Scenario: in jail you will have two options - a pad and pen, or an endless supply of novels.  What do you choose?

Scenario: in jail you will have two options – a pad and pen, or an endless supply of novels. What do you choose?


‘I just have to write; I have no choice.’  It’s a perplexing statement, mostly because it’s just a little too grandiose, even for me.  And self-important.  It’s as though writing for some people is as critical as breathing and eating and sleeping and loving.  But writing isn’t that important.  If, say, Helen Garner doesn’t produce another book the world will keep turning: people will go to work, they’ll marry (if they’re allowed) and have children; there’ll be wars and earthquakes and floods and famine.  Certainly, if I don’t write another word it simply won’t register in any part of the world’s consciousness.  And the teenager down the street who’s busy scribbling away as you read this?  She’s as inconsequential as a sparrow standing on the lip of a backyard birdbath.

What I know

Do I have to write?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I have to exercise on a daily basis otherwise my brain turns in on itself.  I know that an hour in the garden or cleaning out the chook-shed cheers me up no end.  I know that a good couple of hours reading leaves me feeling connected to life in a way that’s so deep and intimate it’s almost frightening – in a good way.  I know music can resonate and elevate and move my bones like nothing else.  I know that a blue sky, especially the sort we get in this Southern Tablelands part of the world, can stop me in my tracks.  I know that when an Australian politician over-simplifies a complex problem to play on our most base fears I want to throw the coffee-table through the television screen and make the whole thing blow up.

When breaking

But do I have to write?  Every so often, perhaps a couple of times a year, I tell myself to have a break from the writing room, to just spend a few days reading on the couch, and drinking coffee in the sun, and walking the dog up the hill, and sitting by the fire with a glass of wine in hand and a record on the turntable.  For a day, as I’ve said before on this blog, it’s bliss, it really is, and for a couple of days it’s beautiful.  But then I start to get edgy: it just doesn’t feel as if I’m being productive; it feels as though I’m not living deeply enough, that time is passing me by, that I’m not making the most of everything that’s on offer.  At some point I’ll find myself on the couch scribbling away at a notepad – more than likely it’ll be an idea for a novel or novella or short story, or it might be the draft of a First Word for the Canberra Times, or a post for these here Under the counter parts.  After a day of this, I’ll find myself back at the desk and working on a whole new project.

No different

But do I have to do this?  Perhaps I’m addicted to the work of fiction: the heady rush when it’s going well; the gut-wrenching frustration when it’s all going to hell in a hand-basket.  Maybe I like fictional worlds better than real worlds, that what I make up is more interesting that anything that I can actually touch and smell and feel.  Or it could be the love of fantasy, even the contemporary-realism type of fantasy that I like to do.  Or the love of playing – is make believe simply better than make do?  It could be that I just like setting goals and achieving them (as if that’s all it takes to create a story and have it sent into the world), so in the end I’m no different to someone who wants to swim faster in the pool.

Something bad; becoming dreams

This morning, while feeding the chooks, I subjected myself to a highly fictitious scenario (trust me on this): I’ve done something bad, have been given a prison term, and offered the following two options: a pad and pen; or an endless supply of novels.  I’ve put a lot of thinking into finding the right answer, and I’m almost 100% certain that I’d take the endless supply of novels.  Because in prison I’d want to escape into the fictional worlds on offer, they’d be worlds so carefully and lovingly and painstakingly and skilfully created by others, and I’d appreciate – I’d need – them all very much, reading would be my saviour.  And I think there’d be relief in this, that I didn’t have to do it anymore, that I could just enjoy the words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters and characters and predicament for their own sake.  Except they’d mean more to me than that, wouldn’t they: the novels would sustain me, they’d become my dreams.

A choice while free

So, do I have to write?  No, but while I’m as free as a sparrow on the lip of a backyard bird-bath, writing is something that I love to choose to do.