The Slipstream

A degree of the surreal,

The not-entirely-real,

And the markedly anti-real.

Being normal

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it is a slate grey day such as I might have drawn in black ink on the thick watercolour paper I like best. It has a rough texture over which the points of the thin nibs I use, scratch like little claws.


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this image of myself as a bird flows naturally from the work I am doing, cross hatching a midnight horizon. For as I ink, my thoughts rise above the snarl of trams and cars wound around buildings,  to hover and soar, alive and responsive to the  invisible electric currents of energy that encircle and enliven the world.

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that is the power of doing pen and ink drawings. Not just the power that comes in the act of creation, but the power that  comes with the physical act of this particular creative work.

 

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once  I pass beyond designing a drawing in pencil, much of the inkwork is repetition.  It requires great concentration on the physical level to crosshatch a sky or to draw each pebble on a plain, or each hair riffled by a wind, but the repetition is like a mantra that eventually lets my mind fly free.  I suspect part of the freedom comes from the fact that, in drawing these images,  I am doing something concrete and specific  (ie something I am MEANT to be doing) so rather than reining in that untethered mind and setting it to dutifully work,  I can allow it to go where it will.

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you might call it day dreaming.

 

i don’t. It is too purposeful and aware.  Think of an eagle soaring very high. It might be thought merely to be wandering in the air, but you know its eyes are constantly scanning the ground for the minute whisker twitch that speaks of prey. In that same way, a mind let fly free may appear merely to be circling and hovering, because it lacks specific duties, but it does not cease to attend. Indeed at that altitude it can see a great deal, and at some level, the mind is always searching for something to engage it. A search for what is not yet known to be prey, might also be called yearning.  It is also that which,  if I were not drawing, would look like woolgathering; That ‘doing nothing’ which is such a vital and potent ingredient in the act of creation.

 

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i am good at disciplining my mind to think what I want it to think. That is how I can switch from emailing to working on this blog, to preparing a meal, to writing a letter without any dithering in between. It is why I am prolific . Yet it is sometimes exhausting to be driven to be so pragmatic. I think what I love most about drawing is that, when it works, I can be both grounded and purposeful and flying free and wild. In a way, the drawing enables my mind to soar and excuses that soaring. Because I am also producing drawings   no justification  for my conscious dreaming is required, not even for myself.

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of course  just doing the dishes or any house work can achieve the same freeing of the mind, but much as I like my house to be clean, I cannot feel that a clean house is actually an achievement.  It is only the creation of a distraction/irritation free void in which I can create; A  useful even necessary activity but not as essentially, profoundly worthwhile as creating something.

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 as for the mind flying free, that is not a simple or an easy process. There are levels you have to pass through to achieve that freedom. Gravity aka the real world and its demands, has a pull you must fight.  To be specific, gravity today began with serious emails from two good friends with really great and original ideas for projects that would take up some of the slack in the publishing/creative world left by the closure of bookshops and the ratty economic climate and the uncertainty about e books.  I want to support them so responding thoughtfully at what is essentially the brainstorming phase of both projects, took some time. I could have answered these emails later, but they would only dwell the back log of things I ought to do/ will do as soon as I can. And of course, there will be more emails tomorrow.  So I answer the emails giving them my full attention, and then I begin to draw.

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i draw for 6 hours.

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to begin with, when I start to draw, my untethered thoughts seem unwilling to fly. They are weighed down with what I must do next. I have to  finish these drawings so I can fed ex them to Oz, then I must get onto cutting the treatment for the Greylands screen play band put the sample script pages into the correct formula. Then I have to to finish cutting the text for Evermore (the short story which is very long and which is in the process of becoming a graphic novel hybrid) All of this needs to happen by the end of this month, so I can get onto The Red Queen. Once I start on it, I am determined not to allow any interruptions.  But even as I vow this, I am guiltily aware of a nice young woman awaiting comments on her novel, which she gave me at Christmas, and a story emailed to me by an ex mentee before Christmas, which I have yet to read, and a future mentee who is waiting for me to name the start date. And next month I will need to correct the galleys of The Cloud Road and in late February, I fly to the Perth Writers Festival and then to the Adelaide Writers Festival, with smaller gigs in Albany and Hobart, – a month long trip. Then it will be March and April and Bologna Book Fair, and the release of The Cloud Road.  And later in the year is a big ten day tour to New Zealand and then the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. And my partner and daughter and want to make a camping trip to Iceland in July, since we are all workaholics and hardly seem to spend any time together. Sadly, the latter is the most likely to be dispensed with because  it is personal and pleasure and hardest to justify

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these last thoughts lift me above the thick toxic air of everyday life and its demands into the rarified ether of anxieties. A faintly accusatory and slightly hysterical inner voice asks on a rising pitch what will happen to all these plans if my daughter or partner get sick and need care, or there is a family emergency in Australia, or the Royalties are not enough to pay the bills. What if the publisher does not like what I write next. Or drops me altogether?  Or all of the publishers fail?  The whole field is in such turmoil that a total catastrophic breakdown does not seem too far fetched a thing to fear. Then there is my health.  I know a visit to the dentist is necessary because I have a tooth that has been hurting ever since my dentist let her assistant do a big filling.  And what about my back.  Is it really just age and sitting too much and bad posture/ chair/ table? What if it is something worse?

 

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outside, as if on cue, the day is darkening perceptibly and I wonder if I should go out for a coffee.  A walk would air my brain and stretch my muscles, but I could also just have another cup of tea and it is cold out there … minus three with snow predicted tomorrow.  And I need to finish these drawings…

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i get up and stretch and put the kettle on and then I stand for a time gazing up at the bit of sky I can see from my kitchen, hemmed on all sides by the elderly grey facades of other apartment buildings wondering that I am not oppressed by the sheer ugliness of it. If it snows tomorrow I think how I would like to go for a walk in the park and take some pictures with my new camera. But I think again of all the things I have to do, waiting outside the hasty fortifications I have thrown up in order to finish these drawings, and decide not to decide now. I make the tea and, obscurely comforted by it, sit down and draw some more.

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for one bright moment, I am one hundred percent present. I frown and study the area I have crosshatched, wondering if I need to change the nib or pressure or if I will need to go over the whole thing again to darken it.  I try as I often do, to figure out by blurring my eyes, what is wrong. If  anything is wrong.  By wrong, I don’t mean that it has no sense of proper perspective ( which it doesn’t) or that a character is not drawn realistically (because they are mostly imaginary creatures) but something less definable. A drawing has to feel right emotionally to me.  Specifically, it has to make me feel what I want it to make someone looking at it feel. For me an illustration is always less about factual information than about emotionally tuning a reader/watcher. (Incidentally, I think of the maps in my books in the same way, to the distress and considerable confusion of my more pragmatic readers who feel maps ought to actually work as maps.) My NQR drawings seem to me to fit my work. But they have to be right. Many are not.  Some with more work, will turn out well down the track, but others are wrong, even after hours of work. The truth is that I almost am unable to explain even to myself, what I am striving to visually except to say that it has something to do with light and shade, black and white and all the greys in between the two extremes. Kids like the drawings I do. I have come to the conclusion they like them precisely because they are not so far from what they could do themselves – probably do do, if they are kids like me. If I tell them that I am untrained or no illustrator, they hotly defend me to myself. Are they at some level defending themselves from the judgements of an adult world? Maybe.

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at long last, my mind rises above practicalities and anxieties, on the updraft of a practical thought.

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i got an email this morning reminding me I am to do a voice recording this month. I had forgotten about it and am vaguely hoping it will be late next week or even the week after. Usually I would be cursing my inclination to agree blithely to anything if it is asked far enough in advance, but in the case of these recording jobs, I am aware that I would agree to do a recording if they ask me today about tomorrow.  This strikes me as deeply uncharacteristic.

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i stumbled into this work when a photographer friend asked if my daughter would fill in as an English native speaker in an audio recording. She was only eight so I took her. That was the first time I saw Mr Mikota’s tiny ingenious independent basement studio in the Projects (Czech version of state assisted housing) way out on the outskirts of Prague.   Mr Mikota, speaks only Czech.  ( I like his name because  it sounds Japanese to me and this seems beautifully perverse) To cut a long story short, it came out that I do the voices for some of my own audio books for Bolinda Books in Australia and I ended up doing some scripts that day. Since then I have been offered a small steady stream of work. Mr Mikota does not hire me. There are a number of organisations that employ me and sometimes my daughter, all mysteriously connected, which produce English education material for Czech students of English ranging from school students to adults. The client writes and asks if I am available and if I can do it, we set a time for me to meet my producer, (whom I may or may not know because the turnover of producers as well as actors is high) and any other voice actors that will be required, in front of Mr Mikota’s building.

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i wonder now, as I draw, if  I enjoy this small stream of not very well paid jobs because each one is like taking a holiday from the life I have which is the result of my choices and their consequences.  I must leave my comfort zone, my beloved and rigid routines and habits as a writer, and my free will as a self employed person, to do them. And when I do, there always seem to be discoveries to be made.

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i relive suddenly and vividly,  the last recording job, before Christmas.

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i was asked to do a very early session.  Usually I rise at 7 or earlier, so getting up early is no hardship, (even if I have been up to three or four in the morning) but I seldom go out early.  These recordings are always scheduled for the afternoon, and there are many days – like this one- when I won’t go out at all. If I do go it is mostly to walk up the hill to the Kavarna Erhartova where I will write a letter, or ride a tram to one of the coffee haunts in town where I meet with friends. On those days I will also shop for food and household supplies and sometimes, go to a movie. (The latter is the reward for the former.)

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having to get up, get showered and dressed and go out into the world at an early hour for work is very rare . I had not realised how rare until I stepped from our apartment block into the crisp, chill, purposeful early morning and found it full of people making their way to work or study. These morning people seemed strikingly more vital than the limp,  bad tempered people I usually saw later in the day, heading home. No one smiles but there is a pleasant non aggressive tension in their faces that seems to express  a kind of daily stoic hope that will be extinguished by evening and yet which will arise afresh the next day.

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and it was not just the people.  I was astonished how fresh everything felt, though it was kind of dark that early, being winter, and there was a mist blurring the edges of everything.

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i realised, as I boarded for the long tram ride to Mr Mikota’s,  that I was excited and it occurred to me  that I was up like other people were, doing things other people do. I was being normal. There are so many times when, as a  writer, you feel abnormal.  This is not an unpleasant feeling – indeed you sometimes find yourself gloating.  But you are also cut off from the mainstream of life to the extent that you don’t actually see it.  But here I was not only seeing normality but taking part in it. This is the life normal people live, I thought. They get up in the early hours, shower and have coffee and toast or cereal, say goodbye to their children and to one another,  put on their coats and hurry through the misty morning, where other people are also hurrying to work. They know exactly what time their tram goes and they often arrive even as the trams (themselves frequent and rigidly faithful to the timetables) pull up.

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this is being normal, I thought. But then I shook my head. it was not really being normal.  It was being disguised as a normal person. And that is what writers are, I think, swooping down, alighting,  beginning to ink falling snow over the dark landscape.

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we are spies.

this picture by Jan Stolba.

 

 

4 Responses

  1. Rosie says:

    Dearest Isobelle,

    I love reading the Slipstream! I love the words, the pictures, the word-pictures, the analogies, the whimsy, the poetry. I loved the idea of the artist as raptor, hovering far above the earth, ever alert for whisker-twitch. I love the sense of connection we get to your world as a writer. The posts are also beautiful because they contain nothing didactic about what it’s like to live in your world. Instead, piece by tantalising piece, they reveal something potent about the writing life.

  2. Maureen says:

    Whenever people tell me that being a writer is easy and a guaranteed surefire way to success and wealth, I shall send them the link to this post. Being a writer isn’t easy. It’s difficult. Really, really difficult. Sometimes I wish I could stop because then my life would be simpler but I can’t because life without writing for me is unimaginable. Great post Isobelle full of honest insights as usual. Now I’m off to try and get the next chapter of my novel done before doomsday comes and I still haven’t finished the damn thing…

  3. Marta says:

    I love this post on so many levels. My life is in flux at the moment. I’ve had eight years full time work where I was one of the ‘normal’: getting up; driving to work; sitting at my desk for many, many hours; enjoying the conversation of my colleagues who were, one and all, amazing people; but at the same time longing to get back home, to routine, where I didn’t have to be normal any more. Now I’ve decided to go back to university, to get another degree in a completely different field, and I’ve moved out into the ‘country’ and am also suddenly writing after a hiatus of half a life time. And in this in-between time, I’m like you. I do the odd job here and there, for a bit of experience and a bit of money, but I’m mostly at home. And I structure my day as you do: say goodbye to my partner as he leaves to work, a bit of study, a bit of time out in the garden or with the chickens, some time to clean, and then, finally, if nothing else beckons, some time to write: a novel that I will finish (because I always finish what I start) but will probably come to nothing, but which at least a few of my friends will enjoy. And I worry, as you do, what will happen ‘if’. Like you I have the partner that might become sick, and there’s this toothache that I’m ignoring that might end up complicated and expensive, and animals that are perhaps not looking as perky as the day before… I can’t draw to save myself, but lately I’ve been hiding myself in writing to try to give my mind the chance to fly free the way you describe; to be in a universe of my own creation where ifs are irrelevant and there’s nothing else that needs my attention. It doesn’t work, much of the time. The words don’t flow, and I end up Skyping my friends to complain, or wander around the house looking for housework to do (there’s always some; neither of us are the tidiest of people), or walk the dog (which can itself be a mind freeing experience). But sometimes.. Sometimes they do. That’s when you look up to see 1000 words staring back at you after some ridiculously short period of time, and you can’t remember writing them but they’re there and they feel right.

    Of course then you read them the next day and cringe at their first-draftiness… But that’s another story. And that can’t smother that momentary glee that came the day before.

    And I see I’ve rambled for far too long, and all I really meant to say was that your blog, like your books, touches something deep inside and I thank you for your outlook on life.

    • reading this was like looking into a mirror- I also always finish what I start, however long it takes 🙂 A friend posted a response to this on Facebook which was really beautiful and I want to ask her to repost it here, because I think you will enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks for your lovely response!

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