A writing life and some thoughts on hatred

This weekend I spent several hours at a writer’s workshop, A mind of one’s own, where the  facilitators, novelist Charlotte Wood and Alison Manning, asked us to explore the question of why we write:

I write to dissect my doubts. To put them down on the page like a frog in a biology experiment. I take my scalpel and slice it open. I write to look into the heart of this once beating creature and figure out, not only how it works, but also what went wrong.

I write to dissect every sinew in the frog’s long legs, to stretch them out and pull apart the fibres of this creature’s being and so make sense of my own.

It started when I was young, when I wrote down my father’s words on small scraps of paper whenever he was drunk and raving. I wrote down his words as he spoke, crazy words as I saw them then, but words that lost their sting once written down on my scraps of paper.

There, they took on the aura of lunacy. There, I could pull each word apart for meaning and resonance.

Before then I wrote, or tried to write, the poetry of my day. The grand phrases of the British poets who filled my school books with their flourishing phrases, the grand men of literature.

I used their words to create my own, to transform the many ravings of my father into something beautiful, but even then I could sense the false hoods.

These words came from them, my father, my brothers, the great men of literature, and I turned inwards to study my own mind and consider the minds of others, working in the service of others, to help save people from families like mine until I turned thirty nine.

When I was thirty-nine the analysts decided that I was unsuitable, that I was like a foreign body in their otherwise quiet and respectful team and they told me to go.

I wrote then to find a voice when my own had been silenced once more, as it was in childhood and now later in my chosen career.

The more I wrote the more I sensed the rage surging through my veins, and the more I recognised this rage, the more I knew I must tame it.

‘You cannot write out of rage or revenge,’ Helen Garner said to me as I sat opposite her in a café in Brunswick Street where she had agreed to meet me to discuss my thesis topic, ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’.

On a small slip of pink paper she wrote before our meeting, that she knew nothing of revenge. She did not tell me, as I discovered later that she is drawn to revenge like an addict to her next fix, drawn to the criminal courts, drawn to dissect her version of what it is that drives people to murder, that drives people to inflict pain on others. Perhaps she hides her own desire for revenge in her morning pages.

While I write into mine. Splat onto the page.

I write to confront others with the cruelty of childhood, to ask people to look once more on scenes of unspoken depravity, or callous disregard for others.

I write to pick away at the entrails of secrets, the secrets of my family of origin, of incest and misogyny, and the rules of men.

I write to scratch away the skin, the hard carapace of my own professional institutions, to split apart the idealisation that was once my own.

I write because much of the time I am sad, and writing helps to shift my sadness into something that draws in light and breath.

I write to keep a report of events long gone, a report however distorted because it emerges from the limited observations of my eyes and mind.

I write to create an illusion of control. On the page in the words that pour out of me, words unfettered by anyone else’s control. My own control over my own unruly world and though I cannot get these words into perfect order, the words are still out there and when I read and re-read them and shift them around – much as I shifted around the words of my father, all the time trying to make sense of his ravings – I come to see some of my own struggle.

A writer’s task is to explore ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’, William Faulkner writes. A man’s words again. A woman might have put it differently. At least Faulkner called it a human heart, not a man’s.

I write because I cannot bear the inequality of life, my own privilege now as an adult against the unfairness of my childhood.

I write against the non democracy of life, the fact that as much as we try to create equality, at least some of us might, the reality is, we are never equal.

We are all different and we cannot speak for one another, only from ourselves to another, to others and in so doing I write to communicate something of my struggles.

I dissect the frog on the page. I take notes on what I find there. I take notes on my experience of taking notes and then I take to these notes with a scalpel and sheer away the excess fat to get to the raw line of why it is I write.

I write to mitigate my hatred, to turn it into something more loving, to turn it into a less toxic river running through me, to turn my mind from its monstrous underpinnings into something worth saving.


I took my notebook and pencil in my pocket and scaled the back fence. My mother was at work down the road at the old people’s home and my father sat alone in front of the television. My sisters and brothers were scattered throughout their rooms.

A voice in my head called out to me,

‘You must find nature.’

I hankered to go out in someone’s car to the countryside, to be among the green hills, the trees and the sheep, but all I could manage was a long walk down Farm Road to the as yet built Farm Road Estate.

There was a point along the way where the concrete on the road stopped and the path was made of gravel. At that point I knew I could turn my back on the houses and streets filled with cars and people.

In front of me the skyline was dotted with Lombardy poplars and pines. Tall majestic trees that forced my eyes upwards to the clouds and the sky.

I was priming myself for the life of a poet.

On one side of Farm Road a cyclone fence protected passers by from the golf balls that flew overhead on the Cheltenham golf range. On the other side, a long line of dilapidated sheds gave off a stench of long dead chickens. These, too, I saw as a last line of humanity, after which the countryside, once row upon row of market gardens now abandoned in readiness for the housing estate, prevailed and I was free to find a spot, a tree against which I might rest, take out my notebook and with pencil in hand, write down my lofty thoughts.

The very act of writing down the words, inspired by the skyline, the lapping of leaves on top of the Lombardy poplars, the thought that they once came from Italy, their forebears a sign that the world outside was vast and immeasurable, and I became an important someone in this universe because I was a poet who could write down words in my notebook and the hours and hours of wasted time, spent during the summer holidays doing nothing but killing time would come to measure something of worth.

‘Hi,’ a voice called to me across the fence. A man in cap with a caddy and golf stick. He called through the wire, and I wondered, had he lost his ball?

My brothers sometimes came here, too. But not to write down beautiful words. My brothers came to crawl through the stubby grass on the edge of the road to look for stray golf balls that had somehow managed to get over the cyclone fence. They took them to the golf course manager at the clubrooms in the centre of the golf course where they could trade the balls for money.

I looked at this man and felt a flicker of annoyance. I did not want him here. I did not want anyone here. People interfered with the flow of my thoughts.

I was like Wordsworth, a man worthy of words. I was the creator of glorious scenes from nature and brought their beauty alive on the page.

‘What are you writing?’

Annoying question. None of his business. But I had been brought up well. Not so much that I did not speak to strangers but that I would offer something of my more polite self without interfering with my intentions.

‘Poetry,’ I said and turned back to my page by way of dismissal. Wordsworth never had to put up with interruptions like these.


The author as would-be poet.