Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Power of The Word Nerd

I have always been a Word Nerd.

From the moment I learned how to translate those little black squiggles on a page in a meaningful way, I've been desperately in love with words. The richness of language, the excitement at learning a new word and feeling the shape of it in my mouth, the deep satisfaction of placing the exact right word in the exact right place - all these things have always given me enormous pleasure, even in the darkest of times.

I wasn't born a Word Nerd though. There is a long line of incredible women who encouraged me every step of the way, and I want to write a bit today about what they all did for me, and how they helped me become the passionate lover of words that I am today.

The first person to teach me the power of the written word was my mother. She's always been a voracious reader, and was determined to pass her love on to me. I learned to read before I hit school, and I don't really remember a time when books weren't a part of my life. When I was too small to read to myself, my mother would read to me every night before I went to sleep. I was so excited by the worlds these stacks of bound paper contained that I was very soon grabbing the books away from her to read myself because she was reading too slowly, and I needed more, MORE!

Eventually, I went through that delightful hormonal spurt where everything my mother likes must be STUPID because I was desperate to establish myself as an individual apart from her, and at that point I could have lost my love of reading. But a couple of devoted librarians stepped in, and there was no going back. The librarian who let a nine year old read the novel of The NeverEnding Story, in an edition that was so big she could hardly carry it. The librarian who let me "volunteer" unofficially at the library on Saturday mornings, and would spend the whole time we were shelving books telling me about all the other books that were out there. The librarian who bought me Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic out of her own pocket because she saw me enjoying David Eddings, and wanted better books for me. The librarian who let me and my friends take up residence in the school library at lunchtime to escape the bullies, and made us Library Monitors with no actual duties because that was the only was she was allowed to let us stay whenever we wanted.

Through these endlessly compassionate women, I learned to associate books with escape, with kindness and acceptance, with a sense of home. To this day being in a room with a lot of books makes me calmer, and running my hands over their spines, feeling the possibilities inside, gives me a warm thrill I can't explain.

Then there were the women who taught me to make my own words as well as soaking up the words of others.

My aunt was an English teacher, and was the first person I can remember taking my writing seriously. Her letters to me were always written in the most perfect handwriting, and perfectly punctuated, if a little stilted because she was never quite as confident writing to a child as she was to adults. I used to look at the letters she wrote my mother, pages of perfect cursive, and long hungrily for my aunt's unfiltered words. I grew up waiting for the day I was adult enough to get a cursive letter from her - I had that as my marker for being smart enough, well read enough, and intelligent enough, for a long time. She died before I got there, but I still to this day have an exercise book she sent me when I was nine. She expressly instructed was for writing my own work, and I eagerly filled page after page. I've read it back since, and it was absolute garbage (of course), but I took it so seriously because she had taken my writing so seriously. She made me feel like it was not only okay to be serious about being a writer, but desirable.

The next person to help convince me that my words were worth sharing (or would be one day) was Isobelle Carmody, an Australian author. I held a 20 year grudge against her later for not finishing the Obernewtyn chronicles in a timely fashion, but that's another, somewhat stupider story.

I was a big fan of Carmody, and somehow, despite being at a ludicrously underfunded public school in rural Australia, I ended up in a little writing workshop with her. I'm not sure now how old I was at the time - probably 14 at the oldest - but I'd been working on a "novel". I'd shown it to my English teacher, who was probably the one who got me into the workshop, but no one else. I tentatively mentioned my master work to Carmody, expecting to be told not to be so silly. But instead she took me totally seriously. Like my aunt, like the librarians, she respected absolutely my love of words, and encouraged me to keep writing. I remember asking if I was being silly to want to be a writer, because so many people do, and what chance did I have? I also remember her firmly telling me that if that was what I wanted, I should just do it. Carmody was the closest to a celebrity I'd ever met at the time, so I absolutely believed her when she said I should pursue being a writer. She was the first person who didn't know me personally to be so encouraging, and it had a huge impact. Over the years, my conviction fluctuated - sometimes I was absolutely convinced, sometimes utterly discouraged. But every time I considered throwing away writing completely, I remembered the kindness of a published author telling a (possibly talentless) little girl she should keep writing, and I persevered for a little longer.

Since leaving home and starting my adult life, I've come across so many women who encouraged and shared my Word Nerdery I could never hope to count them all (if only because my memory is horrendous). I've had so many friends who supported my writing, who supported my reading, that I've grown up the sort of person who simply doesn't understand when someone tells her, "I don't read." I had a date say that to me once, and I was so baffled I had to ask him to repeat himself three or four times. Words are an integral part of my life. Reading them, writing them, editing them, taking advantage of the incredible editors I know and getting them to edit my words. My focus has been largely on my visual art very recently, but my Word Nerdery is so deeply ingrained that I had the idea for this post and sat down and wrote it in one go. It's like the words are a raging river inside me, all the time, and all I need to do to get them out is to let go.

This passion is part of why Word Nerd was one of my first designs for The Enthusiasts collection I've been doing over at Femmecraft. Since I started into the visual arts, I've felt a bit like a dog with two masters - neither writing nor art could ever entirely win my heart, but I can't seem to let go of either. This piece seemed like an obvious way for me to finally serve both masters at once, and I'm enormously proud of it.

I decided to send proceeds for this piece to The Children's Book Council of Australia, largely because of the work they do with libraries in terms of getting children interested in books. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a parent who is as delighted to instill a love of words as I was, and the Children's Book Council Awards were almost a festival of sorts at a lot of the libraries I frequented. When the nominees were announced, the librarians would make up a big display of all of them (or all the ones we had), proudly displaying the big round sticker that denoted their short list status.

I often set myself the task of reading all the short listed books, as did a lot of my friends. What can I say, Word Nerds flock together! When the winners were announced, there was as much contention in my circles as there is for any Oscar winner. The Awards lent excitement to all the books involved - even if they were books I'd already read, once they had that sticker on them I OBVIOUSLY had to read them all over again. I want that excitement for all the children coming after me, and so I will hopefully be able to send some money to achieve just that.

Are you a Word Nerd too? Who influenced your Word Nerdery?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Measuring my life in Ben Folds concerts

The last time I saw Ben Folds in concert, I was in a bad place. To say the least. I'd lost my dream job of managing a reception team at a brothel, and felt like I'd never get another job that satisfying again. Right after I lost that job I'd gone straight into a textbook small business exploitation role, working for a sociopath who wanted me to be a receptionist, a freight specialist, an export/import specialist, a chemist, and a PA - all for the wages of a receptionist. I'd lost that job too, and at the time firmly believed it was my fault, that I was the failure, and that I would never get another job again full stop.

The boy and I had gotten tickets for the concert back when things had been better, and so when the night came I mustered what small reserves of positivity I had and went along with a smile plastered on my face. But when he played Picture Window, the smile melted off and was washed away with wave after wave of open weeping.

It's a sad song at the best of times, but something in the lyrics touched that deep, dark, pit of despair inside me and brought it all tumbling out.

"You know what hope is?
Hope is a bastard
Hope is a liar
A cheat and a tease
Hope comes near you?
Kick it's backside
Got no place in days like these"

It took me a good song or two afterwards to compose myself after the song, and I was shaken and trembling for the rest of the concert. I'm very practiced at keeping the darkest, saddest, softest parts of me squelched right down as much as possible, and it was unsettling to have those feelings just spill out.

Unsurprisingly, it was fairly soon after that that I decided I was going to kill myself. Obviously, I didn't go through with it, and I talked more about that over here. But long story short, life went on, things changed, and last night I ended up back at a Ben Fold's concert.

This time the concert was at the Opera House, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, so a lot of the actual music was just breathtaking. But I was primed and waiting for him to play Picture Window - I wanted to see what it touched this time. I didn't FEEL despairing anymore, but I hadn't realised how despairing I was last time until that chorus swelled.

I grabbed the Boy's hand when the opening chords played, ready to be pulled inside out. But instead, I found myself crying through the second chorus because the part of me it touched last time wasn't there anymore. It just wasn't. I wasn't hiding it, I wasn't squishing it down - I looked, I let the music right in, and it just wasn't there. So I cried, but tears of surprised relief this time.

There is another Ben Folds song I've always loved, called Landed. It's about a bad relationship, and the relief of getting out - I've had some bad relationships, and it's always spoken to me.

But last night it spoke to me in a slightly different way - I didn't hear the lyrics as being about a person, but about my illness if it was a person. It spoke to me about breaking free of my illness, about feeling for the first time like I might be able to live a life where it's not in charge.

"The daily dramas she made from nothing
So nothing ever made them right
She liked to push me and talk me back down
Until I believed I was the crazy one,
and in a way
I guess I was..."

It reminded me that just earlier that evening, I'd been talking to complete strangers and it had been totally fine. It reminded me that would never have happened last time I heard Folds play this song, and highlighted just how far I really have come. It spoke to me about the feeling of coming out into the world, blinking in the light of day, astonished by all the wonderful people that had been waiting for all along outside the walls of my own depression and anxiety.

"If you wrote me off I'd understand it
Because I've been on some other planet
So come pick me up...
I've landed

I opened my eyes and walked out the door
And the clouds came tumbling down

Down comes the reign of the telephone czar
It's OK to call
Now I'll answer for myself"

In the final chorus, Ben Folds beautiful tumbling piano was lifted by the incredible swelling strength of the strings, and once again, I wept. I bawled my little eyes out, because it finally occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I could actually build a life I really want to be living. Not just for a little while, before things get bad and the Bad Stockbroker ruins everything again. Maybe I really could change things.

Maybe I can actually be happy. Not momentarily, or in the moments between disasters. Maybe I can just be happy.