Day 2 of the 7 days of books that changed my life.
I was mooning around the Campus of Wollongong University, on the Australian Coast, avoiding duck poo in the long winding brick paths, dreaming about becoming a ‘writer’ and reading all sorts of authors and dabbling in poetry. As you do. So, there I was in my second hand denim jacket that came with train tickets in the pocket, and I picked up this volume with no context.
The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter blew my socks off. Not only was it sexy and dark and all those things you want your writing to be, it was a POEM and it was also a NARRATIVE. But it wasn’t one of those epics. And it was so engaging. And it was written by an Australian Woman. I was in love…
Dorothy Porter eminent Australian poet and writer graduated from her arts degree the year I was born. She wrote in many fields – poetry, litbretti and also for young adults. At the time of her death she was collaborating on a rock Opera with Tim Finn. Her work was often dark and centred on the destructive nature of the human impulse. She died in 2008 of complications due to breast cancer. A star went out.
I’ve been nominated by the esteemed Prof. Jen Webb to nominate 7 books over the next seven days that CHANGED MY LIFE (sorry, I didn’t actually mean to shout there…) which made be scribble lists and walk and circles and sigh. There were too many. There were not enough. They weren’t clever… Then, dammit I thought about books that actually changed my direction – books that consumed me as much as I consumed them.
So, I take you back to 1992. I was in year 10 and I had a free hour because I had outright refused to study any maths subjects for my High School Certificate. Everyone else is in class, the sun beams down and I pick up the book I’ve nicked from my dad.
I lost myself, I was swallowed whole, the book had me by the throat, how could this man write like this?
I realise The English Patient had only just hit the shelves. I read it before it was famous, before it was a film, before all that followed. It was unlike anything I’d ever read. It did things with language and plot that made me tingle with delight.
I remembered something last night – as the rain over the city twinkled in the light and gurgled in the drain pipes. I remembered that I am in love with reading. And that this is why I write. Because if I can do to a reader what Ondaatje did to me when I was about 17 and just ready for a book that was a poem and a love song and a nest of complications to rattle my brain and reassure me that the world was not at all a simple place, then I will have achieved my life’s ambition.
The world is no simple place.
Is it the writer’s job to remind us of that – no matter what they write? Perhaps.
Here I am working away at many projects, some more advanced than others, some in poetry some fiction some non fiction, occasional journalism and I realise I am stabilising my view of the world by admitting – word by word by word – that it is more complex and nuanced and incredible than I will ever be able to fully express.
And that I am at peace with that. Because I have tried.
I am currently mentoring a year ten student – let’s call her Miss C – and it’s a really enriching experience. I hope it is for her, too.
I found myself giving her a list of writerly advice, and I think I would probably do well to heed my own words.
I thought I would list my top 5 tips from a practicing writer to a beginner and then remember that they really apply to everyone who is undertaking creative practice. No matter how good you get and how experienced you become, it’s always helpful to stop and unpack what you are doing.
- Make plans. I found myself confiding to Miss C that in fact I wish someone had sat me down and taught me to plan writing when I was 15. Because that’s the bit you don’t see when you consume a book.
- Work towards an endpoint. Dream up where your story might go and take it towards that; in all likelihood you will change your mind, revise and edit, but in the meantime go to that point you can see on the horizon. (This does relate to planning, see step one…)
- Collaborate. The writing life can get a bit lonesome, so if you are ever offered the opportunity collaborate your heart out. Humans are social beings (even if writers sometimes forget this) and collaboration makes for new and interesting points of reference for your work.
- Keep your reader in the back of your mind – but don’t let them get behind the wheel too much.
- Be focussed – perhaps you could call it obsessive – but it’s important to stay with your writing though the tough times. Days of despair, keep writing. Days of dreadful anxiety, keep writing. Stay there and it will pass. After that you will have words on the page.
Note to self: revisit this page regularly.