Writing is not something I do full-time. I also work as a legal researcher in the area of minimum wages. Writers can sometimes be too fixated with ideas, and where there is fixation there’s also ego, a sense that you created that. And then also a corresponding sense of failure if people discredit your creation. But my day job keeps me responsible and answerable to other people. It takes me outside of myself and my introversion and obsessions.
When I was seventeen, I was very unwell, sitting on the floor of our family room at home, curled up like the drab and flimsy shell of a snail. I’d lost all my words because I’d had a nervous breakdown, which had been creeping up at me like a malevolent black shadow for some time during the last ten weeks of my final year at school. I literally lost all my words. Reading the newspaper, the print would swarm in front of my eyes. I could pick out each word but they made no sense. I was as responsive to the outside world as a television screen, switched off.
Anyhow, so that late morning, I was sitting on the floor, probably looking at my English exam notes. I did not have an epiphany. All that happened was my mother came in and said, “Do you realize what time it is? Don’t you have an exam in half an hour?!” My mother – who cannot read or write in English herself, and can barely write in her first language – sped me to the school and I took my first exam.
I sat in that exam room, and despite not being able to write or read for weeks on end, not even feeling up to speaking, I forced myself to write for three hours. To this day I have no idea what I wrote about. It all seemed like gibberish. Then the next day, I did it again. I did it four more times, because all my subjects in Year 12 were humanities subjects like history, literature, politics, legal studies.
I did okay in those exams, though. Well enough to get me into law school, where I learned that the people who had the words were also – not coincidentally – the people who had power in society. I also know that I grew up with a mother whose only literature is the Safeway and Target advertisements in our mailbox every week.
Sometimes you write because you can. Your circumstances allow you to. Sometimes you write because you have to. You might need the money. Sometimes you write because you are forced to, because to keep whatever it is you have inside may mean that you will implode.
There is no one solitary reason. But you should never take your writing for granted, never feel like you own it or that it owns you. There is a book by Lewis Hyde called The Gift (given to me as a gift by my wonderful friend Professor Ronald Sharp) which is about how all art is a gift – that inspiration, or talent is a gift, a culmination of all the ideas and acts and events you have experienced, read or witnessed – and that you have not done it all alone.
I learned a lot about writing at university through reading widely. But always in my heart I loved young adult books and kept returning to the ones I knew as a young adult myself. One of my favorite authors when I was growing up was a gentle man named Robert Cormier, who lived in the same town all his life, and wrote for the local paper. He also wrote some of the best young adult books the English speaking world has come to know: The Chocolate War, Fade, I am the Cheese, We All Fall Down. I also loved Cynthia Voight. These authors had real character driven books, and their characters did not always find resolution at the end.
Writing also takes time. Her Father’s Daughter took a decade. Unpolished Gem took five. Some exuberant people who are good at talking always reckon that they could just sit down and write a book one day, but that they are just too busy or just don’t have the patience. I admire their confidence and their optimism, but I wonder if they realize that writing words is the opposite of saying words. It’s not words that you are putting down on a page, but thoughts. Many writers write because they have sat alone for as long as it takes, to get out what they have to, because they cannot say such things in real life. Such things are impolite, radical, offensive. Such writers don’t have the same voices in ‘real life.’ We are the people who listen (the skill of writing is not talking but listening) and we watch.
Writers affirm people’s best selves back to them – and by best selves, I do not mean most well behaved selves, but the selves that are vulnerable, difficult to love, engage in stupid acts and small transgressions – your best self is your human self. It is your human self that makes the reader feel like they are not alone in their petty selfishness, uncertainty, envy, irrational anger, judgment. Your human self is the self that, upon discovering love as a verb and not an adjective, finds love hard work all of a sudden, but do it anyway. Your best characters have integrity - which simply means that you’ve managed to integrate all the parts of them, both good and bad.
Finally, people often ask me if my family has changed since the publication of my books (since my first two books were about them). Of course my family has changed, like every family. But not as a result of my books, which my mother still can’t read. Books don’t change people. People change people. Acts of love change people. I would like to think that my books were books of love, and I am lucky to have a family who has accepted them as such.