This post originally appeared on the website of Southerly, where I was guest blogging for a month. Thanks to them for permission to cross-post this and the previous three posts.
Writing is Grace
My fourth post – I had intended to write twice as many, in an inspired burst of blogging hyperactivity, but after peaking early in the early 2000s with a regular blog (back in the frowsty old dear days when people said, ‘A what?’) I have never again recovered the focus and the steam and the dedication, and alas, this month of February hecticness and an especial dose of personal frenetics too fell victim to lack of puff and excess of distraction. So, many thanks to Southerly and its people for inviting me to burble away here, and thanks to anyone who read said burblings. It’s been nice.
I’d like to conclude with something that I think hopefully expresses a sum emanation from my previous posts (about moving books, vanity/embarrassment when writing, and reading). Common to both reading and writing (and, no doubt, collecting books) is, I think, the importance of humility.
It is a great privilege to pick up a polished piece of writing, someone else’s work. Their toil, their care, their thoughts, placed in your hands and your mind. No word on a page arrives there randomly, or without some effort. Words don’t just waft down like autumn leaves. They’re chosen. Placed. Considered. Changed. Deleted. Replaced. Challenged and defended. Every single word, every single sentence, bit of punctuation, choice of tempo, selection of layout, is the product of thought (subliminal or conscious). Writing isn’t like breathing. Writing is a choice and every choice is work.
The writer didn’t have to publish his labours; share her dreams; even re-draft a single word. That writer might just have discharged the imagination and wandered off again. Might have tired before the work was properly caressed and bashed into shape, might have shrugged at the editor’s enquiring look and said, ‘It’ll do’. Might have declined the chance to terrify his soul with the prospect of impending publication and potential mockery; might have kept her best thoughts and phrases and understandings of the world jealously to herself, and burned her diaries or notebooks every ten years instead of digging through in search of inspiration. Might have saved the money spent on the creative writing course. Might have baulked after the first negative feedback or the first meeting with the dreaded workshop ogre. Might have let despair and fright triumph. Might have watched telly and eaten chips instead.
Writers do not generally get paid a great deal. Writers do not generally get published a great deal. Vanity is an emollient and a wage, but it’s not sufficient to explain all the writing that is made and cared for and dared and shared. There is generosity here. There is offering. A page held in your hands is like a cheek laid in your palm.
Likewise, it’s a great miracle when someone cares to pick up your own writing, and spend their time, their focus, their curiosity on it (rather than any other piece of writing by any other writer; watching sports on tv; plucking their eyebrows; going for a jog; masturbating; eating chips…). What a privilege indeed! Someone spent precious minutes of their life experiencing your thoughts. Someone chose to read your work in place of that of the millions, millions of other authors’ millions, millions of other works (although Geoff Dyer, as I discussed last time, shares with me a horrid compulsion to instantaneously and almost inevitably wish I was also reading something else, in my case for fear of running out of time for the really good books…). And while a paying reader who selected your work from among all the others on the bookshelves and spent hard-earned on purchasing it is perhaps the most obviously bejewelled of tributes, I reserve a special awe and gratitude for readers who recommend, lend and gift my work to friends, and to those friends who accept the recommendation, and even more gorgeously, come to tell me if they were glad they did. Never mind the royalties missed when a book is passed between friends and family, the sheepish apologies of ‘It’s done the rounds’ as a battered copy is passed over the desk to be signed. I am totally, utterly thrilled when someone has wanted to make someone else spend their time on my work.
If our work is noticed by critics, selected for review, mentioned in media, discussed in literary circles or given time in writers festival panels, extracted in journals, interviewed about, rated in street press, promoted in the Qantas magazine, cited in vox pops, even ostentatiously ignored by our enemies, we are hugely honoured. In 2010 Google estimated that there were 129,864,880 books in existence (i.e. published). Only a fraction of them is available or originated in Australia; but still. Any writer who gets a skerrick of notice amongst all this noise is singing the right kind of song.
And if we are very, very lucky, readers even take time to express how they feel about our work. They post reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon, they pen little précis for their bookshop newsletter, mention it on their blogs and in other blogs’ comment threads, they suggest the work for book clubs and sit around there on Thursday nights saying what they thought of it. They might even go to the trouble of tracking down the author through publishing house or Facebook or Twitter and sending a personal message. And if we are so lucky as to receive these messages – even if they’re not complimentary! – we are honoured. There are several hundred million other things that person might have done with their time. Writing to authors is not, generally, a major priority in anyone’s life; and yet people do it, and they do it sweetly. Never should we take for granted a single pair of eyeballs fixed on a single word we’ve offered.
And, at the end of the day, I find it humbling even to witness and experience my own ability to write. Not always write very well, but – well, to be able to write at all, in a world with still high numbers of people who can’t, or poorly (somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent of Australians have sub-sufficient literacy) and to be able to write fluently and to have written adequately enough to be published. There are the operatic rapturous moments when the muse kisses you deeply and the magical words fly from the ends of your fingers, when you’re surfing towards the bottom of each page, when a day’s work is like flying… and there is the simple, much humbler appreciation of being able to communicate and express in a form which is not transient in the way conversation is, or ephemeral in the mind’s eye images, impressions and memories that we share with ourselves, or mumbled and incomplete the way speech is. Writing fixes things, it allows articulacy and elegance where we might be shy in person; it gives us the time, as we cogitate each word, sip the tea, stare out the window, pat the dog, to evolve our thinking carefully; it permits the retraction of a mis-thought and the replacement by a better one. Writing lets our thoughts – formed in the very material goo of our fleshly brains – live on for millennia (just ask Seneca, who took his own life but still scolds from two thousand years ago). And writing is an act of grace, isn’t it? I don’t mean to end on a gushy, sentimental note. I’m not talking about eye surgery on the poor. But writing is grace, and humility is the nicest way to receive it.
 For a reminder of just what this signifies, what an immense gift a human’s time is, I recommend the Stoic Roman writer Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, in which he points out that we resent thieves of property, respect, rights, money, and so on, but freely give the single item which is absolutely not replaceable: the time we have before we die