The BFF of a decade

Holidays are boring
Tween view of school holidays

MJ Edmunds
 This piece was submitted to the Australian literary journal Griffith Review for its Now We Are Ten edition, one of several submissions I’ve sent. My first submission to GR was published. GR’s reply appears at the end of the piece. 

Now she is 10, the girl who came as a surprise and saved her mother’s life. There’s something there, said the obstetrician, I’ve referred you. ‘Unlikely to be benign’, said the urologist one Thursday afternoon in one of those singular moments when someone is speaking of cancer, and you.

Ten years on I am still here and she is 10 with dark chocolate eyes, hair shiny, untarnished by colorants. How do I help someone this lovely get on in this world?

She rushes in late one afternoon, back from her friends, tears forming. ‘I always do good things and am never rewarded.’ Her friends received thank you gifts for helping at the shop. She was away that day, only that day, when the rewards were handed out.  
 I smiled for I had said the same thing the other day. That I keep writing but there seems never to be reward. Eventually I recall what I know but too often forget that reward is found not from others but in the accomplishment and in creation. But she is 10. How do I say this to her, help? She wants what she wants and wants it now.

Now she is 10 and it’s too soon to know these things so I can only watch and do the best I can to ease the way, and be there to hold her when the agony is great. Now she is 10 and on email and Instagram and networks with names my brain cannot retain. At 10 I was riding my bike and playing cricket in the park. She hates cricket. What are Australian childhoods coming to?

Now she is 10. She has BFFs, some new girls, and some go back to pre-school days, and like the The Biggest Loser scoreboard one supplants another constantly as the best BFF. They’re in, and they’re out over spurious claims, and particular treats, each apprised of their status the second it changes. Shrugs or tears follow and declarations of never speaking again and then next day they are BFFs again.
“Oh I thought you and [insert name] were great friends,” I say. She gives me the You Don’t Know Anything glower, that is not only a glower but withering to boot.

‘Maybe you don’t need to  tell a friend they are your ‘best’ BFF  every hour, and just accept they are a very good friend, and sometimes they are close, or sometimes they are busy. Remember when you were busy.

‘Maybe one of your friends thought you weren’t their friend any more but you were just busy’
‘Cool, she says. Later that evening there’s a re-alignment in the constellation of the BFFs.

One wet day in the holidays I ask her if she wants to go shopping. The answer to that question is invariably yes. I ask why the long face?
BFF [far away cousin] is being mean and doesn’t want to talk [Skype] to me, she says.

‘It can happen like that when you’ve chatted for seven hours in two days I say. Give it a rest today.’

‘But it’s not fair, I wasn’t mean.’

‘Can we see happy you back soon please?’

Ten years since she changed me: saved me. Ten years of making me smile, and burst with pride, and of loving her laugh, easily the most delightful sound in the world.

I try to picture her 10 years from now and how to help in the transition to being a young woman. She is already good and kind and lovely. Even other people tell me so, unprompted. I want her to feel rewarded, to know how to live a good and meaningful life and be happy. Will I be able to do enough? Now she is 10.

GRIFFITH REVIEW COMMENT: I think you capture perfectly the rolling emotions parents feel for their young children. Your daughter sounds lovely and a lifesaver in more ways than one. Your piece is not what we’re looking for this time round, though, with the 10th anniversary edition more focused on the underlying forces that will shape the next decade and the challenges ahead, rather than personal reflections.   Please do keep us in mind for future submissions. I always enjoy reading your work.

MY COMMENT: The next decade and the challenges ahead are at the front of my mind too now she is 10 (just turned 11).  My feedback to self is I would like to add another anecdote at the end of the story. Perhaps I haven’t because that event hasn’t happened yet. But GR’s comment was correct  as my ‘daughter is a lifesaver in more ways than one’.

She is a BFF of more than a decade whose status can never be challenged.

The impressive sands of St Ives, June 1985 - Marian Edmunds

The St Ives etiquette book for reading in cafes

MJ Edmunds

I headed to a favourite café the other day, book under my arm. There is time enough to digest a short story at one sitting. As I entered the café an acquaintance greeted me warmly. Wrapped in a bright shawl, she sat alone at a kitchen table. I smiled and greeted her and made a note to self that if I sat there I could forget my intention to read.  I was writing well that day and wanted to oil the wheels with some good reading.

The remaining small table in the café was taken and the other big table was almost full with a couple chatting quietly and three others eating and reading newspapers. I found a place, set down my book and scarf, hoping my acquaintance would not feel slighted. Then I thought to myself, it’s a free country and I am entitled to read.

I ordered, sat, poured some water, and opened the book choosing a short story because of it’s title, Green Bus to St Ives by Salley Vickers. I once took a train to St Ives, and somewhere  is a diary that records who I met that day and my visit to the Barbara Hepworth home and studio oblivious that not so many years later I would live amid a garden of smooth carved stones. Greedily I lapped up the spectacle, smell and sounds of the beaches that were alike yet far different from home.

As I slipped away with the story characters on a bus to the Tate and rediscovered Barbara Hepworth’s garden, I heard the voice of my acquaintance. “Where do you live?”

The impressive sands of St Ives, June 1985 - Marian Edmunds
St Ives Panorama, June 1985

A male voice replied, “We live up the coast but I would like to live here.”

“I wouldn’t like to live here as everyone knows your business,” said my acquaintance. I glanced around to see a man and his wife sitting at a small table, a walking frame parked in front of the table.  My acquaintance sat at the far end of a big table.

For the next few minutes as I tried to keep reading I learned where the man, and my acquaintance were born and had lived and why each had moved. I learned that my acquaintance had left an affluent city area and  was “not like” those people she had left. In a few short minutes I had learned a great deal about my acquaintance’s life. I learned nothing  about the man’s wife. She appeared frail and said little. The man seemed glad of the conversation so I thought that was a good thing.

Their talk turned to the economy. I determinedly kept on reading about the unexpected alliance of the characters in the story. Why  hadn’t my acquaintance moved closer to her new friends instead of broadcasting across the café?

“My kind of business is not affected by the downturn,” said my acquaintance.          “Everything is affected by the downturn,” said the man. For a moment I was tempted to weigh in to agree with him and I suspect they wouldn’t have minded a bit.

“What are your names?” said my acquaintance to the couple. And so it went on.

As I finished my tart, a warm tumble of cheese and vegetables, I checked the pages of my book and saw I still had a number of pages to read.

My acquaintance stood up and issued a fond farewell to her new friends and it was quiet again. I ordered coffee, and made my way back to St Ives.

Today is the 30th birthday my father did not reach

A painting of my father by his Aunt Augusta ©
A painting of my father by his Aunt Augusta ©

Today is the 30th birthday my father did not reach.
I can’t recall the other 29 clearly. They are shadows of an anniversary that given the preference, I’d rather not discuss. I’d rather just think of him quietly.
My father’s only grandson sleeps. If they’d met, they’d have had a quiet bet together, and agreed between themselves not to tell me. They are so alike – not in love with academia, liking a bet, loving to collect what others see as junk, sensitive to others, and with a wicked sense of humour.
My father’s only granddaughter plays, making, chatting, imagining, devising, her giggles impervious to the coldness of day and a long ago loss. She loves birthdays. If only they’d met.

What would he have made of the person I became? What would he have thought of me with my volatile writing life and my weight lifting under the supervision of a personal trainer for goodness sakes? What would he have thought about us never voting the same way?

He had this scheme or dream of travelling the countryside collecting antiques for a shop on Sydney’s North Shore and me running the shop. He was about to start on his side of the plan. He and Mum had the caravan ready but then he became ill. Now I see the antique shop was quite a good plan. I would have found good stories there.
In the southern tablelands town where my father spent his childhood, one of his oldest friends was interred yesterday. He was 92 when he died last week. I make no comparison. He too was a good man. Both of them now gone. My father would be 77 today, were he here. I will bake a birthday cake.

Home sweet prize home

For some years I bought tickets in lottery prize homes. Recently I visited a prize home and again bought a ticket. I didn’t win. In 2008 I wrote a story that appeared in the Weekend Australian Magazine about what appealed to me me about prize home lotteries:  

I’ve seen my future. Every day before breakfast I’ll slip out across the road wearing a swimming costume, and a towel draped across one shoulder to swim in the sea. After showering off the salt and sand, I’ll partake of a light breakfast of juice, fruits, cereal and freshly brewed coffee.

My family will be there.  Shiny, happy people, who slip off into their days, leaving me to sit down to write at a sleek computer on a glass desk.  On weekends we will frolic in the surf and then recline with our books on the deck. At sunset we’ll have champagne in the spa. We’ll entertain friends to dinner by flame torches.

Prize home bedroom
Funny isn’t it, how people always say they are going to buy a lottery ticket just after they’ve had extraordinary luck such as their life being saved or surviving. Do they not know that to be cured or saved is the biggest win of all? Prize bedroom.

This will be my life after I win the prize home. It only takes one ticket. But I’ve bought three. I’ll just have to keep a second place, a bush cabin maybe, to store all the books and the garage paraphernalia.

Or maybe I’ll just get rid of the lot and start a new digital, clutter-free life.

I love buying tickets in lottery homes. They fire my imagination in a way that cash prizes never do. Sure, I’d love to win a wad of cash but it won’t happen. I never enter Lotto. I used to but I always forgot to check the numbers. But with prize homes, I always remember the date of the draw. And I study the plans and the pictures, and visualise myself there.

There was a lottery recently for a block of apartments at Surfers Paradise. I’ve never wanted to live in Surfers but still I had it all mapped out, with me as landlady in the penthouse.

But this latest place is so me. It has a wine fridge, and it’s right opposite the beach, and close to the airport.  I’d enjoy this place, I’d really appreciate it.

“This is not a good use of space,” says another visitor to my future home speaking about the generous proportions of the corridor that has leading of it three doorways, a stairway, a broom cupboard and an exclusive lift to the underground garage. Look lady, go and enter a lottery for homes with pokey corridors why don’t you? For some people even heaven would be too fancy.

“When I win the lottery” was the catch cry of my paternal grandmother. She’d talk about the lovely home she wanted where we could all come and stay. And she’d look at the beautiful gifts she scrimped for, and crafted all year, as if they were nothing – the dresses she’d made to measure or the individual soft toys that she had stitched. “I am going to buy you everything you could want,” she’d say. But her handcrafted bespoke parcels were the most anticipated gifts of all. Anyone else could buy something.

Funny isn’t it, how people always say they are going to buy a lottery ticket just after they’ve had extraordinary luck. A piece of flying metal goes through a windscreen and just misses a driver’s neck so he must buy a lottery ticket. You are cured from a life-threatening ailment, as I was, and countless people tell you to  “Go and buy a lottery ticket.” Do they not know that to be cured is the biggest win of all?

But I come from a family of ticket buyers, and winners. When I was 16 my Dad won a third share in the Golden Casket, relatively little if compared to the Lotto giveaways of today. I came home from school, and there was madness in the air. “What’s happened?”

“We’ve won the lottery,” said my Dad  A party followed. Some party. The day he won the lottery closed with my Dad in casualty with part of his finger lost when he tumbled into a glass table.

At birthdays and Christmas someone always buys me scratchy tickets and I always win something. But I was part of a lottery syndicate in the UK, and for an investment of £104 per annum over four years, earned £30.  Eventually the syndicate manager retired and it was wound up. It was a relief for I could never quit. What if all my colleagues had won the big prize the very next week? Unthinkable.

With the global financial crisis and superannuation funds on a rollercoaster, I wonder if more people are buying tickets. It won’t change me. I’ve been living in my own private recession for years. And prize homes are fantasy, not strategy, for me.

My grandmother never stopped buying tickets. Never stopped dreaming. One day my aunt bought a scratchy ticket and won $10,000. Granny had bought the previous ticket.

As for that whining woman just ahead of me. I just hope that she doesn’t win.

Marian Edmunds

Plotting a novel escape

I once heard  novel writing described as the writer setting themselves a puzzle or trap from which they must escape. Over the past few months I have been redrafting my novel Sapphire Day, one of several in progress, and am now 30 pages from the end. That makes it sound easy. And yet I only need to buckle down and finish it.

The bad news is that this 30 pages needs a bit of work as  I seem to have switched styles. The first chapter was decided more or less five years ago. The world and me has changed a great deal in that time. For a year or so I had a new redrafted chapter but we are back at Plan A, albeit more sleek.

The good news is that there is still suspense  30 pages from the end. The story could end in a number of ways. It could be open or a neat bow.The lesson for the future is to have sorted the ending out first.

I planned to submit this redraft to a couple of publishers this week. But first I am going to have it proofread, again. I am lucky to have good support in this way.

When reading a novel, part of me wants a happy ending and part of me accepts that life is not like this, that happiness is for only  a moment, and that the key to life is in having a good many good moments.

Do you like your stories tied up in neat bows or do you like to wonder about what might still happen?

Christmas search for meaning and a chopper

Merry Christmas!Christmas Day passed in quiet excesses until I had to search snake-infested rainforest for a missing chopper….

On Christmas Eve I whipped through 45 pages of redrafting my novel, Sapphire Day, and it was going beautifully. Funny how soon you can go from this to thinking it may be best to set this novel aside. I am not being negative. I am looking at this as honestly as I can.

I may be wrong.

It may be close to ready being a perfectly publishable novel that will be enjoyed by a large number of readers. All was well until I hit Chapter 9 and realised it made little sense. Everyone of us who has read this, and edited it had missed a glaring continuity issue.

So I thought about it while I should have been thinking a little bit harder about getting the house ready for Christmas. And I found a solution but in doing so, though of an entirely new direction that could be developed later in the book. It seemed brilliant, then it seemed very complicated, then it seemed almost brilliant and then all the questions arose. If I make this character C play a bigger role what should I do with Character A. Well, I could have him go there.….No, that’s ridiculous.

I ended up housing cleaning and wrapping gifts at 1 am.
Christmas Day slid along in quiet excess. Amazing how on a modest budget, we end up again with so much.

I was at the point of trying to make myself stop reading and dozing, and reading and dozing when word came of a helicopter lost at the bottom of the road. I slipped off new blue beads and  my sweet cherry red and mint sweet cotton frock and pulled on long and very hot trousers and t-shirt and searched out the bushman repellent. I listened as the search party explained they had searched “everywhere” and were certain it was in this area, they said pointing. I immediately went the other way for it seemed too far, too high where they were saying it was,. Soon I was moving branches aside, twigs and leaves crackling beneath me. calling out to the others see if they had seen anything. I was baking hot, the fabric so oppressive, so wintry, I just wanted to peel them off.

The bushman repellent was doing the trick. There was no bushman in sight.  And if the mosquitoes screamed in, they  hit the brakes when they reached the exclusion zone.  The light was fading and we resolved to search just five more minutes and return in the morning.

Then we spotted it, a small light flashing, its yellow bodywork and rotor blades caught high in a tree. We shook the tree. The chopper stirred. We shook again. It came down. Intact. We smiled in quiet satisfaction.

I washed off the dust and sweat off the  jungle with a swim , by lights that flashed green, white, red, blue, pink, purple.

There was nothing on TV, and a movie or TIVO seemed too long, so I opened Chapter 10 of Sapphire Day. There we meet Laurence. He is a wonderful concoction and that is the problem. He is a concoction. And so there I am, a night on after solving the plot hole of Chapter 9 and asking yet more questions. Would he really say that? If I take Laurence out of the equation then I have to change here and here, and here! Do I need to do all that? Can’t I just work on him a bit? I will shake the tree and see what stirs.

Merry Christmas.

Franzen and my ‘social object’ miss

/>Jonathan Franzen’s disdain for social media is well-known. He’s also careful not to let the Internet distract him from writing. I read somewhere that he superglued a computer so he could not plug in a modem.

In  Nathan Bransford’s  excellent blog on the topic of books and writing) he  described hearing Jonathan Franzen speak and how this gave him  a new understanding of where Franzen was coming from. Franzen thinks very deeply and social media is a distraction from that.

I heard Jonathan Franzen speak at Brisbane Writers’ Festival on the chilly afternoon on September 10, 2011. He spoke a lot about birdwatching. At the end of his talk during audience questions a young man asked if  he could comment on the changes in the ‘American psyche’ in the 10 years since 9/11.

Franzen said no.

But then he said he’d explain why he was saying no. Part of the answer was that he did not like memorialisation of events being commoditised into an experience. After the talk I bought a Franzen book and  joined the end of a long queue to have it signed. A young man lined up behind me. He worked at the excellent Avid Reader bookstore and was shivering, having set out that brilliant spring morning without a jacket. When we reached the signing table, I suggested he go first.

When I reached Jonathan Franzen I thanked him for his talk and said I felt much the same way about memorial celebrations. Then I said, “You and I have work appearing in the same anthology.”  
It’s something I’m unlikely to be able to say again.
He asked me the title. It is City-pick New York I said.

Where I meet Franzen

“What's your story about?” said Franzen.

I described "Blue, blue sky". "Its a simple recollection of  visiting the South Tower of the World Trade Center. It's a tourist's memory. Returning  10 years later I questioned myself about my resistance to interpreted memorials. I am also resistant to seeing tragedies as cultural events that I can choose like experiential tourism.

After he had signed his book,  Jonathan Franzen handed it to me, then took my cold hand into his, shook it warmly and thanked me for being "one of us."

Later I realised I'd forgotten to get a photograph. The moment had passed.  There would be no currency, no

'social object' – a la Hugh McLeod –  on Twitter or Facebook or any other social media of me meeting Jonathan Franzen. It seems fitting.

Marian Edmunds

Journalism at the precipice – or is it?

The news this week that Fairfax would axe 1900 staff and streamline beyond recognition, is like hearing about the passing of a friend after a long illness. News you’ve been expecting still comes as a shock. Newspapers were for many years at the centre of my life as a journalist, sub-editor, and an editor. Since the late 70s I’ve worked for  a dozen or so newspapers in Australia, Hong Kong and the UK. Although a part of who I am, newspapers play almost no part in my professional life now.

A glittering, non-award winning career… I was on the staff of the Financial Times for 15 years, and wrote regularly for the Australian Financial Review, and The Australian and for business magazines from 2004 until 2010. Aspiring journalists would contact me for tips on how to get jobs or assignments. I’ve taught at three universities, helping a few students to get their work published, and paid for, in top papers. Few of you will get jobs at mainstream newspapers, I said to my students as a statement of fact. Journalism is moving towards niche markets. Learn how to produce your own content and products, and how to run yourself as a business, I said. I suggested to journalism educators that business education be a part of vocational training. They looked at me blankly.

I knew it would be tough… let’s multiply that! I didn’t have all the answers then, and still don’t, even though I could see how it was going, and started adjusting to a future of self-employment and generating work 15 years ago. On December 5, 2011, the Media section of The Australian ran a story I sent on spec about the end of the print runs for the two regional daily newspapers I started with – the Coffs Harbour Advocate and the Tweed Daily News. The closures were not good news. How will elderly people who’ve never been online find out when a friend has died? Our children will never know what it is to see their picture in paper. When the story ran I received many emails from journalists who felt like me, and from readers who loved print newspapers, and from readers who read on iPads but still like a local paper. I received praise from the editor for my ‘very, very good’ work, completed to my normal standard. I have not written for a newspaper since. Recently the Media and Arts Alliance sent a renewal notification asking me to state what level of membership best matched my income from journalism. I replied that it was the lowest rate as I had no earnings this year from journalism and now think it unlikely I’ll make any in 2012. Of course, I can still get items in newspapers. It’s perfectly possible so long as I detach myself from the idea of being paid a professional rate, or in some cases, anything. Unsurprisingly, I’ve stopped thinking of journalism as my job.

It’s a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll…. Payment can take up to 60 days after publication, and this often follows long lead times between being commissioned to the deadline and then to publication.

Editorial protocols .. And there are silly things… you are commissioned to write, then two editors leave, and then the new editor waits till the time is right for the story, or until they can pair your story, to another story, by another journalist. The most extreme example ended up with me secretly writing a story under a pseudonym just so the newspaper could pair it with my story to publish it, and pay me for the feature they’d asked me to write a year previously. Around about then it all started to feel too hard. Who has time to apply subterfuge just to get paid for good work delivered in a timely fashion?

Trashing from within… Papers do silly things too, though usually these could be attributed to one silly editor or an executive with a surplus of power and a deficit in having a clue. One that comes to mind is a former editor of a leading business newspaper who cut costs by curtailing library access to freelance journalists writing for the paper. This edict perplexed, mortified and frustrated the very committed and professional editors who kindly accessed library files for freelance writers from behind the paywall. I guess it made us even better at using Google! But the words shoot and foot came to mind.

Paying for what you’ve consumed… Then there are the papers that commission stories to a certain length then say they’ll pay only for what they use. It’s like being served dinner and expecting to pay only for what you eat from the plate. The ingredients still needed to be sourced and the preparation time is the same. So journalists end up carrying the business risk. I worked out a formula that a journalist would have to increase their output by 40 or so per cent just to ensure on the law of averages they’d be paid. This is no way to live. Occasionally, I’d forget all of the challenges, and think it must just be me, that I was being negative, that I just needed to keep at it. So I’d approach a newspaper or magazine. An international magazine I approached a couple of weeks ago loved my idea, gave me a long list of hoops the story had to jump though, and said that they’d pay GBP40. And journalists are the ones who are expected to remain ethical!

What does this it all mean? The stories that I, and other journalists see that need covering, go completely uncovered. Anyone with dodgy dealings they want to carry on with unchecked upon need only conduct their activities in a town or city without its own local newspaper. There’s plenty to choose from. The news that remains easy to find is the grab, the politician harping on and (carb)on. Cheap journalism. Meanwhile, real stories, real analysis is treated as a luxury.

Journalist in the wild.. I suppose it’s an advantage that I have been in the wilderness for a while, and actively engage in other work to do with writing. I had to, but luckily I love it too. I would say to any of the newly redundant journalists, don’t look at now, look at where you think you can go, and most of all start to plan for what you really want to do, apart from working in a big newsroom that is. Feature writing has always been one of life’s great challenges and pleasures for me. It’s hugely satisfying to research, to interview, and to weave disparate information into a meaningful story. Very often you’re the only person ever to join the dots of the story… Unfortunately, however, it’s not good business. Well, not in newspapers. But elsewhere it can make sense. Companies, philanthropists, co-operatives, anyone else can publish now too. And just watch out, for increasingly they will.

Marian Edmunds, The Writing Business.

Welcome to The Paradigm Shuffle

Welcome to The Paradigm Shuffle. I had a newspaper column of my own when I was 19 years old, some time before blogging and the Internet ever existed (which is a mercy). I didn’t know how lucky I was. I write and edit business and corporate material and work with writers at The Writing Business.  I write for  major newspapers and had a long career with newspapers in Australia, Hong Kong and the UK. I am very glad of it and all that I learned, the places travelled to and within, and most of all the people.  I occasionally write personal pieces in the newspapers that usually attract (positive) mail. I’ve co-authored a self-help book that can help you see that you are all as you are, if only you knew it! It is intended to help you see and enjoy this with very little reading and without a list of impossible rules.

In 2011 I wrote a memoir piece, ‘Blue, Blue Sky’ in the literary travel anthology, city-pick New York. It felt like an honour as my story appeared alongside excerpts from that Great Gatsby man and Jonathan Franzen and so many more. In April 2013, my tale of the Turkish bath ‘Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush’ appeared in City-pick Istanbul. It features Orhan Pamuk of course but it’s a great way to discover many of Turkey’s great writers all in one little book.

 What else is there?   I write novels and short stories this blog will explore that path of oh so hard work and my ongoing grappling with that. So this is my column circa the noughties.  Welcome.

Marian Edmunds

The P.S. Thanks to Monica Marcil for helping me to arrive at the title The Paradigm Shuffle.