The writer’s mind

Because I am someone who writes I spend a lot of time on my own. Consequently, I sometimes get into strange states of mind. That’s my job. My states of mind may well be a lot stranger if it were not for the existence of cafes. I do a lot of writing in cafes and a lot of thinking. Cafes suit me because I can be both in the public arena and concealed within myself at the same time. I’m an inveterate and obsessive observer of others, just as I tend to be an inveterate and obsessive observer of myself.

I have a weekday cafe and a weekend cafe. The weekday cafe is called The Bank, the weekend cafe is called The Blue Knob Gallery Cafe.

I always sit in the corner. This is so my enemies can’t shoot me from behind. The Bank cafe used to be an actual bank, and the Blue Knob cafe is located on the verandah of a community art gallery in the lee of the mountain known locally as Blue Knob. Blue Knob is famous for once being the abode of a woman the local Widjyabal people call a ‘witch’, who trained up the Clever Men and then tested them by throwing them off the cliff at Blue Knob to see if they could fly.

I actually have other weekday and weekend cafes as well, but they are satellites to the solid gravitational surfaces of The Bank and Blue Knob. Blue Knob Cafe is a great example of community activism. With a little bit of government money a small group of people, mostly women, have transformed a tiny neglected country hall into a vibrant gallery, artist’s workshop, cafe, market space and general community hangout.

Of course, neither Blue Knob or The Bank are perfect. That is because my perfect cafe would have a large genoa armchair only I could use with an adjacent bookshelf, several animals, a fireplace, and a forest outside. And it would also be called The Cafe of Lost Souls and have the world’s greatest secondhand bookshop next door. Still, Blue Knob cafe comes pretty close.

I have a nice enough study at home, but I don’t often use it. In fact I hardly ever use it. My ‘study’ is a bag which I take everywhere with me, even if I go into town for some milk. The bag contains my writing life. That life is composed of a changing series of notebooks, three in-progress manuscripts, whatever odd work of fiction I’m currently trying obsessively to deconstruct, a small tablet-laptop, a fountain pen and a bottle of ink. It’s like having a magic bag with a bag of magic tricks inside it.

My magic bag also contains some bandages and a lot of bandaids. That’s because when I was in Melbourne last year, I accidentally sliced open my hand with a knife. I patched up the wound with a few bandaids but it kept leaking when I was out and about the CBD. Not wanting to leave bloody handprints everywhere I went, I patched it more thoroughly with a bandage in a chemist in Swanston Street. I still keep bandaids and an unused bandage in my bag. It’s a nice metaphor. If writers aren’t bandaging wounds then what are they doing? Bandages and bandaids are also just practically useful – once you start carrying them with you it’s amazing how often they seem to be needed.

Anyway, sometimes writing at home can be an unproductive thing. I feel like I’m sitting inside my own head, which is not helpful. It’s also a fine habit to learn to write in public. Now whenever I sit in any cafe I automatically get out my notebooks. In fact whenever I sit down anywhere they come out: airports, park benches, waiting rooms, trams, car parks, roadside breakdowns.

Writers have always been solitary types tormenting themselves with creative struggle. If writers have often been considered mad that’s probably because a sure way to send one’s self mad is to lock yourself in a room and talk aloud. Writers are secretive, churning through the contents of their souls in search of an image and a sentence, making up stories about imaginary people or about drunks or elves or angels in chook pens or post-apocalyptic nightmares or child autistic savants or depressed detectives. There could be a lot of reasons for this, and some of them are as creepy as we might expect of people who lock themselves in their rooms and mutter.

The writer Junot Diaz said that when he writes he is really only talking to six people who are all friends of his. I know what he means. I write for, at last count, five people, so perhaps Diaz has more friends than me. If I get any more than five Facebook ‘likes’ at the end of an Overland post I’m always very surprised.

The advice that writers love to give each other is frequently toxic and stupid, as I’ve written before. Many years ago when I was nineteen or twenty, a friend of mine looked around the house where I was living – then inhabited by several junkies, a cat, a killer lesbian punk band, my girlfriend and me – and said, ‘How come no-one ever writes books about the people I know?’ I’ve never forgotten that. When I write, I just write the things that my friends might want to read.

Writing in public about personal things seems to alter the space around you. It’s as if the oddness of the universe, which is usually contained inside the writer’s mind where it emerges as dragons or deranged lovers or people lost in time, starts to leak out in unpredictable ways.

A few months ago I was sitting in The Bank cafe writing. On the wall above me was a large poster for a circus of the 1960s. It was a lurid orange and yellow. Massive letters with the circus’ name rose out of a sunset. A couple of tiny elephants like mice trumpeted to each other. A man in a tux sat on a white horse and doffed a top hat.

A tall angular man, who looked like as though his limbs were made of rubber, stopped in front of my table and regarded the poster. He frowned, crossed his arms and caught my eye. He began to mime in an elaborate series of gestures that seemed to indicate he had been a circus acrobat. He imitated a clown, a circus strongman, a woman on a horse, the ringmaster, all with the most extravagant demonstrations of affect. He told the silent story of a tightrope walker falling from the wire because of her broken heart. He mimed resignation and acceptance, and stalked out of the cafe as though on spring-loaded heels. No-one else in the cafe seemed to have noticed his performance at all. After he left I wondered if he had even existed.

And then just last week, a woman passed by my table at Blue Knob cafe and saw me writing in my notebook. She commented on my fountain pen and then casting a critical eye over my handwriting guessed both my age and where I was born. She said she had taught handwriting for many years in schools. I learned that I had probably started out being taught Modern Cursive and then had to switch to Modified Italic, hence my messed-up spiky handwriting that struggles to maintain any kind of structural integrity.

After she left I returned to my notebook. An accordion struck up in the art gallery adjacent to the cafe, where a man with the look of a melancholy eighteenth-century seaman, as though he’d just disembarked from Jack Aubrey’s HMS Surprise, sat perched on a low stool and played slow, off-kilter reels in return for free cappuccinos.

Shortly after, the table next to mine was occupied by people whose preschool-aged children I had taught a decade ago. Listening to them talk bitterly about their angry problem teenagers, it seemed to me that they wished more than anything that their children could have remained five years old, when the future was still unwritten and possibility was something that was always on their side. Somewhere in one of the notebooks I had with me, I’d copied down something that John Lee Hooker once said in an interview:

You don’t even want to think about what you come through, because sometimes it brings you down thinking about the hard times, the rough times, what happened to you over the years. There’s a lot of misery, hatred, disappointment … all that. I hate to talk about it … but it’s there … There’s so many things I regret, I can’t put my hand on it.

I felt so sad that I gathered up my notebooks and left. The accordionist had packed up and gone, but there was a band outside among the market stalls floating their way through Radiohead’s spooky ‘Fake Plastic Trees’.

And if unpredictable sequences of events such as these can be considered a kind of weird metaphysical leaking of the writer’s inner life, the states that he or she is already intensely familiar with and those that he or she prefers not to know and yet is deeply curious about, what are the effects on the writer who writes alone in his or her room? After being so intensely absorbed in a page of writing, do we then enter some dissociative or altered state when we leave it? Is there some kind of in-between state a writer has to work through to be able to leave the page and re-enter the quotidian world of their surroundings; the kitchen with the day’s washing up, the emails we don’t want to reply to, the bedroom with the person lying in our bed who now seems so odd, so alien to our thoughts that we have to fabricate a kind of persona that will allow us to find a contiguous match with the relationship we have found ourselves inhabiting with them?

Does this process of writing, where we attempt to speak of the unspeakable, somehow make apparent a truth we have been too frightened to acknowledge? And if we put off sitting down to write, could it be because there is some state trying to make itself visible, something that would restructure our life in unimaginable ways?

The Nigerian American writer Teju Cole wrote a novel in which he described the ophthalmic condition that produces a dead spot in one’s vision, and used this as a metaphor for all the ways we develop blind spots in our lives. Two months later he was struck almost blind by this very same condition.

The Lebanese writer Elias Khoury said that whatever takes place in the writing affects the writer. ‘Poets,’ writes William Empson in Versions of Pastoral, ‘tend to make in their lives a situation they have already written about.’ In the introduction to her novel Mr Fortune’s Maggot, Sylvia Townsend Warner said that when she finished writing it she was in an ‘advanced state of hallucination’.

It has begun to seem to me that the writing of prose or poetry is usually a highly marginal activity, possibly dangerous to oneself, and while being written for others or on behalf of others, excludes others in its making. It is economically unproductive and does not lend itself to a utilitarian discourse. It is like the disruptive gift, the event that sits outside the process of material exchange. One cannot repay a gift. It is not possible to do so without seeking to impose some kind of fascist stricture on something which is largely ungovernable.

Inasmuch as I’m a writer of anything, I’m a writer of chance. I like to write and I have no program. I have lots of projects lying around, all unfinished (how could they ever be complete) and my favourite thing to do is to have a whole day to myself, and having finished my morning chores, sit in my favourite chair, or cafe, or by the side of the road, or on a park bench, in fact anywhere will do, and write the day away without any real planning or intention.

I don’t actually know anything about writing. Obviously, you say. But it’s the truth, I think. I just don’t. I don’t know what writing is, how to carry it out or what is happening while I’m doing it. It just happens to be the best way that I have found to be able to think in unpredictable ways about certain things, some of them also unpredictable.

What writing is, or what I think it is, seems to change all the time so that it’s often hard to know from one day to the next what space I’m inhabiting. I’m forever soaking in the bath of my own solitude, trying to grab an extremely slippery bar of soap that seems to have some inscrutable message scrawled on it that I can never decipher.

And yet, the only gift no-one can give you is time. I write in corners because I have to, in the backs of cafes, sitting on the Pacific Highway in forty-degree heat waiting for the car radiator to stop boiling, on the footpath waiting for a late friend, sitting on a cliff top looking out over the ocean toward purple clouds, each time trying to catch myself unawares, stitching together unforeseen moments, looking for the interstices between what should have happened and what did, locating in the moments of boredom and dismay a glimpse of my own face, one nearly unrecognisable.

Stephen Wright

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. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. This piece almost redeems you after that awful piece you wrote for Valentines Day (I admired it’s honesty but it should have forewarned readers that it would completely dissolve any optimism they possessed for human affection or the authenticity of love- l want the blue pill, dammit!). Could you be human after all?

    1. No. I’m from the future and have been sent back in time to destroy all the causes for Skynet. This includes beliefs in romance, Steve Jobs, creative writing degrees and sundry other evils which must remain secret.

  2. I think the Valentines Day anti-romance post and this one are very related. They come from the same place I think. Try this: imagine working out how to love and care for others when we are all in this condition of unpredicted sequences and dreaming. The sort of romantic love fiction that I understand Stephen to be against is one that conjures an elevated vision of the other that oppresses the unpredictability, unknown and actual dreaming together. Or have I got this all mixed up?

  3. Stephen, you’ve debauched my sloth. Has it really taken you this long to work in a ref to Patrick O’Brian?

    1. Well actually no, it hasn’t. I used the sloth quote in an OL post that has yet to be posted that I thought would be posted before this one. Now my cover and sequence of jokes is blown. O’Brian is a very underrated writer I think. Weir’s execrable film version of the Aubrey-Maturin saga didn’t help matters.

        1. Too late, De-Sequencing type. Once something has been made unfunny, it can never be funny again. Glum as a dead fish, it waits in the Purgatory of Untold Jokes so eloquently and tediously described by Dante.

  4. Such a great post Stephen. You made me laugh so many times. You forgot to mention the ‘kaleidoscope effect’, or is that just me? I commonly find myself surrounded by words, and often confounded by the plasticity of language. I don’t know if English is peculiar in that regard. I suspect not. Perhaps it is part of being a relatively inexperienced writer, and I will get a handle on it. I find it very hard to pin meaning down. I don’t carry a note-book around anymore, though this book did begin on paper, so I find myself thinking about it as I go about my business. It never really quite goes away does it? 🙂 I love it. Great post Stephen. Vey funny. Thanks.

  5. I am someone who writes… I sometimes get into strange states of mind… That’s my job. My states of mind… I don’t actually know anything about writing… I don’t know what writing is…

    From the job descriptions, epistemologically and ontologically, you know what mind is but not writing.

    Maybe you’re in the wrong job; or the right one if your intended focus is mind and not writing – which is why you can write, I suggest.

    Hence your title: The Writer’s Mind. You’re on a mind mission to tear down false illusions (really sick ones), everything we think we know, including writing, yes?

    (Good luck in the abyss!)

    1. A few years ago Deborah Bird Rose was interviewed about Aboriginal and Western knowledges. She said:

      ‘A lot of [Aboriginal] people I have talked with say they can’t comprehend white thinking. They say, ‘What’s wrong with the white fellas? Are they crazy?’


      1. Little wonder.

        50,000+ years of knowledge blanked by 200 / 3,000 years of white noise, coupled with the indignities of no attempt made at mutual understanding while simultaneously being caught in western nets of study, discipline and oppression, all of which meant having unreadable books returned to a culture without bookcases and in a language their young people are beginning to learn so as to generously reteach us again what they tried generously to teach us at first contact.

        Radiohead get a mention in the post, and put it quite well in Good Morning Mr Magpie: You stole it all – give it back

        1. Well, exactly. I was in Melbourne recently, and at an event I attended a local Elder, Auntie Grace, gave a very gracious Welcome to Country, delivered in a very generous spirit, and very moving. The next day I went to Richard Bell’s exhibition ‘Lessons on etiquette and manners’ at MUMA. His exhibit also had a great generosity about it, but something more uncompromising. Apart from a message that I could summarise as ‘Give us our fucking land back you barabarians’, I think that he also very clearly shows that in relation to the politics of our occupation of Country, very little western ‘art’ makes much sense. I’m starting to think the same about literature.

          1. Yes, I got the same impression about so called Western Art when I saw a Martu Peoples exhibition, We Don’t Need a Map, at the Fremantle Arts Centre over the summer. (I went numerous times.) The paintings being painted effortlessly by elders sitting on the floor in the central gallery matched the paintings hanging of the walls, which themselves matched Martu language, law, culture and country, as demonstrated by the superimposition of laser technology. I don’t know a lot about what is referred to loosely as The East, but for over thirty years now I’ve thought Western epistemology a waste of time. I fell in love with Aboriginal literature when I first studied it, and felt like ditching the Literary Canon at the time, but didn’t do so. I am now coming around to your view.

          2. Whenever I’m in Melbourne I always go to the National Gallery of Vic’s Indigenous Galleries, where there appears to be a permanent exhibition. There is much extraordinary work there, but one piece that I have great difficulty dragging myself away from is a massive painting done collectively by a dozen women from the Western Desert – who I believe are Martu people – called ‘Ngayarta Kujarra’ that maps a huge area of Country paying particular attention to the location of waterholes. I’ve spent entire afternoons sitting in front of it because it really disturbed me in a way I couldn’t articulate. It was only when I went to the Bell exhibition a few weeks ago, that I understood that the Martu women – as with Bell – are actually in touch with the critical realities of the age in a way that western writers or artists are not. I felt that I was suddenly understanding how very very mad much western artistic construction is.
            I was interested in the post on Tibet the other day at OL, as I have Tibetan friends who are very distressed by the on-going self-immolations taking place in Tibet. Tibetans are an Indigenous people, it has been pointed out to me. A few years ago I went to a public talk by the Dalai Lama. He is obviously a super-brainy guy and very switched on. He said a couple of really interesting things that I haven’t forgotten. First he said, ‘I’m 50% Buddhist and 50% Marxist.’ Then later, in a context where he spoke about how Westerners appear to spend their time, said suddenly, ‘Novels!’ Then he sort of chortled a little. Then he said ‘Novels!’ again and burst into laughter.

  6. Hysterical.
    You’re anxious at times about pouring yourself into the oracular sinkhole of nervous energy known as ‘writing’ because the inscrutable message is nothing more than ‘Palmolive.’

  7. Yes and Yes.

    It was Martu women painting at the Fremantle exhibition – effortlessly and ritualistically, oblivious to passing attendees like myself – and some of the paintings on the walls were of waterholes, the exact location of which in relation to painting and land was what the laser superimpositions were matching. Oddly, as I watched the women sitting there painting the first time, and literature again, I thought of Kafka’s The Hunger Artist.

    I too had Tibetan friends (who moved to Canada, not liking it here), who were dismissive of my literary interests, and have had Tibetan monks to dinner (they always seem to want lamb, and appear to like the fact that I given them a Lotto ticket as a parting gift, but I can never really tell). I’ve been to a couple of the Dalai Lama’s talks too (expensive). He made sense each time I heard him speak.

    Thanks for the link and post.

  8. Dennis and Stephen,
    This seems like a very black and white discussion about Indigenous versus Non-Indigenous Culture and value systems. I do not like, nor do I understand why one has to be held above the other as being more noble. Or why the other has to be disrespected. Surely there is room for both to be respected in their historical contexts. I cannot imagine resting my eyes on Michaelangelo’s Pieta for example, and not be moved by it. That is part of the Western Canon.

    In a way it feels disrespectful and condescending to view Indigenous cultures through this kind of lens. Surely they have the right to hold their heads high as do we, without disrespecting either culture. It feels divisive to me.

    Dennis, I wondered what you meant by ‘Aboriginal Literature’. Do you mean contemporary literature, because my understanding is that there was no written language in Austalian Indigenous Cultures. All traditions were passed down verbally. When I was studying at University some twenty years ago, the Linguistics department was almost short-staffed because a couple of ethnologists were off in the desert recording languages so they did not disappear. This is also from the Western Canon, and creepy white people. I think we have more to be proud of than to be ashamed of, and I would much rather focus on what we have in common. Wouldn’t that be nice? 🙂

  9. I apologise if that sign-off sounded flippant. I did not mean it to be. I just wanted to stop myself rambling too much, and it came out clumsily. I do think it is important not to lose faith in any of the world’s cultures including our own, and instead learn from history about how to do better.

    1. No flippancy detected Karen, and I wouldn’t care too much if there was.
      I think the point I want to make about much of the western literature I have read is that it doesn’t – to my way of thinking – engage with what seem to me to be the critical realities of the age.
      This has been on my mind for a while, but my viewing of the recent Richard Bell exhibition in Melbourne and reading of his essays really confirmed this.
      The thing about the historical contexts is that western narratives have been used as a tool of silencing and oppression in the way that Indigenous narratives have not.

  10. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for not taking my head off. I often feel uneasy after making a comment, knowing that I have probably mssed the mark, so thanks for your patience.

    I see the difference you speak of as more about an accident of history, and not the capacity of various races to be noble or otherwise. I have seen and heard as much racism go from black to white as from white to black in contemporary narratives, with the exception of a few open-minded individuals, and they are on both sides. I truly think we should remain respectful but not obsequious towards each other, and see what comes of that. Thanks Stephen.

  11. That is of course if one aligns oneself with a particular cultural view. I don’t really. I suppose that makes me a humanist. I just wish we could all get on, basically. :)Thanks again.

  12. Pretty terrible accident, Karen.

    I suppose the point of bad accidents is that whoever may have done it, there’s a whole lot of trauma and crap to now deal with. And one thing we’d need to do is remove the things that led to the bad accident in the first place.

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