Monday, June 26, 2017

May Consumption Diary

This is well overdue. Blame the change of the month coming while I was halfway through my Italian research roadie…



The hidden life of trees – Peter Wohlleben (Non-fiction, audiobook)

In a weird way, this book picked up where James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History left off in April. Wohlleben’s book is an exercise in imagination, as one must consider life at a different speed. Both in understanding the life and actions of individual trees, but also considering how so much of what should be done to rebalance forests requires steps that will look worse for the rest of my lifetime.

I frequently thought of that viewing platform in Zealandia where there’s a info board depicting what the forest will look like in 100 and 500 years (or something like that), and how just imagining today’s trees but bigger isn’t the future at all.

Wohlleben’s book is focused on central European species. It would be amazing to have a New Zealand version!

Religion for Atheists – Alain de Botton (Non-fiction, audiobook)

I don't condone violence,
 but AdB seems to promote it
 with this eminently punchable pose
I decided to listen to this book for something to argue against and it didn’t let me down. A couple of minutes in, I was beyond the point of yelling at Mr de Botton and considering yanking the earbuds from my ears. The utter flippancy with which he dismissed the miracles of Saints! It was kinda great to realise that, even if my factory defaults have all my switches set to skeptical, pure, unthinking skepticism now angers me as much as pure, unthinking belief.

I didn’t yank my earbuds in the end (in part because I was listening while riding my bike) and I found myself agreeing with some of de Botton’s suggestions (getting strangers to eat together), whilst simultaneously hating his guts (and his quasi-intellectual sophistry).

The Good People – Hannah Kent (novel, audiobook)
I listened to this because Hannah Kent was appearing at Dunedin Writers Festival and I was interested to see how Kent played with the concept of flawed belief (the main characters believe in The Good People, aka Fairies).

I didn’t end up going to Kent’s session (family dramas) and suspect a festival 1 on 1 wouldn’t have been the right venue for the kind of pressing questions I’d like to have seen Kent answer. 

Because, I think she’d have all the answers, but how much would she squirm while answering them?

Do I even want to see another writer squirm? If this book was written by an Irish woman, would I have thought anything much about it at all? Well, of course I would have. But maybe I’d have keyed in more on the technique and gotten less hung up on ‘Why is she doing this?’

The final chapters represent a closing down of possibilities and ultimately the staid and stuffy views of the lawyers (and the more mercenary villagers) prevail.

We should have seen that coming!

Oh well.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I listened to the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet before leaving for Italy. I listened to the second and part of the third while on the ground. And I’m halfway through the fourth right now --- so hopefully I can right about all four books as a single thing, which is totally how I think it should be thought of and discussed.

So hang fire for a week or so…

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

I remember watching a book show while living in Edinburgh and seeing a segment about how Alexander McCall Smith writes his books. He has a researcher and two other helpers working in an office on the ground floor of his house. He comes down, knocks out an insane amount of pages each day, and then leaves his worker bees to tidy up.

I had to walk past AMS’s lefty complex on the way to a friend’s place, and thought of the productivity going on behind that wall every time. But until last month, I’d never been tempted to actually read one of his books.

And, honestly, I only chose this one because I searched Italy/Italian on my library’s audiobook catalogue and this came up. I thought maybe, while travelling to or from or within Italy I may want something lighter.

And light it was.

After six hours of listening, it put a bow on everything, the very bows we expected from the first chapter, and then, poof, it was over, vanished, forgotten.

So that’s an Alexander McCall Smith novel?!  



Consumed at home
Dear White People (Season 1) – devoured. Displays the unevenness so common with shows at the moment, where the first 2-3 episodes feel dense, not just in narrative but also challenging linguistic and cultural dimensions, then the next 5-7 eps stretch out what was so great (and challenging) about those first eps, but you’re hooked so on and on you watch. Where will it go in Season 2?

Consumed in the air (outbound flights to get to Rome)

Split – This sucked. I can’t believe some people thought it was a worthy (kind of) sequel to Unbreakable. Maybe I’m favourably misremembering Unbreakable? I mean, making your villain’s superpowers (and villainy) derive from a mental illness – like that’s not gonna unduly stigmatise people with that very illness? It’s pure doltishness that has no place in 2017.

Passengers – Okay, so even if the script had been seriously overhauled and allowed the film to have some kind of tension, the total lack of charisma between the two stars would have scuttled the experience anyway, so why bother, right? Who’d be a writer.
Start of Fantastic beasts – just as I can’t be arsed writing the full title, I couldn’t watch more than twenty minutes of this. Three words: Eddy Redmayne’s face.

The path (episodes 1-3) – Cult research. Takeaway: cults can be very boring.

Curb your enthusiasm (2 episodes) – could have been any two. That’s the beauty, and the curse, of Curb.

2night – an Italian dating flick that didn’t teach me Italian.

The Founder – Like Breaking Bad with hamburgers, only Ray Kroc isn’t smart enough to be compared to Heisenberg (someone else needs to point out he’s in the real estate business, not the fast food one), so you’re left only with the feeling that everything was horribly inevitable.

Last man on earth (1 episode) and People of Earth (1 episode) – I watched to see if these shows weren’t the same thing. They aren’t. Now I know.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cold compress - Fortnight 10 of the Burns / 20 Week review

Fortnight 10 summary

(NB: this is for the fortnight ending 18 June, so I'm a week behind)
  • Total words: 10,600 words
  • 1st week – 3841; 2nd week – 6759)
  • Weekly imbalance - 1st week was a 4 day week after returning from Italy, and generally getting back into the flow.
  • Split - all on THE NOVEL except 385 on this blog.

First 20 weeks in graphs

What follows is, on one level, meaningless. It doesn't matter how many words I write, or how quickly. All that matters is what ends up getting published.

But, as I've said before, quantity is a precursor of quality. And things like wordcounts help to keep me motivated, allow me to reflect on my practice and, hopefully, DO BETTER WRITING.

Bar chart:

This'll probably be too small to be meaningful (even if you click on it), so let me gloss it. It's colour-coded for the type of writing (novel, short stories, blog, poetry, essays, other) - more on the split between forms later. But it shows that I focussed on short stories in February to blow out the cobwebs, before sliding into the novel in month two.

There's a lot of non-writing days. Like every Saturday (except one) and Sunday (except two), and periods where I had people staying in Dunedin or was exploring (Catlins, Fiordland, Italy - that big blank patch on the right). More on which days of the week have been more productive shortly.


So, interestingly, non-fiction (blog + essays + other) is a pretty big slice of the pie. If you remove the Chris Cornell thing and the Recurrent Neural Network Poetry thing, the distribution would look more like what I'd have expected at the beginning of the year. I've gone and committed myself for at least one more decent piece of non-fiction (more on that in another post), but this exercise has convinced me I should probably start saying 'no' to things.

At the moment, I'm resisting a strong urge to go back to short stories. But I would like to find a way to carve out time later in the year -- like after I finish the 1st draft of the novel and before I start second draft, but that relies on me getting to the end of the first draft this side of Christmas...

Speaking of.

Line graph:

This is a little misleading.

When I open my working draft of the novel later today, it won't be 44,000 words, more like 36,000. These stats represent the cumulative total of my daily wordcounts on the novel, rather than the actual wordcount of the novel-in-progress.

So I've lost about 8,000 words already. This tends to happen when I'm starting a new section and I do it in a fresh word document, work on that for three or four days, then cut and paste the cream into the novel's main document.

Some examples for future reference that won't mean anything now: the Motta quotes between the first and second section (only about 2/3 made it in; these may be further slimmed down as time goes by); the Curio Bay insert.

To get to 36K after four months is okay, I guess.

I probably should have done a post at the start of the year about my expectations... If I did, I might have said 10K per month (only takes around 500 words every week day) as the minimum, but this wouldn't have factored in two weeks in Italy (and the prep for such a trip). Which would put me right around my floor.

So a little disappointing, especially as I feel the manuscript is getting a little flabby at the moment and I need to go back over the last 30 or so pages and trim, trim, trim. (But the other fifty pages have had that treatment already and feel tighter. So my first draft isn't rip, shit and bust. When I get to the end, it's probably my draft 1.5.)

Looking ahead, I should be about to meet and exceed 10K a month until I finish the 1st draft. At the moment I'm less certain about the total length of the novel than I was when I started. I'd have said 70-80K in February. Now, It feels 110-120K (about the length of THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS). But that's for the first draft - I may get savage in editing and create something sleek. May.

Doing the maths on this minimum scenario: if I need to produce another 80K words, that'll take 8 months but I only have 7 before the end of the residency. And what about Christmas and all the logistics of moving back to Wellington (probably have to go back a little early so my daughter's settled before starting school at the end of January)?

And I can kiss goodbye to my dream of a fortnight to work on short stories while I let the completed first draft breathe.

If I want a finished first draft by the end of November, I'll need to 16K a month. That seems doable. The last two weeks I've been able to produce around 1,000 words a day, so 10K a fortnight.

Doable, but not yet bankable.

What do the numbers say?

Which day of the week is my most productive? Part 1

NB: this is wordcount across all forms, not just on the novel.

This result really surprised me. In an earlier fortnight summary I said Tuesdays were my most productive days, which made sense as I take the weekends off, Monday involves a bit of working myself back into the flow, and Tuesday is where I still have the energy and enthusiasm and direction.

But Friday?

And what's up with Wednesday being so paltry. Do I run out of energy after only two days of writing? Or is it that I only have two days of clarity about what I'm writing before having to scratch around on Wednesdays to be able to be more productive the rest of the week?

Then I considered how these numbers were calculated. It's the average of all wordcounts from the given day of the week, divided by the number of those days thus far (19 for Monday and Tuesday, 20 for the others).

But what about all the zero days? Surely they weren't distributed evenly.

And they weren't. Of the 19 Mondays, I had 7 goose-eggs. Wednesdays had 8 non-writing days out of 20. But Friday only had 4. This seems to be a quirk of when I've been travelling or had people come to visit from up North.

This is what it looks like if you take all the non-writing days out of the equation...

Which day of the week is my most productive? Part 2

That's more like it.

I'm still surprised Monday beats Tuesday. This may be due to some of the blogging that happens on Monday.

And the dip on Wednesdays and Thursdays? That's something to reflect on. It'd be great to pull those days up to 1,000 words per day, though that might be quite hard given I'm already 20 weeks in.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Flame out/flame on: Fortnights 8 & 9 of The Burns

Self-portrait, Assisi
Fortnight 8 (8-21 May)
Total words: 9,781 (1st week: 5,897; 2nd: 3,884)
Breakdown: Novel 1,903, Blog/essays 5,898, Poetry 1,980

Fortnight 9 (22 May - 4 June)
Total words: 0

So, I left for Italy on 20 May and got back to NZ on 4 June, which explains the goose egg for Fortnight 9. I actually wrote about 5,000 words of notes while on my research roadtrip and took over a 1000 photos/videos, so it was quite productive, but it was a slip back into Pre-Production rather than time spent in Principle Photography, as they say in the movie business, so I'm happy to call it 'zero' and reap the rewards of massive and intimidating wordcounts in subsequent fortnights (not to jinx anything).

As for Fortnight 8, there was the Dunedin Writers Festival, which involved some prep and some poetry on my part, which I wrote about in part here. And prep for my Italy trip, which meant there wasn't a lot of time (or headspace) to push the novel forward.


What to say about Italy?

I don't want to say much, because I want to funnel most of it into my novel (or its first draft). But I will say I found the question of sharing my journey on social media was a fraught one.

There's the temptation to share pictures and videos to make people eat their smartphones in jealousy. This is doubly so when you see others doing it while you're travelling.

But my trip is so much more interesting that yours! 
But my meal was so much more epic! 
My driving in Italy story so much funnier (and better told)!

But, of course, the reality of travel, especially solo travel for a specific, work-related purpose, isn't all jealousy inducing. There's all those meals alone (and the orders you regret: walnuts? walnuts!). The relentless mental load of getting all the places you need to get under your own steam. And the fact Italy can be a frustrating, backwards, unfriendly fucking place at the best of times. But it's easier to share the sunset shots, the flashmob in the Pantheon that gave you chills, the humblebrags about how many km's you've carved out and leave the static schmucks back home to slowly pickle in their own bile.

And with that, some pics...

Papa Francesco addressing us at the Vatican
The Pantheon 

Flying into Brindisi

Santa Maria della Grottella, Copertino

Driving to Martina Franca



Driving the A14

My Nissan Micra for the week, approaching Assisi



San Marino

San Giuseppe da Copertino taking flight


The tomb of San Giuseppe, Osimo

My haul (Fossombrone and Osimo)

Lido di Ostia

Friday, May 19, 2017

Something to say

Nothing to say

I sing when I’m at home. In the shower. While I cook dinner. Always badly, but I sing.

My kids, even though they’ve grown up with my constant singing, know it’s terrible and often tell me to stop. When I run the bath — which I do every night for three minutes of solitude after the rush of cooking for, and struggling to feed, my treasured monsters — I sing. There’s no one there to yell ‘stop’ or throw hands over their ears. The acoustics aren’t quite as good as the shower, but I can forget how bad I sound with the bath filling and sing in the style of people in their twenties when I was a pre-teen.

For the last three weeks I’ve been singing ‘Nothing to Say’. I’m not sure how this earworm worked its way into my repertoire in the autumn of 2017, but it was kinda funny, the way it fell just short of being ironic, that in this year of being paid to write whatever I wanted, I kept telling the bathtub I had nothing to say. I thought about writing about it. About how this song, through a quirk of musical availability in the pre-internet world, had started something.

But I didn’t write it after the first week, or the second. And then this morning I learnt Chris Cornell had killed himself in his hotel room in Detroit. Had ended his life mere hours after a Soundgarden show.

And I thought: ‘Shit, fuck, Christ.’

After a little while, I also thought, ‘Shit, I can’t write that thing anymore.’

Because I never wrote about Bowie or Scott Weiland when they died. 

Because there’s something so fucked about colonising the death of someone you’ve admired from a distance with your personal reflections. As if, by sticking your flag into the corpse, you can personalise your impersonal affections, requite your unrequited love.

But then I thought if it was just an issue of timing, of not wanting to be one of the crowd, perhaps I should still write something. I needn’t post it. At least not straight away.

I made a mental list of the musicians who meant so much to me that I’d push everything else aside and write about them. I could list three: Dave Wyndorf, Gord Downie, Chris Cornell.

So fuck it. I’ve caved. I’m basic. I’m upset. I’m writing this.

[And now, after finishing it, I’ve scrolled through my Facebook feed and no one is talking about Chris Cornell anymore and I’m thinking fuck this shitty, attention-deficient culture and I’m gonna post this now and then go offline before I talk myself out of it.]

The Encarta Years

I first heard Soundgarden on Encarta 95. The CD-ROM encyclopedia came with my family’s first PC and it would be another couple of years before we had the internet, so Encarta was basically it in the way of authoritative knowledge in my house besides maybe my parents (iffy propositions) and the newspaper.

Where Encarta beat my folks, the newspaper and even the leatherbound volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica at my Nanas, was that it had audio and video clips. 

For some reason, Encarta had a clip of ‘Nothing to Say’, in which Chris Cornell screamed tunefully (or sung screamfully) about his own in articulateness. I was twelve and shy and catching up on grunge just as its first, heady phase was ending. But Encarta didn’t have a clip from Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains (or Zeppelin or Sabbath or The Beatles). I think it may have had Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump it up’ (anyone?), but the only one I can remember vividly —because I returned to it whenever I was done “researching” whatever had prompted me to slide that CD into the tray — was ‘Nothing to Say’.

Soon enough I’d be sucked into Superunknown (I couldn’t decide if my favourite song was ‘The Day I Tried to Live’ or ‘Fell on Black Days’ – the answer depended on how depressed I was / how much I privileged Ben Sheppard’s bass over other elements of the band), then back though Badmotorfinger and forward through Down on the Upside.

For a long time I thought Soundgarden had two singers, one who sung and another who screamed. Later I learnt that Cornell had thought the same thing about Led Zeppelin. So there’s something to be said for growing up without the internet.

Euphoria Mourning

When my father died in 1999, I was given two jobs. Choose the music and write the eulogy. (Also: eat something!)

My father had been suffering from depression. He’d only just been diagnosed, though the doctor said he would have been suffering from it for many years. That the crisis of the past few weeks were part of something much bigger. A calmer, better-fitting black dog, but one more difficult to dislodge. He was prescribed drugs, or drugs were the next step, but then he died without ever popping a single Prozac.

In my eulogy six days later I quoted from ‘Seasons’, a solo effort from Cornell that appeared on the Singles soundtrack:

I wanna fly above the storm
But you can’t grow feathers in the rain

What I wanted to be saying, what I thought I was saying, was that I understood. That I forgave my father.

(Forgiveness —  proper, complete forgiveness — it turns out, took longer to manufacture, but now I look back at those words, and the sentiment with which I’d used them, and say, ‘Yeah, totally.’)

I included two other Cornell songs on the cassette I gave the sound guy at the church: ‘Say Hello 2 Heaven’ from Temple of the Dog (the funeral coincided with the week I believed in heaven) and ‘Sunshower’, a more recent solo Cornell offering which, I think, played after Joe Cocker’s ‘With A Little Help from My Friends’, my dad’s favourite song and the one to which we carried him out to the hearse.

Cornell’s music wasn’t my father’s (he liked Soundgarden well enough, though seemed more interested in Radiohead), but he was dead and I figured people would cut me some slack if I inserted a bit of myself into proceedings.

Later that year, Cornell released his first solo album, Euphoria Morning. I remembering listening to it in the car a lot as we drove around the country, my mum, my brother and I, staying with relatives who offered escape and distraction (for me and my brother) and a willing ear (for my mother).

Originally, Cornell was going to call the album Euphoria Mourning, but the ‘u’ was omitted in a typo at some point in production and the new title stuck. The sense of loss, though, was apparent to me. ‘Wave Goodbye’, in which Cornell does his best Jeff Buckley to farewell, uh, Jeff Buckley. ‘Preaching the End of the World’. ‘When I’m Down’. ‘Disappearing One’. Cornell had made an almost tender album for me to wallow in my grief (and the general teenage downer that I’d been on before my dad’s death), and it was wonderful.

Save yourself

In 2002 I was at university, living in a different town, living a different life. I was less imprisoned by my shyness, less hobbled by grief and my arrogance, which had bordered on misanthropy, had been chiseled away in the process of living this life.

Then I got really sick. I was coming back from University Games in Hamilton, in a van full of other students, and had to throw up in Taihape. By the time we made it back to Wellington I was a shivering wreck. My girlfriend took me to A&E and they thought it might have been meningitis. I got a spinal tap. I remember the pain. Trying not to vomit while they drained my spinal fluid. The fear.

After a shitty night in hospital they told me it wasn’t meningitis. A severe viral infection was as far as the diagnosis went before I was dismissed and left to lie in my bed for a week wracked by headaches, vomiting and diarrhea.

At some point in this hellish week I heard ‘Cochise’, the first single from Cornell’s collaboration with members of Rage Against the Machine. This was still before the internet was ubiquitous. My flatmate had it on the PC in his room, but I didn’t have my own device (I wrote all my essays in computer labs!). So when ‘Cochise’ came on the radio, it was the first I’d heard of Audioslave. And it blew me away, in spite of my physical weakness and torpor. I listened to the same station for hours until they played the song again so that I could record it onto a cassette, something I hadn’t done since leaving home.

After a skittery intro that called to mind rotor blades and scorched earth, Cornell comes in at full volume (I love the conversational ‘Well’, but the way):

Well, I've been watching
While you've been coughing
I've been drinking life
While you've been nauseous
And so I drink to health
While you kill yourself
And I've got just one thing
That I can offer
Go on and save yourself
And take it out on me

Two minutes before, three years had felt like a lifetime of distance between me and the kid I thought I’d left in Palmerston North. But here was Chris Cornell talking to me once more, thrillingly locked in his screaming register (save for a bridge that ends in the screamiest of screams), backed by a heavier, funkier band.

Had I heard about the collaboration with Morello, Commerford and Wilk before I heard the song, I’d have shaken my head and said, ‘Trainwreck’. But it felt as if Cornell had managed to bend Rage to achieve his own means. Which is pretty much what Cornell did for three records with Audioslave.

What would Zack de la Rocha do with a song like ‘Like a Stone’?

I was lost in the pages
Of a book full of death
Reading how we'll die alone
And if we're good, we'll lay to rest
Anywhere we want to go

Even the titles ring out with Cornell’s fixations: ‘Last remaining light’, ‘Drown me slowly’, ‘Heaven’s Dead’, ‘The Curse’, ‘Until we fall’, ‘Broken City’, ‘Nothing Left to Say But Goodbye’…

Far away from here

When Cornell was young, his depression had such a grip upon him that he could not leave the house.

But then he did.

And he kept leaving the house, kept producing music about depression and crucifixion, kept penning goodbyes that weren’t quite final until now.

Chris Cornell had plenty to say and he said it. I’m sad that he’s not with us anymore, that maybe he felt like no one was listening, that he couldn’t grow feathers amid this last storm.
I mean, fuck.

Seriously, fuck.

But then I listen to a song like ‘Boot Camp’, which is off Soundgarden’s last record before breaking up in 1997. It’s less than three minutes long, without sharing any traits you might associate with a sub-three-minute pop song. It starts with a two-phase, 1:14 long, intro, followed by a long, meandering verse and a soaring refrain (‘Far away, I’m far away from here’), and it suddenly wraps up.

It’s a track that could have resolved itself in seven minutes, become more of a song, but also, I suspect, harder to love.


Chris Cornell means more to me than a tiny tingle of cusper nostalgia. He’s more than the soundtrack of a morose thirteen-year-old or a grieving-sixteen-year old or an incapacitated nineteen-year-old. Because he’s all of these things. And none of them. However much I might think that I could conjure him up with my words, that there’s something redemptive in them, I can’t / there isn’t.

All that’s left is the familiar routine of grief-binging on an artist’s back catalogue and dipping in and out of the reports that will emerge over the coming days (the latest means I’m not sure I can listen to ‘Pretty Noose’ any time soon).

And this, of course, this bit, where I dutifully provide all the links to places you can get help, and then I personalise it in the hope that I can extend a life and expand, by whatever margin, the joy and music and sorrow and beauty in the world.

But seriously. Find that one person you can talk to. Don’t be afraid to ask. And don’t be afraid to be sad, to listen to sad songs or sing them to the bath as it fills.

If you’re in New Zealand, here are three places to start:

But don’t forget the music…