Friday, April 4, 2014

Read more, write less?

The two most common pieces of advice I hear from writers are some version of: "if you don't have time to read you don't have time to write" and "write everyday".

Ironically, an unforeseen side effect of my #52books52weeks commitment to read more has been that I am definitely writing less. In part this is for the obvious reason that reading more leaves less time for other activities, including writing (but also catching up on Breaking Bad and Mad Men). 

The less obvious reason is that immersing myself in great books has made the actual task of writing even more daunting. The voice of that nagging and destructive inner-critic that Dani Shapiro describes as "the toxic little troll sitting on my left shoulder" in her excellent memoir Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, has gone from a whisper to a roar. And setting ambitious reading goals has provided me with the perfect excuse to avoid what I fear.

My solution to this state of affairs is not to lower my annual reading goal, but to set myself the new goal of writing daily (weekends excluded). I am not setting word count or time goals, nor am I specifying what type of writing it must be. Instead, I am following the advice of Dani Shapiro:

"Anchor yourself somewhere - anywhere - on the page. You are committing, yes - but the commitment is to this tiny corner. One word. One image. One detail. Go ahead. Then see what happens next." 

Monday, March 31, 2014


"You are my shelter" said one brother to another, giggling as they huddled together under the umbrella.

The youngest casually wrapped his arm around his older brother's waist.

A perfect moment in an unremarkable day.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Conversations with strangers in cafes (or reading the classics in public)

This year, I have been forming some new reading goals as I go. The #52books52weeks goal remains unchanged, but the desire to finally catch up on some never read classics has so far seen me pick up (and finish) George Elliot's Middlemarch and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. 

For the past two weeks I have lugged this beautiful edition of Anna Karenina around with me, leading to some lovely conversations with strangers in cafés. 

An Indian engineer - who I had previously shared nothing more than a polite smile and wave - confessed that he had begun but never completed a Tolstoy; an older (and wonderfully eccentric) woman told me she loves Tolstoy but had never picked up Anna Karenina (I suspect she might now); and a fellow mother, and ER physician, simply exclaimed at what a beautiful story it is.

I read Middlemarch on my ereader, and while it did not take away from the reading experience at all (I truly loved MM) I did not ever find myself in conversations with strangers.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

"So what activities does he do outside of school?" the doctor asks.

"Basketball" I respond. And then he cocks his head and gives me a questioning look, as if to say, Is that all?

I begin to pad my 9-year-old's activity schedule, with nothing to gain but my doctor's stamp of approval. 

"So he is starting up swimming soon. And we've enrolled him in a few summer camps."

The doctor nods. We have passed some sort of test, but only just, provisionally.

And this is how it feels all the time.  Not just for the kids, but for me too. 

My husband has the badge, the one that both literally and figuratively opens doors in Silicon Valley. Another great mind in a place where there is no room for average.


I meet for coffee with a new friend. And as promised she introduces me to her good friend, the author. When I get home I enter her name into google and discover not only the acclaimed novels, but other talents, grand prizes, an extraordinary mind.

Yet, today we sat and talked of nothing but our children and the never ending struggle to nudge aging uncooperative bodies into shape. And as we sipped on our lattes, I not only resisted the urge to pad my own resume, but erased the little I have achieved in my adult life outside the realm of motherhood.


I give myself a talking too. I hear the voices in my head of the people who love me, but who I also wear down with this crippling doubt, this need for reassurance. And just as I wish to feel that sense of belonging, of being worthy rather than provisional, I know that it is this sense of not belonging, of being an outsider, that is in many respects a gift.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Further on domestic violence, my long comment on a comment

This post started as a comment in response to a comment on my last post. It might be overkill, and in all honesty it is not just a response to John James comment but an opportunity to clarify and expand upon points made in this post Pity the perpetrators. At 1000 words it was too long to put inside a comment box. While I feel very strongly about the points I raised, I know that John James made his own in good faith (as did Lana Hirschowitz) and I while I disagree strongly I do so respectfully. 

John James, while I appreciate your lengthy response to my post, I completely disagree with you. I read Lana Hirschowitz's piece, and while I normally agree with Lana and certainly applaud her advocacy born of personal experience for greater mental health services, in this instance I very strongly disagree with what she had to say. I did not make her piece the focus of my post because it was just one of many articles/posts taking a similar approach.

While well-intentioned, I believe that the calls from not only Lana but others in the media to call for a focus on mental health rather than family violence immediately following two brutal murders of children at the hands of their father, is dangerous for the actual victims of domestic violence.

I also come to the issue of domestic violence with both professional expertise and a personal connection. I won't bore you with the details but I assure I am well-informed on this issue.

My first response following a brutal murder of a child by his father, a father who it is well documented had been terrorising the mother of the child for 11 years and had many warrants out for his arrest, is not to express empathy, compassion or understanding for the perpetrator. It is rather to experience anger, despair and grief for the victims.

I understand the instinct to blame mental illness because who wants to believe that a parent could brutally, and with premeditation murder his own child. It is too monstrous. But without speculating on the specific details of the most recent case, it does follow a common pattern. It is, shockingly, not surprising. I would go so far to say it is a classic case, and the mindset of the perpetrator is well understood by those who work in the field of domestic violence. I do not need to empathise with the perpetrator to understand his mindset. Those who work in domestic violence, or have been victims of domestic violence, have a pretty good understanding of it already.

Domestic Violence Victoria, the peak body for domestic violence services for women and children, reports the following:

"At an individual level, the most consistent predictor of the use of violence among men is their agreement with sexist, patriarchal, and/or sexually hostile attitudes."

And for those who wish to shift the focus from family violence to mental health, consider this finding:

"Intimate partner violence is responsible for more ill-health and premature death in Victorian women under the age of 45 than of any other well-known risk factors, including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking. 59% of the health impact experience by women is anxiety and depression."

So in actual fact, it is family violence that is a leading cause of mental health issues in women (and death).

Consider how a woman currently stuck in an abusive relationship, or a woman who has 'left' but continues to be terrorised by her abuser, might receive these calls for empathy and compassion and understanding for the perpetrator following these two horrific events.

Consider that it reinforces perpetrators own self-perception, that he is in fact the victim in all this.

Consider that the many posts and articles written to this effect will make the real victims of domestic violence feel even more alone, more unsupported than they already do.

Consider that batterers, men who terrorise their families, are reading these calls for compassion and understanding and taking comfort.

Consider that while many have chosen to focus on mental health as the 'real' issue in this case, this approach is not supported by mental health experts who worry that these calls are in fact stigmatising people with mental health issues by making this connection between domestic violence and mental illness.

As @deltrimental noted: "My timeline is interesting atm: the mainstream calling for compassion for mental illness and MH advocates condemning that approach."

Consider that we do not ask for 'understanding' or empathy when talking about people who have committed other violent crimes. It is absolutely appropriate and required that criminologists, psychologists, public health experts and lawyers investigate the causes of crimes (especially violent crime) and implement both prevention and rehabilitative measures. But as a community it is just as important that we unequivocally condemn domestic violence and do not signal in any way that the perpetrators are people deserving of our sympathy. (And in saying this I am not advocating public floggings or removing judicial discretion in sentencing or other law and order measures commonly touted by the right.)

Consider that the Victorian Police Commissioner, Ken Lay, had this to say follow the brutal murder: "I find a coward present more often in a family violence issue than I do a person with a mental illness"

He also said: "It is my hope that Luke's death will be a very, very strong reminder to our community on the insidious and pervading nature of family violence."

Consider what Philip Cleary (@PhilCleary_Ind), campaigner against family violence, said on twitter 2 days ago: "The killer is not a victim. This was an act of revenge. This is not a story about depression but about a man's capacity for violence."

And: "Where were the politicians discussing family violence today? Why not a Royal Commission into family violence rather than one into unions?"

And: "Luke Batty is dead because our society and its institutions failed to deal with male violence. Seeking excuses in mental illness is foolish."

As @deltrimental noted: "My timeline is interesting atm: the mainstream calling for compassion for mental illness and MH advocates condemning that approach."

Victims/survivors of domestic violence have thanked me for writing this post. That is good enough for me.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Pity the perpetrators

One thing that perpetrators of domestic violence have in abundance is pity. For themselves.

In their warped world view they are the victims, of the 'bitches' they married, of the family court system, of feminists. 

Yes, they are in fact the wronged party, the ones who should elicit our sympathy, rather than say the women and children they terrorise and kill (once a week in Australia).

So when posts are written calling for us to find it within us to show both compassion and understanding for perpetrators of family violence - and specifically for fathers who have murdered their children in order to punish the mothers - those who have lived it find it more than a little hard to swallow. 

As these calls are being made, women and children are walking on eggshells, are fearing for their lives, are concluding that even if their partner carried out his threats, their abusers world view would continue to be reinforced by the community and by the media. 

Abusers are master manipulators. They will bring flowers, they will cry, they will promise to change, and they will say they cannot live without you. They will prey upon their partners seeming infinite capacity for compassion for their own ends. 

Public calls for compassion reinforce this dynamic and make it even harder to leave. 

Those who have experienced domestic violence are often, and for obvious reasons, unable or reluctant to speak out. So their voices and wisdom are lost, the focus shifts away from the actual victims with lightning speed. 

Even when life is taken, the instinct seems to be to continue to protect and even excuse the actions of the perpetrator.

As Louise Taylor points out here the same response, the call for a compassionate response, for understanding of the unthinkable, is rarely if ever made in relation to other crimes.

It is patriarchy itself, the sense of entitlement and outright misogyny of men who continue to subscribe to this world view, that needs to be challenged rather than supported.

Today, with yet another column stating that it is mental health, not domestic violence that is the issue, it would seem that for now the perpetrators, the MRA and fathers' rights activists, have won.

The perpetrators who terrorise ànd sometimes kill are NOT the victims.

(This post is a continuation of the thoughts I expressed on twitter last night, this time without the limits imposed by 140 characters.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

An evening with author Ruth Ozeki

On Tuesday, January 21st I had the privilege of hearing Ruth Ozeki - author of the Booker shortlisted novel A Tale for the Time Being - speak at Stanford University. 

On the relationship between reader and writer: 

Ozeki says that all of her novels begin with a question that she needs to work out. When she is writing she exists in a world that does not include the reader, but she sees a work of fiction as being a collaboration between reader and writer. As she puts it, after she has done her bit - and if she has done it well - it is then picked up by the reader who brings their unique experiences completely to that fictional world.

"Without that the fictional world will not come alive. This is replicated every time that book is read, by each individual reader. Together we create this fictional world." 

On writing and survival: 

Suicide is central to A Tale for the Time Being, and Ozeki explains that in Japanese storytelling it functions almost as a trope. As a non-Christian nation, suicide is not viewed as a sin, and is sometimes seen instead as a redemptive act. 

"For me writing is a form of survival, a trick I learned early on" and "every story is a story of survival as long as it is told. The telling is the survival." She says that in A Tale for the Time Being, "Nao is learning this as a young writer. As long as she continues to tell stories she will survive." 

Writing is always "in retrospect" and Nao is trying to catch up to now. And she does ..." Ozeki does not elaborate, aware that many in the audience have not yet read the book but for those who have this makes sense. 

On being a practicing Buddhist:

"It is very complicated practicing Zen in the west. Every time Buddhism moves to a different culture it changes. At every level there is tension there ... Anytime we start to idealise something ... then we are in trouble." 

In Ozeki's words "In the west Zen is so Protestant". She compares these western attitudes to the Japanese phenomenon of Zen priests - along with employers and professors - bringing their acolytes out at night for the explicit purpose of getting drunk.

On being a Buddhist and being a writer: 

Referencing Zadie Smith's essay, Fail Better, Ozeki says that in Zen meditation, as in writing, you have to try and fail again and again and again. "Zen meditation is a constant practice of failure." But she says that this is not a failure as you develop the faith that you can come back. And so too in writing, she says that it is not failure but is the very definition of the writing process. 

Quoting a 13th century Zen master she says "Life is a continuous mistake" and for Ozeki this idea is liberating.

On My Year of Meats (1997)

Ozeki completed the book just as Mad Cow disease blew up. She says everybody panicked, thinking that her book was too late, they had missed the moment but "little did we know the story was never going to go away". As an author she says she is very happy the book is still in print but "as a citizen of the world I wish the book was obsolete." 

She describes My Year of Meats as a book about the engendering of ignorance and corporate media. And she says very frankly that she needed a product and happened to choose meat because it was "funny" whereas other choices, particularly tobacco, were not.

"When I'm writing a novel there is usually a seed of remorse." In the case of My Year of Meats that remorse derived from her 30s when she was making tv programs sponsored by unsavory corporations, including the meat and tobacco industries. 

After writing My Year of Meats she felt she had given short shrift to the farmers who she describes as being caught between a rock and a hard place. And so she wrote All Over Creation, which is about genetically modified organisms. 

On writing a novel as a 'thought experiment': 

Ozeki says that "the minute you ask one question it engenders another. As a writer it is a thought experiment, it has a natural end to it. When the questions are answered enough it is finished. This book [A Tale for the Time Being] was about not knowing. I finished the book when I realised the book was about not knowing."