The Making of a Writer

What makes someone a writer? My university creative writing lecturer (and successful author), Susan Mitchell, says a writer writes always. I guess I have written always, though only creatively in spurts and dashes. Most of my output has been generated in the many and varied jobs that I’ve put my hand to, so I thought today I’d reminisce a little about how these have all contributed to make me the aspiring novelist I am today.

My first job straight out of school was as a cadet journalist at the Adelaide Advertiser. I think cadetships of this kind are almost extinct now, but back in the day it was a three year apprenticeship where you were trained to type, take shorthand and learn the ropes of old-school journalism on the job. I was one of three school-leavers selected in my intake from a field of over 500 and was beside myself with excitement.

The Advertiser Cadet Training Room circa 1985

At 17, I was under the happy delusion that being a journalist was about writing. I was quickly undeceived. I spend my first three months in a night-shift job depressingly called ‘Chores’. This involved preparing a whole lot of useless information for setting by the compositors (compositors are definitely extinct now). For example, I had to add punctuation to mind-numbingly turgid figures on things like hogget sale prices and weather conditions in remote regions of the state. I would have a huge broadsheet of paper in front of me and have to go through it by hand – dot, dot, comma, dot, comma, comma, colon, comma, comma, colon, full stop. About 100 times. Riveting!

Then I spent a scintillating three months on the TV pages. This time I had to re-type each day’s television programming from the material sent in by the four stations (yes kids, there used to be only four TV stations!). Then I had to ring the stations and read it all back to them line by line. This was a full time job, and one of the most harrowing on the editorial floor. A mistake in the TV programme page could trigger a tsunami of enraged complaints from readers who wished to voice their displeasure that a scheduled screening of Dynasty had not been listed with the requisite R (for repeat) and people had thought they were getting a new episode. All hell could break lose.

So, by the time I was finally unleashed into the reporting team I was bursting at the seams with frustrated creative flair. It didn’t get much relief. I was dispatched to cover such earth-shattering events as the Red Cross Flower Show and the first couple ever to get engaged from Perfect Match. One career highlight was interviewing the first Mormon Miss America (who had been brought in to replace a disgraced Miss America who had sold pictures of her boobs to an unsavoury publication). And on another occasion I spent an afternoon attempting to look sprightly while riding a wind-surfer’s shoulders across the River Torrens to get a picture for a desperate photographer who assured me there was no chance my story about the wind-surfing competition would see the light of day without some ‘colour’. Anyone who has been to Adelaide will understand that this was not one of my better moments – the murky, silted Torrens is not an enticing swimming spot. And clambering up the body of a dripping wind-surfer in full flight was not quite how I’d pictured myself pursuing my career in the Fourth Estate.

Reporter Boomer in action

As a reward for my promising stint in reporting, I was posted to the Sports department where I covered junior netball and the results of lesser-known golf competitions before being sent back to Chores and TV for another six months. By the end of my second year at The Advertiser, I had decided that I was not suited to journalism. Never, in the history of the paper had a cadet bailed before the end of their three-year term. Boomer walked out the door.

I went to uni and did an Honours Degree in Communications and loved every minute of it – the writing courses with Susan Mitchell being a red-hot highlight. At the end of my third year I was gob-smacked to be awarded the Cecil Teasdale-Smith Award for Excellence in Creative Writing for a narrative version of my grandfather’s Charlemagne story. I mention this mostly because I just love writing the words Cecil Teasdale-Smith (they have such a fruity ring) but also because this award led me to believe I wasn’t totally delusional in my writing aspirations.

My next post was a stint as the Public Relations Officer for Bedford Industries, a career development charity for people with disabilities. I wrote newsletters, speeches for the CEO, the Annual Report and scripts for the Awards Night and attempted to get media coverage of the organisation’s work. When I pulled some strings with a former colleague (thanks Pen!) and got a picture story in the The Advertiser promoting the annual pantomime performed by the employees, one of them gave me a miniature Superman figure to mark the occasion. He still sits on my desk for inspiration.

Then I hit the career accelerator, landing a job as Press Secretary for the Minister for Education.

Press Secretary with my home phone/fax

This was the big time! A lot of the role involved writing media releases and speeches for the Minister, but mostly my job was to wrangle my former journalistic colleagues and try to get them to write slightly less horrible stories than they had been planning to write about my boss. This required round-the-clock communications so I became the proud owner of a home fax machine and a very early model mobile phone. The Brick weighed several kilos and had a battery life of about two minutes, but it really was cool at that time to slap it on the table in a restaurant and watch the other diners goggle (this was the mid-90s OK?).

Following a short-lived stint as Executive Officer of the Public Relations Institute of Australia I became Government and Media Relations Manager at SA Water, the state government’s water corporation. More speeches, media releases, annual reports and reporter wrangling. This time, however, I also became a media spokesperson and appeared regularly on Adelaide TV and radio explaining things like cryptosporidium (a nasty vomit-inducing bug that can result from the failure of water filtration) and the finer points of sewage treatment. As befitted my corporate status, I also had an impressively big office with a super view.

Corner office

After 10 high intensity years I decided I’d had enough of being on call 24/7. When I was jolted from sleep at 3 a.m. one night to explain to the media why the Barossa Valley was without water due to a massive burst in the Swan Reach to Stockwell pipeline I knew it was time to move on. So I became a talk-back radio producer.

In the studio

This was a really fun job. Each day was a fresh adventure – selecting stories to cover, hunting down talent to talk about them, briefing my presenters, fielding on-air callers and being always ready to chuck everything and leap on a breaking story. Of course the 5 a.m. starts put a bit of a damper on things, but at the end of the day I could walk away and forget all about it. Tomorrow would be a new day.

Then a strange thing happened. Because I didn’t have to be on trigger-alert around the clock I had a bit of time to think about life, the universe and everything. And THE QUESTION started plaguing me again. I had been pestered by THE QUESTION since I was about seven years old. What was my purpose in life? Over the years it had been answered something like this: teacher, writer, prime minister, writer, ballerina, writer, Egyptologist, writer, psychologist, writer, lawyer, writer, journalist, writer … you get the picture. On reflection, it seemed that this writer thing kept on popping up and it was probably time I did something about it. Hence my first sabbatical (see my inaugural blog post for more).

I didn’t write my book at that time, but I did change the direction of my life – a topic I plan to explore in my next post.

So what has all this got to do with my adventure in Carcassone? I know I can write – I’ve been paid for it lots of times! I know I can write under pressure – newspaper deadlines wait for no journo. I can write in multiple styles and formats – I’m versatile. I’m persistent and resilient – I’m thinking here of mounting the shoulders of that wind-surfer for the 10th pass across the river… I’ve had a rich and varied life (with more to be revealed next week) so I’ve got some stories to tell (Spoiler Alert: the first scene in my novel may take place in a talk-back radio studio). I’m ripe and ready to do this thing. I know the answer to THE QUESTION. I am a writer.

PS: HWB has insisted that I publish a retraction. Apparently, I made a gross error in my last post in referring to our new boat as a tinny. HWB informs me that our boat is in fact a skiff, and should not in any way be confused with the totally inferior characteristics of a tinny. My apologies.