A Better Kind of Nothing: A Day with Catherine Deveny

In she strode, begumbooted and beponchoed, red-lipsticked and bombastic. I’d seen Catherine Deveny speak before—about her novel The Happiness Show—and I was there for a dose of dynamite-under-the-bum-for-I-wanna-writers. Here was a woman who claims dyslexia and 1000+ columns for The Age in the same breath. A woman who says she bought a house relatively close to the city with her earnings from writing. If she can do it, can anyone? If so, how? Well, that’s what around 20 of we I-wanna-writers were there on Saturday to find out.

Backtrack: I remember reading Deveny’s columns years ago. I found them brazen, offensive and utterly, utterly addictive. I was brought up on a steady diet of toe-the-line, live-up-to-expectations, don’t-rock-the-boat and try-to-be-nice. I can’t remember the exact contents of her columns, save that they were on the back page of the Saturday supplement, but I do remember snorting, guffawing, gasping and exclaiming ‘You can’t say that!’ many, many times. This woman was pushing every boundary, crossing every line and being published for it. Remarkable.

Fast forward to 2013. My local library was promoting a literary calendar of author talks and I noticed that Deveny was one of the speakers, promoting her new novel. I RSVPed for me and my mum. After the talk:

Me: What did you think, Mum?

Mum: Well, she was certainly…confident.

Even though Mum stated it under a veil of there’s-a-load-I’m-not-saying, Deveny’s confidence was the hook for me. I want me some o’ that, I thought. Confidence has never been a problem for me, in general, but opening up about my writing, especially as I’m getting older, has been challenging for me. Am I good enough? What does ‘good enough’ even mean, anyway? Deveny’s baseline M.O. is who gives a fuck what anyone else thinks anyway?

I read The Happiness Show. Let’s be honest—I wanted to see for myself whether this brazen, funny columnist could turn out a decent novel. It was a cracking story and Deveny displayed a particular talent for dialogue and a realistic litany of cultural references. I liked it. By jingoes, she can write! thought I.

Fast forward to 2014. Last Saturday, to be precise. The City of Monash put on a writing workshop with Catherine Deveny as part of its (frankly, awesome) yearly WordFest calendar of events. I was there to soak up some of that overflowing confidence and do some writing exercises to get my imagination firing.

Her first comments to everyone were in the vein of If you thought you needed to be a literary genius to write, well, you can just fuck off. No matter what your personal opinion is of Deveny’s style, the woman is nothing if not encouraging. Who cares if you can’t spell? Who cares if you don’t read? Who cares if it’s not going to be a literary masterpiece? Her advice is clear: just write. To write you need only three things, she says:

1. Words.
2. Sentences.
3. Story.

Well, shit. Even I can do that.

The five hours that followed were centred around Deveny sharing her wisdom on getting stuff done, writing through the crap parts (because you never know what will reveal itself directly after the crap parts), ignoring what anyone and everyone says about your writing, and taking part in fun writing exercises she seemingly made up on the spot. She spoke to everyone individually and offered any insights we might find helpful. The thing I liked best: that she looked you directly in the eye while she was talking to you. It made her words take on keener meaning and made it feel like her advice was more likely to stick.

For me, the top 3 takeaways from the day were:

1. When you’re doing nothing, make sure it’s the best possible kind of nothing.

2. Work hard and just write, dammit. (All writers, whether literary geniuses or dyslexics, have that in common.)

3. Attempt it (whatever ‘it’ is) as if you could not fail.

After the workshop, as I was leaving the building, Deveny was just ahead of me. She saw me out of the corner of her eye, stopped and turned to look me in the eye. “I can’t wait to read your children’s stories”, she said.

Catherine, I can’t wait for that either. Thanks so much for your unique brand of encouragement.


Special shout out to the City of Monash, especially Sandhya Burton, for putting on such a wonderful variety of literary events. I am thoroughly enjoying myself.

The thing about dots.


When he died, lots of quotes, stories and links started flying around about Steve Jobs. People clung to them as if they were the last vestige of innovation as we knew it. I won’t lie–I got a little caught up in it. I get that uber-fans are evangelical about the brand, but I thought the flowers and wreaths piling up outside my local Apple store was a bit much.

One thing that had a deep and lasting–yes, I’d say life-changing–effect on me, was linking through to Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford in June of 2005. If you missed it (were you under a rock?), it’s worth watching it on YouTube or reading through the transcript. The bit that struck a chord with me was this:

“Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

I couldn’t stop (and haven’t stopped) thinking about it. You see, I’m a bona fide generalist. This can be defined as a person who has knowledge, aptitude, or skill in a variety of areas–the dictionary specifically contrasts it with a specialist. Being a generalist can be a bit disorienting and scary. If you’re a specialist and looking for a job, it’s easy to narrow down the category you need to look in. If you’re a generalist looking for a job, it’s difficult to find the right category to look in, let alone find the right job. I’ve been face to face with recruiters who tell me I seem ‘perfect’ for a job, only to then tell me my CV is not specific enough and the ‘client won’t go for it’. (Don’t get me started on recruiters…) Worryingly, it seemed that being competent at too many things was a hindrance rather than a help. Ought I have spent more time concentrating on one thing so I could become a specialist?

Steve Jobs’ advice on collecting dots was like a salve to my anxious mind. All of a sudden, I had a way to view the ‘dots’ I had been collecting as beneficial rather than limiting. It became plausible to believe that at some point in the future they’d form some sensical, coherent picture. That I hadn’t been wasting my time familiarising myself with a number of different industries and professions. That there was hope for me yet!

But sometimes my dots can be troublesome little beasties. Don’t make the same mistake I did this week when I looked at two dots up close, linked them together, and thought I had a picture. What I had, metaphorically speaking, was a line. I became fixated on the line and forgot to take the other dots into account. When the line between the dots disintegrated, I became disoriented and agitated. These dots correlate perfectly. Don’t they? But why has the line disappeared? But then I zoomed out again and remembered the other dots. Focus on the big picture.

The thing about dots is that they only make sense from a distance, as a collection. I’m still waiting to join all my dots and for the complete picture to come in to view. In fact, I think I may still be collecting dots. From now on I’ll try to remember to zoom out, not in.


AO-rated Chapel Street Bazaar.

Photo from http://www.whitehat.com.au.

Melbournians will be familiar with Chapel Street Bazaar–it’s an institution. It’s a rabbit warren of a shop, filled to the brim with retro gems and glorious vintageness. I’ve happily whiled away many an hour searching for goodness-knows-what and come out with some completely unexpected, left-of-centre purchase (vintage thimbles, anyone?).

It had been a while since I had explored its delights. I was meeting up with my sister for breakfast one recent sunny morning and we ducked in for a wander. It’s a difficult place to visit quickly, but we didn’t have much time so we did a brisk walk around the whole place rather than try to be thorough in one of the sections. We walked past gorgeous retro lamps, delicate bits of lace, well-worn Star Wars toys, board games stacked up high, smokers paraphernalia and no end of random bits and bobs. It was a sumptuous visual smorgasbord.

In a couple of the glass cases, one particular type of artefact caught my eye–a few sets of vintage nudie, or “booby”, playing cards, probably from about the 1950s. (From an anthropological point of view, rather than a pervy point of view.) Without going through the humiliation of asking the attendant to open the glass cases, I could only see the photo that was displayed on the top of each set, but there were two things that struck me about each of them.

Thing the first: they weren’t posing in any sort of sexy, come-hither way. There was no pouting, licking of lips or over-lashed eyes. Their expressions were innocent and fairly demure. They looked like they might’ve been posing for a family portrait or the PTA annual photograph, except that they were nude.

Thing the second: the boobs looked so, well, ordinary. They weren’t enormous, plumped up, tanned jobbies, with nipple rings and/or other attached paraphernalia. Before silicone and botox and other nasty stuff got involved, it seems every set of boobs looked different (gasp!). They looked like ordinary sort of boobs that you might see in the changing rooms at the local swimming pool–some big, some small, some longish, some roundish, nipples all different.

I couldn’t purport to be any sort of expert on the matter, but based on what I’ve seen almost out of view on the top shelf at the newsagency, boobs on display these days look remarkably homogenous (big, tanned), as do “attractive” women (tall, slim). It was a strange shock–and relief–to remember that all bodies are different, and that different doesn’t mean weird, bad or unattractive, and that different definitely can mean sexy and desirable. I’m sure just as many men were lusting after those longish boobs with the uneven nipples back then as there are now after the enormous tanned ones. Makes me wonder what the nudie playing cards/magazines will look like in another 40 years’ time.


Display homes make me angry.

Sometime in the next year my husband and I are going to start building a new house. We’re very lucky to have this opportunity and are determined to stretch our small budget as far as we can in terms of value so as not to squander it. I’ve been heading towards this my entire adult life, madly devouring home and interior design magazines for over 20 years, enrolling in an Interior Decoration and Design Diploma at TAFE, and starting a residential construction company with my builder husband. The excitement is intense, but there are doubts and nerves lurking. What if it’s not perfect? (Nothing ever is, silly.) What if we waste money? (Like everything, live and learn, honey.) What if we make mistakes? (Make them spectacular and learn from them.)

I’m a crazy perfectionistic over-researcher, and despite the fact that as a team we are ably equipped to take on this task, I feel I’m doing a last-minute panic-dash around Houzz and the like for that one essential piece of inspiration–That Thing I Don’t Want To Miss. In this over-researching zeal, one Saturday I headed out to three display homes with my mum. I’ve never been a huge fan of display homes. Being in the building industry, every now and again I’ll stop in at one if I see one is open on my way somewhere else. Almost without exception they are uninspiring. They are usually blockish boxes decorated in bland style with little regard for how people actually use space. That said, it had been a few months since I’d seen one, so it couldn’t hurt, right?

The first one was pretty good. It had lots of features and real books (ones that I would actually read!) on the bookshelves in the study. The way the space worked wasn’t to my preference, but they’d clearly thought about the design and details. Some things didn’t make sense to me–why was the en suite bathroom bigger than the main bathroom?–but in the main I can see why this particular company has earned its reputation for design thinking. A major issue was that the display home we saw would cost over $1m to build (not including land). Whoa!

The second two display homes had been recommended to me by a friend as having medium- to high-end finish and great display homes full of ideas. They were around the half-million-dollar mark to build–still out of our budget, but getting closer to the right end of the spectrum, money-wise. Frankly, they made me cranky. Take this example: in the first display home, the kitchen was absolutely enormous. I get it, the premise is “look what a huge show-offy kitchen I can afford”, but on a practical level, if you’re taking something off a stove and want to put it on a bench, you don’t want to be taking three or four steps to do that. The very notion of trying to prepare a meal in that kitchen exhausted me. In the second display home there was a retreat/office-like space on the top floor that I actually didn’t mind. It had four windows across the front of it which afforded a lovely view across the street. But one of the bottom window sills was out of level out with the other ones and it made my crazy. You cannot be taking $500K from a customer and give them windows that are out of level! There were countless other examples, but the disregard for detail made me really angry.

Needless to say, I’ll not be visiting any more display homes. I am pretty confident that I have all the tools right inside my own head to create my own living space. (And one day when our residential construction company is in a position to build a ‘spec’ or ‘display’ home, I promise all our future customers that we’ll take all the details really seriously.)


Is empathy overrated?

Is empathy a blessing or a curse? The answer should be obvious, but sometimes I don’t know. Let me rethink/rephrase that: it’s a curse when most people don’t have it. It would be a blessing if everyone did have it. Can we teach it in schools?

The other night I watched Argo. Have you seen it? It’s intense. From the beginning I was a nervous wreck. But not only was I deeply affected by the plight of the six American individuals who were attempting to exfiltrate Iran, but by the chaotic opening scenes in which a voiceover gave a summary of the political and social landscape in Iran. I get lost in my daily routine of work, house, kids, repeat and every now and again I’m jolted back to the reality that millions of people around the world face every day. Poverty, starvation, humiliation, injury, death, loneliness, and worse. It affects me deeply not only because every mother around the world loves her child in the same way, but because I don’t know what to do about it. Feeling isn’t enough — these people need action.

I don’t watch the news because I find it so upsetting. Am I really better off knowing the horrors that people inflict on each other, and for what? An Eastern healer recently told me that I’m oversensitive. I feel too much. I need to let go of things. I remember watching footage of the Gulf War in the early ’90s while sitting around the dinner table with my family and being unable to halt the flood of tears. My parents thought I was being ridiculous. But all I could think about were all those lives being affected. The people in Iraq. The families of the soldiers going off to fight. I didn’t give two shits about the political ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. All I could think about were the millions of people, families, social structures that were being affected and/or obliterated for no good reason.

Yesterday while washing broccoli collected from my Dad’s garden I cried for the kids in detention centres in and around Australia. Triple J’s Hack reporters were outlining cases of children and teenagers who were self-harming or contemplating suicide. I listened to the political pros and cons of this scheme and that, but front and centre of my mind was: kids are depressed, self-harming and attempting suicide. How can that not be the focus of the solution?

Empathy often feels like a curse for me. Can’t I just concentrate on my own life and happiness and forget about the plight of people I don’t know? But then I think that if everyone felt the same as me, or more like me, then that would be the starting point from which to solve the problems that affect people. How would I feel if I were in my enemy/business rival/homeless person’s shoes?

How can we teach empathy?



Daft at the draft.

I want to enter a short story competition. I have a few ideas about what to write. Well, two ideas. They are vastly different to each other which is why I may be having trouble starting. Actually, the reason I am having trouble starting is because I have trouble starting everything. Anything. “Overthink” is an understatement when it comes to me. I have a really vivid interior monologue going on all the time and I can never get anything out of my head and into the world. It’s causing me problems. I think all the time. ALL the time. But I never actually do anything. I have vivid pictures in my head of all the things I will do, could do, should do, want to do, am able to do, have the potential to do. Day-changing things. Finance-changing things. Happiness-changing things. Self-esteem-changing things. Life-changing things. No, that is not overstating it.

I became obsessed with JK Rowling this week. She is so insightful. Actually, she is just such a goddamned hard worker. (I think I am afraid of hard work. How did this happen?) She knew what she wanted to do and she slogged away at it until she bloody well did it. The idea came to her on a train journey and she didn’t even have a pen to write it down. I tell my children stories all the time. They love them. People tell me I should write them down. Then I try to write them down and I literally can’t get a word onto a page. I spoke at length at [sic] a friend of mine about a topic I was passionate about. I think I literally spoke for half an hour straight and laid down some compelling, well reasoned argument. “You should write that all down,” she said, “in an article at least.” I think I managed to get a sentence or two down and then kaputski. Nothing.

[Two-year-old just asked to do a wee. Good boy!]

Someone suggested that I start with a skeleton, some high-level ideas, and then flesh it out. I can’t even get the thoughts to hang together in a straight line. Did JK Rowling start with a plan? What does a first draft even look like? In high school I got straight A+s for all my English and English Literature assignments and exams, and I don’t think I redrafted a single one. That sounds terribly obnoxious and full of myself, but it has caused a real problem for me. I’ve never learned how to work. REALLY work. You know, plug away at something, hone it, craft it, until I’ve gotten it just right. The art of the draft. Maybe high-school English is as good as I will ever be? Talk about peaking early.

[Sister’s umbrella just got stolen from right under her nose. Arsehole. Who DOES shit like that??]

But I’m writing now. Maybe these exercises help? I’ll try another one. I will try to be disciplined about it. One per day? Nah. My friend F says ‘just write when you can’. So I will.


I got a keyboard.

I haven’t posted for such a long time. I could give you every excuse under the sun, but it all boils down to this: life just overwhelms me sometimes. Heck, let’s face it–life overwhelms me most of the time. But today I got a keyboard in this folio thingy for my iPad. I think that will make a difference. I think.

I also speak.

And write. Well, that’s the idea, anyway.


No vintage.

A relative visiting from Argentina expressed her huge fascination with op shops in Melbourne. Apparently they just don’t have them in Mendoza. She explained that if things are broken or torn they are mended, and there was no issue about things going out of style. Items are used for their entire life span, usually by the same person or family.

It gave rise to a curious mix of feelings in me. On the one hand, I felt fleeting shame that we as a city have such a compulsion to buy new things rather than make do. What does that say about us? On the other hand I felt pride to be a part of the cycle of recycling. That’s a good thing, right? Hmmm…


I am so old skool.

I am so old skool. I subscribed to the newspaper this week. You know, the pimply-kid-catapults-it-onto-your-driveway-from-a-beat-up-Corolla type of subscription, not the fancy-pants techy online-y type. I’m as avid a novice techie junkie as you’ll find (note Smartphone in pocket), but there’s only one way I want to read a newspaper.

I like whacking my elbows into my fellow commuters when I open up the paper and fold it, origami style, into the configuration that allows me to read the articles that have caught my eye. (You didn’t need that rib, did you?) I like taking up the whole dining room table to spread it out in all its glory. (Newsprinted toast, anyone?)

I like skimming all the articles on the page to get a good overview of what’s going on in the world of page 4. If I know what I’m looking for in an online edition, I’ll be inclined to skip straight to that. I like that my eyes have to skim over headlines to see what I will and won’t be interested in reading. Every now and again some random tidbit will catch my attention. Who knows? Maybe a love affair with a whole new topic will take hold.

I like the tangibility of the beginning, the middle and the end of the thing. Take in the start, skim, read, dip in, dip out, giggle, bugger-that-middle-page-always-drops-out, hold the bulk of it in my left hand as I near the end, muse over back-page antics.

It makes me wonder about the constant debates about the death of print media. I get it, things are changing. They have to. I just hope that instead of being an either/or/live/die scenario, it broadens the whole industry instead.

I like the thwack of rolled up paper on my driveway, wrestling with that God-awful plastic they insist on using, and enjoying my beginning, middle and end.