After twenty-eight glorious days of writing leave, I’ve returned to work this week. Though it’s been a bumpy landing — all about me, no one else — I’m glad to come back to a good job, good colleagues and a terrific community, and all in Melbourne’s best neighbourhood. And I’m grateful, too, for an employer who still believes writing is worth my time.
Just today I dropped by the regular Friday morning café for my weekly liturgical meal of eggs and mushrooms. Away for a month, it was nice to be missed.
‘Where did you go?’ my waiter asked as I took my seat.
‘Castlemaine,’ I said.
‘What did you do there?’ He’s a pushy bloke; a Frenchman with not a skerrick of reserve.
‘Write,’ I answered, looking up from the menu.
‘Write?’ he asked, his eyebrows raised. ‘Really? Why would you do that?’
I laughed. ‘Because I can’t help myself.’
I can’t really. In fact, the older I get the more I need to write. I don’t know why. It’s not because I’m especially good at it. ‘Ok’ has to be good enough most of the time. There is nothing like the exceptional writing of others to keep aspirations modest. And it’s not the need to be read either. Truth be told, ninety-percent of what I write will never see the light of day. It has something to do with the way I’m built. If I’m not writing, I’m not doing well.
Before I went away, I read a piece by the English journalist Laurie Penny titled, ‘Why I Write.’ It was timely, a good dose of encouragement to take with me. In the midst of her writerly wisdom, there were two things I packed away.
First, the normalcy of this obsession. As with with all compulsions, I suppose, those who are struck with it are those who understand it. Like singers who sing or runners who run, those who write know the urge from the inside. ‘Most of today’s best never expected to be widely read but wrote anyway,’ Penny says. ‘They write not because they think that a writer is something somebody like them really ought to be, but because they can do nothing else without betraying their own spirit. They write because if they don’t get the words out, they would be eaten away from the inside. They write because they have no choice.’
So, I’m not completely odd.
Second, the permission to keep at it. Honestly, sometimes I feel guilty about writing. Surely, I think to myself, it’s only the precociously gifted who can justify the time it demands. Not so, Penny says. In this, the ‘golden age of writing’, never before have so many written so much and published so easily — from the inane to the sublime and everything in between. No longer do we inhabit the age of the Alexandrian library, a ‘finite and fragile’ collection all shelved within easy reach. ‘We are in a vaster, stranger place altogether,’ Penny writes, ‘and the number of stories yet to tell sends recalcitrants into a delicious panic.’ And then this: ‘The shelves are stacked with the sacred and the profane, the tragic and the obscene, slush and trash and death notes and love letters, and somewhere in the dark of the farthest stacks are volumes yet to be written. One of them is yours. Make it count.’
Thank you. I’m certainly trying.