Building slowly – trying to balance writing with all the other things

I’m sure the dogs I’ve had over the years have enjoyed chasing their tail. They’ve all seemed able to turn the activity into a game. One of them – Gillespie, a bull terrier/labrador cross – could spend hours trying to pin down his own tail. Then again, he also like to try to thump his paw down on the cat’s tail as she flicked it in front of his eyes. He rarely ‘caught’ it. At the end of the day, he was actually her – Jemima’s – plaything.

Working, playing

I finally made it to this post at the end of a busy but good weekend at the end of a long and busy week. There hasn’t been a lot of reading. There’s been a bit of writing – on a project I’m not ready to discuss, but its deadline is looming. Mostly there’s been playing. (Over the weekend, that is.)

After a week of mostly chasing my own tail – and NEVER catching it – a weekend of play can’t be a bad thing.

The highlights have been catching up with an old friend at an exhibition, taking one of my nieces on a belated birthday adventure and wrapping up the weekend with a family dinner.

I’m finishing off the weekend knowing precisely what I need to do over the coming week. I’ve scheduled my time and set my goals. Having this level of clarity is always helpful. Feeling refreshed enough to feel excited about the to-do list is great.

One of the few things I remember from Early Childhood Studies in high school is ‘play is a child’s work’ . (The other thing is that responding to an essay question that asks ‘what are the three stages of labour?’ with ‘first, second and third’ will not cut any mustard…none at all…).

I think play should also be a big part of a grown up’s work.

Would I be happy with work that is child’s play? Perhaps not so much.

I have to admit that I get to play with ideas a fair bit. I love it.

Even driving along today, the chatter from the back seat (I had such a chatsy-patsy as a passenger) was a litany of ideas and images that I think will work as a poem. Something of a further belated* birthday gift I guess.

Finding time to pull it together enough to have it a as a polished product might be a tad tricky. I need to stop thinking about this idea that time is something that can be found.

Time is there. So are opportunities for the type of play that lifts and sustains ‘work’.

Empty swing at playground
Waiting patiently

Levels and layers

Scheduling a specific time for creative writing is something that I have settled on, though. That’s a decision that has come from my extensive, and perhaps over documented, review of the collection of notebooks that I refer to as the scrawl. 

The big thing reviewing the scrawl has done is confirm what I already knew. Although I’ve written thousands of words over the past few years, there was a period between 2011 and 2013 where the only poetry I was able to produce was one sonnet.

Just the one. Single. Solitary. 140 syllables. Flip those syllables into single characters and I’d have a tweet.

I’ve sighed at length over that paucity.

There are all sorts of notes and sketches that are coming together – and will continue to do so – but the actual output of the those couple of years is a lone poem. Anything that eventuates from the notes and sketches counts for the year that they come together.

The dozens of essays and reports don’t seem to count in my work-tally.

There were thousands of words.

There were reasons (some of them pretty good) for choosing not to persist with a number of poems.

Still, I find myself sighing. Despite it being pointless and not making any real sense to do so.

No matter how I try to spin it, I keep coming back to ‘how many poems did I write?’

It’s about as useful and as useless as that.

Not that I really see it as useless.

For now I’m reflecting on how it is just a matter of how everything sits together. How it ties in.

I’ve written most of this post at a cafe in South Freo – Ootong and Lincoln – sitting beside a feature wall of exposed brick.

Thinking about the rough work that lies under painted and papered render hasn’t been a big leap. That said, it has been helpful in providing a visual – as much for me to reflect on as to pop in here.

Working back through the scrawl exposed a lot of rough working that didn’t seem to lend itself to a great deal of substance. Despite what seems to be just rough is, however, a good beginning. Now that I’ve pulled it together, it is a solid beginning.

Exposed brickwork
Brick by brick

The process of rebalancing the different parts of my life may be moving slowly but it is going well.

On that note, I must post and run. Here’s a lesson in the peril of departing from a schedule. Monday morning’s aren’t for rounding off a post. My day-job is calling and then there’s a lecture at Uni and Voicebox in Freo. I’d better get out into the day.


* It probably doesn’t count as belated in my family because we tend to run with the idea of birthday festivals. Celebrations can last for up to four weeks. They’re reasonably low key but extensive affairs.


Words in transit – reading and writing on public transport

I don’t use it as much as I could but I quite like public transport.

This is fortunate.

I’m waiting for some mechanical work to be done on my car. While it’s off the road, I’ve been catching buses and trains.

It isn’t always convenient. It can be confronting and discomforting. In the mid of winter and at the peak of summer it can be less than pleasant. At this time of the year the weather in Perth is generally pretty good.

Breathing space

Getting places without having to engage with traffic gives me a wonderful sense of freedom. Being on a bus or train with strangers means I don’t have to be sociable. I can cocoon myself in (silent) words. I can listen to the words of the people around me.

I deal with time differently. I work out schedules more rigorously than I would normally do. I take time en route to pause and notice my surroundings. Rather than just zipping by I stop to smell the roses, or lavender, or even the dank stink of the Moreton Bay figs at uni.

The lavender in Freo this morning was particularly beautiful.

Lavender in bloom with butterflies
A heady scent

I like the opportunity public transport presents for being productive.

When I’m catching buses and trains I deal with time differently. It’s not just because of the timetables and having to be in the right place at the right time.

There’s the time walking and waiting that’s great for thinking.

I’m far too sedentary. I’m considering one of those treadmill desks that let you walk while you work…


I’ve decided to use my daily commute – on the bus/train it’s less than half an hour – to read novels. I’m wondering whether I should, perhaps, change that to research articles now that I’m formally enrolled and have some deadlines. That said, I also know I need to read for fun.

One of the novels I read this week, Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, didn’t turn out to be much fun. Not to worry. It’s read now. I’m considering whether I want to keep it on my shelf or send it the way of last week’s cull. I suspect it is too soon to decide. I should let my memory of the story settle. My gut feeling, though, is that it’s not going to take space on my shelf for too long.

The other novel I read was Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. There were moments when I wasn’t sure about how I felt about the novel but in the end I loved it. I’ll definitely read it again…and again. It is one of those novels that I want to know more about – from my own and others’ reading. My regret is that my pristine-for-years copy is now battered from kicking around in my bag for a couple of days.

My next book-for-the-train is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. I first encountered a passage from the novel in my Year 12 Literature exam and then came across it as a whole as an undergrad. I remember that moment of recognition when I realised I’d ‘met’ the book before.*

I know we often talk about our first experiences of books. I’m also interested in the ways our experiences of reading a particular novel changes over the years.

On that note, I think I’d like to reread Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. My copy from first year is, sadly, in pieces. Even the rubber band I tried to contain it with has perished. Clearly I need to hunt out a new copy.

I wonder if I have it in my kindle?

I wonder where my kindle is…


The other thing I love about public transport is huge time and space it allows for writing. Not, as a rule, on a crowded weekday commute. That can be tricky. There are times when words have to be set down and it doesn’t matter where you are.

I know I’m not alone in this.

I find trains easier than buses for writing.

Fremantle Port from train
Coming into Freo

I remember one day travelling up from Freo to Subi and there were three of us that I could see drafting away in notebooks of various shapes and sizes. I quite like catching up with friends for writing dates at cafés. Anonymous writing with random strangers while in transit also appeals.

Knowing I’ll have a given chunk of time means I can plan for writing and not just drift away from it because there are dishes in the sink or laundry in the washing machine. The walking to stops and stations is a chance to map out the piece to be written. I stop. I take a posture break. I move. I breathe.

Knowing the end point of a journey means I can’t fluff about too much in getting the words down.

I find that can be very helpful.

Coming up roses

The trick with writing on public transport is not to tall into the trap of reviewing everything for a couple of hours when it actually time to be at the library.

That said, I should head for the Reid now and get to work.

On the way back to the bus stop, I must stop again to take in the glorious roses outside Winthrop Hall.

Winthrop Hall and roses
Winthrop, roses and a blue, blue sky

*A late post script. I’ve been meaning to make this update for a while. I realised as I finished reading Slaughterhouse 5 that my moment of recognition had been for Cat’s Cradle. Sometimes that happens, I guess; the details of an author’s works merge together and confuse themselves in your memory. I must remember to slow down and leave space between books. (Perhaps I should write that out fifty times.)

A moment in the sun – reading and writing when the sun is shining

Yesterday, I took some time out.

When I packed up my laptop and headed out the door in the morning, my plan was find somewhere to write. It was a beautiful day and I thought it would be good to be in the fresh air.

I can’t begin to describe how much I like fresh air. Or, at the very least, air to be moving across my face. I think of a walk in a bracing wind is one of life’s pleasures. I need a fan on my desk while I work.

There was no bracing wind in Perth yesterday. Well, not the parts of Perth I was in. It’s a sprawling city. It could well be that there was a bracing wind somewhere in the area but I didn’t come across it.

What I did find was sunshine. Beautiful, spring-time sunshine. In a few months the searing heat will make asphalt melt, but this was a gentle warmth that was just right for basking. The sunshine in Perth at this time of the year is delightful, the stuff of rhapsody and odes.

I burn easily, so I wasn’t in the sun for long but I did take the time to sit and feel its warmth on my skin. I enjoyed how different the day was from last weekend’s storm. I watched the gentle movement of the flowers in the garden outside a shopping complex. I sat and was still.

Random flowers from a sunny morning
A moment in the sun

Just thinking

I didn’t end up writing very much. Some days are like that. Yesterday, I was in a reflective mode.

Even when I was looking at the shelves at New Edition I was thinking about other books. There were titles I was looking out for but I couldn’t see, authors who reminded me of other authors. It was one of those free-wheeling episodes that bookshops offer up. I found it really hard to work out what I wanted to buy.

I was trying a new approach to book buying and reading: select one book and commit to reading that book over the week to come.

I was on my way to an appointment and only had half an hour or so to spare. That in mind, I’d parked in a fifteen minute bay. As I tried to find a book … the book … I became aware that I must have been in the shop longer than the fifteen minutes. Perhaps not. I find bookshops are places where time can be particularly elastic.

I thought the ‘one book experiment’  would be helpful.  Just the one book on the, frankly overwhelming, to be read pile has its enticements. I was backing up last week’s successful enterprise of reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog.* Repeating the experiment seemed a good idea.

It turned out to be quite pressuring.

I eventually settled on A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro because I’d been thinking about how much I like Never Let Me Go in the light of my previous ‘top ten’. Faced with all the possible choices it made sense to settle on an author whose work I’ve previously enjoyed.

Later, when I went to enter my purchase into my Goodreads list I found out I already had a copy. The annoying thing about it was that I had been flicking through Goodreads while I was scanning the shelves. Clearly, I hadn’t been paying attention. There had also been the over-time in the parking bay issue to consider.

I walked back to Henry Street to exchange the duplicate copy. I still had plenty of time to spare in my new parking bay. Staying with my initial decision seemed the best (and most time-efficient) option so I picked up an alternative Ishiguro. This time it was When We Were Orphans. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans and stamping material
Accessioned and ready to read

In the meantime, I can’t find the copy of A Pale View of Hills that I gather I should have on my book shelves. Perhaps it is lurking somewhere unexpected – waiting to ambush me? A sentinel gone AWOL?

There is a substantial pile of books waiting for a new bookcase. I guess it must be in there – buried deep in the middle.

Paying attention

Although there wasn’t any actual writing done I did make some progress. I walked away from the day – and the week – with more fodder for the (recently disciplined scrawl of notebooks. I’m not a fan of lifting people and their habits or situations from their daily lives and dumping them into stories. I’ve never been able to work like that.

That said, I do find it useful to pay attention. I’m happy to make a note of tiny things that catch my eye and might be useful, ideas especially from images and phrases. They can sometimes be assembled at a later point. Mostly, however, I springboard from a note into something that has no obvious relation to the original observation.

I like how that works for me in my writing.

There are images that stay with me for ages before I work out how to use them.

I’m not ready to do anything with yesterday’s but I have been thinking about one from quite some time ago: as I reversed out of my driveway I looked out of the window – to check for traffic. I remember the morning was already hot and my eye was caught by a crow. He was black and glossy. In his beak he carried three coloured chocolate balls (the type with the glossy sugar crust on the outside…the logo was still clear on one). There was a blue, a red and a yellow. They were vibrant against the blackness of his beak.

This happened years ago and I think that – finally – I might have a way to use it. I’m still not sure whether it will be whole image or just a shadow. I hope I’ll be able to resolve it soon, though. Perhaps I’ll be ready to share the ‘final’ (things are never really final) product next time I post.


I can be impatient for the weekend to come. The two days loom as opportunities to do everything that I didn’t get done in the week. Sometimes I try to schedule too much in. I always have high hopes of getting a good amount of reading and writing done.

The promise of sunshine and fresh air lured me out of my study and I didn’t quite do what I planned but that’s ok. It is probably more than ok.

Instead of the planned writing, I

  • solved a problem (well, worked out how to use an idea that wasn’t really troubling me, but … let’s go with the concept of a problem solved)
  • thought about my response to The Elegance of the Hedgehog (not that I’ve decided whether I like it or I don’t – I have some issues with the penultimate chapter and I’ve been thinking about that, and how my attitude fits in with my own approaches to structuring stories – since I finished it last weekend)
  • felt the sun at my back and a gentle breeze in my hair.

Not a bad day to end the week at all. Looking at the day ahead of me now, I have plenty to be going on with.

Here’s to a fruitful week of reading, writing, thinking and mooching.


*I’m not sure I would have finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog if it hadn’t been my book for the week.

The best laid plans – turning up to do the writing

I sat down earlier this week at mapped out my plan for this post. My mind was clear on what I wanted to cover. In theory, at about 7 o’clock yesterday I should have made it to my desk bright eyed and bushy tailed, raring to go.* Yesterday.

But as it turned out, that didn’t quite work for me. I didn’t make it to my desk at all yesterday. I missed it. All day I was thinking about when I would be able to make it back to my dad’s old office chair and I just didn’t.

I’ve been thinking about why. I wanted to be at my desk. I sort of knew what I was going to be writing about. I just didn’t turn up to get it done.

Is planning for me?

I don’t always take the opportunity to indulge in the luxury of planning. A lot of the time I just sit down, power up the computer and jump straight in. A bit of thought as I go about where I move things around, but no first, second … third drafts.

You may have noticed this. I hope you don’t mind.

I have to admit that I do feel a shade guilty about rushing through. Sometimes.

Other times – for the most part – there’s that rush of adrenalin that comes of writing under pressure. There are days when I just love that.

My plan for this post was all about being tired after a series of deadlines. There was plenty of writing under pressure and this week I was pretty much over it.

Dominos and cards

One of the things I did get done this week was submitting (at last) the assignment for a Cert IV on Project Management I’ve been working on. There’s a (slight) irony that I didn’t manage to complete it on time, I suppose.

Another thing was collecting my form for enrolling in a PhD with its signatures from my proposed supervisors and walking it across to the office that processes the applications. Once I get started I will have to be meticulous with my planning throughout the years it will take me to get to graduation. My life is going to be a delicately wrought schedule.

I am not going to insert an image of a house of cards here.

I am not.

I suspect it is the most appropriate image.

I’ve also had some work done on my house that is going to lead to more work. Seriously. It is how it is: you get one thing fixed and then all the other repairs and improvements on the list-that-never-ends start up a clamouring chorus that will not be ignored.

I had actually been doing well at ignoring the list for quite a while but now I’ve given it a little bit of attention…

I’m not going to insert an image (appropriate though it might be) of a line of dominos.

No, I am not.

Not a line of tiles lined up and waiting to be tipped into a cascade of falling pieces.

Dominos in step sequence from double six to double blank
Step by step

As dominos requires that the double six – the dog tile – begins the game, I guess it is the first in a series of steps.


My notes for this post include plenty of points about drained batteries and emptiness.

I was – I have to admit – exhausted by the end of the week. My flutter-by mind just wanted to find some verdant spot and sit in the sun.

There were moments during the week when I did manage to have a bit of that.

Admittedly, on Tuesday that ‘verdant spot’ was the built environment of Perth Cultural Centre. I took a few minutes to just sit and observe the world passing. I listened to a man playing the marimba at the soundgarden outside the museum. Such complex and beautiful melodies.

When he left, a child took over. The sounds simplified, melody was no longer the thing. I had to head for home but I could have listened for hours.

Stools and a pigeon at the PCC
A favourite spot for world watching

Turning up

The good thing about this week is what it has shown me about myself, where I’m at with books and words and work.

My life is about deadlines. It is how I’m programmed. I’m hard-wired for them – even if that wiring sometimes seems to short out.

I need to turn up in order to get them done. Sometimes I need to walk away to be able to get them done. Taking a break from the desk is ok so long as I go back to the desk. (Caveat: sometimes the desk doesn’t need to be the desk…)

Submitting my project for the Cert IV, taking the walk from Arts to the Graduate Research School, starting the huge project that is ‘the house’ each brought the idea of balance to mind.

Looking down the barrel of a project as big as a PhD means I need to be tracking how I’m going with the deadlines in my life. I’ve been thinking about that – especially how to keep the reading and writing that will be a part of it in balance – has been part of my musing for a while now.

The thing to remember is how much I like it once the words are flowing.

Planning is all well and good but the best thing is the doing. Settling in to get the words down (and then playing, cutting, reshaping) is the best bit.

Turning up is the thing.


*I must find out what animal is the source of that phrase. At some point. Later.

Writing … spaces and places – conditions for writing

My plans for the day have just changed. I’m now working out how to best spend the time that has opened up.

This is, obviously, a bit of a furphy. The time will fill itself without any help from me.

There are the usual suspects. I have plenty of regular chores and errands to fill in the space. There are also some tasks that were deadlined during the week that I need to finish off.*


One of the big things that I need to take care of is sorting the space where I write and study.

After intensive writing weeks, like this one just past, my space tends to look a shade wrecked. It’s not at all photogenic at this point.

Looking around now, there is a considerable amount of filing and shelving to be done. You may remember that I’ve been buying books. (I’m always buying books.) They need to be stamped…catalogued…shelved. The danger there is that I might stop to read them. There’s definitely no time for that. Even with that bit of extra time, there’s no time.

I will HAVE to work on my space at some point this weekend. That’s a given, but I don’t want to waste daylight on filing and shelving. That’s the sort of thing I like to do at night; in that settling down time while I’m waiting for the world to calm itself and become quiet.

Once my space is sorted, I enjoy the work I do when the world is sleeping. Writing into the night while I’m on holidays is one of my favourite things. I ease into the ideas and words. I don’t worry about distractions or obligations.

Small desk set up with laptop, reading lamp and notes
Writing in the still of night

The important thing I need to remember, though, is that night writing needs to be balanced. It needs to be relaxed. I need time freed up around late nights so they are manageable. (I do still need to sleep…)

In the deadline frenzy of this week I made the mistake of engaging in some pressured night writing. It’s not something that works for me. This week’s late night (in the midst of a couple of days of annual leave) was disastrous. The result: a missed deadline. Lesson learned and noted. Night writing can’t be panicked. Not for me at least.


I’m a fan of working ‘elsewhere’. It’s not just the chaos of home that drives me to be somewhere other than my study. Finding a spot and settling myself into it is part of the fun.

Of course, there are times when I seem to wander aimlessly looking for the spot. That’s a risk that needs to be mitigated on a regular basis. I need to run my own interventions some days…

Once I find a spot to be the spot for a chunk of time, it is worth it.

Picnic bench at The Whaling, Flinders Bay set up as a writing desk
In the sun by Flinders Bay

This found space was just delightful. I was in Flinders because a friend had whisked me away from the debris of a broken heart. Angst of those days aside, working at this bench felt so good. The writing was for my day job and for uni. Even so, it was pleasurable. It was a beautiful space to be. The sun on my face, the wind in my hair, the sound of water lapping on sand…I won’t go on.

I often find that the spots I choose for writing feature water, in one way or another. I lived in inland for a couple of years. I liked where I was and I was happy there but the absence of ocean and river were disconcerting. Whenever I went home to Perth I would head straight to the ocean ‘just to check’. I still choose routes that take me along the river or coast – even if it adds time to the journey.

The plan

It’s time to run some of those errands, do a bit of the family thing and then stop by the water on the way home. I fancy working on some bits from the scrawl and perhaps add to it.

I can see the spot now. It’s quiet, it’s beautiful and, as usual, there’s the possibility that there will be pelicans or maybe even a dolphin.


*I met one with a minute to spare. Literally. The date stamp on the submission receipt is 3:59 for a 4:00 deadline. That was cutting it a shade too fine. Even for me.

On a rainy day – the comforts of weather and writing

My day has begun with – what I consider to be – one of life’s pleasures: listening to rain fall against a window.

Being snuggled in bed with no immediate call on my time helped. Following it up with tea in my favourite mug and some vegemite toast that the dog was happy to share made it better. Now I’m watching clouds scud past the neighbours’ palm trees.

I’ll be honest, I don’t fully understand the love affair Perth has had with palm trees.

Jacarandas? Yes. Cape myrtles? Ok. Palm trees? Why?!

I know it’s probably just me.

I know I digress.

So, a rainy day in Perth at the end of a  busy, rainy week. The city continues to experience the below-average rainfall that we obsess about but there have still been  plenty of opportunities to listen to falling rain and run to cars through showers. There is more rain forecast for the week ahead.

My (purported) excess of umbrellas has been vindicated.

Progress with the scrawl

All in all, my project of working through the scrawl is coming along nicely. I’ve been fitting it in around various commitments and projects: the day-job …  a Cert IV I’m working towards … family.

This week I turned my attention to what my family refers to as Jo’s dead head, a gift from my sister for my 25th birthday. A bit tattered after nearly twenty years of abuse, the dead head has come in and out of my writing process. Using it in fits and and starts is no doubt what has helped it survive. I do not always treat it kindly.

Cloth covered journal
My ‘dead-head’ journal

There were notes in there from conferences in 2009 and a master class in 2013. I’ve typed and filed them at last. Scraps of ideas and lines of poetry have been sorted and culled as seemed necessary late into the night earlier this week. The recipes for Pineapple Chicken (yum) and Mrs Allen’s Chow Mein (not sure about that one) are still where they were. So are the reading lists I’ve been building up. At least the book is no longer bulging. It could take another refill.

After the clean-out, I have a couple of pieces that I think are worth working on. It is more likely that they will be worked on as I add them to the other bits and pieces that I’m pulling together as I work my way through the scrawl. Getting them out of the relative safety of the dead head means I can put them side by side with other remnants of the scrawl.

What to do with material liberated from the scrawl?

It is taking a while to work through everything. As well as dealing with the notebooks there are also far too many files that have needed to be cleared out. My shredder has come in handy.

My notes from a grad dip I didn’t finish (from 1992-1994)? Gone. My notes from staff meetings? Gone. I can almost see where I’ve been. My undergrad essays – desperately naive as they pretty much all are – all managed to make it back to their shelf. I expect their day will come.

If I had been more methodical, more systematic as I went along then I wouldn’t have this accumulation of writing debris. Perhaps. I could possibly still find myself needing to review and cull. I am sure that is the case.

Liberating material is necessary for a number of reasons. Here are four:

1. Space. There simply isn’t enough and I need to make some room. Imposing order and excavating material is part of establishing space.

2. Projects. I am working towards signing up for a PhD. I have a topic at hand, the forms are in … I’m just waiting for the next step. Sorting my environment is essential before I immerse myself in a six-year project.

3. Process. Working through the scrawl has been a part of my writing practice since … forever. Certainly around 1990 but I think I used to do this (on a smaller scale) when I was still in high school. I have a memory of a stenographer’s notepad from when I was in Year 9.  I called it a graffiti pad. It was angst-ridden and I loved it.

4. Retreat. Once it is all ‘done’ –  when I have pulled together the last bit from the scrawl and the files – I think a weekend of just the words pulled out from where they’ve been hiding and some fresh pages will do nicely as a treat. I’ve always ‘stockpiled’ notes and then written when I could pull together a reasonable chunk of time. Those chunks have been variously regular and scattered. A retreat is a chance to start afresh.

In the meantime, I’ve been making pretty good progress. I must nearly be there. If I’m lucky I’ll be able to listen to the rain as it falls while I work … and venture outside to splash in a puddle or two during breaks.

It sounds like bliss to me.

Two puddles on footpath in park
Puddles are a joy



On the fly – what happens when ideas slip away

I find myself at a loss. There is no excuse, really. I’m at Public and Co, in South Freo. It’s comfortable. The music is fun. As a found-space for writing, it is perfect.*

Yesterday, I knew precisely what I was going to write for today. It was a glorious day on campus. The sky was that blue you get on a warm, clear day in winter. The air was crisp. I remember the weather and where I was as I thought ‘yes, that’s it’ (I was passing the Oak Lawn on my way back to Arts before heading for the Club). The idea has evaporated.

The story of my life. Ideas come and go. If I’m lucky – i.e. sensible – I make a note. Often, I just get caught up. As I move on to the next thing I let go of an idea to take in something new.

So, here I am. My Saturday posting is a self-imposed and arbitrary deadline. It only matters because I’ve decided it does. There’s no other reason. Still, I need to meet it.

I remember the air was crisp.

Chaucer to Manson by way of Coleridge

Earlier this week, I found myself in front of a (thankfully small) group of strangers. I needed to give a presentation and I hadn’t prepared. There had been some confusion and I wasn’t sure I needed to … I should have. Being prepared is always helpful. I had said to my colleague that I would probably talk about poetry. When the moment came, poetry was what I latched onto.

I was lucky that I have been thinking so much about poetry of late. The other topics in my sights at the moment are women’s agency in late medieval and early modern English writing, impoverished knights and the experience and expression of shame – again late medieval, style guides and project plans. Looking at it, poetry was the friendly option.

I had tried a couple of times to make some notes. Nothing I came up with seemed to be at all promising. I had rehearsed some ideas – in a vague way, unable to settle on any form or content. I hadn’t written anything down.

In the flurry of the introduction and no knowing what I was going to talk about I launched into storytelling. I took my audience on a whirlwind ride. I remember I began with a joke – which I worried may have been inappropriate but couldn’t stop to check or apologise for – and I headed to Coleridge, his mariner and a funeral for a pen in a Literature class when I was in Year 11. I zipped backwards to Chaucer and I ended with Marilyn Manson.


Pelican on jetty pylon
A standing pelican (in the absence of an airborne albatross)

I’m not entirely sure what I said – or how I got from one poet to the next – the whole thing  is a blur. I know I mentioned haiku and Ezra Pound couplets. I think I spoke for 5 minutes. I’m not sure what my time limit was.

I’ve told the funeral-for-a-pen story before, I’m pretty sure I know how that bit went.

Luckily, they laughed with me

I dread speaking in public. I used to speak quite a bit but I don’t do it that much these days. The further away I got from regular presentations, the scarier they became. It makes sense to me – more or less.

Apparently the talk this week went ok, though. While I can’t remember precisely what I said, I do remember that the audience laughed. I like it when that happens. Well, when an audience laughs with me. That’s quite nice.

The timer had flicked the panel of lights from green to amber. I knew the switch to red had to be on its way. I realised I wasn’t sure of the rules. Did I need to finish before the red? Was it ok to finish on the red? That’s the moment when I really began to panic. I was trying to find a way to finish off. That’s how Marilyn Manson got pulled into the whirlwind. It was a straw I happily grabbed at. It pulled everything together. I think. I trust.

It would be nice to remember what I actually said. It would be helpful to remember what the evaluator said. The words, like so many ideas, have evaporated.

I do remember that it felt good when the next person stood to speak.

The habit of over-thinking

So, where do these musings fit?

It’s not just that I’ve forgotten my initial idea. Nor that I mourn that it has escaped my grasp. I’m sure it will come back to me. At an inconvenient time. Probably the dead of night.

In the meantime, I have been thinking about the role over-thinking plays in my writing. There are areas where I think I just need to let some of go. While I don’t think unprepared talks are necessarily advisable, my Coleridge-Chaucer-Manson talk from this week probably worked because I just launched into it.

The imperative of getting to my feet and getting the words out meant that I got the talk done. Could it have been better? Probably. Would it have been better with drafting and rehearsal? Possibly.

Where it was tempting to over-think, not thinking (as such) seems to have had its merits. That’s something to think about.


*I have no intention of writing about food on this blog. It isn’t really my ‘thing.’ BUT … as I wrote this I indulged in an early lunch that took the form of a very late brunch … wild mushrooms done in sherry butter with really crispy bacon and toasted ciabatta. Wow.