Passages Of Writing: The Spare Room by Helen Garner


Book: The Spare Room, Helen Garner. First Pub 2008 – The Text Publishing Company.

Why: It’s so real, visceral. I felt like I was actually Helen caring for, getting angry at, and cleaning up after Nicola. Helen is brave, goes right to the truth of it and so crisply and clearly.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between fiction and non-fiction, not the actual difference, I mean in terms of writing style, and it’s occurred to me there does not have to be any difference. I’ve often had more success with my non-fiction than my fiction and after reading this I realise why: I’ve been wafting around the details in fiction. I need to get to the nit and grit of my characters and feel them, really see how the character sees and believe it, and throw some emotion at it.

I’m doing a final edit of my current book, and today went back to the start to make a real attempt to implement this, the crisp realness that comes with non-fiction, seeing, feeling and knowing, not pretending to know.

Peggy glanced at me. Horrified sympathy passed along her eye-beams. It weakened me. A huge wave of fatigue rinsed me from head to foot. I was afraid I would slide off the bench and measure my length among the cut roses. At the same time a chain of metallic thoughts went clanking through my mind, like the first dropping of an anchor. Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose. It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love.


What about the importance of the right adjective? Cut them out is often the advice, but when you do need them, should you go to the thesaurus for something unique, or should you wrangle common words into a lovely and intriguing formation? I don’t know.

She was an elegant, stick-thin woman pushing forty, in a narrow jacket and skirt that skimmed her wiry frame; her ankles and arches were so bony that she had to scuff her feet to keep her high-heeled sling-backs on. Her hair was springy as a pot scrubber, and her face was a darkly lit by a half-smile of ferocious irony.


Passages of Writing: The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982




Book: The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982 Harper Collins 2007


Why: It’s just a little reminder in a world of texting, Twitter, Facebook and all the rest to stop and breathe. Keeping busy does block out the ills of the world but you can feel it – when you forget to just be still, running with the pack day after day – the loss of self.

Creative impulse doesn’t only apply to Artists and Writers, it apples to living your life in the moment with family friends and your self.


January 19, 1973. Days of teaching; meeting with students; talking with colleagues. The irresistible pull of the external world. One could very easily lose oneself within it…”keeping busy” is the remedy for all ills in America. It’s also the means by which the creative impulse is destroyed.


Passages of writing: Reading by Moonlight, Brenda Walker.

Book: Reading by Moonlight, Brenda Walker. This edition: Penguin 2010.

Why: This book is a celebration of reading, books and life. Moments in the book had me crying but it’s full of still moments that make you stop think, remember and celebrate life. It’s the details that count.

The part I had jotted down (when reading) was this:

Michael’s cats made themselves comfortable on the windowsills, and in the later afternoon the setting sun shone through the bright red veins in their ears.

But when I went back to read it just now I got a bit lost in it and decided to include more. It’s got all that you see in beautiful writing, scenery, lists of  objects and mouth-watering food, sadness ( the author is ill and states it from the get-go) philosophising on beauty and books, still moments of detail – cats ears and ocean views. It’s all there.

It was Michael, the philosopher at the end of my university corridor, who told me about Schopenhauer and the porcupines. When I was sick he often invited me to his apartment in the afternoon. It’s a wonderful place high above a beach, and, just like his office, is full of surprising objects. If you ever want a pigeon whistle, or the skin of a Russian wolf, or a bronze sea creature made in old Kyoto, or even the nest of a bird that has travelled through a sky you will never see, this is the place to go. Michael has plenty of American poetry and Freud; he offered good coffee or a martini.

I would sit and watch the sea. An armchair was pulled up close to the glass, from where I could look down into coral trees in which parrots squabbled and finally settled at twilight. Freighters anchored on the horizon. Or they moved too slowly to notice, until you glanced up from the coral trees and found they were in another place. Michael’s cats made themselves comfortable on the windowsills, and in the later afternoon the setting sun shone through the bright red veins in their ears. I would leave my shoes at the door and settle in the chair with my feet tucked up under my skirt like a child. Michael always seemed to have the makings of a delicious meal. Crumbed Fremantle sardines. Clams and pasta. Just a small bowl, the smallest possible glass bowl, of plain ice cream.

Once I bought him a bottle of champagne with a decorative twist of wire around its neck. This wasn’t the wire that secured the cork, it was positioned further down, like a necklace. ‘It has no function,’ I said. ‘It’s just beautiful.’

‘Beauty is function, ‘he said, and I thought about Anna Karenina in her ballgown. He was right.

As if to prove the point, he showed me a beautiful thing, a tiny red orchid. When I said it was the colour of the old cloth bindings on my collected works of Dickens, he asked, ‘does everything have to be about books?’

P166, Brenda Walker, Reading my Moonlight.

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