The legendary blues singer, Robert Johnson, was blessed: he came to a crossroads just once in his life.
Me, I’m not so lucky. Not only am I anything but a great musician – Johnson became a blues god when he supposedly sold his soul to the devil – but I keep stumbling across them.
Crossroads, that is, not devils.
Since submitting my thesis, I’ve been beset by doubts and distractions. Should I expand my story into a novel or should I leave well alone? Should I stay on the straight and narrow or widen my horizons?
Should I go this way or that?
My journal, poor suffering soul, bears witness to my meandering missteps.
They begin in mid-October, when, buoyed and emboldened by my thesis-writing experience, I get side-tracked by the Faber novel-writing scholarship, and an application I never submit.
Within days I’m eyeing a different diversion. Having just received confirmation of my aboriginal ancestry, I contemplate applying for an Indigenous Coffee Creative grant, even though I’ve already started exploring my ambivalence in an essay I think I might enter in the Kill Your Darlings non-fiction prize.
It’s easy now to look back over my life and see supposed signs of my ‘aboriginality’. There are the unexplained affinities I’ve felt with certain people and places. The bush, for example. Ever since I spent two years in western Queensland as a kid, I’ve been drawn to the land. And not just in the abstract way most white Australians always have been…
I don’t – apply for the grant or finish the essay. Instead I stumble on, staying, for the moment, on the beaten path.
Within a week I’m toying with pursuing writing as a profession, by enrolling in a Master of Writing.
Mastering that impulse, I impetuously take the next turn, writing three stories: one for the Neilma Sidney prize (not submitted), one a titillating tale, one a work of flash fiction.
He asked for whisky because he remembered he’d liked it, long ago. There was some argy-bargy at the bar over how he wanted it, so he wandered off, finding himself in the beer garden, which was half-full with men and women and music. He planted himself in a corner, next to some plants. Dumping his backpack on the table, he began to go through it, looking for a clue. Before long, a woman in black brought him a glass. On the house, she said, with a wink. He stared at her and used his new powers to freeze her where she stood. Not his type, he decided. Tucking a credit card into the top of her skirt, he let her go, with a wink. She went quickly, stopping in the doorway to study him. Funny, he thought. The further she got from him the closer to her he felt.
Dazed and dishevelled, I duck back on to the main drag.
In mid-November I come to yet another crossroads: Podcast Parade. Making the turn, I pen poems and scraps of piano music for ‘Bitter Sweet Nothings’, an audio work I park when I discover I don’t have the ability or equipment to produce it.
Then I get my study results, which are good enough to send me scurrying down another side alley. Before long I’ve submitted an adaptation of my exegesis to Island magazine. (No response as yet.)
Returning to the high street, I briefly consider becoming a teacher, having had some success at work as a coach, and then an entrepreneur, having fallen under the spell of some of my sillier ideas.
The devil being only in the detail, I move on.
Finally, in early December, I reach my last junction (for now); on one side lies writing as a craft, on the other writing as a hobby. Unswayed by either option, I plod back to the present.
The truth about Robert Johnson’s turning point is now lost in legend. As he left his crossroads (real or imagined) did he know where he was going? Or was his subsequent success an unknown destination, recognised only when it was reached?
The key to life, I suppose, is to keep on walking, eyes on the horizon, going nowhere in the hope of getting somewhere. Only later, looking back, does the path become clear.
Until then, my fate lies in the lap of the gods.
Unless I decide to play the blues, of course, in which case my destiny is in the hands of the devil.
Almost a century ago, in 1926, the popular Tasmanian-born writer, Roy Bridges, arrived in England for an extended stay, having just published his seventeenth novel. He had been living in Melbourne with his sister, secretary, and housekeeper, Hilda (herself a successful author) since 1909. The death of their mother, however, had broken up their home, and Roy’s restlessness – his ‘nervous curse’, as he later called it – sent him on his way across the seas.
Roy’s visit to Britain, his first, allowed him to reunite with long-lost friends, to meet with his publisher, and to see the land whose history and literature he had revered since childhood. It gave him a chance, as well, to experience new ways of living, thinking and writing, and an opportunity, crucially, to make a fresh start.
And yet by the end of the year, Roy was on the boat back to Australia, driven out of England by the loneliness and depression that had afflicted him in London, and by the demons that had finally overcome him on a visit to York. Roy’s hasty retreat heralded the beginning of the end – the end of his attempt to break with the past: his own and that of his home state, Tasmania, which loomed large in his imagination.
Within ten years Roy would be a captive on the ‘prison island’. For, in 1936, he retired with Hilda to the family farm in southern Tasmania, where, isolated, impoverished and unwell, he wrote his remaining eight novels – several concerned with the cruelty of the island’s convict past – and scores of letters in which he bemoaned his fate and his declining literary fortunes. There he lived out his final days, dying, in Hobart in 1952, unfulfilled and largely forgotten.
As I set out a year ago to write Roy’s story – my story about ‘Roy’ – I decided I wouldn’t make the same mistake. Like Roy, I was dogged by demons and haunted by the past; like Roy, I was faced with a dilemma: stay and stay safe or go and confront my fears; like Roy, I chose to go. Unlike Roy, however, I have not retreated.
In February I moved to Brisbane from Hobart. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. It was also the most selfish – I left my family behind, after all. (They join me here soon.) And yet it was also the best thing I’ve ever done. By going it alone and making a new life in a place filled with bitter memories, I’ve faced and overcome many of my fears. Most importantly, I know now that I can live with myself, and thus that I’m fit to live with others.
I know, too, that I can be the kind of writer I want to be. This year I made not only the crossing (from Tasmania to the mainland), but ‘The Crossing’ (my honours thesis). I made my story and I made it to my liking. In doing so, I re-made myself – something, it seems, Roy Bridges wasn’t able to do. It’s an act I hope will rewrite my ending, leaving me feeling less unfulfilled than Roy, if no less forgotten.
I’m a good listener.
Be it a sign of curiosity, shyness or low self-esteem – it’s true.
I’m all ears.
It’s why I like asking questions so much and dogs that bark so little.
It’s why I have so many podcast pals.
Let me introduce them.
There’s David, Catherine and Matt from The Tennis Podcast, playful, penetrating and prolific.
Andy and John have been Backlisted for years. Learned and lighthearted, these literary agents provocateurs are so far into old books they’re out of this world.
I Am the Eggpod – that’s Chris. He backtracks through the Beatles with erudition, daftness and fellow devotees.
Then there’s Bob, the mind and mouth behind Music History Monday. Professorial, opinionated and occasionally puerile, he’s the Pied Piper of the musical past.
Ah, it’s easy listening.
So, I’m a student again.
How the hell did that happen?
The usual way. I applied, somewhat blindly, to study Honours at a local university, unsure about my thesis topic and even about my discipline. I mean, how could I choose between literature, creative writing and history?
In the end I didn’t have to. I managed to nab myself a scholarship, one that came with a project attached. Over the next couple of years I’ll be studying the papers of two of Tasmania’s most prolific and unheralded authors (who happen to be siblings).
Fortuitously, the project encompasses my three loves. Coursework aside, I’ll have to produce a thesis (creative writing), exegesis (mostly literary criticism) and some kind of public program (history).
Somehow I chanced upon my holy grail.
What does it mean, being a student again?
That I can’t redraft this blog post to death, for a start. (Not such a bad thing.) I just don’t have the time.
What it really means is that I can live a richer life again – which is ironic because study is costly, scholarship or no scholarship.
Remember the discredited diagram that purports to depict the teaching/learning process? The one that shows a teacher tipping information into a student’s open head?
Well, that’s how I feel, as silly as it sounds. I feel full again – full of ideas and excitement. Full of life.
Take the past week. I’ve had seminars on research and on writing an exegesis. I’ve been reading about and reflecting on literature and history; travel writing, colonialism and displacement.
I’ve been mixing with writers too, having been to workshops led by an acclaimed local author. It’s been immensely inspiring, all the thought and talk about books and writing. It’s brought me back to life.
Returning to study has reopened my mind, and the ideas are already flooding in. Like the kid in the picture, I’m an empty vessel no more.
The next question is: will I drown in the deluge?
Stick around – the world needs sensitive people like you.
That’s what I told a suicidal kid in the park today.
I was there with family and friends. The boy was there alone, earbuds in, bike at his feet.
I saw him watching so I wandered over, offering him sushi and a sympathetic ear.
Passing on the first, he asked shyly if he could tell me something – something he hadn’t told anyone else.
Of course, I said.
And that’s when he told me that he didn’t want to be around anymore, that he was scared because he’d been making threats to people online, people who’d been making him feel bad.
Taken aback, I trotted out the usual clichés. He nodded like he’d heard it all before.
We talked until he said he had to go, to meet his dad, by the bridge.
As we shook hands I blurted it out: Stick around – the world needs sensitive people like you.
Even as I said it I had my doubts. And yet I could see I’d finally given him something to think about.
Only later, after the boy had gone, did it occur to me that maybe I was right. The world, it seems, does need sensitive people – if only to comfort each other in the park.
November is traditionally the month when writers everywhere set about penning a novel from scratch. Not me though; I’m neither daring nor desperate enough to attempt that sort of stunt. Besides, I’ve been too busy writing other things: lots of bits and pieces that don’t amount to very much.
Or do they?
Here’s the thing: the novel is an ultra-accommodating art-form, the literary equivalent of an open house. ‘Wonderfully omnivorous, capable of assimilating all kinds of nonfictional discourses’ is how the novelist and critic, David Lodge, once described it.
In its time the novel has taken in all sorts of strays. Whole works are based on fictitious letters and diaries – Pamela and I Capture the Castle spring to my mind – and any number of novels feature other types of texts, everything from shopping lists to court reports.
Looking back at the tail-end of 2020 again, I reckon I might have written a novel without even knowing it…
The story is told through the scribblings of its protagonist, a wannabe writer like me. (I’ll call him Will even if you won’t.) It starts with a poem.
I’m not dying
I feel close to death.
my body lives on
while so weak
my spirit seeks release
from a straitjacket
of self-hood borne
Will, it seems, is sad. And why not? It’s mid-winter and the pandemic is in full swing.
With the walls closing in Will tries to reach out. He starts penning blog posts, one about identity…
It’s one of the biggest decisions of our lives and we make it every day: who to be (or not to be).
… and one about illness.
So, I’m writing a novel – not because the world needs another one or because I’ve got something special to say, but simply because I’ve got a bad case of novelitis. I’ve had it for years and the condition is all but incurable.
But his thoughts turn to other things and he shelves the posts. Owing to Covid, the nature of his work has changed. He explains the situation in an email:
For now I remain in ‘redeployment’, my office having taken over the national helpline when demand for passports plummeted and call centre staff were sent to the Eastern Front (Human Services). Thus I spend all day on the phone, answering silly questions and being called the wrong name (Stuart, Kieran, Stan…)
Before long, though, the novelty of the situation has worn thin and boredom begins to set in. Will dreams about starting a business. Write to Life it’s called, and he drafts a proposal.
Creative writing brings us more than pleasure and publication: it can help us find ourselves and our place in the world. Write to Life is a program designed to help people of all ages achieve greater self-fulfilment through storytelling.
Will loves the idea – it’s a product of his own experience, after all. But he knows he’s not bold enough to give it a go.
His thoughts turn instead to university and to studying honours, something he’s long wanted to do. After weeks of preparation he applies for a scholarship, submitting an outline of a thesis topic.
Roy Bridges (1885-1952) is Tasmania’s most prolific novelist, having published thirty-six novels. He lived with his sister, Hilda (1881-1971), who wrote thirteen novels herself while acting as Roy’s amanuensis. Both were born in Hobart and formed a deep attachment to Woods’, the family farm near Sorell.
In 1933, after working on the mainland as a journalist, Roy returned, somewhat unwillingly, to Tasmania, thereby keeping a promise he had made to his family. He remained at Woods’ until his death, battling anxiety and loneliness as he and Hilda tried to restore and protect the property.
Will hopes to study the Bridges’ letters and manuscripts, many of which have been preserved. Displacement is to be his theme.
It’ll be months before he’ll learn if he’s been successful. In the meantime, though, Will wants to stay busy. He knows that boredom might bring on a breakdown.
He and his wife have talked for years about home improvements. Now, though, the situation is more serious, the family having outgrown its digs. Will decides to get the ball rolling. He contacts a designer who sends him a questionnaire. It’s important, the designer explains, to see if their values align.
We value modesty and simplicity, durability and functionality [Will writes]. Ideally, our new space will reflect and support these values . . . The history, personality and environmental impact of our house is as important to us as its monetary value and appearance.
They arrange to meet in the new year.
But Will is not done yet. He’s suddenly smitten by the prospect of a new job, in a different part of his department, a job that would require him to ‘think creatively and critically’ and would encourage him to ‘subvert the dominant paradigm’.
Will decides to show his suitability by writing his pitch for the position as a story. He calls it ‘Will Meets His Match: A Fairy Tale’.
Once upon a time there was a passport officer called Will. Although Will was good at his job – he foiled a serious fraudster in late 2020 while assessing applications – he knew he’d be better suited to some other work. To something involving ideas.
It’s a gamble that pays off. Will wins himself an interview, which goes well. (The interviewer even claims to love Will’s blog.) Although he won’t know for weeks if he’s got the job, Will’s not worried. He’s living in a fairy tale, after all.
And that’s where we return to reality.
Okay, so I didn’t knock off a novel in November. I did, though, add a chapter to my life story, potentially adding a twist to the tale.
Thanks to the writing I did at the end of last year – some ‘creative’, some not – 2021 promises plenty.
I know a boy whose name is Adam.
The teachers at Adam’s school gave out prizes today. Adam had never won an award and he thought his time had finally come. He’d worked hard every day and although he wasn’t the fastest of learners, he was diligent, never leaving his desk until his work was done.
The ceremony was held in the hall. The winner’s names were read out one by one but Adam’s was not among them. He was devastated; afterwards, he ran into the bushes at the bottom of the school, fighting back tears.
Adam wanted to leave. And yet as he turned to go, the cries of his friends came to him from afar, seeming to say that if he went now he, like his namesake, might never truly return. So he stayed.
I know a boy whose name is Adam.
So, you thought writing was to be your salvation, that it would save you from obscurity. But what if instead the opposite is true? What if your obsession has got you ‘entrapped’ (as the novelist, Amit Chaudhuri, puts it) and it’s stifling your life?
Such were my thoughts yesterday.
Picture the scene: I’m wheezing at my desk, suffering from a sudden attack of hay-fever. As I search for my asthma spray, a colleague jokes about shoving a pen down my throat to open the airway.
The wheezing soon went – the spray worked its magic – but the image of me choking on a pen stayed on.
Writing has been caught in my throat for a long, long while. Perhaps it’s time I swallowed my pride and gave the game away or coughed the thing up, took a deep breath and got on with the job.
Frustrated. It’s one of those rare things: a song by The Knack that isn’t ‘My Sharona’. It’s also what I’ve been feeling for months. For decades, even, if I count the rest.
I’m no different, I know, to all the other unfulfilled lucky white guys who ever lived – in Maslow we trust – and yet knowing this doesn’t make my frustration any less, er, frustrating.
Or bearable. For a day doesn’t go by without me dreaming up some half-baked solution.
What is it, then, that I so badly need to let out? Energy? Emotion? Spermatozoa? I think not. Words, most likely: those little whizzbangs that build up in people like me, people who know they’re not being noticed.
The antidote? Writing, of course. A daily twelve-dozen (d12d) words on any trope, topic or theme.
I write therefore I am. Half-baked if ever I heard it.