I think it’s fair to say that to have any pretensions to being a writer, especially of fiction, as surely as the words ‘happily ever after’ follow ‘and they lived’, one must be a reader. To write, and not in some way be informed, influenced, or involved by, or in, the words of others, is like saying “Oh, yes, I’m an historian” – but then to only give your own perspective of history, without reference to the actual and the factual events. So World War One was fought between the Vulcans and the Borg, say. Or Henry VIII was Darth Vader’s second cousin, twice removed. Why? Because I said so. Live long and prosper, and don’t talk back, ignorant humanoid, or you’ll go straight to the Death Star.
Beginning the journey into reading – and writing – is something I don’t think any of us ever forget; that wide, salt-warm, lapis blue sea of books, waiting patiently to be waded into until we are almost at drowning point, immersed up to our brain stems in ideas. Love, hate, revenge, loss, witches, wizards, cops, robbers, talking toads and rats, heroes, anti heroes, tears, laughter, joy, villains, flirting, fools, bigotry, candour, wit, irony, dissimulation… all wrapped up in probable and improbable plots alike.
Of course, they were more than just books; they were a lesson. They were an introduction and an unconscious guide into learning how not to imitate the authors we love too slavishly, as we started to scribble those first badly plotted detective stories and saccharine fairy tales on sweaty, sometimes crinkled from frustrated tears, and generally much erased cheap lined paper.
For me, my primary school library provided both a retreat from reality and a source of what, in later years, I’d know as that incredible giddiness that comes with the first heady sip of good champagne. A fizzy exhilaration at getting my mitts on new books to gobble up, to devour and then munch on thoughtfully again and again, at a more sedate pace.
Gobble is the right word; there was a gnawing anxiety in my stomach at ensuring I was first to get to those fresh piles of pages. This admittedly wasn’t difficult; I went to a very small country school, where the emphasis was more on who could smash the hell out of everyone else at marbles and retain champion double dutch status, rather than finding the way into Narnia. My imagination however insisted I was the best one to appreciate any and all new worlds to be explored, the most efficient way to rescue princesses, and to help protagonists conquer the lands between the covers.
And, naturally, there was usually a handsome prince somewhere, hidden not too carefully at a strategic point in the story. Precociously, perhaps, quite early on in my reading career I realised I didn’t necessarily need a love story, or what I scornfully derided as out and out goop, in what I was stuffing into my brain box. What I required most was good writing. It was that which constituted my happily ever after, rather than the love story itself.
In my memory, that school library assumes epic proportions. Towering shelves of leather clad tomes, freshly replenished by some magical source for my pleasure and mine alone. In reality it was a smallish room, filled with battered paperbacks and not so battered hardbacks, whose lending cards tended to be stamped fairly consistently and well from the early 60s – and then blank, until me, when they were repeatedly purpled with my name, until a fresh card had to be pasted in. A new and progressive headmaster, marking my nerdy enthusiasm (and massive social shyness) was wonderful enough to turn a blind eye to my petty pilfering of several dozen volumes – probably partly because my mother was a fellow teacher, and partly because he knew damn well nobody else was reading the things – and in fact invested heavily in new books. Many of these were fairly out there for a late 70s/early 80s Australian country town, and possibly far too old for me. I thank him in my mind’s eye almost every day for ignoring my theft and engaging my intellect. Those books started my need to question the status quo.
They made the beginnings of a writer.
Now, as a matter of circumstance and space, my books are mostly contained – or is that constrained? – within the digital layers of a device. But what I find more and more, as I learn how much I don’t yet know as a writer, is how much that library of childhood lives on within my memories. It is a mental repository of what I cannot leave behind me; things I desperately hold onto, which shoot up out of the old manual card carousel when least expected, at random moments of thought and time.
I have massive overdue fines to pay on the tomes of lost loves I cannot let go of. They have backed up over the years; each with their own set of particular conditions and dates identifying them, a Dewey Decimal system of loss. E.1996.DS: Death in the Garden.
Often I find I am unconsciously typing out thoughts I believed had been left behind in the stacks – somewhere between ‘m’ for memory, ‘l’ for lust, and ‘t’ for tears. This brings on the inevitable and somewhat predictable result of an uncontrollable desire to find ‘v’ for vodka and ‘c’ for chocolate. If I were a little bit wiser, or had any kind of way to navigate my way around bibliohell, I’d quite possibly regress completely and sit firmly in a beanbag in ‘c’ for ‘childhood’ and not leave, but that’s not the way writing works, is it?
Our own writing, those stacks, at its best, its most painful, most exhilarating, and most substantive, is the thousand thousand words that arise from our own brain’s awareness, and the bruising of our heart, body and soul. It is our own lifetime’s essence, combined with the illumination received from those that went before us. It is the caustic wit of Salinger, the snark of Capote, the lost innocence of Lee, the braggadocio and loucheness of Wilde, the conundrums of Conan Doyle, the drawing room acerbity of Austen, the god knows what of Easton Ellis, the pain of Plath, the furious need to be seen of Parker.
It is us – a second-hand physicality of dog eared pages. It is a million memories of what we’ve lost in the fire, of what may have been, an endless parade of what ifs, maybes, shoulda, coulda, wouldas. It’s all the lovingly bookmarked, underlined passages of our victories, the high points, the loves of our lives. It’s tear stains on crinkled paper, and coffee cup rings and crumbs, where we were so enthralled with what was going on in our memories we didn’t want to put food or drink down whilst reliving them in our minds – and on the screen.
Our writing is sometimes an abandoned, disappointed building, the letters falling off the front, where all that is left to inspire us is a few tattered rags and tags, flapping in the breeze. This is the point when writer’s block grabs one by the throat, and says “look, you foolish woman – don’t you understand?
“There’s nothing here for you. Turn your back, your brain, your heart, your insipid little talent on all of this nonsense. It holds nothing but disappointment and regret.”
I realise, of course, I should listen. There is wisdom in the hissing sibilants of Señor W. Block. Writing? Who am I, to attempt to stand on the shoulders of giants? I may be entitled to read their words, but that doesn’t give me a right to emulate them.
I have never claimed to be wise, nor to listen well to pedantry or sophistry. And certainly, to misquote one of those early read and much loved writers, I’ve never been one to take the road more travelled. This is becoming more and more evident as time goes on, even as I have suffered very real slings and arrows for my journalistic work, as I have seen violence come into my home, and as I have watched, sadly, other writers get chewed up for their thoughts, rather than their writing, on this very platform. As I have bitten my pen and my tongue in not responding to criticism, rather than critiques, of my own work.
And I cannot unlearn to write. That sits firmly under ‘i’ for inconceivable… which in this case, means exactly what I think it means.
There’s a thought.
Once upon a time, there was a terrible creature named Writer’s Block. It had six fingers on one hand, and it was responsible for the death of a brilliant sword maker, whose name was Señor Montoya. He had a son, who swore one day, as he’d killed his father, the creature would die.
All things are possible – if we just keep writing. And read. With respect, and gratitude, and care.
And by the by, don’t get done for plagiarism…