Reading and Writing – an update on my book problem

I have so many piles of books in my living area (which is also my work area) that even I feel the clutter. The reason this post’s title includes the words ‘book problem’ is because occasionally they topple and I tripped over one yesterday and…

I love them all. It’s not a problem in any sense except the clutter. I’m not reading just one good book this month, I’m reading dozens. They are my building blocks for a three-year research project (1), and I’m already having fun. Gradually, the piles will diminish.

One pile is for putting away. “I’ve finished this – it was fun but not terribly useful. I’ve taken the notes I need from it but they’re not relevant to anything I’ll be writing. It can go away. No need to put it in the bibliography.”

Another pile is carefully marked up. Not the books themselves – I have special sticky paper that doesn’t harm books and I write on that. When I’m ready to write that book up, I go straight to the notes and lo, it’s ready to go. I know what page to refer to in my footnotes and I have my thoughts on the sticky paper. Then I put the details of the book in the bibliography, and then that book goes on the putting-away pile.

The third pile consists of one book right now, called Putting the Science into Fiction. It’s not a scrap of use for my research project, but has some stuff in it I want to use as a reminder for world building. The world building has nothing to do with the research project. Until last Wednesday I did it full-time, but now I’m doing it as a leisure activity. The book will be put away when I talk through what it contains with my co-conspirators in world building, which could be next Monday, or it could be in three months.

The three largest piles relate to three of the core focal points of the research project. One is on fairy tales, one is on own voices, and the third is on writing about cultures that are a bit alien or foreign.

The piles I’m working through right now, however, are none of those things. Some are on writing technique, some are on genre, and some are on what makes narrative, and some are on rhetoric or critical theory. These are my reminder piles: it’s no use launching into research without checking that you know what you’re doing. It’s not enough to know this stuff as an expert or generally. I have to know exactly what elements I need for this precise project.

That’s all for this project, for now.

A proposal I put in for an academic paper was accepted yesterday. I’m about to start an extra pile (which will link into the project, but is right now just for the paper) will be about food in speculative fiction. This one is quite dangerous. Whenever I write about food, I have to cook things.

When people ask me what I love about research I am stumped. What’s not to love about reading fiction and inventing recipes to fit the food mentioned in the story? Although in this case I’ll be doing a critical analysis. Mouthfeel has to play a part. Maybe I’ll have recipes as the slides that illustrate the paper? After all, I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I can match to the foodways in the fiction. The most mouth-watering paper at an academic conference. It sounds good to me.

Writing long fiction is on the backburner for a bit, obviously, but my reasons are impeccable, as are my piles of books. Also, I did that thing that chefs do on cooking shows. There are three objects I prepared earlier, one that is out in paperback and now affordable (earlier research!) , one that is out already and the other is coming in a very, very short time. The same applies to next year – work finished a while back means that I shall research away and books will appear and everyone will think that I work 36 hours a day.

I don’t. But I do have impressive piles of books stacked everywhere they fit.

 

  1. For all of you, a footnote. For anyone wondering, yes, this research project is for a PhD. It’s not my first PhD, however, and Australian PhDs are only three years long and we start the research on Day One. Also, I’m more interested in the research itself and in working with two tremendous supervisors than I am with shouting, “Hey, I’m doing a PhD.” Because it’s all about writers and what they put in their fiction, I shall talk about the cool stuff here, from time to time. Ivory towers are a fiction, and research relates to the real world. This research relates to culture in fiction. And I am one of those people who write stuff into footnotes that people need to read. I did it for my first novel and I refuse to stop doing it unless I’m writing an academic piece. This is due to a certain warped element in my personality.

Living in small spaces during big times

Every few months there are five Mondays in a month. Also, I posted last week because … magpies. This means you hear from me three Mondays running, and this is only Monday #2. Brace yourself…

I broke iso on Saturday. There was a medicine I urgently needed and I didn’t want to ask a friend when I also had to post a letter and get some money form the bank. I walked under falling blossom and realised that I’d chosen to go outdoors the first day of the new season. The actual change of season isn’t until 1 September, but Spring arrived on Saturday. The only shop I actually went into was the chemist. There, I could see why I am not supposed to go near people. For every nine people using common sense, there was one who wanted to make the queue move faster by creeping up behind me.

I break iso once every six weeks, on average.

Just sitting in the sunshine reminded me that the outside world is not defined by the internet and Netflix. This got me wondering why I don’t feel the need to break out more often. All kinds of other people cannot stay in their homes even if they have gardens. They have to buy milk or bread every day. I only reach that level of stir crazy every six weeks, despite living in an apartment.

I suspect it’s partly because I’ve worked mostly from home for years. I don’t have to go out at all now, though, and so I have more time to catch up on silly films I missed.

I shall not list the films, for they are all ones I would not have gone to the cinema to see, except Hamilton. Hamilton is not a silly film, even though I ran an inner argument with it the whole time.

That inner argument is the other thing. I’m watching movies with Italian subtitles or Spanish subtitles where I can, for my insufficient knowledge of both languages makes me restless. A few minutes ago I started telling my TV screen that I had not fully considered the effects that the choice of ‘guard’ and ‘watch’ and equivalent words had over the way we think about possessions and people. Then I moved onto ‘save’. Look them up in Spanish and Italian if you don’t already know them. Take your time. Tangents for thought are perfectly allowable when one looks up words.

I was watching the live action Aladdin and had to pause it to do work, for otherwise a whole new plot would have accompanied the film.

Not that I object to whole new plots accompanying films. Earlier today I was thinking that three of the Star Wars films would be massively improved with a dubbed version that turned them into comedy.

I like music, though, and needed to listen to it rather than let my mind play with historical linguistics. I often dance to musicals, mildly, for it hurts. Every time I do this, the next day is less difficult so it is worthy pain. My dancing feet remind me that they are musicals and that I really shouldn’t drift too much.

My time sense has warped beyond all logic since the bushfires and COVID-19, but my mind takes me into some wonderful explorations. I was bored for an hour earlier this year and I tweeted it. It astonished me, that, in over twelve months of things being so seriously challenging, I should only have been bored that one hour.

I rather suspect I made a decision in my childhood that no matter how alone I was, I was not going to be lonely. I know I worked hard in my teens to develop this skill. I’m still working on some elements of it. I wasn’t expecting this work to give me the pandemic experience some of my friends crave. I hope there are classes on this for people who had lives that didn’t push them to develop this skill. I can’t imagine how awful COVID-19 in an apartment would be without my arguments with the TV screen or my dreams while I wash dishes. (I hate washing dishes.)

I am not alone in this drift of time and the richness it embraces. Quite a few writers I know are experiencing something similar. What I wonder is the possible relationship between problematic childhoods, a determination to not be defeated by them and us becoming writers.

My sentences are growing complicated and I’ve been sitting down for too long. Time for more Aladdin.

Comfort zones

My home life revolves around food two days a week. I love cooking and for a year I’ve had almost no-one to cook for.

I discovered some months ago that when I don’t cook, I get more stressed. I’ve been nodding sympathetically at people’s stories of the joy of baking and their discovery of sourdough.

I have a very large repertoire of dishes and I love cooking and… I’m on a bit of a restricted diet. Also, I have deadlines on top of deadlines.

This is why I liberate myself twice a week. To be honest, it’s sometimes more than twice a week and sometimes less. This week it’s been fewer long sessions but more sessions, because someone gave me many tomatoes and I made a tomato base for almost any food. It was one that took four days, on and off, because it’s winter here and tomatoes are watery. Six kilograms of tomatoes gave me 1 ½ litres of my sauce. I instantly gave a half litre to a friend who is helping me get out of the internet nightmare this month has been (I haven’t lost my internet at any stage, but my landline has been missing in action for twenty days so far), so I have just enough for seven days of interesting food.

When that was done, I looked in my fridge. I have trouble putting out rubbish (the bins are tall and heavy and 100 metres away, and I’m working on my lifting muscles so that I can regain that truly exciting fragment of my life) so when friends come by, they often take a bag of rubbish out with them.

Since I know this friend will be drilling in my wall tomorrow to help solve one of the problems that has been bugging things around here, I spent an hour tonight chopping up everything that looked old or in need of finishing. I threw out the bruised mushrooms and cut the rest. I found so many shallots, getting sad and in need of love. That was really all I did tonight. I have several containers of vegetables, and I have all that passata, and I have 3 meals’ worth of salads made, so I don’t have to cook until Friday. I will probably do another bout on Wednesday, for cooking helps me think, then I’ll leave it to the weekend. All the scraps are ready to go out and my fridge looks much less crowded.

What am I going to cook with the tomatoes and vegetables? I’m so glad you asked.

One container is earmarked for shakshuka, because I have everything I need for that except cayenne and I can wing cayenne given I have seven other types of chili. The other is for a pasta sauce with those mushrooms, some of the shallots (or maybe an onion), kalamata olives, feta cheese and maybe, just maybe, some green capsicum. These are both easy and quick dishes once one has a good tomato base, and this week is furiously busy.

I’m not cooking any bread. I can cook bread. I’ve cooked bread since I was a pre-teen. It’s not good for me and I love it and everyone else is talking about it all the time, so I’m not even going to make a flatbread to eat with the shakshuka. Yes, I’m sulking. Bread is fun to make and kneading gives me time to think and my writing is the better for it… but it’s not good for me. I have a right to sulk.

When I’m past this deadline I get to explore some of the more interesting ingredients in my cupboard. Some of my friends (who know me all too well) send me little parcels of local food from their country or they send me chocolate and tea. Food. I get occasional hampers of food from wise friends. I love these hampers and I eat most of them fairly quickly, then stash some parts away for when I need to be cheered up. I have herbes de Provence from France and chocolate from Ireland and grits from Germany and more, hidden so that on bad days when I open the larder and stare in misery, memories of those hampers stare back and I’m forced to smile and totally and entirely forced to cook.

Some of my ingredients are a little old now. I’m still saving them. I predicted the disruption to international post and knew my presents from friends would be rare for a time and I refused to not have my friends make me smile, so I checked all the use by dates and put the must-eat at the friend of the larder, the must-eat within a few months within eyesight (but not at the front) and the will-;last-forever under everything.

What’s very odd is despite the fact that I’m not supposed to mix with people (iso is iso – so many of us have health issues) I make sure I have enough food to feed several friend sin case they drop round. Which they won’t. Which, in fact, they can’t. But it makes me happy to know I can feed people.

This post was brought to you by my favourite (Korean) instant noodles. They are one of my cheer-up foods and they are currently unobtainable. I ate my last packet tonight. Don’t worry – I still have chocolate.

What We Lose, What We Gain

About 15 years ago most of my jewelry was stolen. None of it was very valuable, although there were some pearls and jade and a little amber, and a lovely pair of moonstone in gold stud earrings that had some monetary value. But, as is the way of things, each piece had a story that was part of my life. That was their real value, and hence the deepest loss. I’d had some of them since my childhood, and some had been gifts from loved ones who’ve since died. Some of it was my mother’s.

I went through the expected rage and frenzy, scouring local flea markets in the forlorn hope that I might spot a piece or two. Of course, I did not. When that stage had run its course, the police report filed (and, doubtless, immediately tossed), anger turned to grief, and grief to acceptance, and acceptance to looking in a new way at what I’d lost.

I wrote in my journal that although the thieves had taken bits of minerals, crystals, shells, fossilized tree sap, they could not steal:

the stories in my mind
the books I’ve written
my children
the redwoods
my dreams
my friends
their kindness and generosity to me
my capacity for joy…

Slowly, over the years, I have acquired a new collection. It’s smaller and more suited to who I am now. I discovered a few things from my mother, tucked away in an old cigar box with some broken bits and things I didn’t wear. Friends and family surprised me with simple, beautiful pieces: a strand of black pearls, an amber pendant, a necklace of silver and garnet dangles, tiny, amazingly delicate garnet earrings. I went through a period of needing “replacements,” and then letting them go. My daughters and I have swapped a number of pairs of earrings. It’s such a delight to pass them on. And to realize I don’t truly need any of this.

What I need are the people I love, and who love me. What I need is to write the stories in my heart. What I need is to work for a better world for everyone. In light of the covid-19 pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement, my priorities have sharpened.

I look at what I have, what I have lost, what cannot be taken from me, what I have gained. Yes, I enjoy beautiful things. How much more dear to me are the memories that come with them. And how much more precious are the lives of those who are oppressed and terrified and suffering today.