Sunday, December 04, 2011

So you want to be a writer part 1

Note to readers: This is the first of a three part series exploring my desire to become a writer. You will find the next post here.

I had always been interested in writing.

It was, I suppose, little more a romantic dream in the early stages. As a child I lived in a world of books and was fascinated by the lives of the writers I read about. However, I had no idea where to begin. How, for example, did one actually write a novel?

My old friend Alex Buzo was different. He wanted to write and knew what he wanted to write about. Alex also loved words, and had an eye for the cadences and idiosyncrasies of language.  I was more interested in ideas. I also had a range of aspirations, of often conflicting dreams; politics, business success, academic success.  All this meant that my ill-formed desire to be a writer was swept away by my entry to the world of work and the excitement of establishing myself in a new city.

Despite all this, the dream never quite left me. It was always there, bubbling away in the background. In Treasury I honed my drafting skills, learning to write simple clear English. Then, at night, I would sometimes experiment with other writing forms. By now, Alex had become a successful playwright and writer. I read his columns and purchased his plays, somewhat in awe of his ear for sounds. While I loved the sound of language, this was something that I could never match.

In 1981 I went back to Armidale as a full time PhD student. Now researching and writing all day, my desire to be a writer re-surfaced. I also had things that I wanted to write about, and not just history. At the end of 1982 I had to make a choice: stay in Armidale or return to my Canberra job.

My relationship with my father was always complicated. While I loved him dearly and still miss him, we also fought. In one of her diary notes from this time, my mother simply recorded "Jim and James are fighting again."

I remember one fight clearly. We had been to the launch of Geoff Bloomfield's Baal Belbora: the end of the dancing: The agony of the British invasion of the ancient people of the Three Rivers--the Hastings, the Manning, and the Macleay in New South Wales. I commented that what I would really like to do was to set up a small specialist publisher focused on New England. Prof, we all called him Prof, went ballistic.

To understand his reaction, you need to understand a little about the Belshaws. My grandparents came from the working class world of Wigan and knew poverty and insecurity at first hand. They wanted and achieved education and secure jobs for their children.

They were quite focused on this. When Dad wanted to be a journalist, they pushed him into teaching because it offered job security. When Uncle Horace wanted to resign from teaching to accept a position as a WEA (Workers' Educational Association) tutor, they opposed it on job security grounds. Dad complied, something that he always regretted a little. Horace was more determined, laying the basis for what would become a stellar academic career.

This family background including my father's experiences during the depression laid the basis for my father's reaction to my suggestion. How could I give up a secure, well paid senior job job with a pension for what was, to his mind, an ephemeral dream?

In the end, I returned to Canberra. However, my desire to be a writer was now well developed. I started keeping a writer's diary, jotting down ideas. Then came an opportunity.

I applied for the position of Master of Wright College at the University of New England. At interview, I made it clear that  my acceptance of the position was conditional upon my freedom to write and comment in public fora. I was offered the position. I then declined it.

There were many reasons for this. I had broken up with my then Armidale girlfriend, one reason I had wanted to return to the city.  My Canberra work had become exciting and interesting. But most of all, I actually lacked the courage to take the plunge.

I cannot regret the decision, for I would not have my girls now if I had taken the position. However, I do regret the cowardice. This was actually a decision made on negative, not positive grounds. In any event, my desire to write was once again submerged by the turmoil of work and daily life. I was also writing all the time as part of my job, often under very tight pressures. I simply didn't have the energy to do more.

In the next post in this series I will look at the re-emergence of the writing bug.  


Anonymous said...

Overly harsh self-criticism Jim.

Nothing I've read here over the past few years would indicate you regret the UNE decision and, as I'm inclined to the belief that things happen when and as they are 'meant' to, I'm putting this down to over-analysis?

Besides, how else would you have ever learned that Zombies rock?


Jim Belshaw said...

That's true, David, about Zombies. Not sure about over-analysis, although it is a weakness of mine.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to further episodes. It might just be that what you criticise in yourself is what is generally admired.

Just saying.


Jim Belshaw said...

That would be nice, kvd!

Winton Bates said...

Jim: It sounds to me as though your relationship with your father provides a lot of material that you could use in a novel. I had no idea that it would be a complicated relationship.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's probably right, Winton. In fact, I'm sure that it is!

Anonymous said...

The reputation of no other English novelist rests so firmly on the issue of style, on the poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase, captured in precisely weighed punctuation. But in reading the manuscripts it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing.

"This suggests somebody else was heavily involved in the editing process between manuscript and printed book," Prof Sutherland said.

I might be a shameless plagiarist (example above from The Telegraph), but your following post needs editing to replace "first" with "second".

My sister in law is retiring next year, with the intention to study at Oxford. Something in English Lit. with a concentration on Jane Austen.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, kvd. I have made the correction.

I have always liked JA, including her use of punctuation.