When Did You Call Yourself a Writer?

December 9, 2020

28 years of diary keeping helped me realise I was one

On my seventh birthday I started a diary, a tiny blue book with hearts on the cover, my stories — mostly about my love for Shauna the Grade 1 music teacher, and detailed descriptions of the lollies I bought with my pocket money — kept safe by a heart-shaped lock.

These diaries have accumulated over the years. The physical ones — before I started storing my thoughts in a boring-but-practical Word document — are now kept in a cardboard box, shoved out of sight on a high cupboard shelf.

For 28 years, long before I heard of the Morning Pages, I have recorded my life. Not every day, not even every week, but somewhere, among the balls of wool and travel documents and half-finished cups of tea was a notebook, a scrawled page, a snippet of conversation, a story that I had to write down.

I had to.

Did I want to? Not really. Who wants to write?

I had to.

“Somebody somewhere,” writes Helen Garner, “says that ‘the urge to preserve is the basis of all art.’ Unaware of this thought, you keep a diary. You keep it not only because it gratifies your urge to sling words around every day with impunity, but because without it you will lose your life.”

It took me 26 years to see what these journals were telling me. 26 years between that page carefully printed in blue texta (‘Today I got my favorite thing that I have ever had because it was my Birthday. It was from my Nana. It was a my little pony that when you gave it a drink harts would go on there nappy.’) and my 33rd, when I finally allowed myself to use the term.

And it still feels hard.

I am a writer.

Not I might be.

Not I want to be, or maybe I could try to be.

But I am.

I just am.

And I have these journals, filled by that urge to preserve, to thank. They held a mirror up to the truth and insisted that I not look away. Those thousands and thousands of words set down, in pink ink and black, pen, pencil and texta, on trains to Sydney and ferries to Morocco, on beds and in toilet cubicles, in Melbourne and Nanjing and Bath and at Port Moresby Airport, contain clues, show me patterns, that have led me here. To what was always there, but hidden. Hidden by fear. By shame.

“Sometimes I think I have the ability to be something creative,” I wrote in 2004, age 19, “but I don’t want to kid myself into thinking I’m an ‘artist’ when I would be more useful/happy doing something else.”

Over and over again, the diaries return to this split, this divide. One or the other: not both. A writer, or something useful. In one 2015 entry I refer to it as ‘the creative V serious inner turmoil.’ Let’s just call it The Battle.

For the longest time, The Battle raged within.

The Battle has three main combatants: Creative Mouse, The Bludgeoner, and me, in the middle, trying to broker a peace deal. The object of their conflict: my life, my time, my soul.

Throughout my journals, at points of decision — this course or that, this job or that, this trip or that — I check in with myself. What do I want to do with my life? Am I on the right path?

Creative Mouse peeps tentatively up from her hole.

“I think you’re a writer. Maybe you could try to write a book?”

The Bludgeoner — she wears an apron, her hair in a tight bun – slams down her rolling pin.

“NO! Don’t be so ridiculous. Get back in your hole and don’t stick your head up again!”

Creative Mouse waits, peeks up again.

“How about just an article?”

WHACK.

The Bludgeoner’s weapon connects this time.

Creative Mouse recoils in fear. She goes off to hide. To wait.

She is harsh, The Bludgeoner. She values terms like responsible, helpful, practical. She urges me towards sensible, salary-earning, parental-pride-inducing activities, things that my mother would feel comfortable telling her friends about after tennis, that could be written up in my alma mater magazine. She pushes me away, far far away from the indulgent, selfish, unrealistic and frankly embarrassing idea of being a writer.

And don’t you dare even consider the term artist. The Bludgeoner can’t even say the word without bile creeping up her throat.

Throughout my adulthood, from 18 to 32, The Battle raged on, and The Bludgeoner won each and every bout.

Creative Mouse had small victories, sure. She was canny. Writing a journal was deemed acceptable because it was private. Knitting, card-making, letter writing were allowed because they weren’t serious — she could get around The Bludgeoner that wayIf it wasn’t serious, you couldn’t be embarrassed by it. The less you were seen to be trying, the less you had to lose.

Creative Mouse’s biggest win during those years was 2015. She summoned all her strategic powers and, somehow, when The Bludgeoner was distracted, managed to get me to quit my impressive-sounding and salary-earning full-time job at a not-for-profit to go and live in China for a year. To study Mandarin for sensible and practical career purposes, said The Bludgeoner, blindsided, trying to justify it in terms she could understand. Plus, she got a scholarship from the Government. So it’s a very serious thing.

But Creative Mouse had other plans. All that time after class to roam the streets of Nanjing with a camera, to take photos, to write. To write a blog. To share some of those stories, those thousands of words, with other people. The Bludgeoner was not happy with this public writing. She lashed out with the usual litany of slurs — self-absorbed, pointless, impractical, who cares about your stupid life?— but she begrudgingly gave in. It could still be deemed not serious. Just a travel blog.

This was her mistake.

Creative Mouse had unlocked the door and a whiff — just a whiff — of a different kind of life had crept through the crack. A creative life. A life where money, status or even ‘being useful’ were not the goal, but where, in the words of Jerry Salz, “the best definition of success is the time to do your work.”

In Nanjing I had time. Time to write.

Yet, still, on return to Australia after that magical Chinese year, The Bludgeoner exerted her might. She lured me back towards sensible, practical, useful. I was still too scared to see what Creative Mouse was showing me. I went into secondary teaching as a kind of peace deal between those two combatants. Teaching was creative enough to satisfy Creative Mouse, I decided, but The Bludgeoner approved too, because it was useful, and practical, and earned a proper salary, and Mum could tell her tennis friends without being embarrassed. Finally. Equilibrium.

The teaching imploded in one huge, glittering bang.

And, finally, Creative Mouse, ever-patient, pounced.

This piece was first published in The Victorian Writer magazine in December 2020

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Isabel Robinson is a writer and community development worker based in Melbourne. She is writing a middle grade novel with her husband Stephen Sholl. She has two children and lives in St Kilda.