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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

7. The Writing Life (3) reflections on a life of becoming a writer

I’m just a station on your way
I know I’m not your lover

Leonard Cohen

On becoming a writer:
Notes on a work in progress


Since 2007 I've been working towards a PhD in the Education faculty at Latrobe University. The focus of my PhD was ‘the writing life’, or perhaps ‘the writer’s life’. I write was because my studies have stalled. There's nothing like full time teaching suck your mind empty of free space for thinking - and writing. When you're bobbing around in the ocean, with monstrous waves crashing over you and the waters swirling all around you, it takes all your energies to stay afloat - to stay alive; who has the time or the energy to weave a tapestry in such circumstances?

My research focus was trying to explore and to better understand the gradual emergence of ‘the writer’. It began from an assumption about the value of writing. Writing is important. I set out to explore what Peter Elbow calls the ‘self sponsored writing’ of ordinary people.
Elbow says, 'If we pay more attention to the everyday, self-sponsored independent writing that ordinary people do, we build a more commodious and complex but more accurate model of writing'.

In truth, I wanted to bettter understand myself, and why I find writing so important. Does writing help me to better cope with life by enabling me to better understand what's going on? Or is it, in fact, a way of hiding from what is going on?

I wrote my first story …

I wrote my first story when I was very young. I can see the scene vividly still, even though it was almost 60 years ago. I am sitting on the sofa at Aunty Vonny's house. It is Christmas, I think. all of my cousins are there, and my aunts and uncles – my father’s side of the family. The adults are sitting around Aunty Vonny’s lounge room; my cousins are outside playing. I'm on the sofa, in the lounge room, the only child among the grown ups. I have a duplicate book, with white and yellow pages, and I am writing my story on the back side of the sheet. The duplicate book is one my father has brought home from work; he is a labourer with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.

I think it must be the Christmas of 1949. I've finished grade one. I’m six and a half.

I'm asking Uncle Charlie a question. Charlie Beale has recently married my cousin Verna – Aunty Vonny’s daughter. I am vaguely aware that my mother doesn’t altogether approve of Charlie Beale. He’s older than Verna by ten years, and he’s been married before.

I ask Uncle Charlie: "How do you spell one?"
He says, "Which one?"
People laugh, and I'm embarrassed.
"There are two ones," he explains, and he is laughing too.
"There's WON - like in 'He won the race '. That's W …O…N. Then there ONE - like 'He only had ONE leg.' That's O …N…E."

I bury myself in my book, in embarrassment.

The Farmer and the Crow

Wun day a crow sat on a fence.
The farmer said, "Get off my fence."
But the crow did not move.
The farmer said, "Get off my fence or I will shoot you!"
But the crow still did not move.
So the farmer shot the crow.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
But he missed.
And the crow laughed and laughed and laughed.
Ha ha ha, he he he, ho ho ho, haw haw haw.

The End.

I do not really know how I became a writer

In an article entitled, On Being A Writer, V.S. Naipaul wrote:

I do not really know how I became a writer. I can give certain dates and certain facts about my career. But the process itself remains mysterious. It is mysterious, for instance, that the ambition should have come first – the wish to be a writer, to have that distinction, that fame – and that this ambition should have come long before I could think of anything to write about.

My experience reflects that of Naipaul. How was it that a quiet little working class boy came to imagine himself a writer at the age of six or seven. How was it that this slow reader, who did not read his first book, from cover to cover, until he was well into High school, aspired to be a writer during his adolescent years.

‘I can give certain dates and certain facts about my career.

But the process itself remains mysterious’

As Naipual says, ‘I can give certain dates and certain facts about my career. But the process itself remains mysterious’. I too can give certain facts: I wrote my first story, The Farmer and the Crow, when I was 6; in form 2, in secondary school, I wrote a lengthy poem - The Malas Hunt – in the meter and rhyming pattern of the Australian classic, The Man From Snowy River. When I was 13 or 14, I commenced work on a most ambitious project – I would write my own encyclopaedia… This was – to use Peter Elbow’s term - an entirely ‘self sponsored project. In Forms 4 and 5, I contributed stories to the school magazine. I recall writing a piece around that time: romanticised imaginings about being a writer in which I asserted that a writer needs only a pen, some paper and a rose. I even had a pen name: I wrote that piece under the pseudonym of Edwin Morgan.

I recall writing and performing in a play at a Methodist Boys’ Camp in the summer of 1958/9. It was entitled ‘Operation Underpants: A Story of Down Under”. Ours was the winning performance at the camp concert. The piece was, of course, utterly derivative, and based on the Goon Show. Many of the jokes were recycled, as was the plot.

During my adolescence, the Methodist Boys’ Camps, held at Ocean Grove, became the highlight of my year. I attended every year from 1955 until I completed university. Church summer schools and Easter camps became an increasingly important – and influential – part of my life.

These became a ‘community of discourse’ for me. Through them I met an array of charismatic mentors, none more influential than Henry Gay. From the moment I met Henry, I wanted to be like him. He was immensely popular among the boys at these camps because of the rapid flow of his wit, his energy and his performance skills. He was a performer, a joke teller, a man who created puns – or so it seemed to us – at the point of utterance.

I recall two performance pieces he developed, and which he performed, at Boys Camps and also at the huge gatherings of Methodist young people that took place once a month at North Melbourne Town Hall and Melbourne Town Hall. These were a cross between university reviews and a revivalist meeting. There’d be comedy sketches, musical performance, earnest talks by Church leaders … two hours of ‘entertainment’ and evangelism.. These were attended by up to 3000 young people from youth groups all around Melbourne.

Henry’s sketches and performances were memorable. In one, Henry mimed a popular song of the day. That’s not all that difficult, you might say. Except that Henry had rerecorded the song, disrupting its flow with repeated lines or phrases, constant jumps, both forward and back. It went for around two minutes, and its performance was extraordinary.

In the second sketch I remember, the scene was a town in the Wild West. There were two characters: a tough bully and gunslinger and a milksop, in a face off. Henry played both parts, delivering first one line, then running the length of the stage, and delivering the response.
It went as follows:

Tough Character: Hey, you! (Runs to the other end of the stage.)
Weak character: Who? Me? (Runs back)
Yeah, you! (Runs back … and so on…)
I wanna talk to you?
Yeah, you.
…. Okay

And so it went. The sketch involved enormous energy, and involved quite a few one liners, such as:

Tough Character: You been seeing too much of my girlfriend.
Weak character: Well, she shouldn’t wear that kind of bathing costume.

For a considerable time I worked on becoming like Henry. I began to collect jokes. I remember creating a Joke Book in which I recorded one liners and short jokes:

That pigeon wants to buy my house?
How do you know?
He left a deposit on it.

I’ve got a little dog at home. I call him Handyman.
Why do you call him Handyman?
Because he does little odd jobs about the house.

Hey mister, what’s in he bag?
It’s manure, for me strawberries.
That’s funny. We have cream on ours.

How did they divide parliament into two houses?
They sent a petition.

From whence did this impulse to be a writer arise?
Reflections on the years at secondary school

From whence did this impulse to be a writer arise, an impulse undaunted by the traditionalist English teaching of the time. I recall few of the writing tasks we were given during our years of secondary school. One that does stand out was a piece in Form 3 (Year 9):

Write a letter to a refrigerator manufacturer complaining about a faulty part.

Despite the near absence of reading during the first 15 years, I always did well in English, often topping the class. I generally did very well in Composition.

I can date the beginning of my serious reading life with some accuracy. In Form 4 – Year 10 - our English teacher was Ruby Tout. The set text that year was John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That was the first book I read. I was a laborious reader; each page would take me three, four even five minutes. As a result,, I often gave up on books. But with Steinbeck, I persisted. I loved the book; so much so that I began reading his great work, The Grapes of Wrath – all 400+ pages of it - in the last couple of weeks of that year: 1958. I finished it midway through 1959. Those two books were the catalyst to my becoming an avid reader.

I see now that that year had a huge influence on my life as a writer and reader, and that Ruby Tout was perhaps the most influential of all of my teachers, because it was also in her class that I came to a sudden and inspirational understanding of what poetry is about.

Prior to the moment in Ruby Tout’s class, I’d seen poetry as a game of rhymes and rhythms and repetition, as something to be committed to memory, and to be later performed.

At Coburg 484 Primary School we had been required to learn poems by heart. I remember, in grade five, attempting to learn the poem The Wreck of the Hesperus. All that remains are two lines:

It was the schooner Hesperus
That sailed the wintry sea...

It was written by Longfellow. Looking at it again after all the years, I can see that it was written in the style of the border ballads. The sentimental nature of the poem becomes evident from the third and fourth lines:

And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bare him company
Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax
Her cheeks like the dawn of day
And purples on white as the Hawthorn buds
That ope in the month of May.

I recall memorising William Wordsworth's Daffodils:

I wandered a lonely as a cloud
That floats on a high o’er of vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

I learned, too, the Australian poems: The Man from Snowy River, Clancy of the Overflow, and so on. I can remember enjoying the music of the language of poetry: the rollicking beat of poems like The Man from Snowy River:

There was movement at the station
For the word had passed around
That the colt from Old Regret had got away …

And poems like:

And the highwayman came riding, riding, riding …

But the rollicking beat also somehow led me to undervalue what these poems contained; I think I saw poetry as an entertaining diversion. Certainly I had some propensity for rhyme and rhythm. Among my souvenirs is a poem I wrote when I was in Form 2. We had studied the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky, and had been asked to make up a nonsense poem. My efforts began:

There was movement in the village for the word had passed around
That the Malas they were going to have a hunt

What followed is too embarrassing to repeat; it consisted of made up words like zingpree. What strikes me about this is that at 13 I had such a strong sense of both rhyme and rhythm; I was able to produce a tolerable imitation of the rhythm of The Man from Snowy River.

Poetry, however, was something we didn’t take all that seriously – a mistake in those authoritarian days of the mid-50s. I made the error of talking too much during Russell Williams’ Form 2 English class, when I should have been attending to what he was telling us about the poem Mort d’Arthur. My punishment was to copy the poem out six times. Six times! And the poem itself ran for six or more pages! Enough to put you off Tennyson for life!

‘There are moments I remember all my life … '
(beatles, 1960s)

So year 10 was the turning point for me, when I was taught by Ruby Tout. In many ways she was an old-fashioned teacher, but she was passionate about literature. Under her teaching I came to realise the poetry was about the expression of passionate feeling.

Poetry wasn't simply: de dum de dum de dum de dum. Poetry was about the creation of stunning imagery, of word pictures that grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and made you look and feel.

Before Ruby Tout, poetry had meant rollicking rhymes or soppy sentimentality. My conversion came about as a result of a single poem: The Death of a Bird, by the Australian poet A.D Hope. It was 1958, and these many years later I still read that poem with almost reverence; it still has the power to move me.

For every bird there is this last migration;
Once more year the cooling year kindles her heart;
With a warm passage to the summer station
Love pricks the course in lights across the chart.

Year after year a place on the map divided
By a whole hemisphere, summons her to come...

Throughout the poem there are striking images; Hope captures in words the experience of the migratory bird. The poem describes the image of sands that are ”green with a mirage of valleys”, speaks of the ‘ghosts that haunt the heart’s possession’, and of love, pricking her “course in lights across the chart” - these struck me with great force.
I think it was the final 3 stanzas of the poem that most affected me:

Suddenly, without warning, without reason,
The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies.
The immense and complex map of hills and rivers
Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.

I recall being deeply moved by the final stanza:

And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,
And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,
And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,
Receives the tiny burden of her death.

No doubt there would be those who would criticise the poem for its anthropomorphism – the ascribing of human emotions to an animal – or for its sentimentality. However, as a 15-year-old, I was deeply moved by the poem -- and I still am. My ongoing attachment to it is probably sentimental itself; that poem marks a significant turning point in my relationship with literature.

A D Hope played a part a few years later in consolidating my recognition of what poetry was about. I was introduced to his poem Chorale at University. It began:

Often have I found her fair
Most when to my bed she came …

… Love me now, oh now, o long
was the burden of her song …

This was poetry of sexual passion. Such things were almost unheard of in the repressed fifties in Australia. At this time, sport on Sundays wasn’t allowed; hotels closed at 6 pm; the criterion for whether a book should be accepted or banned was: is it fit for the deputy premier’s 15 year old daughter to read? If not, the book was banned. Many books were unavailable in Australia at the time. It was a time when Graham Kennedy was banned from TV for 3 months for doing an impersonation of a crow’s call live-to-air: ‘Farrrrrrrrrrrrrk, farrrrrrk.’ On TV programs, couples – even husbands and wives – could not be shown in bed together. (In ‘The Nelsons’, a popular American TV series, the parents – Ozzie and Harriet – shared a room, but had single beds! Anything more risqué would not have got past the censors.

Yet here was a poet writing openly, passionately, about the sexual act. (I had read accounts of sex before this: smutty porn, hand written and grubby and tattered, passed around furtively among boys. It was titillating stuff, yes, but sexist and degrading - dirty).

I remember one line from Chorale in particular that resonated; Hope was describing the moment immediately following orgasm:

Dancing fires descend the hill…

The poem ends with a shift with the woman … ‘ crying for the wasted seed’, and with her grief at this lost opportunity to bear a child:

Love may not delay to long
Is the burden of her song.

Looking back it strikes me that what I was responding to was the capacity of literature to touch our hearts and minds deeply. I recognised that poetry was not simply an intellectual exercise, with the purpose of creating rhythmic, rhyming verse, a sort of smartarse playing with words. Poetry was about expressing matters of the Soul.

At 11, I decided to be a teacher, and that ambition remained paramount throughout my adolescent and early adult years. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a minister of religion, and was a lay preacher in the Methodist church from the age of 17 till I was 23. During my mid-late adolescence, I was also an athlete, a son, a Fool, a Lover. But the Writer self was there too, not dominant, but emerging now and then, tentatively.

Writing: who knows, it might soon become an unbreakable habit

I began my writing journal in mid 1976. In the late October, the following entry appears in my diary:

I talked to R today … about the problems of keeping this journal. It was relatively easy while I was away, but now I’m back it’s harder to discipline myself. Still, I’ve kept the average up, and who knows, it might soon become an unbreakable habit.

And two weeks later:
I’m feeling better and better about writing – as though I have freed up all sorts of expressive possibilities. And I now feel myself to be a real audience; I’ve at last taken the notion of writing for oneself – it is now less of a performance for others.

Increasingly in the journal, there are ideas for writing projects – a sign of a growing interest in seeing writing as not simply therapeutic and personally satisfying, but as being work, involving projects to be completed.

In mid November of 1976, the following idea is recorded:

Things that happen while you sleep – a book for children:

Elephants sneak in and keep their trunks warm in your bed.

Hippopotamuses turn on the taps in the bathroom, and lie on their backs in the water, and blow bubbles.

Kookaburras sit on each side of your bed head, and tell jokes to each other. Then in the morning, they laugh.

Wombats …

These are early scenes from a writer’s life, a reader/writer who was, in many ways, a ‘late bloomer’.

(I realised recently that what was true of my reading life was also true of my life as a musician and song writer. I had always loved songs and music, always sang in the shower, at the camp fire, in the car, walking along corridors … But I didn’t learn to play the guitar until I was 32, and I began writing songs in earnest in my mid 30s – although, as with writing, there are a couple of earlier hints that I might be a song writer.)

And so, what about this PhD ?

Well, as I said, it has stalled, At least for the moment. Well, at least for the last twelve months or so. But there have been signs, recently, of a new beginning, a re-enlivening. It helps that I not in danger of drwning any more. I can barely believe the difference between my first full year back in the classroom and this, my second year back . Chalk and cheese. I'm writing more. And this blog is another sign of a resurrection. Obce more, it seems, the cooling year kindles my heart ...

... the process itself remains mysterious. It is mysterious

that the ambition should have come first - the wish to be a writer.

In part, my PhD is an attempt to unravel the emergence of a writer – to trace, in a detailed way, the course of this development, the process of this growth. As Naipaul wrote:

… the process itself remains mysterious. It is mysterious, for instance, that the ambition should have come first – the wish to be a writer …

Naipaul writes of Proust’s book, Against Sainte-Beuve. Sainte-Beuve believed that the details of the personal life of the writer can be very useful in understanding his/her work. Proust’s reply was as follows:

This method ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us, that a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices… The implication (is) that there is something more superficial and empty in a writer’s authorship, something deeper and more contemplative in his private life …in fact, it is the secretion of one’s innermost life, written in solitude and for oneself alone, that one gives to the public. What one bestows on private life – in conversation, however refined it may be – is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents that world.

In this project, my interest is not in the ‘quite superficial self’. It is not simply dealing with ‘autobiographical fact’. There is a quite extraordinary book by a therapist and researcher called Robert Romanyshyn, entitled The Wounded Researcher. He argues that researchers must find the ‘soul’ in their work; they must seek what it is in the work that touches/engages their ‘soul’.

My PhD is about teasing out the processes whereby ‘the secretion of one’s innermost life, written in solitude and for oneself alone, that one gives to the public’ take place.

Eleanor Rigby, puts on the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
beatles, 1960s

The outer shells of the self – the personas that we present to the world – are like the mask Eleanor Rigby keeps in a jar by her door. They are the face she wants the world to see, worn ‘for’ other people. The persona is, as Proust observes, a ‘quite superficial self’. The innermost self – or selves – is achieved by ‘putting aside’ the persona.

The act of writing, of disciplining myself to record and reflect, result in a kind of peace. It is not a control over emotion and experience so much; more, simply, an awareness of it. It is the constructing of some meaning, in an evaluative way, that is happening; so that even if the drives and intentions and deep-born impulses are not under the control of my consciousness, they are at are not under scrutiny. The wild man with unkempt hair and wild sounds of fury can be seen, but cannot be cornered and/or held fast. Journal, Nov. 21, 1976

This is an early insight, I think, into the therapeutic role of writing; writing creates/enables ‘a kind of peace’.

On November 26, there is a piece of thinking about experience:

We make the world in our heads, construct meanings of things, construct relations between objects, events, persons. These are ‘reflection’. ‘Objective reality’ is assumed to exist because of these ‘constructions’ or ‘reflections’ in our minds. The meaning – the shape, texture, size, taste, ‘feelings’ – of an object are made by us. It is Kelly: man makes a ‘template’; Britton; Persig; and relates to Plato’s forms. Reality is a way of looking at reality. The world is a way of looking at the world. The more primitive the society, the less willing/able to cope with clashes of reality…

Naipaul quotes the poet Philip Larkin as saying: ‘you’re finding out what to say as well as how to say it, and that takes time.’

This is, as the title suggests, very much a work in progress. It’s like the words of one of Leonard Cohen’s songs …'I’m just a station on your way/ I know I’m not your lover’. This is a station on the way. There’s quite a distance to go.

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