The point about writing is the belief that I have something to say that might help others see an issue more clearly, understand something in greater depth, and bring comfort to the broken and bereft. In my years of journalism, a cynical way of looking at what writing does is not entirely as Rebecca West noted: “Journalism – an ability to meet the challenge of filling the space.”
While this inevitably is part of the nature of journalism, the ability to meet pressing deadlines and fill the space with limpid and illuminating prose, it is also what the French author, Georges Simenon drily observed: “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.” It’s about failing better next time.
Be that as it may, I write because I have to do so. It is part of who I am and my primary mode of expression. More than being driven to sit with a pen in my hand and a notebook or in front of a keyboard, for me to write is to attempt to make sense of life when much of it seems to make no sense.
But to write may mean that you take a risk. You may expose something, reveal your thoughts, and share your personal self. How vividly I recall writing a piece where I initially declined to be in attendance at the birth of my son and then when I did change my mind, I wrote about the experience.
I write because I have a fundamental belief in the power of words. The former Australian Governor General Bill Hayden once said that “words are bullets”. He was right and yet words are also capable of offering solace and succour to those wounded and confused by life. This is why personal writing, can carry a freight of possibly enduring significance.
It does not in any way mean that writing has to be published to have legitimacy or approval. It is simply the act of writing that matters. This can come from penning a letter, sending a text, writing an email, or keeping a diary or journal. Why I write is to communicate.
When writing journalism, I try to imagine the reader. Will someone read this on a train or tram, at the kitchen table, in the lunchroom, at the end of the day? Moreover, what will my words make readers feel, and more critically, what do I want them to feel? Is it to feel outrage, pity, loss, hope, and belief in optimism? Is it to make readers feel better about themselves?
There is more than a grain of truth in what the English author and Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes says: “The writer must be universal in sympathy and an outcast by nature: only then can he see clearly.” Even so, any writer who assumes the mantle of a prophet is well out of his or her lane. Writing I have discovered is about trying to say what you believe needs saying without the sanctimonious self-righteousness and privilege of a column.
Over the years, I have stopped writing opinion polemics. Perhaps this is because I have reached a point in my writing journey where what is more important, instead of trying to put the world to rights, is meeting people through language at their point of need. In other words, the personal trials and the fears we all have at some point in our lives: illness, death, loss of loved ones, self-doubt, and stress borne out of modern life where we live under the tyranny of the urgent.
Words can salve the brokenhearted, comfort the lonely and unloved, share in the gravity of grief, bolster the weak, and distract the over-busy with a perspective that they matter. So I write now to temper the wind to the shorn lamb and assure people that in this often aggressive and violent world, there is still a place for tenderness and gentleness.
I am not a writer who has the gift of humor. I cannot make people laugh. I do not have an ear for the comic and the absurdly quirky. I write from the wellspring of who I am and how I see the world from my stance, what life has taught me, and what I know to be true. People can hurt and words can help.
Much of my work reflects the world around me. I have witnessed the kindness of a homeless man sharing his breakfast of a bread roll with a seagull, the opening of the spring blossom giving reason to hope when all else seems hopeless, and the sudden embrace and kiss of a couple in the arrival lounge of an airport. These vignettes of life are all around us and in the words of the American poet, Mary Oliver, all we have to do is “look and see”.
What drives me to my keyboard is wanting to share this with others. To want to say that while life is too short, I have the opportunity of reaching out to others in writing, to those I will never know, never meet, or know how they have felt about what I have written. I do not dwell on sending words into the temporal and transitory world of newspapers. I simply write in the belief that someone may pause and think over what I have said.
This is not instigated by ego. To write journalism one has to have a thick skin. Stories are spiked and never see the light of newsprint, rejection is common. Failure is up close and personal with success. The point is to just keep writing. Journalism calls for significant self-belief and resilience. It also calls for commitment.
I have written since I was a child. I was fortunate in so far as when I entered a writing competition on a radio channel for the first prize of a racing car set, and I won, I thought I could repeat the success. Part of growing up is that you can’t always succeed, and yet writing asks us to keep trying to say what we think is noble and worthy and helpful to others. This is why I do it.
Rebecca West, New York Herald Tribune, 22 April, 1956
Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot, 1984
Georges Simenon, Paris Review, Summer 1955
Mary Oliver, ‘Look and See’: Why I Wake Early, 2004