Saturday, August 23, 2014

that we tend to edit our public persona

Authors don't tend to talk about all the rigorous editing that goes into each of our books. I'm always happy with the final product when editors and publishers agree, 'That's good enough.' I throw those ratty old dog-eared, scribbled over, crossed-out, commented on early drafts away. People aren't ever supposed to know about the paragraphs which got deleted because they are redundant, or the extra pages added to supply what the story was initially lacking. They don't realise that the first chapter may have been written later, and what I used to call the start is now found almost a quarter through Chapter Three. Nor do they know that a scene of dialogue has been so changed, that none of the characters say any of the things they originally said, yet it comes across more spontaneous and off-the-cuff than ever. I never mention all the Word documents I've deleted with names such as More track changes for Best Forgotten, Imogen's Chance fifth edit, or A Design of Gold final, final draft. I'm pleased to offer each novel to the public as if the polished version is what I came up with in the first place. It's a big illusion which I think crops up in most areas of life, time and again.

We've probably all been warned about the discouragement we may face when we believe the polished, picture-perfect lives our friends present on social media trump our own messy reality with its irritations and disappointments. But then we do the same impression management, knowing there are some things we would never share. (Well, sometimes people share theirs anyway, and then we cringe for them and maybe even pretend not to see those posts on our news feed.) But in general, we may try to edit our on-line persona as much as I edit my novels. Facebook  is probably a pretty apt name.

In general, we are brought up to believe that looking our best in front of other people is our social obligation. Sometimes people's masks are torn off, making us gasp at what was concealed. It turned out the young man who took the accountant's job at the Stirling Hospital after my husband quit spent his couple of years there embezzling money from the till, and almost got away with it. His story made it into the newspaper. And recently, Australian celebrity, Rolf Harris, had his title changed from 'children's entertainer' to 'paedophile.' Although most of us don't have such huge, devastating secrets, we'd probably all hate the prospect of having the content of our minds visible for others to see.

This all begs the question I come across from time to time. 'Who are you when nobody is looking?'

In his book, 'Soul Keeping', John Ortberg makes the point that many of us indulge in sneaky, dishonest behaviour when we believe we can get away with it. He cites a study which showed that a significant number of 'family deaths' tend to happen when students have major essays due. Requests for compassionate extensions tend to be made close to the deadlines, and often the deceased person turns out to be 'Grandma.' Ortberg gives senior readers the tongue-in-cheek warning that their longevity may not correlate with their cholesterol or fitness levels, but with whether or not they have grandchildren studying at University whose major assignments are due.

Do we really try to get away with shonky behaviour when we're sure we won't be found out? I'd just finished reading 'Soul Keeping' when my daughter mentioned something interesting. Emma works at the local fish and chip shop. She said that whenever she clears money from the automatic hot drink machine, she finds all sorts of foreign coins. It takes no great insight to figure out why customers decide to use these in the slot machines rather than paying over the counter with them. When I told Emma what I'd read, she said, 'It doesn't matter, because we keep the foreign coins in a little box for the staff to use when we want a hot drink.'

How about me personally? Well, something happened last week, which I'm tempted not to admit, but here goes. My youngest son and I were about to start a bushwalk, and I'd intended to park in a bus exchange car park, because it was right near the path we wanted to walk. We arrived to find one car park left, near a sign telling us, 'This car park is for travelers on public transport only.' All sorts of thoughts passed through my mind. Nobody else seemed to be there, wanting that park. It was already early afternoon, and most serious commuters probably used it in the morning. There were no other parks nearby and it wouldn't be convenient to have to add miles more onto the long walk we'd planned already. I knew we should have left, but I shrugged and joked to Blake, 'That covers us. We travel on public transport sometimes.' I know, I know, what a bad example for my young son.

So what do we take away from all this? I think it's always wise to remember that no matter how polished and good our friends and acquaintances may appear, not to automatically jump to the conclusion that this is their full story. It is their polished persona and they are not necessarily much different than we are. It may help to think, I've probably missed all the editing which has gone into this impression, but wow, they're doing it good. Yet at the same time, I took to heart John Ortberg's point that little dishonesties, indulged in over time, rub the shining edge off our souls and hurt ourselves. Fair enough. Just because we can get away with something without putting our public selves in a bad light, doesn't mean we should. No more using unentitled carparks for us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

That we are the essence of where we come from

I live in Australia, which as many know, tends to be an obscure country when it comes to the media. Lots of celebrities in the arts have moved overseas to try to 'make it' in places where they believe more is happening. When you look at Australia's situation at the bottom of the globe, it's easy to understand why this may be so. It takes a glance at the whole picture to show how far removed from the rest of the world we are. (Apart from our Oceanic neighbours, such as New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, who share our plight.) It's all very well to say we're surrounded by ocean on either side, but words alone don't paint an adequate picture of just how much Pacific Ocean there is to our east, and Indian Ocean to our west.

Okay, having established that, I remember an interesting message my pastor once gave, about how our position in the world is basically an arbitrary choice made by the world's map makers throughout history. Our planet is out in space, so it could have just as easily been flipped upside down in our Atlas, which would put Australia high in the north. It wasn't done that way though. We are far south in everyone's minds, which has connotations of being 'down there'. We have deserts, kangaroos and blokes slouching around in tank tops and thongs. That's us, in the world's eyes.

So having established that, my state, South Australia, is probably one of the most obscure states in an obscure country. This hit me hard once when I was part of a group of Aussie Christian authors who were talking live online to several American readers. We asked where they would like to go if they were able to visit Australia. The answers, although not surprising, were overwhelming.

'I'd like to see the beautiful eastern coast... Sydney and the Harbour Bridge... the Gold Coast with all the theme parks... it would have to be the Queensland tropics with the Great Barrier Reef... Ayers Rock. How beautiful... I've heard that Tasmania is lovely, with all its produce.' South Australia was mentioned just once, and that was by a lady who had relatives living in Adelaide, who had told her how beautiful it is.

Once I acknowledged that I'm living in the most overlooked state of the most overlooked country, other things began to slot into place. I remember asking my dad, 'Why didn't your father ever become more famous?' He had such a successful boxing career that he'd been asked to retire, to let younger men have a fair go. Yet if you search for my grandfather on the internet, hardly anything comes up. 'Why isn't Red Mitchell's name as widely recognised as Les Darcy's,' I asked.

I took Dad's answer on board without a thought at the time.

'He was only South Australian.' That said it all.

I finally got it when people started suggesting that I might want to change the settings in my books. 'They won't get anywhere if you keep using South Australia. You should make it Sydney. At least the rest of the world has heard of it.'

I don't know about that though. It might not be wise because I'm a South Aussie girl all through. The blood of several generations of others flows through my veins. Some were Germans who wanted to flee religious persecution in their own country, and others were Brits who wanted a brand new start away from the mid-nineteenth century poverty they'd struggled with. They all became South Australians. Although I'm not one of those people who couldn't possibly live anywhere else (such as Emily Bronte and her Yorkshire moors or Heidi with her Swiss Alps), I'm so familiar with my home that the South Aussie authenticity can't help slipping accidentally into my stories. It probably wouldn't work if I tried to adopt another setting.

I use words such as 'Fritz' and 'Fruchocs' assuming that everybody will know what I'm eating. I use long R sounds, pronouncing 'castle' as 'carsel' instead of 'cassel', and 'graph' as 'grarf' instead of 'graf.' I know all about Beehive Corner, the Silver Balls of the Rundle Mall, and the State Bank Christmas pageant without having to research these things. I've always thought of using my own environment for my novels as putting my stamping ground on people's radars. My South Aussie settings have been my trademark, not because I'm doggedly stubborn, but because I'm not sure I could easily change if I tried.

I'm not really sure I'd even want to sacrifice my setting, as it really is a beautiful corner of the world. South Australia has four very distinct seasons. If you were to see a photo of my Adelaide Hills, you'd be able to tell whether it was summer, winter, autumn or spring. When we speak about going to the beach, we're often talking about safe, warm gulf waters which have lost the Southern Ocean chill. It's been a pretty good home for me. At the moment, even though it is the most obscure place in the most obscure place, I tend to think I'll probably keep using it for the time being at least. I'll finish up with this photo, taken in Adelaide last week, of me with the statue of Catherine Helen Spence, a very illustrious South Australian lady who became an author, journalist, politician and well-known suffragist, all from the obscure spot of South Australia. She bloomed where she was planted, and so can we.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

to cut ourselves far more slack

We all know this big man's lowest moment. It's recorded for us. Peter denied knowing Jesus or having anything to do with him, not once but three times. After being so certain in his own mind that he would never desert his master and best friend, it just happened impulsively as a self-protection instinct set in. It was never something Peter intended to do at all.

At least he went further than his fellow apostles, who didn't even join him around the fire at the high priest's court, but that was no comfort to Peter. He was a big, tough fisherman and his first accuser was a lowly servant girl, who merely said, 'This man was with him.' Two other people said the same thing, and each time Peter's knee-jerk reaction was the same. 'No, I wasn't. I've never seen him before. I don't know what you're talking about.'

It was straight after his third denial when the rooster crowed, just as Jesus said it would, and Jesus turned to look at Peter. The Bible often shows that things which may appear random and coincidental are, in fact, anticipated and woven into the fabric of a person's life. This was one of the most gut-wrenching moments for Peter, as he was brought, face-to-face with his own darker side, which he didn't even know existed. There was nothing he could do at that moment but hurry off, horrified and remorseful, to weep bitterly.

Later, we see the loving way in which the Resurrected Jesus addressed him on the beach. Jesus understands the true nature of a person's heart, and he gave Peter three chances to say, 'I love you, Lord,' to counterbalance those three, unfortunate, impulsive denials. You would think that might be it. Peter has learned his lesson. He becomes a head of the new church and is known by all as Peter the Rock, rather than Simon the Fisherman.

It isn't all. Years later, he's at the end of another rebuke, this time from the apostle Paul, who hadn't been around for near as long as Peter. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explains that he opposed Peter to his face. It seems that Peter had been enjoying the company of several new Gentile believers, freely joining them to eat at the same table. When a delegation of Jewish believers was sent from James in Jerusalem, Peter withdrew from joining the Gentiles, evidently concerned about the impression he wanted to make on the Jews.

It would seem that Peter accepted this rebuke, although I'm sure he could tried justifying his actions by saying, 'It was just to begin with while I got them to understand,' or something like that. But this new knee-jerk reaction makes his real motivation evident again. It would seem that impression management and care about what people thought of him struck again. Although many of us would agree that we probably need to watch the basic weaknesses we're born with, it's astounding when you consider who this man was. Maybe I wouldn't have expected it from him, at this stage.

Peter was the guy who was always full of confidence. He had thousands of converts at his first sermon. He was rescued from prison by the spectacular arrival of an angel from heaven. He'd received some amazing revelations, including a radical one about acceptable food, which led him to understand God's true heart for the whole human race, including the Gentiles. He'd been God's instrument of several healing miracles, to the point that people put their ill friends in a position that Peter's shadow could touch them passing. No, I wouldn't have thought Peter would be the one to fall prone to such insecurity and shallow considerations any more. But we're told that he still did.

In the light of this, I'm wondering if we should cut ourselves, and our friends and relatives, far more slack than we do. We may be quick to say, 'How could my brother have done that same silly thing again?' or 'I thought I had more sense by now! I'm a moron.' But why should we expect more from ourselves than even Peter could deliver? Of course we're being made new every day, but it's a lifetime process and we are human. Instead of blaming ourselves when the same old thing crops up again, and taking it as proof that we were never any good to start with, it may be more helpful to remember that it also happened to somebody far more illustrious than us.

I'll aim to remember this in my parenting, my friendship, my writing, and also try to remember to extend the same grace to others. 

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