Somewhere to Land: Why We Write What We Write

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On Saturday, I pitched my kid’s book to a prospective publisher. The ten-minute session ended with six immortal words, of the kind usually spoken by an Achilles or King Lear.

‘I just don’t like the runway.’

For a book about, say, a seafaring family, this kind of response wouldn’t be such a big deal. I’d have simply offered to replace the runway with something a bit less flat and featureless – a Ferris wheel, perhaps, or a skate park – and the contract would have been signed there and then.

But for a book called Dad’s Runway, it’s a bit of a blow. For me, its aspiring – expiring – author, it felt like a knock-out punch.

It needn’t have. Only an hour earlier, Chopper (not her real name) had stressed the importance of finding the right publisher for your project. One man’s trash being another man’s treasure and all that.

Me being me, though, I took it hard. To heart, no less. Within minutes I was questioning my whole reason for being. I mean, why persist with this book thing?

It’s a fair question. Given my dire lack of time and space, wouldn’t it make more sense for me to write something else – haiku, perhaps, or greeting cards?

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why we write what we write. When I was a teenager I wrote free verse. Like my poems, I lacked form; I was all feeling.

In air too close
we flourish;
our shoots entwine.
roots shallow and starved,
our little hothouse family
and we fall.

In my twenties, I experimented with short stories. Plot had become important to me, as I sought to find a pathway through life.

After he broke his tooth, Wat decided to wrap things up.
1. He called his girlfriend on the telephone.
“I’m going away,” he said.
“But why?” she asked.
Wat said it wasn’t her.
“But why?” she asked.
Wat told her about the breaking of his tooth.
“Oh, Wat,” she said, “your beautiful teeth.”
He hadn’t known they were beautiful.
“Have you put it in milk?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“You have not,” she said. “They can glue it back in, you know.”
“Can I have your coat?” asked Wat.
“Oh, man,” she said.
“You can have my books and my discs.”
“Get your tooth stuck back in.”
Wat didn’t say anything.
“All of them?”
“Yes,” said Wat, “except the bible.”
“Especially except your bible. I didn’t know you had a bible, Wat.”
“I do,” Wat said. “Or else I’ll buy one.”
“Don’t bother,” she said, “I’ll give you mine with the coat, dammit. I’ll put it in the pocket. Should we have a last fuck?”
Wat didn’t say anything.
“I want to feel your broken tooth.”
“A kiss goodbye?” Wat said.
“Nah,” she said, “might as well fuck.”

Then I hit my thirties and non-fiction took over. It was time to get real.

I’d heard about not seeing the forest for the trees but hadn’t expected the world’s tallest hardwood tree to be hidden in the forest – the forest debate, that is. But, as I discovered, it is.

And now, as reality bites, I return to long-form fiction.

It’s the longest, straightest road in outback Australia, and it runs from, well, somewhere, to, er, somewhere else. No-one knows where it starts or where it ends. About halfway along this long straight road there’s a yellow sign that says, ‘Welcome to Nankervis, the little country town with a big heart of gold.’ Underneath, it adds, ‘Population 300’, only some wag has gone and crossed out the zeroes.

That’s where we are now, beside the sign, waiting for a car to come along so that we can get this story moving. And not just any old car, of course, but one that – that looks a lot like the old car approaching us now, in fact. A squeaky, square old Land Cruiser that was once white but is now a sandy shade of cream. It’s chugging along at a steady, sedate pace, which suggests it’s being driven by a local, someone who knows there’s no point in hurrying because for every kilometre you travel out here there’s always another two hundred to come. So what’s the rush?

Yeah, what’s the rush. As a kid, I read novels so that I could escape into another world. Back then, the runway in a Biggles’ book was a starting point, the site from which adventure took flight. These days, though, with my urge to escape more about returning than fleeing, the runway – Dad’s Runway – seems a safe place to land.

Try pitching that to a publisher!

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