Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: June, 2015

perfect mom 4

THE POWER OF POSITIVE NAGGING 

I don’t normally give parenting advice on this page, or anywhere else. I was a very young mum when I started out and mostly a sole parent – and by sole I mean more or less completely abandoned. There are many things I would do differently if I had my time over again; many poor decisions I would avoid making.

But the great weight I think just about all mums share is that of guilt. No matter if we’re perfect Tip Top mums or struggling mums, we all feel we’re somehow not good enough, that others are judging us, and that we’re screwing up our kids. Of course, it’s the way the job of mothering is marketed to us, too – if we constantly feel we’re under par, then we’ll be more likely to buy antiseptic handwash, multivitamins, breakfast cereals that lack basic nutrition, and all sorts of other rubbish we don’t need.

One thing I know I have always been very good at is being neurotic. Yes, I dressed my children in skivvies – and I tucked them in. Because, hey, when everything else is going to hell in a handbasket, at least you can’t be accused of complete slackness if your kid looks like a tiny Wiggle.

This approach was memorably sabotaged by one of my sons when, at the age of ten, he rebelled against the skivvy regime, demanding that he wear shorts and a t-shirt to school – in mid-winter. Indeed, in the snow. We argued and, balancing up the odds of him catching pneumonia against both my natural incompetence and the possibility of me harming him more by denying his otherwise benign expression of self, I agreed to lose the argument, on the proviso that adequate clothes were packed in the schoolbag. This didn’t stop his teacher from pulling me aside one afternoon, however, to ask me if I needed any assistance covering my child’s bare, blue legs. ‘Is everything all right at home?’ she gently enquired. If only she knew the half of it.

One thing I was never told by anyone – and this is horribly sad – was that I was in any way doing a good job. Single mums rarely get a pat on the back for anything, especially if, like me, they work two jobs: the mothering one, and the one that pays the mortgage. I got plenty of pity – at least I think that’s what those looks across the playground from other mums indicated – but pity is not particularly useful when what you really want is for someone to hold your hand. I longed to be told I was doing okay, that I was good enough. I craved some acknowledgement that the cakes I baked were made with love even if they weren’t expertly iced, and as time has rolled on, I’ve heard a lot of mums, and all kinds of mums, have felt the same way.

My kids have survived, and continue to sturdily cope with all my faults, but while one of my kids has never skipped a beat along his merry way, the other has often struggled. My struggler has broken my heart more times than I will ever be able to count, and my guilt where he is concerned has often seemed insurmountable. Once, when he was about thirteen, and I was begging him to try to understand how much I love him, he replied: ‘You’re just saying that because you have to – you’re my mother.’ Just the recollection smashes me all over again right now.

What do you do when your beautiful child is determined to reject the only golden good stuff you have to give? I didn’t know. But, by pure chance, around that time, while I was driving alone, I heard the parenting guru Michael Grose on the radio talking about raising teens, and he said words to the effect of, ‘Never underestimate the power of positive nagging. Keep telling them you love them. Keep telling them the truth, the same story over and over. Eventually, they will hear it.’

Ironically, I’d been Michael’s editor for a couple of books on parenting littlies years before, and I knew him to be a superlatively decent chap. These particular radio words of his struck right into me, though, like a line of light through the dark.

Sometimes I have told my truth to my boy quietly, sometimes I’ve shouted it insanely, but I have always stuck fast to telling him. Over and over again I have nagged out my desperate plea. And now, years on, as a man, he has finally heard it. Today, I can see in the brightness of his eyes and the warmth of his hug that he knows I am speaking the truth when I tell him I love him. When I tell him how precious he is to me, he believes me.

When you know you are loved, when you are told that you are good enough, all good things are possible. He’s not my struggling boy anymore.

It’s simple, really. Well, as simple as a victory of white-knuckled persistence over untold dread and despair ever is. And my joy at his manly shininess is the only pat on the back I need. Not that I would ever tell him this is an argument I won, though. No. I would never be quite that silly…

rude words

RUDE WORDS

‘Did people really say “bum” in 1900?’

I was recently asked this question by a lovely, curious reader, and it’s one of my favourite kinds of questions.

The short answer to this one is yes, ‘bum’ is a very old word. It can be traced back to the Middle-Ages, and it would certainly have been a rude word for a lady to use in 1900 – as my Berylda does in Paper Daisies. She uses it cheekily, mind the pun, to illustrate how her exposure to the big wide world at Sydney University is destroying her moral fibre.

Etymology is my thing. I love to know where words come from and how they’re used. Whether a word has Latin or Greek or bog Anglo-Saxon roots and how its meaning might have shifted across the ages is a little linguistic turn-on for me. While I always put character and integrity of voice before any stereotypical conception of ‘what people spoke like’ at any time in Australian history, I spend a great deal of time choosing the right words for my imaginary friends and making sure that those words aren’t anachronistically used, or simply weren’t invented at the time in which my characters are speaking. If I can’t find a right word, I might even ask my character to invent something that’s theirs alone.

I could have had Berylda use any number of taboo words to hint at her moral decay – ‘arse’, ‘shit’ or even ‘fuck’ were all words in common use at the time. It’s difficult to prove how common, because these words don’t appear much in written text, if at all, but just because a word is not in print does not mean it wasn’t used. It’s highly unlikely that these words disappeared from general circulation between the Middle-Ages and modern times.

A quick glance at Digger Dialects by W.H. Downing published in 1919, a handy resource on the slang used by Australian soldiers during World War I, will tell you that rude words were fairly popular in the early twentieth century. But you have to read between the euphemisms: it lists P.O.Q. as standing for ‘push off quickly’, and ‘fooker’ as a term to describe British Army privates; it lists F.A. as standing for ‘Fanny Adams’. The dead giveaway is that it also lists B.S. as standing for ‘bullsh’. Just like F.U. in America’s S.N.A.F.U means ‘fouled up’. Hm.

Now and again, though, I’m pulled up by readers who tell me that they doubt my Daniel in Black Diamonds or my Yo in The Blue Mile would have sworn the way I have them swear, and that what they perceive as modern usage spoiled the authenticity of the voices for them. When I point them to Digger Dialects, and other dictionaries of Australian colloquialisms, their eyes glaze over with only more doubt – they simply don’t want to believe it.

And that’s fine. We all bring our own prejudices to language – to the way we speak ourselves, and to the way we think others should express themselves. But as an obsessive listener to language, the fascinating thing for me is, our individual idiom is as unique as everything else about us – from our fingerprints, to our experiences of life. Some people spout profanity liberally; others, like my grandmother, only occasionally but very effectively use the word ‘bum’. Berylda uses the word ‘bum’ then because, like my grandmother, she is a lady, not a soldier or a miner or a labourer on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It’s a word of unknown origin but in its earliest medieval appearance it meant what it means today – your backside. It was possibly an onomatopoeic word for the dull thud that portion of the body makes when one falls down upon on it, or perhaps the sensation evoked when one fondly pats another there. Yes, I just made that up, but really – who knows? It seems a word that has always held a hint of a giggle. We do know, though, that by the mid nineteenth century it meant a ‘tramp’ or a ‘time-waster’; it also meant ‘poor quality’. It seems it’s always been a fairly tame word on the rudeness scale.

For Berylda, though, it means much more than all this. By using it, she is stealing a word from the world of men, however tame, as she dreams of independence and self-determination at a time when it was denied to women. Tiny and almost sweet as the word is, it’s one of protest. It’s precisely the word that Berylda would use.

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A MEASURE OF SUCCESS

I was asked by another writer recently what success as a writer means, and it’s a good question. For a massive majority of writers, it doesn’t mean selling truckloads of books, with queues down the high street at signings, or earning so much money you are compelled to buy diamond-studded collars for your cats for want of how to spend it all.

A recent study published in the Guardian showed that 17% of professional writers earned no money from their work at all in 2013. That was in the UK; in Australia, where the cash pool is tinier, I think we could safely expect that the number of writers doing their thing for zilch would be a little higher. These are professionally published writers we’re talking about here, too.

Even writers who sell quite well rarely earn a liveable amount from it. If the average wage in Australia is about $70,000 per annum, the average Australian writer’s advance is somewhere around a tenth of that. It might have taken the author two years to write their latest offering, though, so in real terms, that author wrote that book at a rate of around $67 per week. You won’t pay the rent on that; you won’t pay your grocery bill, either. If you value your own worth as a writer by these terms you’ll go mad with the injustice of it all. You might even want to give up – most do.

Inveterate nutbag that I am, I’ve been at it now for more than ten years. So, what keeps me hanging in there? How do I measure success in the absence of the usual indicators of wealth and fame? What pulls me back from the edge of the vortex of despair?

My immediate response to my writerly comrade’s question was, ‘I lurk among the library catalogues across the nation to see if my book is being borrowed.’

As I’ve said in a blog past, if I want to get an instant hit of sunshiny love, I look to Far North Queensland libraries. They are bananas for Australian-made up there, it appears, and the number of ‘ON LOAN’ notices beside the catalogue entries for my books make me feel on top of the world. Seriously, what deeper success is there for a writer other than knowing that they are connecting with a reader – somewhere, out there in the big wide void – right now?

Well, there’s fan mail, too. Whether it’s an old-fashioned note in the post or a quick hello on Facebook, corresponding with readers who have been moved in some way by your work is gold. In fact, I have made a new favourite pen pal this very way. I won’t name her here, in case she might be shy of this public nattering business, but I will divulge that she’s ninety years young and beautiful in all ways. She’s also read every single one of my books and told me in detail what each one has meant to her personally. My eyes fill with tears of gratitude just to see her handwriting on the envelope.

But an extra special thing of loveliness happened when I opened her last letter yesterday. She told me she’d had some trouble getting hold of my first novel, Black Diamonds, as it’s been out-of-print for some time, and she doesn’t read ebooks, but that one of her granddaughters had found her a copy in the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library.

My heart and my brain flipped as one: Fisher Library? It never occurred to me that my books would be in the main library of my old university. Of course Fisher has several bazillion books, but I just didn’t imagine in my wildest that they would have mine.

I loved that place. In many ways Fisher Library was a refuge for me, and maybe one day I’ll write a book on why, but it was also a place of wonder, of dreaming. Not far away from its stacks, though, just across the other side of the uni, twenty-nine years ago, a friend laughed in my face when I told her my deepest secret: that I wanted to be a writer. I’ve carried that knock a little heavily ever since but that letter from a wiser friend laughed straight back at it yesterday. At last.

Success? Absolutely, and rather sweet.