Like many who will be reading this, I write. I always have, even before I knew how. When I was four my mother would find me filling notebooks with infinite cursive ‘e’s, line after biro line of them, pages of stories that could never be read. ‘That’s very good practice,’ she would praise me, but my face would burn with the embarrassment of not yet knowing how to properly do this thing that seemed to me the key to all understanding.
Writing helps me make sense of the world. Though if I am really honest (and when I am writing, it is the only way to be), writing helps me to make sense of my world, rather than the world. My writing explores the emotions and relationships that make up my middle-class inner-urban life, but if I want to make sense of the bigger world, the one of wars and famine, of Wikileaks and Google, of history and science, then my own writing is of little use. It is then that I read.
Over the last few years I have been writing a novel. It started off as a character study, a play with words and form. It expanded into a metaphorical political treatise, swooping into recent history and the alluring landscape of obsession. And then it politely retreated into one room, interested only in the two characters who had held their ground throughout.
Even when completed, ‘novel’ still sounds too grand a word for my project. A word to be whispered apologetically to those who ask why I do not blog or write short stories. After all, I am a writer, aren’t I? ‘No time,’ I say. ‘I’m working on my, umm … my novel.’
When I sit down at my computer I feel an anticipatory joy at the prospect of writing. While in the process, typing out the words, I almost writhe with pleasure—positioning my chosen words together, learning their rhythms and sway, chiding them when they sidle astray. I feel like me at my desk: no apologies, no caveats. But when I step away from my computer I feel a fraud.
Writing is a natural state for me. It seems I have always done it and, in some form, I always will. But it is never anguished nor transcendent. It leaves me wanting; it is an inadequate way of addressing the world. For all of this lack, I feel guilt. When I finished my novel I despaired. Because in the time it had taken, I had changed. I was not sure if I wanted to write any more.
Is writing (not all writing, but my writing) simply an indulgence? It is a way of stroking my own ego. When I do not write, I get edgy. I am short with people, combative. I fret in company. I pine for time to myself so I can turn inwards and examine my thoughts. My writing is all about me. I find myself interrogating my reasons for writing, rather than the writing itself. Do I write to share what I have to say or because I want to know what others think about what I have to say? If I write to understand this world, why don’t I do more with my understanding?
I studied creative writing, among other things, at university before commencing a career of sorts, more accurately a succession of jobs, and then becoming a subeditor for architecture and design magazines. Magazine publishing is an industry of aspirational performance. The glossy pages show how wonderful life can be, especially when you have in your possession an expanse of recycled timber floorboards set off by a pair of genuine Eames chairs. The further I got sucked into this world of aesthetics, the more conflicted I felt about writing as a pursuit. Was it not just allowing me to do the same thing, to create an identity for myself that said, ‘I’m not one among the indistinguishable masses. I’m an artist, I reinterpret the world’? But to what end?
With writing giving me such confusion, I turned to reading. If it was not quite an addiction, it was my everything. I have heard of writers who do not read. I do not understand this. It seems to me the height of rudeness, and also of disservice to self. I read old books to find out what writers have done before and new ones to find what they are doing now. I carry an old address book with me, its tabbed pages scribbled with author names and book titles I can hunt out at the bookstore or library. Yet, as I read, I grieve for my own writing. A hasty and greedy reader, I feel writing slip further away. Why write another book when Virginia Woolf has written them all already? I pick up Helen Garner, lie down with Ali Smith. Each book is a pointer to my own futility as a writer.
The rain is coming down, it would be almost fair to say, in sheets. I can barely advance, I stand above the seat and press on the pedals, but it is as though I am being swaddled in a wet towel. I steer my bicycle onto the verge, and wait out the downpour beneath low-hanging trees.
Perched on the bicycle frame, as the forest steams about me, I scribble recollections in my notebook. The smell of birch branches in a banya, the floral tastes of wheat beer and salty herring devoured by the Baltic. I have spent the morning at the perfect circle of the Kaali meteor crater, marvelling at its symmetry, and I am on my way to a copse of wooden windmills, far on the other side of Estonia’s Saaremaa island. The sun shone all morning as I cycled on flat roads past fields of poppies, iPod turned up loud, Mazzy Star drifting in my ears. And then the rain, bringing pause.
I have been travelling through Russia and Estonia for weeks, and I have months ahead of bus rides, backpacker hostels and snatches of unknown language as I make my way down towards Bosnia. I carry a camera loaded with high-speed black-and-white film, its results satisfyingly grainy, but mainly I try to forgo the ease of the visual medium and instead put pen to paper. I do not know it yet but this journal will be filled with stories of sweet-talking Frenchmen setting out to Siberia, a band of New York brothers trying to get themselves and their banjos to Albania, and gun-wielding taxi drivers by the Sava river. The rain drips through the canopy and blots my page. It makes the ink run until the words are no longer themselves.
During my reading odyssey I came across the work of Doris Lessing. The pleasure! That she has written so much and that it is so consistently very good. It was like some kind of gift from the literary universe that I should find her when I was in need. For when I read The Golden Notebook (1962), I wept.
I came late to Lessing. She had never been recommended to me; I had never heard anyone say her name, much less endorse her. She was not on any syllabus, she was not fashionable. As I would discover, many people consider her something of a relic, caught in a sepia time warp, tainted by communism and unwanted feminist clout. A grand dame of English literature, she is seen by some as having lost her way in science fiction, quietly reappearing to claim the Nobel Prize.
Oddly, nobody I have spoken to has told me what they feel when they read Lessing. As though her words are only cerebral, that they do not entice a shortening of breath, a biting of the lip. For this I am flummoxed. I cannot think of a more electric writer, one whose words speak of things always precisely of the moment. As the character Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook, Lessing caught the tension of living rather than writing: ‘It was all wrong, ugly, unhappy and coloured with cynicism, but nothing was tragic, there were no moments that could change anything or anybody. From time to time the emotional lightning flashed and showed a landscape of private misery, and then—we went on dancing.’ A writer so giving, Lessing recognises that the moment is never over for the reader, or the writer.
So there I was, sitting in a park alongside a river in Germany, and I had planned to read for only twenty minutes or so. It was cold; I had somewhere to be. I read The Golden Notebook for more than two hours, my feet jiggling up and down so as not to go numb, my hands taking turns to hold the pages while the other was tucked beneath my thigh for warmth. I cried in the kind of desolate manner that brings no relief.
In her precise and honest way, Lessing has taught me that to write is to be human, that writing is a way of thinking. She tackles that familiar feeling of inadequacy—that the artist writes out of an ‘incapacity to live’. She reminds me that writing is a way to make sense of the world and to order my thoughts. The great game of structure and narrative and momentum and pause is a way of engaging in a present I sometimes feel I do not touch. She shows me how to interrogate the relationships between characters and selves, and explains that this exploration is more than the sum of its parts.
At the risk of quoting Lessing at such length you will put down this essay and go seek out some of her own, I direct you to her 1971 preface for The Golden Notebook:
At last I understand that the way over, or through this dilemma, the unease at writing about ‘petty personal problems’ was to recognize that nothing is personal, in the sense that it is uniquely one’s own. Writing about oneself, one is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions—and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas—can’t be yours alone. The way to deal with this problem of ‘subjectivity’, that shocking business of being preoccupied with the tiny individual who is at the same time caught up in such an explosion of terrible and marvellous possibilities, is to see him as a microcosm and in this way to break through the personal, the subjective, making the personal general, as indeed life always does, transforming a private experience—or so you think of it when still a child, ‘I am falling in love’, ‘I am feeling this or that emotion, or thinking that or the other thought’—into something much larger: growing up is after all only the understanding that one’s unique and incredible experience is what everyone shares.
For some time this comforted me. Lessing confirmed that writing, however personal it seems, is an important way of engaging in the world, and allowing others, through reading, to do so as well. But each time I sat down to write, something still niggled at me. Surely there was something else I should be doing?
In a relentless 2010 essay reviewing Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Elif Batuman attacked university creative writing programs and captured my own growing discomfort: ‘Pretending that literary production is a non-elite activity is both pointless and disingenuous.’ Ouch. She continued: ‘Despite the recent trend in viewing fiction as a form of empathy training, I’m pretty sure that writing short stories isn’t the most efficient way to combat injustice or oppression.’1 I agree.
Her voice sails up from the darkness, reedy yet forced.
The audience shifts uncomfortably. It is nearing the end of a long play, one intended to be more dramatically touching than it is. We want to believe that we are seeing great theatre but the artifice has never fully departed; I can taste the memory of Maltesers caught in my molars, and my bad knee has stiffened to an ache.
‘Paul? Wake up! Somebody help! He’s not moving.’
Her voice takes on the tremor of fear, people begin to whisper, an usher gets to her feet in the aisle. On stage the penultimate scene comes to an end. The entire theatre is plunged into night and only then does somebody else’s voice join the lone woman’s.
‘Put the lights up!’
And as the next scene begins, another audience member calls for the sole actor on stage to stop. He pauses, lifts his hand to shade his eyes from the glare, gathers his props and scurries away. The house lights are up and I can see the woman’s arms wrapped around her husband. She is trying to rouse him; he is slumped deep in his chair.
‘Paul! Paul!’ It is no longer a question. ‘Is there a doctor, a nurse in the house?’
As one the audience stands. It has become theatre in the round and nobody wants to be taking part. The actors watch from the wings, hands clasped to chests as though in this moment all they can do is perform the pitiful, useless anxiety that we all feel. A doctor steeplechases over the seats and stumbles between the rows to reach the stricken man. Two women are attempting to lay him on the floor but the folding seats are in the way, and the man’s wife continues to call his name.
Wordlessly, my friend and I take up our jackets and bags and turn our backs on the scene. We sidestep along the row, not uttering the usual apologies and excuses as we push past the other patrons. As we reach the exit an usher’s voice releases the audience from this unwelcome spell.
’Ladies and gentlemen, please leave the auditorium. Tonight’s performance will not continue.’
With just this small moment of reality, the action onstage has become farce. We feel a collective naivety at having been so drawn in, at having felt any emotion for the characters’ plights. What is the point of art when it can be destroyed so equivocally by reality? We are ashamed at having been entertained as a man silently died in our midst. And trying to make sense of it, I find myself wanting to write it down.
Please do not misunderstand me. I believe in the inherent value in writing and in art. The production of art hints at the health of the society it reflects and critiques. Lessing’s Anna Wulf writes of the novel as a function of the fragmented society and the fragmented consciousness: ‘It is a blind grasping for their own wholeness, and the novel-report is means toward it.’ But is writing the best that I can do?
Somewhere in my Lessing binge, I read the two novels she wrote under a pseudonym: The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984). They had been published and reviewed under the name of Jane Somers as a snub to a publishing industry Lessing perceived to be closed to new writers. It was not this literary intrigue that held me, however, but the narrative of the books. In The Diary of a Good Neighbour Jane Somers, an editor on a women’s fashion magazine, meets the elderly Maudie Fowler in a pharmacy. She accompanies her home to find that Mrs Fowler lives in an alarming state of squalor, the result of poverty, age and the simple consequence of being forgotten by society: ‘Before a few weeks ago, I did not see old people at all. My eyes were pulled towards, and I saw, the young, the attractive, the well-dressed and handsome. And now it is as if a transparency has been drawn across that former picture and there, all at once, are the old, the infirm.’
And so it was that the power of fiction guided me into action. In the week I learned that my novel was going to be published, I started studying social work, with the aim of working with older people in need. At first I spoke of it in the same apologetic way I had muttered the word ‘novel’. People were curious about my change of ‘career’, and wanting to do good rarely seemed a convincing enough reason for leaving a promising job that paid the bills and allowed me the time to pursue my own writing. Of course, noticing what others think probably says more about me than either social work or writing.
‘It’s so lovely that you could visit me, dear. It’s always nice to have a chat, isn’t it?’
‘It is, Miss Donovan.’ I find myself modulating my voice to her whispered levels. ‘How are you feeling this morning?’
‘Quite well.’ She looks at me quizzically and I know that she has forgotten my name, as she has every morning. ‘I had a lovely sleep and a cup of tea. I even managed three biscuits, but they keep telling me to eat up.’ She gives me a smile, indicating a biscuit still sitting on the bedside table. ‘Did you want the last one?’
‘No, thank you. You can save it for later.’ I take a seat. ‘My name is Melanie, I’m the social work student. I’ve just come to say hello. You have lost a lot of weight, haven’t you? Have the doctors figured out why?’
She is an elegant lady in her early nineties, who sits tall in her chair. I am still finding my way in the hospital setting, completing my first social work student placement in a geriatric rehabilitation ward. I had made the mistake of calling this patient ‘Mrs’ Donovan when we first met, wrongly assuming she was widowed. But she had very firmly told me that she was a spinster, never married, and to please call her ‘Miss’, and, quite firmly, none of that buzzing ‘Ms’ nonsense.
‘Oh, they do lots of tests, but I don’t know what they’re looking for.’ She shakes her head. ‘I will save that biscuit. Maybe I could save a few and have a little party later.’ She reaches over to the biscuit, takes it carefully in hand and wraps it in a tissue. ‘I’m rather good at saving things. I used to keep my sandwiches from the Meals on Wheels to have at night while watching the Tour.’
‘The Tour de France?’ I ask. A mad keen cyclist myself, I know well the late nights in front of the television, lulled by the race’s peacefully unremitting form of competition.
‘Oh yes, dear. I watched it every night. The way those men cycle, their muscular thighs pumping away. It’s quite mesmerising, isn’t it? That was the problem, I would get so lost in watching, all that marvellous footage they show from the helicopters of the countryside … just beautiful. And I would fall asleep on the couch, forgetting to eat my sandwiches.’ She winked at me. ‘Probably why I lost all that weight. Really, I don’t think there’s much wrong with me.’
I laugh along with her and we spend half an hour talking about cycling and travelling, the places I will go and the places she has been. And I do not write anything until my placement finishes many months later.
When asked what kind of writer she was going to be, Zadie Smith said:
I don’t know. I don’t have the physical and mental will to be a great one, which is a shame. But you have to make a choice. I like life. I want to be in love, and maybe have children, and exist in that proper way. I used to think that there wasn’t a life I could have that would be worth as much as the books. Now I don’t. And I think you really have to believe that your life can’t be as [valuable] as the books to be the kind of writer whose books are immortal. And I don’t feel that way anymore.2
When I ask myself what kind of person I am going to be, I realise that ‘a writer’ is only part of it. If one of the ways we live our lives is to seek happiness, we have to understand what happiness means. To me, the happy life is an amalgamation of the creative life and the moral life. Becoming a social worker is a way I find that I can help others to help themselves. In many ways it is a decision born of self-interest—I was unhappy in the career I had found myself in. But it is also one born of compassion and a feeling of obligation towards those who do not have the opportunities I have had—circumstances that make it easy for me to get through each day, and still have time and energy to indulge my desire to read and to write.
Oddly, I have found that people find it much easier to understand why I would want to write novels than why I would want to help others. At odds with a world where most things are judged by their monetary worth, writing still retains a somewhat noble status. True, there is a mistaken view that it is possible to make a living on novels alone (sadly impossible for all but a happy few), but even those who understand the precarious financial state writers often find themselves in appreciate, and applaud, the endeavour.
Necessary rather than noble, the professions engaged in helping or caring do not attract the same feelings of goodwill. When I am introduced to friends of friends and we rattle through the social small talk, one of the early questions is, inevitably, ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a student,’ I reply. ‘I’m retraining as a social worker.’ Most people look confused or ask why I am pursuing further study for such a low-paid occupation, and one with a reputation for being so ‘draining’. And then my mutual friend will often say, ‘But tell them what you really do,’ shaking their head as though we are engaged in some kind of party trick. ‘She’s actually a writer.’
This disregard is reflected (no, encouraged and reiterated) in policy and societal structures. The Australian Services Union recently took an equal pay case to Fair Work Australia, arguing that workers in the social and community sectors are not paid at a level that reflects their true worth. In arguing this case, the ASU and its supporters are fighting for carers, community workers and, yes, social workers to be acknowledged in the most recognisable language of our times: money. In May 2011 a preliminary ruling acknowledged that this pay disparity is real (no surprises there), and in November the federal government announced it would contribute $2 billion to help cover a pay rise for workers in the community sector.
Even in writing all of this, however, I realise that my angst is not with others—it is with myself. As Jane Somers pondered how to fit Maudie Fowler into her life, she asked, with true curiosity, ‘How do we value ourselves? By what? Work? … We are to judge people by their beautiful thoughts?’ And so it is that I will judge myself: not only by my thoughts and their written form, beautiful or otherwise, but by my actions as well.
- Elif Batuman, ‘Get a real degree’, review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing’, London Review of Books, 23 September 2010, accessed at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n18/elif-batuman/get-a-real-degree.
- Camille Dodero, ‘A Writer’s Truth’, interview with Zadie Smith, Boston Phoenix, 2003, accessed at http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/qa/documents/03028816.asp.