my neverending story

Nothing ever ends. Not really.

As a story-lover – and occasional story-teller – this is difficult to accept. Traditional narrative requires – sometimes demands – an ending. Whenever I read or hear or watch a story I am always wondering, “How will this end?” Because endings are a point where everything makes sense, where motivations, events, actions and reactions have a purpose. A place where a line is drawn under that which went before, leaving a creamy blank sheet to start a new story.

Life is not so easily contained.

My last blog post was on October 15th, 2010. It was never intended to be an ending. But today will be my final post here. So, while my brain rails against the ease of narrative structure, my romantic heart still loves a neat(ish) ending. Today, the first day of the year, I draw a line under this story and start a new one.

But, nothing ever ends. Not really.

The stories I shared here are still here. They still come with me, loyal companions, wherever I go. They are the invisible thread of my existence. They haven’t stopped being. They haven’t finished their noisy, joyful, wrenching, messy reverberations.

Between then and now there have been other stories. Some I can’t tell because they are not mine alone. Not that any stories are ever really mine alone to tell. When we choose to write we plunder the lives of those unfortunate souls whose paths cross ours. But, even in my haphazard pursuit of truth, beauty, wisdom and wonder I know there are stories which can’t be told to all. These I share in private circles. Safe, protected circles where tender hearts and sadnesses are watched over. Where stories of pain and confusion are held to tiny lights and examined and, by the power of telling, set free. Not to end but to move away. Often they return, changed, evolved. Sometimes they bring a new pain. Occasionally knowledge. Always a growth – a leaf, a branch, a bud or an ugly gnarled offshoot which becomes intrinsic to the whole.

The last two years saw a gaping rent in the gossamer from which I’d woven my stories. A rent which isn’t an ending but a delineation. A signpost between then and now. The dangling threads in my fabric – tiny imperfections – got caught on a sliver of the sharpest steel, and there followed a heart-in-mouth tearing sound that always bodes ill. Frantically I grabbed to salvage what was left, catching the ripping fabric before it tore entirely in two. Over time I have patched it back together with scraps I have found littered around me. New stories. New friends. New life.

And I love my new, messy cloak. Now it’s authentic. It is speckled and peppered with love and laughter as well as those old faithfuls: sadness and confusion. These days it feels like home.

My cloak is not a dress that I wear for the world any more, but a blanket to enclose myself in. It’s a rug that I lay upon in the sun and examine, picking and caressing the gold here, the silver there, the black, purple, yellow and orange patches all over. It’s a shield I hide behind. It’s a flag I fly when I feel brave. It’s everything and it’s me. But it isn’t new. It’s woven from everything that never ended.

Because nothing ever ends. Not really.

This time six years ago I was newly released from hospital. I had two small children and had just given birth to – and lost – my third – a tiny daughter. On New Year’s Eve that year I recall feeling as if I was in a bubble of exquisite alone-ness as I walked to the corner store for orange juice. In the surreal December morning I felt heightened and alive in the aftermath of losing her, and almost losing my own life. It was my first realisation that nothing ever ends.

In the space of loss, if we look hard enough, what remains are heart echoes. Things that still sound when tangible evidence is gone. Maybe it’s the words of a lover, an inflection of their voice, their sigh as they sleep, the tears that they gave you. Perhaps it’s the dreams for a child who never was. It might be a wisdom shared, a scene glimpsed, a fragment of conversation that drifted on the breeze. A secret kiss. A dead snake or a coloured feather, found on a walk. A sudden gust of wind. The season’s sweetest cherry. A friend’s laugh. These things echo in our hearts and halt the very idea of endings. These things say: I was here. And so were you.

One of my favourite ways to capture – and watch others capture – heart echoes, is with words. Words I read. Words I write. Words I hear. A constant for me. The nuts and bolts of storytelling. My lifelong companions.

But I have become wise to the ways of words. Their tricks. The paradox of words is that they can appear as truth, and yet truth is the most elusive of all things – more elusive than heart echoes built out of memories. But words do offer a glimpse of transient truth. Something that is true for now. Something that resonates at this moment. A changeable, malleable truth that needs to be looked at constantly, refreshed, made more true.

Stories are a way into that truth, no doubt, but the very best, most true stories are the ones we create ourselves. And the most wonder-filled story we create is the story of our own lives. My story is different to yours. And to yours. And yours. But within the pages of my story and yours are the similarities which connect us. I write my own story, I choose my own adventure, but the intersection of our adventures is where the magic is. This is how we put an end to endings. This is how we make heart echoes. By connecting our stories. By making an endless patchwork quilt across humankind.

The first day of  a new year is a sweet construct, tricking us into believing in endings and new starts. I’m not comfortable with neat packages when life is a spectrum of faltering footsteps and unexpected headlong plunges. But I will use this quiet morning, with the sound of splashing summer children outside my window, to think about a creamy sheet of paper upon which to write today’s dreamed adventure. To draw an imaginary line under the tellings contained here. To end this Best of All Possible Worlds in an artificial way so I can go on living in it authentically. But how to end a piece about things never ending? Well, there has to be a closing song of course…

This song was given to me in its original form by someone very dear to my heart. A strip of light in my darkness. Since then it has come to me over and over. This collection of words has created heart echoes in ever widening circles. Magic.

And then I found this version. Yes, it’s an ad campaign, but ad people are some of the best storytellers in the game. There are layers upon layers of meaning for me in this representation. Every time I watch it a new layer is added, making its echo stronger and louder for me.

And today, as I rode my bike and I listened to it and thought about words – these words I needed to write, future words that I want to write – I knew who I had to dedicate it to. On this, the first day of the new year. Or, simply, yesterday’s tomorrow.

So, Muse, if you’re listening, this is for you. Come sail your ships around me.

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Filed under loss, writing

Bear With Me While I Put You On Hold

As I was saying to a writer friend – who might be Kylie Ladd and who might never have felt the sting of rejection (oh settle down Kylie, I know the school newsletter once refused to publish your story, working title: Turtles: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. But that doesn’t really count.)

Anyhoo – I said to Kylie, “What good is a blog if not a dumping ground for rejected pieces?” Because this piece was rejected by one of my usually friendly websites. They swear the rejection is completely unrelated to my own brand of awesome. But then they probably say that to everyone. Nevermind. I’ll have another piece with them one day.

But this piece was fun – and not my usual writing bag. I find I can’t usually sustain humour beyond 140 characters. That’s not saying that I’m funny on Twitter. Or even that this piece is funny. But… don’t you hate an overwrought preamble?

However, the main reasons for posting this piece are:

1. Telcos have shitted me senseless this week. So get that up ya Telco 1 and Telco 2.

2. I really feel like getting up @AnIdleDad‘s goat cos I know he misses me. And he gets all snarky when you talk about telcos, cos even though he hates his job he has to live in corporate hell in order to fund his appetite for ukes, wine and sharp knives. He also has a rockin’ wife and magic daughters who need to be kept in a manner deserving of their awesomeness.

3. I had a cool writing buddy in on this piece. It was fun (even though he made me pull out my loving copy/paste of my Twitter stream…). We deserve to be published. If you can call a blog ‘published’ (which IMO you can’t really). But we will. Just for today. ^_^

Bear With Me While I Put You On Hold

I always thought whinging about telcos was the resort of mean-spirited types who didn’t understand that everyone is just trying to do their job. Whenever I speak to someone in a far-flung call centre I put on my smiley voice and try to infuse my pesky (one-hundred-and-twenty-seventh) request for whatever-it-is-this-time with an ‘I know what it’s like to be working for the man’ empathy.

Well, f*&% empathy , this shit just got real.

Although the digikids recently talked me into signing my life away for a jabscreen,  I have resolutely held onto my old-school landline. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I don’t really know how to get out of my telco contract. Or who I am actually contracted to. Or why ‘bundling’ everything might make sense. Or what ‘porting’ my number means.

I’m Generation X so bear with me…

A few weeks ago I had a phone call from Telco1 who wanted to know why, since I had once been happy with them, I had changed to Telco 2. I mumbled something like, “Cheaper.”

Then Telco 1 started saying something like, “Shiny, shiny, My Precious and would you like us to bundle it all, port your number over and give you as many lovely new techno devices for your house as you would like?”

I was all: Yes please. How much?

Telco 1: Oh exactly the same as you were paying before. Just a little bit more expensive. But more shiny.

Me: I don’t have to do anything, right? You can do it all from your end and just deliver the shiny things here? And it will all be good and everyone wins?”

Telco 1: Yes. Yes, that’s exactly how it will work.

Then the voice got all fine-print and disclaimer-ey and I think they said something like: Blah, blah, change your email, blah blah, Gen Y do it all the time, blah, what’s your problem, blah, blah, ringthisonenumberandcheckthatyou’renotundercontractwithTelcos2through48thismessagewrittenandauthorisedbyblahblahblah.

Me: Sure. Can I do it tomorrow?

Telco 1: Yes. You have until (unintelligible date which may have actually been some time in the past).

All was fine until last week when our landline stopped working. And then the internet died. And a then black hole opened up in our kitchen.

Actually I didn’t realise any of this – happily jabbing away as I was at my jabscreen – until my kids said, “Mum! We can’t get onto Club Penguin!”

And that’s when I entered my Telco absurdist nightmare.

Call to Telco 1

Me: Hello. I seem to have a problem with my phone.

Telco 1: Bear with me while I put you on hold…

Me: Oh.

Telco 1: Sorry to have kept you waiting (8 minutes). Ok it seems you’re changing over to us but that’s not actioning until this Friday. We can’t do anything. You need to ring Telco 2.

Call to Telco 2

Me: Hello I seem to have a problem with my phone.

Telco 2; Bear with me while I put you on hold…

Me: Ok.

Telco 2: Um, ok sorry to have kept you waiting (12 minutes). It seems that Telco 1 have actioned the changeover. We can’t do anything from this end now. It’s in their hands. By the way you might need to cancel your contract with us now that you’re with Telco 1. You owe us 95.70 for breaking your contract.

Me: Oh. Ok. Can I cancel it then?

Call to Telco 1

Me: Hi. I was speaking to someone earlier about my phone…

Telco 1: Bear with me while I put you on hold…

Me: But…

Telco 1: Sorry for keeping you waiting (18 minutes) but it seems you have cancelled your contract with Telco 2 and we can’t really action anything from this end until Friday. If you want your phone on, Telco 2 has to do it. You’ll have to cancel the cancellation.

Me: Oh. Ok.

Call to Telco 2

Me: Hi. Can I bear with you while you put me on hold? And when you feel sorry for keeping me waiting for 23 minutes can I talk to you about cancelling my contract? I need to cancel that cancellation.

Telco 2: So what you’re saying is you want to cancel the cancellation order? Because there’s only about 15 minutes left before the cancellation takes effect. If you want to cancel it I’ll have to put you through to the cancellation department. Bear with me…

I swear I’m hardly making any of this up.

And this next part I actually really didn’t make up at all.

Telco 2: Sorry for keeping you waiting (47 minutes), but we’ve checked everything and it looks as if Telco 1 has pulled your plug out. Now, I’m not talking behind anyone’s back or anything (and at this point the voice took on a decidedly teenager-ish tone) but they do this, like, ALL the time. There’s nothing we can do.

That’s when I started rocking back and forth, clutching my jabscreen.

Later that day my husband decided to deal with things. He may have used a swear word. He may have used a loud voice. He may have cried real tears.

We still have no home phone connection.

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Filed under parenting, telcos, twitter

may contain coarse language and adult themes

It is a truth universally acknowledged (by parents) that all of the best conversations with your kids happen in the family car. Perhaps it’s the perception that the car is neutral ground. Or maybe it’s because there’s a captive audience.

What I have discovered is that driving with kids acts as a sort of truth serum. It is here that they are comfortable sharing secrets and troubles of the heart. If I feel that one of my kids has been a bit neglected, or that they are carrying a heavier metaphorical weight than usual I will often suggest a quick spin in the car in order to excavate the problem or simply to reconnect.

The car also seems to be where my kids indulge in a little test driving of the newest swear word or adult concept – usually couched as a junior-style investigation. “Mum, what is a d*#@head?” or; “Mum, what does ‘sexy’ mean?” or (a friend of mine’s pet peeve, prompted by radio advertising) “Mum, what is premature ejaculation?”

A little while ago the kids and I were driving home from a shopping trip. I was, as usual, engrossed in my mental to-do list and not really tuning in to their conversation. That is until the volume level rose ever so slightly.

Levi: “NO! I just want them to be partners.”

Indiana’s response was quieter, so I had to strain a little to hear:  “But can’t they just be les-beens?”

Levi: “NO!”

The kids were playing with Levi’s cuddly puppy toys and there seemed to be some disagreement about how the puppies’ relationship should be defined. I thought that now was the time to steer the discussion a little.

“What’s up kids?” I asked, hoping I sounded non-committal.

“I want the puppies to be les-beens…” started Indiana.

“I just want them to be partners,” whined Levi.

“Mum, what are les-beens anyway?”

I’m sure we have had this discussion before, but I humoured them. “Well, it’s when a girl chooses a girlfriend rather than a boyfriend.” Age-appropriate and easy to digest, I thought.

“What about if they’re boys, are they still called les-beens?” Indy responded, quick as a flash. Somehow I think she may have already had the schoolyard answers to these questions and was just testing to see if my responses married up.

Now I was in slightly deeper waters – what was the correct age-appropriate term for homosexual men? ‘Homosexual’ seemed too medical-textbook and everything else felt derogatory. Flying on a wing and a prayer, I went with my instinct. “Well, two men who love each other are often called ‘gay’,” I said.

The gaping silence from the backseat needed to be filled and, with visions of the aforementioned schoolyard, I said, “But you might have heard people say ‘gay’ in a mean way.”

A little murmur of assent came from behind so I soldiered on. “But it shouldn’t be said in a mean way and I hope you would never do that.” A solemn shake of the head from Indy signalled the end of today’s investigation. When the game continued, I think it was decided that the puppies would be known as ‘partners’. Fair enough.

Later that day, I rang Mum to tell her about my latest adventure as a mother. She treated me to a sample of her own very special brand of laissez faire parenting. “I would have just told you to work it out for yourselves,” she said.

*sigh* It really is a wonder I know anything at all. ;-)

But her approach seems to have worked. I hope mine does too.

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what is motherlove

This week over on HappyChild (a fab new Aussie parenting website featuring the work of many of my wonderful writing friends) Carol Duncan wrote a post titled: Motherhood and Guilt – Are They Inseparable?

I love the way Carol thinks about parenting – and indeed life. She doesn’t spin a ‘perfect world’ tale. She digs deep and with a sense of wonder, awe and philosophical enquiry into the authentic experiences we all face. She’s my kinda gal.

Of course Carol’s abiding love for her children sings loud and clear when she writes about them. Just as her enormous heart shows itself when she delves into other issues. Such as this one.

And so – inspired to get back on the blogging horse (yes I’ve been slack. Blame Twitter ;)) I have used Carol’s Mother Guilt post for this post. Because I’m sure these are the two overarching constants of being a parent: Love and Guilt – usually all rolled into one.

And so…

What is (Mother) Love, Anyway?

It has finally dawned on me that I love my kids. I say ‘dawned on me’ but perhaps what I really mean is that I have accepted that this feeling I have for them is really and truly, unequivocally and without a doubt, love. And it has only taken about nine years for me to come to this conclusion.

I’m not sure if my confusion over my feelings for my kids is because of my misconceptions about motherhood or my delusions about love, but ever since I first became pregnant I have heard a whisper from the teeniest of voices asking me if the feelings I had ticked all the right boxes.

It’s not that I didn’t bond with my kids when they were born. Having read heart-breaking accounts of loving women who looked at their newborns and felt nothing but an emotional void, I know that this is not what happened to me.

But I have often wondered if my euphoria at the birth of both of my kids was largely a result of the powerful hormones which surged through me as they were born. How else do I explain the abrupt shift from my zombified, pethidine-induced stupor during my 21 hour labour with Levi, to a state of divine, lucid clarity the minute this smiling boy was born (yes it’s true, my son was literally born with a smile on his face)?

And when I brought my babies home I, like many new parents, spent a ridiculous amount of time gazing in awe, wonder and amazement at the perfect sleeping human beings who had somehow emerged whole from my person. But were these feelings love?

Sure, I felt protective of my babies. The sense of responsibility was enormous and I was the proud new owner a sinister new level of fear about the infinite dangers which surround a child. But was this love?

I do know that I loved being a mother. During my stay-at-home years I walked on air. I treasured having my two little ones with me all the time. I loved the gentle pace of our days and I alternately revelled in and raged against the challenges parenthood presented. I thrilled to the total experience.

Did this mean that I loved my kids? I don’t know. Perhaps I was merely in love with myself in my incarnation as ‘mother’ and, if so, maybe that exalted feeling extended to my kids because they were the beings who inspired it?

Of course I had heard all the usual descriptions of motherlove, sometimes breathlessly recounted by Hollywood celebrities in the trashy magazines I skimmed as I waited at the supermarket checkout. They came thick and fast:

“I finally realise what’s really important”

“My baby has changed my life.”

“I can’t believe the overwhelming love I feel for this little person.”

“Everything falls into perspective.”

Reading these oft-repeated and therefore increasingly banal (as heartfelt and true as they may have been) musings I found that they did not speak to me. Was that how I felt? Intrinsically motherhood had not changed me. My yearnings and neuroses and big questions about life didn’t change – except now I was a mother with yearnings and neuroses and big questions about life.

I knew that my children were my first priority and that my role was to teach, guide and walk with them through life, but then I knew all that before I had kids. Aren’t these things a given?

And so I had to look at my definition of love. I am ashamed to admit that, even at the ripe old age of 31 when I became a mum for the first time, my idea of love was still influenced by Hollywood love of the boy/girl variety. I think I was waiting for the ‘can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t-stop-thinking-about-you’ juggernaut which had previously defined romantic love for me, to slap me in the face when I had my kids. So when it didn’t, as much as I was loving motherhood and telling my kids at length that I loved them, I still harboured  some sneaky suspicions that this wasn’t the motherlove I had heard about.

I guess what I had forgotten was the other kinds of love I had felt in my life – the abiding love I have for my mum and siblings; the I-love-the-person-I am-when-I’m-with-you love I feel for my best friend; the deeply satisfying and indulgent love I feel for literature and film; the hard-won love I feel for myself. I had forgotten that all of these feelings were, in fact, love. I also hadn’t realised that I felt all of these things for my kids.

So how did my motherlove epiphany come about? Well it is something I had glimpsed before – when I have ducked out to the shops alone and heard a baby cry, when I catch sight of my kids’ photo while I’m at work.

But, it was on my 40th birthday last year when my sister whisked my kids away as a birthday treat so that I could spend Sunday on the beach devouring the weekend’s newspapers from cover to cover that everything fell into place.

As I sat on the sand I was shocked to discover that I felt oddly bereft. Something was missing.

At that exact moment I realised that I really, truly, unequivocally and without a doubt love my kids. It’s an abiding, for-keeps, grateful, thrilling, satisfying, hard-won love but, most of all, it’s a you-complete-me love – Hollywood notwithstanding.

What does your love for your kids feel like?

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oedipal parenting 101

Do you ever wonder about the people who will walk through life with your children? Their peers, friends, lovers? Have you considered the fact that one day there may be a ‘significant other’ that they will love more than you?

I thought such events were a long way off. About the closest I have ever come to considering it is in my whimsical contemplation of the day my son brings home his first love. What I didn’t expect was that I would feel jealous of my nine-year-old daughter’s girlfriends.

When Indy started school I was concerned. She was quiet and fragile in social situations and I had been a full-time SAHM for most of her first five years – how would she cope without me? As expected it was a major transition. She cried every day for the first term and a half.

A friend of mine had a daughter starting at the same school. This little one was also a quiet girl, similar in temperament to my daughter. Each morning as the bell rang for assembly they would reluctantly peel themselves away from us and dawdle to their classroom, hand in hand – not in friendship but in fear. As the weeks went on they became closer and even exchanged a word or two, but I think they were allies and security blankets for one another rather than ‘friends’. Nevertheless I was cautiously optimistic about this blossoming relationship and hoped it would become something more. In fact I hoped they would become BFFs – because Best Friends have a special place in my heart.

When I was a teenager I had a ‘Very Best Friend’ and our friendship has been one of the most defining relationships of my life. Sick of the usual teenage nastiness we separated ourselves from the others at our girls-only school. During lunch we talked earnestly about life with all the innocent pretension only fourteen-year-olds can pull off. We imagined a future where we moved to the city and shared a flat while pursuing our career dreams. In the afternoons we would return home (this being the pre-MSN age) and write long letters to exchange at school the next day. Throughout those years the expression ‘you never forget your first love’ made no sense to me as I fumbled with sweaty boys whose names I can’t remember.

And then I realised that my best friend was my first love. I could never forget her.

Of course I want that love for my daughter. I want her to adore someone the way I adored my BFF. I want her to have someone to dream with. I want her to have an ally, protector and loyal confidante. Someone who will ‘have her back’ in the fraught world of adolescence. I hoped that this friendship might begin in primary school so that there would be the additional strength that a shared history can provide.

But I didn’t anticipate another player in my daughter’s story. During those first school days Indy was befriended by a girl in her class. Bella was a late starter and older than my daughter. Confident, outgoing, with a popular big sister in a higher grade, she gravitated towards Indy and determined that they would be friends. However, as time went on it appeared that Indy was playing the role of follower to Bella’s more dominant personality. And, to be perfectly honest, she wasn’t the kind of girl I had imagined as my daughter’s best friend, despite the fact that my head tells me you can’t choose your kids’ friends.

I tussled with the issue for that first year – vacillating between almost banning her from playing with Bella and trying to trust her. I never thought I would be the kind of mum who vetoed her children’s friends. The fact that I was surprised me.

As did some of the other emotions I felt – and still feel.

Recently Indy brought home a cuddly toy. I asked her whose it was. “It’s Bella’s,” she said, her voice full of happiness. I got a pang of what can only be described as jealousy – immediately followed by guilt. Isn’t this what I want for my daughter? A girlfriend she can love?

That evening Bella phoned her. I watched as Indy cradled the receiver between her shoulder and ear, hugged the toy in her arms and assured Bella that it was safe. Later, as I was putting her to bed she pulled away from me distractedly. “What are you looking for sweetheart?” I asked. “Bella’s cuddly,’ she said, frantic. When she located it she tucked it into the sweet zone next to her heart – the place where I used to live. The green-eyed sting was intense. I kissed her and said goodnight, trying to maintain a semblance of my normal self. I had never heard other mums talk about feeling jealous of their child’s friends. What was wrong with me?

Some days I feel as if I’m walking through a Greek tragedy – or at the very least a Freudian psychotherapy session. It was Freud who appropriated Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King – the epic tragedy where an inescapable prophecy sees the title character kill his father and marry his mother, arousing age old taboos about parenting and children. Freud used the term The Oedipus Complex to explain the origin of certain neuroses in childhood. The complex is often defined as a male child’s unconscious desire for the exclusive love of his mother.

But where do I fit in this as the mother who feels misplaced when her daughter falls in love – as she must -  with females who are not me?

Sometimes I feel that I will always be the ‘winner’. I am, after all, ‘The Mother’. As such I occupy a cultural position which is often exalted across space and time.

Paradoxically, I will always be ‘the mother’, which means I can never be my daughter’s best friend – not really, not in the way a peer will be.

I just hope that the girl who gets chosen for that honour realises how lucky she is.

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Bloggers Without Makeup

As queen of photoshop and needyvainego this is kinda hard.

Also bigbusyday no time to stop.

#BloggersWithoutMakeup

Jodie Ansted.

Here’s me. *sigh*

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if hermione granger was a blogger…

Sometimes I’m a deadset wanker – no two ways about it. And posting up my uni essay may actually be one of the most wankerish things I have done of late. :-)

But the bookish nerd dies hard and, needless to say if there had been teh interwebs around when I was a crazy moping high school student or a lonely undergraduate, I would have been posting up stuff like this left right and centre.

*sigh* silly me.

This blog post won’t be for everyone – in fact I think that my lovely friend and tweep @skippy_2 may be the only one who will read it. Although I know there are a few followers/friends/tweeps who take a passing interest in writing and its stylistic elements – so hopefully there’s something of interest here for you as well.

The subject for which this essay was submitted is called Creative Nonfiction and is part of my Masters in Social Science (Creative Writing specialisation). The question for this one was something like this:

“Choose two of the pieces of creative nonfiction from the course reader and discuss the narrative techniques they employ. What narrative features mark these works as creative nonfiction and how else would you define their genre (ie. memoir, travelogue, personal essay)? How are the themes of these pieces developed in narrative style and voice? To what effect?”

Oh, and btw I got a High Distinction for this essay. Lol. Otherwise it wouldn’t be here at all.

Creative Nonfiction Critical Essay

“In order for creative nonfiction to be creative nonfiction it must be framed and focused.”(Gutkind 2007, p.180) Lee Gutkind continues to define creative nonfiction as being comprised of, “story and information, style and substance, frame and focus.” (Gutkind 2007,p.180) ‘Framing’ is the organising by “time and shape” whereas ‘focus’ is organising by “meaning and content”. In Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter and Richard Ford’s Accommodations the authors employ frame and focus in their search for the embodiment of creative nonfiction – the desire to reveal an emotional truth through reflection upon a real-life event or events.

By utilising tools of narrative fiction, the creative nonfiction writer marks their work as distinct from simple reportage or recount. Structure is one such tool. Where recount generally creates a chronological rendering of the factual story, narrative looks at creating dramatic tension which renders it as narrative. In Grand Central Winter Stringer starts with an abrupt orientation: “What happened was I was digging around in my hole –there’s this long, narrow crawl space in Grand Central’s lower regions, of which few people are aware and into which I moved some time ago. It is strung with lights and there is a water spigot just outside the cubbyhole through which I enter.”(Stringer 1998, p.13) This introduction into Stringer’s world – understated and conversational – brings the reader immediately into the scene without requiring a more traditional set-up. The use of the present tense makes the action immediate. While sparse, the description is symbolic of the subject. Having established a tone of understated exposition he moves quickly to the fulcrum of the narrative. Digging for something to clean his pipe Stringer says, “I pull it out and it’s a pencil and it does the trick.” (Stringer 1998, p.14) This is the heart of the piece, the symbol of his eventual salvation – a fictional device which helps the full meaning of the narrative to be finally attained. Stringer’s narrative structure is further foreshadowed when he invokes the writing of Tenessee Williams: “It kind of comes in through the side door. I mean Williams will start talking about, say what it smells like to work in a factory, and before you know it, he’s going on about wanting to kill his father or something like that.” (Stringer 1998, p.16) Williams’ style informs Grand Central Winter from the abrupt structural orientation – an ‘in through the side door’ technique – which then gathers to the dramatic narrative turning point: his fevered writing of his first story. Ultimately the narrative moves forward until it reaches a traditional climax – being the moment when he and his friend bond over the story he has written – and onward to the resolution: “After that I did four things every day. Hustle up money, cop some stuff, beam up and write. And in the end I wound up dropping the other three.” (Stringer 1998, p.18) It is obvious that the framing and stylistic elements of Grand Central Winter are narrative features which mark it as creative nonfiction.

Accommodations by Richard Ford, begins in a remarkably similar fashion to Grand Central Winter. Abrupt, almost staccato introduction in the present tense: “I am in bed. It is one o’clock in the morning. I am eleven years old, and in a room inside my grandfather’s hotel.”(Ford 1995, p.114) The present tense creates immediacy and draws the reader quickly into the narrative world. Ford then uses snatched dialogue and scattered imagery to evoke a child’s perception. Descriptive devices such as “the orchid smell”; “the elevator grate drawn back” and “a second woman’s voice far away… a car horn blows.” (Ford 1995, p.114) create a sense of mystery and things half-seen which becomes a motif in this piece. But, after this similarity in narrative introduction, Accommodations veers into markedly different stylistic territory from Stringer’s piece. Ford reverts to the past tense after his introduction and gives some lucidly detailed descriptions such as: “Little Rock was a mealy, low-rise town on a slow river and the hotel was the toniest, plushest place in town. And still it was blowsy…” When it comes to the depiction of character Ford purposefully places himself in the background – “I simply stood alongside that for a while in my young life – neither behind the scenes nor in front.” (Ford 1995, p.119) – giving the spotlight to his grandfather and those who people his world. Paul Mills says, “It can be fruitful and interesting to explore personal narratives within a group or community, showing contrasting perspectives, shared perceptions, difference and coincidence.” (Mills 2005, p.37) This seems to be Ford’s approach and symbolic of his themes. In this way he almost writes himself out of the narrative, subjugated for the most part beneath the more strongly painted portraits of the other characters. “Employees, guests, ‘The Permanents’ (old bachelors, old shopkeepers, old married couples in cheap rooms with no better homes to hold onto) lobby lizards – older men with baffling nicknames like Spider, Goldie, Ish…” (Ford 1995, p.115)  The narrative function of evoking a sense of place and character is therefore imperative to the purpose of the piece. In a world of constant change Ford says, “To live in a hotel promotes a cool two-mindedness: one is both steady and in a sea that passes with tides.” (Ford 1995, p.114)  This observation underscores the thematic questions about permanence. Structurally Ford’s piece finds its narrative complication in the tension behind this boy’s recollections and his almost absent personality. There is also a hint of dramatic complication when he says, “If my grandfather lost his job – always the backstage scare story – we lost it all.” (Ford 1995, p.118)  Ultimately his theme is that, “every little thing is life”, and that questions of permanence are almost irrelevant. Thus this ‘floating life’ – the life where ‘everything counts’- becomes important and reflected in his seemingly unstructured yet purposeful series of events. The structure now mirrors the theme. As Gutkind says, “In order for scenes to fit together (in creative nonfiction), they must reflect the same or similar focuses.” (Gutkind 2007, p. 180) This is exactly what Ford has done in Accommodations.

Just as framing marks out the realm of creative nonfiction so necessarily must ‘focus’ or theme. Grand Central Winter is a redemptive, epiphanous and self-reflexive story of the writer’s journey out of drug addiction and into the writing life. The sparse, almost detached descriptive approach to the story pre-empts the moment of salvation when, digging for an implement with which to clean his crack pipe Stringer finds a pencil. With deceptive nonchalance he says, “The good thing about carrying a pencil is that it’s a pencil.” (Stringer 1998, p.14) The impact of this statement is layered retrospectively with the narrative turning point which comes later: “It dawns on me that it’s a pencil. I mean, it’s got a lead in it and all, and you can write with the thing.” (Stringer 1998, p.14) Ultimately this pencil leads to the redemptive moment which parallels Stringer’s earlier descriptions of his drug use. “I’m scribbling like a maniac; heart pumping, adrenaline rushing, hands trembling. I’m so excited I almost crap on myself. It’s just like taking a hit.” (Stringer 1998, p.15) The pencil, at first a part of his despair, becomes a narrative symbol of his salvation.

Richard Ford’s thematic focus concerns the definition of home, and the permanence and reality of life. His piece is interesting in that it reads as nostalgia but in fact has at its heart not so much a longing (as is nostalgia’s hallmark) but a questioning borne from his experiences. “How permanent is real life?” (Ford 1995, p.119) he wonders at the conclusion. This questioning stance originates from the intrinsically transient nature of the lives he observed as a child: “The place was a hollow place, like any home, in which things went on, a setting where situations developed and ended.” Ultimately the theme of permanence and transience is symbolised by the detailed rendering of life within his grandfather’s hotel.

While these two pieces have stylistic, structural and thematic differences the claim to emotional truth must necessarily unite them as creative nonfiction. Stringer’s emotional truth comes through his raw and understated description. When he says, “I take a hit and have a pleasurable half hour of sweaty trembling panic that at any second someone or something is going to jump out of the dark,” (Stringer 1998, p.14), the ironic tension between the pleasure and the panic rings with authenticity. In Ford’s Accommodations the claim to truth comes through the lovingly rendered descriptions and evocation of place and character. The ultimate expression of the truth behind these representations comes when the narrator says of his grandfather, “I could think different of him now, see him through new eyes, revise history, take a narrower latter-day view. But why?” (Ford 1995, p.116) The reader is alerted to the author’s intention to represent – as much as possible – things as they really were, seeming almost at pains not to interpret too much. This method of recollection suits his theme of the importance of the ordinary; articulated when he says: “To make regular life seem regular need not always be to bleach the strong colours out. But just for a time it can help. When you look for what’s unique and also true of life, you’re lucky to find less than you imagined.” (Ford 1995, p.119)

Creative nonfiction is marked by the emotional truth distilled from reflection upon real events rendered through the application of narrative techniques. Grand Central Winter and Accommodations both use such techniques in order to ultimately express the central theme of their reflections. And it is perhaps in a shared technique that they each find their quintessential expression: the invocation of a rhetorical question in the second person. Stringer says: “What can I tell you? It was one of those moments.” By virtue of its simplicity this is an incredibly moving representation of his salvation. Ford similarly addresses his reader – encouraging them to reflect alongside him: “Everything counts. What else do you need to know?” By insisting that the reader engage with the writer, the narrative itself and the emotional truth, creative nonfiction – such as the pieces discussed here – achieves its ultimate function.

Bibliography

Ford, R. (1995). Accommodations. Best American Essays 1995. J. Kincaid and R. Atwan. New York, Houghton Mifflin.

Gutkind, L. (2007). Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Creative Nonfiction But Were Too Naive or Uninformed to Ask. The Handbook of Creative Writing. S. Earnshaw. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Mills, P. (2005). The Routledge Creative Writing Handbook. Oxon, Routledge.

Stringer, L. (1998). Grand Central Winter: Stories From the Street. New York, Seven Stories Press.

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