Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Long Route: A Manifesto for the Late-Blooming Writer

This piece first appeared in The Emerging Writer, a collection of essays on writing published in conjunction with The Emerging Writers’ Festival.

Patience, they say, is a virtue. For writers it’s a way of life. Ideas, inspiration and the right words can’t be forced, just facilitated. Sometimes the same goes for your writing career.

Some of us take a little longer than we’d like, going through our 20s, maybe 30s and beyond, unsure just what it is we want to do with our love of words, including whether or not to actually turn it from  a hobby into a money-earner.

Some of us take the long route, with inevitable detours; maybe doing a couple of degrees and hopping around the many jobs that involve words before figuring it out. That’s ok – indeed, it’s necessary.

The beauty of writing is that it can be informed by any and all experiences. Along the way you’ll also pick up a range of skills you missed or weren’t taught at university. I also believe we all benefit from having writers entering the fray at different points of their lives.

Just as we want a diverse group of members of parliament (pardon the comparison) so too should writers – the people who create, translate and explore thoughts and ideas – be a diverse group, with a wide range of experiences and perspectives.

After a decade or more of figuring out what I want to be when I grow up and how – or, indeed, if – I can earn a living from my lifelong love of words, I’ve only in the last year or so properly thrown myself back into writing. It hasn’t been a lost decade of aimless wandering along streets with no names, but of learning and discovery.

There’s nothing wrong with taking this road to establishing what it is you want to do with your writing. It’s precisely how some develop their voice and identity as writers.

Of course, I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so I got the thoughts of a few Melbourne-based writers who have had a similar journey, on how they feel it has shaped their writing, whether they have regrets and their feelings on the topical issue of writing for free.

John Weldon was 32 when he first thought seriously about being a writer. He says he “woke up one morning and knew that if I was ever going to be a writer I had to start that day, or it would never happen … so I quit my job and started.”Now he is a freelance writer, author, coordinator of <i>Meanland</i> and teacher of Professional and Creative Writing at Victoria University.

Musician, novelist and blogger, Benjamin Grant Mitchell has spent his whole adult life in the arts in some form, whether playing in bands or acting, but it was not until after seven years of playing gigs and promoting music in London that he getting stuck into his first novel, and in 2012 released his second.

Melanie Joosten published her first book in 2012 after spending her 20s travelling, studying both creative arts and editing, and working in marketing and communications at a publishing firm and in the arts industry. Despite being a published author, with an Australian Council New Work grant to draft her second novel, she doesn’t consider herself a professional writer. Interestingly, Melanie’s most recent course was social work, and she has started working three days a week working at the National Ageing Research Institute with older people who are experiencing depression.

All three always have had a lifelong passion for writing but agreed that their writing capability has been enhanced by the experience of not promptly answering their calling. Ah, vindication!

John says that at 32 he felt far more comfortable cold calling people, “which you’ve got to do as a freelancer. I couldn’t have done that when I was young, but I was able to do it at 32 and it led me to scoring some great jobs very early in my writing career.”

Benjamin sometimes wishes he’d had “the self-confidence to commit to writing earlier … but I also accept that was not my path. I do feel the life-experience, including knowing what it is like to not feel ‘entitled’ to a certain career or even job-title, is invaluable. Gotta live, man.”

Melanie was the only one who expressed any real regret, but not in the way you might assume.

“I don’t wish I’d pursued writing earlier,” she admits, “if anything, I wish I pursued social work earlier. I like having a completely different occupation to balance out my writing. Otherwise I risk becoming too inward looking and not engaging in the world.”

This fascinating insight is probably most pertinent for fiction writers, but undoubtedly relevant to all of us who engage in this often lonely endeavour.

Each felt that establishing themselves later gave them a greater appreciation of the great privilege it is to be a writer.

Personally, I relate somewhat to each of these sentiments.

I enjoyed writing more than anything else at school but was somewhat directionless when it came time to choose my own path so, naturally, I did an Arts Degree. I was well aware of how few people make money as creative writers in their 20s, and how depressingly competitive the graduate journalism job market is. I’m trying hard not to use the word ‘regret’, but I do look back and realise I should have engaged with like-minded people and in activities outside of class much more than I did (i.e. at all), but I was horribly introverted and insecure.

Communications seemed like a sensible compromise in study and early career, allowing me to build valuable skills as well as maintaining just enough of a professional relationship with my words. In my first real job, working with the website for a major accounting organisation, I learnt far more in ten months about online communication than I had in four years of university. The next position, a communications role in local government, exposed me to issues from town planning and urban design to conservation and sustainability. I had the opportunities to write and edit a variety of content, but just enough avoid rust. Yet I had no connection with the outside writing world. Other than entering a couple of short story competitions, writing for enjoyment and expression was limited to irregularly journal entries and regular Facebook updates.

I wish I could say, like John, I woke up one day and threw everything I had at my dream. Sadly, I was too caught up in self-doubt and uncertainty. Coming to the end of my 20s, I was seriously considering my direction, but the catalyst came in the most clich├ęd form – romantic interest. Indeed, a young lady saw the enthusiasm for writing that I’d subconsciously hidden away, believed in my ability more than I did and inspired me to take a few important steps. Before she sauntered out of my life she insisted I do two things – blog and tweet. Despite doubting my ability to write interesting blog posts and my general derision for Twitter, I got stuck into both.

It is unlikely I need extol the virtues of either of platform to most readers of this book, but if you’re not doing either and you’re somewhere along that path trying to find your way, get online now. Blogging allowed me to rediscover my creativity, expression and enthusiasm for writing, and on Twitter I have discovered a whole new community of like-minded people, including many writers, to interact and network with on various levels.

Soon enough I had the opportunity to take on a role as a volunteer writer – and later, editor – with a human rights website, which, in turn gave me a reference point to secure some freelance online writing work. Both opportunities came via people I knew, but only because I’d started putting myself out there and showing people – by doing it – that I was enthusiastic about, and capable of, writing well.

All of this writing still takes place outside my day job, but I suppose I’m making up for some of those missed opportunities at university. Also, I feel better placed to tackle the challenges of making money out of writing than I was two, five or ten years ago.

All the standard advice for aspiring writers (including myself) of any age applies – write, read, write more, blog, tweet, engage with fellow writers and other interesting people, go to events and festivals, and so forth.

Benjamin Mitchell: “The more you write, the clearer your voice becomes … Along the way you will imitate, placate and churn through a seemingly never ending manifestation of externally applied, internally exorcised pretentious demons, and only if you write enough will you have any chance of getting to the truth of who you are as a writer and what you really have to say.”

Your voice may take a while to find. It is much more than learning about words and prose, sentence structure, form, style and rules. But what is this abstract notion of ‘voice’ people keep banging on about?

To my mind, writing is translation. English (for most of us) is a second language. Our natural, instinctive language is the one we’re born with: unstructured thoughts, feelings and senses – and every person on the planet has their own, unique internal dialect.

Finding your voice, to me, is about mastering that translation of neurons as they fire between synapses, somehow using words to make sense of them and hopefully communicating something close to the idea, feeling or picture in your head.

Finding your voice, exploring your interests, and deciding what kind of writer you want to be can take time.

The long route is neither a journey of procrastination nor merely a waiting game. It is a legitimate path for writers, but you still need to keep moving and keep building towards that dream. Keep writing, but also get out there and do things to stimulate those neurons.

Like any trip, it is as much about the journey as the destination. And writing is probably always going to be a journey – a story in itself – even once you feel like you’ve arrived.

See you on the road.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 and Hollywood Violence

Review written for Right Now, 11 September 2013


Violence has become as synonymous with Hollywood films as popcorn.
As problematic as that may be, to argue that it has no place on screen, or is inherently bad and negatively influential would be wrong; many films have used, even required, the depiction of violence to deal with difficult and important questions about violence and aggression in our culture. The stomach-turning brutality of American History X cannot be judged alongside the mindless, testosterone-fuelled violence of Crank.
Part of the premise of 2010’s Kick-Ass was to shock and provoke, challenging the audience’s very responses as they laughed (or didn’t) at absurd and unsettling scenes. Co-writer and director Matthew Vaughn cleverly managed his material, based on the comic book by Mark Millar.
Vaughn constructed a framework for the film – based on a compelling plot, interesting themes, well-developed characters and witty dialogue – that provided a place for the violence to exist within the context of a unique and almost unsettlingly enjoyable film. It seemed ridiculously feasible in this world that a loving father would train his sweet 13-year old daughter to be a cold-hearted killer.
The sequel … succeeds only in offering a stark contrast between the two films, and a study in how excessive and absurd violence can turn a bad film into an uncomfortable one.
Though walking a fine line, Kick-Ass didn’t glorify the actions of the protagonists – it was possible to enjoy the film without enjoying the acts of violence per se.
Kick-Ass 2, however, feels like a film based on the hype of the first, rather than a decent idea. And much of that hype centred on the edgy use of violence and language.
The story picks up a couple of years after the first, though little has happened. Mindy/Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) is juggling the burden of secret crime-fighting while pretending to live a normal life under the care of guardian Marcus; Dave/Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is itching to get serious about life as a vigilante and find comrades; and Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) remains patiently desperate to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Kick-Ass.
The sequel is again based on Millar’s comics, but this time written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, who succeeds only in offering a stark contrast between the two films, and a study in how excessive and absurd violence can turn a bad film into an uncomfortable one.
It was perhaps this realisation that caused Jim Carrey, a vocal gun control advocate, to distance himself from the film.
“I did Kickass [sic] a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence,” he tweeted in June. “My apologies to others involved with the film. I am not ashamed of it but recent events have caused a change in my heart.”
Carrey had obviously read the script, and loved the first film, according to Millar.  Though given his role is not a major one – and possibly the most admirable and interesting – his view may have changed upon seeing the final product in full.
Many people are killed off – or ‘murdered’ – in such ridiculous ways it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to be shocking or funny and usually winds up being neither. Yet, as outrageous as the film adaption tries to be, it actually toned down some of Millar’s comic book brutality. One scene that lingers uneasily does so because of how Wadlow avoided a violent act in the comic.
While he rightly deemed a gang-rape scene inappropriate for the film, rather than remove the entirely unnecessary act he turns it into a schoolboy joke. The main antagonist becomes the butt of the joke as he awkwardly tries to ‘get himself in the mood’, but when the camera flicks back to his chuckling henchmen, the helpless victim they are holding down becomes essentially invisible as the audience is encouraged to laugh along with the would-be agressors.
With neither wit nor anything of consequence to say, Kick-Ass 2 fails because it relies too heavily on the comic book violence itself to entertain.
Some may see this as an innocent joke, but the somewhat disturbing approach speaks to the broader attitude of the film towards violence – sexual, verbal or physical.
There are brief moments of self-awareness and reflection: a hospitalised vigilante wonders why, if all they were trying to do was make the world a better place, has it become worse; Mindy agonises over which way to take her life; the loss of someone close to Dave causes an extraordinarily brief mourning period.
Responding to Carrey’s statements, Moretz said recently that: “If you are that easily swayed, you might see The Silence of the Lambs and think you are a serial killer.”
It’s logic that doesn’t quite follow, but is excusable from a 16-year old. Like the film itself, it confuses the point. With neither wit nor anything of consequence to say, Kick-Ass 2 fails because it relies too heavily on the comic book violence itself to entertain. That such a formula is financially successful in Hollywood is unsettling and worthy of discussion into what it means culturally.
Sure, it’s a long bow to suggest Kick-Ass 2 would actually encourage anyone to walk the streets in scuba gear, become a vigilante, or even hurt someone, but it is worth asking what the commercial success and proliferation of such films in popular culture says about our attitude to violence. Is it an indictment on our acceptance of the depiction of violence; are those of those who wonder such things just prudish snobs; or is it just a bad film that missed the mark?
The answer is hopefully that violence isn’t entertaining; skilful filmmaking is.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The liberation of disliking both potential Prime Ministers


About a month ago I promised to not mention Kevin Rudd on Twitter again until the election. I was tired the distracting instability talk he was driving, and tired of him. There were bigger issues to discuss, and I was sick of the circular conversation, the countless hours of QandA and column inches that could have been used to enlighten us on something, anything of substance.
 
It became too much last week, and I gave in. If he could (at long last, openly) go back on his promise to not only never lead the ALP under any circumstances but stand in the way of anyone who threatened Julia Gillard’s, I could break mine.

Even the biggest policy-wonk gets caught up in the personality of politics. Leadership instability was not made up by the press gallery, but they fuelled it. And while commentators like Philip Coorey and Mike Carlton gloated about the fact it was now playing out, I think we’re all the poorer for what has become the focus of politics while some pretty important pieces of legislation – some very good, some very bad – were debated and people like Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott earned relatively little widespread respect for consistently talking about things that matter and attempting to raise the level of public discourse in a genuine, down-to-earth manner. 



Many members of the ALP decided that the end goal of politics is winning elections rather than leading the nation. Sure, you can’t change anything in opposition, but if you won’t effectively lead people in the direction you believe to be right, then what’s the point in even being there?

They chose someone who with a poor record of to managing government and major policy, and who has spent three years sabotaging the party, but who is inconceivably popular. He could very well have used this popularity to help the party if he supported the former Prime Minister as much as he often claimed to, or he could have helped by leaving the place with dignity if he couldn’t find it within himself to put the events of 2010 behind him. What values have the the ALP reinforced by rewarding his behaviour and playing along with the polls they tell us don’t count?

Leaders change in our system, and we do not – despite Kevin Rudd’s own statement upon restoration to the role that the people voted for him in 2007 – elect the Prime Minister. Julia Gillard’s move into the role was not ideal, but at least occurred largely in an effort to improve the management of government.

It already seems Kevin Rudd has lifted the party’s popularity and I’ll give him this: he is good at engaging on a superficial level, which is where most of the Australian political discourse takes place. But that’s what I’d like to change.

Personalities always have and always will matter. They should to some extent, although it's getting out of control now. We want to see someone who reflects our values and can lead. Neither leader of the major parties much demonstrates values or personality traits I admire.

So here’s the silver lining. Having reason to dislike the approach of both leaders takes the personality aspect out of it for me to a large extent, leaving me feeling freer to think and talk critically about their policies.

One of the two will form government and, overall, the ALP policy platform will no doubt again suit my ideology better than the Coalition’s. But I am not going to be ‘getting behind the team’ to keep Tony out. The two men are as bad as each other as far as I can tell, so it’s a good opportunity to forget about which one I like more and focus on what they plan to do.

We deserve better than both of them, and both the parties they lead. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Takin' a break

I'm taking a break from this blog, and spending more time on writing for publications.

Check out www.samryan.com.au/portfolio for all that stuff. I'll be back with something personal soon enough.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Anxious and grateful

General Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, depression: I wouldn’t wish them on anyone, yet they have shaped considerably the person I am – someone I am generally relatively happy with, even kinda proud of. So it’s difficult to say I don’t appreciate being born with a little faulty wiring and, more so, what I’ve learned through fixing it.

To be appreciative does seem somewhat dismissive, insulting even, to the many victims of mental illness and those who haven’t made it through yet; even to my past self. I’m only appreciative because I finally can be. I didn’t need to waste so many hours – accumulating to years – on unnecessary worry to reach this appreciation, but it is what it is.

Having depression forced me to work out how to be happy; crippling anxiety left me with no choice but to finally embrace uncertainty. I feel like I wound up more relaxed and happy than a lot of people out there in this chaotic world who have no underlying mental health issue. The fact I will probably always be somewhat vulnerable to anxiety helps me to not take it for granted too much.
Everyone feels some level of stress, doubt and anxiety sometimes. Most people don’t require intervention, but they’re no good for any of us. So perhaps those of us that have had to learn how to keep these things in check might actually be better placed to deal with the everyday crap that gets people down than the so-called ‘mentally healthy’! Hooray!

And is it just me, or do some of the best perspectives and lessons on life come from people who have had struggles with their mental health? Maybe it’s because they tend to be more comfortable (or at least familiar) with curiosity, sadness and uncertainty – all healthy and essential, in their appropriate form. Maybe I just relate to them more.
Yet, so often do these people tend to be deep and considerate thinkers that I am genuinely let down when someone who has come through depression or anxiety turns out to be a crap person. I’m generalising, but only because it’s generally true.

Occasionally I do wonder how much anxiety held me back, what I missed out on as a result or how my life might be different. How much more capable and knowledgeable would I be, how much more could I have absorbed, if I had paid attention to the people, words and world around me rather than the constant, disruptive pulse of anxious thought in my head; if my mind processed information rather than obsessive, worried thoughts?
It’s interesting to consider but pointless to lament. I’m more interested in how it still affects my thinking (changing thought processes can take a while, ok) and continuing my improvement.

Yes, I would have a lot of strong advice for my 10-27 year old self, but regrets and wishes are a waste of energy, and without the experience I’d have no advice to give on how to live a better life.
The most important thing I learned was to let go of unnecessary, unconstructive thoughts and feelings that hold you back. It’s not just good for dealing with the irrational fear of an anxious mind but a bunch of other stupid things like cynicism, hate, anger, frustration, restlessness, etc. So, having pretty much dealt with the irrational fears, I’m using my new skills to try and let go of those other things a little more – especially cynicism and restlessness (procrastination).

On Saturday I had a chat to one of my yoga instructors after class. I lamented the fact that I haven’t been able to get back into the routine of going to 6am classes for almost 12 months now.
“Just do it,” she said, inadvertently quoting that fantastic bastardised phrase.

And I know that I can.
The doubt I have about whether I will actually do it tomorrow, the uncomfortable feelings that will urge me to make the stay in bed another couple of hours, the discontent mind that tries to convince me it is not ready to face the day – all of these things mean nothing and will pass. I know that for a fact. It is a very basic example of what I have learned about how the mind works but it is, in short, why I’m grateful for my now-minimised anxiety.


Though I’ve been thinking about all this for a while, I must acknowledge partial inspiration by a post Anita Heiss published on her blog about being grateful for depression.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Hiking the Overland Track (getting back away)

Overland Track - Kitchen Hut
I spent six days hiking Tasmania's Overland Track to get away from it all. To stop the rush, to disengage, to "Tweetox".

On the second or third day I sat quietly in a small wooden hut with no electricity as wind and rain provided a gentle reminder of the relative comfort it offered when I saw a perspective shifting quote at the bottom of the hut's information board.

I don't remember it fully and can't find it through Google for the life of me (so I'm not sure it actually exists) but the essence was: "(in the wilderness) you are not getting away from it all, you are getting back to it."

It all depends on what it is to you I suppose.

The night before flying down to Launceston Damo sent me a text from Sydney reminding me to pack the essentials: tent, pegs, sleeping bag, food, etc. I was out enjoying Wilco at the time and put off packing until the morning. I may be a little disorganised at times, I may have missed check-in for my flight to Launceston by five minutes, but I'm not completely incompetent.

Besides, I only had one essential item and it was none of those things, which could be begged, borrowed, shared or stolen if the desperate need arose. I could not forget, nor lose, my Xanax and Pristiq (medication). I'm all to familiar with the special hell abrupt withdrawal from Xanax is for me, and how quickly it knocks me down. If I lost it I would call for the chopper. Seriously.

Overland Track - the team
The team, morning day two
But these were the basics and in the end I had it covered: food, shelter, warm and dry clothes, music, water, whiskey and human interaction. A waterproof jacket would have been handy, lining my pack with a waterproof bag would have been smart, doing some homework on the hike and not relying entirely on my three walking buddies would have been sensible.

But they all live in Sydney, so while they planned together I was in Melbourne doing stuff. I only met the other two when they arrived at Launceston airport; luckily the wilderness it's an easy place to lose people if you don't get along. Luckily they didn't do that to me.

I was in the middle of a discussion or two on Twitter on Good Friday when our charter bus entered the national park and reception dropped. And that was it, no social media or email for a week: would I be missed? No news: would Australia have a new Prime Minister when we emerged on the other side? No Google: how would we live without answers to the important questions that come up in conversation, like "Why are they called gators"?

The Overland Track is iconic among anyone half-interested in hiking. So much so it seems to be played down a little to counter its popularity and relative accessibility. I get the impression it's one of those things in the hiking community - tell a hiker you're doing the Overland Track and they might struggle to meet your enthusiasm, but say you've never done it and they'll be utterly aghast. Kind of like telling a music lover you just bought (or don't own) OK Computer.

I'd never camped more than 20 metres from a car or esky, let alone hiked, so should have really done (some) homework, but the others were well prepared.

Even some of those we encountered who seemed more experienced were caught out taking weather forecasts at their word, only to lament leaving behind that not-so-heavy second set of thermals when it snowed on Eastder Sunday. It was an Easter miracle that punished them for their paganistic faith in so-called "meteorology".

Overland Trak local
A knowledgeable, acclimatised local
What seemed to be a well-spoken yeti who crossed our path at Marion's Lookout told tales of waist-deep snow at Cradle Mountain last December. I heard of others who did the hike mid-winter in t-shirts. We were all fine, just. It may have been a different story without the ability to get clothes dry in the huts over night.

Inclement weather settled in and persisted through four of the six days but it did bring small graces. Every time the rain eased, stopped or - praise Gaia - the clouds let some sun through, I smiled a little and walked a little lighter.

Secondly, it was a camera deterrent - the one piece of technology left to capture distract from the stunning isolation and it's gift of space for quiet contemplation - allowing us to just walk and soak it up, literally.

It also prevented us from getting more than halfway up to the summit of Mount Ossa (the highest peak in Tasmania). It was too wet, cold and windy for the climb and the low visibility would make taking a camera up there rather pointless anyway.

The others were disappointed and I played along half-heartedly. I was beaten that day. The kilometres, kilograms and insufficient sleep conspired to overwhelm my body and mind. Feeling constantly dehydrated, I guzzled water from my camel pack like a camel. Even Easter eggs didn't lift my energy or mood.

And I was becoming a little cynical.

Honestly, I didn't care that we didn't reach the summit. On a clear day it would have been amazing to sit up there and look out over the world, I'm sure. But besides being absolutely buggered, I didn't see the need. Why are these things even named other than for people to say they've been there? Would we have tried at all if we couldn't take our cameras?

I felt at times as though we were on a mission to get to the next summit or waterfall just for the sake of it, expecting animal sightings as if it were a zoo, camera always at the ready to capture a moment never really lived. I took far too many photos - the curse of the digital camera and convenience anxiety - and have taken pleasure in posting and sharing some of them (including here), but it's just about getting the focus right ... so to speak.


Overland Track boardwalk
Sunshine!
The best thing about this hike, which the weather couldn't dampen and may have even enhanced, was the isolation, the removal from daily "convenience" distractions, the peacefulness, the time to think and quieten life down for a week. It was fantastic to cherish small luxuries like water and shelter and a pack of cards, forget stupid problems, forget myself and take in pure life without the toxic additives. To get back to it.

Astoundingly, I barely listened to music all week, though had a wide range of relevant songs constantly in my head, most commonly A Little Fall of Rain and Under the Boardwalk. Strange, given the days I forget to take my earphones to work are the most horrible of all days. I thought I needed music. I got away from needing it for distraction, back to appreciating it with a calm mind.

We felt as though maybe we cheated a little by not pitching the tents once, but the huts were a godsend; a great place to rest up and relax at the end of each day's hike and meet/catch up with fellow hikers. I even made a Facebook friend!

Once the natural light runs out though, there's little to do and after the sun goes down there's not much to do. So everyone was in bed soon after dark, around 8.30pm, everyone would be in bed, side by side on wide wooden-surfaced bunks. 

I can never lie still in bed for long, nor without my iPhone singing softly to me and tempting me with interesting discussions online, like a group of friends chatting in the next room. If I follow you on Twitter we go to bed together most nights. With just a self-inflating mat on a wooden board, sleeping bag and sleeping bag case stuffed with clothes for a pillow, and nothing to stir my "monkey mind", I found it easy to lie completely still for at least half an hour or so each night. Yet it wasn't until the last couple of nights that I achieved reasonable chunks of uninterrupted sleep.

My dreams were strangely vivid. One night I dreamed of all the things I missed most - I was at a gig with friends, drinking beers before heading into the footy where my family were saving me a seat. Mos nights something entirely random that was part of my dream would be spoken of or appear the next day, most notably the bottom-emptying bins hung on poles that I wasn't aware Hobart still has. The clean air had restored my oracle powers.

It is an amazing experience. If you do it, be prepared. People seem to talk about it being mostly boardwalk, which was only true of the first couple of days. The sales assistant who sold me my hiking boots said I could do it in my blundstones. He is a liar. Even the boardwalks get pretty slippery - I had the bruise on my arse to prove it.

It's gets much more interesting under foot after the first couple of days as you scramble up and over rocks, navigate webs of slippery tree roots, gracefully dance from tiny rock to tiny rock to avoid mud and water, and leap over large puddles. You can't afford to get ahead of yourself, I had the mud all over my pants to prove it.


I could slip over lying down though. On the last day I counted around 20 kicks, trips, slips or stumbles. When the terrain was more difficult and I concentrated on careful footwork I was fine, but when things eased up and I stopped concentrating I tended to be at greater risk. The problem was you tend to not be aware when you stop thinking about something because you're not thinking about it.

Narcissis Jetty sunrise
Narcissis Jetty sunrise
We spent the final morning sitting on the Narcissis Jetty contemplating the past six days and keeping an eye out for platypi, while mother nature put on a spectacular sunrise, as if to make it up to us for all the miserable weather along the way.

And then the little ferry came to take us away again.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Speed dating out of my comfort zone

I should have been more nervous. Maybe I'm getting better socially or at managing my silly nerves. Sometimes.

Still, I hate small talk; the obligation to fill silence is excruciating. I judge a friendship by the quality of the silences. That's why I don't start conversations with strangers in bars; it's why I don't like telephone conversations that last more than a minute; it's why I do like Twitter.

I saw Sam Pang say on Agony of Life last week that he doesn't understand people who find small talk hard, that there's nothing easier. I love you Sam Pang but you, sir, have no idea.

He's obviously never had that annoying experience social anxiety brings where the floor falls out in your head and everything disappears and suddenly there's a silence between you and the other person - and in your head - and you become completely self-aware other than the awareness of how they must be judging you and so you are obsessed with the fact you can't think of anything to say because all you can think about is the fact you can't think of anything to say. And then, hopefully, you breath, very deeply.

Yet I was surprisingly relaxed about the prospect of 15 or so five-minute sessions with strangers, one after the other, for over an hour. Maybe because I've done the Contiki and Busabout first-day 'Speed Meeting' thing and come out without significant embarrassment. Maybe because I'm comfortable - possibly too comfortable - being single. Maybe because I was just seeing it as a bit of fun, and an opportunity to stretch my comfort zone.

Pre-brief and arrival

My companions - my 'wingmen' I suppose - were The Pro and The Enthusiast. There names have been changed. I walked the city streets to our designated pre-brief meeting point with an air of nonchalance as Nick Cave's The Mercy Seat filled my ears, playing perfectly to a renewed attitude of indifference to fear.

I've got nothing left to lose, and I'm not afraid to die.

What's there to fear anyway? The judgement of strangers? Fuck them. I don't need their approval.

And I'm afraid I told a lie.

Not a born socialite, The Pro had made speed dating his home turf, his confident space, gaining cheap experience through a spate of free tickets offered to have him even out the numbers.

I found him in a secluded booth in the bar, nearing the end of his second pint after a difficult day at work, and bought us both a fresh one.

The Enthusiast arrived full of energy. Back in Melbourne after a few years in relative social seclusion overseas, it was largely his eagerness for adventure and willingness to try anything that had  brought us here. We ordered dinner and another round of beers and got down to business.

The Pro asked what our opening questions - our ice breakers - were. He was disappointed with the empty response. We didn't have any. No angle, no plan, no preparation. The Pro's own strategy had apparently included making sure he was in a different grouping to the two of us.

I'd considered preparing a question or questions, but decided it was too formulaic, too contrived.

The Enthusiast's never even entertained the thought. Imbued with a wild energy, he could make entertaining conversation with Silent Bob. His only intention was to avoid the easy, obvious and often tedious question: "So, what do you do?"

The Pro was anxious to get moving so we made our way to the venue, just in time to check in five minutes early, mingle and have three more drinks before the formalities got under way.

My first conversation was with a cute brunette: I asked for, and she served me, a beer. As we passively mingled, various people approached us and introduced themselves; none reducing the proportion of penises in the conversation from 100 per cent. Almost all were first timers (or so they said), seemingly a little nervous and gaining some confidence in the safety of the 'brodeo' before stepping into the fire.

"So what do you do?" they invariably asked.

"Professional speed dater," I joked, also uninterested in discussing my job that particular day.

"Tram driver" The Enthusiast replied with sharp conviction, taking advantage of a stranger's trust. "Ding ding!"

The Enthusiast left us behind and mingled enthusiastically, living up to the moniker I would later give him for a blog post he doesn't know I'm writing. The Pro earnestly scoped the room.

I didn't want them to leave me. I had to man up. I stayed and talked to the men. We were joined by a master; a confident, well-groomed man who was here on a cheap ticket to even up the numbers. He gave us wide-eyed proteges a few tips - he was just here "to drink and talk shit" - before heading off to talk to women, reminding us that this was what we paid $60 for. Ah, yes.

But suddenly it was time to date with speed.

And we're off!

Having just been handed a beer by The Enthusiast, who had held up proceedings by quickly visiting the bathroom and bar, I took my seat opposite my first date, with two beers. Easy now, these are both for me. "Hi, I'm Sam," I think I might have said.

The dates all flew by pretty quickly. Conversation was generally pretty easy. If anything I over-compensated for my introversion and found myself talking too much. I was often left finishing a sentence as I shifted across to start the next date, trying to awkwardly find the right time to make notes and tick "Yes" or "No". As The Enthusiast found out, with mistaken matches the next day, you do not leave it until the end.

We were advised to take notes. I tried pathetically early on ("Lisa - teacher"; "Kate - blonde"; "Felicity - pronounces it 'Carstle'") but soon gave up due to difficulty with the dim light and their unreliable pen, and because I was actually so 'in the moment' that I felt like I'd remember the conversations. In reality they were largely gone by the start of the next date. By the end I only remembered the names and conversation of the first and last few, and a couple of interesting moments in between - such one conversation about the fact I thankfully hadn't had to resort to discussing work with too many people, which was followed by a short silence and my nervous date asking "So, what do you do?". But I did remember her ...

People mingled some more afterwards, this time in a far less segregated fashion. The Pro, who had been unimpressed with his group, did manage to get the phone number of one of the girls The Enthusiast and I chatted to from our group at the bar. Part of his strategy perhaps.

Though I freely spoke to a range of people at this point in the night - and we stayed right until the end when it was just us and the hosts left - I'll admit I still didn't start my own conversations. While The Enthusiast talked to just about everyone, and The Pro honed his wobbly focus, I just spoke to whoever was around me - passive mingling. I do that.

This isn't how I'd choose to meet people; being placed in front of an arbitrary person to see if you have any attraction and common interest. That's why I like Twitter and all the amazing people I've found (and met) there. That's why I like going to yoga and the Wheeler Centre and Golden Plains and gigs and footy and whatever else - doing things that interest me where I'm surrounded by people with at least one common interest. Yeah I should engage more with strangers, but I socialise plenty, even if passively.

And I'm not gonna lie, it seems I fared okay. The email the next day said I "scored one of the highest number of 'yes' votes at any [name of company] events", though I suspect they flatter me, given I *only* got four matches.

And no, in my busy and overly-comfortable state, I couldn't really muster the energy to contact any of them. The Pro was outraged. They were all lovely people, but no-one really grabbed me enough (so to speak).

So yeah, it was fun and I'm glad I did it. But I won't pay to do it again. Unless offered a free ticket perhaps...