‘Tenth of December’ [book review]

Tenth of December Book Cover Tenth of December
George Saunders
Short story (contemporary)
Bloomsbury Publishing
3 January 2013

His writing leaves you feeling a bit like being flooded with emotions that you weren't aware you had, or had subconsciously chosen to repress. Reminds me of the free writing we did at school which has then been thoughtfully and sensitively knocked into shape to reveal an incredible insight into the workings of our minds and the frailty of human nature. His words open up sores and place us before self-criticism. No easy escape as you feel drawn to continue in spite of -- or perhaps, because of -- a tumble of intricate mental meanderings leading you to the end; an end which is never final, but just a brief breathing space for reflection in the repetitive toil of life.

My faith in the power of short stories has been restored.

Fog [haiku]

Foggy morn
shrouds sound in veil of silence
clothed in grey

Wait for me

Photograph by Janys Hyde

Wait there my boy, we must depart,
but I’ll soon be home, you’ll see.
Away he trooped with all the men
without glancing back at me.

They soon retreated from my view,
a bright patch in the distance.
How war affects the strongest man
had still not touched my conscience.

I was too young to even know
that they’d live in fields of mud,
amid the blast of massive guns
and the stench of death and blood.

But he did not keep his promise,
they say t’was not his fault.
There had been far too few of them
to make the final assault.

They finally recovered him,
when all the war was over;
a fallen hero at the end
amid red poppies and white clover.

Words & image by Janys Hyde

The Sign

High on the hill, time creeps by almost unnoticed, but for the cadence of the seasons. For the main part the idyllic isolation is undisturbed if not by the occasional strident call of a lamenting fox or the violent passage of an electric storm.

But last month changed all that.
The tall figure of an elderly man, balding head uncovered, dressed in a long black robe which flapped angrily around his legs, took to stomping back and forth across the hilltop several evenings a week. Cloaked by the mantle of darkness he closely inspected the few trees scattered along his way. Mumbling and grumbling to himself he fiddled restlessly with a rosary chattering in his right hand, stopping every now and again to launch a mild imprecation and gesticulating towards the heavens cry -‘Why don’t You do something? Give me a sign! This Mafia business has gone too far – it’s too much,’ but getting no response, he returned to his mumbling and nervous shuffling. Swish, swish, swish, chatter, swish, chatter.

As the days went by, the man concentrated his attention on one tree in particular – a gnarled and majestic oak with several low hanging branches. He circled it time and time again, kicking up clouds of dust as he went, his mumblings and imprecations alternating with greater frequency until one evening the pattern was interrupted.

He arrived carrying a length of rope and a folding stool tucked under his ample vestment. No longer mumbling, his rosary abandoned, he threw the rope over one of the lower branches of his chosen tree and tying one end securely to another branch nearby he then arranged the stool underneath. With quiet concentration he clambered up onto the stool, taking care to lift his long robe out of the way. His hands tested the strength of the noose at the loose end of the rope before slipping it over his head and tightening it snugly around his neck. Balancing himself, arms stretched out to his sides, he raised his eyes to the sky and shouted to the wind, ‘Per l’amor’ del cielo – give me a sign!’

Behind him, swaggering stealthily towards the lone tree was another figure of a man. A younger looking man wearing a dark flannel cap which almost hid his gleaming eyes and black curly hair. His teeth shone white in the darkness, his mouth set in a wide beam of indecipherable amusement. He rounded the tree and came close to look up directly into the face of the man teetering on top of the stool. Thumbs tucked into the welt pockets of his rough waistcoat he looked up to take in the scene. He began to laugh and with a single, deft movement, kicked the stool from under the robed man’s feet.


From the distance brilliant flashes were rolling in silently, tinting the night sky purple and orange, illuminating the surrounding hills and the silhouettes of the two men,. A single blinding flash followed immediately by a deafening crack, seared the oak and travelled at the speed of light down the gnarled trunk and into its immense underground network of embedded roots. They glowed eerily in the dark as the mighty force exploded into the surrounding earth.

Word count — 537
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Hang on a tick

Janys Hyde ScribblerIsn’t it strange how you can write all your life — and in my case that covers quite a few good years — and then suddenly, when you decide you want to make it all official and ‘come out’ — make it known publicly that you consider yourself a writer, you find that words fail you or no longer seem to make any sense. They seem to lose their worth and can no longer render your ideas in quite the same way as they have done for goodness knows how long. For years you have been perfectly capable of getting your meaning across to those you have had to address, be it friends, family or colleagues and even strangers — there has never been a breakdown in communication as a result of your incapacity. Instructions have been followed — copious exchanges have been made — words have been spent on the myriad subjects of quotidian exchanges — you have been given exactly the sort of response you had hoped your words would arouse. So what happened — what burst your writing balloon?

Well I suppose the problems really began when you took that decision to crawl out of the woodwork with the aim of writing meaningful stories. For some inexplicable reason you decided that the tools you had for writing were no longer sufficient. We’re not talking about those fundamental tools such as grammar, punctuation and spelling — they don’t count really because under normal circumstances, even a basic education will probably have ensured that they are an instinctive part of your writing process. And if they are not, perhaps it would have been wiser to concentrate on those to begin with rather than take on the burden of a fancy creative writing course.

We’ll take for granted your ability to write ‘correct’ English, so you started to look around to see what the market had to offer for so-called ‘creative’ writing — courses, books, workshops, master classes, private tuition, blogs, web sites — it’s all out there, not so much for the taking, but certainly for all tastes and pockets. And if you were not very careful, you could even have foolishly overlooked with what authority on the subject many of those who offer aforesaid facilities are doing so. Everyone seems to be hopping on the ‘Creative Writing Bandwagon’, though I do wonder how much ‘copying and pasting’ is going on to a greater or lesser degree!

Ok — so you chose something which seemed to fit the bill – you followed the introductory lessons, foundation module or opening pages, and suddenly you fell to pieces. And as if not knowing which end of your pen to use or how to type was not enough, you found yourself having to expose your puerile efforts to peer critique. And as we all know now, mainly in hindsight having suffered at the hands of at least one of these assholes, peer critique always involves at least one know-all who has ‘been there, done that’ and has all the answers. They are particularly vitriolic if there is a tutor to impress, gleefully lashing into you efforts and highlighting your ‘lacunae’ using highfalutin terms that even the tutor is hard-pressed to understand — (you can see that I picked up a few of them myself in that last sentence). What I have always found very curious however, is how these superior peers (the assholes I mean) rarely present any of their own work for ‘positive critique’ — how is that, I wonder?

So where does all this leave your confidence? Rock bottom is an understatement. And here is where your real problems begin, because not only do you have to deal with peer critique, you religiously wade through the whole course, or the whole book, or sign up to one or more of the online workshops, and ‘like’ all the blogs and social media pages — and in most cases, you will have done all of those things and a lot more. You start to take notice of all the suggestions for publishers and how to get your book out there — stuff normally found in the last chapter of the book, or final module in the course — only to discover that many publishers will be looking for letters after your name — for writers with fancy degrees — and/or they will be wanting a copy of your list of published works. You start to carefully read all the profiles existing ‘writers’ have created for themselves to see how they got away with it — what ‘qualifications’ they have to have been published — forgetting that in spite of them being written in third person (what’s that???) in most cases it will have been the writer him/herself who will have written all that personal blurb about how brilliant they are and how many awards they have won and stuff. They call it marketing — but your creative writing education hasn’t got to that part yet, and if things continue as they are, you will probably never have to worry your pretty little head about marketing anyway.

This is deflating, big time. And everywhere you turn you see writers publishing and talking books, and signing books, and having a knees-up at book fairs and literature festivals and you feel totally out of it all. So just to be sure that you have got it all right in your head, you buy more books — as if the official book list at uni hadn’t been long enough, you can’t help feeling that you have missed a vital point somewhere — that secret key to open the flow of words which is taking so long to surge from your head to the page. It’s in there somewhere, so just a few more angles on ‘how-to-do-it’ and you will be sure to get it right.

I don’t know though — sometimes it all seems so wrong. I can’t help asking myself if Shakespeare or Milton had these problems. How many writers of the Classics read books on ‘how-to-do-it’ I wonder. They will very likely have had their off-days, or even weeks, months or years — but I can’t somehow believe that there was the sense of one-upmanship or competition that seems to hover above the writers’ world of today like a heavy black cloud. A continual ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ attitude — who is fastest on the draw to get out a new publication. And I have read some of these publications, and frankly, even though many are blessed with an intriguing storyline, quite a few of them leave a lot to be desired when it comes to tying up the loose ends. I would like to say that typos are the worst of the proofreading hiccoughs that I’ve come across, but no, much to my dismay I have found that there are much greater sins that cannot simply be explained away as the slip of a finger on the keyboard. Do these people own a dictionary? Are they all so presumptuous as to believe that they know how every word is spelt just by hearing it? I mean, the English language is notorious for similar sounding words with completely different spellings isn’t it?

But I’m ranting. Let me set aside my basket of sour grapes. My vision is blurred — becoming a little distorted. Too many writing manuals and blog articles on how to get it right.I think it’s time to clear the shelves and open up a breach in the clutter, although in reality probably most of the clutter exists in my own head. And maybe it’s about time I just got down to writing without worrying too much about how it all comes out and what everyone else is up to. Others have been there before me with their doubts and uncertainties and deep down, even some of the published authors (yes – you can call yourself an author once you’re published!) still have their off-days. Nothing new about that. Should I face up to the fact that I am trying to camouflage a flaw in my ability to write? Maybe I should just give up and get back to learning how to crochet or play bridge?

Hang on a tick — let me just finish my latest purchase. So many people (writers??) have recommended Stephen King’s ‘On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft’ so I must give it a go. It could prove to be exactly the push I need.

Cyber Trap

Janys Hyde ScribblerI’ve never been a great fan of Facebook. It has always disturbed me that something I might say in ‘private’ to a Facebook ‘friend’ — or even a member of my Facebook family come to think of it — might end up in Timbuktu without my ever having given permission for it to go there. The privacy settings are often convoluted and obscure and seem to change with such a mind-boggling frequency that — unless you happen to live on Facebook, you can overlook an important change at the bat of an eyelid and end up with your most intimate revelations at the mercy of all. I suppose the first note I should make to myself here is that ‘intimate’ revelations should probably remain within the four walls of home.

In spite of a list as long as my arm of good reasons to avoid Facebook — and following on from a couple of feeble attempts to abandon ‘social’ networking altogether, I recently allowed myself to be convinced that I might somehow get Facebook to work for me and my specific goals in life, but first of all, I needed to seriously think about what those goals might be. I subsequently opened up a couple of Facebook pages to cover two of my interests, namely Venice and writing – in the hope that they would remind me to channel my energy more accurately.

They do say that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ but they also say ‘a little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle’ which is perhaps more suited to my relationship with internet and all that surfs in her. I had the dubious good fortune to study various aspects of the internet and how to build web sites and upload information for the world to see, and as one would assume, I was also taught a lot relating to the good, the bad and the very ugly idiosyncrasies of the net with which lesser mortals don’t normally bother themselves. All this has left me with a hefty distrust of the cyber world and most of what it stands for. My ‘little knowledge’ acted accordingly.

So let’s take a step back and give some thought to those ‘goals in life’ which I was looking for a couple of paragraphs back. If nothing else internet has been encouraging on this point – only a recent discovery, but it seems that there are an awful lot of other women out there, very much like myself, who continue to try to find their ‘niche’ in life – who have spent the greater portion of their existence having/bringing up/weaning off children/partners without ever having given serious thought to what they themselves wanted to do or be when they grew up/got old. Sad though the situation would seem when exposed so harshly, it’s strangely comforting to know that I’m not alone. It so happens that many of the women I have met through the net (if only virtually in most cases) are writers/wannabe writers like myself, which has made my discovery all the more interesting and relevant.

Now I can admit that I – like many it seems – am just beginning to find the time and context to come out of my sacrificial shell and tug my own strings instead of having to wait to see what everyone else around me wants before I make a move – I’m finding it difficult to organise my thoughts and actions as an individual person. My brain is rusty, not to mention my limbs and emotions. For too many years I have functioned only as a complement to the needs of those around me. The freedom is overwhelming.

And that is where the similarity with other women would seem to fall short. If I am to believe even if only in part, the kind of personal image many of these cyber women are promoting, it would seem that they are all super-women – they manage to spend considerable time in every conceivable corner of social networking available online, hopping from Twitter to Facebook to LinkedIn to Pinterest to Goodreads and to a series of ‘virtual clubs’ that I have never even heard of, let alone considered signing up for. They blog and Twitter and somehow even find time to write books – and I do mean books in the plural. So what the heck am I doing wrong?

But I really must finish talking about my goals mustn’t I? Well I think I’ve found what I don’t want to be. I still don’t trust internet and will not be signing up as slave to a whole bunch of social networking. Really, I am not doing anything wrong, but maybe just a little differently. Perhaps I am being more pragmatic than some about my approach in recognising at the outset that I am no super-woman before I even attempt to throw myself into the scrum. Rumours are already coming through that it isn’t all that some would like to cook it up to be anyway. It takes an awful lot of dedicated effort to really make social networking work as a marketing or promotional tool, and even then you have to be absolutely certain that you have a good product to market, be it yourself or, in this case, a book.

Meanwhile life passes you by, children grow up loved ones get older, and at 60 plus years of age, I hope still to have time to give some thought to where I want to go with my life. I might even find the time and inclination to create that good product. No rush and most definitely, no hassle …

For those into word counts, this piece is 966 words long, without the title

Writing spaces

I just launched a couple of new writing blog/page/community spaces. One is ‘Venice from the Inside’ which is, as its name suggests, aimed at all things Venice. A number of people have made contributions to the writing on the site, and I have now added submission guidelines for those who might like to join in. The site address is www.venicefromtheinside.com.

The other site is for the occasional book review and short pieces of written work. More specifically I wanted to have a place to gather together all the useful resources I have found on the net for creative writing.

There are two Facebook pages to complement the web sites.

As is often the case with personal sites, they are continually a ‘work in progress’ left at the bottom of the ‘drawer’ and remembered just every now and again! Luckily the Facebook pages get much more attention and are updated on a regular basis.

Creative Coding

Just this week I began a course in generative art with creative coding devised by Monash University.

This course, and many other free online courses, are available through www.futurelearn.com.

Translations for contemporary art

I may have mentioned elsewhere that one of the things I do in life is translate press releases and catalogues for galleries, artists and curators of contemporary art. There is no question of doubt that the work is fascinating, but for those of you who have not had much to do with contemporary art (or any art for that matter), you might not be aware that the field has a language all of its own. I like to call it ‘curator speak’.

So how does ‘curator speak’ differ from the language used by us lesser mortals? Well you don’t have to go far to find examples since many magazines and newspapers run a series of articles describing the latest trends in contemporary art. You will know you have landed in the right place when you find yourself in front of a piece of writing which reads like gobbledygook! Curators and ‘art-speak’ people live in another world — they see things through eyes that somehow manage to transform the sight of a heap of scrap metal into a vision of ethereal beauty. A pile of bricks becomes a monument to the Gods of Olympus — I won’t even begin to tell you what they managed to see in a heap of elephant dung at a recent Venice Biennale.

Now this is all very well, and under normal circumstances it wouldn’t affect my daily life in the least — if it weren’t for the fact that I am the one who has to translate their highfalutin Italian ramblings into English. Now wait for it because you have to laugh at this bit — that’s without ever getting to see the work of art they are spouting about!!! I’m sure you can imagine that it takes a superhuman effort to achieve something even vaguely convincing.

In spite of this rather unusual drawback to the normal execution of my work, I have to concede that many of the artists have done an incredible amount of research before producing their works of art. A case in hand is the work I am doing right now where the works of the artist represent strife and struggles in the Middle East. I have been forced to follow a learning curve of my own to be able to accurately translate much of the terminology used, and to understand where the artist is coming from with his interpretation of the difficult situations described.

So yet again, I must thank the protagonists of a contemporary art exhibition for allowing me to delve more deeply into their ‘art-speak’ and to gain new knowledge thanks to their artistic diversity.

Creative writing exam

I find myself at that critical moment when I have written my couple of pieces of prose and have laid them before my peers for their considered critique. We are all more or less in the same boat, and probably at about the same level of writing ability. My prose has already been drafted, redrafted, edited and redrafted until it has begun to satisfy my own personal view of improvement. I am feeling all written out. Then along comes someone with a comment on the structure of one of my pieces — and if I may add — a very valid criticism — and I can feel myself falling to pieces. I still have the report/commentary to write and all of a sudden the steam has run out …

And the deadline is May 31st, and it no longer seems an age away …