Thursday, June 27, 2013

Save the Mercy Family Birth Centre

Dear Health Minister David Davis and CEO Mercy Health Stephen Cornelissen,

I am writing to call on you to stop the closure of the Family Birth Centre at the Mercy Hospital for Women.

I had three babies in the centre. My first was born in the hospital in 2003 when the hospital was still located in Fitzroy. I would walk to the hospital from my little house in North Fitzroy. My waters broke but my contractions didn't start. This could have been a dangerous situation, however I was able to transfer to the regular labour rooms to give birth. My only negative experience was a doctor who addressed all the medical information and argument for me to proceed with the induction to my husband. "If it was my wife, and my daughter..." I wrote a birth plan before I transferred, using the the education I had received at the FBC in both the prenatal classes and my appointments. With the support of the midwife who took me over and the lovely midwife from the regular labour room who attended the birth (the doctor popped in at the beginning and end), I was able to have the birth experience I wanted and was transferred back to the Family Birth Centre to recover. One particular midwife, Rose, taught me the art of breastfeeding (a suprisingly difficult skill).

My husband was able to sleep over. This was probably the best part for us. We started our life as a family together. He wasn't thrust out when visiting hours were over. There was no culture of "letting mum rest" as is he was somehow outside the mother baby bubble. In fact he allowed me to rest, by taking the baby into the sitting room so I could sleep soundly, knowing my newborn was cuddled in her other parent's arms rather than in a plastic crib somewhere. He was sitting beside me at three in the morning as Rose taught me to express my milk, and how to know if the baby was latched on. This was not secret women's business. This was our family coming into being.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


When I was eighteen I was working in childcare. I was in a rocky relationship with the best friend of my ex-boyfriend and I shared a flat with both of them for a while until it was obvious that this was crazy. Being with the new boyfriend masked the fact that I was grieving the old boyfriend, who I had been with for two years, which represented a fairly significant proportion of my life to date.

I moved into a little cottage with an attic bedroom on my own, where I struggled to pay the rent and keep the house clean and ate very little, squatting over a two bar radiator watching a portable black and white TV. One day I came home from work to find that the owners had slashed all the jasmine and fuchsias that grew thick and verdant as a fairytale in the backyard.

I was lonely. I didn't like working, nor did I feel very good at the job, though I loved the kids. Hating work made me feel like a failure, and so did the loneliness of living on my own, and my badly managed finances, trying to get my head around concepts like electricity bills and hire-purchase. I felt bookish and weird compared to the other mostly young women working at the centre; I was reprimanded for using too many big words. I missed friends from school, but I didn't know how to keep in touch with them. I was tired all the time.

I had this idea I wanted to Be A Writer. I sort of thought it meant feeling all the feels and writing it down on scraps of paper and going to the bookshop on Sundays and listening to In Liverpool on repeat and owning more than one cat. No, actually, to be honest, I had no idea how to be a writer. I mean I did scribble things on paper and I did go to the bookshop and own cats and listen to that one song over and over but I had no idea those things had anything to do with being a writer, nor did I realise that hating my job, stuffing up my relationships, loneliness, money worries, cat ownership and the burdensome, instinctive and sometimes joyful love I felt for the kids were all part of growing me into a writer.

Anyway, in the midst of all this the Tasmanian Writer's Union advertised a short course with Jan Owen over two weekends. In a rare moment of self-determination, I somehow registered for the course, paid, and managed to turn up on time to the first session. Somehow I knew that to be a writer, I needed to get out of my house, talk to other people about writing, and show my work to people who could give me feedback. The class was most middle aged people (middle aged meaning anything over 28, though in my memory most of them had grey hair), and I remember very little about them except one of them said she was allergic to bananas and I didn't quite believe her. I know I was a novelty to them, the youngest by far. I felt just as socially awkward there as I did at the childcare centre, I did not find my people. But I remember Jan Owen was very kind and sort of pleasantly surprised at my writing. I loved being in a serious learning environment, talking about poetry as if it was as tangible and important as electricity bills or my immutable work hours.

Tragically, I turned up at the wrong time or on the wrong day for the second weekend and missed the follow up session.

But still, some element of the learning experience stayed with me. I did not suddenly start to write more or submit poems to magazines. I was not Discovered and Nurtured by Jan Owen. It was a step in a lifelong journey towards writing, and seeking the company of writers, and always being on the lookout for teachers. I continue to meet teachers in all sorts of places, occasionally in a classroom. Some of my best teachers have been my students. My children teach me a lot, just as the children at the childcare centre. I learned all those years ago that if a boy steals sandwiches out of someone else's bag he is hungry, but he is not just hungry for sandwiches. That if a girl is smarter and funnier and kinder and smaller than her parents, you cannot steal her, but you can keep her forever and she can make you a better writer. That a fox can't eat a big brown bear.

My lifelong love of learning, the feeling of security and "at homeness" I have in a classroom environment fairly naturally led me to teaching. When I was doing my Masters, my supervisor said, 'hey, you know stuff, wanna teach?' And teaching is something I love to do. To me teaching is a collaboration between teacher and student, much like the editor-author relationship. I love the dialogue, the refining of thought and experience. I love questions, the ones I ask them, the ones they ask me, but especially the ones we ask of ourselves.

In July I will be teaching for a month of Saturdays at the Victorian Writer's Centre. The course is called Voice is Character is Plot and it's an introduction to writing YA for anyone really, at any stage. I'd love it if you'd like to come along. Information is here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Penguin Specials

I am intrigued by the Penguin Specials - bite sized ebooks that can be read in a sitting. Penguin has a long tradition of exploring short form literary non-fiction and fiction, publishing it in cheap and accessible formats, and so it is little wonder that they have found a way of exploiting the potential of digital publishing. I was enchanted by The Element of Need by James Bradley, a short haunting meditation on the violence of the city of his young adult years and was terribly interested when I saw Sonya Hartnett had also written one - I bought both at the same time. Shortly after I was given the opportunity to review Gideon Haigh's The Deserted Newsroom via Netgalley.

Hartnett could write a shopping list and it would resonate with mysterious and unsettling possibility. In some ways shopping list is an apt description of Life in Ten Houses, though it is a list of what she has already shopped for and bought - a list of the houses she has purchased over a period of about 15 years and a reflection of her writing life within them.

In typical Hartnett style this is very pared back, incredibly potent in terms of sense of place, telling and yet so much left unsaid. As someone who arrived to late to the real estate boom I had to stifle jealousy in places. Yet what shone through for me was a kind of connectedness through place (a similar experience to reading Sophie Cunningham's Melbourne).

James Bradley's The Element of Need is subtitled Murder and Memory in Adelaide. I spent six months in Adelaide at the age of 19 and I have to say I found the city a strange and disturbing place - mannerly on the surface and underneath, shadows - though my experience was tinged with bad love and homesickness. I remember talk of serial killers, at the time it was considered very dangerous to walk through the parklands which entirely surround the city centre. There was a spate of attacks going on.

Bradley's account of his own young adulthood in the city, layered with the city's shadowy past, is compelling, like a long dream. I have not read many essays that examine so closely the experience of being a young adult in Australia's regional centres, and I was totally beguiled by this violent, poetic, reflective piece so beautifully balanced against a bigger picture.

The Deserted Newsroom is comprised of five pieces that originally formed part of Crikey's Brave News World series. Haigh deftly navigates the pitfalls and possibilities of a changing industry, negotiating the optimism, nostalgia, gloom, despair and utopian idealism of a decentralised media to examine the deeper implications in the changes that have already taken place and what this might mean for the future of news circulation and consumption.

I often say when I give talks about being a writer that I am not a journalist because it takes me too long to decide what I think about things. As much a junkie as the next person for the fast news cycle that abounds in online news reporting, I actually much prefer longform, deep, contemplative writing that can only happen in retrospect. The Penguin Specials offer an intriguing opportunity for curating, inspiring or archiving a variety of cultural projects and in this case it is particularly fascinating to think of the context of publication - a piece of digital writing about the future of digital writing, particularly in light of the Penguin Random House merger and what that might signify for the Penguin brand.

These specials remind me of a written form of a really good podcast. The kind of thing to have on the Kindle to read when you want something reflective, intelligent but achievably consumable (say when you have a sleeping baby in the backseat of the car and you want to give them another twenty minutes rest). Pricing is a bit arbitrary, Bradley's is $3.11, Haigh's is $4.16. I am not sure how the pricing will work for them, on the one hand, a few dollars is not much to pay, but in a competitive industry, where so many apps, podcast, epubs and other media are vying for our time and bit change, it is possible that even $4.16 might seem prohibitive. Hopefully not, because the above titles are highly recommended.

This is a mash up of reviews that have already appeared on Goodreads but I wanted to put them together.