All posts by paulene.turner@optusnet.com.au

Why write?

Are writers masochists or egomaniacs, or on a see-saw ride between the two?

Writing is a strange beast. A calling? Definitely. Why else would anyone stare at words as much as we do, roll them around on our tongue, like honey. Worship them.  Why would we spend so long trying to perfect a sentence or a story only a handful of people will read and then, promptly, forget (like this piece)?

Especially when it’s not our job, we’re not paid for it – or at least not much. And no-one seems keen to read our jottings.

No money, no readers, no point.

So why do it?

Are we narcissists, showing off our clever way with words, venting our grand opinions and hoping to achieve fame and glory in the process?

Or desk-bound philosophers, looking into the deepest parts of ourselves and the human condition for answers to universal questions.

(If we’re the former, we will probably want to believe it’s the latter!)

Or perhaps we’re just kids who grew up and found the adult world was not all it was cracked up to be, so decided to retreat to the fantasy of childhood now and again.

Writers are all of the above.

We’re a scruffy lot, full of twitchy sensitivities, punchy from well-meant criticism. Single children are over-represented in our ranks, because we’re observers of life. We sit back, watch, think and wonder – what if…aliens invaded, a terrorist came into the cafe, our son or daughter was kidnapped? We’re armchair adventurers and control-freaks, thinking everything through to the last detail. We eavesdrop on cafe conversations, mine our friends’ lives for plot points, hunch over screens for hours instead of going to the beach or bed. We endure bad backs, sticky fingers and stiff necks in our quest – and that’s what it is – for just the right scene or similie.

As we wash the dishes, we stare through the window and see, not the garden in need of weeding, or the neighbour’s bulging bins, but medieval tournaments, pirates lashed to the rigging on stormy seas, the sun setting behind a skyline on an alien planet.

I love writing. It absorbs and challenges you and fills the empty hours – and there are potentially a lot of those in life. It’s something you can do even when you’re old, so long as your fingers can still scuttle spider-like across the keyboard, or haul an ink stick across a page and you still have the energy to think and imagine.

But I hate it, too. Because most of the time it’s hard slog. Especially if you’re writing a big piece – a novel. It’s a process of sitting with uncertainty, hitting dead-ends, confronting self-doubt, fretting about failure. Snow-ploughing through the blank pages, filling in details about the world, the characters you’ve created – hundreds, thousands of details.

Are we having fun yet? you wonder, with fifty thousand words of meandering crap written, and as many still to go. You wonder why the Hell you’re even doing this in a world with so many writers and reading in decline.

Think the Balrog, an amorphous beast, its tail whip sharp wrapped around Gandalf’s foot as, wide-eyed and sweaty, the wizard clings to the rock, trying not to fall into the abyss.

 

Down there is nothing but darkness, self-loathing, recycled manuscript pages.

But somehow, you find a story thread to follow and keep going. And going.

And then, that feeling of finishing a work you’re proud of – all writers know – is truly wonderful. Worth all the pain.

To create something from nothing is a major high. And sometimes, though we’re mucky and testy and flawed (like the characters we create) and paranoid (just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you), the work that comes out of it is bigger than us. In all those words, you may hit on a moment, which has meaning. And surprise even yourself.

A sort of magic can result from the deep in-the-moment process of creation.  Like when a musician, drug-addled and pretentious, writes a song that touches your soul. Or an artist does a painting or sculpture of surpassing beauty that stops you in your tracks. Despite our personal shortcomings, occasionally we manage to create something which shines a light – however briefly – on this crazy mess called life.

And that’s why we do it.

(That, and the chance of fame and fortune, of course.)

Someone once said writers were afflicted with two simultaneous delusions – the burning certainty we’re unique geniuses and the constant fear we’re witless frauds speeding towards epic failure.

Sounds about right. Without a strong self-belief, you’d never push through all that uncertainty. But you need healthy dose of humility for an essential reality check, so you see your work for what it is – not for what you wish it to be.

We keep going – despite a tsunami of rejections, the crushing disappointment of projects that don’t work out, the harsh assessments “well-meant” which are a writer’s lot – because one day, all those keystrokes might actually produce something worth reading?

Or at least diverting and enjoyable.

One day. Maybe.

We write on in hope.

 

On the occasion of my twin daughters’ 18th birthday

My twin daughters, Zephyr and Mistral, have just turned eighteen.

We had a lovely dinner for them with their friends in a restaurant with a French garden out back. There, I watched the young ladies they have become socialising with different groups, trying to  put people at their ease, be inclusive, navigating their guests’ tricky food preferences.

I glowed with maternal pride, at how far they’d come from the tiny dependent things they once were.

Getting things organised for the eighteenth birthday dinner had occupied my time and thoughts in the days leading up to their birthday, leaving me little time to reflect on the bigger picture.

Like how I had officially fulfilled my contract as a mother, raising them from teeny babies, to toddlers, to medium-sized kids, to new adults. Of course, I know there’ll be more to do in future to help them. While I have breath in my body and a few marbles rolling around in my head, I’ll never stop trying to help (whether they want me to or not).

But essentially, my job is done.

It all seemed to happen so suddenly. One year passed, then another. They flew by in a blur of assignments, holidays, troubles with friends and too-short jeans that needed replacing. But eighteen years? That, I can’t fathom? It’s freaky. Somehow it came around way too fast. I still feel vaguely the same as I was, back when it all began. How can they have changed so much?

And though I’m happy they’re growing up so well, I have to admit there’s sadness too. Despite my protests about teen arguments that leave me tearing my hair out, or obligations that carve into your soul, never-ending chores, lifts to sports practice at God-awful hours without caffeine, despite all this…I never really thought it would end.

And I never wanted it to.

My twin baby girls were delivered after a forty-week gestation and a full day’s labour, by emergency Caesarean, a minute apart, just after midnight.  As I lay on the delivery table, a midwife took up my camera and handed my hubby and I two tiny bundles for our first family photo, and I almost said what I had every other time I’d been asked to hold a baby – “Better not, in case I drop them!” But if I didn’t hold them, who would?

Before I had kids, I never saw the appeal of babies. How could those pooping blobs be interesting? I couldn’t envisage the joy I would feel when I saw my babies smile, or heard their first laughter. Or how smart they’d be; how alert. At two, three and four, they were heartbreakingly cute – though hard work. I never imagined I’d have so much fun playing with them, or how deeply I would love them; in this scary bottomless-pit kind of way where you knew you’d do anything for them.

The grinding work of childhood illnesses, lack of sleep, tending relentlessly to another human being’s needs, frazzled relationships, gave me the lowest lows I’d ever experienced. But when the girls were happy, and cuddling me: “I love you mummy in the whole world!” – oh the highs!

I’d experienced ups and downs in my life before. But not like this. So many tears – of joy and pain. Parenting a young child is nothing if not a bipolar experience, with higher highs and lower lows. And they switched from one to the other in a nanosecond.

On their first day at school, I was a mess, a cliché. I couldn’t meet any other mother’s eyes as I knew I would break down. For the first time in my life, I fully understood that each new beginning is also an ending. While you must move forward – they can’t stay toddlers your whole life and you wouldn’t want them to – you grieve over the loss of those savagely beautiful kids, your little friends, who played passionately, forgave instantly, their laughter like raindrops of gold.

Creeping into their room when they were asleep just to watch them, their faces were so relaxed and beautiful. But each day, they took up a little more space on their mattress. Santa Claus, the tooth fairy tiptoeing in at night.  

I remember putting Peruvian worry dolls under Mistral’s pillow one night when a problem was gnawing at her, so the dolls could take away her troubles as she slept.

The primary school years were easier. Less physical work, more outings to the movies, freedom to go out for dinner together. Pixar films, Pirates of the Caribbean. There were friend problems – fitting in is never easy. But their brains were so alert, they soaked up anything new and loved discussions even on the most sophisticated subjects.

Brass band, handball, superhero lunch boxes, school plays (don’t get me started!), art on the fridge. My daughters had some inspirational local teachers; one introduced them to juggling – which they’re now very good at – the other to a world of literature and thought. We shared stories, wrote them and read them together every night. (I’m not sure what the last story I ever read to them was. It was a moment that seemed like so many that had come before, but which would never come again.)  Imagination explosion.

 I remember travelling along the highway on a road trip and each of us coming up with ideas for new superpowers.  

Then came high school. Their first dresses; they had to conform at an all-girls school. Imagination put back in a box, with their toys, and me  – lid shut tight as they pushed forward with learning, and growing. The feral nature of high school was difficult for us all, the ravages of teen girls trying to be the same yet individual. It ground us down. Made us like strangers at times. Hiding in trenches, heads covered. But in classes, they heard and read things that began to spark their interest, with an adult’s understanding.

They teamed up for a juggling act in year 9 that had their classmates screaming their appreciation. That was a  high.

Police officers in our house going from room to room, guns brandished when a prank went wrong…was a low.

Years of tamping down my enthusiasm, locking it up, in case it popped up at the wrong time and embarrassed them. Arguments, as they began forming their own opinions on world events, justice, prejudice, freedom. Tough years of tears and tension at home, which seemed to grind on and on.

On family holidays, we left all our problems behind and reconnected again, for a short few weeks, at least. A recharging of emotional batteries.

And now… I can’t believe we’re here – in their last term at high school, facing their final exam, the Higher School Certificate. I know they’ll do well – which makes them one of the lucky ones. So many of their classmates find the exam brutal, with nothing but failure on the horizon – a ship with black sails.

Before I was a mum, I was a laid-back, laissez-faire type of person. I’m not anymore. Eighteen years has changed them, but it’s changed me, too. I am a parent now.

It seems to me becoming a parent is not so much an act of sculpting or shaping or chipping away at stone. It’s done with hammers and anvils, fire and metal, pounding and smashing out bumps, bending something stiff and hard into a different direction. It’s all about change – whether we want it or not.

So here we are.  I thought I’d be glad when they left school – and I am, in many ways. They are ready to launch now, to begin their lives, shed the chrysalis of their beginnings, and emerge fully-formed into the world. I cheer them on in this.

But I’m sad, too, to mark what is the passing of their childhood. Such wonderful, brutal bi-polar years of love and pain.

Have I enjoyed being a parent? Was it fun? I’m old enough to realise it’s not that simple. Things are rarely just good or bad, but a mix of both. Parenthood is the wildest fun you can have; the most ecstatic moment you can imagine. But it’s the worst too.

Motherhood came, I dived in, I drowned in it and lost myself. Gradually, I came to terms with it, kept my head above water – just, hauled myself ashore. Now I find myself looking back, longingly, at the horizon wondering: Is that it? Is the journey really over? It’s hard to believe.

I am a Mother. Therefore, I am…in need of a tissue box. Full of happiness and pain, all at once.

 I remember a small child holding my hand by the red post-box as I deposited a card through the letterbox opening. “That’s a birthday card for Poppy,” I explained.

Zephyr frowned: “How’s Poppy going to get it out of there?”

I wish them the best as they stride forward towards the rest of their life.

And I, too, must find a new role, a change of direction. I have to find a path that leads away from them, if only to give them the space they need to move forward, without guilt.

It’s a scary but exciting prospect for us all.

Happy Birthday my beautiful girls.

 

(With thanks to my wonderful hubby Andy, who’s been my best friend and trench companion throughout.)

 

In Search of a Publisher

 

I have officially finished writing my novel.  Break out the champagne! Time to celebrate!

Though perhaps not just yet.

As any writer knows, no-one actually ever finishes writing a novel.  They just move on to a new round of revisions.

And so it is, with my book, a YA historical adventure called The Time Travel Chronicles: Secrets of the Nile.  I have edited it myself too many times to count. My family members have all read it – twice. I have had a dozen sessions with a mentor and put my edited work through a Manuscript service.  Now, following revisions suggested by all these readers, the ‘finished’ manuscript is with two more readers, “just to be sure”.  When they’ve finished and given me their suggestions, I have a couple more people I want to send it to.

But where does it end?  When is enough enough?  Somewhere between dashing a work out of my head and revising it till I’m in my grave – that’s my problem.

When is the right time to stop fiddling and launch it, out into into the world? To begin the long haul of sending it to agents and publishers where – if I’m lucky (and it’s a big If) – I’ll be one of the few chosen from a slush pile you could see from space, and they will want still more revisions to be done.

Someone once said writing was all about rewriting. I totally get that now.

Although somehow my editing due diligence is starting to feel a bit like procrastination. Like an overprotective mother, scared to let their baby out into the world, I’ve been putting off the dreaded day when the rejections begin to roll in, building to a pile, then a mountain. The Mount Everest of rejections.

Which is all part of being a writer I know, but…

I started writing this book when my twin daughters, Zephyr and Mistral, were in primary school. This year, they’re in university. So it has been quite a journey – and not just for my characters.  In the meantime, I’ve gone on to write books 2, 3 and 4 in the series and to start work on book 5. And yet, still, I keep finding reasons to delay going “out there” to see if anyone wants to represent, publish or read the series.

Seven years and four books later, there’s so much more riding on my success.  I am truly terrified that all the work I’ve done, all the time and love I’ve invested, might be in vain. The odds are against a first-time writer landing an agent or publisher.

So what’s the story?

Escaping the pain of family break-up and awkward romance, Riley and Madison, 15, set off through history in the world’s first Time Machine. As they meet the locals, they  use their modern knowledge to solve ancient problems – with devastating effect. Meanwhile, a villain from the future pursues them through time, hoping to steal time travel technology for their own ends and trap them in the past forever. How will the pair survive? Who will they fall for along the way? And what will happen to the world as a result?

I’ve set them down in my favourite periods in history and had the best time researching and ferreting out gory details from each era (check out gongfermor from the medieval period, scent cones from Ancient Egypt, and everything in barrels on a pirate ships).  Book  One is set in Egypt, book two in medieval England, book three in the wild west of America, book four in the pirate era. Book five will be partly in Edo Japan, partly in the future.

I love all my characters – the outspoken passionate Maddy, the charming geeky Riley, the provocative jester, the slippery, but sexy pirate, the haughty Egyptian prince and the brave, fun cowboys and cowgirls on the range. They’ve come to feel like real people to me. Rejection for my work will feel like rejection for them, which will, in some ways, be harder to bear.

It’s an epic story and writing it  has been an epic experience for me.

But now, it’s time for a new adventure; finding a publisher.  At a time when bookshops all over the world are closing their doors.  When publishers inboxes are bursting with new material but they are forced to downsize. When there have never been more writers competing for an audience, yet attention spans are shrinking and reading is in decline.

It’s a quest that requires courage and faith; it may be full of disappointment and heartbreak. Or exquisite joy.

In this story, I’m my own heroine and I have no control over the ending.

Wish me luck.

Cover art by Tash Turner-Cohen

Short Plays

I have written a lot of short plays – around 10 minutes – for the Short and Sweet festival in Sydney.  Some of them, I directed and staged during the festival.  Everything from hospital tragedy to first date awkwardness to theft in an art museum and a superhero family under siege.  If anyone would like to read or stage them, I’d be happy to pass the scripts to you.  I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when and where it will be on, and how it went.  And if there was any video of it, naturally, I’d love to see it.  Keep on creating!