Occupational Hazards

When she was 19, my Burmese friend Khet wrote a story about a girl contemplatively gazing out an open window which had bars covering the window. Many houses in Burma had such windows, but the military junta thought she was criticising them (screen = bars = lack of freedom). They arrested her, threw her in jail, tortured her, and then put her on death row. One by one, she saw her friends go.

Eventually, she was released, but for the rest of her education, a member of the military would follow her everywhere, every day. Even now, for the rest of her life, there are military people tracking her family in Burma. She still writes, and lives in the USA now, where she has been granted asylum.

Her story is here:


Comparatively, we have it lucky in Australia. The worst that could happen here is probably people who disagree with you stop buying your books and write nasty internet things about you.

If you choose writing as a profession - and it is a choice in Australia - one of the best things you can do is to NOT get carried away with the hype about how brave it is to put a pen to paper. What really matters in writing is using all your five senses - tough, sight, smell, taste, hearing - and to use them fully you have to experience your world fully.  Not just the world of writers, but the world of cleaners with three children, cab drivers who were once scientists, garbage collectors, oncologists, your drooling uncle Keith who can't get over the fact that back in the 1950s his football team lost a premiership.

The irony is that what makes you smaller is what helps you grow as a writer. You might need confidence in other areas of life, but you do NOT need confidence to write. When I've felt particularly faithless in myself, I go out into the streets and interview people or friends and write their stories. It has taught me that writing is not about me. It's about the story. Having too much confidence is actually bad for an investigative reporting piece, because you assert your own voice and assumptions over the narrative. Doubt has been one of my greatest tools, because it leads me to explore all possible channels of a story, and I don't start with preconceived ideas.  

The other, very important thing about having a writing career is that you MUST have financial independence. I have never been a full time writer, ever. Having another job to go to - even if it's part time, even if its at Safeway - gets you out into the world, makes you a witness to life around you. It spares you from depression and stagnation and guilt and poverty. Because the truth is, as a writer you are not going to be writing 8 hours a day, five days a week. You will not be inspired all the time. Think about how hard it is to write a 800 word creative writing piece for school assessment where every word matters. Now, think about doing that full-time, every day, for your adult life and that's all you do. Try it for a week and you'll see how very, very few people actually write full time. But break up that week with school, and sports, and other things and it becomes more tolerable, even fun, even something you can't wait to get back to doing. It's no different as an adult - get a job, exercise, be curious about other people. When your writing time is finite, you will never get writer's block because you will make the most of it.

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