Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 14

I’m going to tell you something about myself: I like books. 

No, no, that’s not right, come one, Jonathan, no need to be coy about this. The truth is I love books, I am in love with books, at any given time I am having an affair with books, often with multiple books at once. There, I said it. 

My love affair with books started at an early age, fostered by my parents’ own love of literature, and by the time I hit highschool I had a full-blown book addiction. When I entered Year 9 (for any international readers, Australians in Year 9 are aged between 14 and 15 years old), I found myself in a homeroom without a single member of my circle of friends. To begin with, I was crushed, I felt hard done by, I felt alone. And then I remember I could borrow a friend any time I liked. 

To be clear, I am not referring to some strange and sad friend-loaning service set up at our school where for a certain price you could rent a friend, I am referring to the library and the many excellent books on its shelves that I could borrow as I pleased. 

Rather than do the thing normal kids would do when finding themselves in a classroom devoid of friends, which is to make new friends, I chose instead to invest any additional time during class outside of my scholarly pursuits to books. I kept whichever paperback I was reading at the time in my pencil case and as soon as I had finished the worksheet/equation/essay we were instructed to work on, I would collect my friend from its secret storage space and get reading. While the other kids were wasting their time with superficial things like talking and laughing and socially bonding, I would be exploring Narnia, and Midkemia, and the Drenai Empire.

For anyone who may be inclined to pity lonely little Jon, please don’t feel too bad. I did eventually lift my head out of the pages long enough to commune with my colleagues, and apparently the bookworm image was working for me as my first girlfriend was in that very class. Take that, jocks.

As a reader, I generally favour genre books. These genres have many different names — fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, speculative fiction — but I just like to think of them as books where one small facet of the impossible is made possible and then we see where the story goes from there. These stories, while removed from reality, help me make sense of reality, help me see things from a different perspective, and, when necessary, help me avoid social interaction. Triple threat. 

Given that the whole world is currently hibernating, it makes sense that a resurgence of reading will follow. Now that the coronavirus has taken away our restaurants, our movie cinemas, our pubs, and our table-tennis tournaments (I don’t know, maybe, I don’t know what you do in your spare time), all of us suddenly have a lot more time on our hands. 

If pubescent-Jon can teach us anything, it’s that the social interaction we are all currently lacking can be substituted with reading, and so with that in mind I would like to recommend some titles that have brought me joy, have made me think, have kept me turning the pages long into the night, and have kept me company through the lonely times.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The author himself has said that, when writing this book, he set out to tell a long and rambling story, and in one sense he accomplished this. The book is long and covers a lot of ground, but it is intriguing, interesting, weird, and always enchanting every step of the way. It combines a wealth of folklore and presents the gods discussed in its pages in a way that feels human and real. Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors and this is one of my favourite books. Beyond being a great writer, he also seems to be a rather great human, which makes reading his work all the more enjoyable.

American Gods

Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman
Nick Offerman is famed for his portrayal of Ron Swanson in the television show Parks and Recreation, and while there is a lot of Ron in Nick, there is also a lot more. This book, which is part autobiography and part ruminations on life and how to live a good one, is overflowing with humour and wisdom and a collection of very entertaining anecdotes. It also pairs very well with a good whiskey.

Paddle Your Own Canoe

Sourdough by Robin Sloan
This book is warmth all the way through, from the characters and their passions, to the bread that is baked, and to the ultimate conclusion. Robin Sloan writes about our world but from a perspective that is a delight to share. He finds mythic in the mundane and passion in the pedestrian. Reading his books is like having a long conversation with a good friend over a cup of tea.

Sourdough

14 by Peter Clines
This was a book that made me lie. I would lie to my employer about being sick, I would lie to my friends about being busy, and I would lie in bed (see what I did there) not sleeping, only reading. I did all this because I absolutely had to find out what was happening and what would happen next. For me, this is the ultimate page-turner and, while it made me knowingly deceive friends and family, I regret none of it.

14

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
Did you catch that it’s Neil Gaiman again? I warned you that he was one of my favourite authors. Fragile Things is a collection of his short stories and so is the perfect book if committing to a huge novel isn’t your thing. Each of the stories is seeded with an idea so unique, so interesting, and so cool that I am swamped with jealousy that I didn’t come up with it. Even in the introduction to the collection, he tells a story that is gripping and thought-provoking. In the introduction! He’s really just showing off, and damn him if it doesn’t work.

Fragile Things

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Often considered a modern masterpiece, this novel encapsulates…no, I can’t do it. I was trying to be funny, but even as a joke, I can’t endorse this book. It is trash. It is a trash book. Go read something else.

Whether you read my recommendations or not, that’s okay, but I do recommend that you at least read. While we can’t currently go out and explore our world as we would like to, books can allow us to instead go in and explore a multitude of other worlds, and by doing so, forget about our isolation for a while.

Lastly, I would like to ask a favour. If anyone has a book they love, one that has stuck in their brain and won’t get out, I would deeply appreciate it if you could recommend it to me in the comments. As a book addict, I am always on the lookout for my next hit.

And really lastly, I swear this time, if anyone would like to read a short novella that I wrote that is, hopefully, as silly and as fun as these posts, then I invite you to download a copy from the following links. I wanted to give it away for free but Amazon wouldn’t let me, so instead it is yours for only 99 cents.

Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B086L2W7D7 

Austria: https://www.amazon.de/dp/B086L2W7D7

United Kingdom: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B086L2W7D7

United States: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B086L2W7D7

 

On Monday: The new normal.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 2

We are three days deep into the working week and I am happy to report that morale in this Vienna office remains good. There has been no passive-aggression between myself and my new co-worker, nor for that matter any non-passive aggression (my wife has on more than one occasion when discussing someone who has rubbed her the wrong way stated that she would like to “stab them with a fork”, so this is no idle concern. Why this particular piece of cutlery, I don’t know. I’m too afraid to ask). Perhaps the secret to our co-habitational bliss is the deep river of communication and understanding that my wife and I share. Perhaps it is my retreating to the balcony when eating my lunch today to avoid irritating her with the sounds of my mechanical digestion. We may never know.

I do believe that during this period of government-enforced agoraphobia, one of the devices that should be used to avoid being stabbed by your spouse with a piece of cutlery is the enjoyment of extra-curricular activities. When your office, your living room, your dining area, and your kitchen are all the same 6 metre x 4 metre space, it’s important to introduce some variety to keep the magic alive.

As mentioned in yesterday’s chapter, Alex and I now begin each day with a yoga session. The assortment of aches and pains in my muscles and joints lets me know this is working well and, by the time we are freed to resume normal life, I am confident that I will have the flexibility of a prima ballerina. For now, I would be satisfied with being able to tap the ground with my fingertips during stretches where the instructor is effortlessly resting her entire palm on the mat, but we must walk before we can run.

Alex has taken on a collection of rather useful hobbies. One is that each evening she prepares our breakfast for the next morning, two bowls of overnight oats, which, as the name suggests, are oats that are prepared one night in advance. But these are not your grandma’s oats, no, hers are an assortment of flavours that ensure the day is started with a grinning face and a full belly (I don’t know your grandma, maybe these are her oats, who am I to comment of the quality of your grandmother’s breakfast preparation).

Alex starts with some dried oats and then adds puffed spelt, chia seeds, a handful of fresh and frozen fruit, natural vanilla yogurt, and a dash of milk. After being given the necessary twelve hours to reach its full potential, this combination equals a bowl that is not only tasty, but healthy and aiding in digestion. And, going by the sounds heard through the shared wall of our office and toilet, I’d say it’s working.

I have taken a different approach to my free-time activities and, much like children all over Austria penned indoors, I went straight for the pencils and paper. Drawing is a discipline that feels akin to meditation. Through focus, I am able to empty my head and let go of whatever unwanted thoughts are plaguing my brain. The repetition of the pencil strokes occupies the stimulant-driven portion of my consciousness while the rest is free to sit back and take a load off. 

(click to see a larger version)

This activity also provides my wife with, much like parents all over Austria penned indoors with their children when they dig into the art supplies, a moment of peace and quiet to read a book.

Books are vital when living in the time of COVID. Of course, I would argue that books are always vital, but they become doubly so when used as compensation for social interaction. And I don’t want to brag, but I’ve been using books to replace social interaction since I was a teenager. 

Mostly I do my reading while simultaneously drawing. No, sadly, I am not some ambidextrous prodigy, rather I use the medium of audiobooks to get the narrative into my head. I could go on at length about the merits of audiobooks, like a rabid missionary desperate to snag his next convert, but I will try and restrain myself and say only that the act of listening to an audiobook has the ability to transform any domestic task, be it the washing up, vacuuming the house, or going for a run, into an experience wherein your mind enjoys the exploration of characters and story while your hands slave away at the dirty work.

My brother and I love audiobooks to the extent that we have created a club around this topic, and have even gone one step further in that Damian also created an emblem for our club, as pictured below.

Audiobook Club 2

Granted, our club presently only has two members, but that doesn’t get in the way of our overwhelming pride in it.

So far, this combination of routine and hobbies has kept Alex and I on the right side of sane during the COVID purgatory, and has ensured that my baby-soft skin remains fork free.

Tomorrow: Communication.

PATREON

I am a writer. This is how I perceive myself because this is the thing I’m most passionate about. It’s also the thing I’ve spent the most time working towards. Ever since Year 9 English when the class was instructed to write a five-hundred word piece of creative fiction and I handed in a short story of one-thousand, two-hundred and six words to my poor over-worked teacher, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I left school knowing this and did a writing course to chase this dream down and grapple it into a reality.

But, I am also a nurse. I’m a nurse for two primary reason:

  1. I wanted a job that exposed me to the world’s realities, that showed me stories, and that let me connect with people in a deeper sense than the superficial, “How are you? I’m good,” sort of way. A job I could respect and be proud of. A job that let me help people.
  2. I also needed the money.

I don’t like the latter fact, and I don’t like that the latter fact is a motivator in my decision-making process, but that doesn’t change it from being a fact. The world is expensive and often unforgiving in this regard, and I can accept that if I want to live in the modern world, it comes at a cost.

But ideally, this fact would be addressed by my writing. To be able to make money from my writing, to fund writing with writing, is the dream fifteen-year-old me had back in high-school. It’s what I’ve been working towards for the past fourteen years.

But working full-time as a nurse leaves very little time for sitting and writing, to dedicating myself to the craft I love. After years of working as a nurse and collecting stories from the people I’ve worked with I’ve reached the point where I want to shift away from gathering stories and towards sharing them.

Because of this, I’ve joined Patreon.

Patreon is a website built around providing artists with an outlet for their work while also allowing them to obtain payment for their art. It works like this:

I upload short stories or chapters from my novels and people can subscribe to be a patron at a price of their own choosing. Patrons pay what they want for the uploaded work — a dollar, fifty dollars, or nothing at all, they can have it for free if they like. It’s a way of my work getting out their, people getting entertainment and enjoyment from it, and a way for readers to support the writers they love.

If you wish to read my stories and be a patron, and to support me along the way, please follow the link below:

https://www.patreon.com/jonathanrobb?ty=h

So far one piece of writing, a story called When You’re Older, has been uploaded, but more will follow. For those wishing to read it on a iPhone or iPad, please download the .epub version, or for those who want to read it on a kindle, please download the .mobi version.

Thank you for your support, and for reading.

EXTRACTION

For those regular readers of my site, you may have noticed my posts have been a bit more sporadic of late. Some of you have been vocal in this, curious as to what I’ve been working on. Some have physically abused me, demanding more  and more words to satisfy them.

As I appreciate this feedback and unique show of support, I thought I’d placate these avid fans by assuring you all that more words are being typed every day, they’re just being done in the form of a novel. Two novels, in fact.

As I work full-time as a district nurse (have I mentioned that in the past?), it’s usually in my half-hour lunch break that I sit down and tap out the words bottled inside my head. Unfortunately, this being only a limited slice of time, and given that by the end of the working day I’m mostly used up and wrung out to the point that just preparing a healthy dinner is an accomplishment worthy of the highest praise, it makes writing anything of length a timely process.

But I appreciate every bit of encouragement I get from readers, so to reward your patience I thought I’d offer an extract from one of my novels-in-progress, I’ll Take it From Here. It’s the opening piece of the novel so you can’t get lost.

It can be found in the Writing link on this site, or simply by clicking here.

AUDILE

Before I gained the ability to tackle novels, back when I was still mastering picture books like “The Strongest Baby In The World,” my father used to read novels to me and my siblings. I can remember my dad seated on a sofa in the corner of the living room and us kids sprawled around him, the semi-shag carpet cushioning my head as I lay listening to his narration, letting his voice weave stories in my mind.

I loved these nights, and loved the ability of someone else’s words creating worlds and characters that I could envisage from the comfort of my living room floor.

Having outgrown the age when it is socially acceptable for my father to read me stories before bed, I still enjoy spoken prose through the art of audiobooks. Working as a district nurse inherently involves a lot of driving, and to pass the time commuting from patient to patient I have my iPod playing in the car, and stories playing in my head.

There is a power in having a novel read to you, in having the sensory elements of sound and tone help build the details of the story. Character’s voices flesh out personalities, pauses create suspense, and you can close your eyes, block out any distractions, and picture the world that’s being described to you.

But like any art form you are reliant on the artist to dictate the perspective you take when perceiving the piece. For someone reading a novel, they are building on top of a pre-existing piece of art, adding another layer of texture with a new medium. This new layer, this alternative perspective, can make or break a story. It can enhance what was already there and bring new body to the work, or it can cheapen it and detract from the power of the piece, dependant on the reader’s skill. I have listened to some readers that have made characters come alive, and others that have only succeeded in making them annoying. Realising the importance of the verbal narrator’s skill has made me admire the former and their vocal abilities.

With all this in mind, for today’s post I have attempted a reading of my short story Remembering The Mimi. The process of recording this only increased my admiration for quality readers as I mumbled and stumbled my way through multiple takes. It also gave me a newfound respect for people who use audio-editing software, as I had to learn how to remove my numerous errors.

So put in some headphones, close your eyes, if it’s available lay down on some semi-shag carpet, and let me tell you a story…

STARTING SOMETHING

I started writing a novel today.

It’s a strange thing, starting something. I always seem to have a nervous energy when I begin a project, and that energy is always somewhat driven by fear. Fear of failing. Fear of it not being as good as I can picture it. Fear that this time when I put pen to paper I’ll find my ability is gone, that the spark of creativity in me has fizzled out and I’m boring again. It’s irrational, but I’ve found a way to overcome it.

Start anyway.

This seems to be the hardest part. That first burst of motivation and inspiration. Until that initial moment of creation, my idea is perfect. It’s in the starting that I open the door to faults and flaws, that I can introduce my imperfect technique and see my ideal concept become something common. Of course the irony is that a concept is nothing, and so much lesser than a flawed something.

A lesson that has recently crystallised for me is one of the path to success. My sister once showed me a diagram that displayed the two perceived paths to success. On the left was a road that diverged to two outcomes: Succeed or Fail. This is the commonly believed path to success. Win or lose. To the right was an image of a road which zigzagged, and at each bend was a signpost which read “fail.” But at the end of the road was a trophy which read “succeed.” The actual path to success.

The problem with the former view is you only get one chance; you win or you lose. There’s no room for error in this path to success, and this makes starting something a nerve-racking voyage to make. With this concept in your head you launch yourself into the unknown and are snatched down the first time you trip up. Done. You failed. Thanks for playing.
This daunting potential for failure can be enough to stop someone from even starting. Much safer to avoid the risk and stay off the path all together.

Luckily this view of success is entirely wrong.

It’s the latter that encapsulates any experience of success I’ve ever had. This truth became starkly apparent when I first attempted to crochet a beanie. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that after envying a beanie my cousin owned I set out to duplicate the garment. Since then I’ve made about ten beanies and it’s gotten to a point where a person can’t visit my house without leaving with crocheted wool draped over their head. This end result shows I succeeded in my goal. But that was the end result; the path to that point was a bloody mess.

To begin my beanie I first had to master the initial ring of stitches. It’s called the magic circle. The magic of this circle proved to be its ability to provoke a string of curses from a man who normally remains quite calm. The wool slipped from my fingers, the hook refused to weave through the gaps I wanted it to, and the stitches were either too loose or so small that no grown man’s fingers could hope to navigate them. After hours of work, after a conglomeration of failures, I had a rather rough, but technically correct, magic circle.

I then laboured in mastering the following rings of stitches. After hours of studying the YouTube tutorial I was watching, stopping, rewinding, rewatching, and stopping, I had added a further six rows to my creation. I was feeling good, I was about halfway through, and the tangle of stitches was starting to resemble a beanie.

But as I bent to watch my online teacher begin the next ring I noticed something. Her needle was slipping through two loops each time she made a stitch whereas mine was only slipping through one. I looked back at my work and immediately saw the neglected loop I had been failing to hook with each stitch. While my beanie still held together, the missing loop meant that it wouldn’t be as strong as it should be and prone to stretch. I was doing it wrong. I would have to start again.

It should have been demoralising to have to pull apart the hours of hard work I had spent sweating over wool and crochet needle, but in all honesty it was a relief. I didn’t trust my new skills enough to presume I had been proceeding errorless, and I now felt I had caught my error. I may have been back to nothing more than a tangle of wool and the prospect of reattempting the magic circle, but I had learnt from my mistakes, which meant this time I would do it right.

And this is the lesson of the latter: the path to success is littered with failure. But each failure isn’t a slipping down a snake back to the start, it’s a step forward with new knowledge earned from that failure. Each mistake I made was a lesson in how not to do it, meaning all other attempts were done with a higher ratio of success.

With this in mind, starting something is a much easier journey to make. I may trip the minute I step onto the path, but each trip is something I can improve on, and something that is now behind me.

So today I started my novel. I did it with the belief that all errors I made could only, inevitably, make it better.

For those of you playing at home, the first word of my novel is “The.” An auspicious start in its vast scope for potential words to follow.

And it can only get better from here.

I HAVE AN IDEA

Story ideas are elusive things to define. I think the most repeated question writers must encounter is: “Where do your ideas come from?” And even though this question has become a cliché and the bane of writers during interviews, every time I come across an amazing idea/concept/character, I can’t help but stop, lower my book and wonder, “How the hell did they come up with that?”

In interviews, the writers always seem to struggle to come up with an answer that satisfies them. I think the reason for this is that writers want to create an answer that is clever and apt; but there is no clever and apt answer. The question would probably have to be delivered on a case-by-case basis for the writer to provide an accurate answer.

i.e.

Q: “In scene x with character y, how did you come up with the idea for character x to say dialogue z?”
A: “I read it on a cereal box.”

As you can see this process would be rather tedious and make for a long-winded interview.

But despite the logical answer most writers eventually give, “Lots of places,” the desire to know, to understand the fountain of greatness and where it springs from, is still there. As an aspiring writer, I can’t help but hunger to understand the workings of their minds and follow the track their synapses took to come to the amazing conclusion that is their piece of writing. The reasoning is a simple one: If I can understand it, I can replicate it.

Recently I’ve been looking over some of my old writing and found myself asking the question of where the ideas came from to myself. Time has fogged my memory enough that the exact moment of inspiration has faded leaving me in a dementia-like fugue about how I came to put those exact words to paper. But my weak long-term memory gives me the opportunity to answer the question of where ideas come from to myself:

Ideas come from lots of places. (Wait, there’s more). So many times it is a random string of events that results in an idea. It could start with the briefest glimpse I get of a man and a child on the footpath as I’m driving down the road. Maybe the boy is picking something off the pavement and the man is bending down to see what he’s found. And maybe as I’m driving past I’m not thinking about writing or stories, I’m thinking about the dessert I’m going to eat that night, but that fleeting images snags something in my head. The image sticks and dessert slips from my brain and I find myself wondering what the boy might have found. Idea.

The next stage to the answer is that ideas are usually more than one idea, they’re a mutated amalgamation of ideas. Maybe earlier that day I was shopping for dessert when I came across a metallic frog that when you click its belly it sounds like it’s croaking. (This item actually exists, my dad has it, but for the purposes of the example let’s say I found it at the shops). I remember this curious item and suddenly I know in my story what it is the boy has found. He brushes off the dirt to reveal a tarnished and beat-up metallic frog that croaks when you push its belly. Idea.

Now this is just the frame of a story, a starting place, but through this string of memories, moments, and images, a story idea is cobbled together. Questions come from this beginning: “What does the boy do with the metal frog?”, “What does the man do with it?”, “Will the frog become an animated spirit, whispering to the boy in the night, speaking of greatness in a croaky voice?” The answers to these questions are part of the story idea process.

And maybe at this point I want to insert a moral or meaning to the story. Maybe I know an elderly man who collects wombat paraphernalia, only now in my story the old man has a frog paraphernalia collection. And maybe the metallic frog was the first item he ever received, and suddenly the story’s about ownership and lost things. Idea.

The beauty of this demonstration is that anything can be story. Or maybe it should be everything is story. Every conversation, every freeze-frame image, every unique quirk, every memory, or smell, or taste can go into a story. These details are what make a story feel real and special and makes readers like me stop and wonder how they came up with something so original and perfect.

One of the things I enjoy most about writing is there is no such thing as wrong. Anything that is sticking to the roof of your brain can be jotted down, explored, and fed with creativity until it becomes something bigger that the original image of a boy and a man finding something on the pavement. It becomes plot, and interesting characters, and mythology, and a mini-reality put to paper.

Where do stories ideas come from?

Where don’t they come from.