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The Journey (Pt 3)

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It is very early, but I am up early because I am always restless before I travel. Part of me feels absurdly that I am being forced to go. I feel a vague resentment towards the apartment and my partner and Prague, as if it is they who are forcing me to leave, expelling me, rather than that I have chosen to go. I feel caught in my own webs and lonely and a little sick.  I don't want to leave my life, which I love. I suddenly want passionately to be able to just wake up and make tea and begin to write as usual. I fear the absence of all the little markers and details and activities that shape my day, for without them there is only me and my imagination, that formless. edgeless monster, as dangerous as a spitting live wire.


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This is normal, I tell myself. I am accustomed to talking myself down from hysteria and paranoia and particularly from hypochondria, all of which seem to me to be part of the processs of being a writer.  This is the moment I tell myself that freckle is not cancer, that bump on my thumb is from how I hold the pen, that indentation above my ear is normal. I control an urge to wake my partner and ask to feel his skull. 

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It is a relief to remember I have this blog to post as I wait for the taxi to take me the airport. It settles me to sit at the keyboard and I see how timely it is to be posting this final Journey blog on the eve of a journey. I mean to blog about Bologna when I return, and it occurs to me that blog could have been regarded as another in the little journey series. But in these, I have been talking about the way writing is fed and affected and enhanced by journeys, while this trip to Bologna is more to do with the business and social side of being a published author, that with the deeper business of creation. Yet it is necessary, I think, to show that other, lesser side to being a writer…


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Of course, having said this is a business trip I am already conscious that you never know what will arise to feed the poetic side of you, and so it may be that contrarily I will come back from Bologna full of ideas for stories, but somehow when you put on your business hat, it seems to kill off the poet. Perhaps that is why so few politicians and bankers are poets- perhaps we should only choose as politicians and bankers, men and women who can write poetry…


I suddenly decide that I will call it The Bologna Book Fair Blog. It sounds exotic to go to Bologna for a Book fair, but in fact it is not a book fair or writers festival but a rights fair, which means it is mostly people horse trading the rights tobooks. There is in a way, no place for a writer. Part of what makes it a pleasure is that I am an interested bystander, but you learn things and meet people, and hear things and you always come away with a sense of the book world, and this year I am very interested to see what I learn about the impact of E books and to hear how the book trade is doing in Australia, where it seems people are still reeling from the closure of two big chains that made the mistake of trying to treat books as if they were units, like boxes of wheeties.  And for me, it is  not an arduous flight, for it is only a couple of hours from Prague by air, and so no more dramatic as a journey than a flight from Melbourne to Sydney (yet another advantage of living here for a time).


And of course I will still be working on my current book while I am there, so I can still feel myself there ... (And yes that IS the book that I wanted to finish BEFORE I went to Bologna… sigh)

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But now to THIS blog is about the second part of the China trip, specifically, the part of the trip when we went up Mt Emei. (There is a third part to the trip but I don’t want to talk about that much because a book is involved and I don’t like talking about a book before I can really get into it- it is as if the inspiration is tenuous and fragile until my pen pins it down…  But I will talk about it down the track, in my own blog. 

More about that at the tail end of this month in a dog.)

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  • cleaning on the edge of the abyss

By the way, the pictures thoughout this blog are all taken in China and mostly in Mt Emei and Leshan. They are sublime - there is no other word for it. I can gush because I didn’t take them. They are by Jan Stolba, and again if you want to see any other of his work, you might have a look at this link below, which is a link to a far better and more accessible site than the last one I posted, earlier in this residency. Best of all,  it is in English, so is easier to negotiate.


Why did we go up Mt Emei?  It was Jan’s idea. He thought we would be enchanted by it and it was to be an antidote to all those people in the cities, the yellow haze of smog shrouding them. In another case of strange serendipity, my daughter and I had been booked on a flight from Melbourne to Prague, with a brief touch down in Hong Kong.  I wanted to see Chengdu Moon Bear Rescue Sanctuary run by Animals Asia, as I wanted to write a book to raise money for helping to buy and care for more bears caught up in the horrendous moon bear bile trade. I won’t go into it here, but of all the cruelties humans can perpetrate on animals, milking moon bears for bile is one of the most horrible. So for some time I have focused my energies on how to help them.  My brother, who runs an ethical clothing business, and who is very involved in Animals Asia,  had asked me to write a book that could be sold to raise money.  I said I would but that I could not write about the bears because it would be propaganda or fact and there were better people for those things. I told him I would have to write a real book, and that meant waiting until I had an idea. I was surprised when not long after, I really did have a great idea, and so it was partly to flesh this out, that I wanted to go to Chengdu to the Sanctuary. So I wrote to the people running the sanctuary and eventually managed to organize dates to visit that could be shoe horned into the trip from Melbourne to Prague at the end of August (when my daughter had to be back for the start of the European school year). At this time, we realised that my partner had been planning a trip to China biking and mountain climbing in our absence, and if he tweaked his dates slightly, we could all be in China at the one time. I was elated because it meant we would be able to take some pictures at Chengdu, which I would need for my work. It transpired we ended up with a few spare days, hence his suggestion that we meet in Chengdu and travel to Mt Emei.


As often in such matters, that random decision led to true inspiration.

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So we, my daughter and I, left Melbourne, landed in Hong Kong, met Jan, (who had flown from Prague) in the gate lounge and then we all flew Dragonair to Chengdu.  We arrived late so ended up staying in a pretty rough part of Chengdu, with a lot of cars and pollution and we were all wondering what we had got ourselves into. We realized that having no language was going to make it very hard and so it was. It took us hours of blundering around in the dreadful heat the next day, to get a train and then a bus and finally a taxi bus to one of the little villages at the foot of Mt Emei. That was night and we ended up eating in a funny little open market. There were almost no other foreigners, and we really felt like strangers. My daughter was deeply abashed to be stared at so frankly by locals  with a kind of child like astonishment, but in general anyone we met was friendly, inclined to sbeam at us and try to help. The next day, we bussed some of the way then hiked up ancient steps to the peak. We had brought our gear because we had very little, my daughter and I having left our big bags at the airport in Hong Kong. When we got to the top, we found places to stay- very basic but this enabled us to get up at dawn and watch the sunrise. My daughter chose to sleep in, but Jan and I, who have fewer sunsets left, got up. It was fantastic because we were among hundreds of devout Chinese Buddhists or Chinese travelers. We were all pilgrims of one sort or another, headed for the summit of Emei, bent on seeing the giant Buddha and the supposedly spectacular sea of clouds.

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I was enchanted by the notion of a sea of clouds, especially since my next book was to be The Cloud Road, and would feature Zluty and Bily traveling into mountains veiled in mist and cloud. I knew I would be able to use the cloud pictures Jan took as visual references when I worked, and I was excited to be able to try to find a way to render cloud as texture with pen and ink. I am almost finished this book and I am planning while in Bologna to begin experimenting with clouds and mountains and re familiarizing myself with Bily and Zluty and the Monster. My case is weighed down with my art materials, and I have a mass of pictures of clouds and various animals in my computer, as reference. I will work on these drawing while I am a guest at the Illustrators Table in the Australian stand in the book fair.


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What did I get as a creator from the trip up Mt Emei?  First, the close proximity and vastness of the clouds and the physical terrain of the mountain – the surfaces and the sorts of plants that grow there. Second, the atmosphere of reverence of the travelers to the mountain and the Buddhist icons. Their quiet good nature and comrade-liness to us and all other travelers, which felt to me as if it arose from some philosophy or shared ideal. There was a sense of lovely inclusion. I felt the Chinese collective so strongly and warmly around me. It was not, as I might have imagined, a rigid conformity of behavior but a great sense of being part of a whole and that this is important. Third the details of architecture and artifact I saw.  As we traveled up and then down Mt Emei, the bare bones of the story of The Cloud Road fleshed out beautifully, and I had seen enough to hardly be able to wait to draw.


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Part of me regretted that I could not just go home and write, but I knew it would be better if I waited. After Emei, we went to Leshan to see the giant Buddha and here we found a much more typical and expensive tourist infrastructure. Nevertheless we entered what sometimes seemed a bit like a theme park, but in the end we saw some marvelous things. We came out the back way, some kilometers and several hours later, an found ourselves in the midst of a traditional Chinese finishing village. We crossed an incredibly beautiful covered bridge before we found ourselves a long way from where we had thought to end up. It was hot and there was no way to re enter the park, and no paths to walk along beside the roads, but there was a little cluster of men and peddle rickshaws all urging us to take them. In the end, we took two, my daughter and I traveling in one and Jan in another, and fifteen minutes later, we were delivered to the bus stop back to Leshan.


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We stayed a night here, wandered around till very late, before sleeping, and then we returned to Chengdu, to meet my brother at the hotel he had booked, for the trip I had arranged from afar, to the Moon Bear Park. 


I will not go into that trip here, because that will feed into the book I mean to write, that will be sold to raise money for the Moon Bears, but suffice it to say that this was equally inspirational, in a very different way. (If you are curious, you can have a look at some of the photgraphs Jan took in the sanctuary, by following the above link)

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I did not write the whole time I was in China. It is hard for me not to write, but I wanted to open myself to China because of the bears’ book, and I wanted to be with my family wholly for a change, instead of half lost inside my imagination. Of course I was thinking constantly about the things I would write. I was very conscious of sucking it in. The only time I took notes was when I spoke at length to the woman who was the vet at the sanctuary. The rest of it was simply taken in.  I know people feel writers should take notes or do take notes, but I tend to think and mull things over more than writing them down. I don’t worry about forgetting things because it all goes into the mental soup and if it is the right thing for the book I am working or, or the story, it will be drawn to the surface. I do write a lot, when I am getting to the point of beginning. I tend to write very long and detailed outlines, and then I write them again, adding more detail and more ideas and again and again, and then I start thinking in chapters (if it is a book)


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This is my method. Other writers have very different methods – you only have to read back through some of the archived blogs to see that. Sometimes I think part of being a writer is simply trying to formulate the right method for you. For me, it is to think a lot, to plot at the point of beginning, to write the first draft quickly and very intensely, then to rework and rework dozens of time, honing the prose, refining and deepening my ideas. For other people, it is taking notes and drawing charts and lists and doing research and writing sentence by perfected sentence. That can work or not work, like any method. It needs to fit you, the writer. My method fits me because it fits the fact that I write in order to find out what I think.  The more I rework, the more exactly I think and the more exactly I come to understanding what I think. My stories and books are less about the mode and more about what it is that I want to tell. The story as opposed to the form. I am impatient with beautiful words that say nothing I want substance. The story should give rise to the form. I can’t imagine imposing the form first. I can’t imagine saying ok now I will write a story about this, in this style. The style arises almost organically, as I work, from the work, though I do pretty much always know if it is going to be a book or a story. But I do not think of genre. That would be like making a box and having the write to fit it- because what is genre after all, but a set of rules? And what writer would want a set of rules to follow, when they don’t know if their story will need to transgress them?


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Better to write, and let the stories decide what form and shape they need. Let others decide the categories. That, to my mind, is not the business of writers.

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That is it, for now. The taxi is parked below, its driver having a quiet cigarette leaning against it, because he is a little early. It is raining softly in the early morning darkness and I feel that little thrill of excitement I always feel when I am to travel, because no matter how many plans I make, things never go exactly the way they are supposed to. Travel pitches you headlong into the world, and you have to be ready for anything.

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More, post Bologna…



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