Birth of a writer

Description: poor-condition black-and-white photograph of a beaming, dark-haired man (my dad) in a checked shirt, holding a fat baby with a lot of hair (me) ©careerusinterruptus

I got the writing gene from my dad. Growing up, his writing was part of our household apparatus. We always had typewriters: first a little cast-iron manual, then an electric, then a bigger electric, then computers and a dot-matrix printer. Our paper supply was the backside of cut-down maps he used as an Air Force navigator, mixed with draft pages of his MBA.

After the MBA, Dad wrote a little bit freelance alongside his job – reports on his Fun Run Club for the base paper, that sort of thing – and his post-military career as a sugar industry lobbyist involved regular press releases and editing together a fortnightly news digest, which he loved.

But what I recall most was the novel. Dad pecked at it throughout my teens and 20s, around his full-time job, a fair share of the housework, the yardwork, and driving us kids all around town. I know the premise – a father, involved in some kind of accident, having to choose which of his children to rescue – although I don’t recall ever reading a single sentence.

From about 1982 on, we had Writers’ Digests and Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbooks on the shelves, too, so I guess Dad wanted to publish his novel. I don’t know whether he ever got that far; I suspect he never even finished it. He died suddenly, aged 56.

Dad didn’t exactly encourage me. In fairness, not many parents would encourage a kid writing her first ‘novel’ during her last year of school. And I understand that his own impoverished childhood underpinned Dad’s over-riding concern for me to get a stable job first, and write later. But that need to be banging away at something? That’s 100% him, in me. It’s why the only thing of his that I wanted to inherit, was his desk.

That desk is now buried under far too much crap for me to actually work there. But, I still write. I do some housework, but I’ve also learned to tolerate mess (mega mess, el grande supremo mess), because otherwise I’d never get to write. This way I do a little nearly every day. Fortunately the current task is editing back a completed MS, which I can tackle even when my brain’s fried after a day driving my own kids all around town. Prioritising writing over the housework is a way of sticking two fingers up to the little voice whispering how pointless it is, how insignificant the things I have to say. (Well hello again, Imposter Syndrome, y’old cow!)

Photograph of an open laptop, showing a document screen, on a table surrounded by craft materials, papers, the other photograph, and a sewing machine.

Next month I turn 51. I’ve set myself the goal of finishing the edit by then, and I have an agent in mind to approach. I’m still walking towards my mountain. I’m not thinking about whether the MS is ‘good’ or ‘important’, or anything else; I’m certainly not trying to be clever or literary. It’s just a story. It still makes me smile and sad where it should, and all I’m asking myself is to give it a chance.

Wish me luck.

The fear/anyway post

© careerusinterruptus.com

Two months ago, I was pounding out my next novel. Six chapters, bang bang bang. Every spare minute, the words flowed without repetition, deviation, or hesitation. I knew what was coming and whenever I sat down, there it was, just as every writer dreams.

Then, COVID slammed that door shut.

I’ve heard the same thing from many friends and in writers’ groups online. They can’t write. Not now.

Of course, it’s because anxiety. (Hello, you old bastard.) Once you’ve opened the door to imagination, who knows what will come waltzing through? Under this kind of existential stress, what-ifs turn fairly quickly from playful to perturbing: instead of characters’ voices, you hear sinister whispers: past hurts, failures, foretellings of disaster.

Even blogging, which is less about the what-ifs and more about the what-happeneds, involves more thought than I care for right now, since these days every damn thing – a meal, a hug, a walk round the park – has to be overthought; all the emotions are already overwrought. Please, don’t ask me to dwell.

So that sucker was nailed shut, I thought, for the duration.

Then last night, a good old-fashioned panic attack. I used to get lots, pre-kids, sometimes clustered closely enough to shed 10kg through stress alone. Post-kids (now that I have 10kg I’d love to shed), they’ve been faint, few, and far between. And although I’d like to claim new-found wisdom, in fact I think I’ve just been too bloody tired to muster up the adrenaline for a proper freakout.

But there I was, at three in the morning – just like old times – awake, mind racing with all the usual garbage, this time COVID-themed: I haven’t been careful enough, we’re all going to die and it will be ALL MY FAULT. Cue a mental re-run of every mistake I’ve ever made, all the way back to the secret I told Carla Wells in 1975. (Why, yes, I AM being completely rational and this global pandemic IS all about me, thanks for asking.)

Cheers, brain.

Well, I’ve been down this hole before. It doesn’t fool me like it used to, and anyway I’m still pretty frickin’ tired, so this time, the shock-waves didn’t leave me gasping. Just awake, and annoyed. I mean, who needs this shit?

And then I thought, well, clearly I do.

Because while I’ve been feeding monkey-brain – reading, listening and talking, trying so hard to keep up – I’ve dropped the self-care ball. Meds have been muddled, sleep slipped, sunshine skipped, veggies eschewed, exercise excused. No wonder I feel like shit about myself, I’ve been treating me abominably. I need outside, movement, sleep, more greens, less caffeine.

Above all, I need to let some words out. Writing has always been the best, the kindest thing I can do for myself; it probably sounds counter-intuitive, but writing escapes my brain. It makes sense of all the words pouring in. The flow found in writing relieves pressure, finds paths, forges meaning. Without it, inside my head becomes hopelessly overgrown and tangled – a mean and scary place.

Scarier, even, than opening that door to find out what I really think.

I wasn’t going to COVID blog. I figured, likely nobody needs any more of that. But it turns out, I do. Scary as it is, I need to write my way through this.

So bear with me. Better yet, join me. Let’s figure this shit out. What do your fears look like?

The writing post

©careerusinterruptus

When I was in Senior, Bruce Dawe visited my school, to talk about being a poet. It was the first time I’d ever met an actual author and I was nearly sick with the thrill of it. (Got a lot of funny looks from my classmates, whose excitement, such as it was, stemmed mainly from the fact that they were sort of getting out of double English.) I couldn’t speak; I wanted to be a writer so badly, I didn’t even know where to start, so although I was exploding with questions, not a single one of them came out. Afterwards, Mum dragged us off to a shopping centre where I followed her around crying my eyes out, I was so disappointed in myself for having missed such an opportunity. (Funny looks from my siblings, then.) An opportunity for what, exactly, I didn’t know, only that I felt I’d missed something crucial.

33 years later, the one thing I really remember Dawe saying, was in response to a question from one of the teachers. He didn’t have an office, he said. He wrote at the kitchen table, with the kids and the wife busy, chatting, working around him and the dog at his feet. And, he thought that made him a better writer. Closer, more in touch, with the things he was trying to grasp.

That really struck me. Until then, I’d nurtured lonely-writer-in-a-freezing-garrett type images of my future. One of my uncles, dead before I came along, had written a few books, and I’d fallen deeply in love with his little writing cubby, an open shack no more than three square metres, on the bank of a rushing stream, down the hill from the family home in the Blue Mountains.

That was what I always wanted. (There were six humans and a dog in my childhood family and I’m an introvert; I wanted it hard.) Dawe showed me that things could be different, that what you could still write beautifully in the midst of chaos.

And it’s just as well I learned that, because if I couldn’t write in chaos, these days, I would simply never write, and writing is as essential to me as breathing. Don’t get me wrong, I would dearly love a less chaotic space to work in. It’s just that writing is more important. Choosing writing over housework takes no thought; I would and often do choose writing over nearly every other aspect of self-care, because it is so good for me. Writing takes me somewhere else. It simplifies, gives me a tiny space where I am, actually, in control. Above all it relieves the pressure of the words swirling incessantly in my head, and believe me when I say there’s a fucking lot of them. A week in a spa – a month of meditating – a year of yoga, couldn’t do as much for me as a day spent writing.

So if that table – swamped as it is by craft mess that the kids and I create, pencil shavings and fabric scraps underfoot, the piano at my back, Mr Pixel placing blocks or whatever it is he does to my right, a view of the empty supply cupboard and the garden ahead – if that’s the only space to write in, well, then, by god that’s where I’m gonna write.

The lovely thing I’ve learned, is that even with all that, with the TV and the cat, the chooks and the kids (one of whom chatters constantly, sometimes to the chooks, while watching TV), is that if I allow myself to cock my ear, to take a breath, exhale, and listen, the stories are always right there. All I have to do is tune in.

So, this year I finally finished the novel I started when I was pregnant with Mr Pixel. Yeah. 13 years. And although sleep deprivation took me on a very long detour via Utter Rubbish and the bog of Badly Written, I think it ended up somewhere a bit better, after all. I sent it off to a competition, anyway, a thing that crossed my feed about one day after I joined a romance writers’ group. I doubt anything will come of it, but you know. The point is that I did something with my writing, for the first time.

And then, amazingly, I started the next one, because I’ve been carrying these characters in my head for so long, too, that as soon as I was ready, out they popped, doing what they need to do. I easily caught two chapters on the laptop in the picture and even now, today – in a different writing space, writing something else altogether, I can dimly hear the sentences unfurling, as though the characters were just in the next room.

It’ll be Christmas in a couple days. I’ve still got shopping and wrapping and cooking to do and yes, cleaning, too. I’ll work in the garden and help CraftyFish with the impossible puzzle she’s doing, and spend time with Mum. The Skeptic and I have some urgent budgeting to do, and the garage needs to be cleaned out. But in between all that, in hours and half hours, here and there, I’ll keep writing. It’s who I am.