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Like many people I’m reading a number of books at the moment.  One of mine is Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (her real name, would you believe).  It’s brilliant, one to rival the spectacular How Fiction Works by James Wood.  Where in my teenage years I may have looked to religion for guidance on how to live a good life, I now look to books about writing, as if writing’s the only activity that matters, and perhaps it is.  But this isn’t exactly what’s occupying my mind right now; what’s occupying my mind is a certain paragraph in Prose’s book.

She remembers a young writer telling her how he was taken to dinner by a highly successful and powerful agent.  The agent asked the young writer about what sort of things he was interested in and the writer replied by saying that he was only interested in creating great sentences.  The agent sighed and then asked him to promise that he would ‘never, ever’ repeat that to an American publisher.  Prose goes on to say that despite the poignancy of the young writer’s response, and the dig at the publishing industry, it was refreshing to hear of someone so dedicated to the art of sentences.

But this isn’t really what’s occupying my mind either.

What’s really occupying my mind is theme, the point of that agent’s question.  For me theme is always the idea of home.  I’ve written about home before in this column, but that’s okay, because it may well take a lifetime of reading, and writing, and living to understand, to know.  But what is so mysterious, so captivating, about the idea of home?  My 1904 copy of Soule’s Synonyms offers some leads.  ‘Home’ as a noun: domicile, dwelling, residence.  As an adverb: closely, pointedly.  As an adjective: internal.  And then Soule’s heads into such wonderful terrain as ‘homeliness’ and ‘homespun’ before coming to grief in ‘homicide’.  All of this only raises more questions about why home is so intriguing.

A quick story.  Fifteen years ago I donned a backpack, as is the Down Under way, and headed to the United Kingdom amongst other places.  Being from English-Irish (and convict) stock, I was warned that I would probably have a ‘homecoming’ moment when landing at Gatwick.  I had nothing of the sort – I felt as alien in England as I had felt when in Canada and the United States.

But then I caught the ferry from Wales to Dublin.  And it was in Dublin, a fantastic Irish city (and ‘fantastic’ is the word), that it seemed like I had come home.  It was in the forever fighting faces, the soulful swooning of the Uilleann pipes played on street corners, in the soaking weather, the living-room-like pubs, and the pure distaste of authority.  Six weeks later, now with more than a hint of Irishness in my accent, I left Eire, and, via Thailand, returned to Australia, to Canberra, where day in day out I think about, write about, try to get a handle on, what home means.

Frankly I have no idea what it means.  If it is anything, it’s a desire, and a rush.

As is creating the great sentence.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, June 13 2009)

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The past