Tag Archives: joy

WU UnCon: A Conference of Connection

WU UnConIt’s ten days since I arrived back in Australia after attending the Writer Unboxed UnConference in Salem. Ten long days, and I’m only now posting about it. Why? Because if I’d posted sooner, my whole post would have consisted of a disjointed list of unrelated adjectives interspersed with exclamation marks and the occasional unsubstantiated claim that the UnCon changed my life.

But now, ten days later, I feel I’m ready. I’m ready to say that it was a phenomenal, transformational, life-changing, brain-expanding, emotionally-charged hot-pot of creative energy and connection, built around a series of inspiring, enlightening, and incisive workshops.

Or something like that..

Actually, I’ve pondered long and hard about how to share the experience of Salem with you. And as I’ve pondered, I’ve consolidated the things I learned in a deeper and more meaningful way. And thus, I’m ready to share.

I could tell you about the amazing workshops I did — particularly Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story”, Donald Maass’s “Writing 21st Century Fiction” and John Vorhaus’s “The Comic Toolbox” — and the ways those workshops have improved my writing and expanded my thinking.

But I won’t.

UnCon Group 2I could tell you about the deep connection I felt with the other writers I met there, many of whom I knew as icons and names online, and the long-lasting bonds that formed during those five days.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the dinner we had as a memorial to Lisa Threadgill, my dear, dear friend who passed away earlier this year, and how laughing and crying with other people who felt her loss so keenly reopened old wounds and yet helped them heal so much cleaner.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about hanging out in a bar at 1:00am on the first evening with a group of people I’d only just met, drinking picklebacks (the most revolting shot I’ve ever tried), and then asking the bartender for his shirt.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the Poker Cabin, and how it felt to be playing poker of an evening after a long day of brain-expanding workshops and conversation, and the surreal feeling of sitting next to an inspirational (and possibly super-human) NY literary agent as I confidently bluffed my way to a winning hand.

But I won’t.

UnCon GroupI could tell you about sitting at dinner on Friday night, after the UnCon was technically over, and collaboratively building a back-story for our surly waitress using all the techniques we’d learned from Don Maass during the full-day workshop we’d just attended.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about Bob Stewart.

And I will.

Before the UnCon, I knew WriterBob Stewart as a name and an icon on the Writer Unboxed FB page. We interacted once or twice, in an oblique way, and I admired his dedication and persistence, but I didn’t know much about him. As the time for the UnCon grew closer, I learned more about him. He was much older (75, I later learned), and had some health issues. He was an accomplished playwright, journalist, and novelist. And, above all that, he was funny and kind and a good and genuine human being.

WriterBobOn the Saturday before the UnCon was due to start, he was bitten by his cat. Due to other health complications, the bite got infected, and he ended up in hospital. The first thing he did was message Therese Walsh to find out if it was okay if he arrived at the UnCon a little late. Which, of course, it was. He checked himself out of hospital early, and flew to Salem, and arrived on Tuesday afternoon.

I spoke to Bob briefly. Just enough to say hello, and I was glad he could make it. But he was there — real, and solid, and not just an icon and a name. He participated in groups, and stayed for evening sessions. And Wednesday evening, after everything was winding down, he complained about feeling a little funny, returned to his room, and passed away.

We found out on Thursday.

I wasn’t having a great day on Thursday. I finished the day with an amazing session that hit me like a brick wall and made me question the validity of everything I’d ever written in my life. Then, mired in self-doubt, I found myself flicking through the memorial book that had been created for Lisa Threadgill. A book that was full of my words. A book that brought all the grief and pain I’d felt at her passing back to the surface. And so there I was, weeping in the lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, when Therese approached and told me about Bob.

WriterBob Stewart. A man who spent his last days exactly where he wanted to be — with a community of writers he’d only known online, in a beautiful little hotel in Salem.

And so I found myself, on that Thursday evening, telling the other attendees that our evening plan had changed. That instead of a discussion of craft, we would be sharing a toast for Bob, and hearing some of the pages from his latest work. And as I told them, I found myself breaking the news of his passing over and over and over.

Some people cried. Others told me stories. One person looked like she was going to faint. Another told me that he’d lost a number of family members recently, and then excused himself to find somewhere private to sit and reflect. And through it all, I hugged and comforted and listened and was present.

UnCon Group 3But once the toast was said, once the memorial was underway, I couldn’t be present any longer. To coin my own phrase, my heart was a new helium balloon floating through a cactus forest. The slightest brush — skin against skin, mind against mind — would break me. I had too much grief, too much emotion, coursing through my body. I had to escape. And so I fled the room. Quietly. Hoping not to be noticed.

But I was.

John Vorhaus*  — a man equally funny and wise — saw me going and followed me out. He rejected my claims that I was ‘fine, just fine’, and he sat with me, and we talked. We talked about loss and grief and self-doubt and pain and all manner of things. We talked until my skin no longer felt electrified, until I no longer felt I was going to explode, until I felt grounded again. And during that talk, during that conversation, he said a phrase that resonated with me both then and now, and defines the UnCon experience for me.

“Cherish your emotions’.

When JV said it, he was referring to the grief and shock I was feeling — that we were all feeling — in the wake of Bob’s death. But it means so much more to me.

he entire UnCon for me.

Cherish your emotions.

Think about it for a minute. How often do we truly cherish our emotions? Conversely, how often do we feel shame or guilt about our emotions? How often do we attempt to hide them/ To wall them away, or move on from them, or pretend they’re not there? What would happen if we truly cherished our emotions — accepted them, not as being bad or good but just as being. How would that feel?

UnCon Group 4How would that inform our writing?

How would that inform our lives?

Cherish your emotions.

It ties in to what Lisa Cron said about specificity and back-story. It mirrors Donald Maass’s talk of finding emotional resonance between our lives and our character’s experiences. It touches on Meg Rosoff’s discussions of voice. But, more than that, it is a model, a mantra, for life.

And so when I think about Salem, and about WriterBob and Lisa Threadgill, and about the close connections I forged, and the games of poker I played, and the fun and hi-jinks I was part of, and the way I got lost every freaking time I walked out of that hotel building, I think of that phrase.

Cherish your emotions.

And when it all gets too much for me, when the homesickness for an event that lasted only five days and yet a lifetime threatens to overwhelm me, I take a deep breath and cherish my emotions. And then I write.

* JV has a new book coming out. I’ve read it. It’s brilliant. And you should totally go and buy it right now. Tell him Jo sent you.

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The Joy of Giving

A friend of mine gave me a bag full of toys last month. It was just a few action figures her son had grown out of — a knight on horseback, a dragon, a couple of archers… In short, exactly the type of toys five-year-old Big Brother loves.

I thanked her, put them in the cupboard for the right time to pass them on to my son, and promptly forgot about them.

A couple of days ago I was searching for Christmas wrapping paper and came across them. It seemed like the right time.

“Do you know my friend Claire?” I asked Big Brother.

“Yes.”

“She asked me to give these toys to you as a present. Her son doesn’t play with them anymore, and so he’d like you to have them.”

“Wow,” he said. “Claire’s son is very nice.”

Then he set to playing with them. He gave them all new names, introduced them to his own King, Queen, Knights and Fairies, and I went back about my day.

A little while later, Big Brother came out to see me. He was carrying one of his favourite jigsaw puzzles — a 100 piece puzzle of classic automobiles.

“I haven’t played with this in a long time, have I Mummy?” he asked.

“You can play with it if you want to,” I said. I was cooking dinner, and trying to contain a force of nature cleverly disguised as a 22-month-old boy.

“No,” said Big Brother patiently. “I mean, I haven’t played with it for weeks and years.” (He’s still struggling to understand all these time measurements.)

“I suppose not.”

“Well I could give this to Claire’s son,” he said. “Because I don’t play with it any more.”

I looked down at his earnest expression as he gripped the puzzle box firmly in his little fingers, halfway between clutching it to his heart and offering it to me. And all I could do was give him a hug.

*****

At this time of gift-shopping, feast-prepping, paper-ripping, wine-drinking, tree-trimming, and family-gathering, take just a moment to remember the simple joys of Christmas.

The magic of Christmas isn’t in the money you’ve spent. The magic of Christmas is the joy of giving.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and yours.

Merry Christmas

 

Like many bloggers, I will be taking a break between Christmas and New Year’s. Thanks so much for giving me the gift of your time this year, by coming to read what I’ve written. I hope you enjoy a safe, happy holiday season and look forward to catching up with you in 2013. 

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Bring on the Christmas Spirit(s)

If you’ve been reading my blog for the last few weeks, you’d be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that I’m not really into Christmas. Maybe you think I’m a bit of a Scrooge. Or, at the very least, that I merely go through the motions of Christmas, hating every bit of it.

First I complained about retailers asking my son about Santa Claus. Then I explained that I’ve told my son that Santa isn’t real. Finally, I blogged at Momma Be Thy Name about how hot Christmas is in Australia.

I haven’t, in fact, said anything particularly good about Christmas at all.

But let me make something clear:

I. Love. Christmas.

I really, really do. 

Christmas is a magical time full of stories and games, exchanges of gifts and fond wishes, food and drink, and love and laughter. It’s a time where we celebrate the beauty of a tree decked in trinkets, and pause to take stock of everyone and everything in our lives that we love. It’s a time where receiving a greeting from an old friend can bring tears of joy to our eyes. It’s a time when the Ghosts of Christmas Past loiter in our minds, reminding us of the wonder of family and friends and fond memories.

It’s a time for joy.

Not the manufactured-in-a-factory Joy that you can buy at the department store for $99.99 plus tax. Real Joy. The Joy of spending time with people who really, truly speak your language and know your history. The Joy of seeing a child’s face light up in delight before he’s even unwrapped the first present. The Joy of breaking bread with relatives you see only once, maybe twice, a year and wondering why you don’t make time to do it more open.

The Joy of Love.

The Joy of Peace.

The Joy of Christmas.

There’s definitely something magical about Christmas. 

But the magic of Christmas is not a fat man in a red suit, or a tree covered in sparkling lights, or a turkey roasting in the oven.

No, it’s something much, much better.

The magic of Christmas is the feelings and memories all those things bring with them.

The feeling of home, when you’re far from it. The memory of childhood, when you’re decades removed. The feeling of togetherness, even when you’re alone. The memory of people and places you once loved, whom you haven’t thought about all year.

Christmas is magical. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And now I’m off to pour myself a drink and engage in some light-hearted banter (and debate) with my siblings and parents, while my children sleep peacefully in their beds. Bring on the morrow!

Happy Yuletide, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Saturnalia, and a Festive Non-Denominational Winter Solstice Holiday to all.

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Finding the Joy in Cleaning

I stare down at the clothes on the floor. The clean clothes that I’ve just finished washing, drying, folding, and stacking in neat piles on the bed. I was out of the room for three minutes, and returned to find them scattered on the carpet like confetti.

The muscles across my shoulders tense, and I force myself to take a couple of deep breaths before I look at 4-year-old Big Brother. He’s smiling proudly at me. “Look, Mum! Now you get to start all over again!”

I bite back the first few retorts that threaten to spew from my mouth. I take a couple more deep breaths. And when I’m sure that my answer isn’t going to contain any obscenities, I speak. “I just finished folding that washing, Big Brother. I really didn’t want to start all over again.”

His smile fades slowly, reminding me of the disappearing grin of the Cheshire Cat. “But you like cleaning,” he says, a plaintive note in his voice now.

“No,” I say with a weary smile. “I really don’t.”

I start picking up clothes and putting them back on the bed to be re-folded.

Big Brother thinks about this for a minute, a variety of expressions flickering across his little face. Finally he settles on confusion. “But you’re always cleaning,” he says.

I give him a smile and ruffle his hair. “Sometimes grown-ups have to do things we don’t like doing.”

He frowns even harder. “Why?”

Why? Why? Why? The question reverberates through my mind as I try to frame an answer that will make sense to him. While I’d like to answer with my own mother’s favourite go-to answer (“Just because.”) I remember how unfulfilling that was when I all I wanted to do was understand the world around me. So I cast about desperately for the answer.

Because someone has to do it. Because cleaning is important. Because the cleaning has to be done. Because… Because… Because…

Every answer I come up with is the truth, but also inherently flawed. I realise I don’t really have an answer. Yes, clothes need to be washed. But they’re still clean if you throw them into the drawer unfolded. So why do I spend so much time folding and ironing? And how do I explain my reasons to a 4-year-old boy who thinks mud is the latest in fashion?

So I don’t answer. I say, “I don’t know. I’ll think about it and then let you know.”

He’s satisfied with this answer for the moment, and runs off to cause havoc elsewhere, while I ponder the question. I carefully fold and stack the clothes, and then put them away in their respective places. Then I go outside to sweep the back deck and footpaths.

Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.

The gentle rhythm of the broom brushing back and forth lulls me into an almost meditative state. I hear the bird calls from the trees around the house. I feel the breeze through my hair and the sun on my skin. I relax into the repetitive motion.

Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.

And it occurs to me that I’m enjoying the moment. I’m enjoying the brief respite from my son’s chattering and my baby’s crying. I’m enjoying the great outdoors. I’m enjoying the simple exercise. I’m enjoying the sense of accomplishment and completion that comes with a job well done.

I feel that same sense of accomplishment and pleasure when I turn a pile of tangled, dirty, smelly fabric into a neat pile of lavender-scented clothing. And when I turn a haphazard mess of empty, food-marked dishes into neatly stacked cutlery, crockery and glassware. And when I survey the chaos of half a dozen upended toy-boxes, and turn the mess into a neatly ordered array of toys, ready for the next day’s assault.

It’s a bit like magic. (Look, there’s nothing up my sleeve!)

It’s a bit like…

It’s a bit like…. I like cleaning.

Just a bit.

I like the simple task of turning chaos into order, mess into magnificence, dirty into clean. I like the rhythmic nature of cleaning that lets my mind wander away from reality and dwell in a happy place where problems are made of cotton candy and money grows on trees. I like the sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of a day’s work, and the pleasure I get in knowing that I’ve done something important — even if it’s only important to me.

Now, let me make one thing clear. The sight of a pile of dirty dishes, or mud-stained underwear (it’s definitely mud, right?), or building blocks throughout the house does not fill me with joy. But….

But…

But if I choose to stop hating the housework; If I choose to find the pleasure hidden behind the mundanity, then I can find the joy in cleaning.

My sweeping is done.

My broom is silent.

I go back to my son, and I say to him, “Sometimes I do like cleaning. But sometimes I like to do other things, too.”

And he nods and smiles at me, as though I’ve just understood the secret to the universe.

Something he was clearly born knowing.

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