Young Writers’ Days

I’m running some writing workshops in Gippsland this year.

Young people only.

Why would I bother teaching kids about writing?

I love what I do. Most days. I think we have an obligation to ourselves, our loved ones and future generations to tell it like it is. Even if we are writing speculative fiction or absurd fantasy we are still drawing on this moment and our collective memories for detail. Exploring the world through fiction is a valid form of self-analysis and a powerful tool for generating empathy. Writers spend a lot of time walking in other people’s shoes and if you are open to the lessons the thoughts and actions of a fictional character can reveal things about your subconscious. We shine a light on the darkness in the world and in our own hearts. We speak about the unspeakable.

There’s a letter from a concerned parent framed and hanging on John Marsden’s wall. It explains that her daughter wouldn’t be attending the presentation by Mister Marsden because authors have ‘lawless minds’. I imagine John kept the letter because it’s true—we work hard at cultivating a natural anarchy in our heads. I imagine John also kept the letter as a stark reminder that there are people in the world too scared to dream, who pursue conformity with such vigour that the creative part of their minds—their child minds—have been caged and starved until they can no longer see dragons in the clouds or laugh at a fart.

My dad’s brother, my uncle Reg, died way before his time. He was younger than I am now when he died. He was a cabinetmaker by trade and an artist by heart. He built the display case at the museum that houses our most famous dead horse—Phar Lap. My dad’s a skilled woodworker and he learned much of his trade from his big brother. As a boy I found Reg’s bohemian lifestyle, his big old house of mysteries in Toronga Road Hawthorn and his flamboyant wife—my dear auntie Yvonne—intoxicating. His heart, head, and hands were invested in everything he did. By the time I came along, he didn’t appear to have a conventional job: he’d disappear into his workshop for days on end, emerging fitfully for olives and red wine covered in a patina of sawdust. The only other things to emerge from the workshop were magnificent pieces of bespoke timber furniture, smooth, shining, flawless.

I worked a decade in ‘normal’ jobs—apprenticed as a gardener (!), trained as a masseur, counsellor, hypnotherapist, drove trucks, waited tables and sold didjeridus in the early days of the World Wide Web. I met a magazine editor when I was twenty. I was hitchhiking in country Victoria and he picked me up, said I should write something for his magazine. The seed was sown, or perhaps the editor was water for a seed I picked up in Reg’s workshop. Whatever. The result was the feeling that perhaps—just perhaps—I could fashion myself some real vocation, some head/heart/hand work. Activity I could lose myself in for days/weeks/months at a time.

Like every form of artistic expression, writing has days and days of rainforest fecundity and months of desert gibber. The dry times can sometimes make it hard to feed the family and they test my commitment to the craft, but the rain has always come. There’s something wanton and triumphant about a desert in flower that a rainforest might never know.

I want to let young people know that they are the authors of their own lives and that they don’t always have to write between the lines and that it takes courage and commitment to pour their hearts onto a page. That story is king and that I can’t teach them how to write any more than I can teach them how to think, but I can most certainly show them what living with a lawless mind looks like.

If you know a young someone with a lawless mind, pass it on