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Wow. Today, right now, I find myself feeling peaceful, so very peaceful. It might have something to do with the blue sky, which is such a relief after the weather we’ve had around these Southern Tableland parts, blustery and drizzly, sleety even, so it makes your hands turn grey-black and your nose feel as though it’s going to snap off. But it’s not just the weather, that deep dark blue Goulburn sky. No, it’s because yesterday, I feel, something momentous happened. It’s not momentous as in a change of government, or a great sporting achievement (as if sport can ever be such a thing), it’s just momentous to me.
You see, yesterday I submitted my second novella to my publisher. Yes, I’ve done this before; I’d thought I was finished, because I felt finished. It must have been some kind of trick, because Blemish Books came back with changes, good changes, and wise, which then set in train changes I wanted to make. So that’s how the last seven days have been, making changes to a manuscript and thinking about changes, even at night, and making more of the bloody things, until everything – everything – is perfect.
So I hope.
I’ve been going through I’m Ready Now with a fine-toothed comb, well, in reality it was just a Bic pen. I’ve agonised over words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. I’ve never forgotten something that the Australian children’s-book author Mem Fox once said: ‘Care about writing because it matters. Ache over every detail. Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and their meaning.’ So that’s what I’ve been doing: wrestling with words and their meanings until I’ve ached. Until the deadline loomed, the deadline that was 5pm yesterday.
At 4.45pm yesterday I bundled up the manuscript onto a flash-drive, loaded it onto my laptop, crafted an email…and pressed SEND. The next time I see the manuscript it will be professionally laid out, and the opportunity for making changes will be limited. Oh, what a relief. Last night I celebrated with a glass of wine and a fire in the hearth. And two steaks of salmon, which was an extravagance, but why not. I slept well.
Today, yes, such extraordinary peace, as though every worry I’ve had has simply dissolved. But I’ve not given myself a day off – I’ve been in the writing room, in uggboots and tracksuit pants and an old stripy-brown jumper my mother knitted for me when I was a teenager and I’ve kept it with me all this time, it has holes but who cares. And I’ve worked, going back to another project, except I’ve taken it easy. I’ve even allowed myself to listen to music: the soundtrack to the BBC serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. When I was a teenager I loved nothing more than wrapping myself in a blanket, lying down on the couch, and writing school-boy fiction to the Brideshead soundtrack, which would be on LP and on repeat.
So here I am, thirty years later, doing exactly that, although I’m at a desk and the music is on CD and I hope the words I write amount to more than school-boy fiction. Whatever I write, however I’m Ready Now is received, today has been one of the most peaceful days in my life. And I am so very thankful that writing remains with me. Tomorrow I might feel differently, perhaps even the opposite, but today is today and today is calm, serene, still. So very still.
I’m learning that there’s an art to making the most of the final day of a holiday, particularly at Christmas/New Year when much of the break is spent at home with family and friends and pets and books and albums. Oh, and the food, the MOUNTAINS of food, and the booze, okay, MOUNTAINS of booze, though that should really be OCEANS, shouldn’t it. But when the excesses are over and done with and we feel and look like beached whales and the chill-out days are fast coming to an end, a decision has to be made about how those final hours will be spent. I’m lucky that not only do I have a job I enjoy – working in the arts has plenty of rewards to balance out the challenges – I also get to return to my writing routine, so it’s not like I feel as if I’m being sent to jail. But still, how exactly to spend that one last glorious day of anthing-goes freedom?
In recent times I’ve thought that the last day should be set up to be a slice of the ideal life. So it could be waking up in bed to the smell of bacon and eggs being hand-delivered on a tray by someone you love; or getting up at the crack of dawn and diving into a wild ocean; or, if this is your thing (and it’s certainly not mine, I can tell you that for free) finally waking after a walking-dead night on the town, not a skerrick of memory left but some stranger in your bed and in your mouth a taste that reminds you of newly laid bitumen and green chicken – the gone-off green, not the green-curry green. For me, I decided, rather than reading the newspaper while eating my way through a large bowl of cereal, muesli, lecithin, yoghurt and milk with a side of lite cranberry juice, I’d have brekkie on the couch whilst watching the final half-a-dozen episodes of Six Feet Under. I love this show – along with The Office it’s in my top three TV series of all time. (The third, rather embarrassingly, is the BBC’s Brideshead Revisited series from the 1980s.)
How great it was to sit and watch the death throes of a show about death: a show whose thesis is ‘Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends’. Because holidays die, that’s the inescapable fact. Because holidays are a microcosm of our lives: they have a distinct beginning, when we know little about how our festive (or festy, as more than one person I know has been saying) season is going to pan out; and then there’s the middle section where we start to feel that the end isn’t that far away; and then, all too soon, we’re beginning to count down the hours, because soon this brief summer life will come to an end. After I cried my way through the extraordinary final ten minutes of Six Feet Under where – and SPOILER ALERT for those three people on earth who’ve not yet seen the show – everyone dies, I decided that I better do something else, something…practical.
So I redecorated the wall of my writing room with a new series of photos.
Being a Polaroid freak, most of the photos I usually have on the wall above my computer are of the instant square variety with the thick strip of white down the bottom for witty captions. And since over the last few years I’ve been getting crazier and crazier about taking Polaroids (probably because the technology is fast reaching its own demise) I have hundreds of them so there’s quite a few to choose from. But this year I decided to reach a wary hand into my vaults – cardboard boxes in the cupboard, in other words – and put together a brief series of photos that illustrate significant places in my life. So there’s a shot of a rock garden I built at the back of the house in which I navigated those nasty teenager years; nasty for me and everyone around me. There’s a shot of my family’s rented green weatherboard cottage in the Blue Mountains; how I loved that place, and so often do I think of visiting, but if it’s not there any more, or has been turned into some grotesque mansion, then I’d fall apart, I really would). There’s a shot of a dream house at Cottesloe Beach in Perth, a messy humble shack with the million-dollar view, a shack that no doubt has been turned into some grotesque mansion.
There’s a shot of a herb rack in an inner-city grouphouse I shared for a year or two back in the 1990s. There’s a photo of a black VW Beetle on an island called Inishboffin off the south-west coast of Ireland. There’s a photo of He Who Is Still With Me when we went down to Melbourne to visit a photographer friend. And there’s a photo of the house I now live in, a nondescript ex-government thing that was built in 1959, which is very old for this young city – a national capital – I call home. Oh, alright, I should admit to including just a couple of Polaroids in my display: one of an 1830s farm cottage where I stay when I need focus and solitude (and to commune with rats and mice and snakes and lizards, and the odd stray lamb), and another of a desk I’d used when on a residency last year.
Of course, once I Blue-tacked the photos on the wall and then sat in my chair to admire my handiwork, I began to cry at this as well, because there, in a handful of photos, was the entirety of my life so far.
Despite my forty-one years (and rising), it seemed so…slight.
So what else was there to do but spend the last few hours of my holiday scrubbing the bath, because, quite frankly, it was so disgusting houseguests had been refusing to use it.
Now I’ve thought about this issue – or is it a challenge? – and have written out these words, I can’t see much of an art to having a memorable, or at least meaningful, last day of a holiday. But I am glad that mine has turned out to be a day of thought and depth, a day that moved me, a day that got me thinking about my impermanence. The makers of Six Feet Under said their aim was to encourage viewers to consider/confront their mortality (I actually typed immortality then, which is a Freudian slip if I ever saw one, or just a desire, or a wish, or a useless plea for mercy) and that’s exactly what happened to me. And the cliché goes that a picture equals a thousand words, though I think photographs of your own life equal novella-length stories, if not the whole novel shebang. And they say that there’s nothing more centring than soaking in a bath for an hour. So now that I have a bath that’s actually white I reckon I should get the water running, pour myself a glass of wine, crank up the stereo with a great album, which I’m guessing is going to be Hospice by The Antlers (yes, yet another reference to that album on this blog), because it fits this mood I’m in, a mood of holiday endings, and lay myself down and close my eyes.
Perhaps that’s where the art is: just being still as the end comes.
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.)
Pop music: you’ve got to love the way it can get you in the guts. The other night, with He Who Likes Being Away At Conferences away at a conference, I came home late and, needing a bit of couch time before bed, I poured myself a glass of wine, propped up The Old Lady of the House on one side, settled Cat the Ripper on the other, and then put on a DVD. It was a collection of Pet Shop Boys film clips. I’m not a lifelong fan of the band; I’d only bought the DVD because (a) anyone who has the name Nigel Grey Featherstone and had adored the Brideshead Revisited TV series as a teenager should own some Pet Shop Boys music, and (b) it was really cheap.
Everything was fine (and just a little dandy) until a certain song came on: ‘Home and Dry’. According to the DVD’s running order, it’s one of the band’s most recent numbers. Whilst the tune itself is relatively joyful in that joyfully melancholic way pop music can do so well, the lyrics are as wanting as anything. “So my baby’s on the road/doing business, selling loads/charming everyone there with the sweetest smile/Oh tonight, I miss you/Oh tonight/I wish you/could be here with me/but I won’t see you/’til you’ve made it back again/home and dry/home and dry.”
But the film-clip’s imagery. It’s devastatingly simple: just hand-held video footage of mice scurrying about an urban railway station. Amongst the shiny silver train tracks, the mice dart here and there, searching out rubbish – an ice cream wrapper, a discarded biscuit, a mostly intact meat pie. Sometimes one of the mice suddenly stops and noses another (maybe they kiss, I don’t know), but then off they go again, searching for what has been thrown away. Sometimes they do little leaps for joy, or so it seems. Then, however, over the top of the music, comes the sound of a train roaring down the line. There’s no actual footage of it, just more of the mice going about their lives, oblivious to what might be about to happen.
Before long I became lost in the memory of one of my favourite books, Frederick by Leo Lionni. Rather embarrassingly, I’d read and reread the story as a teenager, not as a child. Frederick is a sad-eyed mouse who in the lead-up to winter spends all his time staring at the sun and the meadow and catches words in his sleep while his chums work so hard around him. But then, snowbound in their stonewall hideout, their food stash long depleted, the mice are forced to call on Frederick. ‘What about your supplies?’ they beg. So Frederick proceeds to describe all that he’d observed, which gets the clan through the cold and the dark, and he emerges a hero, complete with little flushed-red cheeks.
Lionni’s motivations are clear. Being a respected Italian painter and illustrator (and advertising executive, it should be noted), Frederick is an unambiguous plea: when all else fails it is imagination and aesthetic pleasure that keeps us alive.
I reckon the Pet Shop Boys would say three cheers to that.
I know I did, as I replayed the film clip over and over until I fell asleep.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, May 31 2008)