Has everyone seen the film The Five Obstructions? (IMDB) It features two players: a protagonist, Jørgen Leth, elder statesman of Danish arts and director of the 1967 short The Perfect Human, and an antagonist, the younger Danish director Lars von Trier. Over the course of the film, Lars asks Jørgen to remake The Perfect Human five times in reaction to a series of challenges or "obstructions". The result is a revealing and surprising analysis of the creative process. And the perverse sado-masochistic relationship between the creator and the obstruction is a lot of fun. And so Seizure is laying a similar gauntlet down at the feet of Sam Twyford-Moore, one of our favourite young authors. STM is the shorthand we will use hence, and let us introduce him for those who aren't familiar. STM is an editor and writer whose fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies includingMeanjin, Overland, and Seizure. STM edited the literary journal Cutwater and hosts The Rereaders podcast. He is a hard-working author who is known and loved in the Sydney scene, and is easily recognisable for his uniform of blue shirts and matching eyes. The antagonists for this game are Rod Morrison, newest member of the Seizure team and one of Australia's foremost editors, and David Henley, creative director of Seizure and maniacal genius. The challenge STM has written the opening piece in a new story collection, but we feel it could be improved (the original text is pasted below for your reading pleasure). The piece suffers on a number of fronts, primarily that it relies on the contemporary crutch of first-person narration. There are two kinds of first person in this world, the conversational storytelling style and the "dear diary why doesn't anyone understand me?".
STM has one month to rewrite his opening piece taking into account the following obstructions, 1) the main character be changed to female; 2) the piece be written in the third person and; 3) he introduce a companion character to help bring some behavioural conflict. The aim of these obstructions is to push STM to a new level of writing, away from the creative writing-school voice and free him up from self-aware internal criticism that may prevent the story busting from his chest like an angry alien. We'll be back in at least a month with the results and the next obstructions, but in the meantime we can all bug him on twitter as to how he's getting on. Good luck, Sam, may the best man win.
Life is bearable even when it’s unbearable: that is what’s so terrible, that is the unbearable thing about it.
― Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage
For reasons that aren’t worth going into now, I was, at the mid-point of that fast summer, an increasingly fidgety person, prone to pacing the house and, occasionally, jogging around it in something of a dog-legged dash. I had extra energy that I needed to rid myself of. Nothing moved at the same speed that I was going at. The only thing that would settle me down was watching tennis on the television. It was hard to say what about tennis created this soothing effect. Perhaps it was the perpetual back and forth of the ball, which created a hypnotic rhythm. These had variations and breaks, but for the most part there was the routine thwack of the ball meeting the racquet and a sigh or grunt from the player. These beats were reproduced in my head and steadied everything. It was better than drinking myself to sleep and that the games often went late and were sometimes repeated early in the morning meant that I was kept calm at the time when I felt that I was completely out of control of my fidgetiness. January meant that there was plenty of tennis on the TV, with the Australian Open taking up most of the prime time of one of the commercial channels. I would stay awake after the games, walking around my lounge room, thinking about what it would be like to watch the matches in the arena down in Melbourne.
It was past midnight, after a particularly emotional game (maybe Roger Federer cried), when I decided it was possible to get down to Melbourne in time for the next match. I packed the few basics I thought that I would need and a sleeping bag into the boot of my rusting, somewhat troubled 1987 Holden Vacationer and left at 4 am. The only vehicles on the road were garbage trucks and pick-ups. I got into the spirit of elite sports and tried to break my personal best in driving speed. Hooning down the F3, I did 140 km/h for most of the twelve hours. I shot through Sydney by the time the sun showed itself. I got lost on the south coast and ended up on the edge of a ditch, eating untoasted pop tarts straight from the box.
I had a micro-sleep as I finally drove into Melbourne, fourteen hours of driving later. I had only closed my eyes for a fraction of a second, but it caused me to swerve slightly off the road just before I came onto Sydney Street. I booked into a central hostel and took the small steel lift up to the TV room and sat in front of a 36-inch widescreen. I came all the way to Melbourne to watch the tennis on TV. I had, on arrival, lost all desire to go anywhere near Rod Laver Arena. I could have watched the games at home, but I convinced myself that it was different watching it on TV in Melbourne, in a closer proximity to the actual events. I fell asleep in front of the communal TV in my underwear that night after watching pre-game, game and post-game analysis. When I woke up my bankcards were gone and I realised that I had no money for another night at the hostel, so it was time to go home. I was still fidgety enough to drive back to Sydney twenty-four hours after arriving in Melbourne.
The car boiled over just outside of the nation’s capital at what should have been the halfway mark to home. The engine was over-heating – a little image of an oil tank flashed red on the dashboard to tell me so, but that seemed less pertinent than the steam rising out of the bonnet in white streams. The acceleration was slow to respond. The road was stretching on but it looked like the car would not make it past the next bend of the Hume Highway. I slowed down and pulled over into a rest area, where families picnicked on brown benches and an elderly couple stared at the sun. I opened the bonnet and checked the oil. I poured water into the place where I had been shown to pour it before. The metal inside went off like a geyser. I stepped back and rushed to get more water from a leaking knee-high tap. I looked around to ask for help but all eyes were on sandwiches and cold cans of drink.
I had sweat on my brow, which dripped into the twisting black innards of a greasy engine, as I did my best to revive it. The car had not committed suicide – the whole explosive situation was not its fault, and as much as I might have liked to, I didn’t kick in the fender or smash the headlights with a raised foot or pound down on the bonnet with clenched fists. The car was old and marked by death. I had not been treating it right. It had originally been lined up to be gifted to my cousin – my aunt was going to pass it on to him instead of trading it in to some used car lot, but he dropped dead from a bleeding brain before she had the chance. He was just seventeen and I was gifted the car shortly after his funeral. I made a mess with the rear window by placing stickers for radio stations over it. It was a car marked in every sense – my father called it ‘John Boy’ after my cousin, which I remember thinking was creepy at the time. I respected my father’s naming rights, though. This was a dead boy’s car and maybe an altar is what it should have been. I did all the things that my cousin would no longer be able to do in it, stopping short of having sex on the seats and smoking bongs in the back. I drove the car, listening to songs in it, on crappy tapes bought from the local supermarket and that felt like the best way I could pay my dues. The songs played through the single speaker that still worked – even it suffered the death rattles – but the sound was amazingly clear.
I could hear every word.
That the car looked like it was on its last legs was upsetting, but there was a certain thrill when I managed to get back on the highway. It wasn’t to last – there was only a kilometre or two of highway left before the car conked it for good.
I had to find a way to get out of the way of the murderous stream of traffic. The nearest turn-off was Yass. Making it to Canberra was out of the question. I turned into a ditch and killed an already-dead engine. I got out and looked around. Nothing but yellowing grass and the exit to a highway I should have still been on.
There was a fibro house at the turn of the corner, and I went around the side and turned on a tap and drank from the mouth of a hose. I could hear the family inside as my cheeks filled with water hot from stagnating in the sun. I needed to find a pay phone or someone who would lend me access to their line. I didn’t feel like knocking on a random family’s door. I slumped into the wet grass, and from such a low p.o.v. spied a Bed and Breakfast across the road. It was sitting by itself on a hill by itself with a gabled roof and wide windows and what must have been country-style charm.
I tried to find the reception of the main house, then went and knocked on the door of the restaurant, which was to the side in its own building. I went and called out at the house at the back, which I assumed to be the residence of the owner. There was no vacant sign but it could have been flickering over every part of the grounds. It was ghost town quiet. I went to the back window of the main house and tore open the flyscreen. It made the sound of Velcro separating and I wanted to keep going once I had ripped all the way to the top of the screen because I liked the sound so much. I climbed up and through the window and put my feet down in an overly precious Victorian decorated room. There were tea-cosies on a dressing table and small packaged soaps on the pillows, dried potpourri beside the bed, starched white sheets folded and sitting on a rocking chair. There was no luggage in the room and nothing looked like it had been moved for months.
I walked around the house and found four identical rooms and a shared living space with a TV and DVD. There was no phone, though. I packed up some of the DVDs and went and put them in the backseat of the broken-down car, next to my hardback copy of Leonard Michaels’ Collected Stories, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and about twenty other books which I had bought off online bookstores and which I had promptly forgotten to read.
The restaurant seemed more likely to house a phone. I peered inside and saw one by the register. The windows and doors would not move for me. I went and got a rock from the garden bed and considered lobbing it through the double doors at the front, but thought about the noise and the family in their living room across the road. I imagined them dialing the police. Instead, I used it to smash a small side window. The glass shattered across the floor of the kitchen. I cut my hand as I climbed through the window. It wasn’t a bad cut. I wrapped my hand with some tissues and tape and made myself a chocolate milkshake, with syrup and milk from the fridge, in a tall yellow paper cup with a green palm tree design wrapped around it, and drank it down fast. I didn’t really need any more energy than I already had, but the glucose sticking to the bottom of the tall paper cup gave me an extra kick to get through the whole drawn-out process of the break and enter. I had never used a cash register before, but it was fairly self-explanatory. I pressed one button and it opened itself up immediately. There were riches in the till – hundred-dollar notes – and I took them all, leaving the coins. I had no need for them. There were fifty-dollar notes. I stuffed them into my pockets.
I went around to the other side of the counter and found a blackboard leaning against a table, on which the specials menu would have been written. I wiped it clean with my forearm and picked out a piece of coloured chalk from an ice-cream container. I got down on my knees and wrote my repentance …
I AM SORRY FOR DOING THIS. I AM VERY POOR AND WOULD NEVER STEAL BUT I AM IN A VERY BAD WAY. I AM SORRY.
That was pure bullshit, or to put it more gently, something of a fiction. I was not so poor and despite the cut hand I was not in such a bad way, or at least I did not feel bad. I felt quite good and looking around the empty dining hall, I had a new hang out. I had access to food and books. There were only commercial fiction titles on the bookshelves, though, nothing worth actually reading; romance novels for women who were there for their weekend getaways. There was no real food in the industrial-sized freezers, either, just base ingredients and I did not feel like I had time to cook. I walked down to Yass Junction instead, populated by a small strip of cafes and shops, and with my pockets filled with new cash I would have my pick of every menu. There was a simple looking place and I went in and ordered a tuna salad, a large coffee, lemonade and carrot cake. The food was all orange, yellow and brown and this somehow provided a level of comfort, when it should have, in fact, made me push the plate away and not touch the coffee. I had always eaten fast, with a fidgety foot scratching the other, but there seemed to be no swallowing here. It was absorbed.
I bought some gum to get the sensation of chewing back.
I considered staying a night at a hotel few doors down, but figured I better get out of town. I went into the mechanic’s across the road and told them about my car, asking what could be done. Their books were filled for the rest of the week. That was no good to me.
There was a train line visible from the window of the mechanic’s and it seemed like as good a getaway plan as any. I could not save the car and the repair joint couldn’t look at it for a week. I walked down to see if I could buy a ticket, but there was no station master, and I could not imagine a train stopping here and the timetable read like nonsense.
I went back to the Bed and Breakfast and found that beside the owner’s quarters was a car under a blue tarpaulin. I figured the keys for the car would be somewhere in the house. I repeated the fly screen rip and climbed through into a tight bathroom. Stepping out into the main bedroom, it felt odd standing in front of a stranger’s bed. Near the door, on a table covered in keys, was more money. I took another two hundred dollars. I went back outside and ripped the protective cover off the vehicle shape beneath, revealing a red sports convertible. I opened the door, and felt relieved that I didn’t have to smash glass to get in. I turned the key over. I turned the key again and again but it wouldn’t start. It was lucky that it didn’t, really. The car was a manual and I didn’t know how to drive stick. It seemed pointless to steal a car if you didn’t know how to drive it. I imagined that I would be able to learn in the backstreets of Yass – of which there were probably two – before hitting the highway and heading home. I’m not sure how I thought I was going to explain the car when I got home; how I had managed to trade in the dead Holden Vacationer for an MG Sports Car of the Year. It seemed to be that if the driver of such a car was not wearing a red leather jacket with sunglasses, then the whole driving experience would have been a waste, and I did not own a red leather jacket nor sunglasses.
I went into one of the unoccupied rooms and showered, ripping open the soft white soap. The towels were white and clean. I lay on the sheets. Hit by a second wave of misguided creativity, I pulled a pen out from my back pocket and wrote at the top of the sheet a part confession.
‘Will this be my Glenrowan?’
What a load of bullshit looking back, but I was serious then. It wasn’t any myth-making on my part. [I really had to face this fact when the owner of the bed and breakfast sent the sheets to me in a white Australia Post package months later.] I had been pulled over by police earlier that day. Their blue and red lights flashed just as I hit the outskirts of Melbourne and made my move to get onto the Hume. I had been speeding out of the city like a hoon, looking forward to hitting the long country stretches, and right after stealing a tank of premium petrol. They didn’t mention the stolen fuel, though – it was a simple case of speeding. They had caught me going at 114 km/h. Before putting on the breaks, I was almost certainly moving at 130. They asked for my licence. The only proof of identity I had was printed the side of a packet of generic anti-depressants, which I had not, as of yet, been taking. It should have been a flag for them, but they read the name and handed back the packet. The officers inspected the packet as I explained that my licence, as well as a bankcard, had been stolen from a hostel I had been staying at. They did the routine check to make sure that the vehicle had not been stolen.
I watched them in the rear-view mirror as they talked on the radio. I was waiting for the cuffs, but they came over and handed me a swift ticket instead. The NSW plates must have made them think that I wasn’t their problem. I imagined that they thought that I would get pulled up again once I was over state lines and once that had happened it would be up to the NSWelshmen cops to deal with me.
Now in Yass, having broken into three separate buildings, I was expecting to see those blue and red lights flare up and flash again and when I heard the sound of footsteps coming from outside I imagined a can of tear gas coming through the windows. I wondered if the owner of the place could have a gun stored somewhere on site and whether he might go for it straight away on seeing the broken glass and the torn fly screens. The truth was that the illegality of all of these actions was extremely banal. I just wanted a hotel room and somewhere to sleep. Bonnie and Clyde and other bank robbers in crime films seemed to be acting out of boredom, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was acting out of necessity and the fact that, in the middle of Yass, I had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. I was not trying to look bad ass, because everyone was nowhere to be seen, and because of that no one could see me.
The footsteps came around again and I got off the bed and lay down on the floor. I really did not want to be seen, but then I remembered ordering the taxi and I went outside, just as he was walking back to his cab to drive off.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I was just saying goodbye to my grandparents. They’re both almost deaf, but they heard you out the front before I did.’
For whatever reason – the promise of money, most likely – the taxi driver bought the story. He repaid me with a story about his ex-wife and how she would not let him see his son.
‘She thinks that the boy is property. He’s not something you can divide. He is both her and me in one.’
The taxi started to feel like the cramped inside of a psychologist’s office. I should have charged him for my time. The fare from Yass to Canberra was excessive; a two-hundred dollar taxi ride. I paid the driver with the money from the cash register back at the B & B. He didn’t seem to question the fact that there must have been eight hundred dollars in notes on me. I booked into a cheap drive-thru hotel on the outskirts of the Capital. I went up to my room, which was like a concrete pod, with the bare minimum of natural light, and laid the money out on the bed.
I didn’t really know what to do with myself or this money, so I hitched into Civic Centre. I was over taxis, for life, after spending so much on a single drive. I bought a ticket to see The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, but I didn’t go inside the cinema. Now that I had money – more money than I needed for the moment – I wasn’t quite sure what it did or what I was supposed to do with it. Why not buy a ticket to a movie without intentions to actually see it? Movies did not move fast enough for me, anyway – to be trapped inside a dark room, listening to someone else talk, seeing someone else’s vision didn’t really appeal to me when my own imagination was working in overdrive, out Spielberg-ing the best Hollywood directors. I couldn’t stand to be in the cinema’s surrounds any longer, anyway. The shopping centre was dead. The fatal flaws were these: it was a Sunday night and it was Canberra.
This was the city where my cousin had died of the aneurism. I tried not to think about my own head.
I got back to the hotel after booking my bus ticket for the next morning, and ordered pay per view and waited up to watch The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, which was scheduled to screen at 2 am. I had seen the Andrew Dominic film in the cinema the year before and had enjoyed it. Many of the reviews I read after mentioned that Jesse James, as played by Brad Pitt, was very likely a manic-depressive. His erratic behaviour, in the film at least, seemed to uphold such a diagnosis. Jesse James went from calm in one scene, to putting a knife to a neck in the next. I wanted to see for myself if this assessment held up, but I fell asleep at the end of the first scene. No new impressions of the film were to be made that night. Things slowed down to a safer speed, but that speed was unbearable, a fact that would remain unchanged and static for months.
Good luck, STM.