WHY DID THEY ask me for an essay about stopping writing? And why did I say yes? Did I tell someone I’d stopped? Have I stopped? I could, if
I wanted to, couldn’t I? I’m seventy-seven and I’m pretty tired. And lately I think I’ve copped what the French call ‘un coup de vieux’: a blow of old. I’ve got arthritis in my left wrist, my right knee gives twinges, and my left foot sometimes aches and stabs all day. Other days, nothing hurts at all. I don’t know what this means. I’ve read that when people are grieving over the death of someone they love they can suffer from ‘shooting pains’. My dear friend in France died a few weeks ago. I knew he was going to, he was awfully sick, but when the email came and I saw the words ‘died last night’ it was like a punch in the chest. I didn’t cry, I was numb and I still am, but for whole days I had to keep sighing and sighing as I went about my business, I couldn’t seem to fill my lungs; and sheets of silvery pain went fleeting through me, moving in flashes up and down my limbs and in and out of my joints and across my lower back. I could only move slowly and I heard myself grunt like an old woman whenever I sat down or stood up.
I am an old woman.
I’ve never written at home, because when I’m hanging round here I keep thinking up tasks, inventing housework, bargaining with my laziness: if I put on a load of washing, for example, forty minutes later I’ll be allowed to get up from the desk and hang it on the line. So I’ve always rented an office in another suburb, a drab room without Wi-Fi where there’s nothing to do except work. It’s spartan, my office; some people might call it grim. I like it very much. But I’m not going there today. It’s summer and the family’s gone away. I’m here on my own, without even the dog. My job is to guard the chooks and the vegetable garden. I know it’s neurotic, but I can’t go out. Somebody might break into the house. Junkies from the flats might climb the back fence and steal the bikes. A northerly might get up and tear the nets off the fruit trees. I have to stay home.
Right. The essay. I open the laptop at the kitchen table. Nothing happens. I copy out a ferocious quote from a Rachel Cusk essay I’m reading about the artist’s ‘inviolable selfishness in the face of other people’s needs’. Don’t want to think about that right now. I chew some sugarless gum and spit it into a torn envelope. I go to the broom cupboard and put on my apron: maybe that’ll make me feel businesslike. Maybe I’ll ask them to put an apron on my coffin, if I ever bloody well die. I turn on the radio. Norman Swan is saying that cognitive decline does not necessarily mean Alzheimer’s. How many years have I got left before I hit the age Mum was when she died of Alzheimer’s? Five years. Four and a bit. At that moment the bloke with the mower and the whipper-snipper charges through the back gate. Cheerfully he puts on his headphones and sets up his tremendous roar. Energised by the proximity of someone else’s manual labour, I start randomly rattling away on the keyboard. I may be an old woman, but I’m not done for yet.
‘THESE DAYS, WHEN in the circumstances I am not getting much done, well-wishers think to comfort one by instancing what one has done already. This is no reassurance. One’s back-catalogue is more of a tribunal. One is arraigned before it and current work (or lack of it) judged.’ Alan Bennett, in his 2019 London Review of Books diary.
‘NO, I’M NOT working on anything.’
‘You don’t want to talk about it?’
‘It’s not that. There’s nothing to tell. I’m not writing a book, that’s all.’
‘Oooh. That must be…uhmm…’
‘Actually I’ve often gone for quite long periods without writing a book. Years, even.’
‘Really? But you published that one, that one about the, sorry, I forget its name, the dam one? The murder trial? That wasn’t very long ago, was it?’
‘Couple of years ago, yes.’
‘But haven’t you been at any interesting trials lately? Have you been at the court?’
‘But you love courts! I heard you say that in an interview! Or was it in a magazine?’
‘Yes. I do love courts.’
‘So there isn’t a trial that you’re interested in going to?’
‘Not right now, no.’
THE LAST TIME I went to the Supreme Court – this is the way I always used to start – my sole aim was to take a good look at the person in the dock. This one was an international postgraduate student from La Trobe University. She was charged with having stabbed her homestay host in the neck, on the second day of her residence with his family, while his wife was at work and he was having an afternoon nap with their five-year-old daughter. Such was the force of her blow that blood splattered the walls, a vertebra was fractured, the tip of the knife snapped off. The man survived, seriously injured and (as was the child) terribly traumatised. The knife the student used to attack him she had brought in her luggage all the way from Bangladesh, to kill someone, anyone, she didn’t care who. This, she had told police, was her purpose in coming to Australia.
The headshot in the paper showed a perfect petal of a face, round, childlike, soft-lipped and solemn, tightly framed in a black hijab. When I saw that photo something in me hardened and went cold. That was my warning. I ignored it.
I went to the court and sat in the front row of the media seats. No other journalists were present. They had all rushed into the courtroom next door, in which the killer who had driven his car through pedestrians on Bourke Street Mall was about to be sentenced.
The guards brought the girl in. They walked her right past me, an arm’s length away. She was fully covered: niqab, floor-length black coat. She was tiny. I have shrunk with the years, I have lost two inches, but if I had stood up I would have towered over her. They ushered her into the dock and she sat down. The judge, a woman, strode to the bench. Everybody sprang up to bow, except the girl in the dock. She stayed in her seat. She did not acknowledge the authority of the court. That was when, mentally, I lost it. I wanted to leap over the wooden barrier, tear off her sinister mask and throttle her where she sat.
I sank down in my seat, trembling, shamed by this mad, ugly fantasy. I knew I had to get out of there and go straight home and lie on the bed. Because I’d lost whatever the quality was that for twenty years had equipped me to do this work, to sit day after day through a criminal trial and never lose patience, or curiosity, or the longing to understand the person in the dock. In short, the well of my empathy had run dry.
The judge did not lose her sangfroid. While the court stayed on its feet and held its breath, Her Honour addressed the accused in the low, dangerous voice of a deeply unimpressed headmistress. The accused would kindly stand. She obeyed. The accused would remove her facial covering so that the court might identify her. She raised her niqab and showed her face. Was she the person named in the charges? She was. The accused might replace her covering and take her seat. She did as she was told. But I stood up quietly, slid along the row to the door and ran home.
In due course I read that she had been given a colossal sentence – forty-two years. Did that shock me into caring? I don’t even know how to answer. Where such matters were concerned I seemed to have lost the ability to think and feel.
I DIDN’T WANT to talk about this to anyone. I was mortified. I thought that at last I had lost my nerve. I began to think that I must always have been a dilettante, a wimp, a middle-class perv masquerading as a journalist. I remembered the real journos I’d sat with during the murder trials I had written articles and books about over the past twenty years: their unflappable stoicism, the armour of their experience, their ability to protect themselves from the rushes of horror that I would be secretly almost overwhelmed by – and their kindness to me, their patience, at moments when I couldn’t hide my ignorance of court procedure or of the law.
Then one day, in the lobby of the ABC at Southbank where I was dully waiting to be interviewed, the street door opened and in walked a journalist I knew by sight from a certain very long and painful murder trial we had both sat through several years before. I didn’t think he’d remember me, but I gave him a little wave. To my surprise he dashed across the lobby, warmly shook my hand and dropped into the chair beside me. ‘How are you?’ he said in a strangely emotional voice. ‘How’d you pull up, after that trial?’ I could see from his face that I didn’t need to fake it. ‘Oh, awful,’ I said. ‘I was a mess. For months. A year. How about you?’ And out it came. ‘Terrible. I had a sort of crack-up. I ended up leaving my job.’ I don’t remember what else we said to each other that day, and I’ve never seen him since; but I’ll always be grateful to him for his comradeliness, for dropping his shield and letting me see that I hadn’t been alone in my devastation and grief.
LAST YEAR MY ears started to pack up. If someone in conversation made a gesture that covered her mouth I would slap her hand away. In court I leaned forward, turned my head this way and that, strained in vain. I went to an audiologist. The tests were humiliating: I had to repeat sentences spoken by a voice that kept getting fainter and fainter until all I could say, miserably, over and over, was ‘No. No. No.’ I got hearing aids. They cost an arm and a leg. In court they were no help at all. Too much ambient noise. The cop in front of me scratched his neck and I thought someone was sawing wood. Water gushed into a glass in a gurgling torrent. Counsel’s brilliant submissions were mouths opening and shutting and a harsh nasal stream of vowels. I spent a couple more days in the County and Magistrates’ Courts, striving and failing to follow, and emerged from that spectacle of weakness and woe with a broken heart and no story.
That’s when I threw in the towel. My life as an amateur journalist was over.
Months later I put on my overcoat and found in one of its pockets a small square of paper on which someone had neatly printed, ‘Helen Garner. Nail clipper x 1. Tweezer x 1,’ dated it and signed his name. It was the receipt from security at Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Court. My confiscated items must still be out there at Broadie, in a locker or a drawer. I’ll keep that slip of paper forever, to prove to myself that I really did try to keep going.
YEARS AGO, IN one of those moments of self-hatred that can overcome a woman whose marriage is about to blow up in her face, I asked the man in my life if he thought I was lazy. ‘No,’ he said coolly. ‘I think you’re a hard-working little money-making machine.’ And I was. For forty years, between books, I wrote freelance journalism. I always had a deadline hanging over me and I loved it: it fed my anxiety, my driven nature. But the years went by, and I grew older. I became a hands-on grandmother. The work I had done began to amount to something. I had a backlist in print. I won a couple of generous awards. Money came to me from people who had died – my parents, and a woman who was a silent benefactor to me and to certain other artists of this country. The tight link between work and money loosened, and fell away. Now, when an editor offers me work, I don’t have to do it. I can open my mouth, and take a breath, and say no. At long last, I’m free.
I’m out here, floating.
This is the worst possible thing that could happen to a person like me.
NEXT, MY EYES stopped working properly. I began to dread driving at night. I couldn’t recognise my grandchildren on the football field; never before had footy bored me. I had cataract surgery. Oh, the glory of anaesthetic: permission to drop my bundle, to absent myself, even if it felt like less than a second. And when I prised open my swollen, gravel-filled eye the next morning, the world redeemed itself. My grey blanket was cornflower blue. The white IKEA curtain beside my bed showed its warp and woof in such fierce detail that tears ran into my pillow. A sunbeam struck a ruby-red water glass and I lay there tripping on its knobbly surface in speechless bliss.
MAYBE I CAN learn to look more slowly, rather than rushing about with a notebook and a smash-and-grab attitude? My friend in France told me, a few weeks before he died, that since his lung disease had drastically reduced his ability to move, he had noticed how much more steadily and uninterruptedly he was able to look: ‘I can sit here and look out that window for a really long time. And hear the birds sing.’
THE THING ABOUT writing for publication is that it’s intimately connected with time. You’re always pointed at a future. Someone’s depending on you, waiting for you – probably tapping his foot and looking at his watch, breathing out sharply through his nose, only just holding back a roar of impatience. (My father? Still?) And if that deadline is removed, or so you think, everything will fracture, or go saggy and shapeless. How will I pass the day? Why will I get up in the morning? And what about the things that are swarming all around at me at every moment? Who’s going to see them, record them, save them from oblivion? How will the world continue to exist if I don’t keep writing about it?
What I really mean is: How will I stay alive, if I stop writing?
Oh, for God’s sake, woman, calm down. Mary Oliver has it covered: ‘What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?… What about the grass?’ Again and again she writes about learning to love the world. Is that what I’m trying to get at here?
LAST YEAR I published Yellow Notebook (Text), a diary that I kept in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then I never thought of it as publishable work. In fact I never thought of it as work at all. I wrote it to clear my head, to keep a record of things I didn’t want to forget, to calm myself before I went to sleep. But mostly I wrote it for the hell of it, because I really love writing. I mean, I love a pen and paper. I love words and sentences, and the way you can knit them together and shift them around and pile them up and spread them out. I love the way the raw material of an ordinary day doesn’t start to reveal its deeper meaning until you’ve got the pen in your hand and you’re halfway down the page.
Someone remarked that a lot of the entries ‘could have been the starts of novels’. I’d had the same thought, while I was editing the old exercise books, and it surprised me. Often I asked myself why I had let this or that incident get past me, why I hadn’t followed it to wherever it might have led, and dug out its potential riches. But the force that draws a writer to one story rather than another does not tap politely at the front door. It shoots an invisible arrow into some murky region of the writer’s unknown needs, and hits a target she didn’t even know was there. That’s when the trouble starts.
You have to believe, against the scornful trumpeting of your intellect, in the miraculous ability of form to create itself out of chaos. You have to hold the line through all the wretched days, months, even years that you spend not writing – doing anything but write: ‘wasting time’, indulging in displacement activities, wandering about pointlessly, biting people’s heads off, seething with anxiety and self-reproach. You have to believe that you’re preparing the ground for something to manifest out of the darkness, to present itself, to be born. Having already gone through this process countless times does not help. You forget, every single time, that it’s coming at you. The anxiety, the self-reproach are always total, unremitting, inescapable. You have to submit to it, allow yourself to suffer it, right to the end.
How melodramatic it sounds. Almost laughable. But every writer I know would recognise that description, and shudder.
So perhaps, after all, it would be a relief if it never came to me again, that sharp little secret arrow. Do I really miss it, or am I glad to be spared? Will I be spared?
While I’m waiting for the answer, quietly growing wearier and achier and deafer, a great treasure is being offered to me daily, a humble glory on a platter, right here in front of me, under my nose.
‘Are you going to keep on writing about us?’ says my fifteen-year-old grandson in the kitchen, dashing off the crossword that I have cursed and abandoned.
‘I don’t know.’ I look up guiltily. ‘Would you rather I stopped?’
A long pause.
‘No,’ he says, with his philosophical smile. ‘I don’t think you should stop.’
‘Because,’ butts in his twelve-year-old brother, bouncing his football in a forceful rhythm, ‘it shows – that we – exist.’