I once wrote a poem that included the lines: ‘I demand to be seen, I deserve to be heard’, which are a source of great interest and bemusement to me in retrospect, especially when I’m faced with thinking about and justifying my writing.
I am someone with a quiet voice, who is often drowned out by others. Someone who would never sing in public: always that slight bit off-key, not quite in tune. I learnt very early at school to move my mouth in time to the chorus without actually making any sound.
I can’t imagine demanding to be seen or heard. The actual subject of my poem was life and the journey through it (and the ageing process), done in the guise of a visitor’s feedback survey (‘Did you eat in the restaurant? How would you rate the quality of service?’) It’s interesting to me now, that out of the whole poem, the two lines about my demands to be noticed are the only two that I still remember.
I remember writing the poem though; I don’t write a lot of poetry and have to be feeling particularly inflamed. I started it in the middle of the Kimberley, in the depths of a landscape harsh and alien and staggering beautiful. It was a completely encompassing sensory experience, and I kept taking photos of this – literally – awesome landscape, and thinking, these will never convey the essence of this place.
I grew up in the city. It was very important to me, as I grew up in the city, to be part of a ‘tribe’. I hovered on the edge of a ‘crowd’, my quiet voice, for the most part, drowned out by louder ones; moving my mouth in time to the chorus.
Then I left. I went off into the world and lived in many different places and situations, and when I returned to my tribe several years later full of new experiences, I resented it when they continued to drown me out, talking of the same pubs and the same people, their eyes narrowed against anything unfamiliar. They weren’t interested in anything outside the borders of their comfort zone.
It was like floating in something lukewarm and vaguely congealed. Like having too many clothes on in an artificially heated room – it made you itch. I walked down the street and there were the same shops and the same cracks in the footpath, and while some people might find this comforting, I didn’t. I began to feel as though I didn’t belong any more. And I began to notice that the voices drowning me out were largely a monotone.
I can’t remember when I started writing, it’s something I’ve always done, even when I wasn’t actually doing it. I relate completely to George Orwell’s claims in his essay ‘Why I Write’, that he knew from early age he would be a writer, and that when he tried to abandon the idea, he: ‘did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.’ Writing, even just the idea of writing, has always been a part of my life.
Reading, to me, was not only companionship, it was also a form of projection. I always held onto the characters in books, they became part of my ‘inner discourse’, companions I’d discuss things with, without the constraints of having someone else actually listening. I could be as brave or profound or enigmatic as I fancied, with an eloquence I never attain in actual conversation. I think this discourse is partly what George Orwell was talking about when he said: ‘for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind.’
For many years, this was the only form of ‘writing’ I did, and yet I always considered myself a writer. I wrote little, or privately, but I felt as though I was writing constantly. When I fretted about the inadequacy of my Kimberley photos, it was because to truly re-create the essence of place, you need the dimension of interaction, and for me, this occurs through the medium of language, a medium in which, whether publicly or internally, I was always working.
I have two quotes copied out in the inside cover of my journal. The first is from Shakespeare, The Tempest: ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.’ The second one is from Patrick White: ‘Her life in the telling always began to seem real.’
I often think about this one. Somehow it seems strangely apt; a form of pinning down, capturing. The result of the ongoing narration.
Patrick White is an echo of Virginia Woolf, who said ‘Putting things into words and giving them deliberate expression had the effect of restoring reality to much that might otherwise have remained insubstantial.’
I copy out lots of things like this. When people complain that life is awful and meaningless I think, who said it has to have a point? It just is. It’s just there like a huge wad of potential, waiting to be played with. Waiting to be translated, worked into sentences with just the right cadences, the syllables arranged in just the right order. And sometimes, when they’re in the right order, something bubbles up through them, another layer, a further ingredient, that doesn’t necessarily add meaning so much as depth. Another voice in the chorus, singing their own refrain.
One of my favourite literary images is from Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Above the clouds, all the conversations are trapped, swirling, a cacophony of words, denser and denser. I love the idea of such a chorus, I could listen to it all day. It’s like the gurgle in the sink when you pull the plug and the lukewarm, vaguely congealed water flows away.
I found my particular writing ‘style’ one February several years ago when we’d had a bizarre day at a friend’s house, celebrating Chinese New Year. By this time, I was living outside the boundaries of the tribe. In this friend’s living room was an assortment of characters of diverse nationalities, and I left my head with my head alive with these people and their histories and backgrounds and conversations.
The next day I wrote them all down, crushing them into their most memorable characteristics: Bill the rugby-mad Irishman, with the volcanic splatters of freckles up his arms, who told Adam and John that they couldn’t be New Zealanders, they were too small and white. Vera the chirpy German, with her cuckoo-clock laugh, and Olga, the mournful Ukrainian, whose brightly-coloured beads lay cowed against her floral shirt. Rong, making muffins for the first time from her new cookbook, measuring each ingredient carefully with her chopsticks, and then serving us a strange banquet: coconut muffins, followed by Irish stew, and then platefuls of Chinese dumplings. I nearly burst. I wrote a swirling memoir, with me as both observer and participant. I called it ‘The Year of the Ghosts’, after Rong’s mispronunciation of the word ‘goat’, whose year it was.
‘I’m a monkey,’ I’d told her. ‘Ah,’ she nodded, ‘Monkey very quick, very clever. But dishonest, you cannot trust a monkey.’
‘The Year of the Ghosts’ became my first published piece. It has a tone I use in a lot of my writing, a mixture of observation, bemusement and acceptance. It was a turning point for me in terms of confidence – suddenly something I’d written had moved beyond my immediate sphere and into the public arena. And while its wake was hardly far-reaching, its ripples carried for me, and I began, seriously, to view writing beyond the confines of my head.
When I wrote my Guest Feedback poem, we’d given up the confines of the city completely, and had been travelling around Australia in a homemade 4WD truck for almost six years. We spent most of our time away from the towns, preferring dirt roads to highways, and mostly camping in the bush. When we left, people looked horrified and said we were brave. When I started writing letters home, talking about beaches and whales and sunsets and stars, they started to say we were lucky.
Away from the claustrophobia of the city, the sky is open and endless, full of potential. Those years were very isolating, in that we (my partner and I) lived distanced from our families and all our friends. But not having the cover of company left us exposed, and our lives filled with strangers, mostly men, usually alienated, often lonely. Men who’d never managed to master the courtship dance, or who’d fled from its results, scarred and bitter. Men with dogs who were their best mates and their children, who they pretended to be rough with. These men always had landscapes of stories, and while they would all claim they wanted nothing more than to be on their own, they would melt in the face of interest and talk for hours.
It still amazes me how much you are told when you are prepared to listen, and, more importantly, to accept. I kept a detailed journal of the people we met, and I wrote a lot of letters. I’d tell my friends enclosed within mortgages and hire-purchase agreements about people like Pete, the filthy Aborigine with piercing blue eyes, camped by the sea. He sat like a king in his frayed tarpaulin castle, waving around a sawn-off shotgun (‘You don’t have a dog do you? I’ll probably shoot it.’) Happy to share his incredible knowledge of the coast and its life, and generous with his skills and his fish.
‘You should come camp with me,’ he told us. ‘I’ve got a flush toilet. You can use it,’ he said to me, and it was as if I’d been offered the equivalent of a handful of gold.
I wrote Pete down and sent him home, and among my friends he was photocopied and passed around, along with Busman and Snow and Feral, and the crew at Coolgardie and a litany of naughty dogs with wicked smiles. I sent home the women in the brothel in Kalgoorlie and the farmers we worked with and all the strange lonely people who have so much to say, but with voices that are easily drowned out by the complexities and impatience of modern life. One-legged Keith in his bus in Kununurra who, already drunk, drank nine beers in three hours while I panicked he would fall off his prosthetic. He was as strong as an ox, his back an asymmetrical grid of furrows, like the uncut edges of pages, where the muscles had regrouped to keep him balanced.
I sent home open fires and thong-stealing Tasmanian devils and rabbits who joined us on the beach to watch the sunset and then scurried back into the scrub. I sent morning after morning of whales, leaping with their calves.
I sent them another Pete, who’d never recovered from his son’s murder and would be drunk by eight in the morning, and Ian the convicted paedophile who greeted each new day with fervent prayer, and Gypsy, who’d done time for murder and who was always barefoot and laughing. At his funeral service last year everyone took off their shoes and mourned in bare feet.
When I write, for whatever purpose, I like to feel that I am capturing life. I’m creating a chorus that doesn’t sing in harmony, where not all the voices are in tune. These voices to me are the essence of life, the spark. The texture. Humans are distinct from other forms of life in their ability to tell stories (although you can’t help wondering about whales), and this sharing of ideas and experience is what I value in being alive; seeing humans not as paramount beings but as subject to life and its forces.
I’m with V.S. Naipaul, whose writing is so accomplished and acclaimed, who yet states: ‘I have no idea how things might turn out, where in my writing I might go next. I have trusted to my intuition to find the subjects, and I have written intuitively.’
The letters I started sending home, documenting all my experiences, were a further shift for me; a transference of my perpetual inner murmurings into an outer narrative, created to be shared, and when I found my letters were relished – kept and photocopied and passed around, it gave me a sense of justification, of achievement.
The Stuckists’ declarations of artistic intent, while seemingly tongue-in-cheek, appeal to me, particularly their doctrine of ‘Spiritual Art’, which they declare should be ‘about taking hold of the rough texture of life. It is about addressing the shadow and making friends with wild dogs.’ And this is important because, quite simply: ‘connecting in a meaningful way is what makes people happy. Being understood and understanding each other makes life enjoyable and worth living.’
A scene springs to mind: of meeting Gypsy, who appeared with his bare feet and long white Jesus-hair, and laughed at me as I fought the wind at the clothesline. Gypsy, ex-Vietnam vet, ex-Painter and Docker, illiterate and with a defining core of violence, but one of the most intelligent and fascinating people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Another story: Once, many years ago, I visited Dachau, the old concentration camp in Germany. Most of the site’s buildings had been rebuilt, and while the conditions and situations the placards described were awful, there was a sterility to the place that was strangely unaffecting. Tourists made uncomfortable wisecracks, and perhaps I’d started to wonder why I was even there in the first place, when I wandered towards a separate building at the rear of the site, where the ovens were housed.
The ovens themselves had been reconstructed, and again, while the terrible reality of their history was confronting, they too had a remoteness to them. But to reach them you had to follow a narrow path that wound away from the main complex and crossed a small stream. As I followed the path, debating whether to go on, I paused on the little footbridge and leaned over to look at the water flowing underneath.
It was like being hit with a sledgehammer. The stream was choked with long reeds, which reeled and swirled in the current, and it was as though every reed in that waterway was a writhing scream. There was no sound, but that water literally shrieked with pain and fear.
This experience became, over a series of prolonged inner discourses, defining for me. Call it what you will, I felt it was like being exposed to life at its core: communal, terrifying, pulsing and silent. To my sense of balance, my constantly regrouping muscles, it has grown to become a major furrow: a page that remains uncut, but necessary. My letters only gently skirt it, but my fiction increasingly moves into this territory. Silent but tangible.
When I wrote my Guest Feedback poem in the Kimberley, what was really significant to me in the midst of the heat and the dust and the jagged cliff-faces, with the moon hanging overhead and owls watching our campfire from the roof of the truck, was how, in a setting so removed, so utterly remote from the cities I’d grown up in, I finally felt completely connected to this country. As if I belonged. And yet the poem’s tone is fierce, furious: My laughlines – I trace them, my soul’s journey. Where are my laughlines?
As we age we shrink in size, but our furrows multiply and become more distinct. Seamus Heaney talked of poetry as being an order ‘as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being’. This order is the potential of all writing, the fusion of uniting our inner discourses with our experiences of the world. ‘An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.’
Sometimes, when I reflect on all the characters and places and experiences I have filed away, I see an image of a display case, with all these people and events and realisations pinned down like a careful but chaotic butterfly collection. Sprawled. Mine.
When I write, I imagine, but I also pick and choose, breaking off mannerisms and attributes and laying them out like a collage. Letters are the only autobiography I write, however, in my stories I’m also always there somewhere, even if only in the idea. The characters voice my words; a fleeting thought is mine, or a particular characteristic, such as a laughline. While as a whole I’m never present, I’m still there, manipulating, constructing. I’m in the wings, pulling the strings.
I’m powerful. I’m not seen but I’m heard – there it is, my quiet voice. Calling from the chorus, slightly off-key, but raised and audible; fighting the silence and demanding to be heard.