Finding inspiration or: The joy of writing in your local café

After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game, or whatever, or even talking to someone you’re not vitally interested in.

Henry Miller

 

Cafe Writing

 

Lately I have been trying to write in cafés. OK. I tend to do less writing and more eavesdropping-disguised-as-writing. It makes me feel a little bad.

A little.

Because I know I am going to stumble on some gold soon.

I remember chatting away with Steve in this little teeny coffee shop hidden away in some teeny lane-way, as Melbourne likes to do, and there was this guy sitting nearby with his notebook open, pen poised … I was sure he was writing down our conversation. It made me whisper even though we weren’t saying anything all that intriguing or eavesdropping-worthy. If we had I would have written it down.

That is the gamble you take if you enter a relationship with a writer.

Just saying.

I remember thinking how I couldn’t do that. Sit in a café and steal write.

Until I did.

During my masters I wrote an entire scene (even stole some direct quotes) from the very loud, very interesting, conversation a mother and daughter were having near my lonely table in a café. I took it to my lecturer for a dramaturgy session (code for – I am going to rip your writing to shreds and you are going to take it) and waited, with bated breath, as he read through it. He loved it. I, not good at taking compliments, had to dismiss it in some way and explained how I had stolen it from a conversation at a café. “Do more writing in cafés then,” he said.

So I have been.

And I think that’s OK.

I like my café. The coffee is good. That helps. And there is a sunny table. And whole range of characters to watch and listen in on. That helps too.

I watched a woman gulping water. It made me feel sad for some reason. Her shaky hands sneakily applied lipstick, one hand holding a tiny mirror, the other wobbling around her lips. She kept her bag nestled on her lap like a precious pedigree cat. She kept her head lowered at an angle that suggested she wasn’t well or didn’t feel worthy to look up or both.

I saw another woman looking at the waiter through squinted eyes as he explained the specials. She kept her hand elegantly under her chin and asked a lot of questions in one those affected Australian accents. She ordered a latte to have after the meal. The meal she chose was not the one she had asked a lot of questions about. She had wondered if the goat’s cheese was very strong. She didn’t like strong goat’s cheese. The waiter told her it was very young, very fresh. I don’t think she believed him.

At another table I saw someone who used to be someone. He kept his head in his hands, pretending to not want anyone to notice him or attempting to recover from a hang-over or both.

Another waiter was just waiting. Cloth in hand. Hoping for a spill. I hoped not to accommodate but I do have a tendency for spilling things and other general clumsiness … “Spilling things and other general clumsiness” – could be the title of something, someday, maybe … The man who used to be someone makes me question why I even bother writing at all. He used to write and star in a sit-com. And now look at him. I wish he’d speak so I could scribble down his conversation.

I overheard a couple talking about dividends and CEOs and maintaining the asset and fragile infrastructure and the sector. They talked about the sector a lot. And repeated what the other said, a lot. She was very agreeable. He was very loud.

SHE:   You’re sounding a bit disillusioned about the sector.

HE:      I’m not disillusioned about the sector.

I think they’ll be popping up in something.

I overheard a conversation that jumped from conspiracies about MH370 to Shane Warne to the GST on baby clothes.

Gold? OK. Maybe not yet … but I am filling up my notebooks with characters and ideas and weird little snippets of conversations that could, maybe, one day, turn into something. Hopefully … we shall see. It could be the change of scenery, it could be the ridiculous amount of coffee I am drinking but, either way, there is inspiration to be found and stolen from your local café.

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On realising you’re in your thirties or: Isn’t age just a number?

"When I grow up I want to be a teacher" by me, aged 6 (1986)

“When I grow up I want to be a teacher” by me, aged 6 (1986)
Actually, I wanted to be a gypsy or a racing car driver but I went with the safe option for my grade 1 scrapbook.

The casting brief asked for a woman in her 30s – 40s. I thought there must have been some sort of mistake. Me? Play 30s – 40s? Seriously? I’m only … no, hang on, wait up … I remember now … I am 33. Turning 34. That is my age bracket.

How the hell did this happen?

I mean, obviously, we get older. Mum always says, “I’d rather be old than the alternative”. By “alternative” I assume she means dead rather than not-ageing-but-staying-in-the-blissful-carefree-stage-that-is-your-twenties. If the latter were the alternative then I would be going for that. Anyway, my Mum also says she’s just “visiting her aunt” when she heads off for the bathroom, so I don’t know how seriously I can take these little sayings of hers. (I love you Mum.)

When I was a kid I would always tell people I was the age I was going to be rather than the age I actually was. So, in 1989, a month after my 9th birthday I would tell people I was 10; after my 10th birthday I was already telling people I was 11. Needless to say, I stopped doing that – I’m still 33 and won’t be telling anyone I am 34 until that day in July when I eat too much cake and wonder what the hell have I done with my life?

Back then, when I’d say I was 10 but I was actually 9, it wasn’t because I wanted to be older. There was just something more interesting and exciting about the year ahead. What would 10 bring that 9 just couldn’t comprehend right now? In reality it brought nothing but the wonderful butterfly cupcakes Nan would make for our birthday parties. They were amazing. I wish I could recreate that. Surely I should be able to bake by now? Be able or, at the very least, interested in baking? I am 33 after-all.  Who am I kidding? I don’t bake and I’m OK with that.

I had no desire to get older. I got quite upset after receiving clothes for Christmas one year. I think I was 10 but telling everyone I was 11. It wasn’t like the clothes were awful, it wasn’t as if I didn’t like them … but Christmas presents were meant to be toys, right? Getting clothes meant I was getting older. Only kids got toys for Christmas. If I didn’t get a toy I was no longer a kid. I wasn’t ready for that. Mum said I’d love to get clothes one day … she was right, of course, and the next year I forgot all about the no-toys-for-Christmas saga and desperately wanted a denim jacket. So it goes.

Whilst I hadn’t wanted to be older, I had always looked forward to being sixteen. “Sixteen”: mythologised in popular culture and American teen books where the kids are all rich and drive sports-car and hang out at the beach or the local diner. The fact that we weren’t rich, that there was no way in the world my parents would let me get in any car driven by any teenager and that diners weren’t really a “thing” in Australia did not deter my somewhat clichéd imagination. I was dreaming of this sixteen year old version of me when I was only 12 and reading way too much Sweet Valley High. At this age I also read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, delved into The Odyssey of Homer and got through many of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets – sadly it seems that Francine Pascal’s awful trite influenced my somewhat impressionable mind a little more than Orwell at that point in my life.

Anyway, despite being pretty well read, I thought sixteen was going to be this amazing year full of school dances and high-school romances and hanging out and eating pizza with my friends and first kisses and fun-fun-fun. I pretty much thought it would be just like Beverley Hills, 90210 – the fun parts, not the serious, issue-based stuff, and I’d be Kelly Taylor, of course …

As the wonderful 16 got ever closer I like to think I matured enough to know it wouldn’t, couldn’t and, possibly, shouldn’t be like that. I am sure I knew but a little, tiny part of me still dreamed of this Hollywood version of sixteen. When the day came I had a little party with my friends. Most of them left early because there was a bigger, better, non-supervised party with a bonfire and older boys and beer happening within walking distance from my place. It wasn’t the Sweet Sixteen birthday party John Hughes had led me to believe I would have. The all magical sixteen wasn’t as magical as I thought it would be. There was a lot to deal with; heaps of homework, exams, simply surviving every day at my terrible high-school, bitchy girls, idiotic boys – there was reality.

Naïve, optimistic, sixteen year old me doesn’t seem all that long ago. She is not a distant memory. She was only … nope, hang on, she was 17 years ago. How the hell did that happen? Where did the time go? And why do I still have the exact same hair-cut?

So, it was with surprise that I read the casting brief for a woman in her 30s – 40s. I had to stop and think … surely they have sent this to wrong person? But, no, my agent can do math – that is my “age range” now.

Wow … that went fast …

And I was OK with it, I think.

I mean, I never wanted to grow up but here I was – suddenly in shoved into the 30s – 40s bracket and that was OK. It was actually OK.

Until the meeting with the literary manager of some theatre company.

She wanted to talk to me about my work and I was thrilled. It was going well, until she asked me how old I was. I answered, honestly because, well, I hadn’t thought anything of it. “Don’t tell anyone that,” she said in this hushed tone. “You’re not as impressive now I know how old you are.” That was my chance to interject with a comment dripping with wit – it didn’t happen. “We thought you were some kinda child prodigy thing or something,” she laughed and the meeting was over. I never heard back from them.

It made me panic. I was too old. I’d missed my chance. Clearly the only people worth supporting in their creative endeavours are the young. I still thought I was young. I still thought I had my whole life ahead of me. I didn’t know there was an expiry date on creativity and I really didn’t expect that expiry date to be in one’s 30s …

So, what’s wrong with being in your 30s? I’d rather be old than the alternative … thanks Mum. Being in your 30s doesn’t make you old. 30s is the new 20s which makes 20s the new teens and, as much as I thought I wanted to be sixteen, I wouldn’t be going back there in a hurry.

Of course there isn’t an expiry date. Of course not. Well, there is that one big expiry date but there’s nothing I can do about that one … People will always have different perceptions on age – different expectations they place on somebody based merely upon the year they happened to be born. Well, let them. You are only as young as you feel, that’s what they say, right?

I have always looked younger than I am. I am sure it will catch up soon. I still get asked for ID which makes me feel great. I still get spoken down to like I am an inexperienced 20-something which makes me feel like crap. There is such an emphasis on being older or looking younger that I don’t think I ever enjoyed just being the age I am.

There seems to be this idea of what you should have achieved and by when. Just like all the pressure I put on the idea of being sixteen – at sixteen year old I should [insert implausible scenario from awful teen film here] – now it is the pressure of what I should have achieved in my 20s (but didn’t) and what is expected of someone in their 30s (which makes me incredibly anxious) and on and on it goes until you are in your 90s and then you can do whatever the hell you want and no one can say a word because you are 90, damn it (except maybe the people in the 100s).

Age is just a number, right? A concept. Aren’t we all just deceived into this perception of past, present, future? Isn’t everything happening all at once? Aren’t there scientists who believe there is no such thing as time? Einstein told believed that

the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.

I could be 22 and 16 and 106 and 2 all in a matter of moments, all at the same time. It hurts my brain …

So, I am just going to be 33. Until July 10. Then I’ll be 34. And I’ll tell people my age. And I will enjoy it. I have never been 34 before … (according to Einstein and others I have been, yes, but … oh, it is too much).

I may not be doing what people are “supposed” to be doing in 30s. I may not have achieved all those things I was “supposed” to achieve in my 20s. And I will be OK with that.

And I will start looking forward to my 90s. That sounds like a fun age to me.

***

Part of the DP Challenge

Another List; or, ways to counteract feelings of creative stagnation when faced with a regular job that sucks all your time and energy [working title]

 

The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.

Pablo Picasso

I knew this would happen.

I was meant to be working a decent, part-time (i.e. maximum three-day-a-week) job which would give me time to focus upon writing, writing, writing for the other two days plus weekends when I could (i.e. so I don’t become a friendless hermit or cat-lady, minus the cats but with the isolated-craziness thing going on – I’m not allowed pets in my apartment but that’s another story, another blog, another day) …

This is not quite happening.

My three days often magically turned into five.  Just like that!

BAM!

Now I am signed up for four days a week. Sometimes five. Then I can negotiate a day-in-lieu. So maybe some weeks I can work three. But the usual will be four. Unless there is a show on or an important meeting. Then it is definitely five. But I’m only paid for four. But a day off can be negotiated so long as it isn’t for a day off when there is a show on or an important meeting. But most days. They’re flexible. To a point.

Confused? Me too.

But …

I thought I would manage.

One of my colleagues told me it wouldn’t work – “It’s a creative process,” he said. “You need time.”

Yes. That would be nice but I’m not Jane frickin Austen (apologies to Ms Austen – I know you didn’t have a middle name and probably would not appreciate being given that one in particular)  – I don’t have the luxury of time or a handsome trust account.

I have to Pay Rent / Buy food / Live (not necessarily in that order).

So, whilst I have been outwardly dismissing my colleague’s comments as completely and utterly wrong, inwardly I am thinking he might be right. There is a lot of pressure to get writing done when you only have limited time in which to do it: pressure trumps creativity.

But …

Maybe the reverse is true also; you make more of your time when you have less of it.

Or, in my case, you just freak out at the pressure of getting something done today and the pressure manifests into self-doubt and anxiety and youtube and Not Getting Anything Done.

So, here is my “list of ways to counteract feelings of creative stagnation when faced with a regular job that sucks all your time and energy” [working title]

  • Carry a pen and a pad of paper EVERYWHERE (um, okay, maybe not everywhere – everywhere, but you know, within reason) and write whenever anything is sparked.
  • Write something everyday. Be that mysterious person in the cafeteria at work who is scribbling away in their notebook (so long as you do look mysterious and interesting rather than creepy and homicidal).  Write any length / style / form; just do it everyday. Does a shopping list count? Hell yeah. Here’s my list for today:
Lime
Bananas
Tomatoes
Pineapple

(Riveting stuff there, I know … But one day it could be gold, you never know what I have to pick up from the store – stay tuned!)

  • Keep blogging
  • READ – READ – READ – never stop reading!
  • You don’t have to finish but you have to at least make a start …
  • Prove your smart-arse colleague WRONG

Why I love being a morning person and other lies I tell myself

One must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one can’t do anything about them.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

I lie to myself everyday.

I don’t think it’s such a bad thing really. I mean, of course, “Honesty is the best Policy” and “Liar-Liar-Pants-On-Fire” and all that. I know. I’m not natural liar. When I was in Grade 2 I told my classmates that I had been for a ride in a helicopter. I can’t remember the full story but it got their attention. And it was detailed. I remember I was pretty thorough in my storytelling. It was so detailed that I got anxious I wouldn’t remember the full story correctly (I was sure I’d be asked to retell it to the whole school) and be caught out as a helicopter-faker. I didn’t get caught out, probably because I never got to the retelling stage – another little girl said she and her dad met Michael Jackson (or maybe it was Michael J Fox –I can’t quite remember now), who just so happened to fly over to see them in a, yep, you guessed it, helicopter. My once-ace-now-really-lame helicopter story was topped by a far more confident liar and that was the end of my foray into extraordinary stories for my classmates. The pressure was just too much for a seven year old.

Anyway, those aren’t the sort of lies I’m talking about.

I’m also not talking about those lies which lead to complete delusion about ones talents and skills, thus resulting in awful wannabe singers auditioning for X-Factor and being genuinely shocked when they’re told they will never be the next Beyonce … No, not those sort of lies.

I’m talking about lies that can make getting through life just that little easier to manage. They are what I like to think of as the “grey-zone” of lies …

Here’s my lie list –

 1. I love getting up early.

No, I don’t.

But I do it.

And if anyone asks I will say “I am a morning person” and I can hear the little 7-year-old me whispering liar-liar … I’m not really lying. I’m not saying what sort of morning person I am, just that I am one – and I am … trying.

2. I love running.

No, I don’t.

But I do it.

Running is the most pointless thing I do. I just run. Around. And there are all these other people running around too but we can’t really make eye contact or say good-morning because we’re all out of breath or trying desperately not to look out of breath.

But I do like early morning runs (see point 1 above) when you feel like you get the chance to see the sky in a way that many others will miss for that day.

I do like the feeling during the run when you manage to get to the top of the hill without stopping or after a good sprint or when you realise you’ve managed to go further than you thought you could.

But there is plenty I don’t love about it – at times it’s a little boring and a little pointless and sometimes it’s just plain horrible. Your toes bleed and your legs ache and you get a runny nose. I try not to think about it and just go with the lie; I love running!

3. Just getting the chance to audition is wonderful.

No it isn’t.

But I say it.

Just give me the god-damn role. It’s a non-speaking, 10-second moment in a television commercial for a car. Do I really need to audition? In reality, no-one probably needs to audition for something like that. But in order to simply turn up to some of these castings you have to lie to yourself otherwise … well, you just wouldn’t do it would you?

Those people who run acting for film and TV workshops and master-classes, they all have these stories of [insert actors name here] who auditioned for something minor, didn’t get the role but did such an amazing job in the audition that the casting director got them in for [insert name of popular TV series here] and now they are this in-demand, always-working, award-winning, Hollywood-bound actor … Maybe the teachers of these classes are using the same lie that I’m using …

Anyway, this is a very useful lie for keeping sane and not getting overly disheartened when you don’t book the gig. There will always be another audition. And auditions are just wonderful experiences (see point 3).

 4. Porridge – it’s the perfect breakfast.

No it isn’t.

But I eat it pretty much every-single-day.

The perfect breakfast is ricotta hotcakes with berry compote or smashed avocado with poached eggs or coco-pops. I always thought being a grown-up meant having cupboards filled with a whole variety of breakfast cereals like Seinfeld. My cupboard has oats. It’s cheap and it’s healthy. That’s the reality of being a grown-up I suppose. So every morning I cut up a banana and put it in some decorative arrangement on top of the porridge and think about how this is, really, honestly, completely the perfect breakfast. It’s a lie that stops me buying coco-pops and that’s okay, isn’t it?

 5. Admin is just what I do to pay the bills; my real-job is acting / writing.

No it isn’t.

But I say it.

A lot.

Particularly when I’m using Excel.

I also, shamefully, use terms like “my creative practice” – I never wanted to be that person. But here I am. Saying it. Loudly. Particularly when I’m using Excel.

My admin job is my real job. I turn up 4 days a week, for 7.6 hours a day, have a work email address and phone number and desk and Outlook Express calendar that has meetings in it I have to attend and I get pay-slips and superannuation and sick-leave and accumulate holidays and all that “real job” stuff. I haven’t made money through “my creative practice” for about a year – so this makes it a hobby, right? No. That’s not the point. That’s not what it’s about. And I will continue to tell myself this lie because without it … Well … I don’t even want to imagine …

6. No. I don’t want the biscuit / slice of cake / chocolate / wonderful-sugar-filled-treat

Yes I do.

But I don’t take it.

Of course I want the sugary treat. It’s 3pm and I’ve been doing paperwork all day and the tuna salad wrap I ate at 1pm just didn’t cut it and I’ve consider the vending machine options multiple times and then – bam! There they are, standing at my desk, offering me a plate of cookies that were left over from some meeting or a slice of Mandy-From-Marketing’s birthday cake or some other incredible home-made treat drizzled in caramel and chocolate … And I lie to myself. I don’t want it. No, of course I don’t want it … The amount of cake that is served up in the office is really quite something; I need this lie.

 

 

I am hoping, I suppose, that eventually the lies will become the truth: that I will be able to say, and genuinely believe in, all those points with complete honesty. I hope to get to the same point, in a way, as those horribly untalented X-Factor contestants … but in this case use the lie for good rather than evil.

(And I did eventually go for a helicopter ride – about twenty years after the fake-helicopter tale. That’s the truth. However, my original version of the story of the helicopter ride as a 7-year-old was far more exciting …)

The Woman who asked Why or: How I l Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Critic

To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.

Aristotle

In my current day-job I work with really lovely people who always thank me for my work or say how great my Excel spreadsheets are or how happy they are with my contribution to the team or present me with two cinema tickets as a reward for all my efforts (yes, this actually happened. I saw Gatsby. That’s another story). Our department is not always this disneyfied-wonderland of positivity and appreciation, however I have never been nor felt criticized for my work.

It’s weird.

Because the work that I do that doesn’t-pay-the-bills-as-frequently-as-this-current-admin-job, as an actor and writer, is full of criticism. In fact, criticism and the Arts really go hand-in-hand; it’s part of the deal. Mum would always tell me I would need to “grow a thicker skin” if I wanted to be an actor … That sounded particularly terrifying and awful, especially to the fifteen year-old me who was sobbing into her pillow because she didn’t get the part in some god-awful amateur theatre production of Les liaisons dangereuses.

Actors, writers, theatre-makers, artists, designers, film-makers, creatives … We are all subject to criticism in our chosen fields. As an actor, simply not getting the gig can be taken as a criticism; that director thought she was better / prettier / thinner / more talented than me

To be honest, I am confident there are plenty of careers out there that must deal with fierce criticism everyday but there is something different about the criticism you receive for your creative work. Maybe because a little bit (or sometimes a lot) of yourself goes into creative work. Maybe because it is so exposing. Maybe because inside most people there is that creative urge, that sense that they too could have been doing something creative if only they’d had the break / money / parental support / reality television programs like The Voice, so that makes them some sort of expert who can dish-out criticism. Maybe because there really aren’t any “experts”. Maybe because the arts are so damn subjective (if you’re a crap doctor, you’re a crap doctor – there’s no question about it. Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, divides audiences).

There is also something different about the very public way in which that criticism is often given – reviews, particularly on the internet, are there for the world to see if they ever wanted to.

The growing of a thicker skin has been a very, very long process for me.

I once took part in a playwriting course – just a little bi-monthly meeting of wannabe playwrights, facilitated by one actual playwright. You would read your work aloud and get feedback. It was always a good day but never all that challenging. I was the youngest there and the only participant not attempting to write some sort of drawing-room drama. Needless to say the play I was working on, Dropped, was a little different from what the others found aesthetically pleasing.

After reading a section of my play (a section in which there is a bit of repetitive swearing but all in the appropriate context … of course) one of my fellow class-mates got quite irate:

“Why?” she asked.
“Why?” I didn’t know what she was really asking me here.
“Why?” she repeated.
“Why what?” I needed more information.
“Why?”
I just looked at her.
After a pause she continued, “I just don’t know why … I don’t understand. Why? Why these words? Why am I hearing this? Why?”

I didn’t have an answer for her.

That was criticism.

That was the first time the class had really challenged me.

And that was the moment I realised; as much as I hated it I also needed it – criticism.

It made me stop and think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. It also made me want to punch her in the face, but once I worked through that (no punches were thrown) I could actually start to look at my work objectively … Well, as objectively as you can.

Of course I won’t always like it, or agree with it, but I think I realised in that moment that it is a necessity for creative practice. Not a spiteful review or a mean-spirited comment but criticism that makes you think, question and challenge your work. Unfortunately there isn’t much of that around …

Learning to listen to criticism in whichever form it takes, to pick out the useful bits and brush off the crap, is difficult but you get to practice it a lot when you work in the arts.

It’s the only way I can keep turning up to castings. And not get the role.

It’s the only way I can keep writing. And not get the grant / commission / award.

In order to simply survive this crazy “industry” it is so very important separate the work from the person – to not look at a bad review or the fact you didn’t get a role as a personal attack … Keep it separate. Take from it what you can and make a choice: act on it or let it go. Otherwise, well, we would all go a little madder than we already are. Otherwise we would all just give up.

That woman with her incessant “whys” really did help me a hell of a lot.

(And Dropped is going to be performed soon complete with the aforementioned section in which there is a bit of repetitive swearing but all in the appropriate context … of course)