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Writing

Why I write

In the late summer I made a trip to Melbourne, a city I have visited infrequently but in which I have often experienced states that were almost hallucinatory. I had recently begun to encounter a tiredness that I could not easily explain, a tiredness not reducible to the problems and anxieties of my work life.

My writing had reached an impasse. I realised that if I wished to write about the people I loved in any kind of truthful way, they would have to be dead. I no longer wanted to be continually thrown back into my interior life where all my desires are heaped up like bones in an elephants’ graveyard. But neither did I want to constantly generate smokescreens, to build clumsy scaffolds of literary artifice upon which I screened images that I claimed represented my insight into the world.

I remember sitting in my office eating a sandwich and realising with a shock that my thoughts were churning in synchrony with my chewing. It was as if thinking had become a mechanical process, and I was chewing up my thoughts as they were generated. I felt that I was devouring myself, as though I had reached a stage where my mind was receiving such little nourishment that it had begun to feed on its own nature.

Before I left for Melbourne I spent a few days in a rented beach cabin on an isolated part of the coast, a few hours drive from where I live. In the mornings I wrote a talk I was to give in Melbourne on children and violence for Melbourne Free University. In the afternoons I walked for miles along the empty beaches or over the headlands. I spoke to no-one during my time there. At the end of my stay, I drove north to Ballina Airport and flew to Melbourne. As I was driving, I unexpectedly entered a brief moment of clarity, as if I were drifting across a wide lucid space toward a horizon like a burning line.

If I were going to live in any city it would be Melbourne. Whatever was plaguing me and corroding my capacity to think, I had a strange hope that the journey to Melbourne would cure it. In fact, looking back on that journey it seems to me that I was trying to generate a hope that there was a point to any journey, as if I were questioning the purpose of journeys generally. It was though I was gambling that as long as I kept moving into unexpected situations in unfamiliar places, I might encounter something endlessly disruptive that would also re-orientate me in my life. Perhaps the act of traveling to somewhere I loved, but where nothing awaited me would irrevocably change something, as if time were a kind of physical force or barrier that one could pass through, that could alter reality as it chose, and would present me with a restructured version of my irrevocably linear past.

And in fact my stay in Melbourne did become a kind of time travel, so that I often felt that I was being physically changed. Each day was like a winding transparent wormhole that led to places and states of being long gone, where I had to find new vocabularies to speak of what I saw so I could later report back to myself. I did no writing while I was in Melbourne, despite having all my notebooks with me. I had a kind of fear that if I tried to write anything the forces of time, like wind-shear off the face of a mountain, would destroy the physics of my fountain pen and blow ink all through my days.

I was staying with M, an old friend, who I had not seen for some time. I slept in a renovated garage, and he drove me around Melbourne in an ambulance he had converted for use in his work as a builder. On the wall next to my bed was a pin-board on which were attached various holiday snapshots and souvenirs of travels overseas, among them a ticket for admission to Dachau. The image of being ferried around Melbourne in an ambulance while carrying a weird mental state would be absurd if it weren’t true. Ditto for the ticket to Dachau. Waking up to a visitors pass to Dachau seemed to make my days clearer and more critical, as though there had always been some quality in my ordinary life which was only now being opened up to me.

Shortly before I was to give my talk at Melbourne Free University, M took me up to the Dandenongs, an area where he had once lived and where there were many strange places he wished to show me.

‘The more I wrote,’ said the French writer Genevieve Jurgensen in her memoir The Disappearance, ‘the more I felt as if I were lying.’ I was thinking of her words as we drove around the incomprehensibly convoluted roads of the villages of the Dandenongs. When I think of all the ways in which I have named my experience, of how much remains outside that naming, of the very processes of language, of how I speak without my own consent, the further I seem to get away from experience even as I build it with my language. We are all so full of unsaid words, our own and that of so many others, words that have their own shape, weight and pile up like leaves on a grave. And yet, even as I become the repository of unspoken words, it is the stammering nature of my experience of others that I am unable to communicate.

Outside the town of Sassafras in the Dandenong hills is the abandoned Burnham Beeches estate. The site was purchased in the 1920s by the industrialist Alfred Nicholas, who built his immense fortune on the sale of the painkiller, Aspro. Nicholas engaged a noted Melbourne architect Harry Norris to build a mansion in the art deco style known as streamline-moderne, which mimicked the style and appearance of the luxury ocean liners of the time. Nicholas imported a Cornish gardener he met at the Chelsea Flower Show, and throughout the years of the Depression they engaged battalions of itinerant and desperate labourers to construct vast and fantastically elaborate gardens around the new house. The house is the single biggest dwelling place for a human being I have ever seen. It is now empty and entirely surrounded by a decrepit Cyclone fence, but visitors such as myself can still walk through the remains of the gardens.

It was not yet raining and the light was coarse and grainy as M and I walked the winding path below the massive looming house. The amount of labour that had been invested in the construction of the gardens was staggering. Out of the cold forests of the Dandenongs, Nicholas and his Cornish gardener Percy Trevaskis had created a landscape from Peter Pan as if the island of the Lost Boys had been tidied up, pruned, and deposited in the hills of the oldest continent on earth. Their fantasy was a ruin now. The snow gums and tree ferns only a few decades old had run like weeds across Nicholas’ idyllic vistas. The snow gums towered above the empty mansion which seemed like a ship sunk at the bottom of a green ocean. In fact all the time I was at Burnham Beeches, I felt that I was walking underwater. The tree ferns were weird and ancient growths that could only thrive at immense depths, the snow gums were the bleached stalks of giant aquatic plants that grew forever toward the sunlight hundreds of fathoms above.

But it was, oddly enough, a great comfort for me to be at the bottom of the sea. I felt a kind of tranquility. We seemed to wander through the gardens for hours encountering a series of improbable and unexplained objects. I found an underground grotto locked and barred like an oubliette, a crumbling boathouse on a dead lake, the remnants of a brick structure that could have been a tomb or a compost bin, and the remains of innumerable iron pipes that protruded from the ground like bones. All these things, built without any thought of the suffering and labour involved, now seemed revealed in the murky light as strange and eloquent as the ruins of Pompeii.

A long time ago I lived in a share house in the city of Adelaide. And one night in particular when I was drunk on cask wine and the house full of comings and goings, expeditions setting forth armed with pills and smack and alcohol and the remnants of others arriving home shattered and distraught, I sat in a corner of the loungeroom reading and smoking and waited for something to happen. For a long time I had a strange habit of thinking I could study others while remaining myself unobserved. It was a kind of anxiety, keeping others at bay while peering out between the cracks of my vigilance. (At least, that was how it seemed to me then, as if my own interior life could only be dimly glimpsed by others in outline or shadow. Of course that was far from the truth.)

I drank my way through the cask wine, reading Borges, reading ‘Funes the Memorious’ over and over. The light in the house was full of bat-like shadows and odd fleeting movements in the corners of the rooms, as though a kind of shadow-party among ghosts were taking place behind our backs.

There was a sudden burst of frenetic activity, and drugs and promises were exchanged all over the house. Everyone was suddenly crowded, shouting in the narrow hallway. Then the house was empty. My thoughts rushed out of me to fill the silence. It was as though the rest of the time I had been wrapped in them like a criminal in an old cloak hiding whatever marks of sin he believed he carried.

I pulled the silver wine-bladder out of its box and squashed it into my shoulder-bag along with a coffee mug. I put my notebook and pen in my jacket pocket, left the house and began to walk down North Terrace toward the city.

I often walked the streets of Adelaide at night with a bag of wine. Being half-drunk always gave me an edge of introspection, a peculiar focus I did not otherwise have as though deranged and jagged and fantastic poetry were about to break the surface of my mind. And in my night walks around Adelaide, I would frequently stop and scribble something in my notebook, a notebook that became a kind of compendium of strange sights and bizarre landscapes. I wrote hesitantly in broken phrases for the most part, always watching myself for signs of self-humiliation. In the years since, I wished I had written down everything regardless, written continually, written til my fingers stiffened, gone without sleep rather than miss a chance to write of my experience.

And now in the shadows of the snow gums above a city that will always be associated in my mind with strange and extraordinary states, I came back to myself – but as if still contained within my younger mind, with all its weight and distorted worry. I remembered stopping under a streetlight and leaning against a railing outside the Adelaide hospital; I squirted myself a mug of wine and wrote on a tattered page in my notebook, We rarely get the chance to show others why we love them.

In those gardens, I understood something about what I had become, about my writing – what and who it was for – something I won’t disclose here. I walked back up the hill toward Alfred Nicholas’ absurd and predatory ruin as it began to rain.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. He was writer-in-residence for the 2015 Mesmerism new music festivals. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also recently won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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Comments

  1. While reading this piece, my dog (Percy) came and nosed me for a reassuring pat, as if he were worried. I think it’s because I was moved.

  2. Jack, you DO need to take your writing seriously. You can really write. What on earth are you doing if you aren’t taking your writing seriously?

    • I do try, but things turn upside down with alarming regularity. Then you read posts like this and remember that writing does mean something.

      • There’s probably a longer conversation in here (what does it mean to take writing seriously/everyone is upside down etc etc) but that’s probably for another time.

  3. a breath of fresh air, stephen. a spacious, deliciously subtle moment in time. i feel revived. thank you

  4. I am young with distorted worry. I worried that writing everything down might be folly. You changed my mind, thank you.

  5. I enjoy your writing Stephen. You make me want to take long walks in the night and make time for thinking and feeling. I look forward to reading more of your work!

  6. Stephen, I came across this piece while browsing Overland’s archives – thank you for linking that longer unpublished piece, I’ll read it with pleasure.

  7. Lovely Stephen, thanks for giving my mind a chance to breathe. Your piece of writing made a cut through my otherwise cynical facade, to leave an opening of empathic recognition.

  8. Thank you for this beautiful piece.Writing is paradoxically a selfish occupation,and yet a selfless one. Selfish because it is a solitary occupation, and for a time those we love, even those we despise disappear from our thoughts.The former are there patiently waiting to be retrieved(we hope, we must have faith that this is so). The latter? Their potency is diminshed, we must believe that this will happen. Is writing itself an affirmation of love? You have me wondering Stephen Wright. Proust has never had that effect on me.Your writing is unique.

    • Burnham Beeches is a weird place. On a rainy Dandenongs day it was positively otherworldly. The friend I was with suspected that the oubliette, located in what is referred to as the ‘grotto’ was actually an entrance to a tunnel that led back under the hillside to the house.

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