Waiting for the 4:45 to Toorak

ifbook_podcast_itunesThe latest if:book Podcast features the extraordinary Matt Blackwood talking cities of literature, sticky stories, the benefits of QR codes, and all things locative with Emily.

Our featured artist is the Broadway Melody Makers with ‘Any Place Where I Make Money (Is Home Sweet Home To Me)’, a wonderfully appropriate track from some time in the 1920s, first released on the delightfully named Puritan Records. This recording comes to us, as always from the Internet Archive.

Links to the stuff we talk about:

 

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Walking the Walk

LTCLost In Track Changes is an ongoing literary remix experiment featuring Cate Kennedy, Fiona Capp, Krissy Kneen, Ryan O’Neill and Robert Hoge. Starting from a short work of memoir, the authors remix each other’s work in series, with changes tracked between.

Lost in Track Changes is coming to paper and ink. We’ll be launching the print edition of the project at Avid Reader in Brisbane on Tuesday 2 December. And it’s free to come. Book now.

Our final run through the track changes begins with Robert Hoge’s memoir and a pair of legs. Or a few pairs. And Kylie. And Dannii. Next week will see this work transformed into something else entirely.

Most people learn to walk just once.

An unlucky few need to stumble through it a second time after a schism of the back or a grody snap of the ankle. Then there’s the rest of us – the leaners, the lame, the legless – a tribe who needs to learn to walk every time we get a new pair of prosthetic legs.

New prosthetics can come with a whole range of changes – they might be a different shade of dark cream, they may be lighter, stronger, more reliable. Once I collected a new pair and discovered that instead of a crescent moon of rubber at the tip of the feet, they suddenly had toes. My sister was so excited, she stole my legs so she could paint the toenails a rich, dark purple. Didn’t suit my skin tone at all.

Sometimes – the golden growing summers of my youth – my prosthetic legs would grow lengthen and all of a sudden I’d be 5cm taller. There wasn’t much about my appearance that filled me with pride when I was a kid, but leaving school one afternoon the third shortest student in class and coming back the next day the third tallest was pretty damn special.

With new feet came new sensations, with a new artificial knee came new challenges and with longer legs came a whole new gait. Imagine getting out of bed one morning and you’re 7cm taller and your knee is 3cm lower. I’d stand up after putting on the new legs and feel like I was Dannii Minogue in a Kylie Minogue music video. I’d stand up, sway, lean to one side to stop swaying, over-correct and fall over – the strangest of locomotions. Try again. This time reaching out for the wall to hold myself up. Eventually I’d master standing up but everything else felt different – my hips, my back, how far my hands were from the ground. Putting one foot in front of the other should be simple, right. It should be dependable, knowable. It should be something you could rely on.

It’s not a small thing. It’s not like just getting a new pair of shoes because you get new feet to go inside them too – feet that are firmer because they’ve never been used. Throw in a new ankle to join it all to a new shin and maybe a new knee as well. All of that newness works instantly, universally to remind you of that one simple fact – you don’t have any legs.

If you had legs, you wouldn’t feel like you were walking on a foreign planet. You wouldn’t fall over putting them on the first morning you had them because you hadn’t ‘walked in’ the new set yet. The most disconcerting – legal – out-of-body experience you can get.

Maybe you know something of the feeling, like when you drive a new car for the first time. You might have had the old car for three years, maybe five. You were used to its quirks, how the right blinker was just that little bit sticky; how there was that slight knock when the engine went from first gear to second. How there was that slight dint in the licence plate that you never bothered getting fixed. Then you get the new car. The seat is different. The engine purrs but it isn’t the same. Every time you try to turn a blinker on you end up with windscreen wipers going instead.

So how do you do it? Sheer necessity helps, I suppose. You could really swap sets of legs I suppose – like an opening batsmen choosing the bat that best suits him for the day. But mostly there’s no going back. Once you start down the track you need to keep going. An average person might take two-and-a-half million to three million steps a year. You can normally adapt to new legs in less than a week – maybe 25,000 steps or so. Switching sets of legs just means re-adapting again and again.

And there’s kind of a loveliness about it which makes you always conscious of your connection with the physical world. Your brain pauses for a second and re-discovers the world for you. This is the first time you’ve got in a car with these legs, and it feels different. The first time you’ve walked downstairs. The first time you’ve chugged up a hill. The first time you’ve tried to run, hoping that maybe just this once you’d be able to run. But it reminds you for just a few days that you’re not really connected to the Earth. You – the real you – is floating three feet above the ground. Your legs are your freedom and your burden – your Dannii and your Kylie.

Walking becomes so ingrained after a while that when you get a new pair of legs you really do need to learn how to walk again. And it wasn’t like it was easy to do in the first place. Now you’re older; maybe fatter and certainly more set in your ways. You’ve worked out – walked out – the kinks in your legs. You know it’s easier to step onto the sidewalk with your right leg because that’s your leg with the real knee – the one you have more control over.

So you do it. You stand up, you lean, you stumble and fall and feel like every single step is Armstrong on the moon. You feel this crazy ambivalence to these tools of torturous freedom. You haven’t worn them in yet. They rub in all the wrong places. You lift your left foot too high and put your right leg down too hard. You shout for joy because the new legs are lighter and fit better – not right yet – but better. But you crave the comfort and sameness of your old legs like someone quitting smoking craves having a pencil to roll across their fingers.

So, how do you do it? What is the secret for getting through the task? Like mastering most things it ends up being pretty simple – just keep putting one stump in front of the other.

 

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My Father as a Short Story

LTCLost In Track Changes is an ongoing literary remix experiment featuring Cate Kennedy, Fiona Capp, Krissy Kneen, Ryan O’Neill and Robert Hoge. Starting from a short work of memoir, the authors remix each other’s work in series, with changes tracked between.

Lost in Track Changes is coming to paper and ink. We’ll be launching the print edition of the project at Avid Reader in Brisbane on Tuesday 2 December. And it’s free to come. Book now.

How much is true? Robert Hoge poses an impossible question as he brings another series of change-tracked remixes to their conclusion. Use the tabs to flick between versions of the story. The source of the remixes is an original memoir My Father as a Short Story by Ryan O’Neill. Read it here.

Well, you’ll make up your own mind, so I may as well just tell it. The words are the words; the truth—as almost always—is woven between them; not from them. But hear this: none of this is true, except the start and the ending.

Starting logically: my father, born July 20, 1935 on the third floor of the tenement building in the east end of Glasgow. The words written, the story falls fatally silent. I put my hand to the baby’s chest and found no breath in him. A father, dead still; still-born.

Starting in faith: St Bridget’s chapel, Edinburgh, where my father and mother married on August 3, 1971. Words raining down on the blank pages with the dry rustle of thrown rice. Over the next three days the rice swelled. A blue mould set, changing the scent of the words. I could not read my work without feeling slightly nauseous. Sickened by sentences, lost in a language that does not feel my own.

Starting abroad: later, looking through the manuscript, I touched a page and found the paper slick with the slime of spit. When my father did his National Service in Egypt, one of his duties was to serve his officer tea in bed in the morning. Before adding the hot water, my father would spit in the mug. This part I know to be true. I saw him do it once to a neighbour, who had asked to borrow father’s axe, then used it to dig rocks from the grass. Now, reading over the words that were worthy of derision, I picked up the wad of paper and placed it warily in the recycling bin.

Starting afresh.

Starting on the page: this time, instead of spitting on them, my father collapsed on them, folded to the floor and rested there, damaged, the blood leaking out into his brain for three treacherous hours. 5 February 1989. After the stroke he lost language. It was stolen from him, replaced by a limp. He stared out from the dumb pages, frustrated; in pain. When I tried to move him from one page to the other I discovered he could barely limp through the narrative.

Starting again: at the end this time, desperate for a story circle. The last conversation I had with him: March 18, 2012. I recorded each sentence, word for word, and yet when I read back over the work the words were barely recognisable—no meaning and no context. Syllables without sense.

Ending in mystery: I wrote a life as a crime, a story in which I killed him by fracturing his skull with an encyclopaedia. Freud nodded his sage head as, free of the spectre of my father, I was now free to make passionate love to my mother. I reached for her brassiere, then stopped. Ludicrous. I tore up the offending page.

Ending in fantasy: typing the words: ‘My father often told me that he loved me’ would make them true. I typed them and my father spoke them, but the corner of his mouth turned upward in a sneer. The inflection was all wrong.

Ending at the beginning: my father needed an easier life. He needed joy. I rewrote his childhood. I removed the boy who used to beat him up each afternoon after school. I invented a long, lovely romance for him and my mother, with a wedding dress for her that was tight about her waist because in this version of her life she was not already pregnant. Godlike, I cleared the blockage in my father’s brain and blessed his future with language. In this forgiving narrative my father published books, became a celebrated author. I stood in line at his book launch, my copy of his book pressed open to the title page. To my son, wrote my father. There was a pause.

Ending in in charge: I held my father’s pen. With love. I made the marks on the page, but when my father pushed the book across the signing table there was an ironic underline under the word love. There were little hearts and crosses. My father grinned like a manic cherub. I glanced down to see the edges of the heart dissolving. Again, he spat on the page.

Ending in revelation: one afternoon last year, I had an epiphany stuck in a crowded waiting room for an hour and a half before I could see a doctor. I had finished the novel I was reading, and all the magazines were already taken, so for something to read I picked a pamphlet at random from a plastic rack on the wall. When I finished it, I realised that my father had been depressed for most of his adult life. And so, it turned out, had I.

The truth: that night I went to bed early. The edge of sleep rushed towards me but I did not fall over. I was drifting, thinking about how it would be breakfast in Scotland, the hour my father used to call, on the rare occasions that he did. And then my phone started ringing at the other end of my house.  I scrambled out of bed, then stopped. I could see him there in the hallway of his house in Scotland, the phone pressed to his ear.  The phone switched on to the answering machine just before I could reach it.

‘Hello?’ I heard my father say, ‘Hello?’

These are the words I wrote down.

All of this is true except the start and the ending.

 

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I started logically, or tried to. My father, born on the third floor of the tenement building in the east end of Glasgow, on 20 July 1935. I wrote these words then felt the story fall fatally silent. I put my hand on the baby’s chest and found there was no breath in him. A father still-born.

I began again. St Bridget’s chapel in Edinburgh, where my father and mother were married on 3 August 1971. Words raining down on the blank pages with the dry rustle of thrown rice. Over the next three days the rice swelled. A blue mould set in, changing the scent of the words. I could not read my own work without feeling slightly nauseous.

Later, looking through the manuscript, I touched a page and found the paper slick with the slime of spit. When my father did his National Service in Egypt, one of his duties was to serve his officer tea in bed in the morning. Before adding the hot water, my father would spit in the mug. Now, reading over the words that were worthy of derision, I picked up the wad of paper and placed it warily in the recycling bin.

Began again.

Fresh clean pages.

Only this time, instead of spitting on them, my father collapsed on them, folded to the floor and rested there, damaged, the blood leaking out into his brain for three treacherous hours. 5 February 1989. After the stroke he lost the power of language. He stared out from the dumb pages, frustrated and in pain. When I tried to move him from one page to the other I discovered that he could barely limp through the narrative.

I began again. At the end this time, desperate for a circling narrative. The last conversation I had with him: 18 March 2012. I recorded each sentence, word by word, and yet when I read back over the work the words were barely recognisable, providing no meaning and no context.

Nothing but more paper for the recycling bin.

More desperation. I tried a mystery in which I killed him by fracturing his skull with an encyclopaedia. Freud nodded his sage head as, free of the spectre of my father, I was now free to make passionate love to my mother. I reached for her brassiere, then stopped. Ludicrous. I tore up the offending page.

I tried fantasy. Typing the words: ‘My father often told me that he loved me’ would make them true. I typed them and my father spoke them, but the corner of his mouth turned upward in a sneer. The inflection was all wrong.

My father needed an easier life. He needed joy. I rewrote his childhood. I removed the boy who used to beat him up each afternoon after school. I invented a long and lovely romance for him and my mother, with a wedding dress for her that was tight about her waist because in this version of her life she was not already pregnant. Godlike, I cleared the blockage in my father’s brain and blessed his future with language. In this new, forgiving narrative my father published books, became a celebrated author. I stood in line at his book launch, my copy of his book pressed open to the title page. To my son, wrote my father. There was a pause.

I was in charge of the story. I held my father’s pen. With love. I made the marks on the page, but when my father pushed the book across the signing table there was an ironic underline under the word love. There were little hearts and crosses. My father grinned like a manic cherub. I glanced down to see the edges of the heart dissolving. He had, yet again, spat on the page.

One afternoon last year, I had an epiphany while sitting in a crowded waiting room for an hour and a half before I could see a doctor. I had finished the novel I was reading, and all the magazines were already taken, so for something to read I picked a pamphlet at random from a plastic rack on the wall. When I finished it, I realised that my father had been depressed for most of his adult life. And so, it turned out, had I.

That night I went to bed early and was in that state between waking and dreaming when your mind does strange things. I was drifting, thinking about how it would be breakfast time in Scotland, the hour that my father used to call, on the rare occasions that he did. And then my phone started ringing at the other end of my house.

I scrambled out of bed, then stopped. I could see my father standing in the hallway of his house in Scotland, the phone pressed to his ear.

The phone switched on to the answering machine just before I could reach it.

‘Hello?’ I heard my father say, ‘Hello?’

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My Father as a Short Story

LTCLost In Track Changes is an ongoing literary remix experiment featuring Cate Kennedy, Fiona Capp, Krissy Kneen, Ryan O’Neill and Robert Hoge. Starting from a short work of memoir, the authors remix each other’s work in series, with changes tracked between.

Lost in Track Changes is coming to paper and ink. We’ll be launching the print edition of the project at Avid Reader in Brisbane on Tuesday 2 December. And it’s free to come. Book now.

Artifice and reality blend as Cate Kennedy takes up the remixer’s baton this week from Krissy Kneen. Use the tabs to flick between versions of the story. The source of the remixes is an original memoir My Father as a Short Story by Ryan O’Neill. Read it here.

I started logically, or tried to. My father, born on the third floor of the tenement building in the east end of Glasgow, on 20 July 1935. I wrote these words then felt the story fall fatally silent. I put my hand on the baby’s chest and found there was no breath in him. A father still-born.

I began again. St Bridget’s chapel in Edinburgh, where my father and mother were married on 3 August 1971. Words raining down on the blank pages with the dry rustle of thrown rice. Over the next three days the rice swelled. A blue mould set in, changing the scent of the words. I could not read my own work without feeling slightly nauseous.

Later, looking through the manuscript, I touched a page and found the paper slick with the slime of spit. When my father did his National Service in Egypt, one of his duties was to serve his officer tea in bed in the morning. Before adding the hot water, my father would spit in the mug. Now, reading over the words that were worthy of derision, I picked up the wad of paper and placed it warily in the recycling bin.

Began again.

Fresh clean pages.

Only this time, instead of spitting on them, my father collapsed on them, folded to the floor and rested there, damaged, the blood leaking out into his brain for three treacherous hours. 5 February 1989. After the stroke he lost the power of language. He stared out from the dumb pages, frustrated and in pain. When I tried to move him from one page to the other I discovered that he could barely limp through the narrative.

I began again. At the end this time, desperate for a circling narrative. The last conversation I had with him: 18 March 2012. I recorded each sentence, word by word, and yet when I read back over the work the words were barely recognisable, providing no meaning and no context.

Nothing but more paper for the recycling bin.

More desperation. I tried a mystery in which I killed him by fracturing his skull with an encyclopaedia. Freud nodded his sage head as, free of the spectre of my father, I was now free to make passionate love to my mother. I reached for her brassiere, then stopped. Ludicrous. I tore up the offending page.

I tried fantasy. Typing the words: ‘My father often told me that he loved me’ would make them true. I typed them and my father spoke them, but the corner of his mouth turned upward in a sneer. The inflection was all wrong.

My father needed an easier life. He needed joy. I rewrote his childhood. I removed the boy who used to beat him up each afternoon after school. I invented a long and lovely romance for him and my mother, with a wedding dress for her that was tight about her waist because in this version of her life she was not already pregnant. Godlike, I cleared the blockage in my father’s brain and blessed his future with language. In this new, forgiving narrative my father published books, became a celebrated author. I stood in line at his book launch, my copy of his book pressed open to the title page. To my son, wrote my father. There was a pause.

I was in charge of the story. I held my father’s pen. With love. I made the marks on the page, but when my father pushed the book across the signing table there was an ironic underline under the word love. There were little hearts and crosses. My father grinned like a manic cherub. I glanced down to see the edges of the heart dissolving. He had, yet again, spat on the page.

One afternoon last year, I had an epiphany while sitting in a crowded waiting room for an hour and a half before I could see a doctor. I had finished the novel I was reading, and all the magazines were already taken, so for something to read I picked a pamphlet at random from a plastic rack on the wall. When I finished it, I realised that my father had been depressed for most of his adult life. And so, it turned out, had I.

That night I went to bed early and was in that state between waking and dreaming when your mind does strange things. I was drifting, thinking about how it would be breakfast time in Scotland, the hour that my father used to call, on the rare occasions that he did. And then my phone started ringing at the other end of my house.

I scrambled out of bed, then stopped. I could see my father standing in the hallway of his house in Scotland, the phone pressed to his ear.

The phone switched on to the answering machine just before I could reach it.

‘Hello?’ I heard my father say, ‘Hello?’

 

if-book thumbnail

The father spat on the writer’s story.

When the writer’s father did his National Service in Egypt, one of his duties was to serve his officer tea in bed in the morning. Before adding the hot water, his father would spit in the mug.

Later, the writer was looking through the manuscript about his father. He touched the page, found the paper slick with the slime of spit. He took it as a criticism, reading over the words that were worthy of derision. He picked up the wad of paper and placed it warily in the recycling bin.

He began again. This time the story started with the writer’s father being born on the third floor of the tenement building in the east end of Glasgow, on 20 July 1935. The writer came back to the manuscript and put his hand on the baby’s chest and found there was no breath in him. A father still-born. The death of a writer.

St Bridget’s chapel in Edinburgh where his father and mother were married on 3 August 1971. Words raining down on the blank pages with the dry rustle of thrown rice. Over the next three days the rice swelled. A blue mould set in, changing the scent of the words. The writer could not read his own work without feeling slightly nauseous.

Fresh clean pages and the writer’s father collapsing on them, folded to the floor and resting there, damaged, the blood leaking out into his brain for three treacherous hours. 5 February 1989. After the stroke the writer’s father lost the power of language, he stared out from the dumb pages, frustrated and in pain. When the writer tried to move him from one page to the other he discovered that the man could barely limp through the narrative.

And so, beginning at the end, the writer chose a circling narrative. The last conversation between the writer and his father. 18 March 2012. The writer recorded each sentence, word by word and yet when he read back over the work he discovered there was no content, no meaning. The words were barely recognisable, providing no meaning and no context.

More paper for the recycling bin.

He flirted with the idea of a mystery in which the writer kills his father by fracturing his skull with an encyclopaedia. Freud nodded his sage head. Free of the spectre of his father, the writer was now free to make passionate love to his mother. The writer reached for her brassiere. The writer stopped, tore up the offending page.

In desperation, he decided to shake off the shackles of the real world and try fantasy. All the wrongs of their relationship could be righted. Typing the words, ‘My father often told me that he loved me’ would make them true. He typed the words and his father spoke them, but the corner of his mouth turned upward in a sneer and the words were damaged by his inflection.

His father needed an easier life. He needed joy. The writer rewrote his father’s childhood. Removing the boy who used to beat him up each afternoon after school. He invented a long and lovely romance for his parents, a wedding dress for his mother that was tight about her waist because in this version of her life she was not already pregnant. He cleared the blockage in his father’s brain and blessed his future with language. In this new, forgiving narrative his father published books, became a celebrated author. The writer stood in line at his father’s book launch. He pressed the book open to the title page. To my son, wrote his father, pausing. The writer was in charge of the story. The writer held his father’s pen. With love. The writer made the marks on the page, but when the father pushed the book across the signing table there was an ironic underline under the word love. There were little hearts and crosses. His father grinned like a manic cherub. The writer glanced down to see the edges of the heart dissolving. His father had, yet again, spat on the page.

One afternoon last year, the writer had an epiphany while sitting in a crowded waiting room for an hour and a half before he could see a doctor. He soon finished the novel he was reading, and all the magazines were already taken, so for something to read he picked a pamphlet at random from a plastic rack on the wall. When he finished it, he realised that his father had been depressed for most of his adult life. And so, it turned out, had he.

That night he went to bed early and was in that state between waking and dreaming when your mind does strange things. He was thinking about how it would be breakfast time in Scotland, the hour that his father used to call, on the rare occasions that he did. And then the writer’s phone started ringing at the other end of his house.

He scrambled out of bed. He stopped. He could see his father standing in the hallway of his house in Scotland, the phone pressed to his ear.

The phone switched on to the answering machine just before the writer could reach it.

‘Hello?’ he heard his father say. ‘Hello?’

 

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Track Changes Salon

LITC_FrontLost in Track Changes is morphing into book form and we’re celebrating with a salon event on 2nd December at Avid Reader bookstore.

Join Cate Kennedy, Ryan O’Neill, Fiona Capp, Robert Hoge, and Krissy Kneen as they take the personal and intimate craft of memoir and turn it over to the cut-and-paste transformation of remix culture, combined with a hint of old-fashioned parlour games.

Edited by Simon Groth, Lost in Track Changes is a project from if:book Australia featuring the talents of five incredible Australian authors. It begins with a short piece of memoir, a vignette. Each of these pieces is passed onto another author within the group, tasked with transforming the piece into something else. The newly minted remix is passed along again and so on until each of the pieces have passed through all five authors.

Lost in Track Changes follows the journey of each memoir piece through its transformation, with hints of the changes tracked between. But it doesn’t stop there. This is a book in which you are encouraged to take part and make your own changes: highlight, cross out, make additions, even tear whole pages out. Lost in Track Changes is your book. Where we go from here is up to you.

At the Track Changes Salon, we will follow one story’s journey from personal reflection to futuristic dystopia to memorial poem for an imagined hack author.

It’s free to come but bookings are essential.

Where: Avid Reader Bookshop , 193 Boundary St, West End, Brisbane, Queensland 4101 (AU).
Date: Tuesday, 2, December, 2014
Time: 6:00:pm –   8:00:pm

BOOK NOW

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Memory Makes Us See

so many memories have pressed on the ribbons / so
many rhythms crashed out on the keys
people passing through stepping back
into over around finding / or even avoiding
some fabulous forgotten feeling
or some uncomfortable childhood dream

memory makes us
memory makes us see

— Maxine Beneba Clarke, 1 November 2014

MMUAfter stops in four Australian cities, covering 18,887 km, and featuring the talents of eleven extraordinary authors, we have closed the book on Memory Makes Us for 2014.

Memory Makes Us, an ongoing experiment that creates an interface between writers and readers that blurs the boundaries of their roles in the creative process.

In its second year, the project expanded from a one-off experiment into a series of live writing events. Presented by if:book Australia in partnership with local festivals, Memory Makes Us challenged writers in Darwin, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to create a new work live before an audience.

During the event, the audience both online and in person was invited to make contributions to the writing in progress.

Our thanks go to all our contributing authors who were brave enough to create something in full view of an audience both face to face and online, their every keystroke visible to the world:

  • Marie Munkara
  • Levin Diatschenko
  • Kamarra Bell-Wykes
  • Paddy O’Reilly
  • Nicholas J Johnson
  • Angela Meyer
  • Josephine Moon
  • Sean Williams
  • Warsan Shire
  • Kate Fielding
  • Maxine Beneba Clarke

Thanks also go to participating festivals without whom none of this would be possible:

  • Wordstorm
  • Melbourne Writers Festival
  • Brisbane Writers Festival
  • Disrupted Festival of Ideas

Also a huge shout out to the Australia Council for the Arts who has supported if:book’s vision for literature that sometimes looks bookish and sometimes does not.

We are currently working to upload the typwritten memories from each event to complete the text for Memory Makes Us. Not long after that, though, everything will begin to fade away. Memory Makes Us was always intended as an ephemeral project and eventually, like all memories nothing will remain.

So read it now.

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My Father as a Short Story

LTCLost In Track Changes is an ongoing literary remix experiment featuring Cate Kennedy, Fiona Capp, Krissy Kneen, Ryan O’Neill and Robert Hoge. Starting from a short work of memoir, the authors remix each other’s work in series, with changes tracked between.

This week, Krissy Kneen riffs her remix of Ryan O’Neill’s memoir via Fiona Capp. Use the tabs to flick between versions of the story. The source of the remixes is an original memoir My Father as a Short Story by Ryan O’Neill. Read it here.

The father spat on the writer’s story.

When the writer’s father did his National Service in Egypt, one of his duties was to serve his officer tea in bed in the morning. Before adding the hot water, his father would spit in the mug.

Later, the writer was looking through the manuscript about his father. He touched the page, found the paper slick with the slime of spit. He took it as a criticism, reading over the words that were worthy of derision. He picked up the wad of paper and placed it warily in the recycling bin.

He began again. This time the story started with the writer’s father being born on the third floor of the tenement building in the east end of Glasgow, on 20 July 1935. The writer came back to the manuscript and put his hand on the baby’s chest and found there was no breath in him. A father still-born. The death of a writer.

St Bridget’s chapel in Edinburgh where his father and mother were married on 3 August 1971. Words raining down on the blank pages with the dry rustle of thrown rice. Over the next three days the rice swelled. A blue mould set in, changing the scent of the words. The writer could not read his own work without feeling slightly nauseous.

Fresh clean pages and the writer’s father collapsing on them, folded to the floor and resting there, damaged, the blood leaking out into his brain for three treacherous hours. 5 February 1989. After the stroke the writer’s father lost the power of language, he stared out from the dumb pages, frustrated and in pain. When the writer tried to move him from one page to the other he discovered that the man could barely limp through the narrative.

And so, beginning at the end, the writer chose a circling narrative. The last conversation between the writer and his father. 18 March 2012. The writer recorded each sentence, word by word and yet when he read back over the work he discovered there was no content, no meaning. The words were barely recognisable, providing no meaning and no context.

More paper for the recycling bin.

He flirted with the idea of a mystery in which the writer kills his father by fracturing his skull with an encyclopaedia. Freud nodded his sage head. Free of the spectre of his father, the writer was now free to make passionate love to his mother. The writer reached for her brassiere. The writer stopped, tore up the offending page.

In desperation, he decided to shake off the shackles of the real world and try fantasy. All the wrongs of their relationship could be righted. Typing the words, ‘My father often told me that he loved me’ would make them true. He typed the words and his father spoke them, but the corner of his mouth turned upward in a sneer and the words were damaged by his inflection.

His father needed an easier life. He needed joy. The writer rewrote his father’s childhood. Removing the boy who used to beat him up each afternoon after school. He invented a long and lovely romance for his parents, a wedding dress for his mother that was tight about her waist because in this version of her life she was not already pregnant. He cleared the blockage in his father’s brain and blessed his future with language. In this new, forgiving narrative his father published books, became a celebrated author. The writer stood in line at his father’s book launch. He pressed the book open to the title page. To my son, wrote his father, pausing. The writer was in charge of the story. The writer held his father’s pen. With love. The writer made the marks on the page, but when the father pushed the book across the signing table there was an ironic underline under the word love. There were little hearts and crosses. His father grinned like a manic cherub. The writer glanced down to see the edges of the heart dissolving. His father had, yet again, spat on the page.

One afternoon last year, the writer had an epiphany while sitting in a crowded waiting room for an hour and a half before he could see a doctor. He soon finished the novel he was reading, and all the magazines were already taken, so for something to read he picked a pamphlet at random from a plastic rack on the wall. When he finished it, he realised that his father had been depressed for most of his adult life. And so, it turned out, had he.

That night he went to bed early and was in that state between waking and dreaming when your mind does strange things. He was thinking about how it would be breakfast time in Scotland, the hour that his father used to call, on the rare occasions that he did. And then the writer’s phone started ringing at the other end of his house.

He scrambled out of bed. He stopped. He could see his father standing in the hallway of his house in Scotland, the phone pressed to his ear.

The phone switched on to the answering machine just before the writer could reach it.

‘Hello?’ he heard his father say. ‘Hello?’

 

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The writer’s father was gone and nothing could change that. But writing could perform miracles that life didn’t permit. It could resurrect people from the dead and that’s what he wanted to do, to bring his father to life on the page if not in the world.

He had thought that death would clarify things, that his father would develop sharp outlines like a character in a book, that his life would take on a satisfying shape, that he would finally make sense to him in a way that he hadn’t in life. But his father had always been an ornery character. When he did his National Service in Egypt, he was promoted to corporal, and made an officer’s servant, or ‘batman’. One of his duties was to serve his officer tea in bed in the morning. Before adding the hot water, his father would spit in the mug. The writer couldn’t shake the feeling that his father would regard his story with the same disdain. That he would sabotage it from the grave. He always had to have the last word.

How to begin? The obvious place to start was his father’s birth on the third floor of the tenement building in the east end of Glasgow, on 20 July 1935… Or maybe St Bridget’s chapel in Edinburgh where his father and mother were married on 3 August 1971… More dramatic would be his parents’ bedroom floor, where his father lay for three hours after having a stroke on the morning of 5 February 1989… Or his mother’s hospital bed in Glasgow Royal Infirmary when she died on 29 November 2011… If it was going to be about their relationship, perhaps the place to start was the end, the last time he spoke to his father on March 18 2012.

The problem was that these openings were so open-ended, he didn’t know where to go from there. What he was left with were resolutely stubborn facts that refused to be massaged into something larger and more meaningful. It occurred to him that perhaps he was being too literal-minded, that he was allowing himself to be straight-jacketed by the conventions of realism. Perhaps he needed to loosen up, to embrace other genres that might release his inner father, might set him free. He contemplated the possibilities. An alternative history, a counter-factual could be interesting. What if his father had not been invited to the wedding in 1969 where he met his mother, and the writer had never born? But that was an obvious non-starter. No writer, no story.

He flirted with the idea of a mystery in which he kills his father by fracturing his skull with an encyclopaedia. But that might look like he’d misunderstood Freud. His father might be a mystery to him but killing him wouldn’t solve the mystery.

He flirted even more briefly with the idea of a romance but couldn’t imagine his father in a romance. Comparing the dates on his birth certificate, and his parents’ wedding certificate, the writer realised the two dates were only six months apart. ‘Well, why did you think we got married?’ his father said.

For a while, writing a comic portrait seemed the obvious option. He thought about all the stories he could tell. On seeing a notice on the wall of his grandmother’s bathroom ‘What would Jesus do?’, his father added, ‘Wipe his arse, I would hope.’ And then there was the way his father spoke, which some people seemed to find funny. Och, Ah doan’t no son. Ma fuckin’ leegs are fucked, ye knaw? Ah’m gettin’ auld, it’s awfy fuckin’ rottun son, so it is. Lissen noo, hoo’s the weans? Hoo’s… Whit’s ‘er name… Hoo’s yer wife? Tell um Ah wiz askin’ fur um, wull ye? Haud oan a fuckin’ minute. Ah huv tae sit doon. (Oh, I don’t know, son. My legs are very sore. I’m getting old. It’s not nice. How are your children? And your wife? Please give them my regards. Now wait a moment. I need to sit down.) Aw, Christ, Ah miss yer maw, so Ah fuckin’ dae. Ah miss… Fur fuck’s sake! Hauld on! My fuckin’ brain’s fuckin’ fucked, thit’s whit’s wrang. Ah, Christ! Don’t google ut me like Ah’m fuckin’ daft. Whit the fuck’d ye knaw anyway? She hudnae seen ye for three years, ye reed-heeded bastard. Away tae fuck! (Oh God, I miss your mother. Oh, for goodness sake! Wait a moment. My mind is playing tricks on me. That’s the problem. Oh God. Don’t stare at me as if I am stupid. I’m not. What would you know about loss anyway? You hadn’t seen your mother for three years. You’re no son of mine. Go away.)

But it worried him that his father’s Glaswegian dialect didn’t translate well to the page. The ellipses and repetition caused by his stroke, and his use of the word ‘fuck’ as noun, verb, adjective, preposition, adverb, pronoun and conjunction also causes problems. Yet translating his words into Standard English made them lose much of their character. Tragi-comic as it might sound, this had been his last conversation with his father, a fact which somewhat blunted its comic edge.

In desperation, he decided to cut loose and try fantasy. All the wrongs of their relationship could be righted. If only typing the words, ‘My father often told me that he loved me’ would make them true. But it didn’t. And in the end, he had to write what was true. Why couldn’t he just tell it how it was? It wasn’t as though his father’s life lacked drama or conflict. His father was always at logger-heads with someone. His wife, his son, his neighbour’s cat, the postman, the Glasgow city council, the British Royal Family, Christianity, himself. None of this was surprising when you knew that when he was eight years old he was badly beaten by an older boy at school. When the writer’s grandfather discovered this, he forced his father to fight the boy once a week until his father won. This took four years.

Every year of his working life, his father counted how many years he had left before retiring at sixty-five, when he promised himself he would spend all his time reading. At fifty-four he had a stroke, and was never able to read another book, including the writer’s own, published twelve years later. If his father had been transformed by this blow, if he had mellowed or become angrier or more reflective, it would have give the writer a chance to capture the poignancy of his father’s plight. But his father remained unrepentantly unchanged. The same undemonstrative, irritable, vulgar, generous and intolerant man he’d always been.

One afternoon last year, the writer had an epiphany while sitting in a crowded waiting room for an hour and a half before he could see a doctor. He soon finished the novel he was reading, and all the magazines were already taken, so for something to read he picked a pamphlet at random from a plastic rack on the wall. When he finished it, he realised that his father had been depressed for most of his adult life. And so, it turned out, had he.

That night he went to bed early and was in that state between waking and dreaming when your mind does strange things. He was thinking about how it would be breakfast time in Scotland, the hour that his father used to call, on the rare occasions that he did. And then the writer’s phone started ringing at the other end of his house. As he scrambled out of bed, he could see his father standing in the hallway of his house in Scotland, the phone pressed to his ear. The phone switched on to the answering machine just before the writer could reach it.

‘Hello?’ he heard his father say. ‘Hello?’

 

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My Father as a Short Story

LTCLost In Track Changes is an ongoing literary remix experiment featuring Cate Kennedy, Fiona Capp, Krissy Kneen, Ryan O’Neill and Robert Hoge. Starting from a short work of memoir, the authors remix each other’s work in series, with changes tracked between.

Fiona Capp fashions a narrative from Ryon O’Neill’s bare story components, stitching it together (a theme that has emerged a few times in this project). Use the tabs to flick between versions of the story. The source of the remixes is an original memoir My Father as a Short Story by Ryan O’Neill. Read it here.

The writer’s father was gone and nothing could change that. But writing could perform miracles that life didn’t permit. It could resurrect people from the dead and that’s what he wanted to do, to bring his father to life on the page if not in the world.

He had thought that death would clarify things, that his father would develop sharp outlines like a character in a book, that his life would take on a satisfying shape, that he would finally make sense to him in a way that he hadn’t in life. But his father had always been an ornery character. When he did his National Service in Egypt, he was promoted to corporal, and made an officer’s servant, or ‘batman’. One of his duties was to serve his officer tea in bed in the morning. Before adding the hot water, his father would spit in the mug. The writer couldn’t shake the feeling that his father would regard his story with the same disdain. That he would sabotage it from the grave. He always had to have the last word.

How to begin? The obvious place to start was his father’s birth on the third floor of the tenement building in the east end of Glasgow, on 20 July 1935… Or maybe St Bridget’s chapel in Edinburgh where his father and mother were married on 3 August 1971… More dramatic would be his parents’ bedroom floor, where his father lay for three hours after having a stroke on the morning of 5 February 1989… Or his mother’s hospital bed in Glasgow Royal Infirmary when she died on 29 November 2011… If it was going to be about their relationship, perhaps the place to start was the end, the last time he spoke to his father on March 18 2012.

The problem was that these openings were so open-ended, he didn’t know where to go from there. What he was left with were resolutely stubborn facts that refused to be massaged into something larger and more meaningful. It occurred to him that perhaps he was being too literal-minded, that he was allowing himself to be straight-jacketed by the conventions of realism. Perhaps he needed to loosen up, to embrace other genres that might release his inner father, might set him free. He contemplated the possibilities. An alternative history, a counter-factual could be interesting. What if his father had not been invited to the wedding in 1969 where he met his mother, and the writer had never born? But that was an obvious non-starter. No writer, no story.

He flirted with the idea of a mystery in which he kills his father by fracturing his skull with an encyclopaedia. But that might look like he’d misunderstood Freud. His father might be a mystery to him but killing him wouldn’t solve the mystery.

He flirted even more briefly with the idea of a romance but couldn’t imagine his father in a romance. Comparing the dates on his birth certificate, and his parents’ wedding certificate, the writer realised the two dates were only six months apart. ‘Well, why did you think we got married?’ his father said.

For a while, writing a comic portrait seemed the obvious option. He thought about all the stories he could tell. On seeing a notice on the wall of his grandmother’s bathroom ‘What would Jesus do?’, his father added, ‘Wipe his arse, I would hope.’ And then there was the way his father spoke, which some people seemed to find funny. Och, Ah doan’t no son. Ma fuckin’ leegs are fucked, ye knaw? Ah’m gettin’ auld, it’s awfy fuckin’ rottun son, so it is. Lissen noo, hoo’s the weans? Hoo’s… Whit’s ‘er name… Hoo’s yer wife? Tell um Ah wiz askin’ fur um, wull ye? Haud oan a fuckin’ minute. Ah huv tae sit doon. (Oh, I don’t know, son. My legs are very sore. I’m getting old. It’s not nice. How are your children? And your wife? Please give them my regards. Now wait a moment. I need to sit down.) Aw, Christ, Ah miss yer maw, so Ah fuckin’ dae. Ah miss… Fur fuck’s sake! Hauld on! My fuckin’ brain’s fuckin’ fucked, thit’s whit’s wrang. Ah, Christ! Don’t google ut me like Ah’m fuckin’ daft. Whit the fuck’d ye knaw anyway? She hudnae seen ye for three years, ye reed-heeded bastard. Away tae fuck! (Oh God, I miss your mother. Oh, for goodness sake! Wait a moment. My mind is playing tricks on me. That’s the problem. Oh God. Don’t stare at me as if I am stupid. I’m not. What would you know about loss anyway? You hadn’t seen your mother for three years. You’re no son of mine. Go away.)

But it worried him that his father’s Glaswegian dialect didn’t translate well to the page. The ellipses and repetition caused by his stroke, and his use of the word ‘fuck’ as noun, verb, adjective, preposition, adverb, pronoun and conjunction also causes problems. Yet translating his words into Standard English made them lose much of their character. Tragi-comic as it might sound, this had been his last conversation with his father, a fact which somewhat blunted its comic edge.

In desperation, he decided to cut loose and try fantasy. All the wrongs of their relationship could be righted. If only typing the words, ‘My father often told me that he loved me’ would make them true. But it didn’t. And in the end, he had to write what was true. Why couldn’t he just tell it how it was? It wasn’t as though his father’s life lacked drama or conflict. His father was always at logger-heads with someone. His wife, his son, his neighbour’s cat, the postman, the Glasgow city council, the British Royal Family, Christianity, himself. None of this was surprising when you knew that when he was eight years old he was badly beaten by an older boy at school. When the writer’s grandfather discovered this, he forced his father to fight the boy once a week until his father won. This took four years.

Every year of his working life, his father counted how many years he had left before retiring at sixty-five, when he promised himself he would spend all his time reading. At fifty-four he had a stroke, and was never able to read another book, including the writer’s own, published twelve years later. If his father had been transformed by this blow, if he had mellowed or become angrier or more reflective, it would have give the writer a chance to capture the poignancy of his father’s plight. But his father remained unrepentantly unchanged. The same undemonstrative, irritable, vulgar, generous and intolerant man he’d always been.

One afternoon last year, the writer had an epiphany while sitting in a crowded waiting room for an hour and a half before he could see a doctor. He soon finished the novel he was reading, and all the magazines were already taken, so for something to read he picked a pamphlet at random from a plastic rack on the wall. When he finished it, he realised that his father had been depressed for most of his adult life. And so, it turned out, had he.

That night he went to bed early and was in that state between waking and dreaming when your mind does strange things. He was thinking about how it would be breakfast time in Scotland, the hour that his father used to call, on the rare occasions that he did. And then the writer’s phone started ringing at the other end of his house. As he scrambled out of bed, he could see his father standing in the hallway of his house in Scotland, the phone pressed to his ear. The phone switched on to the answering machine just before the writer could reach it.

‘Hello?’ he heard his father say. ‘Hello?’

 

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Beginning

On the third floor of the tenement building in the east end of Glasgow, where my father was born on 20 July 1935… Or at St Bridget’s chapel in Edinburgh where my father and mother were married on 3 August 1971… Or on my parents’ bedroom floor, where my father lay for three hours after having a stroke on the morning of 5 February 1989… Or by my mother’s hospital bed in Glasgow Royal Infirmary when she died on 29 November 2011… Or March 18 2012, the last time I spoke to my father.

Genre

Alternative History: My father is not invited to the wedding in 1969 where he meets my mother, and I am never born.

Fantasy: Typing the words, ‘My father often told me that he loved me’ would make them true.

Mystery: It turns out I killed my father by fracturing his skull with an encyclopaedia.

Romance: No. I can’t imagine my father in a romance.

Humorous: On seeing a notice on the wall of my grandmother’s bathroom, ‘What would Jesus do?’ my father added, ‘Wipe his arse, I would hope.’

Conflict

My father versus me.

or

My father versus my mother.

or

My father versus our neighbour’s cat.

or

My father versus the postman.

or

My father versus Glasgow city council.

or

My father versus the British Royal Family.

or

My father versus Christianity.

or

My father versus my father.

Characterisation

Explicit: When my father was eight years old, he was badly beaten by an older boy at school. When my grandfather discovered this, he forced my father to fight the boy once a week until my father won. This took four years.

Implicit: My father did his National Service in Egypt. Though he hated the army, he was soon promoted to corporal, and made an officer’s servant, or ‘batman’. One of his duties was to serve his officer tea in bed in the morning. Before adding the hot water, my father would spit in the mug.

Complication

Comparing the dates on my birth certificate, and my parents’ wedding certificate, I realised the two dates were only six months apart.

‘Well, why did you think we got married?’ my father said.

Dialogue

My father speaks in a Glaswegian dialect that doesn’t translate well to the page. The ellipses and repetition caused by his stroke, and his use of the word ‘fuck’ as noun, verb, adjective, preposition, adverb, pronoun and conjunction also causes problems. Yet translating his words into Standard English makes them lose much of their character, as can be seen in the example below, taken from our last conversation two years ago.

How my father talks (original) How my father talks (translated)
Och, Ah doan’t no son. Ma fuckin’ leegs are fucked, ye knaw? Ah’m gettin’ auld, it’s awfy fuckin’ rottun son, so it is. Lissen noo, hoo’s the weans? Hoo’s… Whit’s ‘er name… Hoo’s yer wife? Tell um Ah wiz askin’ fur um, wull ye? Haud oan a fuckin’ minute. Ah huv tae sit doon.Aw, Christ, Ah miss yer maw, so Ah fuckin’ dae. Ah miss… Fur fuck’s sake! Hauld on! My fuckin’ brain’s fuckin’ fucked, thit’s whit’s wrang. Ah, Christ! Don’t google ut me like Ah’m fuckin’ daft. Whit the fuck’d ye knaw anyway? She hudnae seen ye for three years, ye reed-heeded bastard. Away tae fuck! Oh, I don’t know, son. My legs are very sore. I’m getting old. It’s not nice. How are your children? And your wife? Please give them my regards. Now wait a moment. I need to sit down.Oh God, I miss your mother. Oh, for goodness sake! Wait a moment. My mind is playing tricks on me. That’s the problem. Oh God. Don’t stare at me as if I am stupid. I’m not. What would you know about loss anyway? You hadn’t seen your mother for three years. You’re no son of mine. Go away.

 

Symbolism

After school finished I would walk to the warehouse where my father worked for a protective footwear and clothing company. I was allowed to play there, if I kept out of the way. I would pull blue overalls over my school uniform, and put on a gas mask, earplugs, helmet, and huge steel-capped boots. Then I would walk slowly round the warehouse, listening to the sound of my own breathing.

Foreshadowing

Every year I can recall my father counting how many years he had left before retiring at sixty-five, when he promised himself he would spend all his time reading.

Dramatic Irony

At fifty-four he had a stroke, and was never able to read another book, including my own, published twelve years later.

Character Arc

                                                My father’s qualities

Beginning of story                                                                             End of story

Undemonstrative                                                                              Undemonstrative

Irritable                                                                                               Irritable

Vulgar                                                                                                 Vulgar

Generous                                                                                           Generous

Intolerant                                                                                           Intolerant

Plot

A writer eventually realises the futility of attempting to translate his father into a form the writer can understand.

Round Characters

My father.

Flat Characters

My mother.

A doctor.

Several nurses.

Cousins, aunts and uncles.

Me.

Epiphany

One afternoon last year, I had to sit in a crowded waiting room for an hour and a half before I could see a doctor. I soon finished the novel I was reading, and all the magazines were already taken, so for something to read I picked a pamphlet at random from a plastic rack on the wall. When I finished it, I realised that my father had been depressed for most of his adult life. And so, it turned out, had I.

Ending

A Twist Ending: My father died when I was two years old. I don’t remember anything about him.

A Closed Ending: After finishing this story, I never write or think about my father again.

An Open Ending: At nine o’clock at night here, it is eight o’clock in the morning in Scotland. If I call, my father will probably be in the kitchen when he hears the phone ringing. It might take a moment or two, as he is getting deaf. The phone is in the hallway, and he is always out of breath by the time he reaches it.

‘Hello?’ he’ll say. ‘Hello?’

‘It’s me.’ I’ll say. ‘Your son.’

 

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This is the future of the book, but not the one you were expecting.