Four 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 at the Editor’s Desk, and look forward to their inclusion in our upcoming print issue.
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
Homer, The Odyssey
I am sitting on the first floor of a cottage near Margaret River while it rains, thinking about water. I have passed two days at this desk, although I did spend some time earlier walking through the forest, where I came across kangaroos that bounded away when they heard me. My coming here was sponsored by Westerly Magazine and Margaret River Press: a little writing retreat amongst the trees and the silence.
But now, sitting here, my thoughts turn to the sea, as they so often do, so I follow myself to South Beach in Freo, where I walk under the line of tall Norfolk pines that border the grass between the carpark and the sea and, passing the café on the left, come to a narrow passage between sand dunes covered in thick, scrubby bushes. Here the beach begins, so I remove my thongs and dig my toes into the sand. The path is short and slopes gently upwards, so the sea slowly comes into view, until it is arrayed before me. It looks how forever feels, stretching out into everything, into endlessness.
The wind is blowing in from the west, pulling at my clothes, and pushing at the water, which heaves, not with high waves and crashing breakers, but like the rising and falling of a breathing belly. I weigh down my shirt with my thongs, phone, and wallet, and step down to the shifting edge of the water, keeping my eyes on the horizon.
After being diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2017, I found that in my darkest days, when I struggle to get out of bed or sit at the desk, my thoughts seek out the sea. And standing in the water now, I begin to feel invigorated by the soft, cold touch of the sea on my feet, the gentle lapping as my feet sink softly into the sand. I bend down, wet my hands, rub the water into them, and stand up smiling, feeling restored.
Then I wade in, trailing my fingertips across the surface, going slowly into the cold, splashing water onto my arms and head and chest to get myself used to the temperature, so that it won’t take my breath when I dive.
When I was younger, I would spend hours at a time in the pool, swimming, playing, holding my breath to see how many lengths I could swim back and forth underwater, doing handstands, floating with eyes closed and gently paddling legs, pushing off the sides. Twisting and turning in near weightless exaltation. These thoughts about swimming remind me of the words in a song called ‘Sea Lion’ by Sage Francis with Saul Williams:
I’ve decided I’ve been invited to my own resort
Where knights can leave their armour neatly piled by the door,
And every woman, child, and man, will gather by the shore,
And study how sea lions swim in cursive.
I think the last line is as close to perfect as a metaphor can get to describing how I feel—and how I felt before I’d ever heard the song—about the sinuous fluidity of being in the water.
Now, even in my writing, I search for the qualities of water: in the way that I try to find a rhythm in the interaction of words, looking always for the right word, the right sound, the right combination, a place where the words can intermingle, flow, twist and turn, and play, like the calligraphy of sea lions.
At South Beach I dive into the water and strike out for the heaving, yellow pontoon that sways drunkenly in the wind. I clamber up the short ladder and lie there in the sun and the wind, feeling the pitch and roll, the heady sway of graceful power pushing and pulling; and I imagine myself lying on the surface of the water itself, making a bed of the ocean.
I have always longed to be out on the water: swimming, drifting, surfing. Or just sitting on a board and staring at the horizon or the coast. But I lived most of my life in Johannesburg, about six hours from the nearest beach. So surfing is something that I have always seen from a distance, in films and television and photographs, or sitting on a beach and watching others out beyond the breakers. It is, to me, a pure joy, devoid of any of the harshness and disappointments of reality.
When I first arrived in Australia, I looked to its literature to help me discover the place and make it real. Western Australia—the land, the animals and trees, and the coastline—became more real as I read Tim Winton’s Dirt Music and listened to his voice reading The Boy Behind the Curtain. And when I read Breath, the sea came alive, and with it surfing. Pikelet’s fear of, and exhilaration in, the sea showed me the water in a new way: alive, breathing, dangerous, and beautiful. Pikelet describes surfing as ‘something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant’ (23). This captured me and enflamed my desire to surf. To do something beautiful and pointless. I could be in the water, playing with the water, flowing with it, dipping in and gliding over.
I have yet to surf. But I have written two stories that, even though neither mentions South Beach or Freo, are both set at this beach, where I have spent time swimming and resting and finding restoration. And writing has its own kind of pointless beauty.
Coming to Australia reinvigorated my writing practice because it helped me connect to something that I’d never felt before: I found, here, a place to write—in a similar sense to what Virginia Woolf means in ‘A Room of One’s Own’, but also in the sense of having a place that I can write into being. Everything I had written before was set in vague anywheres or in fictional places, places that had no real life. Not long after coming to Perth, though, a story I had been writing and rewriting without success for years was suddenly set on the roof of the E-Shed in Freo, overlooking the harbour, and it finally lived. I then wrote a story that ends with a woman who walks out into the sea, closes her eyes and imagines flying, and I know that the sea she walks into is at South Beach. That story gave me my place in the Westerly Writers’ Development Program, which afforded me the opportunity to write more. And it gave me this opportunity to sit in Margaret River—looking out at a forest in which western grey kangaroos bound away from my footsteps—and write a story about myself, and about writing, and about water, place, and beauty. Some of the important, pointless things in life.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1996, p. 77.
Winton, Tim. Breath. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Books, 2008.
Wesley Robertson has been best described as “barely holding it all together” while the world falls apart around him. Also, he writes stories that he hopes people will enjoy. He has been published in Aerodrome and The Ranfurly Review and took part in the 2017 Toolkits: Fiction program. He currently lives with his wife in Perth, where they are trying desperately to adopt a dog.
You can find him on Twitter @WesPRobably, where he constantly forgets to post all of his interesting observations.