On being bad at playing the piano
January 31, 2013 — 22:18

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: learning the piano music and literature writers' residencies  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 2


My father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for a decade before he died in December 2001. For about half of that decade, he no longer recognized me as his daughter. My father lived with my mother at Point Lonsdale on the south coast of Victoria. I lived with my growing family in Canberra. My visits were infrequent. I could, and have, blamed myself for this. But almost till the end of his life, my father and I and I listened to music together.

Several areas of the brain are involved in our ability to remember music, scientific research tells us, and different localized brain regions are activated when we respond to music with opposite emotions, for example sadness, or happiness. I’ve written an essay about music and forgetting, and my father’s Alzheimer’s. If you’re interested, you can read the essay here.

While I was writing it, I was reminded of the different pianos I have played – and yes, played badly for the most part! Those memories didn’t fit into the essay; they seemed unwarranted digressions; but I’ve decided to give them some kind of outing in this blog post.

One time I arrived at Point Lonsdale by myself. I climbed the steps and knocked on the door.

My father opened it. ‘Who are you?’ he asked me.

At about the time my father forgot who I was, I started playing the piano again. I had learnt for three years as a child, from the age of eight till eleven. When I think about those music lessons, what I remember most is the unpleasantness of travelling to and from them, on an old, heavy bike, up and down Belmont hill. In my recollection of these rides, it was nearly always cold and often raining. The house was dark and the piano teacher grumpy. The piano was dark as well, with a winter lamp on top, alongside piles of music.

My clumsy hands seemed embarrassingly spotlit, and the smell of the face powder my teacher wore made me feel like choking.

Hers was an upright piano, as ours was at home, passed down through generations. It has never occurred to me till now to think of my piano teacher as living on the breadline, but she clearly was.

The piano belonging to my family is an old Randall upright, which my grandmother used to play before handing it on to her daughter, then to me.

That piano, in the house in Geelong where I grew up, sat in a sunny corner of the living-room. I hated practising and wanted to learn ballet instead, like my friend.

It is the melody in music, some researchers say, that makes our minds hold onto it the way they do. When I took up the piano again, thirty years after I had dropped it, it was to learn, haltingly and over several months, Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat Major, written in that extraordinarily productive year before he died. I could not play the piece at the proper speed; hence the melody was wrong. But my slower speed didn’t bother me. Indeed, I found it an aid to memory. Images of my father as a healthy younger man, a man who recognized his daughter, came into my mind unbidden, and were a comfort to me as I played.


Ledig House

Ledig House


A few years ago, when I was staying at Ledig House, a writers’ residency in New York State, I discovered that, just before I arrived, the piano had been moved from the communal room, where it was okay to make a noise, to the ground floor of a barn that had been converted to living quarters. This floor held computers and a fax machine, but people slept and worked on the other sides of thin wooden walls.

Undaunted – I had asked beforehand if I would be able to practise the piano and was told yes, no problem – I asked the other writers if they would mind me playing for half an hour before dinner. Nobody objected. In fact, to my face they were very nice about it. But one evening, as I was sitting down to my allotted half hour, a team of young people arrived. Their leader, a robust, sunny-haired man, told me they’d been instructed to move the piano back into the main house. I knew why immediately, and it seemed, from the expressions on their faces, that the movers did as well. I wondered who had complained about the noise, and why the complainant had said nothing to me directly.

The piano at Ledig House had not been well looked after. The D sharp/E flat note didn’t work at all. During my stay, I learnt the whole piano part of a Schubert trio leaving out one essential note. But I took my music with me to Boston, where I’d been invited to give a conference paper. I could only afford to stay at the conference hotel for two nights, and the rest of the time I spent at the Boston YWCA. This remarkable building, with over three hundred rooms, is home to some of the city’s poorest women, quite a few getting about in wheelchairs, or walking the corridors with oxygen tanks on trolleys trailing behind them.

There were two pianos – one a grand in full view of the entrance foyer, another in a practice room in the bowels of the building, next door to the kitchens. This practice room was always in use. Guests booked ahead and lined up for a key at the front desk. All of a sudden, I had an E flat again. Thrilled by the soundproofing, I pounded out my trio.

The following year, I was lucky enough to be invited to another writers’ house, in Switzerland this time, at an eighteenth century chateau called Lavigny.

That piano was an old upright as well, hidden behind a screen in a corner of a living-room that was more like an opulent reception area filled with antique furniture. My piano and I shared our hidey-hole with a television set that nobody bothered to plug in and watch the whole time I was there.

Here is the living-room at Chateau de Lavigny during a reading. You can just see the screen on the left hand side, concealing the piano.


The living-room at Lavigny

The living-room at Lavigny


By then I’d moved on from Schubert to Chopin – of course, once again, far too hard for me.  My three weeks in Switzerland were spent learning his Nocturne in E minor. Though tucked behind the screen, the piano wasn’t far from the short-cut everybody took to the alcove housing the computers we used to check our email. (There wasn’t any wi-fi.)

When somebody went past, I stopped and waited. I always played softly, but this suited the Nocturne.

Now I sit at what has become my piano – no one else lays claim to it, or no one who is still alive – searching out the spaces between notes and chords. I count each rest, having lately bought a metronome, and wonder what resemblance mid-way silences have to the final one.

When I heard the Schubert Impromptu on the car radio and found the sheet music and decided to open a lid that had been closed for a generation, I didn’t think of my father immediately. Images came later, and most often when I paused with my hands just above the notes. Dad was never sick and old in them. The front steps up which I climbed to hear that unanswerable question were less worn.

The Next Big Thing
January 24, 2013 — 22:40

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: 7 Writers Anthologies Austraian literary history Canberra literary communities short stories  Tags: , ,   Comments: 0

Irma Gold tagged me for the ‘Next Big Thing’. If you haven’t reached this post from her blog post about the next big thing then you can read it here.

What is ‘The Next Big Thing’? It’s like one of those old-fashioned chain letters where authors promote their own work and tag five of their colleagues to create a huge network of linked web and facebook pages about what everyone hopes will be ‘The Next Big Thing’.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Nine Pieces on Prostitution

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The book will be a collection of my prostitution stories written over some thirty years, so obviously ideas for stories came from different places; but one, which is a very long story, almost novella length was inspired by a client dying ‘on the job’ as it were, and what the women did with the body.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Short stories

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Now that’s a curly one: I can’t somehow see a movie of a short story collection; but one, in particular, I think would make a great movie. It’s called ‘An Artist’s Story’ and is about an architect who’s hired to design a brothel, and her friend, ho becomes involved with the house, and the women who work there. The female lead I envisage being played by Cate Blanchett. The music score would include lots of Tracy Chapman.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A collection of stories on a theme that has intrigued me for my entire writing life.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I plan to self-publish the collection on Smashwords.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

No single story took me very long, perhaps a couple of months for ‘Where The Ladders Start’, the longest in the collection.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

John Clanchy’s ‘Her Father’s Daughter’ is a collection of stories on the theme of father/daughter relationships, and, since I admire Clanchy’s writing very much, I’ll be so bold as to cite it here. While there are obviously plenty of short story collections based around a theme, I really don’t think there is much of a precedent for my ‘Nine Pieces’.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My first novel, Tunnel Vision is set in a Melbourne massage parlour in the 1970s, and the oldest story in ‘Nine Pieces’ was written in the ‘70s as well. I think it was the extreme oddness of the sex industry in Melbourne at that time, the theatricality and subterfuge and madness! of it that got me in, and that has stayed with me.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Some – more than half – the stories are very Canberra. I think prostitution is a great way to write about the underside of our national capital. I would also like to mention that one of the stories, titled ‘Mrs B’ has been chosen for inclusion in Meanjin’s Canberra centenary issue. I’ll be writing about this special issue in a later post.
If you’d like to read more about Nine Pieces on Prostitution you can do so here.

I have tagged Lucy Sussex

Lucy Sussex is a writer, reviewer and editor, whose work ranges from children’s writing to the herstory of women crime writers. She has either written or edited over 20 books, published internationally. Her next big thing, deadline July, is VICTORIAN BLOCKBUSTER: FERGUS HUME AND THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB. It looks at the story behind the biggest-selling detective novel of the 1800s, one which created the market for Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. VB touches on much, from theatre history to a copycat murder, and how a small-press book from the colonies conquered the crime-reading world.

And Margaret Innes, who says,

I have one completed manuscript of contemporary fiction titled A Bracelet of Bright Hair requiring some redrafting. I’m also well into an historical novel City of Men where I examine the life of one of the earliest surgeons, William Redfern. Writing this has proved one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a writer.

Maureen Cashman writes

The flyleaf note of Maureen Cashman’s memoir, ‘Charlie and Me in
Val-Paradis’ published by Simon and Schuster in 2008, begins, ‘With a
poodle clutched in one arm and notes for an epic historical novel in
the other’. That epic historical novel is still simmering away, but
meanwhile, Maureen is working on a story that’s been on her backburner
much longer. We will soon be able to read twelve-year-old Francie
Keegan’s Secret Compositions, written in 1956, which tell the real
story of her life and of the bizarre events of her last year in
primary school at the mercy of a manipulative teacher.


Republics of Letters
January 20, 2013 — 23:01

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: 7 Writers Austraian literary history Canberra literary communities  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 6

This post is a follow-on from my last one, in that I’m writing it out of a resurgence of memories regarding literary Canberra. A nice bit of serendipity over the weekend has resulted in my website going live at the same time as James Ley’s review of ‘Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia’, edited by Peter Kirkpatrick and Robert Dixon, was published in The Australian. It’s a thoughtful review, engaging with the book’s arguments about literary communities and the fraught nature of the term, and including a wide range of examples.

And it’s taken me back to D’Arcy Randall’s chapter on 7 Writers.

D’Arcy begins by remarking how, in ‘the 1970s, Australia’s thriving literary scene was typically associated with networks of male writers in such urban bohemian venues as Balmain in Sydney and Carlton in Melbourne.’

And how well I remember that! I was trying to be a writer in Carlton in the ‘70s and it was very important to drink in the right pubs, and to look the part. When my journalist partner was offered a job in the Press Gallery, instead of moving to Canberra with him, I decided on a foolish geographical compromise called Sydney. Then, after ten months on the highway – I was often too poor to afford the train fare and I’m lucky I didn’t end up buried in the Belanglo State forest – I gave in and settled in Canberra.

The relief was enormous. Here was a small, feisty literary community – and yes, I use the term ‘community’ aware that contains many kinds of ambivalence – where it didn’t matter what pub you drank in, or if you drank in any pub at all.

D’Arcy has been painstaking in gathering information about our writers’ group – where we met, how often, what we did, how many books we published between us. How torn we often were!

Of course, we’re still publishing, but 7 Writers ended its collective life in the late 1990s, and with, its end, the centrifugal pull, the push outwards, the ongoing battle between solitary creative compulsion and the possibility of actually sharing flowed away.

I’ve always liked Edith Wharton’s description of how writers view their work, indeed are forced to view their work, from the back of the tapestry. They can’t walk around the front and look at it; this is an impossibility. Well, writers’ groups are like that too, I’m discovering. It’s a strange, unsettling, delightful experience to have something you participated in, were intimate with, for almost twenty years, presented from the right side of the tapestry, but without the presentation glossing over or hiding the knots. Thank you, D’Arcy!

And ‘Republics of Letters’ contains other treats as well, including a chapter on my favourite Australian writer, Christina Stead and her no-longer neglected masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children.

* D’Arcy Randall was born and educated in the US, but during the 1980s she lived in Brisbane, where she was senior editor at the University of Queensland Press. She there worked with Marian Eldridge and Marion Halligan on their first books. After returning to the US, she founded the journal Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and began a teaching career at the University of Texas at Austin.