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In May this year I returned to Canberra from a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people on the Shoalhaven River near Nowra, and despite feeling like I was coming back from Mars, the first thing I did on arriving home was to go into my work room and write some words which within minutes would be stuck in the window of my wallet: Creating and the imagination are my natural habitats; creating is what I love doing, the imagination is where I am most alive. Being in and with a community of dedicated creative people makes me so happy I want to burst out of my skin.
How is it that someone who’d only recently turned forty had come to that point of wanting to burst out of their skin?
When I turn my increasingly unreliable brain to my childhood, I think of spending the first 18 years of my life wandering, rather aimlessly it must be said, around my home suburb of St Ives on Sydney’s Volvo-infested North Shore, catching the bus and train to the austere school I attended, Barker College. I think of the uniform – black shoes, grey trousers, white shirt, red-and-white striped tie, barber-shop blazer, and a Venetian boater.
I think of reaching adolescence, of girls joining us in Fifth and Sixth Form but somehow, for some reason, remaining only interested in the boys, of swimming carnivals, of trying to play rugby union, of homework, always that terrible homework.
Mostly, however, I remember writing: double creative writing classes and thousands of words – albeit dreadfully composed words – forming themselves on the exercise-book pages in the worst handwriting imaginable. I distinctly remember my Fourth Class teacher, a man who had flicks and a Freddie Mercury moustache, yelling ‘Shut up Featherstone, don’t be rude!’ as I demanded that it be me who read out his story to class. I remember writing in my bedroom, having a pseudonym, though thankfully I’ve forgotten the actual name – no doubt it was something like Roger T. Bartholomew the Third.
I remember writing in school holidays and writing when I was home sick – I always seemed to be getting bronchitis, particularly in winter. I remember one of these periods of sickness, somewhere around Third or Fourth Form when I spent weeks on end sitting on the couch, a garishly-coloured cashmere nana-rug over my legs and waist, and rewriting and rewriting a short story to the Brideshead Revisited soundtrack, which was on repeat on the record player.
But despite all this writing and reading I was at a loss as to what I wanted do when I finished school. Even though my family, particularly on my father’s side, is filled with writers and poets and painters and printmakers, some of whom have made significant names for themselves, the thought of seriously pursuing a career in the arts simply didn’t cross my mind. Perhaps I misunderstood what Oscar Wilde meant when he said All art is quite useless. For a short time I did consider becoming an audio engineer, because I loved music – and still do, very much. However, I’m glad I didn’t pursue this line of work, mainly because I’m the most impractical person you’ve ever come across – I have to get a man in to change the washers on my taps.
So I applied to do an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture.
But I didn’t get in. Being someone who gets volcanically stressed at the most inconsequential of things, like when my computer decides that it would like to download some update or other, I became so anxious in the days leading up to the HSC that my temperature soured and the family GP refused to let me sit the English exam, English being the one subject in which I regularly excelled, and I wasn’t well enough to sit through all of mathematics. The examining board guesstimated my English mark, which was unjustifiably low, and I failed maths outright, though somehow did remarkably well in economics, a subject I had no interest in whatsoever. Thank God for universities, which offer almost limitless opportunities to correct early education flunks and misdemeanours.
After being subjected to much begging and pleading, the University of Canberra, or the Canberra College of Advanced Education as it was known back then, generously let me in on one condition: that I pass all my first semester units. Not only did I pass, I did rather well, particularly in the design-related units, which I adored. I learnt about the importance of big ideas, of understanding context, of piecing together relationships (‘everything is connected’ I’d learn later when I augmented my landscape degree with a graduate diploma in social ecology), of knowing that the best things have the right fit. My love affair with the arts and design, as well as the humanities, was on its way.
More to the point, I fell in love with a classmate, a Christian boy, who loved me back but only as much as his religion would allow. I converted to his faith hoping he’d convert to my sexuality. He did not. So I rounded out these undergraduate years wearing only black, listening to The Cure, The Smiths and New Order, driving my beloved 1969 Volkswagen Fastback around the blue-sky streets of Belconnen; I ate too much coke and chocolate and meat pies, and became fat.
Thinking it appropriate to find someone else to love, I moved to Perth where I lived beneath the desiccating heat at Cottesloe Beach (on which I’d read Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet) and worked for a small design firm in Subiaco. Though I loved Perth, it’s fair to say that I was a lonely soul there – I knew no one and spent most of my evenings writing in a journal and reading down at the beach (with one eye surveying for deliciously suntanned things that would walk my way but then walk on by). Ultimately I decided that I needed to be in a place where there were mountains and I could wear jumpers, so after two years I returned to the south-east, where my family has lived for seven generations. Place, I discovered, can be etched into your DNA.
But I didn’t find myself back over east; the opposite happened: I became lost. I lived with my parents on Mount Gibraltar in the Southern Highlands, where they’d escaped Sydney to slide into retirement. Feeling sorry for me, a friend gave me a suitcase-load of music recording equipment and I wrote and recorded some songs, sent them to Triple J, but Triple J only sent a car-sticker in return. I scratched out some lyrics, one of which I quite liked, so, without having any idea whatsoever of what I was doing, I sent the ‘poem’ to an arts magazine in Canberra and then jumped onto a Jumbo jet to backpack around the world. Exactly one hundred days and nights later, I returned to Mount Gibraltar and was surprised to find in the mail a letter from the magazine – they’d published the poem.
So, buoyed by this completely unexpected literary success, I wrote another poem, and this too was published, this time in Tasmania. Then, realising that I didn’t actually know anything about poetry, I wrote a short story and this was also favourable received. I was hooked – again – by words and ideas. Since then, 1994, I’ve been writing fiction and creative journalism five days a week, augmenting a meagre writing income with landscape architecture work before, at the age of 36, jumping ship to work as the manager of arts development for the ACT Chief Minister’s Department, a job I believe in very much.
Despite the odds firmly stacked against the publication of fiction – according to the literary journal Overland, there is currently a one-in-a-thousand chance of having a novel published in Australia – writing is what I love doing. Whether it is fifty-word micro-fiction, short stories, a novel, or creative journalism, writing is my greatest achievement – apart from, of course, maintaining a relationship, which, even though it has had to weather a few internal hurdles, some family dramas, and the meretricious scorn of recent federal governments, has lasted thirteen years.
Yes, I love writing. Yes, I’m in love with writing. But quite regularly, like the best lovers, he doesn’t always love me back, at least not in the way I want. Writing is reticent, he is painful, unpredictable, mercurial; he can fill my blood with heat, he can make my heart race like the best of drugs; writing can be everything, and then, like an ocean tide, he can recede, leaving me sore and hollow and exposed.
In 2000, I commenced what would end up being one of the most wonderful experiences of my life: a masters in creative arts/creative writing. I did feel like an impostor – what was someone who’d only barely passed the HSC and didn’t originally get in to his first degree doing at university for the third time? And a masters of all things! But every Thursday for two years I connected with other writers, thinkers, academics; I read more than I’d read in my life. I finished with a manuscript for what would become my first novel, Remnants, which was published in 2005. Out of the nine Australian reviews and one international review that humble little story received, only one hated it and that was The Age. Despite others making conclusions like ‘a beautifully written book’ and ‘deserving of a wide audience’, The Age described Remnants as ‘a noble failure’, as if I’d gallantly tried to fight a wild dragon but had ultimately lost.
But what does all this reminiscing actually mean?
It means the importance of ongoing education. Writing – creativity – in itself is an education, but sometimes it’s worth taking the exit off the nine-to-five freeway and spending time back in the academy, to think, to learn, to explore, to be wild again.
It means the importance of blind faith, though by faith I don’t mean what my old landscape architecture paramour meant by faith. Ex-Canberra writer and artist Judy Horacek, co-author of the phenomenally successful children’s book Where is the Green Sheep?, talks about the need to charge ahead no matter what the odds. What makes someone spend up to ten years writing a novel, when it appears that the readership of literary prose is diminishing and new technologies may change the publishing landscape forever? It’s the desire for adventure. And adventure is risk. And risk is living.
It means the importance of relentless persistence. I’m by no means a fan of sport, but recently I heard Carrie Graf, the unstoppable coach of the Canberra Capitals, talk about the notion of relentless persistence. There’s something in this: the unyielding, the unremitting, the inexorable; the perseverance, the determination, the doggedness, the diligence, even the pushiness. These are the inescapable qualities of the artist, and, dare I say it, the qualities of anyone who wants to wring every drop of life from their days.
But to finish up. And to end quoting an artist, not a sportsperson.
In October this year, the twice Miles Franklin Prize-winning Australian novelist Alex Miller gave the closing address at a conference on writing and creativity at the National Library of Australia. Miller delivered his point by expanding on the often-quoted writing aphorism: he turned ‘Write what you know’ into ‘Write what you love’. But, right here, right now, let’s expand this a little further, to broader out its application: LIVE what you love.
LIVE what you love. How good is that!
(This is an edited version of a speech presented as an Occasional Address at the University of Canberra’s Conferring of Awards ceremony, held in the Great Hall, Parliament House, 17 December, 2009.)