Lately I’ve had a slightly tumultuous relationship with the idea of ‘inspiration’. Since I’ve been back in Australia I’ve found it really hard to focus on my writing. It’s only natural when so much has been going on in my life as I resettle here, start new jobs, let wounds heal, reconnect with loved ones. But that hasn’t stopped me from feeling frustrated at not getting much down on the page. I’ve been reading a lot, thinking about a long-form work that I began in Berlin, but not much progress has been made. This of course is selling myself short – so much time has been spent reading, thinking, mulling over ideas, making notes, and talking to friends about what I’m working on. Just because words aren’t getting onto the page doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing work. Because if there’s one thing I’ve realised in the last few years it’s that so much of my writing practice relies on, and is driven by, community.
Two years ago the then-Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Sam Twyford-Moore, came across this blog and asked me to be on a panel at the festival. From that moment on, that moment of recognition, has changed the way I think about myself, my practice and my work. That invitation gave me the validation I didn’t know I needed, but propelled me to finally say the words out loud and on the page ‘I am a writer’. Self-doubt in all forms of creative practice is rife, but being part of a community of people makes a huge difference. People who read your work, give you feedback, give you encouragement, know how scary it is to submit a pitch or email an editor or accept an invitation to a festival. Until I took part in the Emerging Writers’ Festival I hadn’t had any of these things. I loved to write, I did it from time to time on the side, but never thought anyone would ever take me or my writing seriously. From that first festival I’ve met so many other writers and editors who have become dear friends, and I’ve gone on to speak at other festivals, and meet more writers and editors, but that first invitation remains so critical to everything that I’ve done since.
Now, as I post this, the Emerging Writers’ Festival is on again. Just as I need it, a boost to my motivation to spend time at my laptop getting words down on the page. I’m looking forward to so many things (I’ve listed some suggestions in the notes below), but what I know will be just as fulfilling as the events themselves are the conversations I’ll have at the bar, or with the person sitting next to me, or with someone over Twitter at the Conference – what might seem like incidental moments can open so many wonderful doors.
Emerging Writers’ Festival taught me that I could do this thing – I could write and people would read what I wrote. That people around me were doing it and they weren’t scary, they were just normal people who got drunk and danced at the parties and who were also filled with self-doubt but had good people around them to tell them to keep going. It taught me that people from Adelaide could be writers and it introduced me to people from my hometown who I didn’t even know were writers.
So it now seems a little silly to turn around and talk about a book by an English writer that’s getting huge amounts of attention. I wanted to write about a local release but the truth is there are so much great releases coming out soon that are still embargoed for a few more weeks and I want to give them all the attention they deserve. But I couldn’t write about inspiration and writing and not talk about the book that has got me excited about putting words down on the page again.
Kate Tempest was recently in Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival and garnered a huge amount of attention while she was here. A debut novelist but an award-winning musician and poet, Tempest showed me – even before I’d opened the book – that writers could be ordinary people without PhDs or expensive educations. Writers can do whatever they want with form, with technique, with their voice. Writers just have to love words.
The Bricks That Build the Houses is an outstanding piece of fiction. Tempest’s voice, made pitch-perfect through her spoken word and performance background, leaps off the page with an energy quite unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s an ode to friendship, an ode to South London, and an ode to possibility.
The story begins with three people in a car running away – we find out with time how these people know each other, what they’re running away from and where they’re going, but most importantly we find out where they’ve come from. These three characters all hail from Tempest’s home, South London, ‘the wrong side of the river’, or, ‘a part of town full of professional creatives with dreams of simpler living — radical, secret aspirations for cottages and nuclear families.’
Tempest weaves through the back-stories of each of the characters and their families without ever losing the thriller-like pace of the central narrative. It adds history and context to a broader theme of loss – whether that’s through the increasing gentrification of the neighbourhoods that they call home, or through lost connections, missed opportunities, fleeting talent, or decaying relationships. Tempest also hits on a time in our lives that feels precarious, like something could change and tip us over the edge before we’ve even realised it. She captures this best through Becky, the novel’s protagonist, who is determined to live a creative life, despite the challenges that constantly hold her back:
She can see the next twenty years playing out in the space between the counter and the flat and the casting calls and the auditions she can’t get and the missed opportunities and the pie and mash and the pub and the injuries and her body in the mirror. Updating her profile page, happy in the photographs, smiling in her skintight sequins, diva week on The X Factor, shots for the road and lines and pills and arms around her friends as if it’s fine, it’s fine. But her muscles have a shelf life, and she is jealous of every struggling dancer in a company. Twenty years and she’ll be here, cleaning up the cafe, still trying to prove to Auntie Linda that she can trust her with the seasoning. Twenty years of nothing changing but the rent.
This novel boasts a relentless pace. It’s so rare for me to be kept awake by books but I just couldn’t bare to put The Bricks That Built the Houses down and stayed up furiously turning page after page. Perhaps what’s so brilliant about this pace is that it mirrors the threat to the lives of the characters — Becky in her desperation to become a dancer before time denies her dream, and the ever-present danger of Harry’s life as a drug-dealer — but also to the place they’re in. The speed of development in London is brutal but most significantly is seen in the gentrification of neighbourhoods that made London what it is. Tempest uses this novel as a love-story to her home, and so beautifully captures the place that it leaps off the page:
He goes slowly past the chip shop, the newsagent’s, the off-license, some girls on their bikes shouting at each other, the chicken shop, the barber’s, three men in prayer robes leaning against the bicycle racks outside the Co-op, the jerk shop, the Good News Bakery, the funeral parlour, the block of flats, a man moving a fridge on two skateboards, the garage with the arsehole woman who works at the counter, the carwash, the kebab shop, the houses with their whitewashed walls and gravel drives, the pub, the other pub. The nice Caribbean restaurant. Pete ducks through the iron gate and cuts across the cemetery, overgrown and rich with green. Trees everywhere. He stares up into them; they sway in sunlight, the crumbling stones, the angels and monuments, the crunch of the path under his quick feet. The smell in the air of spring.
Shortly after finishing this book I was lucky enough to see Kate Tempest speak at the Wheeler Centre here in Melbourne (you can listen to the podcast of the interview here). Her energy is infectious, her drive relentless, I found myself feeling quite emotional as I felt her presence radiate from the stage. Now I find myself full of inspiration, the hardest part is to come. Now is the time to build routines and set goals. Now is the time to do the work. Because that’s the power of reading such incredible novels as The Bricks That Built the Houses — it not only transcends you into another world as a reader, if it’s really special it gives you the kick up the bum you need to make your own attempt at great work.
Just before I moved into my new place I bought a small cake tin from an op-shop. It doesn’t look anything like the tins my grandparents owned and despite the Russian text on it, it reminds me of my grandparents here and gone every time I see it. It sits proudly on top of my fridge alongside my fruit bowl. Every Sunday that I’ve lived in this apartment I’ve baked something to fill the tin, to help me through the week. Sometimes something sweet but also these chickpea tortilla chips. This last Sunday I was feeling a bit flat. I knew I needed to get out the apartment so I put on my headphones and went for a long, slow walk. As I walked and breathed in the fresh air, I knew I needed to come home and bake something, so I made these muffins using this recipe from My New Roots. They are low on sugar and inflammatory things that have the ability to make my ongoing symptoms flare up and therefore mean that if I’m feeling a little bit dodgy I can eat them without issue. They used up some raspberries I bought marked down at the supermarket as they were just turning. They filled the apartment with warmth from the oven and the scent of orange from the zest used in the batter. On a grey Melbourne day where the sun set just as I took the muffins from the oven at 5pm, it was comforting to know that I had a treat to turn to not only that afternoon, but that I could take to work during the week too. Perhaps most importantly, they meant a full cake tin sitting proudly in the kitchen, there to tell me I know how to look after myself.
Sometimes being a writer is lonely – we’ve all heard the clichés but it’s true. The act requires long hours spent in front of page and screen alone, obsessing over turns of phrase and dialogue and punctuation. But every now and then, when we’re lucky, we’re brought to life. Two years ago at my first Emerging Writers’ Festival I was told I was a writer, I was validated and I became part of a community. Now, as I set to build my work from these small essay-like-things to bigger endeavours, it’s perfect timing to shake things up a bit. Kate Tempest’s work shows all of us that you can be fearless, raw, honest and vulnerable and create stories of incredible beauty and truth in whatever form it takes. It’s something rare and special to all who will read her work, but especially to all of us who aspire to one day hold our work in our hands and say ‘I made this’. Inspiration must be followed by hard work and discipline, but when you’ve got people around you cheering you on, you’re already closer to doing great work than you think.
This year’s Emerging Writers Festival program features writers who I’ve read and love, who I can’t wait to read, and who I know I’ll be reading in the near future. Writers who I’ve featured on here include Alice Robinson, Emily Bitto, Jennifer Down, Lorelei Vashti, Abigail Ulman and the editors Alicia Sometimes and Nicole Hayes. Writers who’s debuts are just about to hit the bookshops with extraordinary promise and who I hope to write about here soon: Anna Spargo-Ryan, Jane Harper, Kate Mildenhall and Rajith Savanadasa. And events that feature groups of new, exciting writers like the perenially excellent Amazing Babes, old favourite Graphic Translation, and feature events Real Fake White Dirt, Songs and Stories of Home, and It’s Not Easy Being Green. Plus events that are important to our little literary community: Self-Care for Writers and the joyous Closing Night Party.