Until I reached this stretch of holidays set aside to finish the first draft of my novel, I realised I’d forgotten just how insanely boring writing can be. I get up at about 8am, or earlier if I can (it’s hard work becoming sentient when you are most definitely not a morning person), check my emails, occasionally do some yoga, eat breakfast and make a coffee, then sit at my desk. Sometimes, if something interesting has happened in my life (which isn’t often), I write in my journal. Then I think of a scene and start to write. Then I check Facebook. I write some more. I make another coffee and look at clothes on birdsnest.com.au. I write a bit more and have lunch. After lunch I usually have a nap. Then I make a cup of tea. I look at Facebook again. Then I write another scene or two. Then I look at spencerandrutherford.com.au to see what’s in the sales (I mean, what did writers do before the internet?). Then I push myself to write the few final pages to reach my quota of ten pages of longhand. Released from my shackles, I go for a run past the bat colony where the fruit bats are waking, squealing like stuck pigs. Or I ride to the pool and swim laps, enjoying the sensation of the water on my skin, and the relief of having a completely empty mind.
At the moment, I have no one to talk to, which is just as well or my concentration would be completely broken. Sister is still at Parental Unit’s with the children and dogs, so I don’t have the puppy to play with. It is tedious. The stuff I’m writing is crap, with too much sex and melodrama. I worry that it won’t be good enough for my agent to read at the end of January.
But then, but then. After days of procrastination, I hit a seam and follow it, and the writing that comes out is as sharp and delicate as opal. At other times the pressure of doing nothing builds up and is released like a storm, so that the writing, whether good or bad, gushes onto the page. When it’s going really well, it’s like a drug. Social invitations (not that there tend to be many in a writer’s life) are cancelled, because it’s preferable to be with characters than friends. I feel distressed and irritable when I’m away from it for too long. However, it takes a long time to get to even these small highs.
There is no money in writing. It’s boring, except for the few exciting moments writing sex and melodrama, which I usually cut out when I edit, and it’s lonely. The process of reworking a novel and playing with the language is immensely satisfying, but that doesn’t come until later. The launch and publicity are thrilling, but short-lived.
I’m no longer at the stage of wondering why I bother, as it’s so much a part of me that to not write would be like killing myself. So it’s heartening to listen to writers such as Kate Grenville, speaking at the Melbourne Festival of Ideas, in which she discusses the usefulness of writers, particularly in a time of change.
Grenville, on reading up on our reactions on climate change, likened the inaction of even intelligent people to changing their lifestyles to reduce carbon, to her attitude in her youth towards smoking. She knew and believed all the science about why smoking was bad for her, but she still couldn’t give it up. It was only when she lit up without thinking before a man she fancied, and saw the disgust in his face, that she was compelled to throw away the cigs and start running instead.
The key to changing her behaviour was empathy. As she said, ‘I watched myself through his eyes. I felt myself as disgusting, because I felt his disgust as my own.’
This, Grenville explains, is why writers are important: they help to translate other people’s lives and emotions into a form that compels readers to think differently. Referring to Kafka’s comment that ‘a book is an axe for the frozen sea within us’, she maintains that the job of an artists is ‘to break the ice pack to create a different kind of response, one that’s beyond the oppositional positions of the intellect, the “yes it is, no it isn’t kind of debate’ … Art offers a way beyond those deadlocks of the reason and the intellect. It creates a climate, so to speak, in which things can be understood in another way.’
And this is precisely why I write. It’s all-consuming, ambitious and fervid desire to tell stories that force readers to step into other worlds, particularly the worlds of those that might be less fortunate than their own, and to see what it would be like, and how it would feel, to be that person. In my eyes, the measure of my success isn’t how many copies I’ve sold, but how many readers I have persuaded to stop and think about why, for example, an Aboriginal person might be forced into drunkenness and violence, or why lesbians couldn’t be seen in the nineteenth century, or how even the most well-meaning members of a community can harbour the venom of racism.
The trick, however, is not to proselytise, because that turns a reader off. Virginia Woolf put it elegantly when writing about Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre. Describing a scene in which Jane, standing on a rooftop and staring over the paddocks, realised she was not free, Woolf says:
if one reads [Charlotte Bronte’s words] over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot (A Room of One's Own, p. 81, Penguin, 2004).
Charlotte Bronte has lost her audience, Woolf is saying, because anger distorts her text. Grenville also had a sweet way of putting it: we ought to provoke our readers and discomfort them, but in a way that is ‘sugared with the pill of such beauty or narrative force that they keep on reading’.
Often working outside, or on the edges of society (after all, we rarely put on a suit and go to work, except for our day jobs), Grenville also argues that writers think and problem solve in different ways. She refers to the example of having lost one’s car keys, and you bang around the house in increasing fury trying to find them. Eventually, to get your blood pressure down, you do the dishes. And as you place the plate on the rack, dripping with suds, it springs into your head that you put the keys on top of the fridge.
It’s not an analytical way of thinking. It’s intuitive, stemming from the unconscious, and writers tend to think in this manner. This is part of the reason why, she says, we are more receptive to changes that are happening in society, and are well-placed to articulate them.
After listening to Grenville speak, I feel a thousand times better about the tedium and loneliness of my days. Yes, writing for me is dull, pockmarked with procrastination, and never delivers enough money for frocks, but it’s not an entirely useless profession. Besides, it's literally impossible for me to do anything else.