Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Writing what you know.

There’s a writing adage that you should “write what you know” then there’s the first seemingly opposite “writing to find out”. In fact, I think it’s the subtle interplay between the two that makes things interesting when you write but sometimes it also makes things difficult.

I don’t believe “write what you know” should be taken literally—if it were, we wouldn’t have science-fiction, or fantasy or anything really aside from versions of biography and autobiography. Boring. In my mind, writing what you know is a twofold piece of advice:
1.    If there is any factual component to your fiction, know it and know it well.
2.    Write from an emotional place of truth.

This second part is more related to the idea that even ‘made up stuff’ should have an emotional honesty about it. It should come from and express real emotions even if the events that elicit these emotions are not events that the author has ever experienced.

As a writer undertaking creative-practice research, I am mandated to “write to find out”. My practice by its nature of contributing to my PhD, must create new knowledge. This mandate does not necessarily make the difficult bits any easier.

I started out my whole project in a place where I was relatively comfortable. My project aims to cover the experiences of six different cultural groups, women in particular, who have migrated to Australia. For the first suite of stories, I focused on British migrants.

Starting with the first major non-indigenous migration to Australia meant I had to write historical fiction and I had a vague plan that I would follow the waves of migration to Australia chronologically. Once I was done with the British section, though, I was kind of tired of writing historical fiction and decided to jump to a much more contemporary group of migrants—Somali refugees.

The idea excited me, which was precisely why I’d decided to make the leap in time frame. I needed to be re-invigorated about my writing and this new cultural focus meant no more researching historical events, clothes, townships, speech patterns and colloquialisms in order to make my stories believable. But moving out of my comfort zone in another way proved more difficult than any of that.

Moving away from a cultural heritage that I know and understand reasonably well, to one that I did not, was a leap that made me incredibly uncomfortable. I doubted my ability to understand and accurately represent Somali culture in my fiction but I also doubted my right to even try. I had previously come up against similar doubts when one of my stories included an Aboriginal character. As a white woman, what right do I have to represent a minority culture?

For a while these doubts froze the words in me and I didn’t write anything. In the end, I realised I had to find a way get it done or change my whole PhD topic. I still baulked at the idea of leaping into a culture is so unfamiliar to me. But, appropriately enough, the way in was the food. I started cooking Somali food from the Somali Food Blog which is taking the place of community cookbooks in this part of my project. Cooking the food and preparing the spices as well as the visuals and music from the blog were jumping off points for my creative writing and they helped me to get started. I’m still very cautious about the Colonial paternalism inherent in what I’m doing and it still makes me nervous but I’m in it now. And all I can do is write my way out with emotional honesty.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Truly, a new leaf... this time.

This time I really mean it. I'm going to be better at this blogging thing. New leaves everywhere!

Photo by Lindsay Shaver

I'm pleased to say that I haven't been avoiding blog-posting because things have become difficult or because I'm struggling. Things have been travelling along quite nicely, a few hiccoughs maybe, but nothing too drastic.

So, since I last wrote...

I passed my colloquium with no changes required: this was fairly amazing, a huge stress and afterwards a huge relief. It didn't matter that those who had gone before me kept telling me it was "such a valuable process". I couldn't see that until I was out the other side.

I presented at my first conference, The Third International Food Studies Conference in Austin, Texas: this was also amazing and stressful and finally a relief. (Did I refer to this whole process as a roller coaster ride at the very beginning?) I do feel that I'm regularly challenging myself and just getting things-that-I-find-confronting done feels quite awesome. I met some wonderful new colleagues as well then took the opportunity of being in the US to visit some old Peace Corps friends from my volunteering days.

I attended my second AAWP Conference, this time in Canberra where I (again) didn't present because my brain was so busy getting ready for Texas that I missed the proposal cut off. I (again) used the opportunity of being in the area to visit (and in fact, impose myself upon) friends I hadn't seen for some time. (This galavanting about the place is quite fun really.)

And this past weekend I went along to the Deakin HDR Summer School where I got to catch up with some people I hadn't seen since the same event last year and to feel connected again to something bigger than what is happening at my messy desk.

Of course, my desk has become unmanageable again. I'm still waiting for suggestions on how to maintain some semblance of tidiness.

I'm back into the creative writing and have set myself a fairly ambitious weekly plan of 2000 words. I managed it in the first week, then last week was a bust but that just means I've got extra to do this week (and blog posts don't count) so I'll be off to write about Kalaamuddo (Somali noodles).

Somali woman outside her home. Photo by Colin Crowley

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A messy desk is the sign of...

I’m one of those people who tends to function perfectly well with a desk that looks like the aftermath of some kind of paperwork Vesuvius. In the past, I have astounded some of my more tidy-natured colleagues with my ability to successfully direct someone to where an item is amongst the debacles that is my desk; to lay my hands directly on a requested piece of paperwork from weeks ago; or by the fact that I can “ever get anything done in that mess”.

Of course, functional chaos is functional only up to a point where it becomes, quite simply, chaos. The tipping point for my desk occurred towards the end of last year but despite being aware that “we have a problem”, I put it off until the Xmas/New Year period. I took stock over New Years (isn’t that what it’s for?) and I embarked on a desk-cleaning rampage.

The exercise (and I mean that in the sense of ‘military exercise’) lasted for a number of days and both sides sustained substantial losses. The process required purchases of shelves, folders, bulldog clips, and other items of stationery not directly related to the task but surely a tidy desk requires new pens, pencils, notebooks… (But my stationery obsession is another post entirely!)

Despite my best efforts, there remains a small (but growing) pile of notepads, print outs, envelopes and folders that have resisted my tidying-attack. These are the rebel fighters of my desk who will undermine any real and lasting change in levels of organisation. And like any good dictator, I will ignore them until their rowdy little riots push their stronghold into the workable space of my desk and I have to lead a charge to crush them once again.

This truly seems to be the story of my desk’s life.
Is there any way out? Any tips for getting organised and making it stick would be very much appreciated.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Long time, no news. (Sorry.)

Well, that was a bit of a ‘down’ way to leave this blog and there’s been quite a hiatus. I'm going to try to blame the insanity of Xmas and hope that you don’t notice that I haven’t made an entry since the 6th of November… It’s a new year, new leaf and all that guff. I’ll try to be better.

So, to catch you up with the major events since I last wrote:

My writing is improving. That’s not to say that what I’m producing is necessarily better but just that it has gone from excruciating to uncomfortable to bearable to enjoyable and finally has become downright fun. And within that process, I think I’ve pretty much finished the first drafts of one of the collections of stories. I started in a relative comfort zone of my own cultural heritage, predominantly English, and their food & immigration stories. Now I’m making a big jump in time & familiarity to work on stories based on Somali food and experiences. So, it’s back to reading and researching for me.

The AAWP (Australasian Association of Writing Programs) annual conference held at Deakin’s Waterfront Campus in November, 2012, was my first academic conference. I went as a spectator only but was still incredibly anxious about it all. To my delight, everyone was friendly and welcoming—there was less name-tag-checking of a person’s status before striking up conversation than I expected. But there was a fair amount of academic posturing & ‘theory dropping’. There were too many interesting sessions to choose from but one of the best was one I went to ‘just because’. The others I tried to choose with my project in mind and I was able to meet others writing, researching and teaching about food and culture.

My last piece of news is my most exciting but I’m not sure that the excitement isn’t, in fact, at least 90% terror…
With the ever-ready encouragement and support of Amazing Supervisor, I applied to present a paper at the Third International Food Studies Conference to be held at the University of Texas in Austin and they have accepted my proposal! So, in October this year I’ll be off to the Lone Star State to present my findings so far to my peers and betters. If I bit my nails, I’d already have none left!

Maybe I should go & get Friday Night Lights on DVD... as research, of course.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Not as bad as I thought...

So, the log-jam problem has been slightly rectified. My solution consisted of talking to my supervisor about my concerns and her suggesting that we don’t talk the next day after all, that I give myself another week to work on things and see what develops.

In that week, I started a couple of other stories, worked on the ones I already had and managed to get two of them to the point where I was [not happy exactly but] willing to let her see them. I sent them along with a rather self-effacing email (which I now hope she didn’t read as if I was fishing for compliments). This morning over coffee I had my head in my hands, worrying that I didn’t want to put my wonderfully supportive supervisor into the position where she felt that she had ‘to be nice about it’ when I really feared that the pieces where utter rubbish.

10am. Skype is binging at me and my stomach is a ball of lead pipe tied into knots (how’s that for a ridiculous metaphor?) The first thing Wonderful Supervisor said when the skype call connected was, “I really think you’re being far too hard on yourself!”

She had lots of supportive things to say and looking at the pieces with fresh eyes, I realise maybe they aren’t as rubbish as I originally thought.

Supervisor Extraordinaire also pointed out that my discomfort (if you can call the anguish I have been living in for three weeks ‘discomfort’) likely stems from the fact that I always have in my head. “My thesis is about women and food” so that when I sit down to write, I don’t just sit down to write a story, I sit down to write “a story about women and food”. The very artificial nature of this approach makes me feel awkward about what I produce.

Anyway, apparently it’s not as bad as I thought.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Not reading, writing.

This fortnight I’ve been concentrating on creating my own pieces of writing rather than reading and responding to the writing of others. And I have to admit, it’s not going well.

It’s a little bit like a log-jam of ideas where the logs have made quite an effective dam in the river and none of them are easily freed. I can see bits and pieces of logs/ideas but none are happily floating along anymore. And tomorrow I need to email something I’ve been working on to my supervisor…

I’m a bit concerned.

Not overly concerned because this happened during my honours year also. I got particularly stuck on one or two stories that ended up being rewritten so many times that I now can’t stand the sight of them and they are now completely unrecognizable from the original idea that sparked them. But I am a bit concerned.

This concern probably springs more from a desire not to disappoint my supervisor than an actual distress about my project at this stage—if I was this stuck later into my candidature I imagine I would be really worried but it’s early days yet (at least that’s what I’m telling myself). Maybe I should just go and play in the sandpit with Calvin until the right mood hits me.