A writer. I’ve always wanted to be one – and I’ve always berated and belittled myself for not being one. Well, enough is enough: I’ve decided to stop punishing myself. Not because I’ve suddenly had some success (I haven’t) but because I’ve had an epiphany: I’ve been doing the being all along.
Three decades have passed since I penned my first stories and poems. In that time I’ve spent countless hours scratching away at paper and screen, chiselling out words, some long, none lasting. Instructions for a long-lost game. A script for a sit-com. Stories and essays, experimental and conventional. Blank verse and worse. More unfinished novels than you can poke a pen at. Truly, my slush pile runneth over…
And what do I have to show for thirty years of scribbling? Not much, it seems. A thousand dollars (spent long ago) and the pleasure of seeing four stories in print. A poem pinned to a tree. A piece highly commended in a competition. A book I published myself. Blogs seen only by other bloggers fishing for followers. Not a lot to boast about, really, and yet part of me is proud – especially as I’ve rarely sought publication.
Success is overvalued anyway. Praise, I’d argue, is a prison in which we are condemned to repeat our performances until we come to despise them. As Malcolm Lowry wrote after his novel, Under the Volcano, was published: ‘Success is like some horrible disaster/Worse than your house burning’.
Failure brings freedom – a consoling thought.
Even so, I’ve given up writing dozens of times without ever kicking the habit. I still scribble almost every day, in my journal, on a blog or this year’s novel. I simply enjoy the act too much, despite (and perhaps because of) its difficulties. To me, writing is like a game of solitaire; I deal out characters and their quandaries from a deck of possibilities and see if I can put them in order. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. The result hardly matters; the play’s the thing, as Hamlet says.
Of course, it’s not all fun of a fleeting variety. Writing leaves me with something more lasting: a body of work that adds shape and substance to my physical self, that fleshes out my store of meagre memories. My writing is a record of my doings and beings; it’s my history. I am truly a man of my words.
‘One does what one is; one becomes what one does.’ So said Robert Musil, a writer remembered for his influential and yet unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities.
Unfinished? That’s good enough for me.
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
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!
Some writers are slow, some are fast. Me, I’m a sluggard. Not at putting words on paper, mind you, but at understanding what it takes to be a writer. On the weekend, though, the pencil dropped, and I finally got it. To be novelist, I realised, one has to at least finish a novel.
Kinda makes sense, doesn’t it?
This brutal truth bit me while I was attending a children’s literature festival on a small southern island adjacent to my own. I’d booked a session with a guest editor – an Associate Publisher at Penguin, no less – who praised the sample of the children’s novel I’d sent her without offering me a contract for it on the spot.
The cheek of the woman!
Then there were the visiting authors, who seemed pretty happy with the whole affair, despite the inclement weather. Writers are renowned for being highly perceptive beasts, and yet not one of those smug scribblers saw me for what I am: a fellow author. And just because I haven’t published a book! Talk about petty. Yes, I felt snubbed, and, yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it.
Ah, the truth hurts.
In some areas of life being a dreamer helps. Clearly, this isn’t one of them. Because, believe it or not, part of me had assumed writing was going to be easy: that someone – this editor, for starters – would one day recognise my Obvious Talent and, with a wave of her magic pen, make me a novelist, just like that. Job done. Forget chapters four to forty – they’d somehow take care of themselves.
Wishful thinking, it’s called.
Okay, okay – I’m an idiot. But at least now I’m an all-shook-up idiot, one who is finally coming to terms with the idea that writing is, as a wise guy once said, one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.
Not that I’m averse to hard work. A year or two ago, I slaved away to finish my Arts degree, sometimes writing close to ten thousand words a week, and pretty good ones at that. As a young tyro, too, I wrote for days on end, churning out long first chapters that never seemed to grow into novels. Bloody things.
To this day, an anthology of these fragments – entitled False Starts – remains unfinished.
No, it wasn’t laziness that misled me. More like distorted self-confidence, I reckon. A superiority complex that convinced me I was entitled to success, interspersed with the opposite – a sense of inferiority – which told me I didn’t deserve it, no matter how hard I worked.
Whatever. I now accept that if I want my Associate Publisher to make me an author, I’m going to have to do what, oddly enough, I really want to do: churn out words until the job is done. Only thus will I win my literary spurs. Novelists write novels, after all.