There is an urgency that arises from the sudden death of someone who has defined you. It is an urgency without a clear purpose. Your thoughts revolve around a brutal understanding that life can be over in a second.
A few years ago my mother died alone in a car accident. In the hazy aftermath I told someone, I can’t remember who, that it felt a little like I had also died and someone else was living in my place.
In the months that followed I stayed at work. I didn’t know what else to do. I was working at a software development company as a Business Analyst. My job was to interpret what it was that large groups of occasionally contrary people wanted software to do and help make sure it did. At work people would approach me carefully as if at any moment I would jump through the windows. I absentmindedly reviewed technical specifications but my heart wasn’t in it.
Had it ever been? I wasn’t sure.
I kept coming back to a question Mum had asked me a few months before she’d died. We’d been drinking endless pots of coffee and I’d been rambling about the story I’d been unsuccessfully trying to write. Normally she would let me talk while I tried to connect the scattered filaments of my future aspirations, a patient, interested smile always gracing her face; this, perhaps, was one time too many. She became frustrated, she frowned, and as I was in the middle of describing a pivotal scene she said, “So when am I actually going to be able to read something?”
Years before, in my early twenties, I’d decided I needed to go back to school. I had to give up promising careers in supermarketry, junior tennis coaching and Indian food presentation, but I was looking for something else. I gave myself two options: IT or Writing.
I chose the one I thought would be more likely to get me a job. In another year I was working on software projects. The job became the career. Money came, as did travel, as did the “opportunities” that mostly involved being away from home for half the year.
But I wrote, and to the people who really listened I told my secret: I wanted to be a writer.
A year after Mum died I left work and went on a long trip by myself. In Oregon I talked to a friend about doing work that meant something. Her family took me to Multnomah Falls and I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were. I wrote in Portland cafes about death. In Halifax I met somebody I would come to see a lot more of. I said I liked to write and she asked me if I was a writer and I said no, I wasn’t. I wrote the beginnings of a story about an apartment block with strange smoke coming from its basement while basking in sunshine with her on the Citadel, an old English fort that looks out over the harbour. In New York in Battery Park my sister implored me to do something with my writing while we stared across the water to the Statue of Liberty. In Iceland I went on long bus rides into blasted Martian landscapes, and wrote about Scandinavians on fishing trips. In Berlin I walked so much that it hurt. I drank coffee and wrote about old men that were looking at me suspiciously. On a train through Russia I thought really hard about doing work that meant something and wrote about a deep, deep lake. In Hong Kong I met the girl from Halifax again, and she asked me if I thought I was a writer yet, and I said no, I didn’t, and we came back to Australia together, and I went back to work.
I’d never shown my stories to anyone. For a decade I’d worked and imagined that I would one day publish my fiction. At work I’d pored over repetitious specifications and business documents and used words like “functionality” too many times to be happy about it. I’d been in countless meetings, I’d presented and demonstrated in black suits, I’d been sneered at and talked down to and shouted at, I’d been press-ganged into a strange manly sales huddle before a meeting with important clients, I’d drawn pictures on white boards and diagrams in workshops, I’d designed software and for a while I’d liked it. But the job had been the life, and the writing was still a secret.
I decided, finally, that this had to change.
So: I wrote a story and finished it.
I nervously showed it to my girlfriend, the girl from Halifax.
She said it was okay (the praise of Nova Scotians is rarely effusive).
That was enough.
I wrote another story. It was a little better. She laughed at this one. As did my brother and sister.
That was enough.
I sent it in to a literary journal after five-hundred re-drafts.
It got accepted.
That was enough.
In my spare time I wrote as much as I could. I wrote more stories, and some were published.
I tell people about them, reluctantly.
I call myself a writer, sometimes.
Last year I applied to a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of British Columbia in Canada. I was accepted, and so two months ago we left our jobs and came back to Nova Scotia, where we’re living off savings and goodwill. I’ll soon be spending two years working towards a long piece of work, the structure of which is currently so nebulous I’m not sure how it’s going to come together. It’s terrifying.
It helps to have a partner who stands beside you and sometimes shoves you forward. It helps to have family and friends that encourage you, even if some of them sometimes look at you as if you’ve pulled a rainbow of scarves from your sleeve or wonder aloud whether that character had to be quite so nasty. It helps to patiently bat away comments like “There wouldn’t be many jobs in that, would there?” It helps that we’ll be in Canada, a place I love, despite its orange cheese, aggressively polite drivers, and cinnamon, granola and raisin peanut butter*.
I know I’ll have to go back to work sometime. The debts will have to be paid. The insurance, the cars, the food, the coffee, the decorative objects, the wood and metal and plastic, the superannuation, the interest rates, the rental prices, the banks, the travel, the how-will-we-earn-enough-to-get-by, the how-are-we-going-to-be-able-to-feed-ourselves-when-we’re-old, the blah blah blah blah. The debts will have to be paid. I don’t know how that’s going to happen yet.
But life can be taken away from us in a second. We have a time limit. Whatever it is that we’re not doing now we may not get a chance to do in the future. The great works we have yet to make may one day be ignored, scorned, or celebrated, but if all we’re doing is thinking about them then they will never be.
* This could actually be amazing.
Rhett Davis is mostly a fiction writer who has published stories in the Big Issue Fiction Edition, Sleepers Almanac, and Page Seventeen. He is on twitter @rhettsdavis and occasionally updates www.rhettdavis.com.