affair with whisky. On reading his biography, I learned he was a loveable yet frustrating character who was simply a natural writer. His wife (or wives) and secretaries fixed all his spelling and edited a lot of his work. The man simply had a fascinating life and a gift for story telling. His was an unconventional background with little formal education. Durrell’s type of ‘conversational’ writing has been imprinted on me permanently. Vale sir.
A side note for book fanatics is that his older brother was Lawrence Durrell, also a respected writer. Both had the same eclectic background and obvious talent for the written word, but very different styles. Lawrence pursued further education and ‘high literature’ whereas Gerald didn’t give two hoots. He tortured a few home tutors and then extricated himself from schooling with remarkable ease. That choice makes his success as a popular author quite incredible. Raw talent and a dollop of good luck.
Second favourite is Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. Not a lot of explanation needed really. ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stands alone. Beautiful writing, well constructed narratives.
Then it’s time for my biggest influence and a book I can read on a loop, never getting bored or tiring of its masterful techniques. That book is ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier. A British female writer who penned quite a prolific amount of work. This however is the book that put her on the map, and establishes her (in my humble opinion) as rather a genius.
Du Maurier was a complex woman who – pardon the cliche – was somewhat ahead of her time. She had sexual relationships with both men and women, although history confirms she was in a long term marriage from 1932 until her husband’s death in 1965. She had three children. ‘Rebecca’ was written in 1938 at a time of marital boredom and frustration. It was her 5th novel, the first being published in 1931. The story was made into a film by Hitchcock as well as several television adaptations, cementing its notoriety. Many people know the story of ‘Rebecca’ because of the Hitchcock film. If you have seen the film and not read the book, may I be so bold as to suggest you get a copy. The novel’s iconic opening phrase “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” begins the film, but film cannot do justice to the writing. When published, ‘Rebecca’ was a smash hit and marketed as a gothic romance novel. This apparently annoyed Daphne no end as that wasn’t its intention. (Although she couldn’t argue with the money the book generated for her. Her success as a writer put great strain on her marriage however). The book is moody, gothic in feel, suspenseful and all it was touted to be. But it is a lot more. Using some very remarkable techniques.
The first thing that strikes you about the novel as you delve into it, is the use of imagery. Masterful use of concrete and abstract language. You are with the narrator as she revisits Manderley Estate in that opening dream sequence. The house immediately becomes a character within itself. Something that is lost in ‘Rebecca’s retelling on the silver screen is the fact this is a tale being shared by a woman who is in command of her life. She has been shaped by the events linked to Manderley which we are to subsequently traverse through her eyes. The tale is harrowing, yet she has emerged in control of her own mind. She distracts her husband when she perceives he is remembering the past, she organises their travels, their daily routine in the foreign land where they have retreated from their former existence and history. They are a team, but she is his carer. His guardian. She is the stronger of the two. She has chosen her path dutifully, despite it proving something of a claustrophobic prison. The woman of Chapter One does not resemble the woman we meet in the bulk of the retrospectively focussed writing.
Indeed ‘Rebecca’ is not a gothic romance. It is a story of innocence lost, deception and eventual self realisation and resolve.
An emotionally distant, selfish and in some respects abusive man attempts to self distract by taking advantage of an isolated teenager with a crush on him. He’s sophisticated, older, wealthy and behaves with full knowledge that she is inexperienced, alone and completely out of her depth. He acts on impulse, not ever thinking of her eventual destiny as his much younger and naive wife. Maxim de Winter only cares that he’s lonely, she’s besotted and it might fix some of his own mess. The attraction isn’t even particularly sexual for him. (In modern prose, this guy is VERY f**ed up). Once they return from honeymoon to his Manderley mansion, he goes into full on self centred mode. She’s abandoned to the tender mercies of his scary, obsessive housekeeper and the ever present shadow of his deceased first wife. Rebecca. Rebecca, whom he hates and the narrator brokenly presumes he still pines for. It doesn’t occur to our dashing hero to have a quick word with his second wife and tactfully explain that’s not the deal. Without indulging in a complete synopsis (again in modern text) the conclusion runs thus. Our youthful narrator learns the truth and stops torturing herself she’s inferior to her predecessor. She forgives and then rescues her handsome, self obsessed, guilt ridden, arse of a husband. She becomes a mouse that roars; with steel to survive.
That’s more feminist masterpiece than gothic fluff.
The book is remarkable in two respects, in terms of writing technique. The first is that the most powerful character we take away with us is -Rebecca. Yet she is dead from the outset. There are only hints at her physicality (we learn she is tall, dark, a social genius and inevitably… has great beauty). Any dialogue from her character is extremely sparse. She dominates the narrative as only something that threatens can.. when it is not entirely revealed. The second device the author wields is that we never learn the narrator’s name. When asked, Du Maurier remarked she set herself the challenge as a test of writing technique, which she made easier for herself by composing the piece in the first person. She could not think of a name when she began to create the novel, and the process went on from there. Intentional or not, it adds to the power of Rebecca’s character and the helplessness of the storyteller. Nameless, she embodies being ‘unimportant’ and we can stand in her shoes unhindered. Her name can unconsciously become our own. The entire piece is a tour de force of creative skill.
I think I can safely say I will never write at the level achieved by Daphne du Maurier. However when putting pen to paper, or digit to keyboard, it is always worth learning and relearning what writers of this ilk have left us. I guess what got you into books, perhaps into writing and what floats your creative boat is a matter of personal taste. As a female writer, I can only admire what Daphne put together at a time when being a woman with a voice and ambitions was not the social norm. She was seemingly both tortured and liberated by her talent and personality for most of her eighty-one years. As you can possibly tell, I highly recommend a night on the couch with the print version of ‘Rebecca’. It is a book universally loved by women for reasons they probably never bother to analyse. The appeal may be complex when taken apart, but it’s also self explanatory. The story and characters simply strike a very powerful chord. It’s a damned fine piece of writing.
“What a pity I’m not a vagrant on the face of the earth. Wandering in strange cities, foreign lands, open spaces, fighting, drinking, loving physically. And here I am, only a silly sheltered girl in a dress, knowing nothing at all – but Nothing”. Daphne du Maurier (taken from her personal diary, aged 21).
“Women want love to be a novel, Men a short story”. Daphne du Maurier
“It’s people like me who have careers who really have bitched up the old relationship between men and women. Women ought to be soft and gentle and dependent. Disembodied spirits like myself are all wrong”. Daphne du Maurier (taken from a personal letter to friend Ellen Doubleday).
Biographical detail in this article has been sourced from the Introduction to ‘The Rebecca Notebook’ Daphne du Maurier (1981).
When I was younger I always used to stay in my clothes until bed time. Jeans, jumper, skirt, tights, frock, whatever. I don’t even think I was the proud owner of a pair of track pants until I’d hit 30 clicks. Clothes were for wearing. Night attire was for sleeping. Slippers were for nannas. Dressing gowns solely served the purpose of a quick cover up in the morning. Not scaring any unsuspecting humans you opened the door to in your nightie being the general aim.
Ah, but then. Then something odd happened as I hurtled towards 40. I discovered the appeal of wandering about the house for extended hours in my PJ’s. Not just the jammies; but also a variety of dressing gowns of different weights. And slippers. Nice, fluffy slippers. Then I was given a pair of house socks as a birthday gift. You know the ones with the rubber dots on the bottom so you don’t slip over? Sweet fancy Moses. Like a wooly sock and slipper in one. Sheer genius.
Now I am of a particular age, the pyjama obsession is complete. I am dedicated to the jim-jam. I have been known to wear them all day if I’m not going out. This doesn’t mean there’s a non shower situation going on. Gracious no. You discard one set of night attire at around lunch time, have a shower and climb into a fresh lot. If it’s also a day you changed the bed linen, we’re talking an outstanding pyjama day. Twenty-something me would be utterly disdainful of older me.
Having already confessed to an impressive shoe stash, I’ve subsequently examined my jammies stash. Not bad. We have … very-hot weather, hot weather, mid-season, normal winter and extra-cold winter varieties. Four dressing gowns of various weights, 3 pairs of slippers and a drawer of house socks. In 2002 Elizabeth Taylor penned her book, “My Love Affair With Jewelery”. I could substitute the word “Pyjamas” for my masterpiece I think. Not as good a read or photographic content, but it’d have a quaint appeal.
The term pyjama was borrowed from a Hindustani word pay-jama. The style of clothing was adopted by Europeans during British East India Company rule in India (Wikipedia). At first only the European fellas ‘lounged’ in a nice cotton draw string pant. We ladies joined the craze a lot later. As time has passed it’s become accepted sleep wear, with a huge variety to choose from. Americans spell it pajama and the Brits spell it pyjama. Just as awesome either way.
In the U.S.A. there is a ‘National Wear Your Pajamas To Work Day’ on April 16. True story. How bloody fabulous is that? April 15 is the day everyone’s taxes are due in America. I’m guessing they figure citizens have been up half the night cooking the books; the next day dressing oneself will just all be a bit too hard. I’m not really impressed with The States just now, but reading that gave me a rush of affection for the place. Mind you, a mental image of Trump in Summer shortie PJ’s talking a lot of crap at a press conference is a tad off putting. If we bring in an equivalent on July first here; ScoMo in his Winter flannies during Question Time is also somewhat stomach churning.
I have spoken to several friends on the pyjama topic in recent weeks, and we’re all at it. One works from home and her beloved calls it her ‘Corporate Uniform’. She’s busily emailing important clients in her Snoopy onesie at 2pm. You go girlie. It’s clearly not just an isolated pod of pyjama fanatics I’ve surveyed. I have seen people wearing them in the street in recent times. A dash to the letterbox is one thing. Even a secretive expedition to Maccas drive through in a nugget and fries emergency gets a pass. However. Strolling about a Westfield in your Garfield antique jammy bottoms – is pushing the envelope. If I reach that stage give me a stern talking to.
I’m still a high heel wearing, fashion obsessed chick. But really, for all its downsides, age is a marvellous thing. You reach that level of self acceptance where it becomes pleasurable to be in your home dagging about in whatever you desire. It’s Prada pumps off and pyjamas on when the day is done. Today’s PJ’s dress down commenced at 4pm. I am not ashamed. Get in the pyjama game people. If you haven’t already….. you know you want to. 😉 Sweet dreams all. xx
My Love Affair With Jewelery. Elizabeth Taylor (2002)
I was scrolling through Facebook today when I saw a school friend had posted her favourite U2 song. “With Or Without You”. https://youtu.be/6DeDzsCGbsQ (Bono – you Irish hunk of spunk). She remarked the song has always resonated with her, and had been rather a theme tune of her adult years. She remembered going to see the band in the mid 80’s and how fabulous that moment was. I hit ‘play’, and I too immediately shot back to my memories of that song. We’re the same era, so it makes sense. It seems the pop tunes of our youth form part of the soundtrack of our future lives. They remain with us. Sounds of early years have a powerful memory trigger, and most of us tend to experience the phenomenon. It got me thinking about my own memories and why this is so.
Research indicates that music from our formative years is linked to brand new emotions and feelings of independence. This link tends to be from the early teenage years until the late 20’s. It follows then that as we age, the music from each decade that passes becomes less memorable. The links to life events blur unless they are particularly cataclysmic. Finally, you become your father sitting in the car saying, “God, I hate all that modern rubbish they play” when the top ten is blaring.
For me the significant year was 1982, and I had a VERY special look underway. Princess Di fringe with quite long hair. Unmentionably daggy clothes. I was so invested in rediscovering the memory, I foraged and exhumed an image of my 1982 self. You’ve now seen it. People improve with time and I was a late bloomer. That’s my excuse anyway.
My childhood home was strict and pop music was not played. ABC’s ‘Countdown’ was forbidden. The cool kids at school listened to all kinds of stuff. I didn’t fit in with that demographic. #poorlittlenerd #iblamethefringe. Those factors aside, in 1982 I was on a lawn outside a school building and somehow or other “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode was played. MAJOR REVELATION. I thought this was the most amazing thing EVER. For a moment I had a mild sensation of being cool. That song went round and round in my head for days. That is the sound of 1982.
As you’ve stuck it out thus far, I think it’s time for another dreadful photo. Mustn’t disappoint. I give you…… Reminiscence Bump 1986. First year University. Actually, the hair is worse than it was in 1982 if that’s possible. I was still in the family home where fun went to die; but I now had a WALKMAN. A Walkman and blue eyeshadow. The strains of “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister and “We Built This City” by Starship propelled me through that year. All that, and I caught the bus to town each day all on my own. Heady times.
I think the music and memories thing is rather wonderful. Like some form of highly pleasurable rewind mechanism.
At my last school reunion they played the songs of our era. It was an important part of the event.
*Disclaimer. School reunions are weird. You get all nervous, turn up, don’t remember people who remember you and vice versa.* That aside, it was a great night. Not all of the memories were good, but they were very defining. The sound track of those school years seemed part of the glue that held us together under such an odd, once a decade circumstance. When we assemble again in 2025 we won’t remember what’s on the charts now; but we’ll know all the words to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”. (I still won’t look anything less than a nerd if I attempt to dance to it).
“Identity is an internalised life story” (Dan McAdams, 2001). The music of our youth is part of that story. Sometimes it’s just magical to crank up ‘Culture Club’ and revisit an era where you didn’t need eye cream, you wore a big lace bow in your hair and you hadn’t made too many huge life screw ups just yet. The songs of that life soundtrack were still to come.
Here’s to the sounds of 1982. Boogie around that quadrangle in your school uniform. Take it away 80’s dudes. CICK HERE AND RELIVE THE MAGIC………. 😉 https://youtu.be/_6FBfAQ-NDE
My first love wasn’t the boy I had a crush on at school, or Michael J. Fox (although that phase was pretty intense in 1984). It wasn’t my former husband.. or even my first pair of designer shoes.
My first real love was just over a foot tall, orange sable with four legs and a very big personality. His name was ‘Samsonne’. Once we met everything was different and that little, orange, opinionated fluff ball changed my life forever.
‘Samsonne P. Fox’ was his full name. He was of course a Pomeranian dog.
Samsonne, Sammy or Sam as he was sometimes called came into my life in the early 1990’s. I had moved out of home and was presented with the opportunity to have a new housemate. This very nice young cohabitant came with a dog. Now, I loved dogs so I was pretty chuffed. I had no idea what the arrival of Samsonne P. Fox would immediately bring to my life. Sammy and his dad Michael duly moved in, and Samsonne took up residence. He was an obscenely handsome pooch. At first he wasn’t interested in me and for the first few days (when Michael went to work) he’d lie by the front door looking bereft. The house was new, I was new and he wasn’t greatly impressed. He’d let me pat him but was somewhat disinterested in my attentions. I hadn’t yet learned that Pomeranians are fiercely loyal to their owners. Just because a girl was patting him on the head and cooing sweet nothings didn’t mean he was going to be distracted from his post.
As the days passed and it all became a bit more familiar, Sammy started to warm to my loving ministrations. He’d leave the front door for a while and follow me about. I was ecstatic. After about two weeks he threw in the towel and stood on his hind legs, ‘paddling’ at me to be picked up. The freezing out was over and we were friends. Due to a patchy work schedule, Samsonne and I spent a lot of time together. Michael would leave for work and if I were still in bed, a little orange face would appear within seconds. I’d lift him up beside me and we’d both get some more quality shut eye. I only had a single bed and despite his diminutive size, he took up most of it. I didn’t care. I had a best friend. I adored him and he showered me with love. In a life that was a tad fraught at the time…. Samsonne was my greatest joy. He was the greatest fur person I had ever met.
I was very ignorant about the breed at that time. (In the early 1990’s they did not have the popularity they now enjoy). Samsonne was rather a force to be reckoned with and I took that to be just him. Nope, that’s Pomeranians. He was opinionated, bossy, manipulative, vocal and disobedient. He’d sulk if you gave him the wrong dinner, go on hunger strikes until the right meals appeared, yell at you for human food and pee under the coffee table if you displeased him. He was a tyrant who was so adorable those things made him even more loveable. My days revolved around Sammy. From the moment he asked me to pick him up and kissed my face, I have been dedicated to Pomeranians. For all their faults their loyalty is second to none. Huge personalities in tiny bodies. That, and they’re exquisite.
Michael, Sammy and I happily cohabited for about three years until work commitments pulled us in different directions. They stayed in Adelaide and I moved to Sydney. Leaving Samsonne was incredibly difficult. He wasn’t my dog, but he was the most important thing in my world. Any time I went back to South Australia I’d be straight there, wanting to see him. He never forgot me for a second and would be ecstatic. I had become one of his people. In time he moved to Melbourne with his human daddy and we’d catch up there if work took me in that direction. The years passed, he became more grizzled and deaf but he knew who I was the moment I appeared.
In 1999 I was settled into my Sydney life and got my own little Pomeranian. Naturally she was called ‘Delilah’. She went on to spend nearly sixteen years by my side until her passing in 2014. Without Sammy she would never have come into being and defined a large slab of my life. She was like Samsonne in some respects, but not nearly as wilful. He remains one of the bossiest Poms I have ever encountered; and I have now been a Pommy Mommy of four thus far.
Samsonne lived until very close to his seventeenth birthday. He was as tyrannical at his end as in his youth. I will always remember the day the call came from Michael, telling me he was failing and he was going to have to let him go. We both sobbed uncontrollably down the phone and he let me know the time he would go to sleep. On the day he passed I was at work and I watched the clock go past the nominated hour. I cried all afternoon for the loss of such a wonderful little animal who had been ‘mine’…. even for quite a short time. I was told later that in true style, having been on his last legs with heart failure, Sammy rallied on his final evening and stacked on a turn for some chicken breast. By the next morning there was no going back as he was so ill; but he had one last crack at garnering his human slaves into action. After all, he was a Pomeranian.
A favourite photo of Sammy is taken in Melbourne just over a year before he died. I was put up in a building on a work trip that didn’t allow pets. Samsonne was duly smuggled past Concierge in a sports bag. He was the centre of attention as always that night. Much of his sight had gone due to cataracts, but when he smelled my hands his happy response was instantaneous. At the end of the visit he hopped back in his bag, got zipped up and his human companions nonchalantly strolled through the foyer.
Michael has gone on to be a loved ‘uncle’ to all my little Pomeranians. We’re forever bound by one small, orange, determined little dog who has left us in body but never in spirit.
No. I’m not talking about what you think I’m talking about. But we love the use of an attention seeking header……
Being a writer comes with a variety of challenges. Not the least of which is finding someone to pay you for what you create. (Feel free to inbox).
The popular image of a writer is someone sitting holding a pen and paper, or at their laptop; effortlessly churning out brilliant prose. The genius flows, they send off a manuscript and boom. They’re the next Charlotte Bronte. Or Bryce Courtnay. Or Stephen King if you have that kind of bent.
In reality, there are so many kinds of writing and so many options for people in the field. A good writer can pen a novel and have a day job creating a newspaper column, web content for a clothing company or corporate policies. Writing talent is somewhat instinctive in many ways, and can be utilised in a variety of directions. However, you can’t just sit down and punch stuff out without time spent looking at a variety of factors that a publisher or day-to-day employer will require.
A major frustration can be word count if you are only provided with a certain amount of space. 1200 words means 1200 words. ‘Size matters’. Being naturally verbose I always go over… and then have to trim things back. It seems I have a lot to say. (Art imitates life).
When I was in Year Eleven, Thomas Keneally came to my school to give a lecture. We had been studying ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ and he had kindly agreed to come and speak to us. This was exciting stuff for a book nerd. I was in the front row. Pen poised, spectacles glistening, waiting to be told how to be a famous novelist. Keneally was humorous, generous of spirit and very candid. He also gave an unexpected answer to a question from one of our English teachers. The teacher asked him how he pitched and planned his novels prior to commencing the actual writing process. As someone who personally despised essay plans (and always constructed one after the actual essay was written … oops) … I keenly waited for the reply. To our teacher’s chagrin, Keneally smiled and said something along the lines of, “I don’t. I don’t know what will happen to the characters until I have met them and their story happens”. I thought this the most wonderful answer.
I had often sat down to write something (and still do) and wasn’t quite sure what would happen to the characters until I created them. I’d also wing it when it came to the narrative structure, tone and style of the writing until the whole thing began to take shape. Thomas was instantly my writing hero!!!! Alas for my teenage self, I hadn’t quite comprehended that Mr. Keneally was an extremely famous author and publishers would happily offer him a book deal without hammering him for the minute details. He wasn’t creating content to a brief. He was writing masterpieces on his own terms. A privilege he had most certainly earned over years of proving his worth as an impressive author.
For the less lauded of us, we need a plan. So : you have an idea for a fictional article or book. Who is the protagonist? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Who is the antagonist? What is the plot outline? What is the world in which the tale is set? What is the narrative structure? And horror of horrors….. how many words?
Although writing whatever comes into my head is still a favourite quirk, I have wisely learned to embrace a good story plan. Quite often something that sounds like genius in one’s brain does not translate seamlessly to paper. Better to iron out the kinks before you spend hours realising it’s not going to be the next ‘Rebecca’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. More pedestrian writing tasks than planning your life’s literary masterpiece also need orderly thought.
If you are asked to complete a job you should always stick to the brief. Tempting as it may be to channel Tolstoy whilst creating a corporate Code of Conduct, the mark of a good writer is being easily understood. Know your audience. Make sure they will comprehend and enjoy what you are telling them. Most of us aren’t Keneally; we don’t have an editor on hand to double check our work. Self editing needs to be the go before someone of importance sees your product. Check and re check. All spelling and grammar. Remove unnecessary wordiness and try to read what you have written with ‘fresh eyes’ several times. If you need to re read a sentence….. it’s not the correct way to impart that information. If you’re like me, you’ll need to reduce your word count to fit the job at hand, and trim back some of the padding.
I’m sure various people wish they could do that with me in real life. Starts out telling a story and an hour later she’s still going. Note to self. Must self-edit long, rambling conversations. 😉
‘Size’ does matter. Good planning is never wasted. Nothing is more satisfying than a positive response from a reader to something worthy that came from your pen. Whatever that creation may be.
The other satisfying thing about writing is some of it can happen in pyjamas with a glass of wine. Hiding inside your house with the heating on. A personal favourite. That’s a happy place, with or without an essay plan. 🙂