Do Writers Ever Take a Break From Writing?

I think the answer is different for everyone. For me, though, the answer is "sometimes". Sometimes I do just stop writing, but I don't stop playing with language. When I'm not writing, I do crossword puzzles, I play word games, I dream up little passages in my head that will fade into the mists of memory before they're ever committed to paper. But most of all, I read. A lot.

I've just picked up the latest offerings from two of my very favourite authors - Stephen King and Michael Crichton. Both are interesting releases, for different reasons.

King's Under The Dome is his first full-length thriller release in a while. It's been marketed as his biggest novel since The Stand which is for many people his best and most admired work. Much as I adore King's short fiction, and as much as it inspires and encourages me to write my own, his full-length thrillers are what made me fall in love with his writing from the first. He touches a dark, and frightened little place in the human psyche that no other other author manages to be able to achieve. His writing is the only writing that has ever kept me awake at night. I can't wait to get stuck into Under the Dome to find out if it lives up to its marketing.

Crichton's Pirate Latitudes has an even more interesting story. When the author died late in 2008, amongst the papers in his desk they found a complete manuscript, which has now been published post-humously. That in itself makes it exciting, since I had reconciled myself to never reading a new Crichton again. That said, though, it has received some less-than-fabulous reviews, and it seems that the jury is still out on whether or not it should have published at all. I'm looking forward to reading it, all the same.

Anyway, I hope you all have a fabulous Christmas and New Year, hopefully you will get a chance to get some holiday reading in too. See you all next year!

Won't Someone Think of the Children (Conroy's Folly)

Something that I thought wasn't going to happen, today happened. Senator Conroy announced his plan to filter the internet (which I have previously referred to on this blog as "Conroy's Folly"). Admittedly, they have to get it through the Senate yet, and it's going to take a few coalition ministers crossing the floor to do it, but I just don't trust them. The fact that something I passionately believe in is hanging in the balance of a few liberal MPs bothers me no end. Politics aside, though (you can get the details on that on just about any other news site), what's bothering me the most is an alarming trend towards the idea that the government is responsible for child safety.

On the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS) website, they list four different types of child abuse: neglect (being left without adequate care); physical abuse (smacking, or other forms of physical violence); psychological abuse or harm (emotional trauma); and sexual abuse. How many of these four are investigated by the department? Just one. Reports indicate that of every 23 reports of child abuse made, only one is investigated. What this means is that when a report is made, it is prioritised, and only the very, very worst investigated. In practice, this means that only those children at immediate risk of sexual abuse get even a second glance. Of the cases that do get investigated, however, a quarter of them are substantiated. This would indicate there's an extremely large number of children in NSW alone that have people concerned enough for their safety to report the case to DoCS, but are never even spoken to, let alone removed from the abusive situation, or helped in some way.

On the other hand, our government is now attempting to pass legislation to filter the internet. They're doing this with the catch-cry of "protecting the children". Apparently, it is no longer the responsibility of the parent to protect their child from net-nasties, but the government's. I am very interested to find statistics on the number of children who had inadvertently stumbled across RC (Refused Classification) pornography, paedophile rings, or other 'harmful online content', compared to the number of children who succumb to child abuse in their own homes, by family members or close friends, and who never come to the attention of the department designed to prevent that happening.

Why not use the $125.8 million earmarked for the government's cyber safety plan, and use it to fix DoCS? If the government were truly thinking of the children, as they claim, then it would be money well spent, and might actually save some kids lives.

Also blogging on this matter:
Be The Signal
Lauren Cochrane
Sometimes, Maybe, Never
Google Australia
Sleepy Dumpling
Atomik Soapbox
(More to come as I find them ... )


If you're angry about this, and I really think you ought to be, then do something about it:

* First of all, check out the No Clean Feed website from the EFA. It has a lot of information, and a lot of good ideas.
* Then, write a letter (yes, an actual letter, on paper, with a stamp) and send it to your local member, and to Senator Conroy's office. There's some good tips for letter writing on the EFA site.
* Sign the petition at Get Up or Petition Online.
* If you have a blog, or you're a member of a social network such as Twitter or Facebook, talk about it. Let people know what's going on, direct them to the No Clean Feed website and encourage them to spread the word too. Jeff Waugh also has some good ideas for changing your avatar. The more people talking and understanding this issue, the more force we as a population have.


Rule 16 of the Internet

In her introduction to the 1994 edition of "Damned Whores and God's Police", the wonderful Anne Summers wrote "I believe that to address these questions [of women's struggle for equality] adequately, a new book is needed and I hope that someone, somewhere, right now is hatching another 'big book', a sweeping feminist perspective on contemporary Australia, because we need another interpretation, a new perspective ... We need new voices, and new visions."

I read those words for the first time in 2003. I had gotten married that year, and was busy falling pregnant. I gave birth to my daughter early in 2004, and settled neatly into my new found role as wife and mother. I helped in my husband's business as a secretary and book-keeper and cooked healthy and satisfying meals for my family from the Women's Weekly. I kept the house clean, my husband's shirts ironed, and my baby's bottom dry. Sometimes when the baby was asleep I would write short stories to amuse myself that I never shared with anyone. Occasionally, my feminist best friend would call me on the phone, we'd chat, and at some point she'd laugh and say "you are the typical housewife. You've turned into your mother". Of course I hadn't, I scoffed back. I had a job, my child went to daycare three days a week. This being the epitome of working motherhood to me. That, and all the associated guilt that came with it that Ita Buttrose ("Motherguilt: Australian Women Reveal Their True Feelings About Motherhood") and her ilk told me was right and proper that I should be feeling. I had read Greer's "The Female Eunuch" and Summers' "Damned Whores and God's Police". I thought I understood the issues, and I empathised with the few feminists I had met. What I didn't understand was why they had to be so angry about it all the time. They were missing the point. We had come so far, already. We didn't have to worry about getting the vote, or equal pay for equal work, or sexual freedom. We had all that. What more did they want? Really?

Four years later, I found myself celebrating the second anniversary of my divorce with a melancholy kindergartner torn between two homes. At the age of 27 I had finally discovered that it was possible to have a job that I enjoyed and that also paid the bills, and it was the only thing keeping me sane. I started watching the world around me with jaded, cynical eyes, and writing down the things I saw. I found myself re-reading Anne Summers book, and her words sang away in the back of my mind. I dug further, craving more information, and gradually became familiar with the online world of hurting, angry, and pained feminist bloggers. I started reading what they wrote - not the vitriolic and accusatory words they used, but what they actually were trying to say. And when I cut through the verbiage, I heard one thing over and over again: Why is this still happening?

Feminism is now a dirty word. Efforts to achieve gender equality are encouraged to employ language that is less confronting and not quite so scary. Young women don't want to be feminists any more, we're told. Feminist rhetoric everywhere is beset by women commenting that the authors are beating dead horses, and they just wish we'd all stop talking about it already.

Where does this disconnect come from? Why was it that while I was fulfilling my role as a wife and mother that I thought we had equality? Why was it that not until I ventured into the online world did I discover this apparent lingering inequality in our society? I think it had to do with a number of different factors.

Perhaps the most glaring answer was that I was now viewing the world via the social web, rather than the mainstream media. My news was no longer filtered by what would sell newspapers and magazines, but by what people found interesting. The natural result of this of course is that when you read one feminist blog, it links to another so you read that one as well. That one might link to a few different articles, and another blog. Eventually, you find that your entire morning news consists of feminist ranting and not much else. That, in itself, had a lot to do with my perspective, but it didn't fully explain whether the deception occurred in the years before I started reading blogs, or after.

I also wondered if it was because I now had access to individual and very personal accounts of sexism and inequality. These were stories being shared directly by victims. Prior to reading my first ever feminist blog, I had never been friends with anyone who had experienced anything so brutal, demeaning, and sometimes violent as these stories I was reading now. Was this a matter of statistics? It is entirely believable that the number of people recounting these acts were statistically insignificant, meaning the problem where it existed was truly horrifying, but probably not anything worth actually getting upset over, unless you were the victim of course. After all, there are a small percentage of people in the world that can only be considered sick fucks. We all know they exist, we do what we can to combat it legally and socially, and we all recognise that the whole of human society is not at all like that. This had a ring of truth about it too, but it was still hard to swallow as a complete answer.

Eventually, something came up in a conversation with a friend of mine. We were discussing geek culture, and how being a 'geek' suddenly had street cred and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Everywhere she turned, she was faced by people who had never done anything more with technology than log into Facebook, but they were suddenly branding themselves as a geek. Icons of geek culture - such as Star Wars, the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy series, Battlestar Galactica, and an overt interest in fonts - were being adopted in the most mainstream ways. It was enough to make HG Wells turn in his grave, she said. Suddenly, geek was the new black: everybody was making jokes involving hex codes, everyone had a Twitter account, and every photo of a cat had a poorly spelled caption. And that was when it hit me. It wasn't that the internet had opened my eyes to sexism that had existed all along. It was that sexism existed on the internet in a way that it no longer existed in the rest of society. Online society reflected real life, but it was socially many significant steps in the past.

Internet culture has long been the stronghold of the uber-geek. Before MSN Messenger, Google, and Facebook made the internet accessible for everyone it took quite a lot of technical know-how to be able to get online in the first place, let alone find your way to online social groups and communities. Not everyone knew someone technically literate enough to get them online, and keep them there. Many people weren't quite sure what they would do if they did get online. The internet was full of strongholds like USENET and IRC, inhabited by mathematicians, engineers, scientists and university students. They all spoke a special language comprised of acronyms, in-jokes, and slang that served to filter out the general public. For the most part, they were quite happy to keep it that way. I was at university in those days, so hanging out in an IRC channel or two was expected, but you didn't dare speak up too loud, or wander into the wrong BBS, because it wouldn't take long before you either showed your ignorance, or had some channel operator ask who you were and what you thought you were doing there. By keeping the riff-raff out of the networks, they were able to discuss their projects in detail without being bogged down by silly questions; they were able to monitor and filter what was said, and by whom. Although it was probably unintentional, these enclaves were also able to maintain the notion that they were part of an elite minority. They were the ones who ruled the internet - they would choose who could come, and they would choose who could stay. Overwhelmingly, the people who were making these decisions were male. It was not that they did not allow women in, so much that there were very few women who wanted in, or even knew about it. There weren't that many women in their offline communities, so there were very few women invited into the newly developed online ones. So it was that with this technological leap forward into the early dotcom years, the skewed gender profile of generations of science and engineering labs filtered into the next great social revolution.

Acronyms and industry jargon have always been used to delineate those who are in the group from those who don't belong. This is true in no place so obviously as the internet, particularly in those early days when internet access was just starting to creep into homes. Just like the offline world, outsiders have increasingly found themselves having to fight for acceptance into this culture. The technology that allowed access to all and sundry has, unfortunately, moved slower than the norms and rituals surrounding it. Which leads us to an interesting situation. Offline, women have achieved a lot in terms of gender equity. Sure, there is still work to be done, but for the most part women enjoy freedoms and equality that Germaine Greer and Anne Summers, when writing their seminal works, didn't even have the words to describe. Online, however, is a different story. Rule 16 of the internet states: "There are no girls on the internet".

Where do you get your ideas?

Every writer has been asked this. Even unpublished, unknown, and unrecognised writers like me. In Stephen King's brilliant book "On Writing" (which, you might have noticed, was the inspiration for this blog's title) he gives a simple and succinct answer:
Anything you damn well want.

Honestly, I don't know where I get my ideas. Sometimes I turn a little tiny nub of an idea around in my head, stretch it and bend it and flip it on its head, until it starts to form a plot. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it's just sitting there, whole, waiting for me to pick it up in my hand like a glass bauble and make it come to life on the page. Honestly, though, I think that the people who ask this question aren't really wondering where the writer gets the ideas so much as "Where do you find the words?". I read an interesting answer to this question by Julie Norris on the 2moroDocs blog. She explained that she
always visualize[s] words up in the sky, like stars, and when writing, I just reach up and gather some. Sometimes they’re easily in reach, and other times not. Depends on the word, I suppose, or the day.
I'm not sure I'm that visual, but I know there are days when the words come like a torrent, and it's all my fingers can do to keep up with the flow. And then there's days when they don't ... because sometimes they won't (to paraphrase Dr Suess).

There is a school of thought that says write every day. While I'm not sure I agree with the preachy tone of that advice, I would definitely recommend that you write a lot. And if there's a day when you don't write, at least take the time to read. As part of the NaNoWriMo frivolities, a 'pep talk' email gets sent out to participiants every few days. My favourite one this year was from Peter Carey who said, in part:
First, turn off your television. The television is your enemy. It will stop you doing what you wish to do. If you wish to watch TV, you do not want to be a serious writer.

I never watched a lot of television, even as a kid, but I completely unplugged it about three years ago. I will note that when I say "I don't watch television" I don't, like a lot of people, mean "I don't watch television, except for the news and the Saturday night movie" or "I don't watch television, except for my favourite sitcom on Wednesdays. Oh, and that reality show on Saturday nights. Oh, and the lottery draw of course". When I say "I don't watch television" I mean "I don't actually own one". I don't know how I would find the time now to watch even an hour of television a week. There's washing to do, food to cook, books to read, blogs to comment on ... any number of interesting things that are vying for my attention. It's a concept that Clay Shirky write about in his (lengthy, but well worth reading) article Gin, Television, and Social Surplus. He refers to the time spent in front of television as a "cognitive surplus", and suggests that when that time is spent doing, well, just about anything other than watching television, we are making a massive change to the very structure of our society. He also argues that children are growing up in a world where that cognitive surplus is being put to much better use. Children do not see value in media that you can't interact with. While some decry this as shortened attention spans, I see it more as a shift in values. It's not so much that we require constant entertainment, or constant stimulation, so much as we ask more from our leisure time. We're not going to sit there and just mindlessly consume what's on television so much anymore. We want our leisure to be spent creating, interacting, sharing, and collaborating. This is a good thing.

If you've always wanted to write, but you never have the time ... try turning off the television. If you've always wanted to write, but you don't know where to get your ideas, or you're not sure how to find the words ... turn off the television, and take a look at the world around you. It's a hell of a lot more interesting, awe-inspiring, and wonderous than what's on the box.

Coffee and Consent

Waiter: Would you like some coffee? 
Woman: Yes, please. 
Waiter: Just say when. (Starts to pour.) 
Woman: There. (He keeps pouring.) That's fine. (He pours.) Stop! (She grabs the pot; there is coffee everywhere.) 
Waiter: Yes, ma'am. 
Woman: Well, why didn't you stop pouring? 
Waiter: Oh, I wasn't sure you meant it. 
Woman: Look, of course I meant it! I have coffee all over my lap! You nearly burned me! 
Waiter: Forgive me, ma'am, but you certainly looked thirsty. I thought you wanted more. 
Woman: But - 
Waiter: And you must admit, you did let me start to pour.

Courtesy of Female Impersonator

Everyone has an opinion

Including the PM, it seems. And he's not afraid to tell everyone about it, either. Just off the top of my head, Kevin Rudd has voiced his opinion on everything from Bill Henson to Kyle Sandilands, and had a go at The Chaser on the way through. Now, the latest target for his disapproval is Westpac, it seems.

Westpac, to be fair, hiked interest rates much further than the RBA did, but that's their decision to make. I have no doubt that the board pondered the hike, weighed it up against consumer backlash, and chose to make that change for a very good reason. Not to say I agree with it, but I wasn't in the board meeting, either. If you're a Westpac customer, and you don't like it, you have a choice.

The ad itself (you can see it here) is a very quick explanation of the global financial crisis, and the bank's justification for the rate hike. It is an accurate - if somewhat over-simplified -  explanation of how banks and the money market works.

So what's wrong with it? Well, I'm not quite sure. Kev has spouted a lot of guff about how the bank shouldn't have compared homes (big dollar important stuff) to banana smoothies (small dollar not-important stuff, presumably). But, I spent six years at university boiling big concepts down to simple transactions involving 'widgets' or 'bottles of lemonade' to be better able to understand them. This is not a new idea. It's actually a really good aid to understanding. Since Westpac's aim was education in this instance, I think they chose a suitable method. And I happen to be partial to a good banana smoothie.

The only criticism I can possibly level at Westpac in this case is that they make an assumption that the average consumer doesn't understand financial markets. I can see how some more educated customers might be offended at that assumption, but let's face it - who does understand global financial markets? Really? And if these customers understand it so well, why are they clicking on a link that explains it anyway?

In the meantime, there's a little meeting going on in Copenhagen ... and our Prime Minister is commenting on banana smoothies. Who is the one really making a gaffe here? Westpac, or the PM?