Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wild Play

I'm very interested in the issue of wild play blogged about recently here and here. It's hard being a children's writer in this day and age where kids are so heavily supervised. People don't go to the country to convalesce with a well-meaning but abstract and vague aunt. Kids don't go camping by themselves or sail off for a summer or get abandoned in the woods. It's hard getting your child characters away from those interfering, prescriptive, restrictive grown ups and into adventures.

With my cousins, or Zoe, or other childhood friends, I wandered wild and free, not just over the bush suburb I grew up in, but also the inner suburban streets of North Hobart or Dynnyrne. Did we take risks? Yes. Did we ever get badly hurt? No (though both Zoe and I broke our arms, we both did it when at school or on a school excursion). The suburb I lived in had urban worries ('stranger danger', busy roads, bullies, roaming dogs) and bush worries (lack of footpaths, snakes, spiders, ponds, large tracts of bush, bushfires). We made up stories about people we saw or ourselves. We doorknocked for charity, for walkathons or looking for our escaped invisible pet mice. We roamed around the local university grounds as they were then (when the art school and conservatorium were down the road. We walked the 3 or so kilometres up to the signal station where we could see all over Hobart. Zoe and I often got up before anyone else was awake and took ourselves off to the park. We dug possum traps and bee traps, rode our bikes around the new subdivision, befriended ducks and all the time we were playing - a wild, unstructured kind of play, where every sentence began with 'Let's Say' or Let's Pretend'.

I loved my freedom more than anything. It was my most valued possession, my most precious gift. No barbie, no playstation, no toy, no equipment, could ever come close to that treasure - freedom.

I just wish I knew how, in the climate of fear and protectiveness we live in now I can pass this gift on. Is it a matter of moving out of the tightly held restrictions of the inner city? Is it a geographical problem? Perhaps it's partly a matter of teaching myself to reclaim my own wildness, of negating at times my adult status - can I make myself disappear for the girls, can I be a kid again? Can I take them places they can run wild and then let them run? Let them really run, without warnings or reprimand? I don't think it works like that. I wish it did. In a dream world we would have the money to buy the kind of big, unruly and dangerous house that could lend itself to wild play in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne. In real life...I take heart that there are enough parents around me thinking about the same issues that maybe my kids will be able to roam free after all...without anyone ringing children's services. One of the other things we'll do to help encourage this kind of play is take them camping. We recently bought a tent. It makes me uneasy (more becuase I want my holidays to be relaxing!) but I think it will be great for all of us.

Because one day they will be free. They need to learn to trust themselves and we need to learn to trust them. They need to learn the world is a place in which to play, not to fear. They need to learn to love the trees and forests and birds and creeks of the world. Or they will continue to subdivide, to inhabit, they will become insular and disconnected. We can't supervise them forever. For me, Fred and Una own their bodies, own their childhood. I can guide them. I can offer them boundaries, support structures and a safe place to call home. But they need to find the girls, the women, they want to be, and I wish for each of them wildness, in their hearts and minds.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Working from home

Yesterday I dropped Frederique off at creche. I walked through the backstreets of Fitzroy in the early morning sun and into East Melbourne to spend a day reading manuscripts in The Office and I felt like a proper grown up working mother. It was quite a nice feeling. I have actually always been a working mother, doing freelance editing and writing novels. But somehow when you work from home it doesn't feel the same - it's hard to make any real distinction between the working part and the mother part. I know it's the dream for many parents, especially with new babies - a reasonable paying gig from home that fits in around naps and keeps a finger in the career pie. But in practice it doesn't quite work like that.

In the simplest terms: when you're with the kids you feel guilty about not working; when you're working you feel guilty about not being with the children. And if you have a cup of tea or call a friend you feel guilty about everything. Then there's the business calls where you're simulataneously chasing your nude, pooing, crying toilet-untraining two year old around the lounge room (yes that really happened). And they say, 'should I ring back at a better time?' and you're dangerously close to tears because there IS no better time. Yep. The dream.

So here is my contribution to the work from home dilemma if anyone is going through it at the moment. This is how we've managed it and I've retained a small part of my sanity. I totally get that working and homelife is a struggle for everyone and there are lots of problems associated with working in an office, so it's not a boohoo my life is hard thing, because this is the choice I made and I do feel lucky to have the life I have. But this is what I have to say on the matter:

1. I don't care about housework. In my dreamlife I live in a lovely house that's always clean with shiny surfaces and all the crumbly messy bits are artfully messy, filled with interesting found objects. In reality, my house is messy most of the time and I have this special blind patch that allows me to live with it.

2. I do care about housework really. Because when you have kids they spend a lot of time lying around on the floor and messing stuff up, so someone needs to do it. So you need a really helpful partner who will do at least 50% of the housework, a mother who will visit once a week and mop your floors, or you need a cleaner. Or at a pinch you need to be okay with doing housework early in the morning or late at night (but wouldn't this drive anyone insane? Still, I hear there are some stay at home parents who are okay with this, bless their pearly white, beautifully laundered cotton socks.)

3. You need childcare. Whether it's your partner, your mother, a neighbour, you need regular reliable childcare. Six month olds who sleep six hours a day and spend the rest of the time gurgling delightfully at the ceiling turn into 2 year old wrecking balls. There is no exception to this. Few two year olds will spend more than 10 minutes at a time engaged in an activity. They need to roam from one thing to another and most activities require some input from you (setting up, packing away, supervising etc). Regular is important, you need to be able to rely on it and plan around it.

4. Your children will watch television. They probably won't dine exclusively on homemade organic branseed muffins. Every other mother I've ever met seems ninety times more organised than me. I have to remind myself that I effectively hold down two jobs plus parenting Frederique and Una, plus doing my Masters part time in order to have some kind of life outside the home and develop myself professionally, and I was one of those people who lost their locker key on the first day of school every year (after I locked all my text books and stationery in my locker - I got through high school with pens and paper torn out of other people's notebooks). I try not to be all superperfectionist about food and tv and stuff, my kids eat well but it's not all natural homemade stuff because in the time it takes me to make muffins I can write and then delete half a chapter.

5. Their social life will suffer. Your social life will suffer.

6. Be flexible and opportunistic. If your child unexpectedly falls asleep face down in their rice cereal then use the time to your advantage. Get as much stuff done in the morning because most kids are needier in the afternoon, especially when they drop their daysleep (see point 3, once the daysleep goes some kind of childcare is essential for your sanity and your workload). You should probably try and extricate them from the rice cereal first though.

7. You will probably feel isolated workwise. Even if you are keeping a toe in, it won't feel like it. Work will feel a million miles away. You'll go into the office occasionally to drop something off and feel like a strange alien lady, or more likely, like a mum pretending to be someone else. You'll tell people cute stories about your kids. You'll have banana on your shoulder or baby spew in your hair. Every one else will look and sound worlds more professional than you, even the homeless guy who wandered in off the street to wee in the car parking space (it's not your car parking space because you don't warrant one because you live the dream and work at home. It's probably a good thing because your car is piled high with baby crap and covered in princess stickers and has really uber daggy thomas the tank engine sunshades on the back windows.) You'll feel out of touch with the industry. Every time you go into the office it will seem like everyone there is new. People will say, wow, how are you? and you won't have anything interesting to say. (If you are a man, replace father and he for mum and she for all of the above. But heck. Feel free to call yourself a strange alien lady).

8. In the middle of a business call your three year old will shout out from the toilet 'Come and have a look at the poo!'. Your 9 month old will vomit down your cleavage. The reverse of this is that you have to sit and do work when you'd rather take the kids to the zoo or meet friends for coffee and play. Other mothers will seem to have all this time and energy for their kids that you feel like you don't have.

9. You need to know at least one person in the same boat as you so you can whinge meaningfully about the lows and cheer each other's happies and skive off together by email.

10. Take every professional development opportunity you get, even if it means serious kid juggling. I had the opportunity to do a day-long course and Martin brought Fred (then 11 months) in at the break for her breastfeed. This was where I met Kate (see 9) so it was sooooo worth it, even if it did send us into a spin because it was the longest time I spent away from her.

You know, that all sounds like a bit of a whinge and it is good really, it is a dream, just sometimes it's a dream with a talking spider eating buffalo cake in it*. At least I'm here and I'm with them. I get to be a part of their lives, their everyday. Because in a few years they'll both be at school and I know I'll miss them. I feel especially lucky that we've managed our lives in such a way that Martin is home more than he's not so we're all here a lot of the time, and Martin stops the dirty clothes from taking over the world and makes muffins and takes the girls to the zoo so they're not missing out. But I'm glad I love my job, because I think if I was doing something I didn't feel passionate about then the trade-offs might not be worth it.

Going into the office, sitting on a couch in East Melbourne reading manuscripts without children climbing my leg and with the added bonus of intelligent funny interesting people to talk to in between manuscripts...well, I see the appeal of the day job (I know, most day jobs don't come with couches). Sometimes I feel like my whole life takes place in my lounge room, sometimes the walls feel like they're closing in. Being a writer is lonely enough, it can be hard to access a community - sometimes it feels like you're talking into a vast, empty darkness. So being tied to home by two relentlessly gorgeous but needy children can make that loneliness manifold. But in the end, I love my job and I love my kids. Although they don't always combine well, I feel more comfortable with chaos than I do with structure so it's the right life for me and as hard as it feels sometimes, as much as I sometimes feel I have my feet in two different worlds which have an alarming tendency to accelerate away from each other, this is the life I love.

*Actually Fred's dream last night. It talked to her. Sounds scary but she assures me it wasn't.

Friday, November 24, 2006

extraordinary window to an unseen world

An elephant in the womb. Read more here:
The Age
National Geographic


by Simon Armitage

Hand Washing Technique – Government Guidelines

i.m. Dr David Kelly

1. Palm to palm.
2. Right palm over left dorsum and left palm over right dorsum.
3. Palm to palm fingers interlaced.
4. Backs of fingers to opposing palms with fingers interlocked.
5. Rotational rubbing of right thumb clasped in left palm and vice versa.
6. Rotational rubbing, backwards and forwards with clasped fingers of right hand left palm and vice versa.

From Tyrannosaurus Rexversus the Corduroy Kid

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Still in a rewriting haze

I wanted to have it finished today but it's being slippery. I hate slippery. Things are falling into place though, that's the great thing about this stage, connecting everything up, you suddenly realise there IS method to your madness and you're a lot smarter than you thought you were. Or you discover there's more madness than method which was me at about 3 o'clock this afternoon. I might have done something interesting like gibber in the hallway but a very nice man came to buy our television and I didn't want to scare him away.

Anyway, for those of you who haven't got round to looking at the new site (or my shadowy yet carefree face) here's a little tempter. Martin and I thought it might be nice to put a few bookplates on there. We'll be adding some more later, hopefully. The black and white one is from an actual set of bookplates made for moi truly by Zoe a few years ago for Christmas. I am glad it's got a new lease of life. It's also the image on my long ago, ne'er pursued book-crossing page (it felt sordid leaving books in public, like littering - and these days, I'm more a library girl, but I love the idea of it.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


and when I am very tiny
i can jump over things
i can jump over things
rusty things
special things
circle things.

Frederique, aged 3

Sunday, November 19, 2006

all new

with secret special surprises.

Go! Go play.

And come back and tell Martin what a marvellous job he's done.

Not Funny Me

I rode up a hill today which makes me not funny (have you ever noticed how people who exercise a lot have no sense of humour?). Anyway, in lieu of me being funny here's someone else who is. You'll learn something too (I'm not sure what) about being a better writer.
Now I have to go away and write my noggle (haha, 3 year olds are funny because they can't speak proper).

Thursday, November 16, 2006


"I love people. I love my family, my children . . . but inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that's where you renew your springs that never dry up."
Pearl S. Buck

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Beautiful Things



Well this time yesterday I was considering giving myself a stomachectomy having caught gastro from Fred who got it at the Germ Factory (creche). We all got it - there's been a lot of vomiting in this house over the last two weeks - this is the second bout the girls have got in a fortnight. Let's hope we're all super-immune for a while. Fred is a champion vomiter - she's neat and contained and as soon as she's finished she says brightly 'I'm better now!' and then expresses a great deal of concern for us because we look worried or sad ('Are you all right, Mama?'). She'd be a good Pollyanna, with one of those mysterious injuries that makes you lie around being windswept and interesting for a while until you discover that being glad is the only medicine. Una is pretty good too, but of course sick one year olds are just heartbreaking.

We're dropping Fred back to one day a week at creche over summer, just because it seems silly to send her when Martin and I are both at home and we've still got Una anyway who isn't the easy blobby baby she once was. In a lot of ways it's easier to have both rather than just one. And it will reduce our contact time with lergies. And besides all those sensible reasons, we just miss her!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Online Writer's festival

Hi, just a reminder for anyone with nothing to do today that the online writer's festival is on today. The next person on the forum is John Marsden at 1pm (Melbourne time), writer Kate Morton is on at 5 and Matthew Reilly (who is blissfully unaware of the fact that he is Martin's arch-nemesis) is on at 7. Then Rosemary Cantor (a UK agent) is on at 9. See The Australian Writer's Marketplace website for instructions on how to join up so you can attend. Full membership is about $50, quarterly membership is $25. There's discounts if you're a member of one of the state writer's centres. I've been to the morning sessions and will write more later.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Belinda Emmett

I didn't know her. I didn't follow her career. But the death of Belinda Emmett is very sad news and my heart goes out to her family, especially her husband Rove who has to learn to live without her and will have to find a way to grieve in the spotlight.
Love to all on this Sunday.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Linky Mclinks

Very short story competition here. 500 words, theme is 'inner city: anywhere, anytime'. Deadline 1 December.

For kids: storyline, a project by the screen actor's guild. See your favourite celebrities read picture books. Come on. Al Gore! Okay it's not all Al Gore, there's the Mum from Malcolm in the Middle (we love her) and the guy from West Wing who walks like a ballet dancer, um, Bradley Whitford, reading an Australian book Wilfred Gordon Macdoanld Partridge by Mem Fox (digression: see her discuss the book in an unusual way here). Lou Diamond Phillips reads The Polar Express...oh go look for yourself. It's such a nice idea, unfortunately the way its done is a wee bit cheesy with soft "storytelling" voices and plinkly music, and so the texts lack some of the energy and verve you would hope an experienced actor might bring to the reading of them. But Fred will probably quite like it all the same. I'm saving it up for a rainy day.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Australian Writer's Marketplace

Click here to check out the new website for the Australian Writer's Marketplace, who have been around for years in book form, up to their 8th edition I think of a bumper book of publishers, magazines, competitions and other opportunities for writers in Australia. You can sign up for the free newsletter or get a paid subscription to find out about a wide range of publishing opportunities. They also have a blog called Speakeasy, which is still all new and fresh looking.

A good prod about the site will show that they are hosting an online writing festival. If you're not published and would like to be, or even if you are and have only a writer's understanding of the literary world, it looks like a good line up. I'm particularly intererested in Miss Snark whose blog is immensely useful and interesting. Plus how does someone with a surname like November end up being an editor and not a writer? It's a crying shame. Here's the scoop:

Online Writing Festival
13 November: Australia's biggest Online Writing Festival. Featuring authors John Marsden, Matthew Reilly and Kate Forsyth, as well as NY literary agent Miss Snark, Orbit Editorial Director Darren Nash, UK agent Rosemary Canter, and Penguin US editor Sharyn November.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

I love memes

48 things you could care less about
1. First Name? Penelope, but you can call me Penni. Some people call me Nell.
2. Were you named after anyone? Nope, though my dad once had a dog called Penny. And as a child I was deeply fascinated by Penelope, wife of Odysseus/Ulysses and I think it's part of what sparked my interest in myth, Ancient History and stories.
3. When did you last cry? I got teary reading Fred a picture book the other day. The Potato People by Pamel Allen. It's sad - the grandmother is left all alone and you don't know why but you suspect something is amiss.
4. Do you like your handwriting? Yes, now I do. I used to be wildly experimental with it as a teen. I'm glad I dropped the p-h-a-t look and the circles over the 'i's.
5. What is your favourite lunchmeat? King Island smoked beef
6. If you were another person would you be friends with you? Yes, but I'd really give me the shits sometimes. (Am I allowed to swear? Oh yes, it's MY blog.)
7. Do you have a journal? Only inasmuch as I write a blog, which the world is allowed to poke about in.
8. Do you still have your tonsils? Yes.
9. Would you bungee jump? No.
10. What is your favourite cereal? I love a good homemade muesli, with dates and pecans, soaked overnight in organic pear juice (we don't do this very often!).
11. Do you untie your shoes when you take them off? Nope.
12. Do you think you are strong? Physically, not really, I'm all soft and noodly. But mentally and emotionally, yes.
13. What is your favourite ice-cream flavour? Passionfruit.
14. Shoe size? 6ish.
15. Red or pink? Pink roses. Red shoes.
16. What is the least favourite thing about yourself? The blobby bits. Actually the fact that I can't just accept and love the blobby bits.
17. Who do you miss most? I'd have loved my nanna to meet my little girls.
18. Do you want everyone to send this back to you? Nah.
19. What colour pants, shirt and shoes are you wearing? I'm wearing two different pyjamas - my purple snowflakes bottoms and Martin's blue chequered top. No shoes. Just toes.
20. Last thing you ate? Vegemite toast. Or Jemmamite, as it is called in this house.
21. What are you listening to right now? Fred's watching Beatrix Potter performed by the London Ballet, so I am listening to the music and to Fred dancing to it and occasionally saying 'look what I can do!'
22. If you were a crayon what colour would you be? I like to think something deep and mysterious like indigo but probably more like a ferny green. Or light brown.
23. Favourite smell? Roses. Mushrooms cooking with garlic. Fred and Una's hair. Easter eggs. My moisturiser (which smells like easter eggs). Their beer soap smells delicious too.
24. Who was the last person you talked to on the phone? Um. Una!
25. The first thing you notice about people you are attracted to? Voice.
26. Do you like who you stole this off? Yes.
27. Favourite drink? Coffee.
28. Favourite sport? Um. I don't think I have one. Not that I hate sport, I recognise it's right to exist alongside me. But over there a bit. And round the corner. I always think if I did like sport it would be listening to the cricket on the radio. I like the idea of that, like if I was a painter or something, it would be nice to have on in the background.
29. Eye colour? Brown. Though Fred says my eyes are black.
30. Hat size? I don't know. My head appears to be in reasonable proportion to my body.
31. Do you wear contacts? Nope. Glasses.
32. Favourite food? It's kind of an in the moment thing (sometimes, mustardy green lentil salad, sometimes pannacotta...) but you can never go wrong with crusty bread and good cheese and maybe some olives.
33. Scary movies or happy endings? Happy endings
34. If you could live anywhere in the world where would that be? In a really big sprawling terrace house or Californian Bungalow in North Fitzroy, but I'd have a little stone house in Greece too.
35. Summer or winter? Summer. Though I also love Autumn.
36. Hugs or kisses? From who?
37. Favourite dessert? Pannacotta.
38. Who is most likely to respond? I don't know
39. Least likely to respond? Most of the known universe.
40. What books are you currently reading? The Memory of Running
41. What's on your mouse pad? I have one of those lap top things where you swirl your finger around, no mouse, no pad.
42. What did you watch on TV last night? Old Buffy episodes
43. Favourite sounds? An orchestra tuning up. Una 'talking', Fred's laugh. The postie's motorbike outside our house. The sound of a good friend's voice on the otehr end of the phone.
44. Rolling Stones or Beatles? Actually to be honest neither, though I know more Beatles songs.
45. The furthest you have been from home? Dunkeld, Scotland.
46. What's your special talent? I stared at this a long time and then I thought, oh yeah. I write books. But Einstein said something along the lines of: 'I don't have any special talent, I am just intensely curious.' I'm inclined to agree.
47. Where were you born? Battery Point, Hobart.
48. Who sent this to you? I stole it from Janet.

Making the most of a day's rain

Well, we so needed it, a rainy day, and Frederique was so happy to be able to put her PINK raincoat on and her Bill the Builder (she can't be convinced otherwise) gumboots on and run in the rain.

The orchids have exploded this year - it's the first year we've seen flowers since 2003 - they seem to like the inner north and the dry.

I've been rewriting my short story and an exegesis for university, and then I'm finished for the year. An exegesis must be about the most ridiculous academic exercise I've ever had to do, contextualising my own work in terms of the reading we've done this semester. Such an artificial and unrevealing process, it really says nothing about the story or the writing process and creates a sense that ideas come from one or two concrete sources, that writing is a deliberate act of conveying meaning, of articulating ideas through a fictional construct, when the imagination is actually a lot more freeform and a lot less traceable than that.

On Monday when I hand my essay in I am going to see Ben Highmore talk and then I'll be attending a workshop with him about researching the everyday. He's going to be talking about food. The abstract says:
Because food is often a focus of both racist reaction and cosmopolitan desires I theorise why food has been such a contested and viscerally active agent in the forming of multicultural Britain. Using 'sense studies', psychoanalysis, theories of affect, and cultural history I open-up popular cultural representations on to the histories of migration and the psycho-social dynamics of alimentary culture.

It's the first time I've been able to make use of the opportunities made available to PhD students because these seminars usually happen on days when I need to look after the girls. Geekily, I'm really looking forward to it.