The Gorilla is wearing Earrings

I’m sure you’ve all heard of that psychological test, where the audience is asked to count the number of times a ball is bounced by a team, or the number of girls in blue skirts, and while they are concentrating on their given task, they completely fail to notice that someone in a gorilla suit has been dancing around in the background. There are various clips on You-Tube if you haven’t seen it, like this one:

The first time you see this test, it comes as quite a shock that you could have missed something so out of place, so significant, as a loon in a gorilla suit. It’s a principle that they take into account all the time when performing magic tricks, where they call it misdirection. The point, however, is one which is really worth considering when you write. People notice details – whole series of snapsnots of small things – and from these things the world is created.

When I’m not working, I work as a designer, and the same is probably true. For some designers, the art is actually in making all those small things, that they have thought hard about, as invisible to conscious notice as possible. If you’re designing a ‘natural’ garden, for example, the art must be concealed, or it the artifice will make it appear a pastiche of itself.

In writing, slipping in those small sensory details are what, I think, will create a time and place much more strongly than anything else. There was a lovely piece I read recently from Bluebird Boulevard, where she talks about the light that comes through the ivy crowding around the kitchen window, and the bright red lipstick on a nonagenarian. Those are the things we notice. They are what evokes the feeling of place.

I’ve been thinking about what a skill it is to notice those small details consciously, both as a writer and a designer. I think that perhaps it’s a question of being both within, and without.

Within, in the sense of being in the sort of headspace where we have the mental time and space to observe and record things. For me, that takes a certain peace of mind, a little out of the day-to-day whirl of obligations and deadlines. I suppose you could call it being in the moment.

Without, in that we are open to seeing these things. I saw an interview on the television recently where the interviewer really wasn’t listening to the answers of her subject. She just kept firing the questions she had written down without thinking on her feet enough, and allowing herself to become absorbed in the other person. Get out of your head and into someone else’s.

If you’re going to have more than one character in your work, then you’ve got to work a little outside yourself, I think. To really empathise, and understand what a stranger will say and feel and do, you need to leave the comfort of your own persona.

So by noticing all the details, being both within and without, you may just notice not only the gorilla, but that it is wearing scratched silver earrings, and feeling slightly sheepish about them.

Time to draw breath

wipI’m starting back at work next week, after about ten months break to look after my bub. This week, I went back for a three hour workshop, and a few things really struck me.

First, was the introversion of most of the people I work with. Two asked how the baby was. No-one asked how I was! One person greeted me with simply the words: “Heathmont is a nightmare. I hate it.” Heathmont being a project I was working on before I left. No doubt they think that they’ll hear my news in time, and are perhaps too shy to ask. Either that, or they are too wrapped up in their ‘nightmares’ to give a damn. Never mind. I’ll enjoy hearing what they have all been up to.

The second thing was the situation with projects. Many of the same projects are still going on, after all this time – but people have become more cynical and depressed about them. It’s like I’ve just been away for the weekend, not most of a year, but everyone else had a shocker of a weekend.

I don’t feel particularly worried about going back to work, despite this. It will be a nice change to work a couple of days a week in an office, and I’ll do my level best to resist the negativity.

It did lead me to reflect though on what I’ve been doing while my work mates have been in their hamster wheel. It’s a chance to draw breath before I dive headlong back into the corporate world. And I find that breath is rather sweet.

I’ve done such a lot this year. Brought new life into the world, and nurtured it. He’s learning and growing all the time, and changing all the time, and so am I. I’ve learnt an awful lot about him, but also about me, and my partner, who is an awesome Dad. I’ve learnt that I have an angry flash now and then which I need to learn to contain. I’ve learnt to live in the moment. I’ve learnt an awful lot about patience, and sharing, and giving myself freely, and without reservation. I’ve learnt that I can still do a lot, but squashed into a much shorter and more intense period of time. I’ve learnt to do a lot of stuff with one hand!

I’ve also managed to continue to write, which is of course an activity which takes a certain degree of concentration and a quiet mind. Not only has there been a lot of progress on my Anthology of Honest Motherhood, but also on my short story collection. It’s actually cemented in my mind that because I’m finding the time to still write, then it must be really important to me, as the need to prioritize has become more urgent.

So – will I still find time when I’m working? You bet. I’ll have all that lovely commuting time to fill in, when I can let my mind free without replying to raspberries and playing peek-a-boo.

How about you? Did something in your life change the way you see it? Did something crystallise your need to write, if you do? Love to hear your thoughts.

My child


That first hard stretch

He’s as reflective and gyroed

as a marble

Echoing emotions and

selfishly spiking

Anger and adoration


Early hesitant smiles


Dangling response

A softening as tantalising

as a distant shimmer

before desperate thirst


Now a sounding board

amplifies feeling

He is my resonant frequency

Shame blankets ire

Delight oozes

Like warm fudge sauce.

Art dirtied by the mighty dollar


In a reversal of the usual roles, yesterday I interviewed a psychiatrist. Perhaps it was novel for her: it was certainly informative for me. The interview will hopefully form part of the Anthology I’m working on, with many other writers from around the globe, on the subject of motherhood. It’s even tentatively acquired a title now (which I will post about another time), so it must be starting to resolve itself, like the image appearing gradually on photographic paper. I’ll just have to keep swirling it in the developing fluid of continued effort, and hopefully it will emerge as something beautiful.

Anyway, one slight stumbling block in the interview was her continued confusion as to what the Anthology was for, and whether it would be commercial. Had I looked at all the other works about motherhood out there? Was ours going to fill a niche? Would it be useful? What, in short, is the market?

I suppose that a more mercenary person would have considered these issues in more detail, but for me, to complete the project as well as I am able is actually enough. If I’m going to give it the self-aggrandising name of ‘Art’, then I think art can, and perhaps needs to, be created just for itself.

Not that I’m saying that I wouldn’t like it to be successful, but it feels like something that needs to happen regardless. One of the best rewards a writer can have, I feel, is to have people enjoy their work. In the case of this Anthology, we’re perhaps hoping even for some social change, by deepening and widening the discussions around the experience of motherhood. The current level of conversation on the subject in wider society seems to be at the moment at best trite, and at worst shallow and deceptive.

Anyway, the psychiatrist’s emphasis on the commercial viability of the project got me thinking. I’ve always been someone who writes and paints ‘just because’. It’s an outlet of my subconscious, which has taken me to some surprising and very varied places. I don’t have a consistent painting style, and perhaps that is a reflection that I am an amateur. But I also write about diverse subjects – few things could be further apart than this current Anthology and my novel, which is science fiction! Perhaps my brain would explode if I didn’t let this stuff out.

I’m aware that other writers do find a niche, research a market, and write accordingly, and no doubt many of them are more commercial successful than I am. In the case of non-fiction, that seems an entirely justified approach. But I wonder if that whole process doesn’t compromise the creativity of fiction writing. It feels to me a little manipulative: like having an ulterior motive to do a good deed. I read a great post over at the ‘the Writing Blues’ some time ago about how she might lose her real voice if she started to think too much about what her readers would like to hear.

I’d be very interested to hear what others think about this issue. Is creation of art for arts sake enough? Am I just naive? Does having a market in mind compromise your work?

You said it, Mick


‘I can’t get no…satisfaction.’

How true. I have been pondering whether we are destined to go through life in a state of vague dissatisfaction. As my partner said when I expressed this to him, it’s a thought that Alain de Botton would be proud of. If any of you have read his work, de Botton does seem to have a strange affection for the melancholy and bleak, seeing an acceptance of the less glamorous aspects of life as a necessary part of achieving happiness. To paraphrase him dreadfully, if we expect life to be the gold-plated, celebrity perfect version, then we are bound to be disappointed. Accept that it will be more ordinary, and there is less to get annoyed about.

It’s a viewpoint which I suspect fits quite well with Buddhist theology as well, although I’m certainly no expert. However, I do know enough to say that part of the practice of Buddhism seems to be letting go of the ever grasping, materialistic and sensory ego, which drives us all the time, and feeds our dissatisfaction with the world.

The dissatisfaction I’m talking about though isn’t one which is concerned with money, or status, pretty things or pretty people. It’s about having a strange inner need to do certain things, that I fancy doing just because I want to. There is always a nagging dissatisfaction that I can’t get to them fast enough, complete them as well as I would like, or do them as well as others I admire. I suspect that I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew! I seem to manage to gulp most of it down though, somehow.

My dissatisfaction is in fact probably the thing which drives me to keep producing creative work, whether it’s writing, painting, design work or whatever other thing I decide to try my hand at. I’m sorry to say that lack of any previous experience doesn’t seem to actually deter me from trying anything: I’m currently up to my ears in bits of shredded magazine, as I’m working on some collages. Never done it before? Never mind. It can’t be that hard! After all, if it’s only for my own satisfaction, then if I stuff it up, then that’s OK, I figure. I’ll learn every time, and maybe those mistakes will fuel sufficient dissatisfaction with the result that I’ll be spurred to on to something better.

A strange cycle of creativity perhaps, but perhaps dissatisfaction isn’t an entirely negative emotion after all.

Season’s change

ImageThe first sip

of fresh washed autumn air

brings mushrooms


through summer’s crust.

Eucalypts release and relax,

lounging dourly

between exotic’s

frenetic fractured


Spun bright and settling

by a gauze drape of breeze,

cool as a headmistress’ fingers.

Magpies hunt

and warble their joy

in the season’s discards.

All aboard the Omnibus!

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about my next big project, which will be a collection of short stories. I’m probably at least half way through, with planning done for another 25%. I’ve been mistakenly calling it my Anthology, but apparently that term refers more accurately to a collection of works by different authors. What I’m working on is more properly an Omnibus, but that sounds rather cumbersome and lumbering to me.


Could this be a Steampunk Omnibus?

A few things I’ve discovered so far:

  • It should be about the same word count as a novel (70K+)
  • Arguably, it should follow a ‘tent’ structure, leading and finishing with the strongest stories, and with another strong story in the middle like a tent pole.
  • The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts: stories should be organised to complement and bounce off one another.
  • Variety is a good thing, but there does need to also be some kind of unifying theme.

All well and good so far. The theme issues does bother me a little, in that my stories are sometimes scifi, sometimes bordering on fantasy, and sometimes just plain quirky (as you may know if you’ve read any of the free published works out there – see my Publications page for links). At the same time, I don’t particularly want to force the production of stories in a particular area to make them fit some contrived theme, so I think I’ll just keep writing the stories which I’d like to tell, and then perhaps discard those which are the sore thumbs of the collection.

I’d love to discuss with anyone out there their thoughts on short story collections.

Do you find it necessary to have a theme? Do you agree with the ‘tent structure’ theory? When reading short story collections, do you dip in, or read them from start to finish (the album vs. the single I suppose, in music terms).

Rural poetry

Well, it’s going to be a disgusting 41 degrees C here today. Normally we’d head off snorkelling to beat the heat, but that’s rather tricky with a nine week old, (although various options with towing floating rubber rings were discussed ;)), so we’ll be hiding under a cool rock until it all blows over. The rock of choice today is called the IKEA centre.

However, on days like this, I think many Australian’s thoughts turn to our more rural areas, and the threat they face on days like this from the fierce bushfires which ravish our landscape every year. A few years ago, when it reached 47 degrees C, we lost huge areas of forest and bushland, houses, businesses, pets and 173 lives. Although the forest is growing back, and many of the houses have been rebuilt, the scars are long lasting.

In honour of our more rural areas, and also because I have been trying to write a short story with a rural theme, here are a few haiku inspired by a long train trip through the rural landscape of Victoria, Australia. Hope you enjoy them, and keep cool!

In flat khaki fields

Unnatural neon stripe

Sun fires canola




Breeze brings warm hay scent

Young horses prance like schoolgirls

Flicking pony tails





Rust and graffiti

Coat lonely discarded freight cars

Grass furs the bogeys

D.I.Y. solar system

Long live Coursera!

For those of you who haven’t stumbled upon it yet, it’s a series of on-line courses offered by Universities throughout the world. The courses run from about 6 to 12 weeks, generally, and you can view the video lectures and do the homework at any time you choose. This is great for me at the moment, as sometimes I need to do them at 3.30am. The courses are not for dummies – this is real education, by respectable institutions. Best of all, it’s free! I am currently doing a course called ‘Think Again: How to Reason and Argue’, which I’ll discuss in a later post. However, my partner has been putting his brain through the wringer with ‘Introduction to Astronomy’. It’s a tough course, but so far rewarding.

screenshot solar

One of the most interesting parts has been some of the on-line astronomy tools which they point you towards. This one, called My Solar System, simulates the different orbits that you can achieve with a different setup of planets, moon and comets. I encourage you to follow the link and have a play for yourselves. You can vary the size, positions and velocity of each body, and watch as the orbits play themselves out. I should warn you, it is rather addictive – it should perhaps be subtitled the ‘Timewaster 2000’. The graphics are quite simple, but achieving a highly elliptical orbit, or managing to slam a comet into the sun is pretty cool.

It strikes me that this is potentially a terrific inspirational or planning tool for those people who like to write hard sci-fi. Asimov would have absolutely adored it. It just oozes  story possibilities. Think, for example, about being a civilisation on one of those planets, as it slowly circles the sun, and then suddenly coming into the influence of one of the other bodies, especially a highly unpredictable one. How would the seasons, the harvests, and weather be affected? Seasons may be longer, or more intense. Alternatively, picture a planet which is slowly being dragged towards the sun by the orbit of its own moon. It gets even crazier when you think about being on a planet within a binary system.

I find science like this quite fascinating, and I wish that I could incorporate more of it into my stories, although they tend more towards the quirky than the purely scientific. 😉

How about you? What inspires you? Would a tool like this be useful in thinking about new stories?

Monster in training

A poem inspired by my experiences on public transport…

My fellow commuters

If you were a beast,

What a strange one you would be!

Fish breathed and stinking of perfume,

straddled legged and hard kneed.

Slumping into slumber, while standing,

or comfortably on someones shoulder.

Rubbing your bottom against my shoulder

and fragrantly farting in my face.

Talking loudly to yourself

and turning the air blue,

Bleeding scarlet pinpoints on the floor.

Throwing yourself against the windows

Doing chin-ups on the handgrips.

Singing out loud, and

kindly sharing your music,

whether we want it or not.

Resting your newspaper

on top of my head, and

your laptop comfortably

on my knees.

Shovelling your food,

Slopping your drink and

filling the air with greasy aromas.

Picking your nose, and

wiping the results carefully

on the handgrips.

The more multitudinous you become

The more legs, and mouths and bottoms you have,

And yet how scarce your brains.