A.S. Patrić

Almost everyone in the room was a writer. All were masquerading as nothing more assuming than avid readers, eager to hear David Malouf read from a new collection of stories. I don’t remember which piece he read, but I recall being bored. That calm voice evoked a gentle appreciation of literature. The audience nodded their heads in subtle degrees of comprehension and pleasure.

The voice I’d heard when reading his work was more urgent. It was a voice of strength, subtlety and integrity. At its best, it was a fervent whisper, as relentless as it was crucial. The public performance of prose isn’t usually the best way to hear the words of a writer. It’s better when we only have the voice, when it emerges directly through the purity of paper.

Question time was also a sedate affair — until my wife raised her hand. She’d never read Malouf as far as I knew. She’d only come to keep me company. There were no other raised hands in the room. The night was almost over but David Malouf pointed to my wife. One last question.

We were sitting in a small room at St Kilda Town Hall. The launch of Dream Stuff in 1999 wasn’t a major deal. If it was a novel Malouf needed to launch, we would have been sitting downstairs, in the much larger hall, among hundreds of people. No one needed a microphone in this room and nobody had risen from their chairs to ask questions.

My wife got out of her seat. She began talking loudly and I could feel her vibrating with anger. Perhaps it was passion.

She asked the man behind the lectern, whom she knew I admired (I’d talked at length about the masterpiece that is An Imaginary Life as we walked to the Town Hall from our home), a long question, in various parts, and then remained standing to hear his answer. Every head in the room turned toward her. I felt their attention shift to me, because I — sitting in the moulded orange plastic seat beside her — was the question.

“Mister Malouf. What do you have to say to a writer who loves writing every bit as much as you do, yet works in complete obscurity, with little hope of being heard? What advice do you have for a writer at the beginning of his career, who has not found the courage to really set out on that path, yet cannot turn away? Is there anything that has helped you to continue along that course? How does he get from where he is now to where you are: reading words from your new book, up there on that podium?”

David Malouf had maintained a pleasant demeanour for the evening. He was a winner of many awards and had read around the world at festivals and prestigious events. He was used to much larger audiences than the small gathering in that room in St Kilda Town Hall. The bonhomie evaporated as the question went on. The public persona fell away as he looked down at the book before him and registered her question in the silence following my wife’s voice.

He told his audience that no writer simply chose to write. That it didn’t matter what he said to my wife. He did advise her, however, that if turning away was still possible, that’s exactly what he’d recommend. It didn’t matter what he said, because the only thing he could speak about was necessity. Either a person felt it was necessary to put words to paper, or they didn’t. That was the only real separation between a writer and reader. Not the words or pages, but a need to create with them. Who was listening, the chances of publication, how hard or long the road, all of these things were beside the point. It was a necessity, or it wasn’t.

The launch was over and I wobbled out of the room, wanting to disappear. David Malouf would sign books but I needed to get out of that Town Hall as quickly as possible. Others congratulated my wife for being brave enough to have asked her question and they knew enough to leave me to my embarrassment. When they mentioned her courage it made everything worse. The bravery that was required made my vulnerability and exposure all the more apparent.

My wife had spoken for more people in that room than just me. I don’t know how many of those who attended the launch of Dream Stuff in St Kilda 1999 desperately wanted to be writers. I’m sure there were a few. Perhaps it wasn’t only me that looked up at one of the great Australian authors, and saw everything fall away from his face, leaving nothing but that one word.

6 thoughts on “Necessity

  1. If a beginning writer asked me what to do, I’d give the same advice: quit while you still can. Most writers, even mid-career, could stand up and ask anyone reading out of their new book the same question. The answer would always be the same, no matter what the words are, and no matter who says them. Writing is such a chancy thing, so difficult to sustain, so fraught with uncertainty and changes such as the ones we are experiencing now, that it’s simply a matter of chance.

    Chance and necessity, one finds if one reads the evolution theorists, is what keeps life going. Necessity alone is not enough. Chance places things in the right place at the right time… or not. Chance is much more powerful than anything else in the story of any writer’s life. What put David Malouf on that podium, rather than someone else?

    Even though possibilities are now opening up for emerging, unknown mid-list, beginning, and fading away authors, even though it’s now possible to resurrect backlists, develop one’s own audience, self-promote, and find some sort of toe-hold in the industry, the opportunities are so crammed with needy writers – those to whom necessity is already an obsession – that the ones with any sense, any practicality and any reality left are examining the chances.

  2. I had the miraculous pleasure of chosing a seat at the launch of the indigo journal, that placed me alongside Alex Miller, Carman Lawrence and Donna Ward (the journal’s editor). My husband was present to support me and being the extrovert I sometimes long to be, he took the opportunity to introduce me to Alex Miller. Alex saw without asking, that I was the writer of our family and he said with the voice of emphatic experiance ” just keep writing, keep submitting”. I left that evening with a renewed dedication that has stayed with me and within my work. Writing is indeed a necessity that was born with me. It is remembering that this need is a blessing that helps one persevere in obscurity.

  3. “…no writer simply chose to write… It was a necessity, or it wasn’t.”

    If someone had told me a few years ago that I would be writing a book I would have laughed. It was never my intention to attempt such insanity but here I sit looking at this piece of writing because I have the ‘necessity’ not only to complete my book but to publish it.

    My necessity burns deep because it is not for me that I wish to publish but for the memory of seven men who have a right to be heard. I am but their medium. I have no choice. I started researching out of simple interest but I must finish writing the book for them.

    You are at least published. Perhaps you are not where you wish to be on the podium of greatness but you are well on your way. I am quite happy in my own obscurity. What thus do you say to a not so young beginning writer who must write and publish this one absolute necessity?

  4. Hi Lisa. The world has become a paradise of cheap, easy, meaningless entertainment, so literature must respond to some necessity within the writer and reader. Entertainment is still crucial, even to the most necessary books, so sometimes we give a shape to our stories to give them a dynamic. A piece like ‘Necessity’ makes it seem like there’s one clear trajectory, from a moulded orange plastic seat to the ‘podium of greatness’. I think that’s a dangerous fiction, (if we take it as truth). I remind myself occasionally that I’m not trying to get anywhere else. I want to understand where I already am. So, to answer your question, bring your whole life to this book you’re writing. If you’re not so young, all the better. Best of luck with it Lisa.

  5. Alec, that is probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever recieved.

    Thank you for the positive push at a time when I’m struggling to remain up.

    “Bring your whole life to this book” is going on my computer screen sticky note so I can see it everday I write. You have no idea how well this links to the situation. They gave their life for me and others and I’ve made it my duty to bring my whole life to this book for them.

    Thank you

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