Category Archives: The writing life

Curious journeys

Curiosity is a vital attribute for successful teachers and students, and for writers and readers as well. It can motivate us to learn and to invent: to pose questions, pursue answers, devise alternatives, refine our cognitive skills, and imagine fictional stories that take us beyond the small circle of self-absorption in which we often crouch.

So it was appropriate for the English Teachers Association of Western Australia to choose ‘Curiosity’ as the theme for its recent state conference, and to arrange the final plenary session as a conversation between two writer-educators, Josephine Wilson and myself, about the ‘curious journeys’ that we have undertaken during our careers. Tanya Dalziell skilfully facilitated the session and posed stimulating questions. I won’t presume to summarise the various interesting things Josephine and Tanya said, but what follows is a sketch of a few of my own thoughts on the topic.

We were asked, to begin with, what choices we’ve had to make along the way and where these choices have led. I said that, for my own part, I’ve tried to avoid either/or choices. Having always wanted both to teach literature and to produce it, I’ve done my best to sustain the two kinds of activity simultaneously. There are times when one or the other may take priority; but in general, over the years, I’ve juggled them together as best I can. Making a choice between an involvement in literary creativity and an involvement in teaching (or teaching-related work such as curriculum reform projects) is something I’ve resisted.

Choosing isn’t everything. Important turning points in one’s life sometimes just happen without much considered choice. Looking back, it’s tempting to see them all as purposeful, shaped by bold decisions – even, grandly, as constituting a kind of heroic quest, in the course of which one has bravely surmounted obstacles and survived ordeals, driven onwards by unshakeable belief in the chosen goal of vocational fulfilment.

But my curious journey has actually been less like a quest than a kind of peregrination, a wandering, meandering way of getting along. American writer Denise Levertov has a poem called Overland to the Islands that sums this up perfectly. It begins “Let’s go—much as that dog goes, / intently haphazard.” And it ends with the following lines:

Under his feet
rocks and mud, his imagination, sniffing,
engaged in its perceptions—dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
nevertheless he
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction – every step an arrival.

Similarly my own progress (not quite the right word; more apt is Samuel Beckett’s “gress”) has been a medley of step-by-step discoveries, not a series of conscious purposeful career choices. Most of the big changes and commitments were unplanned. They came from other people’s suggestions or popped up as digressive distractions while my canine imagination was fully absorbed in just sniffing around. That kind of “intently haphazard” wayfaring, I believe, has something to recommend it.

Other questions that arose in our conversation were about the specific nature and extent of the curiosity that a writer or teacher should aim to nurture. What exactly do we want our readers and students to be curious about, above all? And should there be ethical constraints on our curiosity?

It may seem obvious that a primary objective ought to be developing curiosity about lives that are different from our own. Certainly that’s important, and has potential ethical value if it fosters empathy. Yet it’s not an end in itself, at least where literary experience is concerned, as I was reminded recently when reading John Banville’s brilliant novel The Untouchable. Its narrator and main character, Victor Maskell, makes this comment on an acquaintance who writes fiction: “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.” At first sight Maskell’s witticism may seem merely to reflect his own sardonic character, but I think it’s worth pondering. For while a keen interest in what makes people tick is part of a good writer’s necessary equipment, it’s not sufficient. Many a person, despite being genuinely and intensely curious about others, will lack what is required to turn that curiosity into patterns of words that are well worth reading. The first-rate writer must above all have a burning curiosity about the medium of language itself – its semantic resources,  its capacity to convey a great range of thoughts and feelings in precise and memorable ways.

Similarly, what the teacher of English needs to develop more than anything else is a love of language in all its varieties, and a deep understanding of how words shape every aspect of our lives – sometimes working negatively to constrain or distort our perceptions but potentially working to enlarge them.

So if I’m conducting a writing workshop (whether in a school classroom or with a mature-age group), I like to focus on details of language – stylistic nuances, subtle connotations, careful selection and sequencing of words. All sorts of things may serve as an initial stimulus – a physical object, a remembered scene, a photograph, etc., and these starting points can generate creatively a long string of productive questions – but my main aim is help students to concentrate their attention on the expressive capacities of their medium: the best words in the best order, as Coleridge put it.

Do we always have the “right” to be curious, or should we recognise ethical limits to curiosity? My view is that, in principle, the boundaries that may need to be respected in some real-life situations (an anthropologist encountering unfamiliar cultural practices, a neighbour itching to intrude on next-door privacy) should not apply to fiction writers, who are, after all, in the business of being transgressively voyeuristic, persistently nosey about how other people see the world. I reject the possessive kind of identity politics that wants to fence off some sections of experience and make them no-go zones for inquisitive writers who don’t belong to the particular group in question but want to imagine (and help readers imagine) what it might be like to do so. Of course it’s a presumptuous enterprise, and fraught with peril.  I wrote more about this in a previous blog post.

But what do you think about these matters, dear reader? I’m curious…

Reid and I: a writer’s double life

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion Of Creation (1892). Public domain (Wikimedia)

Reid’s public self at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

In 1960 a very short story called ‘Borges y Yo’ appeared in Argentina. Its author, on the verge of becoming internationally famous, was Jorge Luis Borges. Translation soon made this story widely known under the English title ‘Borges and I.’ It begins abruptly: ‘The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.’ The first-person narrator goes on to describe someone who is almost identical with himself, but from whom he feels somewhat alienated.

‘It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.’

Ultimately they comprise an inseparable dyad, as the story’s final sentence suggests: ‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’

It’s an amusing way of depicting the tense relationship between any literary figure’s public persona and the more private self who quietly does the writing.

In the opening piece of his essay collection The Writing Life (2014), David Malouf considers the distinct selves involved in writing and living. ‘There’s a gap,’ he says, ‘a mysterious and sometimes disturbing one, between the writer’s daily self, his walking and talking self … and the self that gets the writing done.’

Another essay in the same book, ‘When the Writer Speaks,’ picks up the theme:

‘The real enemy of writing is talk. There is something about the facility of talk, the ease with which ideas clothe themselves in the first available words, that is antithetical to the way a writer’s mind works when he is engaged in the slower…deeper business of writing.’

Malouf refers to a short story by Henry James, ‘The Private Life,’ in which the narrator is astonished to discover that the person who publicly poses as the admired author Clare Vawdrey, entertaining people with plausible literary conversation, is not the person who, invisibly secluded, writes Vawdrey’s books. There is an arrangement of convenience between those two distinct people. As Malouf remarks, James’s tale dramatises a fundamental truth about literary activity: ‘The social self is a front…behind which the real writer can hide.’ The latter is ‘a creature of solitude, of the inner life.’

Like any writer, I’m acutely conscious of this tension described by Borges, Malouf and James – and I feel quite ambivalent about what often seems to be my double life. When I glance back at the ‘Events’ page of my website I’m reminded of the umpteen different literary and para-literary activities that have engaged much of my time in recent years. I’ve attended numerous meetings related to the writing life, such as Board sessions of the Australian Society of Authors. I’ve given presentations under the auspices of the Copyright Agency, WritingWA, the State Library, national and state English Teaching conferences, the National Trust and other bodies. I’ve run writing workshops for several schools and for groups such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Peter Cowan Writers Centre. I’ve lectured on literary topics to metropolitan and regional branches of the Mature Adults Learning Association, and to U3A and Probus groups.  I’ve been a featured guest speaker at several different literary festivals. I’ve given countless talks about my books in libraries, town halls, universities, community centres, bookshops, local museums and other venues. Book clubs have invited me along to the-author-meets-his-readers discussions. And so on.

While I enjoy all such encounters, I’m also haunted by Malouf’s admonition: ‘Too much time talking about writing, not enough doing it.’ Perhaps I should follow the example of Henry James’s Vawdrey and hire someone to impersonate me in public so that, unobserved, I can get on more productively with the solitary task of writing?