Journey of a pencil wielding, grammar-free child

"The mathematically-minded matriarch of the family unexpectedly pulled through with arguably the finest piece of writerly wisdom I have ever received."

Today I’m guest posting over at the wonderful Dodging Commas as part of a new series of guest posts with the theme Inspired to Write.  Blogger, writer and Dodging Commas hostess, Stef, explains:

Writers love talking about inspiration. We like to moan when we aren’t inspired and we like to boast when that sudden rush of inspiration has just jolted our minds into action. Inspiration can come from many sources – we can be inspired by places, images, words, actions, music, current events … and we can be inspired by people.

I have approached the writers behind some of my favourite blogs to contribute to Dodging Commas on the theme Inspired to Write. This is an opportunity to showcase a favourite author, express gratitude to a teacher, or dote upon a friend or family member. Above all, it is a celebration of the people who started us on our creative journeys, the people who keep us going, and the people who inspire us to follow our passion.

For me personally, it was a gratifying opportunity to explore the fundamental supporters of my creative dreams, as well as the literary peers who have shaped and influenced the kind of writer I strive to be.

For any creative undertaking, there will always exist those people who cease to question when it is you will be getting a ‘real job’, or who glaze over in the eyes when you try to explain your character arc or story synopsis. It’s not an easy job, supporting a slightly nutty, pencil-in-her-hair creative introvert, so those who do so are well deserving of the recognition.

To read my post and other literary, grammar and writing-related posts, head over to Dodging Commas this instant!

…Or at your earliest convenience.

Journey of a pencil wielding, grammar-free child

When Stef first asked if I’d like to write a guest post on who inspires me to write, I grinned and swayed like a giddy school girl. An opportunity to gasbag about the people in my life who have influenced the writer I am today? Oh, the joy!

Then I began to panic. How was I to contain a life-long accumulation of inspirational words, thoughts, ideas and people into an appropriately sized blog post?

[continue reading]

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W is for Writing

Not all those who wander are lost - JRR Tolkien

There is no denying the act of writing is first and foremost a solitary activity. To achieve a complete draft, one must sit alone and draw out thoughts from within the mind and translate them onto paper. No one else can do that for you. No one else can reach in and gather those ideas.

In that, you are alone.

The trap with recognising this reality, is to constantly pursue isolation. “The story won’t get written while I’m at the pub,” “That chapter will never be finished if I go shopping,” “I’ll never start that essay if I catch up for coffee this afternoon with Mary Sue.” As writers, our ideas are constantly circling our minds, which often leads to the only conclusion that we can’t do anything else until we take those ideas and make something of them.

The trouble with this reasoning is that ideas grow and evolve and are built upon the things we see, hear and experience in life. If we are not out living then we are doing ourselves a disservice and crippling our ability to write better.

I am guilty of indulging myself in far too much of my own company in the ultimate quest to finish that damn novel.  I suffer for the art, as it were, and I don’t in the least mind because I love what I do.  However, when I travel I am reminded that what’s in my head is not always enough.

I guess it all comes back to the old adage “write what you know”.  I think there is a tendency to assume this means to write faithfully to your own life experiences, in a literal, semi autobiographical kind of way. If you’re a teacher, then by golly you must write about a teacher. If you have a degree in applied mathematics and you’re some kind of genius, then good grief, man! Your protagonist simply must be a maths whizz!

This is of course absurd. If such were the case, then most of the world’s published authors would be either closet mass murderers, superheroes, ninjas, or seemingly ordinary people with secret magic powers.  That, or they ‘know’ one of these kind of people (If Voldemort is your next door neighbour, now might be a good time to fess up).

My understanding of “write what you know”, relates more to emotions and experiences than ‘knowledge’: the feeling you get when you know you’ve been betrayed by someone close to you; the speechlessness you suffer when witnessing something amazing; the sensation of catching someone in a lie; the joy at seeing someone you love return from a long trip. These are the sorts of emotions that are difficult to understand or, even more importantly, express, unless you’ve had the pleasure (or displeasure) or experiencing them yourself.

A keen observer of others will be able to simulate these emotions without having experienced them themself.  By the same measure, a good writer will be able to adapt emotions from certain experiences and reshape them to others. You don’t have to have been stalked by a serial killer with a knife to understand what fear feels like. But you do have to have known fear to make such a scene believable.

What is evident, however, is that ultimately your collective understanding of these experiences and emotions will not grow by sitting in front of your computer screen 24/7. Sure, that’s where the magic happens, but it’s not necessarily where the original concepts originate.

When I travel I’m reminded that the process of writing is not entirely solitary, that experiences constitute a great part of final product.  The frustration at delayed flights, the anticipation of seeing old friends, the admiration of great monuments, the sadness of concentration camps, the numbness of my toes on a below zero day.

These are things I ‘know’. Things I store in my creative bank and later squander liberally in my writing because they are what make stories believable. Even if it’s a story about a superhero mathematician who misses her flight and ends up freezing her toes off in a concentration camp governed by pink horses. If the reader can relate to the details, the emotions, then it doesn’t matter what you don’t know, because the bits that you do will carry it through.

Needless to say, the other benefit of travelling is the people you meet and observe along the way. Airports are a great place to people watch and ask yourself questions. Where is he going? Why is she wearing 12 inch heels on a plane? Is he sad because he’s leaving or because he’s just arrived?

My point is that writing is not the exclusively solitary activity it makes itself out to be. Yes, only you can write the words down in a fashion that makes your story the next bestseller.  But don’t forget to actually live. Travel. Strive to ‘know’ more. Meet Mary Sue for that coffee. She might say something that gives you an idea for your next character. Her annoying brat of a child might spill chocolate milk all over your lap and scream for 20 minutes, therefore influencing your antagonist’s bitterness against small children. Maybe you’ll get caught in traffic or be smiled at by a stranger or see a strange lady in a feathered cap or smell fresh bread from the bakery or share a laugh with an old friend.

Who knows? But be a sponge. Absorb.  And when you get home?

Write.

V is for Venice

Venice: In my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

As mentioned in my S is for Souvenirs post, this was not my first trip to the city of love. Nor was it my second. It was actually my fourth, and that in itself testifies to the magic of this city.

What I find with many popular cities when travelling, is that people will often go to a city to seek out things to see within that city. In Berlin you might go to the Brandenburg Gate, in Rome to the Colosseum, in Paris to the Eiffel Tower, and in London to Westminister Abbey. It would no doubt be considered a failed expedition if a number of those ‘things to do’ weren’t ticked off the the list.

Venice is different.

Venice is a city that is enjoyed just for being itself. Sure, there are piazzas and murano glass islands and architectural glories to marvel, but I genuinely believe, and have also heard it said from others, that the beauty of Venice lies simply in being able to walk through the maze of worn alleyways, crossing bridged canals and watching gondolas glide by as the gondoliers whistle or sing away in Italian.

That’s why the best way to enjoy Venice is to put the map away and just wander.

That’s right, wander.

There is definitely something to be said for getting lost in Venice. In fact, I’m inclined to say it’s the only way to truly enjoy it. Follow the main drag and you will end up in Piazza San Marco in half an hour, with your fair share of souvenir shops guiding your way through crowded narrow alleyways.

Steer away even slightly from the main drag, and you’ll find yourself walking alone across beautiful bridges, passing locals doing their grocery shopping, and children on their way to school. Of the 409 bridges in Venice, no two are the same, and with the warm ochres, autumn oranges and rusty reds that paint the buildings, there is no tiring of the beautiful surrounds.

You could spend a whole day just wandering like this and never lose interest.

This particular trip to Venice happened to take place just when the big freeze across Europe began. It was -4 degrees and freezing, but despite fog and cold, it did not dampen my admiration of the place. It did, however, make for a relatively brief wander, with frozen toes determining our return home after just three hours.

Even after four visits, I’m still eager to return to Venice. There is something magical and terribly unique about a city immersed in water, yet there isn’t a canal or submerged building that looks out of place.

I don’t know that I’ll ever tire of the old buildings, quiet alleyways and rocking Gondolas. What I do know is, if you haven’t already, it’s about time you too, went and got lost in Venice.

Click on any of the photos below to enlarge


U is for Undeserving

Perspective

I confess, I sometimes feel undeserving of the opportunities I have in life.

What have I done to deserve these amazing experiences, to have family and friends who support my aspirations, who encourage me to reach for the stars and stand by me until I do?

The answer is probably nothing, and yet still I travel and I write and I live a life, financially modest, yes, but rich in experiences.

Whenever I travel, it becomes even more apparent. In Europe especially, I notice a particular despondency in response to the current economic crisis. My friends in Italy tell me how, despite qualifications and experience, they are lucky to find work in a bar or undertaking straightforward office work, an attitude reflected across much of the continent.

Homeless people riddle the cities whilst disabled people walk up and down the trains, handing out cards explaining their situation and their need for money. A discernible gloom has settled across many faces, and it is frightening to think that my own country is by no means unsusceptible to these same difficulties. In fact, I fear we are already seeing the first signs of them.

It remains said, however, that despite terrorist attacks and a global recession, despite choosing to pursue a profession that earns little (and still no) money, and despite prolonging the life of a student in a desire to continue learning, I have still been fortunate enough to travel, to experience new cultures, to meet new people, to be rendered speechless by Scottish castles, to have enjoyed grilled cheese in a Polish night market, and most of all, to be in a position to make these choices, all under the certainty that on my return home I will have a roof over my head and food on the table.

Travel is so often remembered for its highs, for the broadening of minds, and the appreciation of the new, that it is easy to cast aside and forget the less cheerful observations of human life. We are, many of us, so far removed from being that monumentally disadvantaged, that is difficult to know how to react or deal with it. As such, we ignore it, and remain silently grateful for what we have.

With the Kony 2012 campaign underway, it has precipitated a worldwide reaction to the brutality taking place in not-so-far away countries. Whilst this is by no means a new phenomenon, nor the only case of its kind, I can’t help but ask, why them? Why me? Why are some children born into a life of suffering, and others into a life of opportunity? It just doesn’t seem fair that the course of a life is decided before it has even started.

With or without Kony 2012, these are some of the questions that often travel home with me amidst the photographs and the souvenirs and the wonderful experiences.

I think it is important to live the life we were granted, to make the most of our opportunities, and to live without guilt of our happiness. That said, I think it is equally important to remember those less fortunate; not to be grateful for what we have or to feel better about our own lives, but to be reminded that the difference between our successes and another’s failures, sometimes comes down to little more than the country we were born in.

The wonderful memories of my travels will always bring me joy, but it is the observations of those less fortunate that serve as a reminder of how far we, as a human race, still have to go before all have the opportunity to enjoy the simple things in life.

What I hope to take from my travel experiences is the understanding that whilst I am in so many ways underserving of my circumstances, I am nonetheless in a position of power to change the course of humanity and guide it towards a world where all people live equally and suffering as we know it, ceases to exist.

T is for Transport

Me and my travel buddy, Hayley, going slightly crazy after transport misfortunes.

It has been mentioned before on this blog that I have a tendency to avoid public transport due to my uncanny ability to attract the strangest, craziest, creepiest strangers in human sight.

I once had a crazy Italian man shout at me from the back of the bus before stumbling towards me and, much to my protests, stroke my hair with much enthusiasm before the bus driver intervened.

Another time I had a lady on the train ask me to watch over her little girl while she went to the bathroom, only to emerge an hour later, high as a kite.

I even once had a woman throw all my bags and suitcases into the aisle of a train in a fit of rage, for no apparent reason.

Like I said, Katy and transport are not the best of friends.

Unfortunately, public transport is an unavoidable part of travel and whilst not always pleasant, it is sure to provide excellent fodder for stories.

The first of my travel woes began on the very first leg of the trip when I discovered that the sound to my entertainment system, that same system I was relying on to get me through the 14 hour flight with its many new release and classic movies, was, naturally, broken. After two hours of many different air hostesses trying to fix it, and a few hints from me that an upgrade to business class wouldn’t go astray, it was concluded that the system was not repairable and I was instead compensated with three remarkably droll finance magazines to help pass the time.

Still on the high that comes with the start of a journey, I was unperturbed by the news and instead decided to rest my head while I could.

My optimism soon waned, and after a few hours I turned on the screen and watched the moving pictures in silence. I then came up with the grand idea that perhaps I could watch something with English subtitles. Sadly, the English movies only came with foreign subtitles. The foreign movies on the other hand…

Der ganz große Traum

I ended up watching a brilliant German film by the name of Der Ganz Grosse Traum, or in English The Really Big Dream.  Based on a true story, it is a film about the man who introduced soccer to Germany and the trials he faced in that endeavour. A highly engaging story with some brilliant acting, I feel in hindsight I should be thankful to the faulty entertainment system simply for its part in leading me to this movie.

I was later unimpressed, as you could imagine, when the same issue presented itself on the second 9 hour flight. Thankfully, the plane was empty enough for me to move to a four seater, where I was able to stretch out to my heart’s content.

Other notable transport stories included: being interrogated at British Customs and nearly not being let into the country by a scary customs officer because I didn’t know the postcode of the address I was staying at; being on a train in Berlin as it ran over someone on the train tracks (which I spoke more about here); evading train controllers in Germany after discovering we had the wrong tickets; being patted down in a private booth at security in Abu Dhabi; and fearing death with every cough, sneeze and sniffle heard on every plane, train and bus after watching Contagion.

View of the alps from the plane.

But it wasn’t all bad. The four hour train trip from London to Edinburgh was particularly pleasant, so much so that I almost wish it had been longer just for the chance to enjoy more of the beautiful scenery and the joys of being seated in a ‘silent carriage’. The short, one hour train trip from Ferrara to Venice was also enjoyable after we forked out a few extra Euros to sit in First Class. And let’s not forget the fantastic views that come with flying several thousand feet in the sky.

Whilst their were some dramas, there was a discernible lack of ‘crazies’, which was a welcome change. I don’t think I’ll be making best buddies with public transport any time soon, but I can be thankful at least that I survived without anyone stroking my hair or throwing my suitcases around in a rage.

Do you have any memorable transport experience to put you off travel forever? Do you, like me, attract the ‘crazies’?

Meanwhile, if you’d like to read some more crazy stories, Aussie writer, Kaitlyn, over at Transports of Delight has been documenting her latest encounters with weirdos on public transport. Check it out!

S is for Souvenirs

Let’s face it, with a hefty 9 year student debt and no full-time employment on the horizon, I’m not exactly one to spend big money or partake in extravagant shopping sprees when travelling. All my carefully saved pennies go towards getting me to my destination, making sure I’m supplied with several meals a day whilst there, and getting me back home again.

Luckily for me, I’m less into souvenirs and more into experience, which generally happens to be free. Walks down cobbled streets, watching sunrises over foreign waters, catching up with far away friends, admiring architecture. These things keep me happy and sustained whilst travelling and frankly I feel I’m rather the better for devoting my time to living the experience rather than wasting it in search of the latest Louis Vuitton handbag.

That said, I do like to bring home with me things that remind me of places I’ve been. Photos are usually the best kind of souvenir, postcards too, but sometimes they just won’t do.

Here’s what I picked up on my latest trip.

Masks of Venice, Italy

You’ll be hearing more about Venice in a later post, but let me just say that this was my 4th visit to the city of love, and it was no less charming than it was the first three times. It is the personification of a place you can enjoy without having to spend a cent, the beauty of it being simply having the opportunity to walk the canals and to get lost in the maze of bridge spotted alleyways. On this trip, however, I decided to take home with me a little piece of Venice in the form of two hand made Venetian masks. The photos don’t really do them justice, but I assure you they are stunning.

Golden Venetian mask

Tragedy and Comedy, Venetian mask

Art of Edinburgh, Scotland

I love checking out local art when I’m travelling. Sadly it is almost never practical to take any of it home with me, but this time I found this beautiful little painting of Edinburgh by Rob Hain and couldn’t leave it behind. I love the vibrant colours and the somewhat fantastical quality of it; the moon in the sky above the castle and the steam engine at its foot.

“Meet me by the Fountain” by Rob Hain

Dragon of Krakow, Poland

As you already know from my past post, Krakow is said to have been built on the ashes of a dragon. Cool huh? So naturally there are dragon souvenirs everywhere. I was disappointed to find that most of them were pretty tacky and sadly labelled ‘made in china’, which is why I was so happy to find this little guy at a local toy maker’s market. He’s wooden, hand painted, has legs and arms that swing and eyes that rattle, and a wire coil to hang him from the ceiling with.

Wooden toy dragon

Life Ring of Hamburg, Germany

I confess, I’m not really sure why I bought this little life ring. Perhaps it’s my deep appreciation for harbours, or the fact that I grew up on a town by the sea. Or it could be that Hamburg surprised me with its canals and massive shipping port. Probably it was because it cost one Euro and I knew it would be light enough to carry home in my suitcase. Either way I picked it up and here it is.

Hamburg Ahoi!

Books of Edinburgh, Scotland

The Folk Takes of Scotland, retold by Norah & William Montgomerie

Edinburgh, the city of literature. Needless to say, here I picked up BOOKS. Oh my, there were just so many pretty ones to choose from. Beautiful covers, rare finds, first editions. But alas, I stayed the trembling hand that willed me to buy them all and restrained myself to these two.

The first is a book of Scottish folk tales and I confess I was wooed by the cover alone. Even so, it is a wonderful collection of beautiful folk stories.

The second is a book, which I think is pretty darn groovy. It’s the Story World Storytelling Kit, and while it may be for ages 4 and up, this 26 year old was enamoured. I kid you not, I opened this thing and fireworks went off in my eyes. Basically, it consists of forty tarot-sized story cards, each with a beautiful image on the front and on the back a one sentence description and three questions. The idea is to get your creative wheels turning to give you story ideas. It also comes with a book that has further card keywords and descriptions as well as tips on how to use the cards and examples of stories created from the cards.

How cool is that?!

But that’s not all. There are EXPANSION PACKS.  The top up packs have more specific cards to add to your collection with themes like “Quests and Adventures”, “Faery Magic” and “Animal Tales”.

I picked up both of these books from the gorgeous Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh’s High Street. Well worth a visit. If, however, you live in faraway lands and don’t own a personal jet plane, apparently you can find these gems on Amazon, so I highly recommend you check them out for you or the kids.

The Man in the Moon storytelling card

Back of the Man in the Moon card

The Story World Storytelling kit

Pottery of Rye, England

As I mentioned in my post R is for Rye, I was rather amazed to find that the pottery trade in Rye had not ceased to flourish with age. With my parent’s house in Australia dotted with the Rye pottery that they brought over from England 15 years ago, I knew they’d appreciate a 2012 addition to their collection, so I bought them Rye Pottery tea cups. They are English after all.

Rye Pottery tea cups for the oldies

Shotglasses of The Earth, Everywhere

Okay, so this is my small indulgence. I’m not entirely sure when it began, but many years ago I started collecting shot glasses as souvenirs from places I had visited. At the time I think I figured they were small and light (important things to consider for a heavy packer such as myself), they can be found in every city, and also because I thought they might be nice to pull out of the cupboard when having friends over for drinks. Ironically, I no longer drink alcohol and don’t remember the last time my friends and I thought it would be a good idea to pull out 40 odd shot glasses and get wasted, but no matter.

The point is, I can’t seem to drop the habit, and continue to pick up a shot glass in every town, city and country I find myself in.

Lots of little shot glasses, lined in a row

There you have it. My small collection of souvenirs from the trip.
What do you like picking up or collecting when travelling?

R is for Rye

With its cobbled streets, castle, and wonderfully preserved medieval, Tudor and Georgian houses, this ancient town situated in the south east of England just so happens to be where I grew up as a little girl, as did my father before me.

Once surrounded almost completely by water, the town dates back to before the Norman Conquest of 1066, and is known historically for being an important member of the Cinque Ports confederation, its role in providing ships for the King in times of war, as well as its involvement with the smuggling trade during the 18th and 19th Centuries, achieved through vaulted cellars, secret tunnels and passageways, many of which still exist today.

The Mermaid Inn

The Mermaid Inn, one of the oldest inns in England, has played host to Charlie Chaplin, Pierce Brosnan, Andy Garcia, Johnny Depp and none other than Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth and her mother.

Rye itself has produced a number of well known names, most notably being Sir Paul McCartney. I’m also proud to say that it has been a place of inspiration for a number of writers, including Henry James, Conrad Aiken, Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells.

Bestowed with unseasonably mild temperatures and a few somewhat rare cloudless days, my Auntie and Uncle took my well-timed visit as an opportunity to accompany me around the town to strangely familiar, yet foreign places.

Little things stirred the memory of my childhood self – doorways, a clock tower, cobbled streets, the smell of fish and chips – but it was more the overall ambiance and character of this small historic town that set me reminiscing.

Rye Church and Graveyard

With a population of just over 4000, the town of Rye is about as quaint and as ‘English’ as it gets. Tiny doorways and black beams across white walls line the cobbled streets, whilst behind the medieval church a sun speckled graveyard sits rather beautifully as little red-breasted robins sing happily in the overhead tree branches.

The smell of hot coffee and freshly baked pastries pour out of charming little coffee houses, each furnished with mismatched lounge chairs, the walls lined with bookshelves and antiques.

I can’t help but find magic in the names of places: Lamb Cottage, Mermaid Street, The Mint, Wish Ward, Oak Corner, Watchbell Street. They all sound like names from a children’s fantasy story. Other places have names rooted in history; The Apothecary coffee shop was named after its former use as an Apothecary. Meanwhile, the smell of meat pies oozes from a little shop tucked away down a narrow street, its cast iron sign swinging from the roof identifying it as Simon the Pieman. 

Simon the Pieman

I think every town should have a Simon the Pieman.

As you get closer to the water, anchors, antique shops and the smell of the sea are prevalent. I see pottery in shop windows that look much like the Rye pottery we brought over to Australia with us almost two decades ago, and wonder at the lasting trade of some professions.

Meanwhile, the warm and welcoming inns provide hearty meals of roast beef, oven roasted potatoes covered in hot gravy for a late lunch.

Needless to say, I took many photos on this part of the trip and delighted my parents on my return as they scrutinised pictures of a place they once called home, much changed but also very much the same.

Even if I had not spent the first few years of my life there, I’m convinced I’d love it all the same.  It has character and charm, but it also has history. The idea of smugglers silently rowing by veil of night into hidden passageways beneath the town is a thrilling thought. Not only that, but the fact that my father recognised buildings, streets and places he used to walk by and play in as a child, is testament to the wonderfully preserved nature of this ancient town.

Yep, there is definitely something special about Rye.

Antique shop in Rye

Gravestones bow with the weight of their age

The House with Two Front Doors

Cobbled stones

Sunset down Watchbell Street

Typical houses of Rye

Old Anchor by the water

We're a funny lot, us English folk

Church Graveyard

Cobbled street overlooking Rye rooftops