November 21, 2013

Stereo Stories at the Big West Fest

As part of the huge program for this year's Big West Festival, kicking off tomorrow, Mobile Radio will be broadcasting live from various locations and events.

As well as live event coverage, MR will feature work by various local sound makers and writers, including a selection of Stereo Stories by westies. Listen out for my contribution on The Ramones' 'Beat on the Brat' during Braybrook's Big Day Out, 2-4pm this Sunday.

Tune in to 99.9FM or stream it on

November 19, 2013

PND and me

A year ago this week I was in my first week of solo daytime parenting. Mr Fantapants would leave for work early in the morning and I'd pray that five-week-old Ms Marmalade wouldn't wake up for a couple more hours, and that she'd sleep again at some point through the day, and that I could maybe have a shower at  some point, or at least get out of my PJs. Only a few days into being a full-time mum, I was flailing; exhausted and mystified by the wailing little eating-machine that barely slept. If she dozed off in my arms I was so relieved that I'd sit pinned to the couch, staying as still as possible, twitching only those muscles required to flick through my blog feed on the ipad.

One of the (now sadly defunct) parenting-focused blogs I'd started following late in my pregnancy had a post to mark Postnatal Depression Awareness Week. I read the blogger's experience of PND with a pang, more of resignation than recognition. Throughout my pregnancy I'd been aware that, as someone who had experienced depression and anxiety off and on (mainly off, thankfully) since adolescence, my chances of experiencing PND were greater than the average one-in-ten statistic. But I'd also been determined not to become part of that statistic. So determined that I flicked through to the next blog post, telling myself that my tears were just those of an exhausted new mum.

A week later a heatwave struck Melbourne. Ms Marmalade and I were still glued to the couch all day every day, moving only to change nappies or preform essential ablutions. We were yet to get air conditioning installed and the small pedestal fan barely even moved the dense, humid air around the room. Our clammy skin stuck together with sweat and tears, as we took it in turns to wail or made a miserable chorus together. In a brief moment of clarity, I thought back to that blog post and knew that it was time to face the fact that whatever I had was way beyond the baby blues.

Remembering the blogger's advice, I called PANDA. Half an hour later I'd not only received some counselling over the phone but they had also called the maternal child health nurse at my local council, and put me in touch with my GP. The best part of all was when the counsellor asked if I'd like someone to call me again the next day to see how things were going. It was like I'd crawled out of the desert and someone was waiting for me with a small but icy-cold glass of water.

While the council was unable to help me beyond offering a sympathetic ear, my GP sprung into action as soon as I told her I wasn't coping. Within three days Ms Marmalade and I were admitted to a mother-baby unit for some much-needed sleep (on both our parts) and time to figure out what was going on and how it might be improved. I can't say the week we spent in the MBU was fun, but we emerged from it in far better spirits.

Of course, my PND wasn't cured in a week. I (reluctantly, at first) went on antidepressants for the first time in my life and also spent time talking with a psychologist. But by the time Ms Marmalade was 12 weeks old, my outlook on life was very different: not necessarily rosy, but definitely tinged with pink around the edges. Counsellors from PANDA continued to call me regularly until the day I realised with happy surprise that I had nothing to tell them. The counsellor bid me a very optimistic farewell and invited me to call back any time I needed to.

Since being diagnosed, I've been surprised how much of a taboo topic PND still is. Some people (especially women) look shocked when I tell them about my experience, as if it is a shameful admission of failure as a mother, others have been grateful to find someone with whom they can talk openly about their not-so-maternal (or paternal) feelings. I'm sharing my story here in the hope that it might reach out to a new parent the way that blog post did to me. If you're not sure whether what you're feeling is normal, and especially if you fear it's not, take the first step and call PANDA or your GP. I promise you that life on the other side of PND is worth it, for you and for your family.

November 10, 2013

Stereo Stories

Well, Supernanny has moved on to the next family in need and tomorrow it's back to me and Ms Marmalade. While I've enjoyed going into the office a couple of times and hanging out with my fabulous and lovely colleagues, and being able to catch trams and sit somewhere other than the front seats of the bus and having lunch with friends at cafes that do not supply highchairs, I'm really looking forward to getting back to being a mum. (Remind me of that on Wednesday afternoon, which is about when I expect the novelty to have worn off.)

I didn't quite make my goal of posting every weekday while I was on parental leave, but I did post more frequently than I've ever managed to before and while they were not the most riveting or well-written posts this blog has ever seen, I do have a sense of satisfaction that I managed to write something after such a long break from writing. I also posted a little extract from Finding Freia on Stereo Stories, an ace blog about music and memories.

November 6, 2013

Pinterest: an author's new best friend

I've been using Pinterest for about a year now and I lovelovelove it.

For years I've tried to organise and save useful links in a format that would actually be useful, but all the tools I tried (browser bookmarks, Evernote, saved posts in my feed reader) ended in the same result: when I finally needed to refer back to one of these links I couldn't find it. Now, Pinterest is my all-in-one solution. I have boards for sewing projects I'll get around to one day, household hints (is there anything bicarb can't do?!), chook-keeping and, if course, writing tips.

And if you love peering into other people's lives as much as I do, Pinterest is perfect for stalking lurking inquiring minds. As well as following people you know or finding those who share your penchant for garish 70s wallpaper, you can browse what random strangers have pinned and get a sense of the sort of person they are, like a character sketch. The downside of this is that everyone on Pinterest can do the same to you, which I don't mind in general (I'm not so interesting that anyone would be shocked by anything I pin, although they might be surprised to see an entire board devoted to exercise and other healthy pursuits since clicking the Pin It button is as close as I come to actually doing these things), but am a bit more shy when it comes to stuff I'm writing or planning to write. Enter private Pinterest boards.

Private boards were introduced a little while ago. You can now lock boards you've created so that only you can see them and, if you ask me, they are a  writer's best friend after Scrivener. I use private boards for:
  • character development - a collage of my main characters' style, favourite music, memories,  dreams and nightmares
  • setting development - a visual reference for certain settings and composite building/city/neighbourhood maker
  • plot development - quirky or interesting images that might inspire scenes or subplots.
And, of course, if you're doing all this pinning to support your writing practice it's not procrastinating, it's research. Yep, research.

November 4, 2013

Do over

I went to the movies today for the first time in over a year! I felt guilty enough about skipping out to a movie on a weekday so I didn't want to see anything that Mr Fantapants would be envious of, which was a good excuse to see About Time. It wasn't life changing but it was jolly nice and very sweet and a little bit sad, and all the other things you expect from a Richard Curtis romcom (coincidentally all the reasons Mr F won't watch it).

The movie's premise is that the protagonist can travel back in his own lifetime to do things differently until he gets them right, which, naturally, got me thinking about things I would do over if I had the chance, like:
  • the Very Mean thing I did in Year 6 that still makes me blush with shame when I think about it
  • telling my Year 9 religious education teacher that Jesus wanted me for a sunbeam
  • letting an apprentice hairdresser loose on my head with a razor
  • not making sure my name was removed from the last lease I held with my ex
  • waiting until my 30s to start taking my writing seriously
  • turning down an epidural during childbirth.
But when I thought about it more closely I realised that, while I might not think fondly about them, these things are part of my sum. The memory of that Very Mean thing reminds me to try to be kinder, ditto not being more sensitive about my teacher's beliefs. Being taken to the tenancy tribunal taught me not to leave important things up to flaky guys who can't even pay their rent on time. I started writing when I finally felt I had something worth sharing. It was all worth it except for turning down that epidural. That'd be a do over.

Speaking of movies, I can't wait to see this...

November 1, 2013

'Worthy' books and reading snobbery

In the past few weeks, two articles about reading have frequent appearances in my blog feeds, Facebook newsfeed and Twitter feed: Neil Gaiman's lecture on Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming and reports about this research proving that Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind (the full study is only available to subscribers but the New York Times ran a more easily digestible article).

Both Gaiman and the academic researchers (Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd) make the point that reading fiction increases empathy. "You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed," said Gaiman of reading prose fiction.

The researchers agree, but, their research results indicate, only if this fiction is literary. Research participants given popular fiction, non-fiction or nothing to read did not perform as highly in their quantative test of empathy (which included tasks such as 'reading' a person's emotional state from a photograph of their eyes). The Times sums up the reasons for the results thusly: "literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity." To drive the divide between 'high' and 'low' fiction home, the NYT article continues, "popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing." Subtext: reading novels that are not 'literary' is as 'bad' as not reading at all.

What the what?? [pause to take a few deep, calming breaths]

I am a reader and, when I have to be, a smart one at that. I studied 3 Unit English for my HSC. I completed a Communications degree. I read many, many worthy books, both because I was being graded on my responses to them and because I thought it made me sound smarter at parties. I can't tell you much about those novels now though, because I read them for the sake of having read them, not because I enjoyed them. I used them for essays, exams and literary chat-up opportunities and then promptly forgot pretty much every detail except the elements that made me detest them most. (See: Fanny Price's delicate constitution in Mansfield Park, Daisy's endless whining in The Great Gatsby. Far from making me more empathetic, these characters made me burn with a rage that left me incapable of caring about their personal struggles.)

I can't argue with the researchers' findings. I'm sure the study was conducted in a controlled and ethical manner and quantative results are more objectively analysed than qualitative ones. But, as someone who supports Gaiman's position that there is no bad reading for children, I fear that the findings of this study will be used as a reason (excuse) to stuff school reading lists full of 'worthy' tomes that 'improve the mind' rather than more accessible popular fiction that readers may actually enjoy.

A few years ago I was on a panel discussing YA and reading. One of the other authors on the panel was particularly (and very humourously) disparaging of the popularity of sparkly vampires, well-built werewolves and the girls who loved them. I'm no fan of paranormal romance, but the laughter and enthusiastic nodding of many of the adults in the audience (and the audience was 98% adult; young people don't come to these events unless they're diehard fans of someone on the panel) got my hackles up and I found myself doing something I never thought I would: defending Twilight. Well, not Twilight specifcially, since I struggled to finish it, but Twilight fans' right to enjoy what they read and to read what they enjoy.

It seems ridiculous to me that we spend almost as much time debating what young people read as we do despairing that they don't read more. Surely, as Gaiman says, the first step to making enthusiastic readers is to give them books they are more likely to enjoy than trudge through as an exercise in self-betterment (or better still, let them choose books for themselves).

In fact, I'd go one further and say there's no bad reading for anyone, not just young readers. I have been a far more satisfied and prolific reader since I stopped caring what other people think of my book choices and just read what I like (mainly YA with some chick lit and popular contemporary fiction thrown in, and a small smattering of contemporary literary fiction if it's recommended by readers whose opinions I really trust). There are far too many books I want to read to waste precious reading time on the ones I should.

Whether it's Anna Karenina, Anne of Green Gables or the next instalment of Ana Steele, my response to both articles is the same: read what you enjoy and stuff what other people think.

(And here's yet another article on the subject, from today's Age: Does reading fiction make you a better, less self-absorbed person?)