Feature Articles / Anthony Macris on Bouncing Back, Writing and Resilience

The writer’s voice: a precious thread that can guide us out of this dark labyrinth.

If you’re a writer, it’s there all the time, that voice inside your head, the voice that wants to somehow reach out into the world. When you hear that voice, feel that voice, listen to what it tells you, ride its flows of feeling, of joy, melancholy, regret, you feel like you’re writing, writing effortlessly. This feels wonderful, you tell yourself. This feels great, you tell yourself. This is what writing is.

The only problem is, it isn’t. You’re not writing. Running through your thoughts and senses is what you want to write. But you haven’t written anything yet. And this is where the problem starts, the problem of capturing in words the great flow of things you want to say about the world, to the world. All the insights you want to give. All the observations that delight, that provoke. All the situations that reduce to tears, make spirits soar.

It’s always hard to write. In the space between intention and action: that’s where the danger lies. The procrastination, the self-diversions, the paid work that keeps you away from your keyboard, the endless practical tasks that clutter your life : all this keeps you out of the creative zone you never want to leave, but can never live in permanently. Then, to confuse matters completely, there’s your family, whatever form they might take, the people you share your daily life with, the ones who demand your attention and can, maddeningly, inspire as much as they can thwart.

There is also the larger context to consider, the society of which we are a part, and whose current state threatens the equilibrium of our being in the world. In recent memory, has there ever been a harder time to write? It’s no overstatement to say that we are living in a particularly fraught moment, caught between a number of destabilising forces that frame our everyday lives and make us more jittery than ever – the COVID pandemic, climate change, and the uncertainty of work ­– all very real concerns with direct consequences for our physical and psychological wellbeing.

In the face of such threats, how do we keep that voice in our head alive? At times it can seem an impossible task. The 24-hour news cycle, the way it amplifies in the echo chamber of social media then in your own mind: all of this noise can flood out that single, lone voice, a fragile thread that needs to stay strong, steady. It’s the thread that, when appropriately nurtured, can weave together a thousand thoughts and, when written down, join together with the thoughts of others and give us the strength to counter the things that threaten us.

In recent times there has been much talk of resilience. It seems, in part, to have sprung up in response to the growing prevalence of stress and anxiety that has accompanied the great changes society has undergone in recent decades. Broadly speaking, resilience means the ability to bounce back, to recover, to return to a state of equilibrium in response to a disruption or threat. But what demands are made on resilience itself when the threats are so constant and profound? What levels of resilience do we need to cope with constant challenges that alternate in intensity, with different levels of complexity, ranging from the practical to the emotional, from the social to the economic?

The COVID pandemic has tested our resilience like never before. Suddenly, you’ve been thrown out of work, your income slashed. Suddenly, you can’t visit your aged, fragile parent in a nursing home. Suddenly, you’re stuck working from home, trying to keep up with the impossible demands of an agile (read, chaotic) workplace. One month you can’t buy toilet paper or rice, the next you’re arguing with a sibling who refuses to get vaccinated. And as if all this weren’t enough to deal with, before the pandemic we faced another crisis, one exacerbated by climate change. When the bushfires raged in the summer of 2019/20, it was impossible to do something as ordinary as enjoy a sunset: the colours that lit up the sky were choked by smoke, a constant reminder that we had pushed things too far, that perhaps the tipping point had come and gone.

A society that has become all flow, all movement, caught up in an economic cycle of growth or death that threatens the very existence of our planet, suddenly finds itself in lockdown after lockdown, caught in a stop-start rhythm that is like driving, at full tilt, a tiny distance from one red light to the next. If we need resilience at the moment, it’s constantly, a never-ending series of responses to a plethora of dysfunctions large and small that destabilise us.

The media is awash with coping strategies. Buzz words and suggestions abound. Psychosocial wellbeing. Mindfulness. Check in. Reach out. Nutrition. Exercise, preferably in the sunshine. Seek social connectedness. Take time out. How are you? How aren’t you? There is no lack of reliable information from a myriad of organisations, no lack of good advice on how to survive, all of it accessible with the click of a mouse. How this information impacts upon any individual’s lived reality is another question: what resources any given person might have to adopt to accommodate such suggestions is highly variable. That said, this abundance of good information is a gift, a miracle of our times, and should be celebrated. As someone who can easily become a captive of rooms and screens, who can find themselves trapped in that writer’s zone whose border seems to end one metre from the tip of their nose, the constant reminder to stay social, stay active, stay sane, has proven genuinely useful.

But none of this good advice really tells us what to do as writers, how to protect that voice inside our head, a voice that is as important, as vital, as a pulse, a heartbeat. It may seem counter-intuitive, but these times of crisis can remind us that what we do as writers is more important than ever. Besieged by the complexities of the everyday that go hand in hand with difficult times, it’s all too easy to become demotivated. But has there ever been a time when we have needed reflections on how we live, how we negotiate our inner and outer lives, more than now? Any time of crisis will lead many people to moments of intense contemplation, moments of self-doubt that shake us up, challenge our assumptions, make us rethink a world we thought we knew. As writers, with our stories and essays and poems, our worlds of possibility, our distillations of intensities, our dramatisations of good and evil, it is we who can provide a particular kind of vehicle for these acts of contemplation, for this rethinking of who we are and how we should be.

It is times such as these that we come into our own as writers. Some of us will choose to bear witness to the crises that befall us and write responses that address them directly: climate fiction is a case in point. Others will choose to stand back a little and write about things less directly aligned. But what is important is that, no matter the circumstances, we continue to make sure that our responses to the times are kept alive, that we hold up that great mirror to the world and create those reflections, in whatever form or genre they may take.

Resilience is central to this process. It’s one of the things that keeps us going. And in the bounce back, the moment of recovery, there’s a moment of affirmation. It’s this moment that’s critical. It’s the nudge that sets everything into the motion, the burst of energy that makes things catch fire. For a writer, it’s the moment where you go, yes, yes, I want to say this, I want to tell this, I have something to say that is useful, important, enriching, that will, somehow, make things better.

There will be different things for different people that set the act of writing into motion, that provide those moments of affirmation. Reading. Walking. Music. A good conversation with a friend. Work that is useful and satisfying. Volunteering to help those in need. The list is endless, and most people know what’s right for them. But what the pandemic has taught me – in these times of lockdowns when we are leading such restricted lives – is to look for affirming moments close at hand. And there’s nothing closer than our family: yes, the people who sometimes drive me crazy, but who I can’t live without.

I have a son. He’s 20 years old. He’s a beautiful young man. During the various lockdowns, he, his mother, and I have been spending a lot of time together in our house in Western Sydney. My son has severe autism. The particular nature of his condition makes it difficult for him to self-direct, so we have to plan activities for him, and lots of them. His mother is his main carer. A talented artist, she draws with him. Together, at the large white table in his therapy room, they sit and do drawing after drawing with a set of felt-tipped colour pens. On a sheet of A4 paper, his mother will sketch a couple of animals – the current repertoire includes a rabbit, a lizard, a bear, a fox, a flamingo and various other birds – and he will copy it. It’s taken years of dedication and patience on her part to help him develop this skill.

His mother’s drawings are great, full of character and whimsy, but what my son does takes them to a whole new level. His lines are freewheeling and vibrant, the perspectives reworked in surprising and interesting ways that reflect how he sees the world. When he copies them, the animals re-emerge with entirely new personalities and dispositions. But what amazes me above all is watching him draw. He doesn’t overthink anything: it’s entirely spontaneous. With a quick glance he assesses the picture to copy. Then, sometimes only a matter of seconds later, there they are, the creatures magically transformed: the rude lizard riding a skateboard, his friend, the daredevil flamingo, perched on the handlebars. It’s these moments of pure spontaneity I find so uplifting. Not all the drawings work, but the ones that do sing. They tell me: just do it for the pleasure. Do it because it’s fun. Do it because, conjured out of nowhere, there’ll be a rude lizard, a sleepy rabbit, a cheeky fox. It’s a reminder of one of the things that art and culture is meant to do: to create alternate worlds that delight, thrill, bemuse.

I don’t work with felt-tipped pens, or draw feathers or fur or wings or claws. I sit by myself, at a keyboard, in front of a screen, and tap out letters, words, sentence, paragraphs. But watching my son and wife draw, even for a few seconds as I pass through the therapy room, is a constant affirmation. It’s one of the things that keeps my voice alive. Just knowing they do it provides the bounce that sets the pendulum of resilience swinging, that keeps me writing in these troubled days. The writer’s voice: a precious thread that can guide us out of this dark labyrinth.

Writing NSW has commissioned ten Australian authors to reflect on the complex relationship between writing and resilience. This series is supported by Create NSW

Commissioning editor: Kirsten Krauth

Anthony Macris is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. His best-selling memoir, When Horse Became Saw: a family’s journey through autism, was shortlisted for the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. His most recent books is Aftershocks: Selected Writings and interviews (UWAP 2019).

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