When I first arrived at university, I spent a few confused weeks in lectures in the business school until I learnt somewhere that you could study creative writing. Tim Winton had written his first novel at the same Perth university, I was told. That seemed a more inviting option than my double major in economics and marketing, but really at the time I had no idea, or enthusiasm. I was as aloof and feckless as an eighteen-year-old could be.
The five years before university had been a woozy haze. We’d moved south from the port town of Geraldton to Perth when I was thirteen. My father had been diagnosed with cancer but I didn’t know that when he disappeared to the city and when my mother started packing the house. She only glanced around to the backseat to tell me he was receiving radiotherapy as she drove us through the paddocks south of town, and I heard the words testicular cancer for the first time. We would never be going back.
A bookworm from the country, the move to a new high school in the city had been a predictably unsettling experience. It was a nightmare on the scale of a military tour, or so it had seemed at the time. All horror and adrenalin; moment to moment decisions that felt as though your life depended on them. And the heavy, guilty feeling of having to dispense with some truer part of yourself just to get by. One morning before class I was cornered by a group of boys. Desperate, I spruiked myself breathlessly as a surfer and a skateboarder. The wicked truth was that I had been a boogieboarder and a rollerblader in the country. I preferred soccer to footy. Heresy punishable by god-knows-what. But I banished the odd, contented nerd that I had been—buried him—and I tried to forget my daggy friends back in “Gero”.
My older brother, a devout surfer and fisherman, was grim in the city. A caged dog. His long white-blonde hair went the dull colour of wheatgrass in the Perth winter. I followed him around the house when he and I were home alone, worried about him in the way one worries about men who go silent. As soon as he graduated he escaped to the vineyards of the south-west coast.
But when it was my turn and school was finally over, I didn’t know what to do. I felt hollowed out. A stranger to myself. I tested my parent’s patience for a year, working a few dairy shifts at the local supermarket, and spent the rest of my time bobbing about in the weak surf of the city beaches, before it was clear in the looks they gave me that I needed to do something—anything—so I enrolled.
In the creative writing workshops at university, I found myself writing about Geraldton. The whiteout of the afternoon sun, like the flash of a nuclear bomb somewhere over the horizon. The sea breeze that screamed every afternoon in the summer. The bronze whaler sharks and sun-reddened eyes of fisherman and the warm, green ocean.
The other students were as mystified as I was. They had no stomach for nostalgia and there were few things as uncool to Perth arts students as writing about the country or the ocean. Or worse, both. But some part of me was marooned there, still, and it all showed up on the page.
That was the fundamental lesson I learnt in writing; that a significant part of the process happens beyond you, or beneath your skin.
Jonathon Franzen has spoken of the “hot material” at the core of the writer; the buried, volatile stuff that is waiting to be drilled down into. The great Australian novelist Charlotte Wood has said that writing requires the “necessary willingness to examine one’s own psyche.” Wood also has said that for her a story “emerges” in the writing of it.
The Alaskan author David Vann sometimes almost suggests a complete surrender to the deeper workings of his mind in his process, observing “all that’s unconscious or subconscious rising to the surface of the page and revealed.”
But, what is this all about? What are we drilling or diving down for, or allowing to rise to the surface? Ernest Hemingway sought “one true sentence” to begin each writing day. Alain de Botton has said that “good writing is daring to be radically honest about stuff.” You could make the case that writers, even of fiction, are in pursuit of truth.
My “hot material” was less about nostalgia than it was the shadowy side of the rural coast that I’d grown up with. The worry I had for Australian men and the way we brought them up. Their duty to silence, the way they often didn’t have a language for the things that troubled them. The damage that could do and the danger they could become, to others and to themselves. When I put words on the page, that is what emerged, and years later it would become the novel The Windy Season.
The more I wrote, too, the more I began to survey my own anxious mind—an inheritance from my novelist grandmother. The persistent melancholy, the constant fear of death, the worries I had for the future. At the writing desk, I observed it all like a diver in the quiet below the ocean’s surface, watching it all curiously. And though what I found there was dark, I was relieved. Writing had given an awkward kid a way back to himself, and it offered a way forward, too.
A few years ago, my dear friend, the author Brooke Davis, found herself writing about the sudden and tragic loss of her mother, and the experience of being adrift in the pitch-dark of grief. But what emerged in the process of writing was an uproariously funny and light-filled novel, the bestselling Lost and Found; a novel that gave shape to the formlessness of loss. This, I think, is the miraculous alchemy of writing. The way a story can give shape to the shadowy and unfathomable, both for the writer and the reader. As David Vann has said, “writing is a second chance.”
In a world as noisy as ours, where the value of truth is constantly being threatened by power, that line that tethers us to a deeper, quieter, truer part of us has never been more important. Like many people, whenever I feel a bit weary with the world I step into a book shop. They are of course vital refuges for diversity, for radical honesty, and for the beauty that books give us. But most importantly, I think, they are a reminder that the act of writing, and reading, can offer us a way back to ourselves.
Sam Carmody's debut novel, The Windy Season, was recently awarded the 2017 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.
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