Five talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online. We are now delighted to be able to showcase their work here on the Editor’s Desk, and look forward to their inclusion in our upcoming print issue.
A Writer’s Life
Sophia Rose O’Rourke
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be
lived forwards.” – Søren Aabye Kierkegaard
Carrying a Penguin Classic bag, she lingers behind the crowd at the station. She doesn’t smile or say hello to strangers, she peeks through her harsh-cut fringe and squeezes baby tears from her eyes—eyes made for observation, not engagement. She has no time for barbeques on the beach. She’s busy falling in love with young men who wear vintage suits in summer, following them to spoken word nights where each poem commands ‘Feel my Pain’.
These are the images I once conjured when someone said ‘The Writer’. But no matter how hard I tried, how many Penguin Classics I carried around with me to mind my table in a cafe, I could not make it me.
There are writers who can only be alone, and there are writers who hate being alone more than they hate writing. I am the latter.
My family call me Miss Have-a-Chat—a reincarnated wireless, immunised with a gramophone needle—and remind of the time I talked for fourteen hours non-stop on the coast road from Sydney to Queensland. My partner likes to play a game on long car trips where he doesn’t respond to anything I say and waits to see how long I can handle the silence. Invariably, within less than 10 minutes I cry.
Three years ago now I had given up on the idea of a writer’s life, trying my hand at journalism, yoga teaching and acting in Chinese movies. And then I met Martin Harrison. Martin began working at the University of Technology Sydney in 1987, some twenty-seven years before I walked into tutorial room 2B for the last unit of my writing degree, ‘Writing Laboratory’.
‘Martin, what genre do you want the final work?’
‘Just make something interesting… that is of appropriate length… and strikingly unconventional.’
‘I’m not going to word count, because I don’t.’
Martin was my teacher, a philosopher, a literary journalist, a radio producer and a poet. But also a kind of cartographer. He mapped inward and outward spaces of consciousness through text.
‘Consider there is a convergence between immersive states of consciousness in poetry and every day immersive awareness of land and weather and space.’ Martin read from his lecture notes.
Martin made writing a three dimensional experience of music, art, text, memory and when it came together on the page it felt like a vibration of ideas. I remember a Friday seminar with Martin where we looked at the writers Paul Klee, Rosalie Gascoigne and Kandinsky. In my three-year writing degree, I had never considered that ‘writing’ could be defined in such a way. It was like drawing a map between internal thoughts and external experiences, and when I put these ideas to the page they were a manuscript. I felt I was listening to my thoughts like a musical score, the manuscript commanded ‘Espressivo’, and then suddenly without expecting it, ‘Finale’.
‘The ideal piece of writing maps a space by going there, by crossing the territory and even by coming up against obstacles (flooded creeks) and being unable to cross them or counter them. Such writing is probably never finished, but as with the time element it arrives at a statistical sufficiency at which point we can say that enough information is enough information.’ Martin called the class a day.
After class, we sat and talked a little.
‘So, so, what are you reading Sophia?’
‘Umm a few things, I don’t read very much, I can’t read very well. I didn’t get glasses till college and I had already missed out on 10 years of reading.’
‘Then how on earth do you know things?’
‘I like talking, and listening.’
‘Well do you write then?’
‘Sometimes. Probably not the way I should. I document a lot. I transcribe. Probably that’s the most
writing I do, writing down the questions that come from the floor when I’m working on QandA.’
‘QandA? The television program? And, so, so, so, when else do this this ‘transcribing’ work?’
‘In the taxi on the way home, I record the conversations I have with the drivers.’
‘Do they know you do this?’
‘No, except one, because when I was leaving the taxi I hit replay by mistake, and he heard himself talking back at him. The shame…’
‘That’s magnificent writing!’
And that was how I discovered that I am a writer. I am an extroverted writer.
Now I live in Broome. I still record the taxi drivers, the conversations at the checkout, the children at my playgroup and in my drama class and the local football games. My writing life takes me from film shoots with crocodiles, to running a Steiner playgroup, to drama class, to the radio station, the kitchen, to beach, to yoga—and back to my desk.
The narrative of the introverted for me would never work. I cannot write in isolation. In fact, I will do anything to avoid it—even voice recording my own stories only to write them down later. Writing is discovery, and exploration. My first self-published work ‘Where You From?’, a short story collection of people and places, ends with the quote:
‘To truly know the world, look deeply within your own being. To truly know yourself, take real interest in the word.’ (And remember – it can be very helpful to think about life as a fiction.)
I spent today inside the remains of a 350-million-year old Devonian reef system. It was after lunch, back at camp, when the two ranger cars pulled up and a tall hiker stepped out, carrying a tarp. He lay out the contents on the ground.
A tent, rolled up and disintegrating at the edges.
A wallet, aged, crusty containing $3200 cash.
A driver’s license, expired 8 years ago.
A university student card.
The passport of a young man born in 1986, issued in Australia.
A second passport of a young man, written in Chinese characters.
‘Can I use your phone?’ he asked without an introduction.
‘You can use the station phone, it’s in the ranger’s hut.’
He nodded, trudged past me and closed the hut door.
I stood looking at the discarded belongings. Before I could get a closer look I heard the hut door open, and turned to face the tall man.
‘What did the police say?’
‘Said to drop it all at Derby police station. He was a missing person. But the case was closed 10 years ago.’
‘Is he alive?’
‘Didn’t say. Give us a plastic bag will ya?’
Like picking up dog poo, he used it to scoop up the missing man’s valuables, while the ranger started up the ute. He thanked me, shook my hand and said they would drive the belongings back to the station.
I’m left with questions.
Who was the man who abandoned his campsite eight years ago?
Where is he now?
Why two passports?
Why the cash?
A story fell into my lap today. It told itself. It made me think, what is radio and what is writing?
It was 9:20am, the show has just kicked off broadcasting across the region. I’m sitting in the radio booth, flicking between tabs, stressed. I never feel in control in the producer’s chair—it’s all about timing and I’m never on time.
‘Is it time to get talent up?’ I write on the producer screen.
‘Too early. Going to a song. Four seconds till on air.’
The phone rings—it startles me, even though my job is to expect callers, and I’m thinking I don’t have time for this.
‘Good morning, this is Sophia, how can I help?’
‘Hi, Silvia is it? I sent you a message on Facebook. It’s a private message about a story. Did you read it?’
My producer screen flashes. Two minutes till on air.
‘No, I haven’t. Can you tell me a bit more about the story and I’ll have a look?’
‘Well, it’s actually my wife… you’ll have to call her. I’ll give you her number.’
I take down the digits, thank the caller, hang up and jump back into action, ringing in the next on-air guest and typing interview questions on the screen. I hear the line pick up in the studio and the interview gets underway. I call the number scribbled on the yellow post-it.
‘Hi, sorry to call without warning, but I hear you have a story?’
‘Yeah, I got a story… I’ll just start and you stop me if you have any questions, ok? Well, I was at the croc park yesterday with the kids and I thought why don’t we go down and watch the sunset and have some fish and chips. So we were just there, having a can and a feed on the grass near the surf club, and I like collecting shells you know… I don’t know if you do… but I love my shells… so I thought I’d go down to the rocks and have a look. Anyway, so I’m walking down there and the tide’s really low, it’s way out… anyway, I take a step and my foot lands in a bit of a hole… and I know it’s going to sound a bit weird but I felt energy. A real, strange, strange energy in my foot. So I thought I better have a look. Anyway, so I pushed the sand away with my toes a bit and I saw what was like a… a big toe. So I kept clearing the sand and then I it, and I’m thinking, if this is what I think it is there’s got to be more. I called out to my kids to hep me, and we’re splashing water down and scraping off the sand and we found three more…’
‘Dinosaur prints! I haven’t told many people yet, but if you want to come look, I’m going to be guarding them! I kind of can’t even believe it but true enough I found them!’
I arrange to meet her at the sand near the surf club at 5pm.
When we get there the tide is still covering the rocks, and it’s getting dark. I bring my camera and my boyfriend who’s a journalist to do the interview. We search for an hour, I’m starting to think it’s a lost cause.
But then as the sun sets and the tide edges out further into the distance, the sand is washed out to sea and the concave prints fill water, reflecting the purple orange sky—and just for a moment in time, just before the sun slips behind the horizon, we can see the dinosaur prints. Ancient beyond memory or record. Two minutes in a radio booth leads me to standing in the footprint of a 130-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus. Time Immemorial.
A whole day free, to write, and I have my first line:
I’m living in a small town, and my own echo is loud.
I like this line. But what’s the rest of the story?
Enjoying life in an oven, Sophia? It’s 8am and it’s 36 degrees. Cluttered room. I should have gone to yoga. I should delete my Facebook. Just finish one piece Soph, just edit one today.
New email. It’s from the editor of a magazine I submitted a pitch to. Pitch rejected.
Why didn’t they like it? Why didn’t they connect with it? Why did I spend three days writing it? I know I shouldn’t place so much importance on it, but I really thought it would be the high of today, and then I’d feel confident about my work.
I’m living in a small town and my own echo is loud—deafening, actually. That’s it. I don’t want to stare at my screen any longer. I’m baking a cake. That usually works. Baking has beginning, middle and end. Instructions. A product. Always appreciated. And consumed. Perfect antidote to writing.
In the kitchen I see my white board, and read my list of advice to myself.
I will do all of these things today, the writing will follow.
I eat cake. I go for a swim. Tomorrow I will write.
I look out into the world,
Wherein there shines the sun,
Where glimmer all the stars,
Where lie the silent stones,
The living plants are growing,
The feeling beasts are living,
And human endowed with soul,
Gives dwelling to my spirit.
Steiner Morning Verse – Rudolf Steiner
I open Steiner playgroup with our morning circle, leading call and response of the morning verse. Penny crosses the circle, ducking under the ring of held hands, and tots directly to the play kitchen. She empties the drawers until she finds it—the wooden potato. She covets her treasure, hiding it down her frock.
Penny bashes the door to outside twice, before her mother discreetly lets her out and she bolts to the sandpit. Penny digs a hole, plants her potato, waters it and digs it up again.
Dig. Bury. Water. Retrieve.
‘YAM, YAM, LOOK, YAM!’
Penny isn’t interested in craft. She’s not keen on circle time. The other toys don’t interest her. The other children are almost invisible to her. While Penny digs for yams, I begin making Kimberley Sandstone Turtles from boab nuts with the other children.
I’m watching Penny from the craft station as Patrick begins crawling towards her. Penny steps over the top of him, taking no notice of his attempts to join the game and takes off to fill her bucket. Patrick helps dig up the yam. Penny runs back to the sandpit and lifts the shovel. I see it, but it’s too late. THWACK!
‘Miss Sophia! Penny hit Patrick with the shovel! She hit him! He felled!’
Patrick is face down in the sandpit. Penny pushes him to the side and grabs the potato from the hole, and sits on it.
I run and scoop Patrick up. I use my fingers to gauge the sand out of his wailing mouth. With my spare arm, I turn Penny around to face him.
‘Penny! We don’t hit. See. It hurts Patrick!’
Penny furrows her brow, perplexed, staring at the baby in hysterics. Her eyes well up.
Penny’s mum is mortified.
‘I’m so sorry, she’s not used to all the other kids and having her own toys. At home, in the community, she doesn’t have toys and organised play. I think she just gets freaked out. She has to lean to share and she has to have routine.’
Penny and her mum drive two and a half hours from the bush to town every Thursday to come to Playgroup. Penny lives in two worlds, so at the end of the day I give her the potato to take back home. She snuffles it down her frock and tots out of the room, taking the story with her.
As I wait for the call to come through, I re-read my work. I can’t believe I sent this. I can’t imagine he will understand it—halfway between a script and a monologue, not entirely fact and not entirely fiction. I’m almost tempted to pull the plug on our session, but the pull of a reader is irresistible. What does he really think?
Skype rings. It sounds like a robot trying to make human music. I hit the green phone symbol, no turning back, the robot asks me to turn on video chat.
The 45-minute timer is on and Laurie doesn’t waste time talking about the weather, straight to work.
‘I think in many ways, the duality of this piece is its greatest strength. It is this duality that turns it into something surprising. It’s conflict inside and outside, on both sides of the same street. On one side, it is confrontational, and at the beginning the reader is thinking oh God how annoying is that, a domestic across the street. But as it goes along you realise the avoidance that is happening inside the house that they are placed in on the other side of the street is also a problem. Both situations are a form of relationship conflict, and in a broader sense, the way we deal with relationship conflict and domestic violence both on an individual level, but also as a society. And when you look at both of them you think ‘oh god, wow, what are we doing here?’ And this is what takes it from a good story into the sublime. It’s out of sight, out of mind—and setting it out stylistically like a play helps to get this point across. And these are not easy topics to talk about.’
And he actually gets it. He tells me explicitly what I am saying through my writing implicitly. I hear my own intentions echoed back at me, it’s exhilarating. Sure, he also points out I have shite grammar, but there are no ‘literary spot fires’.
‘I’m interested in the way you use multimedia, why is that?’
‘It’s how I think…dialogue, images, songs, news, somehow they are all connected.’
‘It really works for you, it’s not conventional or genre specific, but creativity is play and if it works, it works, and this works. So keep doing what you’re doing.’
After the video chat, I re-read his feedback. I can’t believe he actually got it.
I have a mentor. Someone to talk to about my writing. Someone who takes interest in my work. Whose job it is to help me best speak through my writing. I had no idea how helpful this could be. He thanks me for the opportunity to read my work. Maybe I do like the writing life.
I took a drama class for kids this morning—ten students aged between five and seven. The unit they are working on is Personal Stories. I start the class with a guided mediation.
‘Everybody lying on your backs on the floor, listening to Miss Sophia. Now close your eyes, imagine you are walking along a beach… and at the end of the beach, is a place you remember—it means something to you.’
After the mediation we share our stories. Joseph offers to go first. Seven years old, curly brown hair wearing loose denim, converses and a green T-shirt, he clasps his hands behind his back and looks at his chosen spot on the white wall.
‘I remember the house I lived in with my mum and my dad. It was near a big hill. And I had nightmares in that house, about babies breathing spiders on my mum. And I think it’s because my dad left us, and now we have problems with money.’
Riding my bike home, I can’t stop picturing the babies blowing spider webs and the boy who misses his dad. I feel sad, but, at the same time, I’m reassured by his resilient self. And my belief in storytelling is confirmed. We are all narrating our own lives.
‘Do you want some?’
My boyfriend yells out to me from the other room, trying to get my attention. Why doesn’t he just come in and ask me? Always when I’m trying to write! I get up from my desk and walk to the kitchen.
‘What are you making?’
‘Coffee, mango, jam toast…’
‘No thanks. I’m going to finish my writing first.’
‘What are you writing?’
‘I’m writing down the things that happened this week—little stories.’
‘What stories? You mean like a diary?’
‘Yeah, real things that happened but not like a diary. Things that other people said or did that are the beginning of a story.’
‘You can’t do that! That’s illegal!’
‘Turn real peoples lives into stories! Do you just immortalise the tiny things they say forever? You really shouldn’t do that!’
‘That’s what a journalist would say. ‘Stick to facts! Remove yourself from the story.’ Relax. I don’t write it out word for word. I don’t even know who the people are. And even if I do know them they are those people in my writing. It’s inspiration.’
‘So you just make it up?’
‘No. All stories come from real life. It’s both fact and fiction.’
‘Which part is fact?”
‘Doesn’t matter. Some is fiction, some is fact—but it’s all true.’
‘That doesn’t make sense.’
‘Well, you’ll just have to wait till you read it and then tell me what you think.’
‘Well, I better not be in it.’
Living in Broome, Sophia Rose O’Rourke is a writer who also works in radio and film production.
Sophia was born and raised in Canberra, attending the Orana Steiner School. After school Sophia moved to Sydney, where she studied Writing and Cultural studies at the University of Technology, and worked in production for the ABC’s Q&A and Four Corners. Growing up in an unconventional environment where living and storytelling were inseparable, Sophia developed a particular interest in creative nonfiction—how image, sound, text, fact and fantasy interact.
In 2015 Sophia was shortlisted for The Lifted Brow Experimental Non Fiction Award, and her first poetry was published in Plumwood Mountain.