It’s Belinda’s way or the Highway…

Belinda the Ninja FRONTlowresSo there we are, my partner and I, and we’re slogging up Whitsunday Peak on Whitsunday Island, and it’s hot and humid. My sandfly bites are driving me crazy, and mozzies the size of elephants are trying to carry me away. I’m wondering if my desire not to be the first one to say ‘let’s stop’, will beat my desire to get back to Dugong Beach as quickly as possible and plunge myself into the beautiful, clear, turquoise water.

I give in. “Greg,” I whinge. “Let’s go back.”

He stops almost mid-step. “Phew,” he says. “I thought you’d never say it.”

So we turn around and pick our way back down through the rainforest, and into the scrub, and back along the path to the beach, and as we do, I’m thinking about my (then) 13-year-old daughter Anna, and how much she loves to do dance. I’m swatting away the mozzies, and wiping the sweat from my brow, and I suddenly get this little dancing image in my mind. At least, it’s a little girl, but she’s not exactly dancing, she’s doing Ninja moves.

“Yee-hah!” she’s shouting, as she puts up a hand to stop an imaginary opponent, and I’m surprised though, that she’s dressed in a little pink tutu and ballet slippers – because even though I’ve only just made her acquaintance I’m absolutely sure she doesn’t want to be a ballerina, she wants to be a Ninja.

The Ninja Ballerina I think to myself, and suddenly a name pops into my head.   Belinda.

Belinda the Ninja Ballerina.

I’m almost jumping up and down on the spot – I’d be doing Ninja moves at the brush turkeys if I was supple enough.

“I’ve got an idea for a children’s book,” I say. “I think I’ve got to write it now.

There’s a wonderful moment as a writer, when an idea comes to you – and just for a moment you see it there, already written, already published even, and it’s perfect, it’s just as you imagined it, it’s a success, everybody loves it…and then, reality hits.

To begin with, you actually have to get the words out of your head on to paper, or computer, and then you have to begin the arduous process of working on the words, and even worse, fight off the internal nay-sayers who are only too happy to tell you that your idea is no good, and why on earth do you think you can write a book. Those voices don’t even listen when you tell them you’ve written books before – “yeah, well,” they’ll say in derision, “just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean you can do it again.” When I teach creative writing I always tell people – when you write something, at some point or other you’re going to have to cross Mordor.

But as I sat on a wooden bench, under a palm tree, trying to get this cheeky curly-headed girl out of my head and into a story, the words flowed as swiftly as a river, and within an hour, she was written. There was only one problem – I wished desperately that I could draw – I so wanted Belinda to look as I imagined her, and not how someone else might imagine her. But I needn’t have worried, because for whatever magical reason it might be, Belinda’s birth into the world of books, has been as easy and blessed as the moment of creation.

Mitch Vane's first rough drawings for Belinda the Ninja Ballerina.

Mitch Vane’s first rough drawings for Belinda the Ninja Ballerina.

Some people have already asked me the obvious question of whether I did ballet as a child, and I did – but let’s just say that I was not the most graceful child on the block. In fact I was pretty much permanently traumatized from the age of four when my father came to see me dance at my end of year kindergarten concert. We were doing a Little Miss Muffet sequence, and I was very proud of my pink tutu, tights and ballet shoes. I ran up to my parents after it was over, and my father looked at me solemnly.

“Well,” he said, “Stay as clumsy as that and you’ll never make a dancer.”   I sat down on my little pink bottom and burst into tears while my mother hugged me and not for the first or last time looked at my father reproachfully.

And there I was sitting under a palm tree on the other side of the world over 50 years later, and the idea of the Little Miss Muffet sequence came flooding back in – but this time, Belinda took control. No cute little costumes for her – no way, she wanted to be the Ninja spider. Graceful be damned – she was going to dance her way, or no way.

When Paul Collins, the publisher of Ford Street books in Melbourne, accepted Belinda I was delighted. I love what he does with children’s books – the care he takes, the fact that he’s stuck to his guns and still prints picture books in hardback, and when he mentioned to me that perhaps we should approach Mitch Vane to do the illustrations, I was over the moon. I know Mitch’s work well, although I’ve never met her, and sitting far away in Byron Bay, waiting for the first drawings to come in, I felt a combination of excitement and trepidation. How would Mitch see Belinda? After all, they’re not called ‘picture’ books for nothing – the words may have come first, but the pictures were essential. Would Mitch’s vision match mine, or would she see Belinda completely differently?

When the email arrived with the first roughs, I almost broke the keyboard in my excitement to open them – and WOW – there was Belinda. My Belinda. A cheeky curly-haired red-head, with a grin, and a Ninja costume, cart-wheeling her way through the pages of the book.

It’s interesting when you write a book, or a story, or essay, how other people see it – sometimes as a writer you may question their interpretation, sometimes they see something you didn’t even see when you were writing. Mitch spotted an element to the book that was entirely unconscious in the writing, and that was Belinda’s constant movement.

“Belinda’s character is never what you would call ‘quiet’ or ‘still’,” Mitch said to me when we were talking about the teacher’s notes for the book. “Throughout the story she never stops practicing her Ninja moves, and that’s why I felt the energetic squiggly pen and ink line and splashes of colour wash best reflected her personality – but I think what was most important for me was to portray Belinda’s determination and passion.”

It seemed that Mitch and Paul both connected with Belinda’s determined personality, and then throughout the publishing process there was also Dmetri Kakmi – Belinda’s editor – the contact point between us all – publisher, author and illustrator. He too loved Belinda, and carefully negotiated the minefield of dealing with ‘creatives’ to gather the various strands into the whole that has become the book that at this moment – after 14 books – has most perfectly realized that moment of creation.

I know how lucky I am as a writer to have had this experience, and as Belinda the Ninja Ballerina is launched into the world next week, I hope many young readers enjoy her message on the importance of standing up for yourself.


You can find out more about candida baker on candidabaker.com

Candida Baker also runs an online arts, culture and lifestyle magazine based in the Byron Bay region – www.verandahmagazine.com.au

For more information on Belinda the Ninja Ballerina go to: www.fordstreetpublishing.com

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Silence is Golden

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Silence is not the absence of something

but

the presence of everything.

   John Grossmannn

 

 My best friend Sally and I could ride our ponies for hours through the English countryside where I grew up.

On the way back home, all of us – humans and horse – tired from our outing, would mosey our way along the grass verge, feet out of the stirrups, dangling our boots through the cow-parsley, while the ponies took the odd snack-on-the-go.

In those moments, life often seemed sweet and almost perfect, and it wouldn’t take much for one of us to burst into the chorus of one of our favourite songs…

‘Silence is golden, but my eyes still see

Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see…’

Anybody who remembers the song will know it doesn’t say much for our taste at the time, but it was 1967 and we were 12-years-old, and we were collectively in love with the Tremeloes, who, as it turned out were going to be a one-hit wonder, with not even, as I found out many years later, their own song.

What I remember thinking in those far-off days, and it’s a thought that has stayed with me all my life, is that there are two kinds of silence – an outside silence, which in a sense does not really exist, and an inner one, which arrives on a rare occasion – well, rare to me at least – unbidden, as a sudden sense of quiet inner peace.

I grew up in the country, and I now live in the country, and I still horse-ride – these days through the green macadamia-covered hills of northern New South Wales.

Until recently when we sadly lost my daughter’s Shetland pony, Sally-the-Boy to a brain tumour,  I would take my daughter for a trail ride on him, and  I would walk beside her.  Whenever we did our lane outing, she liked to close her eyes, so, as she said, she could hear the ‘quiet’ sounds. And the quiet sounds were the sounds her pony’s hooves make clip-clopping steadily along, the sound of the breeze, the carolling of the magpies and the far-off hum of the motorway.

If you want to further the argument that silence in a sense is a concept, and not something that really exists – think of the phrase, ‘Silence please’, and where it is used.

Take a school classroom for instance, at the beginning of an exam and the room falls quiet as students begin the unenviable task of working through an exam paper – is it silent in there? Of course not. There are a million little noises: the scraping of shoes on the floor, the occasional cough, the sound of a chair being adjusted, paper being turned – there is almost, in fact, a ‘noise’ of concentration.

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And yet, conversely despite this outside noise that makes the notion of silence not – in any world I know at least – a reality, there is that time when you are in the exam, when your inner world is in silence. Then, if you are lucky and you have studied your subject, a kind of meditative trance falls on you where you become unaware of anything around you, blocking out everything other than that which you are doing.

When we were children we used to play many games in the fields and the woods around my home. One of them, a perennial favourite, involved an attempt to be silent. One of us would hide our eyes into a tree, while another would pretend to be a Red Indian – as we still called native American Indians then – and would creep silently up behind to scare the person hiding their eyes. Sometimes if one of us was feeling cruel, we would all run off and leave the innocent waiting to be startled alone at the tree, and as I know, that produced its own torturous silence – the silence of no response.

For a large part of the past 35 years I have been a journalist working in busy newspaper and magazine offices, and in those offices the ability to call on inner silence becomes absolutely vital. They’re noisy places, newspaper offices. Not quite as noisy as they were pre-computers, but noisy enough. A large open plan-office with telephones ringing and people talking, meeting, arguing, creating is not necessarily the kind of place that you would think would be conducive to writing, but write you must – and so you do – learning to block out every sound, so that you can meet your deadline. Much, dear reader, as I am doing now.

In a relatively quiet, relatively small space in my house, with white desks and two windows overlooking the paddocks below, I am typing an essay on silence. Outside I can hear the sound of the neighbour on his ride-on mower, every now and then my son’s mobile phone pings. I can hear the magpies, crows, rosellas, butcher birds, minah birds and doves that are just part of the noise landscape. One of the dogs is drinking water, each lap magnified by my attempt to hear silence. If I pause for a moment, I can absorb these sounds deep inside, and by absorbing them they become part of the silent interior, the place from which I am attempting to write.

William Penn once wrote: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” For me that rings true, because the curious thing about turning into the inner world is how energising it is.

Sometimes, although not often enough, I manage to get up in the very early hours of the morning to meditate. Even then, deep in the country at four in the morning, the world is not silent. The creaks and groans of an old house keep me company; the cat appears at my side and grooms herself, if there is rain every tiny drop is magnified by the absence of day noise, and the silence of the night reveals itself as anything but, as I try to empty my mind and find that still place within.

If nature is so noisy, is it ever silent? “See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence,” said Mother Teresa. “See the stars, the moon and the sun how they move in silence….we need silence to be able to touch souls.” I like that idea that the tree whose branch creaks over my roof, is growing in silence, that silence can be something tangible, if not in fact what we assume it to be. I’ve never thought of the sun, stars and moon as silent, but it’s true, at least from a human perspective. I see its trajectory over my house, I don’t hear it and that somehow reinforces the idea of silence being a sensation, having a presence, rather than an absence.

I have often wondered if wilderness places are silent – if you climb Mount Everest, for instance, do you sit in silence? In the Antarctic are you surrounded by silence? People tell me this is not so, that even in the quietest places there is noise, even if the noise is the beating of your own heart – even the absence of noise can be noisy.

There is a wonderful book by photographer Jeffrey Gusky entitled ‘Silent Places’. This poignant photographic journey through Eastern Europe documents in black and quite the crumbling landscape of the Holocaust. Houses, synagogues, railway lines, a simple corridor, a door, the entry to a Jewish home now used as a public toilet – every image silently tells a screaming story. His work is of outstanding quality, and somehow what he brings to the photographs is even more poignant than those of the time – the absence of people tells us these were their homes, their places of worship, of education and play – and in the case of the railway line to Auschwitz, their journey to death.   You feel that if you stare at them long enough you will bring them to life somehow, that the families will return, peeking out of the shadows, bringing light and love and warmth and noise with them, but until then this landscape bears silent witness to the bloody past.

 

 

'Corridor in Kazimierz', former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

‘Corridor in Kazimierz’, former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

Battlefields, memorials, cenotaphs, burial mounds, roman ruins – everywhere where man has once existed but is no longer, it is not the silence, or lack of it, in the direct environment of these places it is the silence of the structures themselves that strikes one as being so overwhelming, hinting at one’s own mortality. I am here, I am noise, I am flesh, I am anything but silent, my blood flows, my heart beats, my stomach growls, my joints creak, my eyes see, my ears hear, tongue tastes, in each movement I make, each kiss or cuddle I give or receive, in each angry word, or happy laugh or bossy command I am an active presence.

Perhaps it is this more than anything that creates anxiety for a lot of people around the idea of silence. In a world full of iPods, iPads, tablets, phones, facebook and computers, whether we live in the (supposed) peace and quiet of the country, or the white noise of a city, the idea of silence, without or within, can be laden with fear. I can’t hear, does that mean people can’t hear me? Do I, if I am not constantly in contact with humanity, matter? My lack of silence, my constant interaction reassures me – I am here, I do matter, I am in contact.

The very fact of modern human’s difficulty with silence means that it is increasingly more important for us to acknowledge it, to hold it within and embrace the silence – to give our soul a chance to speak.

Perhaps one of the best-known prose poems in the world is the Desiderata, which far from being written in the 1600s as was commonly thought, was in fact penned by Max Ehrmann in 1927. Ehrmann, a philosopher and writer who wrote six books in ten years and then became a lawyer because he felt he would never write a book that made him enough money to support his family, would be astonished and gratified to know that 84 years later the Desiderata is one of the most widely read poems in the world.

‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste,’ he wrote, ‘and remember what peace there may be in silence.’

What he was speaking of, I am sure, is inner silence – that deep, profound state of being when all is right with the world, so right that one could still be compelled, in the right circumstances – a horse ride along a quiet avenue of trees, a dog or three at my heels – in my case – to sing out loud, ‘Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see’. And always to remember, of course the wise words below:

Keep-calm-and-enjoy-the-silence

The Pagoda Tree

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Figuring it out: Claire Scobie took inspiration from carved temple walls. Photo: Karen Hardy

The change of writing genre from non-fiction to fiction is not always easily achieved, but Claire Scobie’s first book, Last Seen in Lhasa, about her search for a rare red lily and her subsequent friendship with a Tibetan nun, already suggested a writer whose evocative prose might make the transition.

Scobie’s first novel, The Pagoda Tree, is an ambitious book set in southern India in 1765 when the British were becoming increasingly dominant. At the heart of the book is the story of Mayambikai – Maya – a young girl training to be a temple dancer, a devadasi.

Pagoda refers not only to a temple in southern India but also to a gold coin – perfect symbolism.

There is a small hint in the first few pages about where Scobie’s inspiration for the book came from, when Maya, roaming near her home in the temple grounds, has flights of fantasy about the dancing girls carved into the temple walls. When Scobie visited Thanjavur (then Tanjore) in southern India, she was struck by the beauty of the 11th-century walls and that the names and addresses of 400 dancing girls are still visible today. It’s one of those perfect starting points for fiction – a visually arresting moment with a story behind it: Who were these girls and what were they like?

<i>The Pagoda Tree</i> by Claire Scobie

Maya is part of this continuum; her mother was a devadasi, and her ancestors before her. Astrologers have foretold that Maya will have an unusual destiny, and as someone born with the mark of the goddess she has been singled out to be trained to the height of her profession, with the ultimate intention that she will be a courtesan for the prince.

When I was younger, I travelled frequently to India and Scobie’s several research trips have allowed her to capture perfectly what I remember of the intensity of the country. The result is a richly textured tale full of the sights, sounds and smells of India, with all its complex beauty and troubled history.

Into the single thread of Maya’s life are woven numerous other stories. Within Maya’s complex relationship with her somewhat emotionally detached mother, Scobie

achieves a delicate balance – both mother and child yearning for love and acceptance. For Maya, much of her story is about loss: The loss of her beloved aunt when she is cast out for visiting a Muslim doctor; her patronage by Palani, the resident but ageing courtesan and dancer who then disappears; the subsequent breakdown of the prince’s power and Maya’s ensuing enslavement to the head of the temple, and her attraction to, and relationship with, Thomas Pearce, a young Englishman trying to make his fortune.

The word pagoda refers not only to a temple in southern India but also to a gold coin – perfect symbolism for the book. Somehow though, this book reminds me more of that most quintessential of Indian garments – the sari. Its layering, the unravelling of the story, the subtext of the fortunes made and lost on cotton and silk, the evocative descriptions of saris themselves are all part of the tapestry of this novel.

But in some ways its very ambition and complexity is where Scobie stumbles somewhat. The creation not just of Maya as a main character, but also the English Reverend Sutcliffe, the corrupt Mudaliar, head of the temple and purchaser of Maya, and her lover Thomas – among others – means the reader’s focus is, on occasions, distracted from engagement with Maya’s story. To my mind, the other characters in the book don’t achieve quite the same emotional depth as Maya.

However, as the story wends its colourful way to an inevitable denouement, through the increasing distress of a country struggling against the invaders, and the tragedy of Maya and Thomas’s doomed relationship, this is a novel to be savoured, in much the same way as the colourful subcontinent itself.

In Last Seen in Lhasa, Scobie wrote of Pemako in Tibet that it was ”a spiritualscape where legend merged with truth.” Scobie has, once more, found a subject matter with a powerful ”spiritualscape” and she does it ample justice.

Purchase Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree here.

THE PAGODA TREE

Claire Scobie

Viking, 384pp, $29.99

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/elaborate-tale-of-india-woven-with-the-intricacy-of-a-tapestry-20130815-2rxga.html#ixzz2ckkaQsPY

Creative Tension

Creativity arises out of the state of thoughtless presence in which you are much more awake than when you are engrossed in thinking. Eckhart Tolle

 

 Right and left brains. An ad designed for Mercedes Benz. Image via Creative Jaunt.

What exactly is creativity? As a writer it’s something I often think about, particularly when the creative muse has gone missing, and I’m in urgent need of her – which is usually whenever a deadline is looming.

I think that most of us would describe creativity as a process whereby new ideas or concepts are generated. The professions that would most likely spring to mind would be the arts, and perhaps most specifically that of an artist.

Curiously, art was not actually considered creative until the Renaissance. The ancient Greek word for art – ‘techne’ is actually the root word for technique and technology, and art – with the exception of poetry – for the Greeks meant following rules.

Mind you, discipline, although less attractive than the idea that a single moment of creative genius can bring success, is as essential as the idea itself.

In other words – as simple as it seems – you can’t be something, unless you do it.

The concept of creativity is complex, partly because unlike results-based maths and sciences, there’s no absolute yardstick to measure anything by. Not that mathematics and sciences are not creative – take Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci as two examples of highly creative logical thinkers.

One thing researchers do agree on is that creativity involves more activity from the right-side of the brain, which is responsible for emotion, ideas and conceptual thought, so that any activity we can do that is conducive to producing that deep profound state of relaxation where creativity can make its presence felt is helpful.

Walking, meditation, time alone in nature, swimming – even the quiet insomniac hours of the night when you are awake and the world sleeps, are all ways to contact the muse.

Carl Jung, definitely a right and left-brainer, who understood the need to balance both, once said: “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

I remember once interviewing playwright Michael Gow, after the success of his play Away, and he told me that everyday he swam laps to create the next bit of the script. He would swim up and down the pool, plotting and planning, until he was ready to go home and write down the day’s work.

For me creativity is in equal parts inspiration, perspiration, frustration – and reward.

When I imagine a book, fictional or otherwise – I can see it in its entirety, completely finished and on the bookshelves. That brief illumination is followed by the disheartening reality that it’s going to take some time, years even, before the idea becomes manifest.

But if I manage it, then there’s the reward of a project well done, of the sense of connecting out into a wider universe – and the constant quest for the next creative idea. It’s a strange and not entirely peaceful way to live, when you think about it!

Although a recent British Management Institute research paper discovered recently that if stressed out executives were given art classes, they were as relaxed afterwards as if they had gone on holiday. I wonder though, if ‘being creative’ still has that effect if it’s what you do for a living?

Love what you do.  Do what you love.  Photograph:  Candida Baker
 Maya Angelou described the importance of discipline to the muse when she wrote:  “What  I try to do is write.  I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’  And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff.  But I try.  When I’m writing, I write.  And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay.   Okay.  I’ll come.'”

Children, mind you, seem to understand the creative state intuitively. They don’t have to fight to be in it or search for it, it just happens – perhaps because it’s not results-based so there is no anxiety about the final product, whether it’s drawing patterns in the sand, or pictures on paper, or words in a story – it takes a while before the unpleasant realisation dawns that other people can judge you or comment on what you do, or mark you, or misunderstand you.

When I’ve taught writing or creativity workshops one of the most frequent blockages people have expressed is exactly that reluctance to be judged. They may have only written a few pages, but they’ll say: “What if people don’t like it? What if I can’t find a publisher?”

They might want to write, paint, play music, dance, sing or do craft, but even before they try they are sabotaging themselves with the idea that ‘people’ will review, criticize, analyse and judge them.

But if there’s anything certain about creativity it is that it is an uniquely individual experience, it belongs to you, and you alone, and it has no need to be shared with the world before it’s ready.

So it’s a question of nurturing creativity in order to become more creative, of being disciplined and relaxed, having the courage to come forward, and knowing when to stay quiet and removed from life, of not inviting criticism but knowing when to withstand it when your creative baby goes out into the world, and most importantly continuing to nurture it once it is out in the world.

Nothing to it really… Now where’s that novel?

‘Maybe we should develop a Crayola bomb as our next secret weapon. A happiness weapon. A beauty bomb. And every time a crisis developed, we would launch one. It would explode high in the air – explode softly – and send thousands, millions, of little parachutes into the air. Floating down to earth – boxes of Crayolas. And we wouldn’t go cheap, either – not little boxes of eight. Boxes of sixty-four, with the sharpener built right in. With silver and gold and copper, magenta and peach and lime, amber and umber and all the rest. And people would smile and get a little funny look on their faces and cover the world with imagination. ‘

Robert Fulghum

 

 

 

All that glitters is not gold…

Colin Firth and Judi Dench. Shakespeare in Love. 1998. Homepage photograph, Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth 1 in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

I’ve been thinking about gold, and the meaning of it quite a bit over the past week or so since the Olympics took over our lives.

For me, whenever I think of gold, I think of being 18 and scoring a job with the Oxford Playhouse Company in a season that included Edward Woodward, Leo McKern, and the wonderful Judi Dench.

During The Merchant of Venice I was elevated from floor sweeper and dogsbody to be the gold casket bearer while Bassanio gave his casket speech.

I was dressed in a fetching golden Elizabethan costume.

Every night, I would listen to Bassanio while every night he dismissed me:  Therefore, thou gaudy gold, hard food for Midas, I will none of thee…

Read my article at The Hoopla.