Writing for a dying

I was twenty when my first writing was published and that felt not just miraculous but outrageous. It was as though my wits were stripped and I couldn’t distinguish truth from disingenuousness. I had sat next to an ancient homeless couple of souls on a wet and warped street seat in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, and just listened to them; all I did was listen to their tale of brusque eviction and marvel how anyone could be turfed out of their home in that way. I see them now, forty-six years on, and I’m still listening to them explain to me that the Fitzroy Police, instead of assisting them with their chronic situation, just threw their stuff into the gutter.

Their scraps of opportunity-shop furniture were unceremoniously hurled out of their cheap and busted door, their mattress too, which was their accomplice in crime since it gave them shelter. I sat there in limbo, carefully writing down their disconnected utterances on a scrap of paper, went back to my room and typed it all up and did a drawing of them to go with, I suppose, a thousand-word article or essay on homelessness. I sold it to RAM Magazine, which used to be in Station Street, Carlton, and the young editors decided to run it with the illustration printed in half-tone behind the text. I was published and it never hurt or nothing, as folks used to say.

When I got hold of the issue containing both my interpretation of that old man and wife staring profoundly into the night with nowhere to go, nowhere to make themselves a hot cup of tea, nowhere to get out of the inclement weather, and with the drawing behind the writing it really seemed more a dream than any actuality; and I was pretty good at actuality.

I was paid about ten dollars and shaken hands with by those exuberant editors in the days of yore, and probably read the story egomaniacally six or maybe seven times in a state of absolute suspended disbelief. How was that possible, I thought in my young body and hypercritical mind, to be printed in this student alternative rock magazine and be paid enough for a cheap steak and a packet of Steam Rollers?

The sensation of being first published is as unreal as your thirtieth thesis to Heaven. I have written for my bread and butter (usually margarine!) ever since I failed high school in 1965; and mostly my writing has been for ‘the press’, as freelance journalism is called, and I have made both a fortune from it as well as nothing. I have had popular daily or weekly newspaper columns that pay exceedingly well with The Age and The Australian and The Herald Sun and have often spoken brilliantly at office Christmas parties and just as often sat on the same Brunswick Street seat with not a single solitary crumb of pudding to nibble. I have been famous and fucked.

But there is no feeling quite like seeing yourself in print. Possibly this is simply because I’m the son – one of the sons, that is – of a commercial printer, and it was our custom at home to see our hard-working father covered in printer’s ink, with his neat grey dust coat always on and his fingertips always reaching for and unscrewing a stubborn lid sealed to a can of treacly ink. He smelt like a font more than a man and he walked like two hundred thousand freshly-printed wedding invitations.

I have written plays for the theatre which have been popularly published by Currency Press in Redfern, and this year I’m the Writer In Residence for Currency Press, and have just completed the first draft of a new script on Juanita Nielson – the heiress who opposed the development of Kings Cross and vanished on the fourth of July in 1975; murdered and martyred and mythologised. That is the sort of story I’m drawn to in, I guess, an identification with the peril of writing for a dying instead of a living, as it were.

The virtues of writing justify the miseries and uncertainties, no doubt; one needs a patron really badly to keep on what Oscar Wilde called the most graceful way of committing suicide. Writing is in my family and as a consequence, my living blood; my late father wrote well and not long ago one of my brothers discovered an ancient manuscript of our father’s, which was his teenage memoir of learning to be a printer back in 1938 when he went to Melbourne Technical College as a second-year apprentice machinist and guillotine operator.

It is in his lead pencil handwriting. That in itself is fairly historic, but when I paused to read it he came back to life instantly in the form of his lettering. It was him speaking with us again via the copperplate pencilled loopy handwriting lost for decades down the back of his bookcase. It was all about ink and its drying speeds, and he spoke in it of Gutenberg who invented movable leaden type.

I have never finished it because it bored me stupid, but the amazing aspect of it was that it spoke to me in his way so it really was like him sitting in the sun and chatting away with me at his knee; that much-battered knee of his that just about killed him and the whole rest of him with rheumatism mixed with arthritis that I’ve inherited. He stood up at that infernal printing machine of his day in and day out for sixty years; and that includes his six years in The Australian Army fighting the Japanese.

My father loved reading and could memorise prose and poetry in the same manner that a lost mongrel dog eventually finds its way home no matter what. He bought his volumes each year at University High School when they held their book fair, and he pottered about old obscure bookshops all over Melbourne like a working class moth searching for a thread of edible fabric to have an enjoyable munch on.

Now he’s dead I look at the amount of books he read and devoured like a pack of esoteric moths, intellectual moths more like, because that is precisely what he was. He was an uneducated genius of the language called English but at the same time was unpretentious as a fruit cake. He said of self-appointed literary critics who never tire of importance ‘They drink their own bath water!’ and that’s right, they actually do.

In my years of writing newspaper essays, novels, and biographies like Black and Whiteley, which is the strange drugged and deluded life of Brett Whiteley, I have gone about writing whatever it is I feel like. It might well be another children’s picture book or a play about our country’s last executed person, Ronald Ryan. I guess I identify with lost dogs and hanged petty criminals as well as my paternal grandmother about whom I’ve written half a dozen fairy books, because she was the last fairy on earth.

This year I have been made the Writer in Residence for Victoria University at the invitation of Bronwyn Cran, Dean of Arts and Humanities, and I have really enjoyed teaching creative writing to the postgraduates who, in my opinion at least, are determined enough to have a shot at Grub Street (as we used to call writing for one’s livelihood). Mind you, it is a most precarious enterprise and it is not so much about talent as who you know.

Writing, for some reason no-one gets, is dreadfully romantic, and if you fluke a novel you are usually famous as a stale bun in no time. People are so demented by the mystery of memoir they race through the Brontës like a salivating greyhound, eager to get a chunk of the rabbit it’s chasing. People realise writing makes them fashionable; even fascists. ‘Writing is for me!’ they rhapsodically declare, like a dying saint about to fall in love with themselves. But can you write? Are you talented or just deluded, and deluding your friends who possibly are concerned that you’re kidding yourself and also kidding Helen Garner, who you’re writing like? Or like Hemingway, or maybe even yourself, who is nigh on impossible to forge.

But the real copy is your feelings, and good writing is the chance to possibly understand yourself where not even your lover or psychiatrist can, with all the best intentions in the world. Who are you anyway but a figure in life who loves literature in all its phases; but not necessarily life in all of hers.

I gave a reading a couple of weeks ago at Readings Bookstore in Carlton from a new published play, and it was almost cancelled as their publicist feared it wasn’t worth going ahead with since there were only a few bookings; but in the end about twenty souls showed up and I read well and sold about eight copies of my new play. You may say this is pathetic or not bad or great depending on your point of view, but as an old mongrel of writing it felt terrific in its gloomy way and I made enough for one with the lot and a Coke. What more can you want?

In the old days, as in, the time I first sold my essay on those helpless folks perched on the sopping-wet bench in Brunswick Street, it was really something to see your style in print and make enough for a feed; things really were much better then in a way because writing was seen as everyone’s right and nobody wanted a PhD in Creative Writing as that certificate won’t put buns on the table. It just looks good and it sounds good. ‘I’m completing my Masters,’ is all you hear these days. What about completing your humility?

At Victoria University I have made no friends nor have I had a sandwich with another miserable sessional; we are called that and nothing more. All I hear is that Victoria University is in the middle of sacking so many sessionals soon there will be none left and nothing can be taught except cocaine sniffing in the centre of Ballarat Road; but no sessionals will be invited. I have truly enjoyed my students’ company, and laughed and listened eagerly to them reading their writing back to me and fellow lowly sessionals. But as I chug back on the insufferable bus to clinically-depressed Footscray Railway Station, I sometimes remember my old father perusing rare volumes at University High School and placing them carefully in his kit-bag for later reading in his illuminated house that his honest father built for him as a wedding present in 1944.


Image: John Carney / Flickr

Barry Dickins

Barry Leonard Dickins is a writer and artist born deliberately in Reservoir in order to be disbelieved. He teaches Creative Writing in many schools including Victoria University and state schools through out Australia; mostly to Grade Fours. He loves everything in life even death. He writes regularly for The Age and is always working on a new stage play. At present he is completing a commissioned stage play for Currency Press in Sydney to do with the mystery surrounding the disappearance of heiress Juanita Nielson on 4 July 1975. Barry first contributed to Overland magazine in 1970 and is thrilled to be back in print here where he started to write.

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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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  1. Absolutely love it! Wonderful sense of humour, love the colourful images, I can see the couple on the wet bench still.
    What a refreshing read. My son certainly knows the pieces to send me. Humility, that’s it, and powerful stuff.
    Thank you Barry

  2. Another haunting, thought-provoking and lovely piece of writing from Barry. Always such a pleasure to read his work.

  3. I knew Barry Dickins for a few months in 1972. He was – and is – a rare old bird, and a great talent. Hello again Barry, after all these years!

  4. I met Barry a few years back at a television studio and we bought a copy of each other’s book. He’s the real deal and one of Melbourne’s most talented writers…Dare I say it, but so much nicer to read words from the heart than the usual over processed PhD grad novels published these days.

  5. Best writing on writing on OL – evah!

    You’d have been rooned before you began tho if you’d been born Dickens instead of Dickins.

  6. I am a fan of Jonathon Green on ABC Radio National, Sunday Extra and know that Meanjin is in safe hands under his stewardship.

  7. The “I’m completing my masters” you hate hearing is probably so common because saying “I spend all my waking hours, and most of my dreams, staring into the abyss of unpaid, publishing irrelevance and I still don’t seem to be able to stop pursuing this career that might actually kill me” doesn’t keep food on the table either. For some reason people need to know what writers do with their time other than, you know, writing. And investing in hope.

  8. “People realise writing makes them fashionable; even fascists.”

    Fascists are never even, but a lot of writers are fascists in my experience.

  9. Thank you Barry, truly inspiring writing. What more to life can there be than one with the lot and a Coke? Full bellies and humour filled writing is all I need.

  10. Love this line-

    Who are you anyway but a figure in life who loves literature in all its phases; but not necessarily life in all of hers.

    This piece totally resonates with me.

  11. I want to ask Barry Dickins the name of his wonderful short story about his dad mixing the colours of inks in his printing press at their home. Can anyone tell me how O might contact Barry or find out the answer to my question?

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