A Whoop In The Dark

The year was 1994. The Wollemi fossil pine had been discovered, Australia experienced its first political assassination and the country had just moved to the eight digit telephone number.

It was the year I attended my first – and last – music concert.

Me, taken a few months later

Me, taken a few months later

For a girl who had a fear of large crowds and insufficient public toilet facilities, music festivals were never my thing. I preferred to listen to my music alone in the darkness of my room, incense burning, teenage angst keeping my parents at bay.

But in December of that year, the lure of seeing Tori Amos live in concert proved irresistible. Luckily for me, she shunned the cavernous and concrete Entertainment Centre and the portaloo parklands of the Showgrounds, and instead,
I found myself on the primly upholstered, blood red velvet chairs of the Perth Concert Hall.

From the opening chords of her debut album Little Earthquakes in 1992, a cassette that had cost me almost a fortnight’s pocket money, I had fallen in love with this cherubic faced, red-haired, foul-mouthed, passionate and sexy woman. I had kissed boys to her music. I had kissed girls to her music. She was in my head as I finished high school, and later, as I met the boy who would become my husband.

The Perth Concert Hall, by its very nature, does not support a rowdy audience. There is no room for dancing, no hope of a mosh pit. The very poshness of the velvet ensures you stay seated for the performance, restrained, undemonstrative. This concert was about Tori, it was not about us.

That is, except for one brief moment, when the entire audience’s attention was dragged – reluctantly – from the mesmerising twisted stance she took as she played the piano, the only prop on stage. As she sang ‘Me and a Gun’ a song about being raped, the line ‘so I wore a slinky red thing, does that mean I should spread…’ was still hanging in the air when a solitary male voice whooped in the dark.

A collective breath was drawn, and in that moment, the utter absurdity of this ignorant male, brought shame to our faces. We knew what happened in the next few lines of the song. We knew she was not offering herself to this man, or any man. We knew that she was crying out that just because a woman dresses sexily does not mean she is asking for sex. Her provocative pose, open-legged, which some would later describe as stimulating masturbation was not a come-on, it was a challenge to men, men like the misinformed moron in the back row.

But Tori did not flinch. She continued the set and we remained in our seats.

That moment has stayed with me for almost twenty years. We were all so passive in our reaction. The entire audience. What must have Tori felt at that moment, a thousand people unreactive to a sexist blunderhead mocking her most traumatic moment.

He was probably someone’s boyfriend, dragged along, not a fan. Almost certainly he did not know the context of the song. Did the stiffness of the chairs constrain us? Did the formality of the room prevent us from a more vocal and passionate response? If we had been in a loud, grungy pub would we have turned en masse and jeered him?

We’ll never know.

I’m sorry Tori.

Your History for Sale: $15

Today I took my daughters to a swap meet in Nedlands.  There were the usual assortment of stalls selling the usual assortment of thing.

But one lady’s stall in particular attracted all our eyes.

My three year old went straight to the Dora doll, dressed in a tutu with articulated joints and wild hair. New, it would have been an investment of $60 or more. Today it was ours for $4, complete with two mis-matching hair elastics the previous owner had strangled its hair into.

I was drawn to a dish of smokey glass in a flower shape. It reminded me of pieces I had seen labelled in an antique shop as ‘Depression glass’. I picked it up. It felt weighty in hand, and not just the heft of the glass.

Image

‘That was one of my wedding gifts,’ the lady spoke from behind me. ‘From 1962’.

I looked up at her, wondering why she would be selling a wedding gift after fifty years. Had she and her husband separated? Had he died? Had she never liked the piece and was glad to finally be rid of it? She had kept this dish safe for more than half a century, only for it to wind up on a rug, in the dimly lit basement of a car park.

And I bought a piece of her past for $15.

I have been thinking about the past a lot lately. Not my own, as at 35 I’m hardly vintage. Give me a few more years. But my house is about 85 years old, and I have been researching it and the previous owners.

It’s amazing what a $24 title search at Landgate will yield: names, addresses, occupations, even the banks with which mortgages were held. Once armed with this information, and the power of Google and I have uncovered a wealth of information about the five previous owners of my house.

I plan on writing about the history of my house for the local history awards, but more than that, I hope to link my daughters’ future with the past. The house as it stands now, with the renovations we did a few years ago, has made it into a sprawling residence with two storeys, enough bedrooms to house a cricket team and space to swing several cats, a far cry from the original 1930s cottage with five rooms.

One of the nicest things to come from this process is linking to some of the previous owners, and having them share their stories with me. I am looking forward to seeing some of the early plans of the original cottage and adding them into the house’s history. I have come to realise though, that although I may be able to track down the owners of the house, I will probably never be able to find out about the people who lived here.

And that would be an entirely different story.

My Failures As a Writer

If you peruse a writer’s website – like this one – one thing strikes you. It is all about achievement. Writer’s websites – like this one – will detail the things that have been published, the successful pitches, the commissioned pieces.

Very rarely do they talk about the failures.

When I first decided to not to return to my former career as a health researcher I spoke to a friend who was already a successful writer. She passed on some sage advice to me.

The first was that rejections are not face to face. I had commented that I wasn’t sure I could make it as a writer as I was relatively thin-skinned and the constant rejections could be wearing. She agreed that rejections always stung, but unlike the traditional workplace, you could experience your failures in private, sitting at the computer at home, or in front of the letter box as you tear open yet another rejection letter.

The second was that even the most experienced and published writers get rejected. And while it never got any easier in that moment you realised you were being told ‘no’ and not ‘yes’, over time it was easier to move on and submit the piece somewhere else.

As a new writer it can sometimes be dispiriting to regularly read about the success of others. By that I do not mean that I don’t want others to succeed, but it can be a misrepresentation to assume that between those successes there were not failures as well.

So in the interest of openness, I wish to talk about some of my failures. 

For example, a few months ago I attended a workshop run by the Perth food critic Rob Broadfield. It was advertised as an opportunity to learn about food writing but more tantalisingly it was also a chance to submit a piece of work with the possibility of being selected as a food writer for the next edition of the Perth Good Food Guide.

I thought to myself: I write food reviews all the time, hundreds of them. Award winning reviews! I’m a shoe-in, I thought confidently.  

Probably every person in the room, 150 of us, thought the same.

Two weeks later, and no congratulatory phone call had come. I was genuinely surprised to miss out.

One way of looking at this is that I am confident. What would be the point of putting myself out there if I did not have a firm belief in what I was doing. Another is that I am a bit cocky, and there is a world of difference between writing for a website where there is minimal editorial input, and a published guide which must stand alongside equivalent national and international books.

Another recent failure was a picture book which I submitted to a local publisher. Again, I thought that this was a certainty. In 2010 I wrote a short story which won first prize in a writing competition.

I rewrote it into a picture book, creating clues in the illustrations which could be followed to show an observant child that the climax of the story would be Christmas. Awesome! I even engaged the help of a professional editor and writer to help me get it to a point where I thought it would be of a publishable standard.

When the rejection letter arrived in the mail I was disappointed, but not as crushed as I feared I might be. I have edited it some more and today I will post it to another publisher. I keep telling myself J.K Rowling was rejected by 14 publishers before Harry Potter was finally picked up by Bloomsbury.

I have a lot more than two rejection stories. A lot more. I have a database where I keep a record of all my submissions: articles, picture books, competitions, job ads. Next to the vast majority of them I have written ‘unsuccessful’.

The things on this website – my piece in My Child, the dental practice articles, my shortlisted stories – are the things that have a ‘successful’ written next to them. At this point in my career, they may be in the minority, but all those ‘unsuccessfuls’ have the bonus of teaching me one very valuable lesson, a lesson which is essential if I want to continue on in this field:

It turns out I am more resilient than I thought.