Category Archives: on writing

was that army there a second ago?

We watched Super 8 last night – the JJ Abrams alien movie that’s a 2-hour ode to the adventure movies of the 80s. Rag-tag band of boy-misfits? Check. One fat kid? Check. Mile-a-minute articulate banter from the mouths of babes? Check. One enormous personal problem mirrored by the world at large? Check.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this movie. It was set right at the beginning of the 80s (if I’ve put all the pop-culture references together right), and that in itself is interesting to unpack – why that era lends itself more to the boys-adventure movie than this one. But I’m not gonna go there, or we’ll be here all day.

There was a specific aspect of the storytelling I really loved, that I can’t wait to apply to my sci-fi adventure novel. You know, if I ever have time to write it.

Five boys and the town drunk’s daughter are making a zombie movie together on super 8 film. Their passion is taken very seriously – and their grown-up/childish conversation is wonderful. One boy’s mother was recently killed in a factory accident, and his grief weaves through the narrative, shaping his relationships and the choices his friends make.

And in the background, there’s an alien invasion.

The narrative is so firmly focussed on the kids and their movie that we only really see the alien story as it intersects with them. The first intersection is a massive, spectacular train crash in the middle of a scene they’re filming. So it’s not a small, background kind of thing. But it’s entirely filtered through the main event narrative, which is “Can we use any of that in the movie? Production value!” and “Is my camera completely wrecked now?”

The best part of this technique was that all that laborious army-invades-town-goes-to-war-with-alien stuff was done in a series of escalating background vignettes. First there are army trucks driving through town. Later, the army’s blocking off roads and searching houses – which is great production value, so the kids shoot a scene in front of it. Then the army are lighting fires and evacuating the town. Then they’re at full-out war.

Because the point of view of the narrative was so firmly with the kids this never felt farcical. It felt more like a true experience of war, than the absolute focus of a war movie. My German teacher in Berlin grew up in East Berlin. He would just shrug when we asked him about it, and say, “We were just living. That’s how our world was.”

It also means the characters are pulled naturally into the action as it pushes harder on their world. They’re each pulled in according to character, and by the time the kids are involved in full-out war tactics, the two narratives have pulled seamlessly together.

It was essentially an action movie, so the action plot was obviously important. However, doing it this way around meant it could also be a wonderful character movie, with a powerful, interesting narrative arc.

By the end of my sci-fi novel my protagonist has to find herself embroiled in civil war, whose implications are going to be felt throughout the universe. But I’ve never wanted the civil war itself to take up the bulk of the narrative, or to overshadow her personal quest to find out why her mother won’t wake up.

I had a sense that the civil war needed to boil in the background – that the reader needed enough markers that by the time it exploded it was surprising, shocking, exciting – but entirely believable. Even expected, in a sense.

Until watching this movie I hadn’t really seen an example of how I could do that. Now I think: Right. Make this a story about a girl trying to heal her mother, and let everything else happen in the background until it pushes so hard at her world she had to push back.

evil is geographical

I recently rewatched Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. It’s been about ten years since I first sat in a dark lounge room in Marrickville and was thoroughly perplexed by the film. The story is set within a strong Japanese context – it takes place in a bath house for the spirits after all, spirits that don’t exist in Western mythology – so that in itself is disorienting. The first time I watched it I didn’t understand the context of it at all, so the narrative started to fall apart.

But there’s a subtler reason as well. The storytelling is pervaded by what I can only assume is a Japanese sensibility – or else it’s the unique genius of Miyazaki. His baddies are particular for being undone – made harmless and absorbed into the greater family. He doesn’t tell stories about destroying evil. He tells stories about a person overcoming adversity and discovering their own strength.

The way he undoes evil – so that it’s a generous, gentle thing – is quite simple. None of his characters are evil at all. They are simply in entirely the wrong setting.

Take No Face, the unnameable spirit that Chihiro accidentally lets into the bathhouse. He  offers people (okay, so most of them aren’t people, but let’s try and keep this simple) exactly what they most desire in return for assuaging some hunger even he can’t name. Before long he starts stuffing bathhouse patrons into his mouth, and he grows larger, more deformed, more disgusting, more HUNGRY with each bite.

Instead of killing him, Chihiro leads him away from the bathhouse, into the quiet countryside. She understands that it’s the bathhouse that is bad for him; it makes him mad. He’s harmless, when he’s not overstimulated.

The genius of this is twofold.

1) The baddie is a fully realised character that remains consistent throughout the story. Because it’s not the character that changes to suit circumstance but the circumstance that affects the character, we can understand and believe in their turnabout. What a great way to create sympathy for an antagonist.

2) Chihiro shows a unique brand of courage and insight when she takes No Face away from the bathhouse. He’s an awful beast who will most likely eat her – but she shows compassion instead of fear. This is the turning point for her character – the moment she choses to be strong, and to have faith in herself – and I’d say it has just as much impact as if she’d killed the spirit. Actually, why am I being so careful? I’d say it makes her admirable and surprising, and has much more impact.

Miyazaki does this over and over again: The evil witch in Howl’s Moving Castle who becomes the Grannie to their rag-tag family; Nausicaa who makes the great, open-hearted sacrifice to stop the enraged Ohmu.

I’ve been reading some Loki fic, and rewatched Thor tonight. I wonder if context is part of what makes Loki such a great villain; he will never be in the right context. He doesn’t belong in Asgard, because he is their enemy-king’s son – and he doesn’t belong on Jotunheim, because he’s been raised to hate their kind, and hates their blood in his own veins.

It’s a good recipe for inner pain, I think, pulling a character out of context. And perhaps a great one to deny them any context where they can be at peace.

The Siren

I mentioned Tiffany Reisz’s The Siren a couple of weeks ago, as a book with a reputation for being electric. I’ve just finished reading it, and can’t quite make up my mind.

The premise: Nora Sutherlin is an erotica author and the New York underground’s most infamous Dominatrix. She wants to become a full-time, serious writer, and the only obstacle is her uptight English editor, Zach Easton. He won’t sign her contract until he sees the last word, and approves. But before you assume this is a romance – Zach’s mourning his broken marriage, and Nora’s torn between a sweet, innocent boy who represents all things wholesome, and the sadist who owned her for ten years.

It’s the first in a trilogy, so there are some endings, lots of heartbreak, and many threads left undone.

Nora is a powerhouse. She’s sweet, funny, kickass (heh), awful, sad, vivid, brutal, exciting. She’s a wonderful female character who is so drenched in experience she almost always has the upper hand. She holds her own. This, needless to say, is fairly rare and a joy to read.

The thing I liked least about the novel was her profession. I know writers are just one more subject for writers to write about – but an erotic novel about a writer of erotic novels? That was too meta for my tastes. (At least Reisz didn’t give Nora her own name as a pseudonym.)

Nora contemplates writing the climactic emotional scene just before the climactic emotional scene of the novel. She discusses, outright, the difference between sexual violence and emotional violence while she’s editing – giving us the framework for our reading of the novel. We read snippets of her novel and are invited to draw conclusions about Nora’s own life – because writers are known to write themselves into their books, and because she’s outright exploring one of her relationships by writing. That creates a mirror mirroring a mirror kind of effect. We are invited to take that reading of Nora’s book – so I couldn’t help wondering: What does this book say about Tiffany Reisz?

Like I said – too meta for my tastes.

Reisz wrote a guest post recently, titled ‘Seven reasons why you shouldn’t read The Siren’. It sounds like one of those humblebrag PR stunts, right? Like, “If you don’t like sexy, smart heroes, this isn’t the book for you!” I was impressed that she actually gave serious consideration to who her audience is, and isn’t. She says of BDSM:

The main character in The Original Sinners series is a woman named Nora Sutherlin—Mistress Nora if you’re one of us. That’s right, my female lead character is a Dominatrix. She’s also a Switch which means she not only tops (for money), she submits (for love and pleasure). If the thought of a woman with a riding crop or a man slapping his love during sex freaks you out, then move along. Nothing to see here.

I’m kinky and have done BDSM for years. There’s almost nothing that happens in THE SIREN that I haven’t done or seen or had done to me. BDSM is a game, a sexy game where everybody wins. But it’s a rough game and people do get hurt playing it. If that’s not your thing, then this is not the book for you.

I didn’t find a lot of the BDSM stuff hot, so I guess I fall into the category, “Not for you”.

Cat and I were talking recently about what works for us in a written sex scene. We figure – the more you can hone in on what works for you, the better you can write it. We both agreed that we like personal boundaries to be crossed – so that the demands of one lover require something deeply vulnerable, personal, impossible from the other.

But for me, that dynamic is immediately less interesting as soon as whips and bars and ropes are involved. That expression of submission and dominance has no emotional resonance for me – or maybe I don’t understand it emotionally. Given that the meta-narrative is exploring the transcendence of emotional pain over physical pain, the overt representation of physical pain broke the tension for me.

Probably I’m just not that into pain. It doesn’t equal anything emotionally for me, except for “ouch”.

The book discusses female desires – it puts forward the idea that it’s brave and wonderful for women to be able to submit to domination, and indulge the part of their sexuality that wants to be used and taken advantage of. This is a disturbing, complex idea, but one I was happy to engage with. Desire is no simple thing! What we should and what we want are often unhinged from each other.

However there was only one sex scene where I actually felt this dynamic – and it was the scene without any toys, just two people struggling for power and pleasure and breaking their pain apart.

In the ‘Seven reasons’ post, Reisz also acknowledges that there’s very little sex in the book, for an erotic novel. I suspect the sex is in the power plays between the characters.

Her characters have this larger-than-book feeling attached to them – like they’re very nearly iconic. That, I think, is an extraordinary feat. Even though they didn’t quite reach iconic for me, the fact that I can feel how close they are – that I would even judge them against that standard – is amazing.

Her characters reference that classic writing advice – show don’t tell – often and to good comic effect. But I felt that I didn’t see in the book just why Nora’s two men meant so much to her quite as often as I was told it. I didn’t feel the love and longing that would have pulled the narrative taught against the physical pain of the relationships. Her sadist, Soren, is the most dominant character in the book. He’s unrelenting, compassionate, vicious. But though I could see just what he was meant to be, though I understood his place in the narrative, I never felt as a reader that I’d been shown why she loved him so completely – or that his power was made absolute.

And here’s the counterpoint to the amazing female lead that is Nora: Soren can still dominate her. In the universe of this book, its god is still a man. And when Reisz lists the six reasons to read The Siren – every one of them is a man’s name.

This is turning into a long, long review/ramble, but I have one final point I want to touch on. In the ‘Seven reasons’ post, Reisz says she writes “literary erotica”. I found her book complex, compelling, tough and well-written. I don’t know if I would call it literary. It’s a tricky conversation to have, because it verges on the literary/genre divide, and that’s volatile ground! I certainly don’t think literary is better, but I think it’s a genre with its own set of identifiers. Reisz may not have “bulging trousers” in her book, but she does use some romance classics like “steely grey eyes” and quirking lips. (And that’s also not an indictment – my hero has midnight eyes, and he often quirks his lips!) An increasing number of romance novels are edging onto the literary/genre divide, so it’s worth getting critical, and watching that space, I think. It makes me happy that Reisz is placing herself there – but I suspect she’s still closer to genre than these erotica recommendations by Meanjin.

So after that whole ramble, and after ruminating on this book all night and morning, I still can’t really say what my reaction to it was. It didn’t shock me the way it did some readers (an excellent critique of the book – but be good to yourself and don’t read the spoilers!!), and I didn’t feel the full emotional impact that it offered. But it’s a complete world – and one that I want to spend more time in. I’ll be buying the next two books, without hesitation.

the unlikeable heroine ; the unanswerable question

Liz posted last week about why she stopped reading Jo Manning’s Seducing Mr Heyward. She points out how frustrating it is that the heroine is reacquainted with her sons and immediately becomes motherly, and loved.

This description fired up my writing brain. I particularly love tense, hurtful scenes in which family members misunderstand each other. I could imagine a different version of that scene, in which the mother was all nerves and defiance and insecurity, the boys all studied indifference, if not downright cruelty. That’s a world in which the characters would have to fight for their right to be – and let their feelings teach them to be humble.

When I ranted this at Liz, she said, “My feeling about the maternal thing was that a bad mother is seen as too unsympathetic for romance readers. I wondered if the author or editor was afraid to go there.”

This is pretty standard fare in Romancelandia – the discussion of what makes a likeable heroine, what’s acceptable, which lines can’t be crossed. Rosario made the excellent point that when Seducing Mr Heyward was published the character did push the boundaries – it’s just that we have so much more variety these days, we forget how far we’ve come.

Writers see a boundary, and something in the back of their brain goes, “What would it take to cross that?”

But then I started to wonder – what makes a heroine unlikeable? I’m sure every romance writer has asked herself this question hundreds of times, and gone about acquiring the techniques that’ll help her stretch those boundaries till they snap.

That’s not the question I’m asking, though.

I’m asking – what does that even mean, that a heroine’s unlikeable? What yardstick is she failing to measure up to? Is it a moral standard we hold her to – and if so, whose moral standard? Are there ideals of womanhood that can’t be contravened? Why? And whose ideals are they anyway? When writers and editors self-censor in anticipation of their market, does their caution actually meet reader expectations? How conservative is the romance readership?

Which all seems to point to: What do reader expectations of a heroine say about reader expectations of women?

Last week I read Jenny Crusie’s Crazy for you for the first time. Jenny Crusie’s vocal about the fact that she writes the kind of angry heroines she thought were missing from the romance genre – and that she sees romance as a powerful feminist instrument to show women what’s possible. What they can fight for, what they have a right to.

That they don’t have to be so impassive they fall into hundred-year comas.

But Crusie’s women – in this book – made me uncomfortable. They’re selfish and pushy and aggressive. I really don’t know whether I should leave it at “they crossed a line for me personally”, or whether it’s important for me to feel the discomfort of watching women act out “unfeminine” qualities.

When I strip out the generalizations, this is what I’m asking: What do my expectations of a heroine say about my expectations of myself?

I mentioned my interest in what makes a heroine unlikeable to Ruthie Knox, because everything that made me want to punch a particular heroine in the face endeared her to Ruthie. We both came to the conclusion that it’s a relationship to ourselves – not some vague moral value – that determines our reaction. Ruthie can’t bear heroines who she would envy in real life, or feel inadequate next to, or who have the kinds of obsessions that annoy her in real women. I can’t bear heroines whose flaws shine light on all the ways I convince myself I’m not – but know I am.

Of course, a relationship to myself doesn’t exclude “a vague moral value”. As Kyra Kramer says in her essay ‘Getting laid, getting old, and getting fed: the cultural resistance of Jennifer Crusie’s romance heroines’, “Since the body exists concurrently as both a natural and a cultural object, it is nearly impossible to examine the individual body independently of the social and political bodies. A person has a certain amount of autonomy, or agency, in regards to their individual body. However, the individual body is so closely intermeshed with the social/political body that it cannot help but represent cultural assumptions.”

It’s a huge question, “What does it mean when a heroine’s unlikeable?” and unanswerable in that annoying, artsy way, where everything’s subjective.

Here are some things I think about it:

Heroines aren’t heroic when they meet a moral expectation of good or bad. They’re heroic when they take on the whole world because they trust that internal definition of right.

And because that really told you nothing at all, here’s my definition of heroic in specific terms: Dan Savage, raised in the Catholic church, realised at fourteen that he was gay. He didn’t think, “There’s something wrong with me.” He knew what the church thought of homosexuality, and he thought, “That can’t be right.”

Can you imagine that? A fourteen-year-old boy with enough self-belief to declare one of the most powerful churches in the world wrong, because it disagreed with how he knew himself.

(You can listen to ‘Our man of perpetual sorrow’ here – it’s a moving piece of radio!)

Of course, if that had been a story about a fourteen-year-old boy believing absolutely in his right to own a gun, I probably wouldn’t see it as heroic. Remember the part about annoying artsy subjectivity? Yep.

However, it’s not always as simple as: What I agree with = good, what I disagree with = bad.

My favourite version of Draco in Harry Potter fanfic is the aristocratic boy who still believes in the racist notions his father drilled into him. The boy who believes in all the wrong things even when he’s coming to understand he’s fighting on the wrong side. He’s not ever going to be fully “reformed”, but there’s this quick mind that understands how his notions are received, and questions them, and believes in them anyway.

the shameless orgasm

This has been my year for scrutinising the way gender plays out in romance. Mostly that process consists of discovering how very little I know – which makes me think I’m somewhat on the right track; hopefully an always interesting track that might never lead to any kind of truth, but will lead me to new and exciting and challenging places my whole life long.

After reading good reviews for months of Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me I finally bought it the other day and had read it by dinner. It’s a truly gorgeous read, about a man and woman who undertake the trans America cycle tour together. Her hero Tom is delicious (she made licking an inner tube to test for punctures a ridiculously hot thing to do) and her heroine Lexie was a breath of fresh air: uncynical and optimistic without those traits turning her into a bimbo any more than they would in a real person.

I questioned some of the sex in the book – for example when Lexie’s expression of her desire and acquiescence is, “I want for you to have me.”

The observation that, above all others, awoke my curiosity about gender: Women are taught that their pleasure comes from being the object that is desired, not the person who desires. Lexie’s expression of her desire in that line smacks of this is sexy because you want me. Her own desire felt curiously erased. And later when Tom puts himself at her mercy – tells her she can do anything she likes with him – she chooses to pleasure him. In a way, I get it – she’s indulging her own desire, and I certainly wouldn’t want to say that pleasuring a guy isn’t sexy! That would be dumb. But though Lexie realised the power she had, she didn’t feel powerful to me in that scene.

However.

There was one scene in the book that instantly makes this my number one feminist romance read. Lexie is all hot and bothered in her tent one afternoon, and she starts masturbating while thinking about Tom.

For those of you who don’t read romance: masturbation isn’t mentioned that often, and the masturbation scene is much rarer still. Off the top of my head I can think of The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt and Delicious by Sherry Thomas.

And if you do get one, there is always – ALWAYS – some sense of shame involved. Whether it’s the fear of being found out, the fear that it’s somehow wrong despite the pleasure of it, or the belief (ah, romance heroes) that it’s “making do”, something to resort to if one’s heroine isn’t available. Some heroes don’t even allow themselves that much – I was so confused when I started reading romance that heroes were constantly off taking cold showers and baths. Surely they had a better, more effective option?

I understand with historical romance that it’s period appropriate to have shame attached to masturbation. But I don’t think that’s why it’s written that way. Give the amount of shameless sex historical heroines are having.

Lexie doesn’t feel one second of shame. She lets herself imagine Tom, she lets herself go to it, she revels in the delicious feeling of her body afterwards. She’s actively enjoying herself. She feels embarrassed when she thinks Tom might know what she was doing, but as a reader that came across as very different to shame.

And that’s why this book rates as a feminist read for me – because it engaged me in a discussion about my own sexuality in a way that surprised and delighted me. It challenged a shame that is so ingrained it’s invisible – and it gave me permission in a way that few face-to-face conversations ever could.

My Lady Untamed blurb: take 2

This is my second attempt at a blurb for my romance. It’s almost completely different to the first, so it may seem like I ignored all your excellent critiques – but that version was, let’s say, the flat mess of a souffle that made me rethink my ingredients. These ingredients may be no better, but it’ll narrow my options down again. So before you start getting confused by all the foody metaphors, here’s attempt number 2:

The brilliant, troubled Duke of Darlington plays games with London’s rich and famous to distract himself from his desperate loneliness. He is the King of Manipulation and entirely unmatched – until the day he meets Katherine Sutherland, the Queen of Brutal Honesty.

Katherine has kept her family out of the workhouse for years, but she doesn’t realise until the duke invades her life just how narrow she has made herself in the process. He’s unlike any other man on earth – in fact, Katherine suspects he might just be the most complicated bloody man in the universe. He thinks nothing of dressing as a woman so that he can share her bed, or making himself frighteningly vulnerable to gain her trust. Then there’s the fact that the only thing he appears to love more than himself is his pet pig.

But the duke’s games have dangerous, political consequences, and when his title is threatened Katherine is faced with a choice: live a quiet, safe life – or go to battle for the man she loves.

If you have time/inclination to comment, please do! For example. If you read this on the back of a book would it make you: a) want to read the book; b) throw it back on the shelf with no regard for alphabetisation; c) feel confused; etc.

I stopped being able to see this story with any objectivity about 2 years ago, so I really appreciate any input people are happy to give!

(Also, THANK YOU to Catherine for being my willing guinea pig/beta reader, and for dubbing my characters the King of Manipulation and the Queen of Brutal honesty.)

heartbreak remakes the heart into a different organ

I just finished reading Meredith Duran’s At Your Pleasure – and though the cover was as gorgeous as ever, it was the first book of hers I didn’t love.

The prologue and first chapter made me feel fizzy and dark with, well, pleasure. It was brimful of the kind of romantic angst that’s been missing in all these lovely, nuanced, thoughtful romances people have been writing. It begins:

Faster.

Adrian had abandoned the lathered horse a mile behind. He ran now, his feet no sooner striking the ground than lifting again, all his instincts and memories combining to aid him, directing him sure-footedly and safely over the darkened field where he had played as a boy and later loved her as a man.

Faster.

This woman can write. Which is why my overwhelming feeling is “puzzled”; I can’t entirely figure out why this book did the opposite of wowing me.

The most convincing reason I’ve been able to come up with is that the “childhood lovers reunite” trope is incredibly difficult to do – and Duran didn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The premise: Adrian and Nora were neighbours and lovers in their youth, but as one was Catholic and the other Protestant there was no way they could marry. Their families intervened and helped cause one hell of a misunderstanding between them – major heartbreak included. They spend six years at court pretending not to notice the other exists – until Nora’s husband dies, and Adrian turns up at her country estate to arrest her treasonous brother.

The problem was, the heartbreak had changed them both irrevocably, but I never felt they got to know each other now well enough for their love to be convincing. It seemed to all stem from that earlier love that was clearly juvenile and careless, if also true.

I wanted them to just be in a room together and talk. Then talk some more. In fact, the most riveting scene in the whole book is when Adrian practices sleep-depravation torture on Nora, trying to get answers from her. They’re both worn down by it until they can’t help but be honest – and it’s not the treason that comes out, but the truth about their past.

The thing about first love is this: To get over it – to truly accept that you’re not magically going to be allowed to have that person because you really really want them – you have to change. It’s the only option. You have to become a person who doesn’t need them.

You have to outgrow them.

So it’s a lovely daydream that you might one day be thrown into a situation with that person where you can’t avoid each other or help but sort your history out – but that’s all it is: a daydream. It feels wrong to me to see it happen, because all my own experience disproves it.

When you’ve had to go through that moving-on – if you’ve ever attempted to go back to a lover and discovered the heartbreak of no longer fitting – you don’t forget it.

I needed conversation. And more conversation. I needed them to experience how ill they fit, compared to the dream of how well they fit. I needed to watch them surprise each other – and when the past turned up at unexpected moments to hurt/delight them, I needed it to be a complex thing that didn’t fit easily into the present.

The fit was so wrong, for me, that I ended up shipping Nora and the young spoilt nobleman in Adrian’s company who was obviously going to end up doing something villainous. He at least, I thought, would be something new for her. Something she didn’t know she wanted for herself. And she would have shown him the gulf between who he was and the man he might be.

Plus, I find it hard to go past a sulky man in ostentatious clothing.

throwing stones at the stars

My book is out of my hands for the next couple of weeks, being read by people whose opinions I admire. Let me tell you, that has been a nerve-wrecking (more wrecking than wracking) experience. The first round of feedback was the worst. It was almost unanimously positive, and I still wanted to vomit when I opened every email.

I’m pretty sure that much adrenaline is no good for the body. It certainly confuses it enough, and my poor body had no idea what to tell my brain about the state of my emotions. So it settled on “Wants to vomit”.

While I wait for feedback, I’ve been delving into two new activities:

1) writing a business plan. I find this impossibly, horribly confronting. Mostly because I’m the kind of perfectionist who always got top marks at school. My poor brain doesn’t know what to tell my body, because it can’t write something perfectly that it doesn’t know how to write. It mostly settles on, “Have irresistible urge to check twitter. Again.”

2) starting research for my next book. This is fun. Too much fun, actually. How do you put a time limit on research when history is so relentlessly fascinating?

As I read, I occasionally become conscious of the pompousness of telling history. I can’t help imagining reading in that same voice, “They were greatly consumed with ‘being connected’ and would spend hours every day on what was referred to as ‘social media’. By the early 21st century the laptop computer had become a common household item, and the average household had as many computers as people.”

It’s a sham, always, to try and tell the lives of people by the shrapnel they left behind. A delicious, fun sham, though, otherwise I wouldn’t do what I do.

I’m currently researching the history of deafness. I came across a transcription of the first deaf teacher of the deaf, Jean Massieu, being interviewed. The interviewees were often obsessed with abstract concepts – not being able to conceive, themselves, how a person “without language” would understand them.

It seems that once, when his mother was ill, he used to go out every evening and pray to a particular star, which he had selected for its beauty, entreating it to bring about her recovery. Finding that she became worse, however, he was enraged and threw stones at the star.

- Were you cursing the sky?

- Yes.

- Why?

- Because I thought that I could not get at it to give it a thrashing, to kill it for causing all those disasters and for not healing my sick relatives.

- Weren’t you afraid of provoking it and being punished?

- I didn’t know that it was merely the sky. It was only after a year of education that I was afraid of being punished by it.

From When the mind hears by Harlan Lane.

whatever you do, DO NOT GET ON THE HIGHWAY!!!

There’s a scene in the second Matrix movie where Trinity and Morpheus are trying to escape the bad dudes, having just stolen a very important player from them – the Keymaker.

I don’t have the movie here, so you’ll have to forgive the detail-less account – but they’re in some kind of vehicle, being hounded through the city, and the guys who are after them are a program they’ve never fought before.

It’s getting desperate, and Trinity says: “Don’t go on the highway! Whatever you do, do not get on the highway!”

No one ever explains what’s so awful about the highway, but you know: If they go there, they’re fucked. And then, of course, they go there.

It was so tense to watch, that it took me longer than it should have to realise: They were just driving down a highway. It was no more or less dangerous than any regular high-speed chase, but it felt absolutely critical.

All because Trinity told me – she drew a line in the sand.

It’s so simple, but I can’t wait to use it. Set up a boundary that cannot be crossed, no matter what – and then cross it.

(Oh – and make sure there are consequences, otherwise that’s just cheating.)

opinionated is a *pauses to count* eleven-letter word

I find expressing a strong opinion difficult, and scary. For the same reason, I think, that I can sing my heart out in a choir and choke up the moment I come to sing a solo. An opinion is a definitive thing. It invites people to see you clearly. Or maybe clearly’s the wrong word. Maybe it’s that it invites people to see you as one thing – and as definitively not other things. An opinion places and disambiguates you.

The other day on the tram a young man engaged with an old homeless dude. The homeless dude was going off on a rant against the privatised public transport system – and instead of placating him with meaningless “Uh-huh”s, as I would have done had I not outright ignored him, the young guy agreed, disagreed, gave his own opinion.

He very decidedly talked about how the social welfare system doesn’t work, and why. I found it excruciating just to be stuck on the tram, while his voice carried his opinion clearly in the otherwise-quiet. I had this cringing need to say, Don’t you realise all these people will think you’re a paranoid lefty? Don’t you realise you’re diminishing yourself in their eyes?

The problem with definitive opinions, of course, is that nothing is definitive. Every human thing is subjective, and can be seen, always, from all sides. We decide that one side is better based on things like morality, but morality is just as shifting as the concepts it attempts to illuminate.

For a long time this seemed to me like a good reason to remain undecided about things. I felt quite enlightened, being someone who could see all sides of an issue. In the last little while it’s come to seem more like cowardice.

The way you make your place in the world is to declare what you think. And the way you do that is to…think.

I know I talk a lot about the wonder of actually thinking about things, as though it’s this marvellous new concept. Which may seem weird. But I believe people truly stop and think something through far less often than we imagine. I know it’s true for me, anyway. Much easier to take a quick, mental survey of something, come up with a good-enough answer, and run with that. And let’s face it – most of the time that does the job.

I only had one lecturer in my whole university degree who said to me, “Stop. Look at the question. Now think about the question.” I wish all my lecturers had bothered to say it, and encouraged me to bother to discover what I truly thought rather than performing the mental gymnastics that draw interesting conclusions. (Which are fun in their own way, don’t get me wrong!)

When you voice a decided opinion, you become definite. You become someone that other people can grasp. You become, I think, admirable.

Last year on the Gruen Transfer a panel of advertising executives were asked what single piece of advice they’d give Julia Gillard to give her the best chance of winning the election. Only one answer seemed to me like it had the power to change public opinion: Come out strongly in favour of gay marriage. If you want to see just how admirable having an opinion makes someone, look at Obama’s public statement of support.

His whole job is to represent the differing view points of millions of people. There is no collective right answer to this issue (just to be clear, I have an opinion on this point, and I think there most certainly is a right answer – but I’m talking about the subjective nature of “right”). He could easily have remained wishy-washy, but he comes into bold focus – he seems incredibly human – when he tells us where he stands.

The tricky part is, of course, that people who freely and definitively express opinions can often be incredibly obnoxious. Opinionated. So I’m adding the caveat that I admire strong opinion – in someone who remains open to argument and persuasion. Obama admitted that he wasn’t initially in favour of gay marriage, but that talking to friends and family had changed his mind.

It takes a certain strength to admit to an opinion. It takes grace and courage to admit you were wrong.

You may be wondering whether this diatribe has anything to do with writing. The answer to that is a predictable Why yes, it does.

It’s not only characters who are more interesting when they are definitively one thing and not other things – and even more interesting when they come to see how their opinions might have been wrongly-held, or limiting. People write better books when they boldly declare an opinion.

The erotic romance writer Tiffany Reisz said on twitter the other night, “I’m editing this book, and I love it. And I’ll probably get arrested.” It made me cheer inside, and I thought, If you don’t fear you might get arrested for what you write, you’re probably not reaching deep enough. That may sound extreme, but her most recent book is electrifying to read.

And as I may or may not have mentioned here before: My only fixed dream for the future is that someday a reviewer will say of my book, “Reading it made me go electric.”