I am a writer (and yes, it’s a valid life choice).

I am a writer.

It’s taken me the best part of a year, and many practice sessions with a writer friend, to be able to say that without following it up with an embarrassed ‘I-know-it’s-ridiculous’ giggle.

I am a writer.

Early on, this statement was met with one of two responses. Gen Y friends and acquaintances would often loudly exclaim, ‘WOW! That’s so cool!’ I loved their enthusiasm for the pursuit of a passion, no matter the difficulty or the cost. This response was my own: all romantic; no pragmatism.

When I said my well practised line, ‘I’m a writer’ to Gen X and older, I was often met with a furrowed brow. People I hardly knew – friends of friends, co-workers of friends, random people I’d meet at parties – would sidle up to me with a puzzled look on their face, ‘so, Tess, that’s nice, but how are you going to pay the rent?’ It’s true, I had held a very romantic view of what being a writer would be like: drinking endless lattes in funky cafes, me scribbling away on my vintage leather-bound notebook, never struggling for an idea. But I wasn’t stupid, I knew I had to support myself, even if I didn’t know how I would do that. I wanted to reach out and muffle these voices. I wasn’t ready for anyone to question the wisdom of my decision to be a writer. I still wasn’t sure I could do it, and I certainly didn’t want anyone else to raise that question.

But, I am a writer.

I have spent great swathes of this year confused about what it means to be a writer, wondering, often out loud, ‘how am I supposed to do this? How does one be a writer?’ It’s not really a question so much as an expression of my struggle to find my place and work out what my weekly routine looks like (every week is different, in case you were wondering. And yes, it is exhausting). Too often people have felt the need to offer advice about how to be a writer, even though many of them are not writers. I don’t blame them. They love me, and want to help me figure out my life. But still, sometimes – okay, much of the time – I just need to sit with the unknown, feel out the edges of it, and take one step forward.

I have never felt so insecure about my work as I have this year. I feel a constant need to justify my existence to my friends and family, ‘Look! Look! I am a writer. I have jobs that actually pay me to write!’ It’s an unusual choice, to be a writer. A lot of people write, but they’re not writers. As in, they are not trying to make a living out of it. They’re not paying the rent with their writing. And the reason why: if you work in the Arts, it’s really hard to earn enough to support yourself. The average Australian writer earns $11,000/year. That’s not even enough to cover rent in Sydney.

So, most writers have other jobs. Me, I have eight. Journalist, Editor, Researcher, Ghostwriter, Temp, Tutor, Marker, and Freelance Writer. Yeah, it’s crazy. I have had to open new bank accounts, get an ABN, learn how to write an invoice, figure out an hourly rate, get an accountant, and have scary meetings with the accountant (only scary because I don’t understand what they’re talking about). I keep eight calendars on my iCal to track each of my jobs. My brain is full of overlapping and conflicting deadlines for different projects. And don’t get me started about payroll and time sheets and tax. A weekly planner is my friend. The learning curve is big, and relentless.

I am still a writer.

I have survived 10 months of being a freelance writer. Sure, it’s been stressful, and there have been many times when I have flipped out and thought ‘I can’t do this’, but overall, it’s been fun. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love writing. I love creating beautiful things from words. I love the effect a well-written piece can have on someone.

I am a writer. And I’m getting better at saying it and believing it’s a legitimate career choice.

a prayer for the broken

The sound of my voice rings in my head:
‘Here are the things you could have said’.
Weary but restless my body cries out,
‘Leave me alone, stop persisting in doubt’.
Tonight the voices have won,
I turn on the light so I won’t feel alone.
The sting of tears fills my eyes,
An ever present reminder of the mess in our lives.
I cry out to God:
‘Where are you now?
How can I go on?
I feel so alone’.
I listen, but silence mocks me,
Where is this God of love and peace?
When will He come and make things right?
When will I no longer fear the night?
When will the pain and tears cease?
When will I meet my long-lost niece?
When will death meet it’s final end?
When will the days be fully spent?
When will I have the guts to say
The thoughts that occupy my night and day?
Lord, I don’t want to live this life,
I need your grace to fight the fight,
To stand and walk, step by step,
To pray and trust and take a breath.
I cannot do this on my own,
Lord have mercy, until my time is come.

On Inactivity

I have nothing to do today. Literally nothing. I’ve never been in this position before. Sure, like most people I take holidays and have occasional ‘nothing days’ but mostly, I fill my time with people and writing and exercise and people and shopping and adventures and people and travel and work and people. For as long as I can remember it’s been like that.

I find it a strange kind of thrill to be busy. Well, honestly, it’s probably more like manic. There’s something comforting about not being alone with my thoughts for too long. I think I’m probably a little bit afraid of my own brain. But now, now I’m alone. Alone with my brain. Alone with myself. I read this article the other day on how to help a child be a writer. It was both heartening and distressing. This sentence stuck with me: ‘First of all, let her be bored. Let her have long afternoons with absolutely nothing to do’. Check. I’m extremely bored. I believe the point was to ensure that the child has enough time to let her mind wander and to embrace creativity. The rest of the advice was also quite helpful, but also disappointingly accurate.

Boredom: check.

Loneliness: check.

Secrets kept: check.

Failure and mistakes: check.

Finding my own voice: I’m getting there.

The Challenge.

I graduated from College last week. That is, in one night, I saw the culmination of four years of tears and hard work. To be honest, it was a bit of an anticlimax. I desperately wanted to be there – I even won the argument with my doctor as to whether or not I was allowed to go having come down with the flu the day before. In many ways it didn’t disappoint. The memory of standing on stage with my teammates will not quickly vanish from my mind. Still, as I look back over the years, the few hours we spent dressed up in Harry Potter-esque capes and hoods did not equal the pain and tears of four years. There should have been fireworks, and a marching band, and circus performers, and and and.

So here we are. Graduates. Oh my.

Each of us had to write a sentence describing what we’re doing this year, having been pushed out of College into the big bad world. Here’s mine:

Tess is pursuing a ministry in writing, hoping to use what she has learnt at College to write theologically rich articles showing both how the gospel is good news in every sphere of life, and also how Christianity is both intellectually and emotionally credible, in a world which so often discredits it on both these counts.

It’s true. I want to be a writer. I just love words. I love their power to persuade and heal, to hearten and stretch. I’m not silly though, I realise that I have chosen a career in which the days are either brilliant or rubbish, that the middle ground is famously hard to find. I realise that I cannot make the words come, any more than I can make the rain come, and that I depend heavily on my creativity to make this work. I realise that this is an unusual choice, but still, it is my choice.

This brings us to the challenge I am setting myself. One article, every week for the rest of the year. Hopefully I’ll have time to do more than that, and hopefully there’ll be opportunity to be published in actual real live journals or newspapers or magazines. But this is the minimum. I’m setting myself this goal, at least partly because I have become completely institutionalised and need structure. But also partly because I have become immobilised at the immensity of the task that I have chosen. This is my way in.

I heard Mark Scott, the Managing Director of the ABC, speak the other day. He said that people who have successful careers in their 40s and 50s are the ones who worked really hard in their 20s and 30s. This is exactly what I plan to do.

The Commuter’s Life

My alarm goes off at 6am. I am barely awake but my finger knows the sleep button well and before I have a chance to prod my brain into action, the alarm is off and I return to slumber. 6.10am. This time I am slightly more awake and face the physical battle to swing my legs off the side of the bed and sit up. It usually takes til about 6.17am for my feet to hit the floor.

The cat is hungry. I feel my way to the laundry and fetch her bowl, narrowly missing stepping on the cat who weaves in and out between my legs as I walk. She likes to live on the edge. Cat fed: check.

I creep back to the bathroom where my eyelids are still fighting the losing battle to be shut. Who is that girl in the mirror? She looks tired. I desperately wish I had chosen my clothes the night before. Jeans: sure. That red top: ok.

Clean and dressed I make my way to the kitchen. Breakfast. Yes, I should eat something. Cereal is easy, let’s do that. I sit down with a bowl on the couch. I look at the stereo. 6.44am. Is that really the time? I wolf down the rest of the cereal, and leave the bowl soaking in the sink. No time to wash up. I’m already late.

My shoes go clickety-clack as I head back to the bathroom. Makeup: ok. I almost paint my eyeball with mascara. Oops. I stand in the bathroom looking lost, wondering: ‘what else do I have to do here?’ Ah yes, teeth. Clean teeth: check.

I collect my bag from where I dumped it last night as I came in and head out the door. Stop. I forgot to give the cat her tablet. Find cat. Wrestle cat. Lull cat into false sense of security and then execute ‘plan: cat meet tablet’. Back to the door. Stop. Am I wearing earrings? No. Back to my room to find some matching red earrings. Back to the door. Stop: do I have my train ticket. Rifle though bag until I find the ticket. Yes. Ok, let’s go.

On the train my eyelids sense an opportunity to get back in the game, and get in cahoots with the gentle rhythm of the train to make me very drowsy. I give in. I doze. It feels good.

Eyelids: 1. Tess: 0.

Walking to work, I smell coffee. Yes, coffee. This is what I need. I wait patiently to order. It comes. My eyes light up as I take the first sip.

Hello addiction.

Date a Girl who Reads

This, from Rosemarie Urquico:

You should date a girl who reads.

Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes, who has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve.

Find a girl who reads. You’ll know that she does because she will always have an unread book in her bag. She’s the one lovingly looking over the shelves in the bookstore, the one who quietly cries out when she has found the book she wants. You see that weird chick sniffing the pages of an old book in a secondhand book shop? That’s the reader. They can never resist smelling the pages, especially when they are yellow and worn.

She’s the girl reading while waiting in that coffee shop down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s kind of engrossed already. Lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down. She might give you a glare, as most girls who read do not like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book.

Buy her another cup of coffee.

Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she got through the first chapter of Fellowship. Understand that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or she would like to be Alice.

It’s easy to date a girl who reads. Give her books for her birthday, for Christmas, for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry and in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Let her know that you understand that words are love. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but by god, she’s going to try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does.

She has to give it a shot somehow.

Lie to her. If she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world.

Fail her. Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who read understand that all things must come to end, but that you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two.

Why be frightened of everything that you are not? Girls who read understand that people, like characters, develop. Except in the Twilight series.

If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours but she will always come back to you. She’ll talk as if the characters in the book are real, because for a while, they always are.

You will propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype.

You will smile so hard you will wonder why your heart hasn’t burst and bled out all over your chest yet. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She will introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots.

Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you can only give her monotony, and stale hours and half-baked proposals, then you’re better off alone. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads.

Or better yet, date a girl who writes.

Morning

Slivers of light peeked their way around the edges of the curtains this morning, beckoning me to rise and explore this new place. I declined. I closed my eyes and drifted back into my dreams. The sunbeams grew increasingly impatient and danced across my eyelids tempting me with the hope of a new day. I rose. I pulled back the curtain to be greeted with an empty field. A curious donkey poked his head around the side of the barn as if to say, ‘why hello there. Welcome to my farm’.

I feel very welcome.

building castles in the sand

Writing feels a bit like acting to me. Every now and then (okay, more frequently than that) I start thinking that every word I type is total rubbish, that I’m a fraud, that I don’t really know what I’m writing about, and worst of all, that someone is going to have to read my drivel (this is perhaps heightened when it’s an essay whose due date is looming. Of course I have no idea if actors feel like this (having stage fright and all, I’m not usually heaps keen to get up in front of people), it’s just a suspicion.

When I write essays, I quite frequently feel like I’m pretending to know what I’m talking about. Say it with confidence and people will believe you, right? I see holes in my argument, and feel like the well worn phrases I use are boring and trite. I feel sorry for the marker. I feel like I’m wearing a mask, an ‘I know something, am thoughtful and eloquent and have something to add to such-and-such debate’ mask.

It’s not comfortable.

I’ve been reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s a book of instructions on writing and life.

Bird by Bird

She writes like she lives inside my head, and it makes me feel normal. Like this:

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do).

I love writing. But it’s hard. Sometimes it feels like beating my head against a brick wall just to squeeze a few words out on to the page, words that I know I will end up re-writing or probably deleting. Why would I want to do such a thing? This is why:

You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.

Imagination is such a precious gift. I love being able to build sandcastles with words. But like a sandcastle, it normally takes a few attempts to get a good one. We don’t need to know what the castle will end up like, only where this particular bucketful of sand will go.

E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.