Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Notes That Survived the Fire

In December, Overland will publish my story about a humpback whale who stranded in the town harbour. He was a year old when he swam into the quiet waters, wriggled onto a sand bank and prepared to die. The sun tore open his exposed, eggplant skin. It was a distressing time for us harbor-dwellers.

My best mate Aussie laughs at me whenever my ears prick up, over gin and tonics in her banana tree garden. "Can you have that line/story/anecdote?" She says.  "Of course, Sarah! It's yours! Take it."

This month I've been writing the first chapter of my exegesis about the Tasmanian women who were stolen from their country by sealers - the women who ended up in my part of the world in 1826. I've been trying to argue that they had some kind of agency, of autonomy, some kind of power over their lives. As words go by, I'm beginning to realise they had none, that what happened in Van Diemen's Land and all over this south coast in the 1820s was just fucked.

But the stories still drive me so I write them down. Sometimes they are so dark and nasty (today I did Lyndall Ryan's 'Mass Killings in Tasmania') that I am exhausted by the day's end. I walk and walk and by the the time I am home, I am almost okay. I light the fire, drive the kid's swim club errands, cook something, behave like a parent (guiltily) and fall into bed with a fluffy novel or the weekend's book reviews.

I wanted to be a writer since I was ten. Back then I had a Temple of Doom style story all mapped out but I needed a getaway car. "What kind of car would baddies drive?" I asked my Mum. "A really expensive car?"
"Mmmm. A Sigma?"
So, in my first novel, the baddies drove a Black Sigma.

By my teens, all the Sigmas about town were rusting and driven by unemployed tuna fishermen. I decided that to produce anything substantial, I needed some life experience. So I set about the research. This involved lots of hitch hiking, random sailing events, cross continental bus trips and drinking in strange places with strange people. I bought journals and diaried who I'd slept with, recipes, taxi rides, landscape descriptions, agonised meanderings, concert tickets, locks of hair, photographs and newspaper clippings. Over fifteen years I had several keeping places for these books and they were broken into regularly by jealous lovers.

The man I was supposed to marry rang me one day at work and asked me to come home. He'd found the suitcase under my bed. He sounded kind of short of breath. He was probably a bit worried about his future. He'd spent the whole day pouring over my journals and when I returned, I had to explain myself. I spent hours backpedalling over my written-down misdeeds. My thoughts later was that he was quite the sociopath. At the time, his suggestion that I burn the lot made sense. So I did, shackles of the past and all.

That afternoon I burnt fifteen years worth of diaries in the back yard. Anyone who has burnt books knows the practicalities. They don't burn like logs of pine. You have to keep stoking them. It was a long night, seeing those locks of hair and recipes and photographs surfacing in the flames and stoking, stoking.

"I was so pissed off with you when you burnt those books," said Aussie.
"So was I," I said to her.

After that event, I stopped writing for a few years. I felt so betrayed that I never wanted anyone to read anything I'd written again. The funny thing is that event shaped me as a writer. Since that day of the fire, I have only written stories for other people to read. I will never write purely for my own navel-gazing intentions ever again, for fear of it being violated. Everything I write now is for the public. Even my journals consist of the workings of new stories.

I still have two of the diaries that I hid where he could not find them. They are wrapped in a silk scarf and I haven't opened them for some time. I transcribed them once. They are on a defunct computer file titled "Notes That Survived the Fire."

I was thinking about all this writing stuff today and doing a kind of fully loaded cost accounting (whatever that means). Here it is: I spend most days on a scholarship writing a thesis on the Tasmanian women. I have a book of creative non fiction accepted by a pretty good publisher. I get stories printed in lit journals a few times a year. I've got three book reviews to write this week and on the weekend I'm talking on a nature writing panel.

I guess that makes me a writer.



  1. That man you were supposed to marry, Sarah, had no right to pry into your diaries without your permission. They were obviously written long before you knew him so what was the problem?
    Fifteen years worth gone up in flames, that was really bad. Hope you married someone who wasn't so jealous.

  2. That's a real shame about your diaries. I guess the really good thing about blogs is that they are diaries (of sorts) that you can't set fire to.

    I've often wondered if you were published. You have a wonderful and deep writing style.

  3. Yep certainly a writer and a ripper chick too!

  4. You've definitely arrived ST. And ditto Ramsnake's comment.

    I think perhaps that your 'raw' personal writing and most of my paintings are just not for the faint-hearted. I only just read 'The Whale, Daughter' 2 says ago, because I was too fragile to read it earlier, during recovery and all that. It isn't easy to confront some things in life and many don't have the courage or simply don't have the resources to cope with the impersonal harshness of life. It sounds like you are going through a similar process to what I have been experiencing during my thesis writing.

    PhD's - modern initiation ritual for some...

  5. Aw, feel all warm and fuzzy!

    Definitely Michelle. There is no point in producing art, methinks, unless it holds some kind of raw truth ... but sometimes it can be a bit much too.
    For me at the moment with the thesis and the book, I am struggling with my own worthiness to finish the job, (I know I can but failure is always at the back of my mind) plus the sheer mindblowing immensity of the project.

  6. Yes, well as I said, and particularly when I went to the conference to deliver my paper - I feel like a fraud often, so also skeptical about my onw worthiness for the job. I reckon you are well and truly worthy of it. I am sure you have the literary knowledge and skills that I don't. But I reckon my ideas are sound, if a bit way out, and in the end that's all I am really interested in. Having said that, I am going to great lengths to get a thesis that reads aesthetically well, if not 'beautifully'.

  7. I am with chris
    on both comments
    BTW we all should "back up" our blogs just in case

  8. Thanks John.
    Once a year I get my blog printed into a hard cover book via the guys who I'm sure you have heard of. I started that practice when a friend had his account deleted by blogger, due to spyware accusations. He lost all of his work.
    So yes, hard copy still reigns ... and the fire is just a different format these days.