Vale, Loki

32 years ago today, my father died in an accidental electrocution while cleaning the cement around the house we were moving into. Come this afternoon, it will be 32 years- to the minute- when my mother became a single parent, and had to navigate life with two small children and no clue how the hell to make it all work.

The truth is, I have no idea why I’m writing this. I was 22 months old when my father died; asleep upstairs while the rest of the family dealt with the crisis below me. The memories I have of him aren’t my own; they’re bits and pieces cobbled together from everyone else’s memories to make a roughly humanoid, shadowy shape. Something always so much more and infinitely less than an actual person.

I don’t know who he was. Oh, sure, I know his name. I can describe him, and know which features we share. I know I look like him. I know I have his temper, and his penchant for talking the way out of trouble and being a snarky little shit. I know his family history- at least a little- I know the jobs he held and how he met my mother, and all that kind of information. But what I don’t know, in the slightest, is the man that he was. Was he a good man? I assume so, given that my mother doesn’t suffer fools lightly. Was he kind? I hear the stories about how he was with my sister, and have to assume that he was. Did he love me?

Isn’t that the million dollar question?

What my father is, and always has been, is my first understanding of storytelling. After all, the stories about him grow and change throughout the years, all utterly dependent upon the storyteller, and what’s happening in their life.

He was a slut cheating on my mother and planning to abandon us. He was a devoted husband and father working to pay off a home for his family. He hated babies and maybe, maybe, if he’d lived, he would have loved me eventually. He wouldn’t let my mother switch the pressure cleaner- the machine literally killing him- off incorrectly because they’d been told it would likely start a fire, and he wouldn’t risk the little girl sleeping upstairs, even to save himself. He adored my sister and she adored him above all else- he never really held me much because she was always in his arms. I screamed whenever anyone but Mum held me, and he never really got to hold me because I refused it every time. He never left home without kissing us all goodbye, even if he and Mum were annoyed with each other. They were the perfect couple. They were your typical couple- they fought, sometimes, but in the end they loved each other enough to work through issues and come away stronger for it.

My father isn’t so much a person, but a mirror that reflects every heartsore pain in the world left behind. He’s an interchangeable character dropped into stories as required because that’s what the storyteller needs. Today he’s the hero, next time, perhaps a villain. Everything and nothing.

I do it, too. There’s a picture that’s probably not me, but I’ve claimed it anyway. The only photo of my father and I, otherwise, is of him dressed as Santa. I know she was his favourite; it doesn’t bother me anymore. But I need to have a photo, some sign that maybe that adoring look happened to me, too, not just to my sister. So I lay claim to a photo I’ve no right to, and rewrite my story to include a moment I don’t even remember.

Writers, after all, are big on that whole rewriting thing.

My father is a game of truth I’m never going to win. A collection of lies, half-truths, romanticised memories, and exaggerations that I spend far too much time trying to form into an honest image of the man who helped give me life, and who has been shaping my life well after he was laid to rest.

My father is a trickster god, and every single time I think I have him figured out, everything changes. Somewhere along the way, he stopped being Geoff, started being Loki in my head. Geoff? He’s a guy everyone knows except me. He’s the man who drew breath and lived, a man I’ve never known and will never know. There are no memories for me to cling to, no stories that aren’t contradicted by someone else’s version of events. None can be proved, not really. How do you prove what was in a heart 3 decades in the ground?

Today, the rest of my family will mourn, and I will stand a little way apart, trying to be supportive. In this, I’m an outsider looking in, unsure what I’m missing except the idea of what I never got to have. I can’t miss him, not really, so I miss the idea that maybe what I lost was a man who held my family together, and a man that, despite claims to the contrary, loved me.

If there’s an afterlife, maybe the questions will finally be laid to rest. But until then, rest in peace, Loki.

Rest in peace, Geoff.

 

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Sheepishly Stepping Up To The Mic

It’s been a while, random void into which I try to shout at regular intervals.

Life is weird. Pretty sure we’re all aware of that. But if you weren’t… sorry. Also, surprise. Life when you’re trying to figure out how to make it all work while precariously balancing mental health? That can be a special kind of fun.

There’s maybe twenty drafted posts for WS in a folder, unfinished and unpublished because anxiety brain is a salty bitch sometimes, and every single word seemed wrong or dangerous. Sorry about that, but let’s just acknowledge that this is a thing that may sometimes happen, and unless I start prepping and scheduling all my posts in advance, radio silence might occasionally be a thing.

Which, if you’ve ever heard the ‘create an author platform. This is your brand. Don’t screw it up’ monologues, is number one ‘don’t ever do the thing’ on the list. Create content. Post constantly. Make sure people remember who you are because we are bombarded with stuff at all hours of all days and goddamn it, if you’re not there in their faces all the time they’ll forget you.

Which… yeah. Might not be working well for me lately. Even the idea of that constant interaction- written rather than actually, y’know, interacting with people- is exhausting. Anxiety and depression have been kicking my ass- but then again, if you look around, there are a lot of writers lately in the same boat. Even some of my absolute favourite people struggle with mental health issues, and are learning how to create a life around it. It got me thinking: clearly, I’m not alone in this shit.

After all, the arts have always been seen as a reasonably safe space for the weird, the socially awkward, and the mentally ill. The brilliant thing is that more and more creatives are talking openly about their issues with anxiety and mental illness, and that lets people like me learn how to cope with that additional creative pressure by showing that it’s possible.

So here’s what WS is gonna do for a while. I’m gonna talk about anxiety, mental illness, and creativity. And I’m inviting some of the most talented swots I know to join in, too. There are some amazing ideas and thoughts being shared by some of my absolute favourite people already- I’m really excited that anyone else has agreed to play along here, but the stuff people are adding to the conversation has me freakin’ giddy over here.

The conversation kicks off next Saturday.

(Q is for) Questions

‘Where is he?’ The question doesn’t change, of course. But then, the answer doesn’t either. They think I’m being brave, but the truth is that I don’t know where Gabriel is. I’d like to pretend that I wouldn’t tell them even if I knew, but honestly?

I don’t know anymore.

I don’t know anything beyond the cement of the cell, etched deep with runes and sigils and entrapments. Even if I could move, the truth is that I couldn’t. The irons shackling me to the ground are etched with sigils, too, old magics holding me in place like a sacrificial lamb. There’s no running, no cowering, nothing but lying on my back, staring at the ceiling and trying to ignore the hatred in Michael’s face as he paces around me.

‘Uncle, please, I don’t kn-‘ The angel blade- my father’s, of course, because Michael would never sully his blade with blood such as mine- slams into my thigh, his hand resting on the hilt as though this kind of violence and cruelty is a casual act for him. Maybe it is. Maybe the Bible got it wrong. Stranger things have happened. He presses the blade a little bit harder, watches the blood flowing with all the interest of a man watching a particularly tedious game of golf.

His voice bellows, echoes through the vastness of my holding cell like a growing roll of thunder. I wish I could cover my ears, wish I could do something but cry and scream and try not to choke on the snot.’I am not your uncle! You’re an abomination, dirt beneath my heel! Don’t you ever presume we’re kin.’

‘I’m your brother’s daughter, created by your Father.’ Please, Grandfather, make him listen. Make him understand. Make him stop.

A backhand to the face, a growl of ‘don’t you speak his name, blasphemer’, and we’re back to the million dollar question. ‘Where is Gabriel?’

How did Lucifer hold up against this? How does anyone?

‘I don’t fucking know, okay? He left! He up and fucking left me and I haven’t heard anything since!’ It doesn’t matter, not really. He knows I’m not lying- angels can always tell, after all, both in humans and their kin- and I know that he knows. This isn’t about my father, not really.

Sooner or later, he’ll drop the act and tell me what this is really about. Pretty sure I’m gonna enjoy that even less than the guessing part of the torture. I’m not entirely sure I’ll be alive by the time he gets bored enough to be serious. Then again, Michael controls Heaven. I can’t say he’s not sadist enough to bring me back for another round.

‘Michael, I swear on my grace that I don’t know where Gabriel is.’ The blade is ripped from my thigh, rests itself upon my throat. His hand shakes with the effort of containing his rage. I try, fail, not to move, not to breathe, not to do anything to bring that blade closer to my skin. I can feel the blood  begin to flow, not enough to be fatal, but it’s gonna hurt like hell for a good long while.

It’s hard not to cry when you’re staring your death in the eyes.

‘What you have isn’t grace. Angels have grace. Abominations don’t. You’d do well to remember that.’ I want to smack the smug right out of his expression, want to jam Dad’s blade right up his ass and see what happens. I want to call him every name I can think of, want to spit in his eye and dance on his fucking grave.

I will dance on your fucking grave, Michael.

And in this second, he knows it. His face slackens as loathing gives way to shock. It’s barely a moment, a glitched frame of action before the rage is back, bigger and more terrifying. He doesn’t use the blade. Instead, he leaps to his feet, kicking and stomping until his boot meets the side of my head, and darkness claims me at last.

I can’t help but hope it’s the eternal kind.

We Need to Talk About ‘Split’

Warning: epic sweary rant alert. This is very much a rant about an issue that boils my blood. Possible trigger warnings for mentions of abuse and mental illness.

The first time I had the trailer for ‘Split’ thrown in my face like a scalding coffee, I’ll admit, it took me a moment to understand what was going on. And then the anger came. Rage, really.

The premise, for those yet to be greeted by this particular steaming load, is that a man with ‘multiple personalities’ abducts three girls for a reason only he knows. To survive, the girls will need to figure out which personalities they can exploit or manipulate into helping them escape. Also? One of his personalities is called ‘The Beast’ and might be an actual monster!

All good, scary fun, right?

Except for the part where Disassociative Identity Disorder is an actual condition that actually exists and impacts actual people. It’s still at times a controversial diagnosis, sure, but it’s still an actual, valid diagnosis. (I’m saying ‘actual’ a lot here, because far too often, we forget that these are problems impacting real people, not just fictional ones).

Except for the part where the otherness of mental illness is held up in a way designed to inspire fear and mistrust in viewers. AGAIN. Or the part where fear or ridicule are still the recommended responses to mental illness that get perpetuated in our popular culture. Except for the part where mental illness is over-represented in the crime and horror genres as a signpost for evil-doing without there being a counterbalance of clearly labelled heroes with issues. No, really: we hesitate to label our heroes with disorders (though Sherlock has been argued as having a lot of autism related quirks, Benedict Cumberbatch, among others, shuts that idea down fast), but hot damn will we throw labels on the bad guys with reckless abandon. And yes, Sherlock cheerfully calls himself a sociopath- but that’s using a title as a weapon, not an actual problem that gets a lot of airtime in the show. It’s a vaguely threatening- and certainly belittling- act towards someone he hates and enjoys showing up intellectually. Maybe he is a sociopath, but it’s just as likely he’s just being an ass because he knows the power of the label he’s adopting.

Except for the part where M. Night Shyamalan ramps up the idea of the monstrous (‘a person with multiple personalities can change their body chemistry with just a thought!’) and ties it right in with an actual medical diagnoses that, again, actually exists and impacts real people. Except for the part where sufferers of DID have been consistently disbelieved in the medical fields for a very, very long time, belittled and shamed and called liars until science actually caught the hell up with reality. That? That still freakin’ happens. People still struggle to be believed, let alone get help, for this condition. If you’re being demonised in the doctor’s office, do you really need it on your screens as well?

Except for the part where DID is generally a survival mechanism for extreme trauma, and our media responds to incredible acts of survival by demonising people and acting as though the victims of extreme trauma and abuse are the monsters in the scenario. Let me be clear here: oftentimes, DID stems from horrific child abuse. In many cases, the personalities actually protect the child, taking control during the worst of the abuse and allowing the child mental distance from what’s happening. Violent or predatory personalities aren’t common, even though they’re an image that is certainly over-represented in popular culture.

Except for the part where statistics show that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the instigators or perpetrators. And when they have been victimised, oftentimes their stories aren’t taken as seriously because society is less likely to believe someone who has a mental illness.

Except for the part where perpetually making monsters out of the mentally ill makes it harder for people to feel like they can get help for their mental illness, makes it harder to be open and honest with the people around you about your mental illness, makes it harder to explain mental illness to people, and is an act of social exclusion against an already vulnerable member of a community. Which, let’s be brutally honest here, can be an additional layer of trauma for people with more than enough already.

Except for the part where a freakin’ Convention had this trailer on a loop at the start of presentations, meaning that if you wanted to see an actor or writer talk, you had to grit your freakin’ teeth and deal with this rage inducing phlegm wad of a trailer. Meaning that there’s a chance that someone who has DID, or who cares for someone who does, just got emotionally sucker-punched to see an issue close to their hearts demonised in the name of another lazily written horror. I know for an absolute fact that the latter has happened. I really hope it hasn’t been a trigger point for anyone with DID.

Take a moment and think about that. Think about struggling your way through the shit storm of even getting a diagnosis, let alone working towards the healing needed. Imagine working your ass off to try and live a normal life and to manage your mental health, rather than letting it control you. By the way, if you’ve never had to do that- it’s really fucking exhausting.  And one day, you decide to take a day to yourself, go to a Con, go have some fun. You settle in to see a talk that you were really excited about. And then this shows up, and you’re reminded, again, that you’re an outsider even though you physically fit into the crowd. You hear the excitement, the whispers of fear and revulsion, and they’re tied into a part of your identity you had no control over creating. The apparent monster on the screen, yet again, is designed to be you.

Tell me how that’s okay.

This isn’t an argument that you can never write the bad side of mental illness, because that’s stupid. It’s saying that we need to balance the scales when it comes to a lot of depictions within popular culture. Sure, make the mentally ill character the villain. But make them heroes more often, too. Let people see positive depictions of their reality for once. It’s not that big an ask, and if you can’t figure a way to put a positive spin on a mental illness (or, y’know, anything outside of the typical cis, white, hetero, able-bodied man POV), then burn your pens and laptops, and go the fuck away.

One of the best things Marvel does in its movies, especially Iron Man, is show the aftermath. Iron Man 3 is chock-full of PTSD storyline- it acknowledges that we need our heroes but they’re paying a hell of a price for that job title. Tony is unstable and troubled- and still a gorram hero. In Age of Ultron, you see Steve’s PTSD. You see Natasha’s struggle to move beyond an abusive past- you see characters with tragic backstory working towards a better life, rather than being stuck in a hospital somewhere being tragic and stoic.

Seriously, quit kicking people when they’re already down. Quit having trans stories played by cis white guys. Stop having lesbian relationships used for reasons of titillation only. Stop making the characters of colour either randomly white (*cough*Gods of Egypt*cough*) or background characters (don’t you even tell me Falcon shouldn’t get his own freakin’ movie) or the sacrificial lambs (because only Rhodey was permanently impacted physically in Civil War, and only Sam looks like he’s being tortured for intel while they’re being held). Let more female heroes get their own movies. And easy to find fucking merch, you gobshits. Rey is literally the protagonist in the latest Star Wars and her merch wasn’t even in the first wave of products. They released a game that used Darth Vader and Young Luke Skywalker rather than use Rey. Stop shoving girls and women in boxes to await rescue (and again, I’m fucking scowling at you, ‘Split’) and let them rescue trapped guys instead. Let the little girl bring the weapon to the hero, or recognise them, or be mentored by them. Let autistic kids see heroes labelled as being on the spectrum, without it being played for laughs about how ‘normal’ people struggle to tolerate them. Let the quirky characters not be outsiders until they conform- let them be accepted, not forced to be someone else. Let characters who are introverts or who suffer with anxiety not be ‘cured’ by a romance subplot.  Let the male characters emote without being called gay (and quit using ‘gay’ to mean ‘bad’ because it’s a stupid slur and makes you look stupid, too). Disabled superheroes- gimme. Why can’t Hawkeye be deaf, like in the comics?

Spend, like, an hour online and you’ll find a heap of stories of kids getting really, really excited to see themselves represented- give kids those representations and quit being an asshole.

 

Stop fucking reaffirming the BS idea that DID means ‘scary’. It doesn’t. The names of mental illnesses are not writerly short-hand for ‘scary’, ‘dangerous’, or ‘violent’. Having DID can make life confusing and complicated and messy- but then again, the same is true if you have a cat or a kid, and I don’t see a 90-something% horror focus on either of those. You cannot tell me there’s not some superhero level badassery in the personality who keeps stepping in, sacrificing themselves over and over again to protect a child- who puts themselves through hell to make sure the kid survives. Tell me that story for once.

Hands down, for me, the best part of the Con was the moment that a room full of creatives called out the ‘Split’ trailer as a wholesale gathering of tropes that need to die. An entire room of people looked at the idea of DID as scary and said ‘fuck no’, and I nearly cried. There is a large number of consumers desperate for diversity and balanced storytelling- so why aren’t we getting it?

Tell me a story that matters, and stop wasting my time with fear mongering, hateful shit.

Smart People Talking: Isobelle Carmody

If you’ve never been to Comic-Con or Supanova, you may not be aware that even though they’re generally seen as a place to meet movie and TV stars and buy a heap of merch, they’re actually also literary events.

holtzmann-what
I know. I was shocked, too.

There are writers. And they talk about stuff. And you can buy their books, and go the selfie-with-hero route if that floats your particular boat. But, yes. Writers at Cons are wonderful, and they spend a fair bit of time talking craft and business.

At this year’s Brisbane Oz Comic-Con, Isobelle Carmody absolutely rocked it on stage and off. Isobelle is Aussie writing royalty- a fantasy writer with a knack for visceral imagery and edge of your seat storytelling. While at Oz Comic-Con, Isobelle participated in a panel called ‘Writing as a Day Job’, alongside C.S. Pacat, and Marianne de Pierres. This is me unashamedly pointing out her wisdom from that talk.

For anyone new to this series of posts, for the most part, they’re notes from Cons and events with me frantically explaining the wider context of the teensy snippet I managed to grab. The quoted bits are, unsurprisingly, quotes from the author or creative, the rest is me roughly sketching out the larger conversation that was happening. Most of these events don’t allow recording devices, so these are all the quotes I could scrawl into a notebook in a bizarre blend of text speak, hieroglyphs, and illegible chicken scratch.

You have been warned.

 

You should always be striving up. You should always be your own worst critic, in a way. If you can see the gap in your ability, you can overcome it.

The people who go into writing thinking that it’s easy and they’ve got nothing whatsoever to learn or improve? More often than not, their writing isn’t actually what you’d call an enjoyable read. Like any skill, there’s always going to be room for improvement. It’s the people who see their weaknesses objectively (not bemoaning their eternal suckitude, but acknowledging there can be improvement) who are able to minimise and challenge those weaknesses. The things we ignore don’t tend to improve.

I only wrote for myself to begin with. I was writing to save my life, to find solace. I was yearning for something, for community and hope and wonder, and people aligned with that striving. There was a truth I was pinning down, and people aligned to it. If you write deeply and truthfully enough, it’ll touch others.

There’s a reason ‘write what you want to read’ is such popular advice. Though there are countless stories of a work of art saving a life or helping someone through a difficult moment, that’s not something you can try to manufacture deliberately.  You can’t write to save someone else’s life, not really, because it’s too much pressure to put on yourself and on your writing. It’s incredibly hard to write characters with a strong moral message without them annoying readers.

It’s not about shoving a moral message down a reader’s throat- it won’t work and they’ll hate you for it. But if you write from a place of vulnerability and honesty, people tend to respond.

If a series lasts long enough, it begins to weave into the lives of readers.

We all have those stories that we wander back to, those characters we adore. Most of us have stories about that defining moment, and the book that shaped it. Stories have power, and the longer a series lasts, the more it becomes a part of our life and our world. An entire generation grew up with Harry Potter, for example, and those stories helped shape a lot of lives. Hermione Granger taught a generation of children that intelligence wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but a trait to be proud of. Severus Snape taught us to look beyond the superficial and remember that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people around us, so never assume that bitter equals evil.

We are shaped by what we read, so give people the best reading material you possibly can.

If you’re bored, you’re gonna bore the reader.

We don’t need to hear about the everyday stuff. We know they brush their teeth and hair and wander off to work or school. We don’t need to watch it happening. Things that don’t push the story forward are typically boring- if it’s not building tension or conflict, if it’s not forcing a character towards a certain path or event- then it’s not necessary. If it’s just setting the scene for ‘Bob went to work and that’s where interesting things happened’, skip it.

Having said that, sometimes there’s a good reason for it to be there. If, say, you’re writing from the POV of a character who focuses on that stuff and it’s included for a damn good reason? Sure. But there needs to be a reason. If it’s just there because you don’t know what else to write, it’s a problem.

It doesn’t get easier. A new book has a new problem.

We like to pretend that every book you write gets easier, because you’ve done it before. But each book brings its own issues- you have to learn new things, and figure out new problems. Each book is a unique set of issues to be resolved, rather than a quick and easy jaunt with a keyboard.

You’ve gotta get from big event or moment to another. People fall down in those transitions. What could be happening while I move from space to space? Even something as simple as hurting an ankle and walking with a limp can help the story. Small issues and details create realism.

The things you include in a story have to serve the story. Otherwise, it’s like listening to a small child tell you about their day- there’s no rhyme or reason to the information you’re getting, and it starts to feel like you’re never getting out of that conversation alive. If a story is made up of key moments with transitions from one to the next, you’ve got to make those transitions work.

‘She caught the bus to work and decided to become a vigilante’ is boring. ‘She caught the bus, and was trapped in a long metal box for an hour with a drunk man who only stopped hitting on her so he could yell about what an uppity bitch she clearly was. She decided to murder him, and everyone like him’ is more realistic (depending on where you live), but also a lot more interesting.

Even though I wasn’t writing an Australian landscape, the voice was Australian.

In the same way that our accents are impacted by where we live, and how long we live there, our writing voice carries hints of geography, too. There are Australianisms and Americanisms (and every-other-country-isms, too) that influence the story being told even if it’s not set in that particular place.

Don’t try and force your voice to be something it’s not in hopes that overseas markets will like you more. Write your story your way, with your voice, and people will respond better than they will to a flat, by-the-numbers read.

Ask yourself: how does the landscape feel to readers?

Your landscape should be a sensory experience. Readers should be able to imagine the places you’re writing about. If they’re seeing nothing more than white space behind the action, or if it feels like a hastily thrown together junkyard of landscape looking stuff, it’s not going to be as enjoyable for them.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve figured out every type of rock or soil or plant on the entire planet (though if that floats your boat, have fun). You don’t need a history of the plants and animals that became extinct in the thousand years leading up to the start of the story, or anything like that. Just a few details that help the reader believe that this landscape could actually exist.

Are you creating a compelling landscape that readers can easily imagine? Does the landscape feel real?

I’m in this character, blundering around in a world I have no idea about.

People approach writing in vastly different ways, and that’s a good thing. C.S. Pacat plans the hell out of her work. Isobelle doesn’t. She doesn’t have it all mapped out, so the journey is as much a surprise to her as it is to the readers.

Whatever works for you. Never feel guilty that you don’t write the way someone else does. You’re not meant to be like them, you’re meant to be you.

All the work you do beneath the eye line happens while you’re living your normal life.

Everyone thinks that quitting your day job and becoming a full time writer makes life easier, but it brings its own problems to the mix. A lot of the time, our brains problem-solve and idea generate while we’re busy doing other stuff, and it’s in those stolen moments of time where we do our best work. Mostly, it’s because we know we have ten minutes to write, and that’s it, so there’s a momentum there to achieve something. Meanwhile, when you have all day to write, it’s a lot easier to get distracted because there’s so much time available it stops feeling quite so desperate.

If you’re working full time as a writer, make sure you’re getting out of the house and away from the writing. Make sure you’re doing stuff outside of writing- you still need a work/life balance. And if writing was your hobby, you’re going to need to find yourself a new hobby. Writing might be a dream job, but it can’t be your whole life, or you’ll burn out. You need that time doing other things to give your brain time to problem solve, and to refresh and find inspiration.

(L is for) Lost

Note: this is a memoir piece based upon a crime that happened near my home today. Trigger warnings for violence. Reader discretion advised. For anyone struggling with what’s happened today, please remember that Lifeline’s crisis number is 13 11 14.

Warnings: trigger- violence, swearing, probably not overly coherent, lack of editing

 

It never goes smooth, you know? Today had a plan. Get up, get some chores done, then head out. It’s a short walk to the main bus stop, two minutes at most, and tada. Buses galore.

And then, the bullshit arrives. It always does, in far too many ways. And the walk down the road became the walk across the road to the longer route. The world gets busy, stays busy, until Mum’s name flashes on the screen of my phone, and a voice aching with relief and fear and something I can’t even name is panicking down the phone at me.

Tell me you’re okay. A sigh like a prayer when I say yes.

Have you heard from your sister? No. And not for twenty minutes after that, until my hands were shaking and my heart hurt in a way that left me dazed and gasping at the sound of her voice. Tell me you’re okay. I never realised how much I love the sound of her voice.

Some fucker murdered a bus driver today, two minutes away from my home. Some limp-dicked, how-can-you-tell-with-a-dick-so-small bastard burned a man alive, trapped people in the bus until a taxi driver kicked the back door in and got the women and the children and the men to safety. No one should be so scared. No one deserves this.

They’re showing the driver’s picture on the news, now. He’s new to the route, but I know him. I didn’t want it to be someone I knew. Pretty fucking sure no one wanted it to be someone they knew. He was quick with a smile, a genuinely nice guy, the sort of driver that you actually fucking enjoy dealing with. He’d wish you a good day and genuinely seem to mean it, would wait until you’d sat down before the bus took off. He was nice, is what I’m saying. This morning, he left home alive. He had goals, dreams, fears. He had fucking plans for his weekend. Tonight, he’s never coming home.

How the fuck is that fair?

He was younger than me. That’s not how this shit is meant to work. This isn’t meant to happen. This shit is never meant to happen. Who the fuck does this?

I get through part of the day before the shakes kick in. Before my brain makes the connection that oh, shit, I should have been there. The plan was to be there.

Would I have walked onto the bus, taken my usual seat near the driver? Would I be in hospital now if some part of me hadn’t been too overwhelmed by life to bother? How would Mum have coped if I hadn’t answered the phone, or worse, if someone else had?

I wanna get a tattoo, wanna fuck or scream or do something because I was meant to be there. I want a fucking hug. Or a drink. What’s the proper thing to do? What is the proper, acceptable behaviour when you’ve spent an afternoon wondering about things you wish you could get out of your head?

I sit near the front of buses, because I tend to catch the ones that head to ‘bad’ areas, and you learn quick what seats to avoid if you don’t want drunks draped all over you. There was a drunk on the bus this morning, a guy who went and screamed abuse at drivers when he got off at my stop. He had a can in hand, sloshing in the elevator, staring me down to the sound of shitty elevator music. He was scary. Clearly not the scariest fucker on the system today.

The back of the bus isn’t the best place to be sometimes.

This isn’t one of those bad areas, though. This isn’t meant to happen. Not here. Not to people who have a visible place in my world.

I’m being selfish, and I know it. I think about me, because if I think about him I’ll be sick. If I think about him, I’ll think about how he died, and my imagination is too vivid to let myself do that. I don’t want to think about someone whose smile I know dying like that. I don’t want to think about how terrifying it would be to be screaming for help, choking on smoke and trying to protect your toddler from the worst of it. I don’t want to question those things that don’t need to be questioned right now. I just want to feel warm again.

There’s this scene in Doctor Who, right? The big bad has made its way onto the tour vehicle, has possessed the body of the hostess. She throws herself out of the vehicle, sacrifices herself so that the others will survive. The survivors are shell-shocked, they’re sitting in silence, waiting to be rescued, the Doctor on the floor, knees almost to his chest as he looks around the others.

“What was her name?” No one asked her. This woman had greeted them, had been courteous and kind, and had protected them in their hour of darkness, and not a single person had bothered asking her name.

How many times did I say hi, did I ask about his day or wish him a good one? How many smiles did we share? And not once did I ask his name.

I wished my drivers well today, told them to be safe. Made eye contact for once, fought the urge to hug each and every one of them and ask them what kind of brave keeps working after this shit goes down.

Still never asked him his name, though. Still far too late to remedy that.

Smart People Talking: Tim Ferguson

 

It’s my birthday today (yay), and I’m spending it learning narrative comedy writing from a hero. Life is good. To celebrate, I’m bringing back Smart People Talking, and kicking it off with words of wisdom from, well, that hero.

This year, I got to speak to Australian comedy royalty- Tim Ferguson. It’s a big deal, y’all. As an unabashedly huge fan of the Doug Anthony All Stars, it’s pretty miraculous that I managed full sentences. It went well. Our twenty minute scheduled chat morphed into an hour-long conversation about comedy, life, and everything in between- all of which made the original questions I asked pretty much meaningless when transcribing. So here, finally, is the good stuff for the writerly folk:

 

 

On the evolution of performance:

When we started, we wanted people to think that we meant well. We wanted to be liked. Now we’re too old for that. We don’t have the patience, or the ability, to try and beguile and befriend an audience. Our subject matter is darker, our jokes are more hurtful amongst each other- the audience gets off easy. We’re dealing with, first off, me being in a wheelchair, being ridden with MS. We’re dealing with Paul McDermott still being well under 6 foot. And god knows what the Enigma, Paul Livingston, is going through. He doesn’t talk during the performance, because he got a fright early on and it’s just scared him silent. We’re dealing with a half-empty deck. The wheels have all come off, yet we are still speeding downhill. We don’t care what we say, we don’t care what the consequences might be, and that makes it funnier.

On political correctness:

We may not be politically correct, because we focus on being politically accurate. Being politically correct takes the agreement and permission of others. We haven’t met those people, so we just concentrate on being accurate, which takes a lot more work and a lot more thought. We’re never sexist, we’re never racist, because that’s stupid. It’s not politically incorrect, it’s just dumb. But we do talk about sexuality, we do talk about ethnicity, we do talk about disability, frailty, and the fact that we are all slowly losing our minds. Everyone on earth is slowly losing their minds. It’s not easy to watch the Doug Anthony All Stars, and it never was. It’s getting tougher to watch because we’re going to places nobody else on the world circuit is talking about. We never set out to offend people, it’s just that given the topics we’re dealing with, it’s inevitable that by the end of the show, everyone will be offended.

On the importance of comedy:

In terms of topics, comedy should be able to go wherever drama goes. We’re only interested in certain things, but we never discount a topic as being too ouchy. Sometimes the timing of that topic will dictate a pause before we start talking about it. But the purpose and function of laughter has nothing to do with the boundaries that some people suggest exist. The purpose and function of laughter is to give people distance from a subject, so that we can stand back and look at that thing. And sometimes it’s just too soon to stand back and look at that thing. But eventually, even the Titanic became funny. And then it stopped being funny. Jokes about the Titanic tend not to work, but for a while there, probably about 5 years after the Titanic sank, you could tell a Titanic joke and get a pretty good laugh from it.

The simple fact is that all the arts, no matter how high they claim to be, operate on a higher level and a lower level. Classical music, no matter which composer, is operating is on a high level, which is to engage the intellect, and also on a low level, which is to engage the emotions. And comedy is just the same. If anything else, comedy is a higher art form, miles higher, than drama could ever be. Because comedy, unlike drama, which purports to recreate a fantasy and make us think it’s real (like say the titanic movie- we’ve got to believe the ship is real or else we won’t enjoy the story), comedy deals with the truth. Drama deals with fantasy, comedy deals with the truth. And truth is as low or high as you want to go.

Why’d the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. There’s a truth.

There’s a blonde standing on one side of the river. There’s another blonde standing on the other side of the river. The first blonde shouts out, ‘Hey, how do I get to the other side?’ The second blonde shouts back, ‘You are on the other side!’ The truth that it’s dealing with is a truth of human perception. We say blonde, so that the person listening thinks, ‘oh this person must be dumb’, but at the end of the day, it’s one human stands on one side of the river, another human stands on the other side. It’s about our perspective. No matter what the joke is, no matter what the point of laughter is, it can be broken down to a basic truth that the audience agrees with, sometimes despite themselves. Drama can’t make that promise. Because at the heart of it, drama is bullshit, because it’s people pretending it’s real. Whereas nobody ever stood back from watching Eddy Izzard in the canteen of the Death Star being played out by Lego™, and thought it might be real. Because what he’s talking about is the intransigence of the powerful when they come up against every day, mundane problems.

Now, that’s all very boring, but it’s why it fucks me off totally when people make the assumption that comedy is something you do when you’re just there to giggle. They call it ‘light entertainment’ because they haven’t watched enough of it. Or the comedy they watch is very clever and doesn’t let on what it’s true purpose it.

Wit has never been of any interest to us. We’re not interested in being witty, we’re not interested in being on the audience’s side. Comedy is never on the audience’s side. People should be laughing at you, not with you, at all times. If they’re laughing with you, they won’t remember what you said. That’s what I mean that the Doug Anthony’s, it’s not easy to watch, because it’s us watching you. At the end of the day, people aren’t pretty.

For example, if they are that upset about the words ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, then they shouldn’t do those things as often as they do. If you don’t like hearing the word shit, stop it. Stop shitting. If people didn’t shit so much, hearing the word ‘shit’ wouldn’t have the impact that it does, so maybe they should put a plug in it and stop criticising the language choices of other people. And when it comes to fucking, for god’s sake, they still put an asterisk in the words ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ when they turn up in the newspaper! They beep them on the television. In America, if you raise your stiff middle finger, it gets pixilated on television. It’s what they do. The trouble with that is that it is a lie. It’s a lie that everybody agrees upon. We won’t mention the things that everybody does every day. And if they’re not doing it, they’re thinking about it. So the idea of putting an asterisk in the middle of a swear word is just a generally agreed lie, as if a kid can’t work out that sh*t, given the 26 options, is going to be ‘shit’. It’s not like it’s an unlimited number of letters that it could be. There are 26. So you get rid of all the consonants, you stick with the vowels, and you’ve got ‘shat’, ‘shet’, ‘shit’, ‘shot’, ‘shut’. A kid is gonna know. But we all go along with this lie, with this basic hypocrisy, and this is where humanity is weak. And this is why people will say, ‘The Doug Anthony All Stars are so edgy’. No. All we do is take away the asterisk.

We talk about death, sex, war, and hypocrisy. That’s what comedy deals with. They’re the only topics. Occasionally, you talk about love, but most of the time, you talk about the absence of love, because that’s the most interesting, and frighting. And comedy and fear go together like crackers and other crackers.

It’s important to laugh at the people who least expect it.

You can say whatever the hell you like, and it’s important for comedians to do that. Because comedians are the ones with the real guts when it comes to self-expression. I say anything I like. No matter what you say, you’re going to offend someone. Even if you encourage more people to drink a glass of water in the morning, you’re going to upset somebody who lives in a drought stricken part of Queensland. We have to say what we think.

On being less precious about your creative works:

We don’t care [if people miss the point]. We don’t ask them. We do what we do, we sing what we sing, and we say what we say, what the audience does with it is really just their business. Some people just turn up for the songs. Some people- fewer people now- come for the dancing. My dancing isn’t as good as it could be. We don’t care what the audience takes away from it. This is all information going outward, DAAS puts information out. We don’t take note, we don’t read reviews. We find people who come to review us kind of charming, and quaint. But we don’t read them, because it’s not that kind of show, we’re not that kind of act. Information goes out, it doesn’t come back.

On conquering social taboos:

We exploit MS. We exploit it for laughs, ‘cause why not? It’s only a thing, it’s only a disease- an ailment. It’s an annoyance. You die with it, not because of it. So there’s no reason to treat it as if it’s important. MS is the least interesting thing about me, and I don’t have many interesting things about me.

On getting your ass into gear and chasing your creative ambitions:

“The Man In The Arena” by Teddy Roosevelt. Read it. You’ve gotta get into the arena. The fact is, you want to get into the area, where as the quote says your face will be smeared with blood, and dust, and tears. You’ll experience the great enthusiasm, the great battles- you’ll dare greatly. You’ll fail terribly, but when you do, you will always have more than the cold and timid souls who’ll know neither victory nor defeat. And those people are the critics. Reviews are the opinions of someone too weak to stand up and get into the arena. Which at the moment includes you. What’s gonna be on your gravestone? That’s what you need to be thinking about. Get in the arena, write that book, write that play, do that stand up routine at the open mic night.  Get in the arena, it’s never too late to start.

 

For those wanting more words of wisdom to stitch onto their throw cushions, you can find dates for the DAAS tour and the masterclasses at Tim’s website: http://www.cheekymonkeycomedy.com/ And for those who can’t make it to an in-person comedy writing event, might want to note that the masterclass does come in book form.