Reflections On Keeping A Writer's Journal

‘In a glass-fronted cabinet, beside a few delicate teacups and a piece of scrimshaw, my mother kept a pepperpot. It was of classic Georgian shape, a tiny phallic basilica of a thing, not silver, but made from dark golden wood, intricately carved with designs of multiform roses. You unscrewed the dome and put in the ground pepper; but it you unscrewed the base you found a secret compartment in which my mother kept a treasured twig. This twig was a small shrivelled claw from a bush called the Rose of Jericho, and it came from somewhere in the Middle East, a souvenir brought home to Tasmania from the First World War by an uncle.

Take the twig from its hiding-place and submerge it in water for about twenty minutes. The dried-up claw, in the water, gradually opens out, stretches tendrils, until it blossoms, resembles a freshly-picked bunch of soft brown herb. Tiny bubbles of ancient air bead the delicate branches. Then take it out of the water, let it dry, and when it is utterly shrivelled and dead, replace it in the secret compartment. Return the pepper-pot to its place in the cabinet.

The Rose of Jericho is now in my possession. I keep it in a cupboard with old prayer-books and the small china hands which I removed from my grandmother’s grave after vandals had trashed the ornaments. Whenever I take the twig from its hiding-place and let it come to life again, like a beloved piece of music, played over and over, it can make me stop quite still, make me hold my breath, stare in simple amazement. And it can trigger memories long rested.’

Journal, December 1999

I hope I have not glamorised the Rose of Jericho. I have tried to write about it as plainly as I can, for I realise that although it is freighted with childish wonder for me, it may be a quite ordinary dull thing to other people. It is just a note among notes in my journal.

My journals are really notebooks, large black books with scarlet spines and corners, in which I write drafts, disjointed drafts and short notes. This is the first time I have taken a hard look at my notebooks and tried to enunciate a kind of philosophy to describe them. I collect here scraps of information about things that fascinate me. When I read through these books I can see preoccupations and themes; I can see, to a certain extent, some of the work of my unconscious mind, some of the shapes of my imagination.

‘Cherries were first planted in Britain one hundred years before Christ. Sir Francis Carew of Beddington led her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (first) to a cherry tree whose fruit he had of purpose kept back from ripening at the least one month after all cherries had taken their farewell of England. This secret he performed by so raising a tent or cover of canvas over the whole tree, and wetting the same now and then with a scoop or horn, as the heat of the weather required; and so, by withholding the sunbeams from reflecting upon the berries, they grew both great and were very long before they had gotten their perfect cherry-colour: and when he was assured of her majesty’s coming, he removed the tent, and a few sunny days brought them to their full maturity.’

Journal, from Things Not Generally Known by John Timbs 1872

I love to write about fruits and flowers. I write family trees and other details for the characters in my fiction; I write the notes that go with the editing of my manuscripts and proofs; and I paste in cuttings from newspapers. Sometimes I paste in pages I have written on scrap paper or on the backs of envelopes. I keep notes from my reading of references. There are also photographs I have taken of things I think are significant to a manuscript, and there are images from newspapers, postcards and other scraps. I collect pictures of houses I dream of buying in Tasmania. This description of the journals makes them sound organised and coherent; they are not. I sometimes remember to write the date at the top of the page, but I often forget. There are several volumes in use at the one time, so that there will be the outline of a talk I gave in 1987 next the notes for the plot of a novel I was writing ten years later. So the journals are haphazard, and if I want to find something in them, I might have to look through several volumes. When I first write in a notebook, I use the right hand pages only; then I turn the book over and fill in the right hand pages working upside-down from the back. I stick images and cuttings in anywhere I like. So the search for material in the journals is rewarding in itself, and often yields material I had forgotten I had, material that I am really pleased to find. Every now and again I make a gesture towards organising the journals so that they will be easier for me to follow; I number the pages and begin a contents page - but these attempts at order do not last. The journals in progress are piled up together on a bookshelf in my study; there is one missing; I really need it because it has material in it relating to the novel I am working on now. It will be in the house somewhere. I suppose it will come to light soon.

‘A fox is on the run in Tasmania for perhaps the first time. It could wreak havoc on the island’s native wildlife which has never encountered this sly predator before. The fox startled a Burnie stevedore when it appeared near a container taken off a ship from Melbourne. After a fruitless initial search, wildlife and quarantine authorities set up a ‘fox-line’, and a local newspaper has published a description (‘reddish-brown, a bushy tail and a pointed snout’) to encourage reports of sightings.’

Journal, cutting from The Age4 June 1998

The fox is on the run. It is clear from the journals (also clear from my work) that Tasmania where I grew up continues to fascinate me. I am a typical expatriate who dreams and imagines and remembers, and who longs for the old country of the mind. Its history and geography and culture are a kind of base material. I envy the fox, but I know it is in great danger; I also know that it is a potential danger to the island. What if, the scientist and journalists (and I) wonder, - what if this fox is a pregnant vixen? Such language. Pregnant vixen. The fox has jumped ship; the fox is on the run. Vixen. An ill-tempered, quarrelsome woman; a shrew; a termagant. And about to populate the woods. It takes me but a second to move from that fox to the first white people who came to live in Van Diemen’s Land. Then my mind runs on to the relationship between the white people and the indigenous people, and all at once I am caught in the modern Australian dilemma of being appalled by the tragic facts of history, and at the same time owing my existence to the things that happened then. I sometimes think that the whole country is on a great vast velvet couch, lying back among gargantuan oriental cushions while a great bearded god-like Freud high on cocaine nods and listens as we go through our interminable analysis. But the image is far too simple. And much, much too comfortable.

The material you will not find in my notebooks is the personal material which often makes up the body of a journal. I do not document the events, thoughts, reflections, feelings I experience from day to day. My journals are all leading into my fiction, they contain the ground, the details, the inspirations, the ideas, the images which will drift and metamorphose into public writing, most of it fiction, most of it novels. They are raw notes or else they are drafts of work in progress. I move on from the notebooks to the computer, transforming as I go, leaving the notebooks far behind as I fly along creating characters and plots, responding to feelings and ideas deep within my self. The journals are a comfort to me, as I go on. It is such a pleasure to be able to turn to the page where there is the recipe for fish soup with calendulas, a dish beloved by some of the people in a novel I am writing. I find it strangely nourishing just to read the words.

‘Heads of snapper, onion, olive oil, cognac, bay leaves, pepper, salt, garlic, tarragon, cream, yogurt, calendulas.’

Journal, June 1999.

The journals are the chaos; the fiction is the order manufactured from this disarray. I have said that the black and red books lie on a bookshelf, and I should also say that another great source for my material and my imagination is my personal library which is the prevailing feature of the house. The journals are part of the library. Everywhere I can put a bookcase, I put a bookcase. Once the books were in order, but when the ceilings fell down the order was lost, and has never been recovered. The computer is in the centre of a room which is otherwise all bookcases, and there are more and more bookcases in all the other rooms. The house is really a kind of giant study in which I also eat and sleep.

‘The net is closing on Tasmania’s lone fox, three weeks after it stowed away on a cargo ship from Melbourne and jumped ashore at Burnie. The fox is believed to have been one of many that can be found around Melbourne’s Webb Dock. It stowed away on the City Of Port Melbourne on May 31. Its arrival at Burnie has set off the first legitimate fox hunt in fox-free Tasmania. A professional fox-hunter from Victoria, and Tasmanian wildlife rangers have been hunting the fox in a six square km zone along Burnie’s urban coastal strip.’

Journal, no date or source. That’s the last I can tell you about the fox, actually. There was probably closure on this in the newspapers, but I missed it. Certainly closure in life. Either the fox was killed, or it just died, or it had a litter of little foxes. This is not fiction, not documentary; it is notes in a fiction-writer’s journal.

The journals are only one source, one respository of the material which goes to make up my inspiration. It is strange to stop and think about the pathways of the imagination, the elements and strands, the spaces and the effort. The time. The place. I realise

I am not making clear how I write fiction; nor am I illuminating why I write fiction. I am not coy or secretive about these questions and their answers. I have accepted that I write fiction, and I do it however I do it. The journals are clues. The hundreds of books on the bookshelves are clues. I really think that the only thing that matters is the work, the work as it progresses, and the final book.

I recently had an email from a stranger who asked me to share some of the secrets of writing fiction. Actually, I have no knowledge of any secrets. Or if there is a secret, it is that there is no substitute for constant work and perseverance on all fronts. Faith in what you are doing is a pre-requisite. Courage in the face of opposition of all kinds. Are these secrets? Not really, they are uncomfortable pieces of dreary knowledge which people probably don’t wish to hear. I think that if you really and truly want to write fiction, you will write fiction, and you will know, or will soon suss out any of the secrets or whatever they are that are worth having. It is six o’clock in the morning and I have a glorious day ahead of me with the fish soup people and their calendulas. I am drinking coffee. I know I sound grumpy about the secrets thing; I daresay I am impatient to get into the olive oil and cognac with my cooks. The details of my fiction are all mixed up with the details of my life.

Take the twig from its hiding-place and submerge it in water for about twenty minutes. The dried-up claw, in the water, gradually opens out, stretches tendrils, until it blossoms, resembles a freshly-picked bunch of soft brown herb. Tiny bubbles of ancient air bead the delicate branches.