In July 2020, I enrolled on Rhuwina Griffith’s writing course. It was a spontaneous decision without planning or purpose. I had been writing for about a year, creating a scrapbook of memories from my disrupted mental files. Writing also passed the time while my bony injuries healed. Regrettably, my brain damage has not allowed me to return to work, leaving me unsure of who I am without the practice of medicine in my life.
I was intrigued by the experience of writing, scrutinising one’s own thoughts chronicled on a computer screen. Writing also demanded an honesty from me that I found challenging and refreshing.
Since the day we met, Rhuwina has helped me to think about my writing and offered me other’s work as a means of measuring my own. We decided to share our conversations about books and authors, if only to remind me of the joy of reading and writing.
Dr Bruce Powell
One of my earliest memories as a writer is making small books for my toys to read. I’d assemble the gang at the end of the bed and give each one their own story book. My favourite was a bear called Bruce who was always losing an eye. My mother sewed countless replacement buttons onto the bear until in the end she gave up and made him a bandana which he wore with an eye patch and became a pirate bear. For that reason, Bruce got all the adventure stories based largely on what I was reading at the time. Hands up if you remember The Adventures of Tintin or Rupert Bear or John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps?
When Dr Bruce (no relation to my pirate bear) asked me recently how I became a writer, I couldn’t give him the sharp and snappy reply that he wanted. On reflection, I’m inclined to think that writing is in your DNA. A bit like some kids take to music or sport, others are happiest when they’re writing.
And that brings me onto reading. You can’t progress far as a writer unless you read. If you want to up your game and improve your writing, read and analyse what other writers have done. It doesn’t have to be much, often a chapter or even a few pages will be enough to inspire and teach you something new.
20th February 2022
Thanks for sharing David Malouf’s 2014 book, “The Writing Life” with me.
I’ll admit that I didn’t get passed the chapter “Writers and Readers”. As a pristine, novice writer, David’s explanation of what it means to be a writer or a reader, has me enthralled.
I am struck by his explanation that the ‘writer’ is a fantasy figure whom the reader invents for themselves while immersed in the prose. The reader-writer relationship is an intimate one. The couple may spend hours alone, perhaps on a couch, or on a beach somewhere. The writer shares secret experiences and the reader formulates their own unique and personal view of them.
Yet the writer isn’t a real person. There is a social-self who sits in the pub, at the footy, fishes and walks the dog. Yet in his or her creative space, the writer is a different person. The writing-self and the social-self are different people. The social-self lives the experiences, yet the writing self gives them ‘language and colours them’.
As you know, I have struggled for a long time, trying to discover my writing self. I have tried to define myself through my professional identity and write as that character. But I’m not just a doctor and I am also still a doctor now, despite my retirement. David says that writing shapes and leads the writer, not the other way round. I found that a very moving and profound notion.
I am not certain who I am yet and up until now, have no clue how to decide. David’s wisdom offers me the idea of allowing the writing to define my writer-self. He says that by writing, writers summon up stories from within themselves that resonate and have meaning. If I can uncover the writer in me, I can offer readers the chance to decide for themselves who I am.
I am still reading the book. I love it.
Thank you. Bruce
Glad you’re enjoying David Malouf’s book, he’s an excellent guide and mentor.
I’d never heard of David until I came to Oz and then only by chance did I find him – or perhaps more accurately, he found me.
The first chapter that you mention is the opening address he gave at a Literary Festival in 2006. It’s a good question to ask an audience at such an event: what makes a writer and where does the writing they produce come from? What struck me most about David’s reply to his question, and you’ve noted it too, is that no-one knows the answer, least of all the writer. And perhaps that is true for all Art forms. You can have a go at figuring out how a musical composition is put together, why an artist chooses a certain palette of colours, or how a writer constructs a character, but the creative input behind these processes is as elusive as chasing a rainbow. If you try to pin things down too much, they can disappear entirely… ‘ours is not to reason why’, as Tennyson said.
This makes it doubly difficult for someone such as yourself who has spent their adult life working in the field of Medicine. There were certainties and outcomes in your job. Now, as you contemplate a blank sheet of paper or an empty screen on your iPad, how do you become a writer? If even the people who’ve been writing for years don’t know what makes them good at what they do, how are you going to make it?
David offers you a clue in his last essay in the book. He turns his gaze to Patrick White who most Australians today either loathe (they were made to read his work far too early when at school) or have never heard of. The last novel that White wrote was a light-hearted work of fiction, completely unlike the serious body of work for which he is best known. Here is David’s assessment of the book ‘Memoirs of Many in One’:
Memoirs ..is an escape…a breaking free from the heavy burden that expectation sets on the writer’s freer spirits; a return to what, for the writer himself…had always been at the core of his writing, a spirit of refreshment, of curiosity and discovery, of self-exploration in pure play.’
And let’s not forget the reader. David continues his analysis of White from the reader’s perspective:
We need as readers, if we are to saviour this [book] as the treat White means it to be, to let go, as he does, of a good deal of baggage. To take on the lightness and feel the release of it. To kick up our heels and dance…After so much suffering and pain, to grasp, as he does, and as he asks us to discover with him, the whole range of living, but also of the invigorating process by which the writing self takes life and makes of it the equally real but unpredictable other life we call Art.’
There is a lot to ponder in all of this.
How about we take a peek at Patrick White next?
If you look on Amazon for The Eye of the Storm, you can read the first few pages on screen.
Let me know what you think.
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