WHY I CALL HEATH LEDGER MY MUSE

Muse: a muse is someone who gives an artist ideas or a desire to create art, poetry, or music – Collins Dictionary

A couple of days before I began writing this post, I had a strange dream where Heath Ledger was lying face down at the edge of a road. It sounds like a negative thing, and I knew in my dream that it symbolised the fact that he was dead, but in my dream scenario it was just how he chose to express himself at the time. He was essentially dancing, moving gracefully, body and arms engaged in this performance. Two people came along the street, first one and then the other. Both were imitating Heath’s movements although with considerably less grace. They both seemed happy to be creating art. After they passed on, I said to Heath, ‘They were inspired by you!’ His eyes had been closed the whole time so he hadn’t seen them. When I told him what had happened he just smiled and continued with his creative dance. Make of this what you will but for me it was simply about Heath’s ability to inspire others even long after his death.

We’ll probably never know in how many ways he was an inspiration and a driving force for creativity. There are the obvious examples to point to. Songs have been written about him; just off the top of my head I can name, among many others, Bon Iver’s “Perth”, Grace Woodroofe’s “H”, and Dialekt’s “Looking On Me” with its wondrous lyrics ‘so let me light a flame for Mr Heathcliff Ledger / legend, father, actor, director of life’. Innumerable art works have been created from Archibald Prize triumphs like Vince Fantauzzo’s amazing portrait through to thousands of lovingly created efforts by fans (and maybe half of those feature The Joker, recognised as one of the defining performances of the early 2000s). Friends and admirers alike have worked on film projects that Heath either initiated or collaborated on, or they have created fresh works dedicated to or inspired by him, or simply driven by his example.

But Heath was more than an inspiration; he was also passionately encouraging of other people. He wanted people to strive and to achieve. His involvement in the Los Angeles-based artists collective The Masses is a testament to this. In a 2009 LA Times article called “A Way About Him”, Michael Ordona recorded a few of the ways Heath assisted people. In the article, Catherine Hardwicke, who directed Heath in “Lords of Dogtown” recalled, ‘The younger actors, he was kind of like the godfather to all these boys, the Fagin. He would encourage them, take them under his wing. He had half a trailer, he was so modest but he set up a camp outside it. He set up tiki torches and people would play guitars and call it Camp Heath.’ And Heath’s longtime friend and business partner Matt Amato said, ‘His energy and enthusiasm for life will never cease to inspire me. A friend of mine said after Heath died that we must continue in Heath’s ‘gentle way.’ Those words sounded perfect to me — Heath’s gentle way. One fond memory I have is how he assisted me on a difficult edit. My carpal tunnel syndrome was acting up . . . so Heath said, ‘I’ll be your hands.’ And he was.’

This handful of examples from so many are easily found with a bit of googling but there was much more than this. Heath and I had a mutual friend. This friend wrote stage plays in her spare time. Heath knew her ambition was to produce her plays and also knew that her budget didn’t run to such ventures so he gave her seeding capital. She did get plays staged as a result, and Heath even took the time to come along and watch them. She was one among many. Essentially, if he knew someone was keen and determined, he encouraged them and backed them. He wanted everyone to achieve their best.

Through our friend, I was lucky enough to exchange messages with Heath over several months. Those messages are treasured by me, mainly because of the honesty, positivity and wisdom with which Heath wrote. You may be thinking that this is sounding a lot like hagiography. Maybe it is, but the fact is that some individuals actually are exceptionally good souls

So, to me and my claim that Heath is my muse.

It took the shock of seeing and reading “Brokeback Mountain” to start me seriously writing fiction. It took the shock of Heath’s death to make me realise that I needed to get out from behind my shyness and put my work out in public. There’s no way of knowing but I sometimes wonder if I would ever have done it without those twin shocks.

Unlike painters who portrayed their muses over and over again on canvas, Heath himself rarely appears in anything I write, and when he does he’s well disguised. He might lend a character his voice or walk or attitude, which I then turn and change in a way which suits my purposes. It’s almost as if he continues to act, to play small parts in my stories. Mostly when I say Heath is my muse I mean that he inspires me to strive. If I think that maybe I’m a pretty mediocre writer or that I’ll never be much of a success, I remind myself that we should try to use what talents we are lucky to have, and we shouldn’t put it off until later. Heath died at the age of 28. He would have achieved so much more but we should be grateful that he put all his creative energy into this world before he left, and as a result his energy continues in the work of others.

Back in 2008 I would never have written a post like this. I would have felt rather silly and exposed. But I think of all the film roles Heath played where he put himself on the line. He said once that he never went to drama school where he could learn in a sheltered environment. Instead, he made all his mistakes up on screen for everyone to see and criticise. He was always bold, even though he carried all the usual insecurities about his abilities. For such a young man he was wise beyond his years.

When I mused to him one time about my age he wrote back, ‘One is never too old to be vibrant and experience new things. Life would be so dull without it… there is always further to go and more to learn.’

Thank you, Heath.

DARE TO BE DIFFERENT

Why do fiction writers write?

Most of us would say that we just have to, that it’s our way of self-expression, that we love the process, or something equally as vague. Many of us would also say that we write in the hopes of being read. However, while we may dream of J. K. Rowling-level success, we realistically understand that making a passable career from writing is probably as much as we can hope for (and even that is rare). Only a handful of writers crack that magical barrier.

It always fascinates me to see which new writers manage to do that, and what it is about their work which clicks with the buying public. I admit to being very disappointed when I pick up a best-seller and realise that it’s formulaic, that the author has – deliberately or otherwise – run through the checklist of top-selling points and ensured that their novel has them all. And I love it when someone original comes along. Take, for example, Jen Craig’s ‘Panthers and the Museum of Fire’, the stream-of-consciousness novella which made it onto the 2016 Stella Prize longlist. Craig’s voice is unique. It’s significant than it was a small, innovative publishing house, Spineless Wonders, which published her book.

Find your own voice – that’s advice you read all the time. But what does it mean? One way to find your voice is to shut off the outside calls to fit into a genre and simply write for yourself. That is your voice. You don’t have to ‘find’ it; you just have to switch off your internal editor for a while, let that voice of yours emerge, and give it free rein. This doesn’t mean that all the hard work of editing and refining and reworking doesn’t also have to happen, but my own personal choice is initially to let the words flow and see what my fevered brain comes up with. On a personal note, I didn’t even recognise what my voice was until I’d written quite a lot and had even seen some of it in print.

Maybe it’s an attitude which comes with age. (I won’t say ‘with maturity’ because I haven’t quite got a handle on that one, despite the passing of time.) Or maybe it’s the confidence of youth. Or just plain confidence. Whatever it is, one crucial trick with writing is to turn off the nagging thought that your work isn’t what’s being read. This can be hard when you look at the best-selling books at a given time and realise that they are predominately door-stopper action thrillers, or dystopian young adult books, or quirky memoirs by people who have already carved out a piece of fame, or whatever the reading flavour of the month is. Genres, title forms, cover designs, even authors rise and fall, shift and change, on waves of popularity.

Yes, I know there are those aforementioned authors who study what is selling and who then write their own version of that, but let’s assume that most of us write from an unquenchable need to express ourselves. Why fit your style to a particular image of what is right? Would you rather be famous and successful by using a borrowed voice, or be true to yourself? Either way is fine, by the way. No judgement.

I mostly write literary short fiction and literary historical fiction, and I’ve found out that neither mainstream publishers nor literary agents are leaping out of bed each morning, eager to open their email and discover the hopeful authors who are offering such genres for their delight. Usually, if you send a tempting submission, you’ll get in return, 1) resounding silence, or 2) a peremptory ‘No’, or 3) an apologetic statement that “We don’t publish this’, or ‘We can’t place this’ (usually followed by best wishes for your future success). This is all the more puzzling when such genres are in the shops and selling well, but look closely and you’ll find it’s more often written by established authors with bankable qualities.

But if you don’t write from the heart, from that part of you which seeks expression, what are you going to do?

Shakespeare had it right: to thine own self be true. There is an audience for whatever it is that you want to write, and it’s up to you to find that audience and find the best way to reach those readers. There are ways to get published that you can successfully utilise, so long as your work is up to scratch, interesting and real.

Here’s the secret: no one will do it for you. Writing may feel like a lot of hard work, and it is. Finding a home for your work is also hard work. Typing the final full stop on that final draft is only the beginning.

THE ROAD TO HARVEYS LANE

Arnold Shore’s ‘Bush Garden’ with my rough floorplan of Harveys Lane

Perhaps it’s my fascination with history, or perhaps it’s just that I’m a pedant at heart, but when I write fiction I like it to be as accurate as possible – unless it doesn’t suit my narrative, but that’s another story. So the creation of my short story, ‘The Heart of Harveys Lane’, was both a joy and a challenge.

‘Harveys Lane’ is the opening story in my collection, Life, Bound. Harveys Lane itself is a house, but the special qualities of this house won’t be revealed in this blogpost. No, no! I love the slow reveal. The story covers many decades in the main character’s life, which meant that various aspects needed to be checked for anachronisms. Fast-changing technology can be a headache! For example, in the initial draft, a visit to this unusual house mentioned mobile phones but as the vague storyline settled into its proper timeframe, mobiles had to be removed and replaced with era-appropriate devices. Also, the main character is a photographer, so their equipment had to upgrade along the way. Tiny details, perhaps, but important to obsessives like me.

However, the main challenge – and the one I really enjoyed – was the creation of the history of Harveys Lane and its former owners. The property’s history stretched back to Australian colonial times, and its occupants were artists of one sort or another. In my filing cabinet there are back-of-envelope sketches of the floorplan and garden plan, dates of certain art movements, lots of interconnecting arrows, and many crossings-out as I tried to assemble the parts into a meaningful whole. Very little of this appears in the story; what may have taken hours to research has been reduced in places to a passing reference.

One year and ten drafts later, ‘The Heart of Harveys Lane’ was finished to my satisfaction. Those pieces of research had been twisted and turned and dropped into the narrative in what I hoped were the best spots, like a slow game of Tetris. (I probably made bloop! noises in my head when something slotted perfectly into place.)

None of this need trouble a reader unless, like me, that reader feels uncomfortable when a mistake occurs; one incorrect date in a tale will pull me out of a story quick smart, and I’ll spend the rest of the time always waiting for the discrepancy to be resolved. Therefore it’s not surprising that as the writer I needed to have it all laid out carefully in my own mind so that the story, although slightly fantastical in nature, hung together in a realistic fashion.

I hope the end result doesn’t display all the research hours that went before. I hope ‘The Heart of Harveys Lane’ simply unwinds itself in a way that feels right. If I have achieved that, I have achieved my research aims.

(In the accompanying photo, the background to one of my back-of-envelope house plans is Arnold Shore’s ‘Bush Garden’. Although I didn’t draw on Shore’s work while writing the story, this Culture Victoria/Victorian Collections entry is typical of many of my research sources.https://cv.vic.gov.au/stories/creative-life/the-elliott-collection/bush-garden/)

Writing for the reader

My mother, Ellen Evans, content with a cigarette, a cup of tea, and a book.

The first time I was called upon to say a few words after placing in a writing competition – and therefore knowing my short story would be published in an anthology – I waffled something spontaneous and mentioned that while winning awards was fabulous, being read was even better. That story was later discussed in an online book club, and it was fascinating to learn how much one person’s interpretation differed from another’s – and from mine, the author!

Annie Proulx has been quoted as saying, “It is my feeling that a story is not finished until it is read, and that the reader finishes it through his or her life experience, prejudices, world view and thoughts.” As a writer, I initially found this a strange concept to understand. Of course I didn’t expect a reader to follow my exact feelings about something I’d written – those life experiences are often wildly different – but I had the vague expectation that the general path of a story would be seen in a common light.

But time passes and I’ve begun to enjoy the way different stories of mine are received. In fact, now I look forward to discovering which stories strike a chord with reviewers and readers, and how their interpretations differ from my own, and which characters rise up and claim the hearts of those readers. There is no way I would ever change my style, my ‘voice’, but it’s wonderful to find out that what I write resonates with a wide range of booklovers.

Being read is such a privilege (once you get over the terror of showing your work to the world), and having the opportunity to spark a feeling or an idea or a train of thought in another person, even though you’ve never met them, is a joy. At times, I’ve finished a book and clutched it to me in sheer delight; I’d like to think that out there somewhere, there might be a reader who does the same with something that I’ve written.

Yes, I write for myself but how wondrous it is to write for that unknown reader.

Sending stories out into the world.

Releasing stories, whether by entering competitions or offering them up for publication, always feels a little bit like farewelling my children, waving goodbye as they set off on a new adventure. When they succeed, I feel happy for them. When they get overlooked, I feel sad for them. And yes, for myself as well, of course. So now that I have a whole book of stories gingerly making its way through the maze of reviewers I’m eagerly watching which stories are catching readers’ eyes.

I’m delighted to see that in her review, author Kathryn White singled out Danny Boy as one of her two stand-out moments. It’s a story that I hold close to my own heart, one that I want to succeed. But, as they say, picking out a favourite from your own works is like saying which is your favourite child. I love them all and I want them all to succeed in their own unique ways. Stories and children.

And in a week which is getting more exciting by the hour, it was a thrill to be invited by author Monique Mulligan to write a guest post on her page. In Fix Or Stand, I get the opportunity to tell a little about how I moved to writing my own stories via the lovingly supportive world of Brokeback Mountain fan fiction. Monique’s newest book, Wherever You Go, has just been released and I truly appreciate her generosity and support at this time.

Okay, my children, off you go to make new friends and to find your own paths in this perplexing, exciting, terrifying and rewarding world. Good luck!

Excitement builds!

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With the official release date of “Life, Bound” bearing down upon me, yesterday was a thrilling day.

It began with my story Winston Mahaffey’s Hat being featured on Paul J. Laverty’s literature show, The Quiet Carriage’, on 94.9 MAINfm (a link to the episode with my reading of the story will be posted later) and ended with the appearance of this wonderful and unexpected review of my book by Cass Moriarty. (See link below to original page.)

Life, Bound (Midnight Sun 2020) is an eclectic collection of short stories by Marian Matta featuring characters sometimes stuck in old habits and constrained by past events, sometimes challenged by obstacles or situations thrown unexpectedly into their paths, and sometimes facing a sliding door moment or asked to make a choice that will have irrevocable consequences. Many of the stories have ambiguous or thought-provoking endings, leaving the reader to wonder what might have happened next.

The Heart of Harveys Lane is a ghostly story about an artist and a house within a house. Climb is an unsettling story with a shocking twist. Matta tackles gender diversity in Danny Boy with sensitivity. Babies-in-their-Eyes is a heartbreaking story of aging and lost chances. The author explores the complexities of relationships and of domestic violence and the sometimes impossible decisions to be made. She examines trust and climate change and sexuality and the fires of revenge. In Roadkill, a woman takes charge of her life in a surprising way.

This is a fairly even and consistent collection of stories that are all warm, witty or thoughtful. An interesting collection by a mature writer whose life experience is demonstrated in her array of ideas.

And there’s more excitement to come! Suddenly, being published is getting very real indeed.

CONGRATULATIONS! IT’S A STORY!

A spindly, wind-warped hedge, a narrow road, and a low seawall of tumbled rocks: these are my poor defences against the ocean.’

This is the opening line of ‘Claimed by the Sea’, which features in my short story collection, ‘Life, Bound’. As a story, it had a long gestation. I had visited a friend who lived by the coast, and her location immediately started the words forming in my mind. She mentioned the local fishermen and their tales of cliffs collapsing and rows of houses being swallowed by the ocean. She spoke about her old dog too. With such rich source material for me to work with, it didn’t take long for my first draft to be committed to paper. I even went so far as to sketch my version of the location at the bottom of that first printed-out draft. Being a beach girl myself from many years ago, I threw in some of my own memories. The end result was a short piece of satisfying writing which was going nowhere.

And that was it for several years.

Much later, I revived it as a wordy and awful attempt to discuss the power of oceans and our shortsighted view of human importance, but then abandoned it again. Like many of my stories, it languished in the ‘No Direction’ pile.

But a brain is an amazing thing, working away behind the eyes without its owner even being aware of the process, and a writer’s brain somehow manages to negotiate plot hurdles when called upon. Suddenly, my story had an island theme, a new character, a love story of sorts, and even a place for my less-than-inspiring venture into nonfiction. Three disparate writing pieces fell into place, and after this protracted labour a proper story was born. It occupies pages 149 to 159 of ‘Life, Bound’, and its scattered origins are barely noticeable.

This past weekend, stuck at home in Covid lockdown, I pulled out a block of stuck-together photos, and soaked them apart. I hadn’t seen them in a long time. There in the middle were photos I’d taken in 2000 of the spindly hedge, the narrow road and the tumbled rocks. Twenty years ago! Their rediscovery felt like perfect timing.

Lockdown Interview

“Life, Bound” sounds like the perfect title for a book in these covid times when we’re all feeling trapped and housebound (if you live where I do). And a blustery, freezing day right in the middle of Melbourne’s Stage 4 lockdown seemed like the perfect time to talk about it.

Yesterday, on such a day in such a lockdown, I was interviewed by Michelle Perera on 3MDR (Mountain District Radio), the local FM station which covers Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges. Being interviewed by Michelle was pure pleasure. In our conversation we touched on many subjects like … well, instead of me telling you about it, why not listen for yourself?

The following link is to Michelle’s ‘Community’ page. There’s a Listen Back’ button at the end. My interview begins at around the 21:17 minute mark. Enjoy!

https://programs.3mdr.com/community-outlook/2020-08-22

Of Bones and Mires and Sudden Climbs

bones

Ah yes, I remember it well; that glorious ten minutes or so when an opening line which had perplexed me for a couple of years suddenly revealed itself as a fully-formed story. I remember it with clarity because it was a unique experience.

Stephen King says writing stories is like archaeology: we dig and brush away the concealing layers until we can winkle out what is hidden beneath. I guess that extraordinarily successful authors can afford to assume there’ll be treasure beneath the detritus. Myself, I’d likely dig up an old tyre, a bagful of plastic junk, a shoe or two.

My usual writing style involves a Great Leap Forward from a line, a paragraph, a jumble of words (Is there a market for story beginnings? Come and see me – I’ve got a thousand or more for your delight!) into the darkness of the unknown. Within that darkness I hope to land on the bones of a tale, which will support me as I cast around for the flesh to clothe them. More often, my downward plummet will be barely slowed by the fragile notion that “this will be good material in the future”.

On rare occasions those bones can be seen from afar, and I struggle towards them through a mire of sidetracks. “A Single Life”, a story which first appeared in Joiner Bay and other stories (Margaret River Press, 2017) and then in A Lasting Conversation: stories on ageing (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2020)began as a Seinfeldian desire to write about nothing, or as close to nothing as I could achieve, but even nothing requires a jump-off point, and so it acquired a start and a middle and even a deviation along a path which was exercising my mind at the time, namely the uniqueness and intrinsic value of every person’s life, and the moral obligation to respect each person’s right to a good life. Primum non nocere. Before I knew it, there was even a conclusion. Was it the story which had lain buried, awaiting discovery? I doubt it. Ideas present themselves like dreams, and the act of pinning them down alters and shapes them away from their original form, but if they work, if they get through to even one reader, then they have their own legitimacy. That leap forward is almost always towards an as-yet unrecognised destination.

So, archaeology, skeletal rafts, mires of irrelevancies: my mangled metaphors accurately reflect the chaotic process which accompanies every leap. Writing fiction isn’t a science; for me, it’s a glorious, muddled art form in which inspiration and direction can present themselves in the most unlikely ways. Which leads me back to that amazing ten minutes and that opening line. While warming my backside in front of a heater and gazing into space, I saw the structure this story could take: a boy climbs a tree and slowly reveals the perimeter of his world. As I followed him from branch to branch, the characters and events revealed themselves until I gasped in shock. (Yes, truly.) So that’s what it was about! That story, “Climb”, really had been awaiting discovery. It was my first competition win and my first published piece. I couldn’t believe my luck.

This post first appeared on Margaret River Press’s website in July 2017 as part of their Great Leap Forward series of blogposts. The story ‘Climb’ is included in my collection ‘Life, Bound’.

LAUNCH IN THE TIME OF CORONA

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It’s a shared experience that’s too big to share: who is interested in hearing about an individual’s encounter with lockdown when we’re all in lockdown? It’s a great leveller that flattens some lives to the ground and leaves others untouched: there are foreign students living in cars and scrounging through bins to find food, and there are the well-heeled who complain about being confined to their estates; there are workers who have lost their jobs, and there are others who just want to get out and party. It’s a killer that leaves the majority of its victims unscathed, yet mows down others, leaving death, illness, and debilitation in its wake. The Australian arts and higher education sectors are reeling. The I Lost My Gig webpage lists hundreds of millions of dollars in income that will never happen. It’s a multiheaded disaster.

And in the middle of it, a first-time author wants to get her book into the public awareness. What a time to publish! With so many people being stuck at home, either because of lockdown rules or a sense of self-preservation, it would seem like an ideal time to be offering new material, but patterns are changing and everything feels turned on its head. Oh well.

In my case, my book, LIFE, BOUND (the comma is all-important) is back from the printers and ready to be sent to reviewers, and so the process of attracting reviewers has begun. Can’t rely on face-to-face interaction with potential readers, can’t stand up and be impressive at a formal launch, can’t give talks at my local library right now, but I can feel a very small part of the creative community which will somehow get through this and find itself on the other side (whatever that may look like) with a bunch of new and unexpected tales to tell.