RUN, YOU GOIT.
Also, I absolutely love that you’re open minded on this. Gives me hope for much of fandom. :D
1. Be Kind. If this is the one thing I manage to do, I’ve done enough. Kindness may seem like a personality trait, but I think of it more as a...”
I thought I’d take the opportunity over the next few weeks to think about some of the books that I really loved as a child. Although the titles I’ll be talking about are some that are really close to me, I’ll try not to turn this into a nostalgia gush. The purpose here is hopefully to look at what these books have taught me about myself (and writing), and to work out which part of them has stayed with me. I’d love some of you to do this too (link or tell me in the comments below!) and perhaps a nice fundamental question to kick off the discussion could simply be: Why? Why does this book hold a place in your heart above others? You might start this in a really simple way, just by walking over to the bookshelf where the kid’s books that you’ve kept are, and grabbing the first one you feel yourself pulled towards. Chances are there is a reason that you’ve kept it, and that it’s close and accessible. Be careful of nostalgia, but don’t shy away from subjectivity. If you know that everyone hates this book except you, but it’s got one character, or one moment or line that just grabs at your gut, fine! Have a go at explaining that feeling.
I was eight when I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When you’re a kid you really have no concept of what is socially acceptable, and when we went to visit the family in Hobart for Christmas I continued to read it throughout the stay. It was under my pillow when I went to sleep, and it was in my pocket when we went to my Great Aunt’s house. As soon as I was inside I quickly found a corner and I was quiet. Reading.
Without meaning to sound too hipsterish about it, part of the appeal the novel has for me come from a feeling of being an original fan. My brother discovered the book before me; his teacher had a review copy. Being exposed to the novel early meant that I saw it explode. I can remember it being important in a way that no other book had ever been: the movie was massive, but I had a Harry Potter pencil case long before that. The idea that this little book, my book, could become something so much bigger than words on a page has never really left me.
Reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as an adult I can see that it’s imperfect. It takes a long time to hit its stride, and there are issues that are glossed over. (Harry asks Hagrid why wizards don’t want humans to know about them, and Hagrid’s best answer is that “everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems.” Sure.) But J. K. Rowling’s real skill is world-building. She has taken all of the narrative tropes of fantasy and updated them. Owls delivering letters, Quidditch, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry itself – it’s easy now to take this things for granted, but they were, and are, brilliantly inventive. Rowling’s characters are more than just dynamic in themselves, they populate an entire world in which domestic life, sport, politics, economics and education are re-imagined in her own way, and in the centre of it all is a normal boy. I mean, how often do you even get a protagonist who wears glasses? From start to finish, and even another six books later, her writing is utterly mesmerising. Even now I can’t be long without reading a Harry Potter book because it is a world that I miss in the same way that I miss old houses and friends. It is, in my opinion, the most important children’s series ever written for that reason. Rowling makes the effort to re-imagine the world rather than just explain it. And the result is magic.
Pictured: A guy who is not me with his dad who is also not my dad.
Hello! I hope that everything is going well with you. For my readers not living locally it seems pertinent to mention that we have never met. You are the recently returned star of a television cooking show that is broadcast here in Australia called My Kitchen Rules. I am an Arts graduate and a blogger who writes things that people sometimes read.
I know what you’re thinking: Lyndon, I’m a busy man. If I’m going to grace your letter with an earnest reading you’re going to have to cut to the chase. I’ve got restaurant launches to attend. Okay. Fine. Let’s cut to the chase. Maybe then boil it in a white wine jus.
I look like you. Well, maybe you look like me. Let’s not fight over birthdays and conception dates. At first I wasn’t even sure I agreed - yes, I’m a brown-haired young bloke in Tassie who wears thick rimmed dark glasses and is reasonably gentle and well-mannered. And sure, the similarities were close enough that my family was certain to laugh at the television and say, “You’re on again, Lyndon!” or “He even walks like you!” but that was probably it, right? Turns out it wasn’t, but I could get used to the Facebook messages and text messages every time the show came on. You’re on the tellie! Nice work with dessert tonight! To be honest, I even got to barracking for you and your dad. A Tassie team with a guy like me. Bring it on.
But then it got weird, because strangers started talking to me. Today, in the hour and a half that I was in town, three seperate people asked me if I was Matt from My Kitchen Rules. One lady came over and said, “Excuse me, Matt?’ and when I politely told her, “I’m sorry, I’m not him but I really hope he wins,” she said, “Are you sure?”
Am I sure of what? Am I sure that I am Lyndon Riggall, Tasmanian scribbler of things, and not Matt Newell, Tasmanian celebrity chef? Am I sure that I exist - that I’m not just you pretending to be me so that I/you can get some peace and quiet at a café?
Yes, I’m sure. I’m so sure that I can confidently write you this letter knowing that it’s not actually going to wind up back in my own inbox. But what of tomorrow, Matt? What if the next “fan” goes one step further, and refuses point blanc to believe me? What if our parallel-apparently-separated-at-birth lives reach the point where mine is burnt away by the brief but consuming candle of your fame?
There is only one thing for it. We need a strategy. Sure, I could look at it as an awkward inconvenience, but I’ve read too many stories about identical twins for that to work. How great could it be - I could do your media appearances when you’re sick, or you could blame your nightclub indiscretions on “that other guy who looks like you.” We’d be a team, two halves of the same Superman. What do you say?
Either way, I’m not going to complain. As weird as it is to be part of a widespread identity crisis, it is a compliment. As much as TV can reliably tell you anything about anyone you do seem a genuine and likeable guy, and I hope that one day - if the world doesn’t implode when it happens - I get to meet you. It’s not Ashlee or Sophia that my style apparently resembles, and that’s got to count for something.
If nothing else, it seems inevitable that one day soon I will be invited to a costume party which I have neither the inclination nor the time to prepare for. Kinda nice to know that I can just put on an apron and I’ve got it made.
Here’s hoping, for both of us, that you win MKR. Best of luck.
Booyah! Commence the air punching!
Actually, wait. I have a confession to make. That was the first time that I’ve ever given that talk, and I was really worried about how it would go. I am so, so pleased that you managed to find something in it that worked for you, and that you’re writing again. Just, seriously, so pleased. Thank you for letting me know!
Now comes the hard part: Don’t give up! KEEP WRITING!
A couple of weeks ago I was asked to speak on a panel at the University of Tasmania, giving advice to students about how to help their Arts degrees lead them somewhere interesting and fulfilling after graduation. I am aware of the irony of this, trapped as I am in the postgrad period of sending applications, holding breaths and crossing fingers.
In the end though, I decided to go along. After all, the state that I am in at the moment is a totally legitimate and very terrifying position that all graduates go through, and I have also done some interesting stuff in the last 12 months that I wagered people might genuinely like to hear about. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, Actually, there are a few things that I would like to have been told four years ago when I started this journey. So I made my notes and went along.
If you ever need to return me to earth and humility, you can remind me what happened next. Friends of the internet, I am sorry to say, no-one came to the panel. No-one. Not even accidentally. This sometimes happens at UTas, and I consider karma partly responsible. In my years as a student I must have missed countless events just like it - work and life and sleep and study all coming together so that any chaff at the edges is quickly sliced away for an extra moment’s peace. It wasn’t personal, and the university staff who organised the panel were disappointed and also incredibly gracious and grateful. I left in good spirits.
But you know what? I had things to tell those damn Arts students! Chiefly this: Start now. The most important artistic decision I made during my time at uni began as soon as university started, and you’re reading it right now. This blog is the theory in practice. Early on in my degree I asked myself a crucial question: If someone was looking to discover you - really genuinely find someone who was doing exactly the kind of work that you are doing - how would you make that quest easy for them? I couldn’t answer it then, but since the beginning of my blog, I can. In the digital world someone who is serious about their craft has very few excuses. Start creating and sharing. Almost every piece of joy that I’ve had in my writing career so far traces right back to here. I don’t have to give my stories away for free, but I do have to give something so that the world sees me. Here it is, writ large.
The irony of discussing a “life after Arts” is that there is no life after Arts. There is only a life lived through Arts. And it starts now.
That’s what I would have told them, anyway. Or something like that. But as you know, nobody came. Now I can only hope that someone - Arts student or not - hoping to shake off a fear of failure will find encouragement here. And start to make.
Okay, so it is entirely possible that this question is just a little joke for our mutual amusement, but then it’s also possible that you are someone who genuinely likes what I do, and would like some advice on how to do things like it. It would be kind of fun to think about that second option, but I’m also still really suspicious of the first, so I’m going to try and cover both of them for you, just to be safe. Here goes:
Answer #1: Ha! Oh, you. Be off with you, ya scamp!
Answer #2: Look, although I don’t consider myself “brilliantly brilliant” (though it’s very kind of you to say so!) I guess I have done some pretty neat things in my life so far, and many of them that I am very proud of. I really only have one piece of advice on that front: Care.
All anyone can ask of you is that you do things to the best of your ability, and the way to drive yourself to that is to care about what you are doing. The reason that there are relatively few professional dish-dryers compared to professional football players is that people seem to genuinely care about football. (This is not to denigrate people who dry dishes, I respect their art immensely. But there are very few who really “shine” at it.)
I have two strategies for caring about things. The first is to find a way to make yourself care. If I catch myself struggling with something I’m working on, I often tell people about it. When they ask me how it’s going, I want to give them good news and not appear lazy. I wrote a whole book driven partly by the anxiety that people would be upset if I didn’t give them regular updates on my Facebook page. I make lists and draw progress bars on pieces of paper, turning difficult projects into a game with smaller, manageable levels that I care about winning. I make word counts part of the score, and add bonuses for extra points. I love getting extra points.
And of course there is one other strategy for helping yourself to care about what you’re working on: Do things you care about. Work with people who you care about on projects that you care about. Money helps, but sometimes it’s easier and better to just do something that you love, rather than to take the money as an incentive to make you love what you’re doing. Find something that you care about, and make caring about it part of who you are and what you do, every day if you can. Everyone who is brilliant was once just someone who liked something enough to care about it, I really believe that.
This is more than one word, for which I am sorry. But I cared about your answer, and I got carried away. I hope it helps.
A recent New York Times article called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” introduced me to some startling new ideas about how much design goes into pleasures that are later consumed so thoughtlessly.
I was particularly taken by the idea of a “bliss point,” defined by Michael Moss in the article as the food combination that leads to “the greatest amount of crave.” Essentially, a food has to reach a certain level of deliciousness in order for you to want it, but maximum tastiness is not the most sensible economical model. By designing food that sits neatly down the divide between initial delight and overall satisfaction, food companies can make you love what you just had, while still demanding more. If you’ve ever noticed that you can’t open the packet without eating all of it, chances are that product hit the bliss point.
This is all very interesting in itself, but it has also got me thinking about the wider application of the term. The verb “to session” has been used by a lot of my friends to describe the relationship they have to a TV show. While they might become bored or tired in a three hour movie, they can somehow watch hours upon hours of Sex and the City. The Hobbit exhausts them, but Game of Thrones can be “sessioned” all day.
I wonder if it might be fair to argue that these bite-sized chunks of narrative are designed to sit at the bliss point; to make us feel good while we watch, but through a mixture of narrative techniques (like the cliffhanger), to also make us feel like we have to watch more. I’m sure we’ve all stumbled into work exhausted one morning after being compulsively driven to turn the pages of a novel late into the previous night. Should this be celebrated or chastised? As writers, should we strive for work that makes our audience desperate for more, or should every piece of the puzzle be fully self contained and complex enough that the audience might feel that this alone is enough to satisfy them?
In essence: what does it mean to make an audience crave?
This morning The Guardian, in an interview with Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, reported this:
I’m not attacking libraries, I’m attacking the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant,” Deary told the Guardian, pointing out that the original Public Libraries Act, which gave rise to the first free public libraries in the UK, was passed in 1850. “Because it’s been 150 years, we’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that,” said Deary.
These comments are significant, not because they haven’t been mentioned before (actually, it’s basically the textbook explanation for closing down libraries and spending the money elsewhere), but because this time its an author saying them. Many authors online have staunchly defended libraries, and it is rare to suddenly have one speaking out against them.
That I don’t agree with Deary’s comments is perhaps self-evident, but it doesn’t mean that I think he’s an idiot, or even wholly wrong. Deary argues that we now live in a world where people need to learn to pay for entertainment. He says:
People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”
Ironic that Deary would choose Matilda as his example - a book so obviously smitten with the very idea of the library. (“Could I do it?” Matilda asks the librarian, shocked, when she is told that people sometimes takes books home. Soon Matilda has “travelled the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”)
Blyton is also hardly a woman “indulging a hobby” - a 600 million copy bestseller with more than 800 titles to her name. Regardless though, Dreary has a point. Although authors get royalties for their books based on how many times they are borrowed, why shouldn’t people be forced to buy the book if they want to read it?
Where I think Deary is making his biggest mistake is in his conception that a book borrowed is a book stolen, and that reading a loaned copy of a novel from a library is the end of the reader’s relationship to that book. Actually the issue is a whole lot more subtle than that, because, as with piracy, time has proven that the biggest borrowers are also the biggest spenders.
I grew up as a master of our local library’s holding system, and with a father that worked right near the library, most days saw me handing him my card and insisting that he remember to bring home the armload of books that I’d been called to say were waiting for me that day. These are not books I would have read otherwise. They were science fiction and fantasy - genres that rarely appeared in our house until I introduced them. In the stripped-metal shelving of the State Library of Tasmania I found all of the authors I now love, and the walls of my room are crammed with them. These days I would estimate I buy forty or fifty books a year and I’m still a student. Back then I was earning five dollars a week pocket money, but I bought the books I could, one every two or three weeks, with a list to remind me of what could wait a few months, and what was “I will never sleep until I know that story is somewhere close to me” urgent.
Those of us who defend libraries don’t do so out of practicality. Libraries, and their brilliant and skilled staff (there have been librarians who were, and remain still, like mothers to me) are expensive. They don’t provide a means to book “theft,” but they are like the ultimate book-lending friend. They have everything, and they know where to find it. More importantly though, they are bastions against exclusion. Money will not buy you better resources; lack of knowledge will not see you banned. They are one of the few enterprises that still remains in a perfect and selfless form of idealism: the right of every person to knowledge and story, equality to find brilliance and to be brilliant. Across the writers I love there is extreme deviation - they did not all go to elite prep schools or universities, they were not all born into high-class families or powerful neighbourhoods. Almost universally though, they seem to have been brought up partly by a library or two.
Libraries are not a freebie, but an investment, in the future of reading, and in the future of writing. If standing for them is a form of idealism, fine, call me an idealist. The library marks, for me, the ultimate expression of selflessness in an increasingly selfishly motivated world. It represents the freedom for all of us to experience the power of words and the worlds they open up inside our minds and our hearts.
It seems to me that Mr. Deary would much rather be rich than read, and that is his entitlement. But I stand proudly with the writers who ask their readers to pay for the books they love, but also defend their right to love them even when they cannot pay, and who trust the readers themselves to know the difference. Brilliant authors who believe in the natural meanderings amongst the stacks as the greatest means to discovering great writing, stumbling entirely by accident on those magicians who will make pictures in your head, force you to laughter, tears, or the cold midnight shivers of dread.
If you haven’t met these authors yet, I think it is safe to say, for now at least, that you can find them at the library. Terry Deary will be there too, somewhere. And whether he likes it or not, I think thats marvellous.
Today I went to the post office to send a parcel. The stooped lady in front of me had a big push-along trolley; as she got to the counter she flipped over the top part of it with a flourish of anticipation before handing over a card to collect a parcel.
The conversation with the woman behind the checkout ran something like this:
”I’m just here for this parcel, darl.”
“Oh, I’m very sorry but that won’t be here until 5 o’clock.”
“No, it’s here. I’ve come to get it.”
”I’m afraid it’s not. It’s still in the van now. It’ll be here after 5.”
”I just want my parcel. I can’t come back in today and I’ve come all this way because the card says before 5.”
”You didn’t read it properly, madam. It definitely says after 5. Look here. Collect after 5pm today…”
I won’t recount any further, but from here the language of the lady who had just entered the shop, while not super-offensive, certainly wasn’t the sort of thing you’d expect to see in an episode of Downton Abbey. Obviously there was nothing anyone could do - her parcel wasn’t physically there - but even though she was telling the woman behind the counter, “I know its not your fault…” over and over, she was doing so in the style of someone who actually thinks that yes, it is your fault, and even if she believed it wasn’t, it didn’t stop her yelling to the point that the whole shop had turned around to have a look. The woman behind the counter handled it well, and when she was told by someone else afterwards, “I’m sorry that happened to you…” she smiled and said, “It doesn’t worry me, I didn’t do anything wrong.” I did what I usually do in that sort of situation, which is to say that I kept quiet, and when she served me tried to be extra pleasant so that she still had some faith in humanity left.
As I was walking home I started mentally concocting a Facebook post on the lady’s behaviour in my head. Something along the lines of:
If the card left in your letterbox says your parcel will be at the post office after 5pm, chances are that it will be there after 5pm. Turning up at three and yelling at the post office staff for not having it is not much better than yelling at a random family after turning up at the wrong house in the wrong street on the wrong day for a birthday party. You, lady, should have read the invitation.
But as I was composing it, I got to thinking: What would that actually achieve? Is this just me trying to dispense some Facebook Justice towards a situation I was too shy or lazy to involve myself in? What good is that if the lady in question never reads it? At the University of Tasmania where I studied last year there is a page with thousands of users who leave anonymous messages to the people on campus around them, some of them almost love letters, others seething with a barely contained rage. I’ve written about it before - it fascinates me. It’s easy to forget amongst the likes and comments as you scroll, that a post on this page’s Facebook wall to the effect of, To the guy with the REALLY LOUD huge orange headphones on, like studying isn’t bad enough without your miniature Britney Spears concert, could probably be better supplemented by a tap on the shoulder in person and a quick word. “Hi, I’m so sorry, I really don’t mean to be rude, but I can hear your music clearly from my computer, and it would help me concentrate a lot if it wasn’t quite so loud. Would you mind turning it back a little?” It doesn’t seem so hard put like that, does it? Plus there’s the added bonus that it saves you from listening to “Toxic” for another five minutes.
Facebook Justice, while no doubt cathartic and a safe place to release your emotions amongst the people you trust, does little in solving problems in the real world. In the power of mass communication maybe we’ve gotten a little complacent about the way we protect each other. I realise more and more as time goes on, that in trying to deal with the tiny daily injustices that happen all around us, the important question that needs answering is not, “Do you feel better?” but instead “What did you do to help?”
I love having my birthday on the 31st of January. I guess everyone gets used to the place their birthday sits (except maybe people who have theirs on Christmas day or on the last day in February on a leap year), but the 31st has always felt good to me. It’s a nice day to get older, with the previous year barely behind you and the new one already beginning to take shape in front.
Which means now is a good time to think about 2012, the busiest year of my life so far, filled with many things I wanted to do right from the start, and even more that I hoped to do, but wasn’t sure I would achieve. I had my first job as a paid writer this year, and I moved for a while to a small town all by myself, building a relationship with a school and a community from the ground up. I ran a ten kilometre race and never slowed to a walk, coming back to the finish line in just under an hour. I lived in Battery Point - a suburb I have always wanted to explore since I moved to Hobart.
I was a judge for the Children’s Book Council of Australia, and read hundreds of this year’s Australian children’s books. I wrote a thesis in creative writing that earned me First Class Honours and which I have just this week discovered won two university awards: The James McAuley Memorial Prize in English, and the Morris Miller Prize in Australian Literature. Then, finally, I wrote a novel. Easily my busiest year so far. Occasionally stressful, but manageable because of the marvelous people I was surrounded with, both here online and in the world outside.
2013 is a risky year, because I’m starting to run out of options with which to defer grown-up responsibility and practice writing. But I discovered something in the adventures of the last twelve months. I always thought that what I wanted right now was to be a writer, full-time. But the truth is that I’m not ready. Don’t get me wrong, the dream is very much alive, but at this stage of my journey there are no book tours and agents - there is only the quiet and the work. When I was in St. Helens I loved the work that I was doing and when I was away from it, I missed it. I’ve always felt that to take another full-time job is to give up on the dream, but I think in these early years what I really need is to surround myself with people and experience; to live in the day and write in the slow hours outside of that. It’s not a Plan B as long as the writing never goes away, but I’m not quite ready to sit at home all day, every day, quiet and alone.
So I’m going to be a teacher. The specifics aren’t clear which road I’ll take yet, but it is likely that I’ll be teaching at a high school level, Humanities and English. I love kids, I want to spend more time around them, and I think that in the absence of actually writing the books that I hope will turn students into lifelong readers, the best I can do is try and show them that journey myself. I like to think that I’ll make a good teacher, and that most people I know consider me the sort of person they would trust with their children’s brains.
I don’t know what consequences this decision will have for this blog, my life, my writing or the future. But today seems a good day to be excited by something new - throwing the sails to the wind with another year in front of me. I can’t wait to tell you all about it, whatever happens, but for now know that 2012 has been a wonderful and fulfilling year for me, and I’d like to thank you all for the part you played in it.
It seems to me that perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of the arts is that the creative mind only occurs in certain types of people. I mean, obviously there is a wide and scattered variety of perspectives within that field - so that one person might still love something that everyone else around them hates - but the group of “art-makers” is still comparatively tiny, and there are many people on this earth who will never find a book or song or painting that latches onto their brain and never lets go in that, “my life will never be the same because this is me being reflected back into my face” kind of way that art nerds so often like to talk about.
While there are always exceptions to the rule and I’d hate to tell anyone that they are not the sort of person who makes art, it seems to me that there is an ingrained personality type that is drawn towards creating in certain types of ways, meaning that there are disproportionately high numbers of novels and screenplays about writers, and a pretty noticeable lack of poetry collections about physics or medical science.
It seems to be widely acknowledged that it is an artist’s job to try and get inside situations way outside of their field, but even if the old “Write what you know” adage isn’t strictly healthy for an artist, it seems that it isn’t going away. Most creators apparently mentally spin a wheel of fifty themes whenever they sit down to create, returning again and again to varying riffs on the same ideas and styles they have held onto since their beginnings.
I seem to be spending a bit of time lately thinking about what the world would be like if the artistic temperament was more widespread. What sort of pastel drawings would an automotive mechanic draw? What sort of novel would an army sergeant write? What would the lyrics be to a beautician’s first acoustic single?
Some days I look at my book collection and think about how it is impossible to read even just the novels published within my lifetime. I think, there is probably too much art in the world. But then I think about all the groups and people who remain silent in the narrative that the artistic minds have created, and I am convinced that actually there is not enough and there are still yawning gaps that I long to see filled.