Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Carol Ryles: Journals And Space

Even as a child I liked the feel of a pen in my hand. If I wasn’t writing with it, I’d scribble fantasy characters in the margins of my schoolbook. When I turned ten, my brother gave me a diary. Here’s part of my first entry:

“Saw mum putting boxes in the car boot right behind where I’m sitting. She won’t tell me what they are.”

Of course I knew what they were: Christmas presents. I was supposed to believe in Santa, so I played along and pretended. Even for my diary’s sake. This is the most interesting thing about diaries I think: you can often remember the things you left out by reading between the lines. You can fool the page, but not yourself.

At fourteen, I taught myself to type on the rickety keys of an old Imperial typewriter. It was then that I started writing novels, but I’d always give up somewhere near the middle, when I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I decided that drama was more interesting so wrote plays about cowboys and Indians. (The Indians were mostly the good guys.) Then I graduated to aliens and spaceships. (The aliens were always the good guys.) I also wrote secretly about girls who piloted star ships and rescued aliens from the clutches of mad scientists.

After I left school, I worked for fifteen years as a registered nurse. My play writing fell by the wayside, but I still kept journals. They became my nightly way of working through the emotional roller coaster that always came with caring for the sick. They'd help me remember the good days and, at the same time, get through the bad ones.

My holiday journals, written in meticulous detail, are still my favourite. A little while later, I decided I wanted to write poetry. Unfortunately, I perfected the art of doggerel to such a degree that I dared not bring myself to keep any of it. Then, just before I went to live and work in China, I decided to take up novel writing again, so I took a portable typewriter and lots of paper. The novel didn’t get started. There was too much to distract me: a medical clinic to set up, a new language to learn, a culture to immerse myself in, a country to explore...

I kept my journal going; but none of it was fiction.

It wasn’t until 1997, when I was living in Brisbane -- a housewife with 3 young children -- that I sat down and decided to have a serious go at writing fiction. This time, even the prospect of transporting home and family an entire continent away couldn’t stop me. Now living in Perth, I have been working on stories and studying English ever since. I began my first (likely-to-be-finished) novel a little over a year ago.

Sometimes I love reading even more than I like writing, especially when it’s a story that’s so full of complexities and ideas, so carefully layered in imagination and detail that I have to read it slowly and selfishly until the words show me things that reality can’t.

When I started school, my dad used to take me to the local library. That’s how I discovered science fiction and fantasy. First with picture books, later with the Narnia series and later still with the works of Verne, Wells and Gollanz SF, which I recognized for its yellow covers. That’s how I introduced myself to the works of Asimov, Silverberg, Clarke, Le Guin, Henderson, Wyndham. I was hooked at an early age

Reading a good story is like watching an Olympic gymnast. The way she curls her body around the bars, arabesques in mid air, spins, flips and free falls onto her feet. How could I always remain a spectator when the gymnast is clearly ecstatic? Likewise how can I not write stories when reading them is so pleasurable? For me, living vicariously is never as satisfying as the real thing. I discovered that a long time ago when I bought my first motorbike and, later still, took up scuba diving and hiking.

I tried to be a gymnast when I was in my teens. It was fun and sometimes impossibly difficult. I practised at home, at school, at the gym. Then I fell off the balance beam and broke a couple of bones. They wanted me to stay in bed for six weeks but, after five weeks, even books couldn’t keep me down. My doctor recommended that I give up being a gymnast.

Not a promising analogy.

Fortunately, if I stumble when I’m writing, I have time enough to figure out where I went wrong and pick myself up again. That’s how it feels with my first novel: one step forward, two steps back. But at least, if I lose my footing, it doesn’t mean the end of things. It’s more like a wrong turn that leads to a revelation, a step towards understanding the many possible directions my imagination can take.

I’m grateful for the privilege of having writing buddies who can do this with me. In return, it’s a pleasure to watch their novels grow and mature alongside mine.


  1. I love that picture, Carol!

    I'm interested in what you have to say about journaling, because I actually had a lot of angst about journals as a young kid. Harriet the Spy (which I suggset you read if you haven't) keeps journals because people tell her it's the only way to be a writer. But I never wanted to journal. As a kid I occassionally wrote fiction, but I hardly ever wrote in journals unless my Mom was helping my record a special event or something for school. Do you still journal today? It sounds like maybe now you journal fiction sometimes? I love the idea of "reading between the lines."

  2. It's interesting how journalling differs with each person. I never kept a journal until I went to my first creative writing class in 1994 and the teacher introduced the class to it. I was the only one who kept it up beyond the first few weeks. Then I discovered The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron and now I keep two journals - one specifically for writing ideas and written when the urge takes me and a daily one for a mix of personal matters and anything else (including writing) that attracts my attention that morning. Could be a rant, a comment, an exploration of what writing I'm working or a simply a list of things to be done that day.

  3. Love that piccie, Carol!

    I have only run journals seriously during the two most angst-ridden periods of my life - the teenage years and the mid-life crisis! Of course, I do a bit of journalling on my personal blog, and now I'm of an age for it to be marginally interesting to some people, I include a bit of personal reminiscing and the occasional autobiographical yarn.

    I'm glad you gave up gymnastics. Broken bones are no fun. OTOH, I'm glad you write doggerel, 'cos that *is* fun! Maybe we could have a doggerel day on this blog sometime, on a particular topic or theme. That could be quite a hoot!

  4. kmarie03 & Helen: I still journal, but no longer with the obsessive recording of day to day events like I used to. My journals are more writer journals these days filled with bits and pieces that I might be able to put into fiction. And I don't write in them as much when I'm working on a story or chapter. Also most of the angst I had about journals used to end up in my journals. When I read them now, I literally cringe :) A lot of those journals have been lost thank goodness. Some things are best left unremembered :)

    Satima: I was very sad about giving up gymnastics. If I'd only broken an arm or leg, I would have certainly taken it up again. But it was my pelvis. Sometimes it still hurts when I sit down for too long.

    Doggerel. Yes! A glass of wine or two and I'll start talking doggerel :)

  5. I never really tried the journalling thing, though while at university the first time I did keep a diary every day, mostly by way of reminding myself about deadlines and assignments, but also ranting about whatever was on my mind. I still have it, but I don't look at it anymore.

    I also agree about the idea that if you read stories and love them to bits, it's only natural to want to write them yourself. That's certainly my experience, and how I got started. Still trying to figure it out, too! :)