Search This Blog

Monday, 25 July 2016

You don't have to be crazy to be a writer 1

(It does help, though.)

This story began in a talk I gave at Birrong Girls High, when I used a shot of myself near a lava flow on Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii. You could see from the photo that I was sweating profusely, but one of the girls asked about the heat, and I mentioned that it was sufficient to frizzle the hairs on my legs.

The girls were largely NESB, but with the bubbling confidence of young Australians. “You’re mad!” one of them told me firmly. “You’d have to be!”

I told her of an old and probably apocryphal Chinese curse. “I’m not mad,” I explained. “I just like living in interesting times. Interesting is good.”

As a small boy, I knew I would write books one day. As a five-year-old early reader, any books within reach were fair game for me, but after tackling Salmond’s Law of Torts one morning, I learned to review the available data before choosing my reading.

In the late 1940s, as we emerged from austerity, most books had dust jackets, which contained enticing splashes of colour, and information about the book and its author. I read the blurbs and then, because I wanted to be a writer, I examined authors’ life stories.

I have just been off travelling again, so before I left, I looked out a few pieces that had not seen the light of day. This, in three parts, is a re-working of an op-ed piece that I mentioned early last year.

The idea was that if I was too busy bothering the rocks and stuff, I could slip one of my bottom-drawer pieces in.  In reality, I was too busy trotting around (and in one case, inside) volcanoes, fiords and glaciers, so there was a gap.

I took away four works to look at: clean fourth drafts of Not Your Usual [Colonial] Villains and Not Your Usual Explorers, as well as a good second draft of the book I am researching (Not Your Usual Rocks) and a rough draft of a book that may end up being called either Shore Things, or maybe, just maybe, Littoral Truths. That one will be several years in the making: it's time to slow down and smell the coffee.

Still, there's room for a bit more craziness...

* * * * *

I suspected that if a writer lacked a background of hair’s-breadth escapes, desperate acts of derring-do, like quelling a riot with a derringer and a solar topee, they never got published. As I approach advanced middle age, my cynical streak has expanded to a broad band, and I wonder if they made their adventures up, but that came too late to save me.

At the time, I just knew that I needed to live an interesting life. By the time I left school, I had mastered most of the skills of subterfuge that I might need to prosecute a guerrilla war after becoming an escaped prisoner-of-war. Against that, I now placed a value on my pelt that ruled most of those plans out.

For example, I am a good shot with a rifle, but I only shoot at things that don’t bleed, scream, or shoot back. That’s a quite proper attitude for humans, but it might be problematic for guerrillas, so I dropped the idea of being any sort of guerrilla.

In the early 1960s, my dreams included sailing a lakatoi from Port Moresby to Singapore, but that became submerged in a desire to be a pre- and post-Islamic mediaeval Javanese historian, and I set to work building a bank roll to pay for that.

The 1965 coup in Indonesia, and a consideration of the leftish politics of my Indonesian friends led me to conclude that perhaps this was an unwise ambition, given that leftists were dying, so I made the obvious choice and started a science degree. My thoughts of living an interesting life were put to one side as I threw myself into the riveting mysteries of apical meristems in plants and mesoderm in animals. To save my sanity, I started going bush, and became at least as much a naturalist as a scientist, and the interesting life was suddenly back on the agenda.

Then one day, I realised that everybody has an interesting life. The difference is that authors make proper use of their interesting lives. My next task was to make the acquaintance of interesting people, and see where that led.

As a botanist, I got work tending the gardens of people who had “Australian native” gardens, the idea being that I wouldn’t mistake the waratahs for onion weed. That gave me the time to tackle two key questions: what do we mean by interesting? and who should I respect?

In the end, my first answer came down to this: if anything makes me want to run and find out, like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, then it is interesting. That answered the respect question: anybody that knows more than I do about anything interesting is worthy of respect.

Given my highly-developed Rikki-Tikki-Tavi tendencies, that first answer meant that almost the whole world deserved my respect. Later, I discovered that Karl Popper went through a similar bout of introspection while working as a cabinet-maker, but used his time far better.

Still, my two criteria for interesting and deserving of respect put me in the way of interesting ideas, and gave me a life rationale as a teacher and as a writer: provoke them to the point where they want to run and find out. And that, dear reader, is why I trot off out into the wilderness, seeking provocative things to share with my readers.

To be continued.

No comments:

Post a Comment