In the few years between my father’s drinking himself to death and his decision to find another way through sobriety, he built doll houses. Dutch style double storey boxes with a heavy door alongside elaborate windows and curtains in the front, and its rear open to the elements and the small hands of children who could fossick inside and rearrange the furniture my father crafted with his own hands.
Why he chose to build doll houses I cannot say. They spoke to his childhood story, his memories of home, in those twilight years when he had retired from the paid workforce of his suit and tie job at Cooper Brothers Accounting because he knew he could no longer perform at the standard required. He could no longer go to work without a drink in the morning to fire his feet.
After several weeks of detox in Delmont hospital where they also seared his brain with a burst of Electro Convulsive Therapy, my father came home changed. A sober man, and a man chastened by life’s demands.
I never saw him at work, only the end product, the large white box with its sloping roof and generous windows. The mock roof tiles sloped down to eaves that fringed a kitchen wallpapered in Delft Blue wrapping paper my mother once bought on a trip back home to Holland. The stair bannisters were of thin sticks of dowel, which my father stained brown with his soft squirrel brush. And the rear end sat exposed as if a clockmaker had peeled off the protective metal to reveal the cogs and pulleys of an interior life.
Did my father make doll houses in a gendered way to please his granddaughters specifically, or did he imagine all his grandchildren might play with them regardless of gender. My grandson plays with the one remaining doll house today. He lines up his cars in the bottom rooms through the front window and calls the house his garage.
He is not gentle with the furniture which is made of thin plywood and glue that has lost its ability to adhere after some forty years. So my daughter has moved it away for protection which suits my grandson who prefers an empty garage and more room for his cars.
Would his great grandfather be distressed by this. The father I knew would be. He’d be annoyed at this misuse of his construction, but the dead one in my imagination who looks over us all from some remote place of memory is not so troubled. This one welcomes any creative urge even if it does not meet societal expectation.
In 1934 Dorothea Brande wrote her book Becoming a Writer in which she describes our need as writers to integrate our emotional and the instinctive sides, alongside the intellectual, the rational the sides of discipline and restraint against the capriciousness of our desires and comfort. If we wait for inspiration we might never move.
When I was learning to become a writer, if such is possible, my novel writing teacher urged her class during the summer break to spend at least one month writing first thing every morning. And the following month to choose a fixed time each day – I chose 4.00 in the afternoon – to write again, for a month. For at least twenty minutes or a full page. To practice the art of writing is a discipline, something you sit down to do whether you want to or not. I managed both,worried all the time should I fail it was proof as Brande suggests I would not become a writer.
Writers write. They do not spend days weeks months and hours thinking they might like to write. They settle in and write, whether they want or not. Bum glue or the 99 percent dedication to which the writer Janet Frame refers. She who dedicated her life to her craft once they let her out of the mental hospital in New Zealand where she lived for several years before deciding to pull the plug on the leucotomy they had decided was necessary to fix her brain. The doctors gave her a diagnosis of schizophrenia as if it was a gift, the gift of classification, one to account for her excess sadness and flights of fantasy, a child gifted with words whose way of speaking left some convinced she was mad.
But I digress.
It rankled that I did not write everyday as so many writers had urged. Write every day or you will dry out the juices of your imagination and disarm the skills available to those who like a musician practise their instrument several hours a day ready for their public performance with the Royal Philharmonic.
I worked as a therapist in those days and began each session as early as seven am. How could I get up even earlier? I was also tired out by the mothering of four small children. How could I ever write every day. Therefore, I was not a real writer.
Then one day I met MJ Hyland in the days before her second book Carry me Down was shortlisted for The Man Booker when she was teaching creative writing part time on weekends in Melbourne while working as a lawyer each weekday.
‘I write every Sunday,’ she told me. ‘From late morning till the end of the day.’ This gave me heart. I too wrote on weekends regularly, first thing on Saturdays and Sundays. I edited my work in the nooks of crannies of my working week. I went on occasional weeklong writing retreats to get a feel for what real writers do when they dedicate their lives to the craft but for the rest I could eke out a writing life in dribs and drabs.
As the years have passed, I’ve come to see that every moment spent writing is practice. However unstructured. Every book I read is writing practice, every set of words I move around as editor is practice. And all the hours of practice I have put in, all those moments swatting at the keyboard, head down, noise cancelling headphones over my ears, all these moments are practice.
What comes out in the end, what reaches the pages of books for others to read, what gets published, is something else again.
Writers write. Whether they do so in a neat and formal way, every day, every second day, every Sunday afternoon, or whether it’s more haphazard, but nevertheless reliable. Writers write.
We build doll houses of sorts, like my sad father who finally found a link to his creativity in the four years before his death.