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This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece by Aaron Rowan-Bell about how not finding your path right away can be the best possible move.
For the memorable portion of my childhood I grew up in Byron Bay; my own little summer of love, three decades too late and on the wrong continent. We spent the nights tucked away on nature reserves and back roads, and every morning my mother would drive the family home, a defunct school bus, back to town. When the doors opened I was free. I was watched by a network of parkies, a community of drifters, hippies, artists, and drunks, brought together by liberal ideals and poverty, but I roamed more or less unhindered.
At the time I did my schooling by correspondence, dictated only by whatever schedule I had devised. By day, I sold beaded hemp necklaces to tourists and nights were devoted to busking with fire-stick in hand. I made more money than any seven-year-old had the right to.
One of my closest friends had been the elder of our tribe, aboriginal artist and Kurdaitcha man, Uncle Joe. He kept us in line as best he could and rebuffed the local police whenever they tried to “move us on” or hassle me over my fire-twirling. My other friends were second generation eco-activists and sun-bleached surf champions. I knew more drifters and drunks than I did kids my own age, and by no small margin.
Five years later, Uncle Joe was murdered over a packet of cigarettes, and the whole scene died with him. The developers moved in and the peace-lovers finally moved on. We had left Byron Bay even before that though and time had darkened my memories of the place. At twenty, and with a year-long cumulative hangover rendering me near catatonic, I was starting to doubt the wisdom of my childhood friends. They were artists but destitute; the sort that would see neither fame nor fortune. They were as free as those with no money and no home could be, and that wasn’t much consolation.
By then I had spread myself too thin across a long list of non-marketable skills. I knew it was likely that if I couldn’t focus on one of them, I was sure to end up some washed out musician-magician-novelist with a tired comedy routine and no money, no liver… no nothing. I gave up any notion of becoming an eccentric beatnik, rolling across the country from one artistic endeavour to the next, and instead started to think of ways I could be the artist who actually got paid.
Street performing offered travel but also forty degree days in a straight jacket squirming for people too sun beaten to clap or cheer or care. It was also dangerous work. I knew a performer who had pinched a nerve escaping a straight jacket and another who had been tackled by a spectator mid-act. I myself almost broke a shoulder performing the stunt, having struggled too violently against the jacket, losing my footing and falling shoulder first into the ground.
As a musician I felt doomed to play the same twenty cover songs at every wedding. I had the deep sense of depression required of a comedian but lacked the balls to get on stage without props to hide behind. As a writer I would be respected, I felt, and able to walk among the intellectuals and fringe dwellers alike.
Writing was the only option I felt couldn’t be scoffed at as a hobby.
I threw myself into my writing like I was throwing myself under a bus. Looking back, I should have written about the things that interested me but they all seemed so inadequate. Instead I wrote about the topics I felt were expected of a writer, anxiety riddled my prose. All the while I still felt like a pretender, and it showed. So I did what any poser does when confronted; I got defensive. If I pushed myself hard enough for long enough, I figured, eventually something would have to give. All I had to do for my art was suffer just a little more and my investment was sure to pay off.
I hadn’t home-schooled for my whole childhood, starting what I would describe as “regular schooling” at the start of Year Five and eventually dropping out to become a full-time drinker midway through Year Twelve. That is to say, my time in the education system had left me less than enthusiastic to return. I was slowly coming around to the idea of study though, with help from a friend. I had been mentally brutalizing myself for over a year now and it became clear that whatever it was that I was doing wasn’t working. Eventually she convinced me to look into some writing courses, even loaned me my tuition, and a few months later I was enrolled in a Cert IV in Professional Writing and Editing. The first day of school they told us we had to think of ourselves as writers now, and all of a sudden I had permission.
All my life I had known strange people, even after we left Byron, but for some reason the idea of incorporating parts of them into my characters or even writing about my experiences with them filled me with a deep sense of trepidation. I guess I felt as though they weren’t my stories to butcher. In class though, our teachers told us to buy notebooks and to write down everything from a stranger’s appearance to conversations we had eaves dropped on public transport. Just like that, I had all the inspiration in the world. From bank-robbing uncles to mould-eating hippies, and stories of punkish glamour from my mother’s youth.
Around that time I landed a gig at a bar across town. I was reluctant to play at first but after a few shows I started to feel comfortable on stage. The more I threw myself into my music, in a way I hadn’t been able to in my writing, the more the audience seemed to enjoy it. At school they reminded us to always remember your audience when you are trying to write and that wasn’t so hard to do when you regularly stood in front of one. From stage, I would see people filter in during a particularly good set, and drift out after a particularly bad one. It seemed like the bolder I grew on stage the bolder I felt in my prose, and I started to take stylistic risks, both in writing and music.
I started borrowing from other aspects of my vagabond education; I entertain with fire-twirling, with card tricks, with magical sleight of hand. I could do the same with words.
I began practicing my sleight of word. A common misconception about the term misdirection is that is simply a synonym for distraction. Instead what the magician does is make the spectator pay attention only to the parts that matter, letting him simply assume the rest is unimportant. So with my left hand I secretly loaded plot points while I offered exciting resolutions with my right. When the audience was offered a choice it was weighted to my outcome or plain equivocation – the appearance of a free choice in a rigged system.
Drawing on my time studying hypnosis I even started playing with hypnotic language in my writing. I employed pacing and leading in my prose, pacing them back through established facts before leading them into a new emotion or idea. I even practiced anchoring in my novel, doing my best to tie a reader’s emotions to certain words and phrases. The same body language cues used to make a spectator comfortable or on-edge worked just as well when described to the reader.
I started to rethink what it meant to be productive. Writing jokes was all plot and pacing, as valuable in writing as it was in magic or comedy. When I wrote a song I saw it just as much a literary achievement as a musical one. I started to wonder what else there was to learn from frivolous pursuits. If I was too poor to buy a train ticket and had to jump the turnstiles I did it pretending to be a spy, watching attendants and exits like a hawk, and called that research too. Even the most unpleasant of situations were useful when it came to write a character that was a real bastard.
The irony is that I had a better start in writing than most. The lack of conventional schooling I used to worry about was a blessing in the end. I didn’t have a TV till I was twelve so all I had to occupy myself were books and my imagination. By the time I was five I was a weathered hitchhiker and road-tripper. The most important lesson I learned about writing was taught to me by my mother long before I could walk.
Anyone with a kind heart is worth talking to, regardless of where they may be frayed. She believed every story was valuable and worth the effort to explore. All these things I disregarded in my vain attempt to try and be a writer, the same way you might try and quit smoking. When we define ourselves in the simplest of terms we imprison ourselves to the simplest of existences. The only thing a writer needs is something to share. With that change in definition everything is transferable; nothing is without merit. I still might not have many marketable skills but that doesn’t bother me so much these days. What I do have is a lot of stories, and that seems more fitting for a writer.
This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece, part of a series where writers reflect on the strange, wonderful or just plain-old terrifying things they've done to keep the lights on. To read more like this, click here:
Aaron Rowan-Bell is a Melbourne based writer who sings happy sounding sad songs in his spare time. His other talents include divining your playing-card from a seemingly shuffled deck,the ability to make exactly three balloon animals, and an uncanny knack for balancing objects on his nose. Currently he is setting up a blog which will appear, at thelillybells.wordpress.com in the coming weeks.
This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece from author, journalist, short fiction writer and lecturer Meg Mundell. You can find her on twitter her ...Read More