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Gossling's Harvest of Gold is also a harvest of goodness - but do we value that goes into the making of these things?

Gossling’s ‘Harvest of Gold’ is also a harvest of goodness – but do we really value the effort that goes into the making of these things?

So, it had happened again. I’d been blissfully scouring the shelves of a second-hand bookshop when the shop-keeper, a wren-like woman in her sixties with wild blonde hair and wearing black leather pants, did it, she asked her question. ‘What do you do for a living?’

It wasn’t as if she’d said, ‘Do you mind if I get nude?’ or ‘Why is it you have a face like a burns victim?’ She simply wanted to know how I earned a crust.

I moved in closer against the shelves in an effort to show that I was terribly busy trying to decide how to spend my money in her shop. But I had to be polite. I said, ‘I’m a…the best way to…journalist… fiction… stuff.’

My response was pathetic, awful, almost downright disrespectful. Why was it so hard to tell this gregarious woman what I do?

There’s no doubt that most people with a creative practice have been in a similar situation. And, I think, it all comes down to two key things: understanding and value. It’s true that the only person who understands what it’s like to try to write a decent story or column (let’s not even go near novellas or novels) is the person who’s trying to chose the right words and put them in the right order. Do I know what it’s like to be in a band, to write a song, to get it to sit up and swagger, to play the thing in front of a hundred drunken patrons? Nope, no idea. The visual arts? I love them, especially photomedia and assemblage, but do I understand what it takes to create a drawing or painting or a piece of public art? Nuh. And the performers – the dancers and choreographers. I admire them, I’m inspired by them, but I could never truly understand the work they do. Let’s face it, artists are the freaks of the Australian workforce.

That second key to all this: value.

How do we value what we do when we barely understand it ourselves? Recently I’ve been listening to Gossling’s Harvest of Gold. Because it’s an absolute cracker. How much work has gone into every chorus and verse and bridge, every sound, every layer – it’s meticulously crafted. How much blood, sweat and tears have been invested in something that many – thousands with any luck, hundreds of thousands – are enjoying. And maybe some are even being moved by it. Is this album really worth just $20, the cost of a laksa and a flat white? No. It’s worth more, so much more.

All creative practice, every single artistic endeavour, be it big or small, successful or unsuccessful, public or private, is worth an infinitesimal amount. How do we communicate that? How do we make politicians take notice and take action, particularly in these increasingly threadbare times?

Perhaps it all comes down to confidence.

Perhaps I should have said to that shop-keeper, ‘I’m a writer. Some of it is fact, some of it is fiction, and, Christ, I’d be dead without it.’


(First published in BMA Magazine on 30 July 2014.)

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.

The Nigerian poet and novelist, author of 'The Famished Road' and 'Astonishing the Gods' is onto something, he really is.

The Nigerian poet and novelist, author of ‘The Famished Road’ and ‘Astonishing the Gods’, is onto something, he really is.  His collection of essays, ‘A Way of Being Free’ (1997), is a book I turn to time and time again.

‘True artists are wiser than we think.’

‘Creativity, it would appear, should be approached in the spirit of play, of foreplay, of dalliance, doodling, messing around – and then, bit by bit, you somehow get deeper into the matter.’

‘There is a touch of blessedness in the art of writing.  It is sometimes interesting, while writing, to be occupied by the mood you want to render and to let the mood find the words.  This assumes oneness between you and your material, a quality of grace.’

‘The best kinds of books have a delightful mystery about them.’

‘Creativity should always be a form of prayer.’

‘The mystery of storytelling is the miracle of a single living seed which can populate whole acres of human minds.’

‘It should be clear by now that it is you, great readers of the world, who are at the root of the storyteller’s complex joy.’

‘Storytellers ought not to be too tame.  They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society.  They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys.’

‘When we die in life, it’s much easier to watch others dying too; it’s much easier to murder the dreams of others, to poison the stream of their lives, to poison their innocence, their love.  When we are dead in life we don’t notice when little miracles die around us before our deadened gaze.’

‘The enemies of poets are those who have no genuine religious thinking.  To be truly religious does not require an institution, it requires terror, faith, compassion, imagination, and a belief in more than three dimensions.  It also requires love.  Religion touches us at the place where imagination blends into the divine.  Poetry touches us where religion is inseparable from the wholly human.  In heaven there could be no poetry.  The same is true of hell.  It is only on a sphere where heaven and hell are mixed into the fabric of the mortal frame that poetry is possible.’

‘There are many ways to die, and not all of them have to do with extinction.’

‘Writers are dangerous when they tell the truth.’

‘Writers are also dangerous when they tell lies.’

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