Dear Reader, I have been reflecting a lot on what writing is, what it is for, and why I am compelled to do it. In part this is because the announcement of the Western Australian Writer’s Fellowship is approaching, and one of my fellow shortlistees and I discussed the joy of recognition which is mixed with a certain anxiety.
To write, you cannot be invested in the outcome, I have learned from long and hard experience. You write because of the delight of putting words together, because of the satisfaction of telling a story in the best possible way your talents allow, because it is the thing you are happiest doing. I have been publishing novels for more than two decades now, and the world of writing – both the actual writing and the events around publishing, which are two different things – has brought me huge joy, occasional despair, and prompted regular soul-searching, often on the same day.
But there is a deeper reason to the why for me, and that is because of how writing has allowed me to connect with others. The reasons for this are below. Publishing, it seems to me, is like the performance I learned in year three, but writing is the thing beneath.
According to Gwen’s family, I was an overly sensitive, fussy, and/or whinging child. I was compared to my boisterous, fearless male cousin in the first instance, and my sweet natured younger girl cousins in the second, and found wanting. Although I was told my family loved me, my predominant memories of adult relatives are coloured by their mild impatience with me, their shared frowns and head-shaking, which occasionally erupted into outright irritation.
A range of behaviours was produced in evidence of the ways in which I was difficult. To whit:
I was fussy with food. I did not like eating vegetables, eggs, or meat. I choked on sausage skin and was taken to hospital to check for a swallowing disorder; I vomited eggs; the smell of cooking mince made me feel faint. I would only eat the icing off cake after smooshing the un-icing part into a wodge in my hand. If I was not able to eat toast and Vegemite at someone’s house, I was liable to collapse into an inconsolable heap and require taking home.
I had a series of anxieties and phobias. Each night I packed a small bag my mother had made me with my favourite teddy and nightie and slept with it at the foot of my bed, in case there was a fire. I went through a long phase in which I refused to wear anything other than pyjamas, and a longer phase where I would not go anywhere without my mini-dictionary, yellow covered with a blue L on its front. If anybody gave me a present I didn’t like, the object would induce a terror in me to the extent that the giver needed to remove it from the house. I was convinced there was a redback on every toilet seat, like the song, and would not sit on a toilet unless I’d checked.
I did not much like other children, unless they were my cousins, and I found adults even more alien, expecting behaviours of me that I did not understand. I clung to my mother, who pushed me away, which made me cling more. Gwen had an extended family who lived in the south west, and we often visited their houses or farms. I liked dairies and cats, but hated being in the strange-smelling houses of great aunties and uncles. I went to kindergarten for a few days, was horrified by the boisterousness of the other children, and refused to go back. My mother tried peeling my fingers from where I gripped them, hiding behind the white vinyl armchair, but as soon as she peeled one hand off I’d reattach the other.
My unfitness to be a regular child was deemed to be chiefly my mother’s fault for not using corporal punishment, or, in the alternative, for failing to produce additional offspring so that I would not have been An Only Child. In the 70s everybody knew that Only Children were bossy, selfish, strange, barely human, pitiable creatures who, if their numbers increased, could well be responsible for the downfall of society. The other fault was mine, for being born shy, sensitive, and anxious, when I was not being bossy and selfish etc.
When compulsory schooling began, I wept every morning before school until I was in year three. The terror began building as we approached the school and I saw children milling outside; the prospect of getting out and walking among them caused me to panic. Gwen would sometimes comfort me, sometimes snap at me, and other times try to reason with me to stop snivelling and go to class. One time, she was so frustrated she opened the car door, placed her 70s wedge heel against my hip and booted me out. This was witnessed by my classmate April, who was indignant at the maltreatment I’d endured, and marched me up to her older sister saying, ‘You won’t believe what Julie’s mum just did!’
All I wanted to do was to either be with my mother, to play in my paddling pool, or to lie in the back yard on a blanket, clutching my teddy bear, watching the clouds drift along. ‘You’d do it for hours,’ Gwen would later tell me with mild disapproval. ‘I used to wonder what you were thinking.’
One day I cried at school, in year three, not because Gwen had booted me out of the car, but because I was mortified to discover that I’d left on my summer pyjama bloomers instead of putting on knickers. I was so distressed I couldn’t stop crying and had to go sit outside. My teacher Mrs James squatted down before me and told me it didn’t matter one bit, and nobody would know. As she squatted, I got sight of her white cottontails in the small gap between her substantial thighs, perhaps proving that even sight of a knicker need not cause a person to dissemble. Gwen was not called; I survived the day in pyjama pants and never forgot my proper knickers again.
Mrs James was a fearsome woman, terrifying even the toughest of the boys. But not long after the knicker incident, I was having another fit of paralysing shyness and weeping before school: my best friend Nobbly wasn’t there, and I was inconsolable. Gwen, in a state of irritation and despair, delivered me to the classroom and muttered something to Mrs James.
Mrs James had noticed that the one time I openly showed enthusiasm in class was during reading of any variety. I loved silent reading, the fifteen minutes after lunchtime where everyone had to read material of their choice to themselves. I loved going to the library and choosing new books – I cared little for their topic or genre, I only wanted new words to read, as I had so few at home I was forced to read the same titles over and over again. And when we had to take turns reading aloud, I shot my hand up to be picked, hoping I would get the longest paragraph with the most difficult words. I cringed at the slowness with which some of my classmates stumbled over sentences, how blankly they intoned the syllables which swung and sang when I read them to myself. The pleasing rhythm of The Tale of the Custard Dragon (with its ‘realio, trulio, little pet dragon’) was enough to create waves of wonder, paroxysms of pleasure: how did mere humans write such marvels? Surely God (the nice God of Sunday school, as opposed to the fierce God of church) must be helping them. The only people more special than writers were ABBA (more of which later).
‘I have something special for Julie,’ Mrs James said.
I thought this might be a ruse to get me into my seat, but not long after the day began, Mrs James handed out a play to a select group of students, which included me. I don’t recall what the play was about, or anything about my role, but before recess the players assembled at the front of the classroom to perform our piece. It was all the fun of reading aloud, the delight of reading to and with others, and of adding little flourishes as I went. I remember appreciative laughter, surprise applause, and the happy flush that came over me as I returned to my seat.
‘Julie was a star,’ Mrs James reported to Gwen later that afternoon.
I understood that I had, inadvertently, been taught a trick. You did not have to show your raw self to others; you could coat it with a veneer of confidence, and nobody would know the difference. I could feel terrified, sure, but I didn’t have to show it. I could play a version of myself as a role, and my real self could remain tucked away, observing, hidden.
Excellent preparation for life.