Category Archives: Thoughts & observations

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.


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?



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…


Humanisation of the workforce.

The introductory chapter to the book I just started to read has started on the wrong note. The phrase ‘feminisation of the workforce’ makes my skin crawl. It’s antiquated and passively condescending.

Fact: While it’s true that flexible working options are valuable for women, they are of equal value to men.

If we’re talking about skill and corporate-knowledge retention, promoting a healthy work-life balance and valuing the role of healthy children and healthy families in society, then I’m all for humanisation of the workforce.


Interesting aside: While typing tags for this post, my spellchecker wanted to change the word ‘feminisation’ to ‘demonisation’. Anne Summers, add that one to the list!