Seemingly innocuous questions

Sean Lamb
Sean Lamb

I used to teach Form Filling as part of the English curriculum. It is exactly what it sounds like, that is, how to fill in forms – government forms, bureaucratic forms, warranty forms, all sorts of forms. Boring, banal, necessary. But seemingly innocuous questions, can be emotional triggers in a class of refugees. For example:

  • marital status – “My husband came to join me in Australia but left me, with our five children, for another woman.”
  • number of children – “Number of children in Australia, or all children? Do I count the one left behind in a refugee camp?”
  • country of birth – An angry student to another: “Why do you write Sudan? You should write South Sudan.” Probably can’t blame him for raising his voice, wars have been fought and lives lost over that one little word – the ‘South’ in South Sudan.

As a Computer Science student, I used to work with databases, repositories that store all the information that people put in forms. Databases, like forms, have straight lines and neat boxes. Life, and people, and the state of the world, however, are probably much more like an array of wild spirals, unexpected curves and irregular shapes.

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The first sentence

9780060919887

‘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.