Losing touch with reality

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I’ve been writing for what I think is about four years now, but really, it feels like I’ve been doing it for a lot longer. About a year from now, provided that things go as planned, I’ll be beginning my creative writing honours project. Right now, I’m just starting the unit that will define my undergraduate degree. Creative writing supervised project. It’s an intro to honours class. And I’m writing what I’ve grown accustomed to: Speculative fiction. Since I started writing as a hobby I’ve been writing the speculative. There have only been one-off cases in short stories and poems where I’ve actually set stories in the real world. I go through phases, but I’ve never been a realist.

I started out writing gothic horror. I read a couple of H.P. Lovecraft and turned into the next big Lovecraft imitator. To some extent, I still like horror, especially when it’s heavily stylised. I don’t like stories about raping babies, snuff porn and shit like that. I guess you could say I don’t like unethical horror with no backbone to anchor it to. I hate thinking people will read extreme gore/porn horror to get their kicks. I’ve always been drawn more towards the stuff that’s driven by a good story. At that point I was yet to get into the whole cultural studies thing, but now I’m more inclined to go for a story that’s driven by some sort of cultural or moral code. I haven’t read much horror in a while.

As for the gothic… I think of it not so much as a genre, but rather as a style. Gothic is a mood, a feeling. It shapes the way we feel about texts. It’s very countercultural. I love the gothic. And not just in the narrow eerie castles and vampires and monsters and stuff, but the whole idea of playing off cultural anxieties, the concept of the dark and mysterious, the ‘unknown’, doubling, what’s not to love about it? I’ve always had an obscure fascination for the gothic.

Then I broadened out to science fiction. One of my favourite books was science fiction, and I loved the world building, the rich details, the depths at which the story touched upon issues of war, religion, philosophy and the very concept of human nature, character development, and stuff like that. It resonated with the real world while being set in an entirely separate world. I wrote a few science fiction stories in with my gothic horror, and I liked the freedom and power associated with world-building.

Then came the subgenres. Steampunk, cyberpunk, dieselpunk, biopunk, all sorts of punk. It was awesome. The aesthetics of -punk genres are pretty awesome. For NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago I wrote a steampunk novel. It was a really entertaining and rewarding experience, but that story is not worth the effort of editing. Steampunk is a bit of a mish-mash genre. It’s got its style, and some vague guidelines/rules to stick to, but other than that it’s fair game. An inventor’s paradise. And that’s the way with a lot of new genres. Just go nuts.

Since then I took that idea and ran. I hate cliches. I hate tropes that are so common they might as well be cliches. My writing turned into a sort of quest narrative, searching for originality. Creativity. Uniqueness. Something special that no one else has. Reality is so overrated. It may sound a bit like the sort of thing you’d come across in a suicide note, but reality is just so mind-numbingly everywhere. You’d expect people would be bored of reading about it. I know I certainly get bored writing it.

That’s not to say there aren’t good realist narratives around. I enjoy readingĀ  a good realist narrative, and I know people who enjoy writing it. It’s just not my thing. My next big thing was fantasy. Stories about things that are very unreal. The impossible. The ridiculous. The strange and outlandish worlds where people go to find the mysteries of the fantastical. I guess in hindsight, some of the stories I wrote back then were “urban fantasy” or “new weird” or maybe even borderlining on “bizarro”, but it wasn’t something I identified with back then. I was writing whatever and enjoying writing whatever. And two things I seemed to really start zeroing in on were dialogue and character development. A story about a sick giant and an asshole clown came to life from making the story seem organic. Strange characters acting in familiar ways. Interacting like real people, talking and changing like real people. Speculative fiction became more than just escapism, it became a mode of accessing reality through fiction, and not just in a world-building sort of way.

Then came the bizarro phase, and the pandora’s box came open. I could write about anything. Nothing was too strange. Nothing was too outlandish. Whatever was wild or freaky before seemed so tame and generic. I tapped into my experimental side and pulled out all sorts of strange, surreal things. I loved it. And the more I got into it the more I loved it. But something was missing. It felt too chaotic. Too busy. Too wild and creative. Almost inaccessible. I looked at what other writers were doing, and tried to figure out how to tap into the chaos and become its master. There’s no point to writing bizarre surreal stories if they don’t mean anything, if they’re not anchored to anything real or sincere. Kind of how I felt with horror. That’s my take on it anyway.

My reading tastes have grown pretty wide, and my latest phase has taken me through a few graphic novels and manga, of varying themes and genres of themselves, just processed through a different medium. And again on film I’ve started watching a couple of spaghetti westerns, a plethora of anime films, plenty of cyberpunk and ninja films, as well as Studio Ghibli stuff, some space westerns, urban gothic, and straight up sci-fi. I’ve found that drawing from lots of different sources for ideas is a great way to go. Tapping into different genres and blending them into something that’s entirely different. Not just in genre aesthetics, but also with reference to style, plot, setting, character development and things like that. With all my cultural studies at uni, it’s great to be able to watch a film and pick up on how it utilizes a character in a way that renegotiates the cultural conceptions of genre, or stuff like that.

And it’s from all this genre blending and depth of storytelling that I find myself hunting for a research question. For all that speculative fiction is written off as childish or escapist literature, how does a writer approach a work of speculative fiction and a) make it unique, and b) make it relatable? I’m working on a bizarro/steampunk space western at the moment, and figuring out how to give the characters a sense of gender displacement to renegotiate the cultural conception of masculinity. There’s nothing to say that can’t be done with urban fantasy or gothic cyberpunk or whatever.

I’ll probably just keep going through the genres, hoarding them as I go, picking up aesthetic features and narrative tips and tricks to give my writing depth and meaning. This creative writing project should be interesting, and I’m looking forward to the exegesis/research paper too. Weird.

The travelling pharmacy: A holiday story

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Part 5: Bridges and boats, rain and manga

Tuesday. Our last full day in Sydney. Didn’t really get the chance to explore the city much. Didn’t get the chance to do too much sight seeing. Tuesday morning we went right into the city, grabbed breakfast and did a bit of shopping. I came across a book store which I think was boasting the largest range of books in Sydney. Kinokuniya Books. My impression of it was that it was kind of like Borders. Or the massive Dymocks in Melbourne. In my transformation into a comic book guy, I spent most of my time browsing the graphic novels and manga.

I left Kinokuniya with the following items: Appleseed (manga) vol 1, xxxHolic (manga) vol 2, Uzumaki (manga) vol 1, Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) 3-in-1 vols 1, 2, 3, and Trigun (anime).

Appleseed, by Shirow Masamune, is awesome. Cyberpunk in the likeness of Ghost in the Shell. But Ghost in the Shell is a bit of a mindfuck, where Appleseed is easier to comprehend. Well, Appleseed vol 1 is easy to comprehend. I can’t really say much for the rest of the series. The artwork is cool, the technology is wicked stylish and the story is intriguing. A woman and her robot friend living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland find themselves in amongst a rebuilt civilisation and trying to fit in to a completely new society.

xxxHolic 2 keeps up the weird mystical storytelling, developing the characters more, and while there’s not nearly as much action as the other stuff I’m reading, it’s really intriguing.

I’ve been meaning to read Uzumaki for a while now. Out of all the manga I’ve bought on this holiday, I’ll probably try to finish this one off first. Mainly because it’s only a three volume series, where most of the others are much longer. Appleseed is four volumes, Nausicaa is six or seven, Battle Royale is 15 (or 5 ultimate collections) Sin City is another six or seven volume series I think, xxxHolic is 19 and Fullmetal Alchemist is 27. If I can finish something, I’d like to finish it. Uzumaki is a horror series about a town that is haunted by spirals. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s some really freaky shit. I’d have to say the most terrifying part of the first volume was where Shuichi’s mother develops a phobia of spirals and cuts off her hair and fingertips to remove the spirals from her body. Then she realises there’s a spiral in her inner ear that she must get rid of. It’s some really freaky shit. Freaky shit.

I wasn’t sure what I’d think about Fullmetal Alchemist. I’ve read the first 2 volumes of the 3-in-1 issue and started on the third, and I’ve been really enjoying it. It’s cool. It’s got lots of action and the whole advanced alchemy thing is pretty wicked. Like xxxHolic, reading the first few manga has got me thinking I’d like the anime. I don’t know if I should read all the manga first or just watch the anime and just gradually work through the books. Because there’s a lot to read.

What I read on holidays

As for Trigun, I’ve only watched two episodes, and while I’m keen on the whole space western bounty hunting thing, I’ve got to watch a few more episodes to get a good idea of the bigger picture. The shows I’ve watched before this – Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gantz – have left some pretty high standards to work off. Those series got right into the action from the get go, quick hooks, and no letting go, and strong characters and plot. I’m enjoying it so far, but I guess I’ll just have to keep watching and see where it goes from there.

After leaving the book shop we walked to Sydney harbour and checked out the bridge and opera house and all that. We did a harbour tour which provided some good views and some interesting information. Then it started to rain. And didn’t want to stop. Then we poked around the public areas of the opera house, which wasn’t a lot, but it was cool to go inside the iconic building.

I’d love to go back to Sydney some day and spend enough time to do the full tourist thing. Do the opera house tour, climb the Sydney harbour bridge, go to Taronga Zoo, stuff like that.

We did a bit more shopping in the evening in the city. Mostly to kill time before dinner and to stay out of the rain without going back to the hotel. I bought a few notepads with six-shooter guns on them to use for my space western and I went to JB Hi-Fi and got some more CDs.

I bought AFI’s first album ‘Answer That and Stay Fashionable’, the Fall of Troy’s self titled first album, and At the Drive-In’s album in/Casino/Out.

AFI’s first album is nothing like their music now. It’s raw, fast hardcore punk that sounds pretty amateur.

I’m loving the Fall of Troy at the moment. What I love about it is that it’s hard and loud and fast like AFI, but the music is way more chaotic. The guitar riffs are quite melodic with irregular patterns that just seem messy, but it just… works.

I haven’t listened to in/Casino/Out, but from what I can gather it’s less intricate and less fine tuned than their later stuff in Relationship of Command. I’d say at Relationship of Command, they were well on their way to becoming the Mars Volta, where in/Casino/Out they’re still heavily in their post-hardcore lo-fi phase.

Next, my dad and I went up the Sydney Sky Tower and got lots of blurry/reflective photos of the city at night in the rain. It’s pretty cool having the tower in the middle of the city, integrated into the shopping centre. Makes it seem very accessible.

We went to the Crown pub for dinner, where I had a good curry lamb and then went back to the hotel to try to get some sleep before flying out early the next morning.

Certainly, one thing about the flights into Sydney and back to Perth was that my ears weren’t causing me pain. Still causing deafness, but not pain. At worst, a bit of a headache.

And here I am, back in sleepy little Perth, still a bit sick and still a bit deaf in one ear. I was supposed to be back at uni on Tuesday, but I missed that class and Wednesday’s classes. So I’ll be spending the next week catching up, getting everything ready for going back to uni, recovering up for work next week (I’m taking a few days off work to recover properly – I think I’ve got something like seven weeks of sick leave saved up anyway…), getting my space western ready for workshopping, and getting a bit of r&r with some reading and watching tv shows.

The holiday wasn’t a complete failure. The shopping experiences were good, the football was alright, catching up with relatives was definitely good, and going to Sydney for the first time was a nice experience. Of course, I would have liked it to have been under better circumstances, what with the sickness and the poor weather and all that…

The travelling pharmacy: A holiday story

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Part 4: Antibiotics, arcades, and football.

Saturday morning I saw a doctor. He told me I had an ear infection. Mostly in my left ear. Which is my primary listening ear, for when I’m only listening to music in one ear or talking on the phone. He got me a prescription for amoxycillin. And said that I should be fine to fly tomorrow. Permanent damage to my hearing in this fashion would be rare. So I got my week’s worth of pills and from there met up with the east coast relatives. I think the plan was to check out some shopping out around the convention centre, but it wound up with the parents checking out a home/bulding expo thing while my brother and I played a couple of rounds of laser tag at the M9 Laser skirmish. I’m pretty average at those sorts of games but it was pretty decent. I just wish I didn’t go from being cold and sick and outside to being hot and sweaty and inside with no opportunity to get out and cool off. As I’ve established, I’m a quiet, mostly shy guy. And I don’t like getting in the way of other people’s fun. After the laser tag we hung around the arcade for a while longer. The hot noisy stuffy arcade. During school holidays while the parents of all the kids were across the road gambling away their college funds. I played a couple of rounds of arcade guitar hero, which I’m much more comfortable at than laser tag, but I was glad we didn’t stay around too much longer than that.

The day reached a point where we needed to get ready before the football. It was around that time when I realised I must have lost my meds. Most likely at the laser skirmish. Which required me going back to the doctor’s to get another prescription to get more amoxycillin. All that running around sucked. The ear infection sucked. And going to the football and being around tens of thousands of noisy supporters probably wasn’t the best thing for me. But we were attending an Eagles function. Dinner, decent seating, and the opportunity to meet the players afterwards. I can’t just turn that sort of opportunity down. But the game was pretty tragic. And meeting the players afterwards was awkward. Crammed in a room with other supporters, hot and stuffy and noisy and pushing forward for an autograph. I felt really out of place. I’m not a fully fledged dedicated one-eyed Eagles supporter. I don’t know the names of some of the players. I can’t recognise quite a lot of them without their numbers on. I’m a writer. Quiet and shy. Talking to football players about football is just not who I am. I got my signatures and moved on.

Saturday was our last night in Melbourne, and we had another early start to fly into Sydney the next morning.

In Sydney, I stayed at the TraveLodge with my mum and dad, while my brother stayed with a friend. This hotel was much better. For starters, there was a lot more space in the rooms. The showers were infinitely better. And I had a room to myself. Space to spread out and relax and sleep and cough without disturbing my parents.

Sunday afternoon we went to the Sydney/Fremantle football game. My brother’s the only die-hard Freo supporter but we were in with the cheer squad and I had the guernsey on and made a real afternoon of it. Although I must admit, the SCG isn’t nearly as good a stadium as Etihad or the MCG. It’s better than Subiaco, but I suppose football isn’t exactly the happening sport in NSW, and the intensity of being at the game just isn’t the same.

Dinner at a place around the corner from the hotel. The Crown hotel/bar/restaurant. Pub meal parmigiana. Cheap. Tasty. Filling.

That night in my hotel room I watched some cartoons. There were a couple of episodes of an anime called Vampire Knight that I’ve been seeing the anime and manga around a fair bit lately. Aside from going along with the recent vampire trend, it didn’t seem too bad. Then there was the run of Family Guy/Cleveland Show/American Dad on the other channel. I read through some of my manga (I’m pretty sure I was on Battle Royale at that point) and George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Game of Thrones’, which I’ve also been seeing everywhere lately, with the new book in the series coming out recently and the TV series coming out on foxtel over here.

Breakfast in the city on Monday morning and then going around on the monorail being shoppers and tourists.

The Powerhouse Museum killed off a few hours and killed off the battery on my camera. Inspiration for my writing. I didn’t do much writing on the trip. Just a crappy flash fiction about a cellophane girl and a balloon salesman and an idea about a man with a monster under his bed named Jeff. The inspiration at the museum was all sci-fi and steam engines and spaceships and shit. I’m going to attempt to write a good portion of ‘Once Upon A Time On Mars’ for uni this semester (I think 6-8,000 words is the assignment requirements), which is a retro-futuristic steampunk space western bizarro thing. It was good to get photos of old engines and spacecraft and robots and a mock-up Martian landscape. It’s got me excited to get writing again. I’m back at uni again, so I don’t have a huge amount of time to sit around twiddling my thumbs over this story.

We had lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe in the Darling Harbour area. It had only been open for eight days, so… lucky us. They were fully decked out with rock memorabilia, artwork, and rock music/videos playing around the place. And while we were there, my brother pointed out one video in which the guitarist had a double guitar. Then my mum pointed out how many strings were on the top guitar. 12. And she also pointed out how outrageous his hair was. Of course, I knew from the opening riff that the band was Coheed and Cambria and the song was Welcome Home.

They’re somewhat a guilty pleasure of mine. I go through phases. Sometimes I love the music. Sometimes I just can’t get into it. They’re big on theatrics. Apparently their discography is a sort of concept-album series plotting out an epic story between two characters, Coheed and Cambria. And I think there are books or comics to go with their music, but I’ve never been that big of a fan. But the music is pretty good, they’ve got some good riffs, some good solos. I’m not a fan of the vocals though. Sometimes I like them, sometimes I don’t. Welcome Home is good for getting the blood pumping though.

Anyway, that night we went to Market City, I think it was. Mostly clothes shopping which was out near the Powerhouse Museum. I got a shirt with a monkey holding a water pistol on it and another one of a riot policeman being attacked by bright paint spatters.

We had dinner at a place across the road from the Crown, called Curve. It felt like it was one of those places that was trying to be trendy and elegant and pricey but for more than the cost of the last night’s parmigiana I got five prawns. Slow service for a night where there were maybe three or four other customers when we were there, and they were cleaning out the coffee machine when we wanted it. Just a little disappointing. It may seem a little nitpicky in hindsight, but standards in hospitality can be quite inconsistent, even just across the road.

The travelling pharmacy: A holiday story

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Part 3: The places in between good food

Thursday night we went to Lygon street. The Italian restaurant strip. We had a few drinks at the University Hotel bar to get out of the cold. We had dinner at an Italian seafood restaurant called Il Gambero. Here, I had probably one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten. If you’re staying in Melbourne and going to Lygon street for dinner, you might want to take that into consideration. And I’ve eaten a few pizzas in my time. It was comparable to the best pizzas I’ve had in Perth, which were at the Lago di Como, if you’re wondering.

At this point, I was still trying to control my persistent cold and my ears weren’t letting up from Wednesday’s flights.

Friday was more shopping. Queen Victoria Markets. Lots of cheap shit. More beneficial if you live in Melbourne and you’re going there for fresh produce. At the markets I bought one CD. The Watchmen Soundtrack, for $11 at a place called the Music Jungle. Small store, but it’s got lots of quirky music. If I had managed to go to Polyester books, there would have been a good chance I would have checked out a few of the music stores around that area. Brunswick street in Fitzroy. Not too far from the city. I remember going to a second hand music store last time I was in Melbourne and finding some great cheap music.

I got the Watchmen soundtrack because I love the Watchmen. The film, the graphic novel, I love the moral ambiguity and conflicting interests. I got the original score soundtrack, and I think there’s another album which is the songs used in the film. I wouldn’t mind getting that one too at some point. I haven’t had a good listen to the soundtrack yet, just like I’ve got the tales of the black freighter film sitting around waiting to be watched, but it’s all part of the Watchmen experience.

I also bought Incubus’ new album from JB Hi-Fi in the city. I’m an Incubus fan and their album Morning View is one of my favourite albums. I haven’t listened to an Incubus album quite as good as that one. Again, I’m yet to give their new album a proper listen, but if it’s like their other albums, it should at least go somewhere interesting.

From there we went into Richmond for some shopping. Caught the tram. Didn’t really find much.

Went to a pharmacy in the city and picked up some Neurofen. They said I’d need prescription meds to sort my ears out. They also said getting on a plane without sorting my ears out could do permanent damage. I’d rather that weren’t the case.

Went to the Crown casino for dinner. Went to an Italian restaurant called Cervo. Had a brilliant spaghetti carbonara. My dad and brother decided to stay and gamble. I went back to the hotel with my mum to rest up. We were planning on seeing a doctor about my ears in the morning. Caught the free city tram about half way home before it finished for the night. Wandered through the city. Came across an independent book shop called the Paperback. It was kind of like what Polyester would be without all the cult/sex/fetish books. Small and cramped and filled with indie/literary/poetry/underground books. Kind of like Crow books here in Perth, except there was no graphic novel/manga section in the Paperback. There, I bought T.S. Eliot’s collected poems 1909-1962, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Michel Foucault’s The Spectacle of the Manifold. I haven’t read/started reading any of them yet. But it was a good small bookshop.

Melbourne by Night