Sunday, May 23, 2010



Writers should select their domicile carefully. After all, they are going to spend a lot of time staring out the window, pacing the hall and wandering the street outside mouthing phrases like any other nut. 

Unless they burn bright and die young like Shelley or Plath, writers tend to be in for the long haul. A writer can start in their teens and be hard at it in their eighties. There’s little to stop them beyond money, health, and the cruelty of The Chair. Six or even seven active decades is a very long innings in any profession, and a writer learns to ride the inevitable ups and downs - the big sixes into the crowd, the intimidation of the bouncer barrage, the sledging from the slips. But given the possibility of a long creative life, the writer has the chance to chronicle not only the world around them, but the stages of life, its distinct acts. 
As Truman Capote remarked: “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act” (though some might say his own third act was a Frankenstein monster of his own making). 
For some there’s a brightly written first act, followed by two more in which everybody nods off. For others it’s three long terrible acts, one of those endless nights in the theatre, bum-numbingly tedious, invested with much commitment but sadly leading nowhere. For others still the second act is their strongest, writers such as Virginia Woolf who in mid-career produced her finest works, Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, and whose own third act ended in a note left on a mantelpiece, resignation from the human race. For F. Scott Fizgerald, there was no second act. Then there are those for whom it’s a long slow build to a climax in which all their authorial strengths, thematic threads and accumulated experience coalesce into a masterwork like Don Quixote or Nineteen Eighty-Four. 
It is a privilege of course simply to be a writer. As a cadet journalist I dreamed of one day being able to call myself that. When did that point come, I wondered: the publication of your first short story, novel, or premiere of your first play? But you find out it’s not like that. It’s not so much what you call yourself, as the life of work you have chosen, which in turn helps fashion the person you become. You are a writer because you live the writer’s life, your existence concentrated upon your work and how to better it, and make it new. 
Some years ago I accepted some work teaching creative writing at a university. Like many writers I had previously wavered before the chilling maxim that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. But grappling hard with the money demon I had little choice at the time, and in the process learned far more about writing than I ever taught. It’s one thing to know things intuitively or instinctively, another entirely to have to articulate them clearly to a group of students. For me it proved akin to driving a car for a hundred thousand miles, sometimes content enough with its performance but most often less than, and finally stopping to look under the bonnet and see how the thing works. A tune-up was in order, inevitably.
One of the intriguing aspects of teaching is the line between what can be taught and what can not. Some of it can be, in particular the all-but-lost discipline of grammar. But literature is not science, it is art, and it works in ways that defy attempts to impose the rules and categorisations of science. It’s not chemistry - it’s alchemy. It’s not digital, but derives its beauty and its strength from what exists between the digits, the unseen and unsaid, the unknown and unknowable.

Like our humanity itself, literature is mysteriously durable. It has even survived the era of postmodernism, during which an entire generation has been subjected to intellectual colonisation by a dogmatic wolf garbed in ovine pluralism, a philosophical peep-show that infected the creative arts with the pseudo-scientific gobbledegook of “Theory” encoded in a gruel of pompous jargon that was fearful and disdainful of the clarity of the plain language that would expose its blah as wank.

As Walt Whitman remarked: "Be simple, be clear... Do not descend among the professors and capitalists."

One of the many ironies of the writer’s life is that it continues beyond the grave. Consider Hemingway. Though dead nearly half a century, he’s still surfing trends of fads and taste. Among the great stylistic innovators and distinctive voices of the twentieth century - both attributes understudied with his mentor Gertrude Stein - he has been largely ignored by the academy for decades after being tarred and feathered by ideological fashion police as a meaty bearded sexist, a man who shot animals and behaved badly towards women.    
Similarly, some people would presumably have us avert our eyes from the paintings of Picasso because of the repute of his personal relationships. Presumably they themselves conduct impeccably correct personal lives, audited by an Appropriate Intimacies Sub-Committee comprising Julia Kristeva, Stephen Conroy and George Pell. 
To me the truth about Hemingway is that his novels are pretty much conventional romance stories set against big historical dramatic backdrops, but it is his voice - the hard-edged voice of troubled times, tanged with an idiosyncratic wit - which distinguishes him. But he’s not the only great talent largely ignored nowadays. Hands up who’s read any Woolf or Dostoyevsky for pleasure lately; or Mann or Mansfield, Greene or Stein or Steinbeck? Joyce, especially Finnegan’s Wake, would require a secret ballot. Even beyond the grave the writer’s life is bound up with caprice, marketing, and changes in technology. To paraphrase Hemingway, it’s a bastard of a life but there’s nothing better. 

-Larry Buttrose

Revised version of an address at Byron Bay Writers'  Festival 2006


  1. Hi Larry
    I received your message at the KSP Centre where I'm in residence for the next month, certainly a fine "domicile" for writing. Your essay is spot-on, especially as it regards the academy and teaching writing. From my 15 years of teaching at various universities, I can claim to have inspired more often than taught; most of my students who have 'made it' would probably have done so without me, but at least I didn't get in the way.

    I'm a great admirer of Hemingway and many of the others you mention from the Leavis tradition. Are you aware of my Hemingway works ( and – works of reassessment and resurrection...

    Thanks again, Larry. Keep the blogs coming.

    David Reiter

  2. Many thanks for that David - and no, I'm not aware of those works of yours, though I'd like to have a read. Is there a link I can follow to them? Or a book?

    All the best, Larry

  3. Love your closing Hemingway paraphrase!

    I've done a lot of creative writing teaching. I always think that while art can't be taught, craft can. And oh yes, here's to grammar!

    Your sidebar has obscured the end of the Walt Whitman quote, at least on my screen. What is it, please?

  4. Sorry for that Rosemary, it's:

    As Walt Whitman remarked: "Be simple, be clear... Do not descend among the professors and capitalists."

  5. This is a fine piece of writing, Larry, that in itself is a repudiation of post-modernism, which you have so tellingly panned in one powerful paragraph.
    Walt Whitman, who preferred the company of animals rather than pompous humans, is my hero too, for his telling it straight, but from the heart, and with beauty.

  6. Thanks very much for that Brendan. And I'm with you on Whitman. ABC2 had a very good doco on him recently, still may be on iView if you missed it.