‘But Margaret, you seem so nice,’ a writing colleague said to me. ‘How do you come up with this stuff? Where does it come from?’
I shrugged. First of all, I’m not that nice. Secondly, being a writer is different to being a human being. The human is there to get along in the world, to be ‘nice’. The writer is there to get to the truth – no matter how unpalatable. The two may never gel. But so be it.
Five years ago I was lucky enough to attend a writing workshop in Italy. I’d travelled a long way across the seas to write scenes from my childhood that I’d found difficult to depict.
A small breakthrough came with a story called ‘The Turf Club’ about my veteran father’s drinking. The scene can be read in the anthology Jewels of San Fedele.
Set in an Australian pub, the scene takes place between my father and a young neighbour. While the story is true, I was not present at the event, so I needed to use my imagination to construct it. It was easier to narrate the story if I was at arm’s distance from it.
Prior to this class, I had no idea how to approach the subject of my father’s post-war vulnerabilities, or even if I should. (Women – nice creatures that we are – might find such scenes more difficult to write than do men.)
But the job of the memoirist is to tell the truth . Or as Samuel Johnson says: ‘Books that don’t do any harm don’t give any pleasure.’
Our teacher encouraged us not to fear the opinion of friends and family. ‘You mustn’t care what people think,’ she said. We had to silence our inner critic. Easy to say. Hard to do.
Nevertheless, I raise a glass of chianti to ‘writing bad’, to finding ways to write about what really matters. Nice or not. ‘Writing well’, on the other hand, is the subject for a much later post! Stay tuned.