On writing

cliff-johnson-20686.jpgI’m back at last! Yes, it was a long break but there were enough good reasons: reworking a piece I thought I’d put to bed a little while back; catching up on a lot of reading I’d put aside and put aside (you know how it is); chasing new ideas, new stories, new people.

Anyway, in my last post I promised to look at writing – not just stellar pieces of writing, but stellar pieces of writing about writing. I wanted to do this, because 1) the best writing changes lives and 2) quite honestly, I struggle with writing. As so many others have said before me, sometimes, the more I do it, the harder it seems to get.

How to get past that? A good mentor and a damned good editor always helps, of course. Then there’s just reading. Reading the kind of writing that animates you into getting straight back to what’s important.

Bad Writer, by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Sydney Review of Books, October 2016, is a gem of a review of what makes some writing bad. It’s like having your mentor, or editor or yes, creative writing teacher (which is what Ahmad is) giving you the kind of advice that jolts you out of self pity not to mention any it’s-done-when-it-really-isn’t delusions you might have.

Ahmad’s essay style is straightforward, pared back almost, but his tone is cynical, jaded at times: few people write well and few accept good writing advice graciously. In between stretches of lesson on what makes writing bad, he picks up the essay’s pace with a trip into a boxing ring, where he learned to see the light. It’s riotous, challenging and sobering all at once. I’ve committed some of these things.  I know I often make them whether I’m in a rush or not, and I’ve probably dropped a few here too. But clearly there’s a lot to be learned about writing well and from good writing.

Boxing is a particular area where I can draw some useful analogies because I was a fighter before I was a writer. I strode into the Belmore PCYC like every other Lebo in Bankstown, with my chin high and my chest cocked and a cigarette wedged between my left ear and my razored head. I peered over the boxing ring at a Lebanese boxer shorter and skinnier than me – five foot five and 55 kilos max. ‘I can knock you,’ I said to him, and straightaway he stepped over and spread apart the ropes, inviting me into the ring. I proceeded to throw straight jabs at his head and every time he’d roll under them and give me a round-houser into the rib, sucking the air from my lungs and my loins, until finally, not even one minute into the fight, he stung me so hard with a right uppercut in the stomach that I went down on the canvas and began to spew up that night’s dinner (potato and gravy and two pieces of fried chicken from KFC). Then the Leb called everyone in the gym to come over and have a look at me, and he said out loud while I continued to spew, ‘You see, that’s what happens when you act like a hard cunt!’

The Very Quiet Foreign Girls Poetry Group, Kate Clanchy, The Guardian (July 2016). Quite simply a teacher’s decision to encourage her foreign students – refugees – to write and study poetry. I included this exquisite piece because it is about how writing can affect lives, how good writing can place you in another’s shoes.

Our school, Oxford Spires Academy, despite its lofty, English name, meets every marker for deprivation and its students spoke more than 50 different languages. Miss T’s class, fairly typically, had students from 15 different mother countries. Some were born in Britain to parents from Bangladesh and Pakistan, some were migrants from eastern Europe or Brazil, a few were refugees from war zones: Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan.

But none of them talked about it much. We are always, in this country, obliging refugees to tell their arrival stories: border officials, social workers, charity workers, housing officers all want to know, and the consequences of telling the wrong tale are dire. In our school, there is a code of silence. Teachers, on principle, accept each new arrival as simply a student equal to all others, and try to meet their needs as they appear. Students follow suit, speaking to each other in English, of English things, in mixed racial groups. This, mostly, is a good thing, but it does leave a layer of stories untold, and some festering, because very few people make it out of war zones by being exceptionally nice at all times. The more terrible the place they have fled, the more likely they are to have seen things that leave an awful, lingering sense of shame.

“I don’t remember,” our students say. “I came from my country when I was six but I don’t remember it. I don’t remember my language. No.”

Then there’s this.

Does Writing Matter by Richard Flanagan, The Monthly (October 2016), vividly cites how our government treats writing and writers and, ultimately, people. It makes you cry, it makes you think, it stays with you. It is, indeed, the why of writing.

And then I stumbled upon an extraordinary trove of anonymous Australian short stories. It was the most moving Australian writing I had read for some long time.

All around us we see words debased, misused and become the vehicles for grand lies. Words are mostly used to keep us asleep, not to wake us. Sometimes, though, writing can panic us in the same way we are sometimes panicked at the moment of waking: here is the day and here is the world and we can sleep no longer, we must rise and live within it.

This writing has woken me from a slumber too long. It has panicked me. The stories are very short, what might be called in another context “flash fiction”. Except they are true stories.

Finally, a few things have changed since my last note. The main one, for now, is that I’ll be posting on the last Friday in the month, but I’m happy to chat, reply, comment at any time.

Thanks for reading,