How I write.

A story starts with a jump.

When something makes me jump, a line in a book, a caption in a magazine, a phrase overheard, a tone of voice, a dream; a beginning. Short form stories are more personal than long form. I write most days but it can be on my notes page on my phone when I wake up at 3.46 am; on my iPad as I’m watching the news with a G&T at 6; on my desktop after staring at the screen for god-knows how long. Sometimes I’ll experiment. One of my current projects, a short story, I’m writing as a woman. I’ve tried this a few times but this time the woman is very unlikable, in fact she’s awful; the challenge is to make sure the reader understands that she’s awful. The reader has not to be on her side, yet is, in a way. That’s tricky, and more so as it’s in the first person. I test myself like this sometimes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

At a New Year’s Eve party a friend told me a little anecdote about his piano lessons as a boy. I now don’t remember exactly what he told me because I turned it into a story and now, in my head, that story, Prelude, has become the reality of the anecdote. It’s no longer John’s anecdote, it’s Michael’s story.

I’m writing when my partner catches me talking to myself. I’m writing when I don’t answer him because I don’t hear him because I’m wondering what Robert will say when he sees his dead mother. “What? Sorry.” is a common phrase of mine at home.

I spew it onto the screen. I try not to worry about where does this fit or what can I do with this or how do I spell …, I just let it out. I usually write chronologically, but not always.

I’m always aware that I have to trust myself, my imagination, my ideas, my abilities. It’s no good second guessing; I’d get nowhere. What comes pouring out in the white heart of creation I have to trust that it’s right, correct, apt, necessary, true. It’s later when the white-heat is down to warm, in the cool light of next morning that decisions have to be made.

I write on an online publishing platform (Tablo); while the piece is labeled ‘draft’ no-one can read it. I have four or five projects going at once; two novels, three short stories, I think. One of them is dormant until I come across a really fail-safe murder plan. Once it’s finished I ‘publish’ it on Tablo and anyone can read it. I also have the option of posting it to iBooks where it is for sale. Regularly I email my notes, from my phone or iPad, to myself and cut and paste them onto the respective Tablo page. I have an iMac and don’t have Word; Tablo has all the editing tools I need.

When I’m trying to go to sleep at night it’s important to think about only one thing, not 247 things. That’s why counting sheep works. It’s one thing. I also concentrate on one thing: what Robert might do when he sees his dead mother, or any other character or snippet. These stories, half in my head, half on my screen, over time develop their own reality and they always get to a point where it’s imperative that I write them down; I have to write them down because they are the closest thing to the truth I know. If I don’t write them down they just sit there taking up space. Getting in the way. Writing them down is like getting rid of them.

But writing them down has its own responsibilities. I must think of the reader. I must get the process right. The process: my story, my descriptions, my ideas, my images being transported accurately, truthfully from my imagination to the reader’s imagination via little dark marks on a pale background, with no loss of information.

Once it’s in the imagination of the reader, it isn’t mine any more, and it means whatever the reader thinks it means. I have no say in it once it’s there, in your head. If you read the short story linked above, what was John’s anecdote, became my story, becomes your reading experience; and if you seek me out and ask me what did I mean by something, I won’t answer. It’s not my place to answer: it’s not mine, it’s yours now. It’s now you that has to trust your abilities.

Introduction and Allegro


In the early stages of my mother’s relationship with my step-father, when she could get what she wanted – don’t think she was asking for diamonds, she wanted a good sized bathroom, a good sized laundry and a flushing toilet and those she got – she also got me a piano.

Unfortunately the means to teach me to play it were limited. There were two possibilities: I could go to the nuns or I could go to the Shefte College of Music; but being a good Lutheran family, going to the nuns was completely out of the question and therefore not a possibility at all, so the Shefte College of Music it had to be.

This turned out to be the wrong choice since the teachers at the Shefte College of Music were sloppy and extremely unmusical. They travelled up from the city to my small country town every Monday so I stayed with Auntie Ivy in town on Monday nights since the music lessons were after school and I would miss the school bus back to the farm. I liked staying with Aunty Ivy on Monday nights because my Latin teacher, Miss Linke, boarded with my Aunty Ivy and it was Miss Linke on whom I had an enormous crush.

But back to the music. The music teachers from the Shefte College of Music taught piano and piano-accordion. I actually wanted to learn to play the harp as another crush of mine at the time was on Harpo Marx. No-body had a harp but I had a piano so the piano it had to be.

We already had a piano-accordion player in the family. One of my step brothers learnt to play the piano-accordion from a local girl. He was so good at it that he married her. They used to play piano accordion duets in his room where my mother insisted they play with the door open. It was understood but never said that they might do things to each other that my mother disapproved of. This puzzled me because if the door was closed I couldn’t understand what they could possibly do to each other while both had piano-accordions strapped to their chests and all four hands energetically engaged in pushing and pulling, keying and buttoning piano-accordion arrangements of songs from South Pacific. If you haven’t heard a piano-accordion duet of “I’m Gunna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” then your musical upbringing is sadly lacking.

The teaching method of the Shefte College of Music was based on the belief that all young people were interested in pop songs. Therefore they taught their students to read music only in the treble clef. They completely ignored the bass clef but trained our left hand to vamp the guitar chords which were always printed in a little box above the treble bars. This worked well for songs like “Beautiful Beautiful Brown Eyes,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “The Impossible Dream.”  My earliest public performance was in the Glenelg Town Hall, in the big city, at the end-of-year concert where I was part of an ensemble of 10 pianos and 15 piano-accordions all bashing out “Lady of Spain” almost at the same time. The noise was … remarkable. It was my first taste of public acclaim. The audience applauded very loudly when it was finished.

When I asked could I learn the piano piece that accompanied a popular TV commercial about fabric conditioner they were a little surprised but they found the music which didn’t have guitar chords on it and that’s how I learnt to play a piece called “Fur Elise.” I only learnt the first page; it was a very short commercial.

My mother made me practice every day which I did after I came home from school. It was at this time of the day when everyone in the house was out of the house doing the evening chores. They all assured me that they could still hear me practicing and I was doing very well. I was particularly good, I thought, at “Sadie, The Cleaning Lady.”

During one Christmas holidays in another little country town I was baby-sitting my sister’s children. After the kids went to bed I decided to listen to some of my sister’s LPs. We didn’t have any music player on the farm. Music was more closely related to church, the organ, and Sundays. There was a pile of records in my sister’s very modern and very long HiFi unit, made of polished wood and glass with speakers at either end. It was a stereo system and you could stack on the central spike several records at a time and each one, and only one, would drop down after the previous record was finished. It was very mechanical and very modern and had a built in cocktail cabinet. Their record collection consisted of the James Last Band and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. That was it. But on this particular night I went right to the bottom of the pile and came across an LP that I had never seen before. It was red and written across the top were the words “The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The name of the motion picture was incorporated into the design; red on red, so it took me a few moments to find it. It was called “West Side Story.” I had no idea what it was so I played it. I watched as the black disc dropped down and the arm came across and lowered itself on the first track; and I listened. I was mesmerised. I had never heard anything like this before. It was so surprising. You could tell that there were a lot of musicians playing a lot of different instruments all at the same time. It sounded like there were hundreds of them; and no-one was vamping. There wasn’t even a piano. For the next hour or so, while I sipped Creme de Menthe from a very little glass I played the first song – it was called “Overture” – over and over again. It was the most exciting music I had ever heard.

Those same Christmas holidays were my last on the farm. In February I went to the big city, to boarding school, to do my matriculation year before going to university. I left home. On the first weekend I took my horde of pocket money, I’d been saving for months, and I went into the city on the bus, by myself, and found a music shop. I wanted to buy some orchestral music but I had no idea what to buy. I found a little music shop in a little lane-way that sold not only LPs but cassettes and cassette players. I bought a cassette player about the size of a small type-writer. Then I searched for music cassettes of orchestral music. I spent hours in that shop. I only had enough money for two cassettes. After much deliberation, based on nothing but the picture on the front, I bought a cassette with music by someone called Saint See-ens; a piano concerto it was called, Number 2. I searched for number 1 but couldn’t find it. It was clear to me that although the composer was a saint I was sure it wasn’t religious music. I knew I didn’t want religious music. I also bought a cassette of music by someone called De-vor-rak. It was called “From the New World” and I bought it because of the word “New”. I liked the fact that it was new.

My musical education, taste, and the pronunciation of European composers have all improved, wandered, and grown over the decades since. I played Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No 2 only yesterday which sparked my wish to write the above. It’s still one of my favourite concertos. However I cannot listen now to Dvořák’s From the New World, his Symphony No 9. I’m not sure why. It makes me cringe.

Little pieces like this have occurred to me lately, I suppose, because I have just finished reading a memoir. However the above was a little experiment on how to convey my naivety and wide-eyed wonderment at discovering orchestral music. Short and simple sentences, something that an eight year old might write, was my way of trying to achieve this; but it was also an experiment in meaning. I hope it was clear that when I wrote, “I was particularly good at “Sadie, The Cleaning Lady”” you understood that I meant the exact opposite and that despite my description of 10 pianos and 15 piano-accordions playing “Lady of Spain” you understood that it was probably the most hideous noise a pair of ears could endure. But, successful or not, I’m sure you’ll tell me.

I was reading a memoir, and suddenly …

I don’t often read memoir, or biography, or autobiography. I have read those of, or about, Tennessee Williams, W Somerset Maugham, Jane Bowles, Maurice Ravel; heroes of mine at the time; but yesterday I was reading Nuala O’Faolain’s remarkable memoir Are You Somebody? and suddenly this popped into my head …

I put down the book and sat down at my desk.

For Mrs Paterson

My earliest proud attempt at writing, at completing something, has stuck in my mind. I have thought about it often.

We were asked to write an essay on any subject but I chose to write a short story: completely made up. It was 1969, that year at Immanuel College, my last hurdle before University, boarding school, the best year of my education, when the Americans stepped on the moon; the first thing I wrote for the wonderful and sensual Mrs Paterson.

It went something like this, not the story itself, but my recollection of it.

In an unnamed little country town, every Sunday morning, an old widower, leaves his low-verandered cottage, a cottage with a frown, and takes a little bunch of flowers, whatever he can find in his garden, to his wife’s grave at the far end of the town; at the other end of the single street. Along the way he passes his neighbours and fellow towns-people pottering in their gardens or sitting on their porches, people he hardly ever speaks to except on Sunday mornings. He chats absent-mindedly to old Mrs So-and-so; to Mr and Mrs This-an-that. These people speak fondly of his dead wife, which is something he expects them to do; they knew her and they know where he is going and so they talk about her. They mention the time when she…; or the day they saw her ….; or even the time she told them about …; that sort of thing. They never mention much about him because he was always there and would, of course, know exactly what they are talking about. Like most people they speak in unfinished sentences where new thoughts interrupt the flow, or old thoughts occur to them again. He nods his head in recognition and chuckles when they chuckle, shakes his head at the likeness of her, at an anecdote he doesn’t remember but makes out that he does. And he shuffles on past the next house, the next garden, admiring the zinnias (he hates zinnias), getting a response or sometimes not. These little stories remarked on by the people he meets are sometimes the same as the Sunday before, and sometimes they are not; but on this particular Sunday, on this particular walk with this particular combination of familiar stories and unfamiliar stories, some he believes and some he thinks are pure humbug; on this particular Sunday morning with the clouds and the wind making these particular shapes against the blue, he gets to the little rusty gate of the little church cemetery and it dawns on him. They all hate him. They all hate him, and they loved his wife. She was the good one, he is the fool; she was the one who put up with his cantankerousness, his petty complaints about them, his way of blaming her for things he thought she had done. They talked behind his back and still do, he realises. If he looks back down the street now; if he turns his old fading body around he would see them all standing on their porches, amongst their silly zinnias, looking at him, whispering to each other about him. And that’s what they do every Sunday. It was her they loved. But he doesn’t look back because he is not brave enough to do that, not now. He shuffles on to do what he came to do. He stands on the damp earth by his wife’s neat little grave; and as he takes out the flowers from the little jam jar in its little concrete hollow his heart gives a jump because he knows his realisation is true: these are not the flowers he put there last Sunday. Other people tend her grave; these are other flowers, better than his. His old legs give way and he sinks to his knees still clutching his pathetic little posy, a daisy, a thistle, a piece of fern. As he feels the cold tears running down his cheek and feels the damp oozing through his trousers, he begs his wife to forgive him, she who was the good one, she who was loved more; and how can he get up and walk back to his little cottage when he now knows the truth: she is loved, he is not. What is he going to do? How can he possibly go on?

I was very proud of my story; god knows where it came from. I sat in my seat as Mrs Paterson gave back the stories to her students. I sat wondering how I was going to deal with the praise that I was sure would follow. Someone is always mentioned as the best. What would I say? Mrs Paterson, speaking in generalities about the stories, about her student’s work, paced up and down the aisles between our wooden desks and then she put my story down in front of me. I hesitated to look at the top of the page where the mark was sure to be, savouring the moment. Then I looked. I saw the mark, in red ink, at the top of the page and my heart stopped. Sixteen out of twenty. Is that all? I was devastated. There must be some mistake. I read the first line, “On a Sunday morning, like every other Sunday morning…” Yes, it was my story. But my story was a work of genius from one so young. Didn’t she realise? But by then Peter Fitzner was standing up receiving the praise that I was sure would be mine. Peter bloody Fitzner. Didn’t she understand? That was it. I had decided. It was as simple as that: she just did not understand. Genius can be so overlooked, you know. It had happened before, I was sure.