This poem is for those struggling to breathe this season….


In the magma cavern
everything is heaving,
The air catches
in the dripping residue of past explosions.
The magma churns
The level rises.
The pressure breaks through into
a new explosion.
The great cough throws the magma high,
devastating the landscape.
the magma stills.
Then begins to seethe again
as the air,
never satisfied,
returns for another attack.




Answering machine photo from Bruce SallanBack in the dim, dark, ages, if you wanted to leave a telephone message you had to reach a person to do it.  The little lisping child answering  “Mum’s not here”  and hanging up could lead to a series of increasingly creepy conversations, trying to persuade a three year old to go and find its mother.

Parents tried to train their kids to answer properly.  I was very proud to be able to say “Hello, this is 73409, who would you like to speak to, please?” Unfortunately, the calls were never for me.   Even adults didn’t always handle the situation sensibly.  As a public servant answering someone else’s desk phone, I was carefully advised to say  “I’m sorry they’re in a meeting at the moment, can I take a message?” instead of “I’m sorry X… has just gone to the toilet”.

If not even a small child was home (or at their desk), the phone would ring until the caller gave up in disgust.

On the other hand, if you really wanted (hoped, wished) someone to call, then you had to sit by the phone waiting, maybe occasionally picking up the handset to check that the dial tone was working, then replacing it quickly in case that was the moment they finally made the effort.

Eventually the great leap forward in technology happened – a machine that would automatically (!) turn on and play a taped recording, and record a reply.   Unfortunately, leaving an answering machine message was surprisingly stressful for the uninitiated.  You’d start before the beep, hear the beep, then realize you had to start all over again, in the confusion forgetting to leave your own number for the return call.   From elderly relations all you’d hear was something like “Is this thing on?  When am I supposed to start?  Hello?  Hello?”.  If you wanted to leave long instructions, sometimes you had to call several times to get all the information through in 30 second bites “…damn, okay after you Press Return, then you have to type in the other DOS command…”

Worse still was leaving your own message on the machine.  The approved text was something like “We can’t come to the phone right now, please leave a message after the beep.”  It doesn’t seem so hard, but hearing the sound of your own voice on tape was always disconcerting (“Do I always sound like I’ve got a cold?”), or just as you’d remembered it all perfectly the dog would start barking, someone would come in and slam the door, or you’d realize you’d forgotten to push the record button.

After a while I figured out that I could leave specific messages on my own machine for people I was expecting to call.  “If this is Susan, can you leave the package on the doorstep and I’ll be back soon?” or “Happy Christmas! We’ve gone out for chilli and egg-nog and will be back later.”  Sometimes I forgot to change the message back, though, and by March I was getting very strange comments from producers I worked with, like “How’s your indigestion going?” or, finally,  “Why are you still eating chilli and egg-nog?”

Then people started getting creative with their messages.  The whole family would shout “Hi!” individually, including getting the dog to bark.  Or they’d add things like “We’d really like to get your message!”  (that was to encourage the nervous who always hung up on answering machines).  Musicians began to record ripples of piano music, witty people would just say things like “You know what to do…” followed by a quick beep.  Trouble-makers left messages like “Hello?…Hello?…I can’t hear you….Anyone there?” or “Welcome to Giuseppi’s Pizza and Curry Restaurant, please sing your order on the beat of three….” and so on.

These days, gone are the clunky plastic answering machines and their tapes, even the chip versions are uncommon.  I hardly ever listen to my mobile phone messages – because I can see who called and ring them back instead.  Like cut and paste photocopy art, answering machine messages are long gone as a form of self-expression.  My children think a voice message is an imposition, because it takes time to listen to it.   A text is so much quicker, although auto-correct has given it as many pitfalls.

Just imagine that world, where no-one could reach you unless you chose to check out the blinking light on the answering machine…

Good or bad?



Some times instead of adding complications and characters and depth and development, it’s nice to make stories that leave all those things up to the reader to imagine.  Here are some of my 100 words-or-less fictions.

Superb Fairy wren image by teejaybee from i_Naturalist.org

Superb Fairy wren image by teejaybee from i_Naturalist.org


Geoff looked up from his research on the sneaky, unfaithful behavior of blue wrens (malurus cyaneus) and saw his wife in the garden wearing her shiny wren-blue blouse.

At the inquiry he produced a series of more and more unlikely scenarios for her disappearance, or “leaving the nest” as he phrased it.

   It was the odour of the compost pile that led the investigators to her actual location.


It was a beautiful starry night.  The candles shone on the table beside the huge vase of red roses.  Steve was on his knees gazing up at her adoringly, hopefully.

Rosa leaned awkwardly against the chair, her lips parted in an “Oh” of surprise, as they often seemed to be.

She moved a little as the breeze wafted softly through the palm trees.    Steve leaned forward.  Perhaps this time she would speak?

Or perhaps she had an air leak.

Steve sighed and went to get the bicycle pump.


They stopped to watch, just for a moment.

Their brief silence was echoed on each side of the river.

Then the fighting resumed,  as the child’s body floated away, out of sight.

In their hearts they had already begun building a wall.  A solid, hard one that would hold that memory inside for as long as it took.


The spring sunlight showed up the dark corners that had gone unswept for years.  The cobwebs, the piles of fluff, the bones.

Puss in Boots looked around the ogre’s castle and thought  “So I’m supposed to clean all this up and make it look good for the arrival of the Princess while he goes swanning off.  Typical.”

After a good breakfast of human bones, however, he was ready for them when they returned.

“Such a sweet cat” said the Princess.

“Yeah, yeah. “ muttered Puss in Boots.

Then he ate them both.


Millie decided to smile at ten people on the train today.  Nine of them looked away or didn’t notice.  The tenth was the famous “Richmond Ripper.”

He used the smile to start a friendly conversation.

Then he followed her home.


When Ben stubbed his toe and hopped about, cursing, Ali smiled.

“Heartless bastards,” Ben complained to the other guards in the air-conditioned break room.  “They don’t care about anyone else.”

Outside, the refugees sat listlessly in the tropical heat, nowhere to go, nothing to do.

When Ali hanged himself that night, Ben smiled.


When Jade found her Dad, he didn’t look guilty.

He looked blank, as if she was a stranger.

She found herself goading him, day after day.  Anything to get a reaction from this sad loser.

When his fat, shocked girlfriend brought out the pictures, Jade knew the truth immediately.   The girlfriend saw stolen photos of little girls, but Jade saw a father searching for his lost child.   From that moment, she knew she had never been abandoned.

Tears trembled on her fake eyelashes.  Now she only had to remind him that children grow into teenagers, or even awkward, angry adults.


The self-driving car seemed a good idea.  It would show her importance, and forward-thinking creativity.

She was immersed in budget projections when the bird hit the windscreen and a feather floated into the air intake.

She practiced her biting remarks about inefficiencies and the need for belt-tightening in the entire sector, just as the broken feather drifted among the controls.

“No one is indispensable” she said firmly. “Not even me.”

The car kept accelerating.

She was mentally replying to all her many critics as the car flew off the edge of the winding road into the water, leaving barely a ripple.


sushi-142579_1280 (2)I loved the names of the  sushi on the menu at a restaurant.  In English, they didn’t make me think of food necessarily.  The result was not haiku, just a grab bag of thoughts, snippets of stories.


Lying in the sunshine,

the grass almost protected him from the bitter wind.

But high above,  yellow kites were flying.

Surfing the air.


Every night as she slipped into bed

His arms would close around her

Stifling breath

Stifling thought

His knee crooked around her thigh.

In the morning she would struggle to the surface,

Unkinking her neck and wiggling her toes.


He could sense her putting out feelers,

As if she could explore his soul without using her eyes.

He, too, was trying to sense her.

She called.

He replied without thinking.

Launching herself through the water

She found and splashed him.

Laughing and sodden, they tumbled.

Not yet friends.


It was too bad it should be this moment,

Opening wide the door,

Welcoming him in with his Easter Eggs

She found her stick slipping

Her arms flailing

The room circling her as she fought for balance.

It would be the nursing home this time for sure.


Each word he spoke bound her more tightly in servitude.

That wonderful voice hid the greying hair,

That shiny balding spot at the back of his head.

This would be her ticket to the world,

Listening, filtering, recording,

She took down the worlds of her teacher.


It was all she could do to resist reaching out

Before they were begged to begin.

Even counting to three between bites,

She was still way ahead of the others.

Working steadily through canapes,

Bread and turkey,

Platters of dip with carrots,

Cauliflower and celery sticks.

All of them flavorless,

Only grist for the endlessly chomping jaws.

No time for conversation.


He was determined this time he would win,

Take no prisoners

Forget the grimy liquor store fronts

With their barred windows.

Forget the strip malls and auto dealers

All seeking their own way to defeat the common enemy,



She began to smile when the layers of fabric

Swirled around her.

Out of all the things in the world,

This colour made her the most joyful.


Mount_Wilhelm image from Wikimedia uploaded by NomadTales


Agoras was a hero of the Dewari Toln, a strong fighter, tall and brave and fierce.  He was also beautiful of face,  lithe, and skilful as a dancer.

One day Agoras had been out hunting and sat down to rest in the shade beside a large stone.  He had wandered far from his village, into a part of the mountain few people ever visited.

Unknown to him the stone was a meeting place of the female spirits of the mountain.  Once a year they would come there to elect one of them as their leader.

The spirits peeped out from behind the stone and saw the handsome hunter stretched out comfortably, chewing on some biri nuts.  They were angry that he was there , interfering with their women’s meeting, so they decided to play tricks on him.

“Why don’t we take his clothes away?” suggested Stone Spirit.

“Yes, yes, that will embarrass him dreadfully and make him sorry, yes it will!” chattered the busy fire spirit.

“And we’ll be able to see if he’s really as handsome as he looks, under all that clothing” whispered the wind spirit, and the others all smiled.

“Let that be our contest then,” said Water “Whoever gets him to remove his clothing will be the winner.”

The Stone Spirit made the first attempt.  “This will be too easy” she  grumbled to herself “I’ll just have to make him so frightened he’ll go mad and pull off all his clothes.”

So Stone Spirit made the mountain rumble, the rocks clash together and gravel slides pour down the mountainside.  The noise of grinding rocks was deafening.

Agoras jumped up and grabbed his spear at the first sound, then realising what was happening, he took all the skins of the animals he had hunted and bound them around himself as padding, shielding him from the tumbling pebbles and boulders alike.

When the rumbling stopped, Agoras was still there, wearing more clothes than he had started with.

“I can do better than that” whistled Wind proudly.  She began to blow, first a gentle zephyr, then a stronger breeze, then a howling wind that plucked at Agoras’ clothing and tried to tear it away.

But Agoras held tight, no matter how hard Wind blew, he turned his back to her, hunched over and let her go over his head.

When Wind, exhausted, finally had to admit defeat, Agoras remained carefully curled up in a ball, hat pulled down over his eyes, padding of catskins around him.

“It can’t be done,” panted Wind

“I can’t tell yet if he’s really handsome or not.  You’ve made it even harder” chortled Fire “but wait and see what I can do!”

Fire sent trickles of flame out onto the mountain, fingers of fire from the deep burning heart of the mountain.

Agoras saw them and began to run as fast as he could.  But he couldn’t outrun the Fire spirit when she was excited.  She danced around, beside, in front, behind him.  Turning round and round he saw himself imprisoned.  He began to untie the catskins.

“Aha! Aha!  He’s undressing!  You see, I told you I could do it” said Fire

But Agoras was using the skins to cover his face and hands and swinging others to beat a path through the fire.  Finally he escaped and stood free on a mountain top.

Fire spirit sputtered angrily, took Agoras’ charred spear and jumped on it until it was broken into tiny pieces, then threw them in the air.  “Well, it’s plain to see he isn’t really a man at all, he’s just a heap of old clothes.  It’s not a very good game” she hissed, flickering a little with tiredness.

“It’s my turn now” said Water.

“Oh, sure” laughed the other spirits at slender, wavering Water.  “What can you do?  Rain on him – he’ll just pull his coat tighter; dump a deluge on him, he’ll be washed away, and he won’t be able to take his clothes off.”

“Wait and see” said Water gently.  She moved her hands and a small spring started up near the exhausted, blackened hero.  He turned his head at the gentle, trickling sound and came to cup his hands and drink.

The trickle bubbled on down the hill, with Agoras following.  By this means Water led him down a little valley and formed a smooth still pool there.  At the sight of it Agoras began stripping off his clothes and finally plunged right in, allowing the cool caresses of the the Water spirit to enfold him.

“He is as handsome underneath his clothes as his face and hands showed” she announced.

Fire sputtered angrily, but the others knew it was fair.  Water was the leader of the mountain spirits.  Finally they let the hunter return to his village, wondering at his strange adventure on the mountain.

Rain was plentiful that year, cascading from the mountains,  trickling around the eaves of the houses, running in among the stunted crops so that they grew into giants the villagers had trouble hauling home through the mud.

(image from Wikimedia Commons, NomadTales)


pig group

“Don’t get it right.  Get it written, Boyo” was the advice my husband’s Welsh Phd supervisor used to give him, while inserting Welsh-accented phrases here and there into text about central Australian lizards.

Getting that first draft down is a painful process.  I like to mull on things for quite a while, turning them around in my mind until I’m happy there’s something there I like.  Usually that means, as Robert McKee suggests in his book “Story”, that you know the big decision your main character has to make at the end, the crisis.

Then I spend a lot of time getting the story straight and satisfying (if it’s a story).

Index cards are great for something that has lots of details that you need to include, or where you don’t have much time to work on it.  You can throw ideas into a pile and snap a rubber band around them until later.    I was advised to use cards for my history thesis by Pat Grimshaw from Melbourne University where I was collecting research from years of Indonesian magazines.   I had a shoebox that I used to organize all the quotes and ideas I wanted to use.  Juggling them back and forth is the easy way to shift things around.  For scripts I note down bits of dialogue I like, or images, or a sudden realization about motivation.  Later I’ll take over the dining table for a massive shuffle and sort, driving everyone else crazy while they look for somewhere to put their dinner.  There are electronic versions of the card system  available now, but I find the old technology easier.

The downside of cards is that your overall story can be disjointed.

I also like to make lots of notes about characters, drawing out the links between them with circles and arrows.  It’s a basic step, but often you can see a completely unnecessary character by doing this.  If no arrows link them, they’re probably a waste of everyone’s time.

A few years ago I had a lot of fun with enneagrams  where you can think about types of characters and how they interact and change under stress.  It’s a little like star signs, but more complex and with some faint basis in reality.

My final step for a long project like a feature script or a novel is to write out the plot as a story and get a feel for whether it all connects in a satisfying way.  You can add details or even dialogue and description where you know it, but not too much.  It’s easier to edit and chop and change at this point than if you’ve put in all the details.  For my novel I also put together myths and technology, character outlines and history in separate documents I can draw from.    This is fun but can become a vortex where you go around and around and never get out.

When you’re fed up with the vortex, and are feeling brave, it’s time for swill.

That’s the draft that you know isn’t great, but it’s going to exist.

You can do a preliminary swill draft without all these other steps just to see if you like it.  Nicole Murphy calls this “pantsing” and it can get down some of the thrill and excitement you have with your new project.  But you can also lose your way and waste a lot of time.  I did this with my novel and ended up shelving it for three years before I brought it out again and began in a different way.    That was discouraging, but not pointless.  It helped me see that there was a story worth telling, but that telling it as a memoir wasn’t going to work.

So now I’m into my second lot of swill.  It’s going better.  I know I’m going to edit it, so I don’t worry if things aren’t perfect.  The horrible critic on my shoulder has to go and get a cup of tea, because I’m not listening (much).   Why should I worry?  It’s just a swill draft.  It’s the fun stage, where you have a road map to work from, but you’re elaborating and explaining and remembering the things that made you love the story so much.  It’s fun also seeing the word count go up bit by bit, though never as quickly as I planned for.

When it’s finished, you have a huge pile of swill that looks like a lot of pages with ink on them.

Time for the red pen.

And for feedback, from when you throw your swill out for comments to the chosen few.

Don’t call them pigs when they criticize, they’re doing you a favour.pigface



NoOkay, so a trembling writer has passed you their neatly printed novel chapters, or emailed you their screenplay, or handed you a crumpled handwritten essay.  Whatever.

Now their sanity is in your hands.  This is your big moment to learn to play nicely with others.  If you’re mean they might just start to cry, or throw themselves off a bridge, or worst of all, one day return the favour by critiquing your own writing.

It’s no good letting the bitterness of your third grade teacher’s nasty remarks rankle.   You know, about what you thought was an exciting adventure story with giraffes and she thought was derivative rubbish and just written because you’d seen “Born Free” on TV the night before .  It’s time to grow up and look at what’s going right with other people’s writing.

Everybody has strengths.   It could be writing characters that are fun to see in action.  It could be setting a scene somewhere that you’d never imagine, because their life has been so different from yours.  It could be making a sentence with a verb in it.   Or not.

If you really listen to what the other person is saying, it’s far more interesting than if you’re just skimming through it trying to get on to the next thing.  So the part of your brain that’s chattering about how you’d write the piece yourself completely differently has to take a back seat to getting a grip on something that’s coming from outside.   That’s respect, and it’s worth it.

It’s worth paying attention to other people’s good choices because what happens after you do so is remarkable.  When you practice being positive about other people’s writing, you begin to see your own strengths as well.

Then you can build on them.    Take your characters and play around with them.  Rip out your trite phrasing and replace it with thrilling/miraculous/rip-roaring things you find in the thesaurus.  Make the hairs stand up on someone’s neck.  Be true to what you want to write.

The critical voice is still there, but it’s not overpowering and demoralizing.  It begins to give suggestions about where we could go next instead of slamming doors in our faces.    That romance might really be a literary thriller about saving the environment.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to write a  review as a poem?  Could the character you like the least be the one you need to be your narrator?  You don’t find these things when your mind is in nasty mode.

And you might just have another friend in the world, who’ll be kind to you when it all comes around again.


KilimEvery story has a thread you need to hold onto, to take you from one side to the other and back again.  A tight grip on the ups and downs is what gives the story strength.

Ram it close together with the other threads, tightly woven.  Without tension, it will fall apart.

The colours need to change or it’s a boring piece of workaday cloth.  A floor scrubber, a potato sack, a duster.

The threads are dyed in hanks weeks before and dangle, waiting, for their moment.  A moss-green and a rusty orange, or a cobalt blue and princess pink.  Waves of rich romantic colours, or tiny intermingled co-dependent ripples of  ultramodern beige and grey.

The thread must be spun with texture, something that you can feel with your fingers even when it’s dark outside.  Sometimes knubbly and stiff works better than soft and silky.  One wears well time after time, the other gives a frisson of pleasure.  Some writers love ripping our fingertips with barbed wire, others smear them with limp sponge.  There could be a surprise perhaps, maybe some chewing gum.

The pattern grows, taking each thread and putting it together into something bigger than itself.  Standing away you can see how it works, but in the to and fro of the construction, it’s hard to keep hold of the entire design.  It’s a process of counting out the distances and knowing that it will work out in the end.

Cut from the loom, it’s all that it can be: a tight belt of a short story, a sagging looping family saga, a wonderful carpet spreading from end to end of a warm sunlit room.

All spun and woven, and done.


lone-wolf“Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf” they’d say.

And I’d have to hear it again, even if I muttered ” I remember.  I do remember”.

“…and because he lied, no-one came when he called.  He called louder and louder, until the wolf ate him up.  The next day people wondered where he was, but there was nothing left except a few torn bits and scraps of clothing.  And that’s why you must never tell lies”.

I would huddle down under the bedclothes, ready for the nightmares about big jaws and teeth.  I would also wonder why I was being told stories about wolves when we don’t have any in Australia.   Also, why wasn’t the boy in school?  Surely he was justified in lying when he was being used for illegal child labour?

In any case, my own lies were usually not to cause trouble, but to get me out of it, such as “No, it wasn’t me, I didn’t….(let the dog out/break the vase/dig up the petunias”)

Or a favourite was “It wasn’t me. He started it.  He hit me.”   That was often actually true.  I have two brothers. Occasionally, I may have hit them.  They had the unfair advantage that they could grab  my long hair, while their buzz cuts gave no grip at all to clawing sisterly fingers.

Telling the “whole truth” was very important to my parents, because leaving things out was “lying by omission”.

Except when these same parents told me to be quiet when I noticed someone extraordinarily fat, or with giant teeth (like a wolf) or picking their nose in public.

Then we’d be told how essential  it was to look people in the eye and be fearlessly honest.

I knew this was definitely a lie, and never did it.

These same parents  told us about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and the starving children in China who lived on a tiny matchbox full of rice a day and would be very glad to have my greasy lamb stew if they could get it.  I always offered to send the stew to them immediately. “Stop being ridiculous. ”  I wondered where the Chinese got so many matchboxes and if there might be a better way to spend their day than stuffing them with tiny amounts of rice?  And where did they put their matches?

We were allowed to watch television where “Four out of five dentists recommend” a toothpaste, and chalk would be dipped in dye to show how  something completely unrelated to teeth would take up a bright colour in a startling way.  For some reason advertisers were allowed to stretch the truth like chewing gum, while we were not.

Zigzagging between fairy tales and advertising lies, I gradually grew more adept at picking a path that didn’t get me sent to my room.

Fiction was my refuge, the pretend home of the fearful liar. Fiction is the place where we can tell all the stories that are sort-of true, that should-be true, or that are just plain scary and we hope are utterly untrue.

As an adult I have finally learned to look people in the eyes, even find it strange when people don’t look at me.  I’ve learned how it’s worth standing your ground and telling the truth when you need to.  That lies will get you tangled up in all sorts of unnecessary ways.

The wolf that will eat me if I tell a lie is in my head forever.

But I love to read and write fiction.


Keeping a blog on my writing instead of writing.  That’s a new way of stalling.

I’ve tried all the others.

– Sitting at the desk and deciding I need a new desk.  Maybe a stand up lectern that would give me exercise while writing.  I need to look up lecterns for sale and end up fascinated by the pulpits for sale.  Most of them are not as interesting as you’d think.  Not so much of the carved cherubs and more plywood and aluminium.  The prices are high, so no go on that idea.  Interesting though.

– Back to the desk, but it’s lunchtime now.  So have lunch.

– Surely there’s been a phone call by now?

– Start making a list of the next steps I need to make with my writing, and remember I need more bananas.  Write a shopping list.

– Argh.  Taxes.  Need to do taxes.  Cover the room with pieces of paper.  I can no longer see my notebook.

– The dogs start agitating for their dinner.  Should clip their claws because they’re scrabbling at the chair.  But I’m not sure where the nail clippers are.  All my previous dogs were in the city where they walked on concrete and spent a lot of time digging in their own sandpit.  Did I provide a sandpit for my dogs instead of a pulpit for my writing convenience?  Possibly.

– It’s dark and the fire is going out.  I have to go and get firewood.

– Sugar

– Television

– Sleep.  In the middle of the night I have the perfect idea.  Although it’s never worked before I believe I will remember it in the morning.

– Next morning what I remember of the great idea sounds stupid and clunky.

– Sit at the desk.  The cushion on the seat is all wrong.