Life comes first

Palmer: Children of Sao Felix, Brazilian Amazon
Palmer Children of Sao Felix

I was cutting the vegetables by the kitchen sink and listening to Annie Dillard’s audiobook The Writing Life. ‘Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless their lives lack a material footing.’

“Does yours?” piped up a small voice.

“Mine what?” I asked, confused. I had forgotten that my young son was there on the floor, some ten feet away, constructing a cross bow out of paper, cellophane tape, and rubber bands, all held together with glue from a hot glue gun.

“Lack …” he trailed off, struggling to remember the exact words, before I realised he was referring to Dillard.

“Oh, no, with such wonderful children, my life could not possibly lack any materiality,” I assured him. Truth be told, when I heard that Dillard found all her pot plants dead and black after completing a manuscript, I misguidedly rued the fact that I could not possibly let my children die of hunger as she had let her plants die of thirst.

To put it all this into perspective was one of Australia’s best story tellers – Arnold Zable, who taught a class on Advocacy as an Artform at SA Writers Centre last Saturday.

‘Life comes first, writing second,’ he said. It is out of our ongoing engagement with life and the people around us,  that we learn things, and from that engagement flows writing that is true. I suppose we can insert any occupation into that second clause. Life comes first, all these things come second: plumbing, doctoring, teaching, gardening, milking the cow, mowing the lawn.

In the unlikely event that any of my children read this, know that you are loved and truly, because of you, my life does not lack a material footing.


Literary Resuscitation


“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.”

Stephen King, On Writing.

Annie Dillard says that she goes to her writing daily, as one would go to sit with a dying friend. Dillard won a Pulitzer prize, so I guess her dying friend recovered.

My writing, however, is so near death’s door that I am performing CPR, trying to get some air into his lungs, pumping hard to get some rhythm going, all the while shouting, “Breathe man! Breathe! What’s wrong with you?”

He gasps, and wheezes, ‘Too much purple prose.’

And he passes out again.

I take out my knife and slash away at the purple prose. I toss it into the fire before I have a chance to get sentimental and lament, ‘But those were my cleverest phrases!’

Slash and burn. Slash and burn.

The writing rallies, colour is returning to his cheeks; it’s working. Now without a second thought I delete phrases and paragraphs whole. Whilst hope remains, no price is too high.

The first sentence


‘Trying to write before you’re ready is like trying to squeeze toothpaste out of an empty tube,’ I wrote in exasperation after I allowed yet another day to pass without making a start on Sabah and Lamia‘s story.

There is so much pressure to write that amazing first line that will get one publisher to publish the book, and then at least one thousand people to buy it. Who can write such a magic sentence? Certainly not I.

But then, ‘A Writing Life’ by Annie Dillard became available as an audio book through my local library and I heard these words: When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.

And so Dillard enables me to start and I start with this very ordinary sentence: I first met Lamia when she came to my English class at TAFE.

And from that humble beginning I wrote the first four hundred words. Four hundred words that I might eventually erase, but at least I have started, and can continue writing the next sentence, and the next, and see where it leads me.

Concentrate on the words on the page, says Dillard. When you chop wood, aim not at the wood, but at the chopping block, so concentrate on the words in that sentence on that page, not on the grand vision. The grand vision will change as I write, and the finished product will probably be vastly different to what I had in mind at the beginning, but that’s OK. After all, I am only a curious scribbler, not a clever scribe, and I’ll go where the story leads.