This is not the best thing I ever wrote. This is a Tribute.
The one good thing about Mt Roskill Borough Council was that I was allowed a few hours a week to attend Auckland University, provided the study was relevant to my work. I did a couple of papers on Local Government, Political History and so on, which were all very interesting but I was especially pleased to study journalism under Gordon McLauchlan, and creative writing under Michael Morrissey. I justified the relevance, in case you are wondering, by pointing out that I was (at the time) the editor of the NZ Journal of Environmental Health.
Well, it worked.
I remember very little of the political history except some of the musings of John Locke and even less of the local government stuff except the lecturer was a mad old bugger who insisted the book he wrote was the bible on the subject, and the only other thing we needed to study was every single episode of “Yes Minister”. This show, he told us, held all the political truths anyone ever needed to know.
Apart from one brief moment, I am not sure what I gained from the writing classes. Certainly not style, and my vocabulary was already greater than that of most of my peers. Understanding the power and use of literary devices such as litotes was not unhandy.
“Write what you know” Conflict, climax anticlimax and resolution, all the same old stuff they pounded into us at school.
The thing I gained for a short time, and lost again, was courage. The courage to write what one knows and feels, and lay it out for the world to see. To metaphorically expose oneself to the critical eye of others. I turned in my assignments and contributed to the discussions. I was not gratified to have one of my own pieces read out to the class. I had not been expecting that all.
Michael would read something to us each week, and invite discussion. I had not realised at first that he was reading examples of our work, because he never ascribed the work to anyone, and never addressed the writer directly in class. Later I realised why. It was to give us the courage to expose ourselves anonymously. The criticism and comment was directed at the work and not the author.
It was with real surprise and not a little chagrin, that I realised I was listening to my latest submission being read to the class. Honestly, if I thought that would happen I know I would not have written it. It had taken all my courage to present it for just one person’s appraisal. What the hell was I doing in writing class if i did not want to write?
My face was flushed and I stared down at my notebook, twiddling my ball point and drawing embarrassed doodles. I felt more exposed than in a naked-at-school dream.
The assignment was “A dialogue of less than two thousand words introducing and developing a conflict then resolving it”. I went for the less obvious, as I thought, and started out writing what was to have been an inner conflict resolved inwardly while the dialogue was going on outwardly. Always one for complications, me.
It took on a life of its own. What poured onto paper was an almost verbatim conversation between a man and his wife, she having just come home to tell him she was leaving him for another, and the internal musing of the husband as he mustered his thoughts, considered what to say and argued with himself, all the time really only wanting to just watch Hill Street Blues and pretend nothing was wrong in the world that was falling apart around him.
Defeated from the very beginning, all he could do was to point out that they had made a pact which he for one was more than happy to honour until death, but that her happiness was more important to him than his own, so if this was what she wanted…
But WHY? Why Why Why? He was meek and pathetic and for a while, persistent. Surely this could be resolved? She was adamant. Firmly sure of herself. Sympathetic to his distress, yet somehow dishonest and hard at the same time. He could only mildly protest, at a loss, not understanding why this was happening, while something inside was already prodding him and saying “You knew this would happen”. The conflict in the conversation between them was all internal. His own. At least that was how I intended it.
Morrisey finished the reading. The ending, I thought was the best bit. Wry, compelling, and yet clearly a disappointingly inevitable resolution with just a little lift of hope whimsically expressed. I wish I could remember exactly what I wrote.
Michael looked up and said “That was clearly autobiographical”.
I like to think there was a gleam in his eye.
I also like to think he wonders “Whatever became of that promising chap I had in my class in 1983?”. However, If you were to ask him I doubt he will even remember that class as any different from the others.
I noticed then that a few, quite a few, of the women in the class were dabbing their eyes, and some of the males were shifting uncomfortably. There were a few comments and suggestions. I don’t really recall any of it any more that I can remember the exact words I had written. For just a moment that day I had a triumphant surge of faith in myself. But I realised even then that I was not prepared to stand up and state that it was I who had written those words. That meant only one thing.
I could not be a writer. Because a writer must expose himself. Robert Heinlein told me so himself.
I kept those few pages for a long time, and tried occasionally to rewrite the story, or compose a sequel or new conclusion – as if the magic of words might actually change the reality of the universe. Eventually the pages disappeared in some routine clean out. I wish I had them now, I would like to see if I really did what I think I did. Become a writer. Instead I gave up writing, except for public health and food technical publications, prosecution documents and the best, most erudite, witty and compelling letters ever posted in the Public Service.