Wood, Water and Words

NightInsectsCollageMy mate Mark is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, composer and songwriter. He has created about five CD’s worth of material and worked with some of the well-to-do members of the music industry in Australia including compositions for ABC TV and one of the Hunter boys (ex ‘April Sun in Cuba’ Dragon) but you wont find his stuff on the shelves in Sanity. In fact, unless you’ve seen him live at Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon or festivals, it’s unlikely you’d have a reference point for his brilliance. He’s an unpublished musical genius.

Mark is disturbingly Zen about his lack of fame and his life. He’s busy with the chop-wood-carry-water experience of being a musician, father, teacher and partner. And he’s content. Content in a way that a corporate banker might never understand.

I try to model Mark’s Zen in my own life but I’m impatient and prone to fits of rage and frustration. Things never happen fast enough or big enough or never live up to my pyrotechnic vision of what they should be.

I’m an author. My sixth book of young adult fiction (Gravity) came out with Pan in 2006. I prowl the festival circuit, run workshops in schools and give corporate talks like some half-baked pop star. I’ve sat on signing tables with the Carmody/Griffiths/Marsden/Gleitzmans of the world, humbled by the serpentine queues of star-struck kids and parents. I twiddle my pen and know that I’m lucky. That there are writers more skilled and inventive than me who haven’t come this far. I know there are literary geniuses out there, some banging their manuscripts and their heads against the clean glass doors of the publishing industry. We all know some dreadful shit gets published while our manuscripts are overlooked. We’ve all read other people’s stuff and known we could do better. It’s so subjective. It’s the fine art of tickling peoples’ fancy. Your fancy, a publisher’s fancy and hopefully a reader’s fancy. Some published and unpublished writers are content to write as a hobby. They do the thing they love (write) and stay happy, either content to ignore fame, fortune and glory or simply enamoured by the journey with no grand destination.

I’m learning the importance of chopping wood and carrying water in a writer’s life. It may sound like a pissy defeatists aphorism but I can assure you that it is as significant a tool to the writer’s craft as a clear head and fresh ideas. In fact, one leads to the other.

Any published author will tell you that the world doesn’t change colour after you’re published. Sure, seeing your name on the cover of a book is a serious cut, wax and polish for the ego but it probably wont make much difference to the state of your bank balance and certainly wont make you any cooler or sexier. Tomorrow morning, you’ll be up a little earlier with a transitory sparkle in your eye, wood to chop and water to carry.

And that’s a blessing.

I hosted a work experience student for a week last year. She helped me transcribe my current novel from the written page to the computer. She could type faster than me, write with flair and honesty and was fifteen years my junior. She hadn’t finished school and she already knew that she wanted to write. I found myself getting envious of her talent, passion and direction … until the last day. Until I realised that she wasn’t interested in chopping wood and carrying water. She asked me what she had to do to become a writer so I gave her my slant on it.

You have to write, obviously, and the more you do it, the better you become. And you have to read. Der. The more you read, the more you come to understand what you like and dislike about the writing that has found ink before you. That’s your style speaking to you. What you like and dislike about other people’s writing is your innate sense of good writing/story/craft bubbling up from your history. What’s good for you might not be good for the publisher who reads it but may be earth-moving for the publisher in the next office.

That’s the easy part, she said. I love to read and I love to write.

Okay, find a job. Not necessarily one that involves writing because you could end up like a plumber with a leaky tap at home. Good jobs for novelists are not always academic or glossy and professional. For me, a good writer’s job has to provide one of two things: it has to give you the time to be in your own head or feed you with story.

I’m still writing ideas that came to me while pulling blackberries when I was a teenager. Mindless physical work that gave me the space to cogitate. At the end of a day, I’d be knackered, rich (!), buzzing with ideas and I’d leave behind a tract of arable land.

I’m still writing stories inspired by those I heard working with young people in schools. Exhausting and deeply personal work that gave me insight into the lives of others. At the end of the day, I’d be knackered, rich (?!), full to the brim with story and hopefully leaving behind people whose hearts were lighter for the sharing.

My CV’s full of those sorts of jobs. Landscaper, masseur, counselor, waiter, truck driver. Some days I’d have to think about the work more than others and some days I didn’t hear stories, I only heard pain.

Some of the authors I know have come to writing through academia. A lot of kid’s authors were teachers. Some authors I know have worked in the book industry. Their jobs probably opened doors to publication that wouldn’t have been available to a blackberry pulling masseur counselor type of person. But by far the majority of authors I know have done a zillion jobs and toiled away in a dark corner until the book was cooked.

So, you’ve found a job to put food on the table and stop the man from coming to repossess your soul. Now you have to find a place to live that doesn’t cripple you financially and have you working so hard that you can’t think. I like living in the country. The housing is cheap and there has always been work for me. Room to move and room to muse. But the city might be where you’re at …

You find a place then you need to find a place within that place to write. Or somewhere else. You find a place then you need to find the time to write. You find the time and then you have to find the words. You find the words and it’s your turn to wash the bloody dishes. Chop wood, carry water.

You can never really ‘make it’ as an author. Just like you can never really ‘make it’ as a pianist or a doctor or a human being. And in a way that’s the beauty of it. There’s no top wages bracket and no perfect book. Just because you have one book published doesn’t mean there’ll be a second. The fears and self-doubts that were there in the beginning still come up from time to time and your inner critic constantly expands his or her vocabulary.

But I just want to write, she says. So write, says I. Find a way to make it pay or find a pay and make your way. Either way you look at it, you’ll still have to chop wood and carry water.

I earn about as much as a schoolteacher from my writing and speaking. I’m not sad about that. Schoolteachers work much harder than I do and they rarely get the opportunity to wear their pyjamas to work. I’ll be published overseas soon and I know when it happens I’ll probably be washing my kids clothes or getting something organised for tea. Some people in the media have compared my work to John Marsden’s and I’m honoured by that but John and I share a more significant passion: we might be the only people in the world who enjoy pulling out blackberries.

Burning Eddy was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for older readers and the NSW Premier’s Literary awards in 2004. It’s been raining at home—at last—and all the firewood my wife and I split for the winter is getting wet. When I get home I’ll have to kick the generator in the guts and pump some of the rain up the hill for our showers. Shift wood, pump water. You’ve got to love it. It’s the wellspring of the writer’s life.