When I was ill as a child, my mother would take the thermometer from the bathroom cupboard and shake it down, collecting the mercury in the tip of the glass casing before putting it under my tongue.
I remember a thermometer dropping onto my night-table and breaking, the glass in shards, the liquid metal spilling out. I played with the mercury droplets, nudging them toward each other until they merged into one perfect sphere sliding across the surface so smoothly it seemed to hover.
I had time to play like this because adults in the 1950s were not as wary of mercury as we are today, not as wary of many things in fact. We know more now. I was free to experiment for the time it took my mother to get the broom and dustpan.
Similarly, in the school science lab, this metal we called quicksilver was a curiosity and a half-magic thing. If no one was watching, I think we even poured mesmerising little pools of it onto the classroom floor. We were only supposed to admire it in its jar – we presumed that was because it was expensive and not because of any danger – but we couldn’t resist.
Playing with quicksilver is what poets do. Like children gently prodding the mercury and marvelling at the weightlessness of what appears heavy, the fleetness of what should be slow, the formation of one from what was many, poets do not fear the danger their material conceals. They willingly risk the disappointment they court when they manipulate it; they keep trying to catch those silver flashes of truth and make them into words on a page.
You can’t do that, of course. Nothing you write will ever capture the perfection of what you glimpsed, the depth of what you understood in that fraction of a second when you felt impelled to write. And no critic will judge you more harshly than you judge yourself.
Sometimes the only thing that soothes your disenchantment with what ends up on your page (or calms your despair, depending on your temperament) is a word from someone who also does what you do – preferably does it better – and can measure what’s at stake. Finding this person is a necessity not just for poets but for all writers.
We are alone when we write, most of us. It’s part of the writing paradox: we need solitude to find our way to the words on the page but those words, once written, are a message, a communication that seeks acknowledgement and validation, often only from ourselves at first, but then from others.
The words will find a way.
The problem with the Pantheon
The first time I took a creative writing course, almost five decades ago, I was living in Paris where I had studied and worked for years. I had just left my job in an office and was working freelance from my dining room table, in the company of my baby daughter. It sounds straightforward but it really wasn’t.
It had been years since I had written anything just for me, but writing had always been part of my life – at school and at university, where I studied languages and literature, and in my job, editing and translating the words of others. When I try to remember why I enrolled in the course, I can only propose this: parenthood may shake your world like an earthquake. You will perhaps seek the reassurance of a touchstone from your earlier life, something you were good at and enjoyed, to reinforce your sense of self and to feel more like the person you know you are.
So much of life is blind chance. Browsing in the American Library in Paris with my sleeping daughter in her stroller, I saw a poster advertising a creative writing class and I enrolled. This sort of course was, in that city and at that time, a complete novelty.
There were none on offer at the Sorbonne, where I had studied. There I read works by illustrious authors whose remains lay in the Pantheon, a mausoleum honouring heroes of the Republic. Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo were there, just streets away, on an equal footing in death with French statesmen, scientists, and humanitarians. They were a different level of humanity, far above any humble student who might have wanted to try a hand at writing, and whom no one encouraged to do so.
Perhaps this “pantheonisation” of writers – to use the French term for this placing of the greats upon such a high pedestal – is why France came so late to the creative writing party. Violaine Houdart-Mérot, a French academic who has studied the development of creative writing in French universities, wrote as late as 2014 that: “French universities are just beginning to integrate creative writing into their curricula, a hundred years after the United States.”
The contrast is indeed stunning. From the first successful creative writing courses offered at Harvard in the 1880s to the present day, American writers, aspiring or confirmed, have enthusiastically espoused opportunities to study and workshop with like-minded creative spirits to produce literature – or at least writing.
No surprise then that the course I attended was taught by a young American fiction writer. At the beginning of the first class, she introduced herself and, bizarrely, mentioned her anxiety about power outages. She wrote using an electric typewriter and lived in fear of some disaster that would knock out the mains. If her typewriter wouldn’t work, she couldn’t write.
We were bemused but nobody spoke up or mentioned pens. Perhaps we were silenced by the presence of a real live writer, moreover one who believed so strongly in the importance of the words she put on paper. Was she, in her peculiar way, giving us permission to take writing seriously?
I remember little that happened during the course, but I know I learned something important. As I sat with those strangers, as we read and discussed, I realized that it didn’t matter how different we were. The important common denominator was this: we all showed up every week with the words we had written, words that wanted an audience. We came together, excited to have written and eager to share; eager also to hear and encourage the words of others.
Paris to Sydney
Had I stayed in France I might not have become a writer, given the absence at that time of interest and opportunities in creative writing, but life presents us with unexpected gifts. My husband’s work brought us to Sydney shortly after the Bicentennial celebrations in 1988.
I was thrilled by so many different things when we arrived, most notably by opening a Saturday paper and discovering a bounty of activities with writing at their heart: festivals, lectures, readings, book launches. There was a vibrancy about the audiences I was part of, an enthusiasm in the air at the events, a love of reading, an interest in the craft. I couldn’t believe my luck.
I discovered not-for-credit writing courses offered by universities, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers with its amazing fair-go inclusivity. I joined writers’ groups that I found through those channels. Then, in 1991, the NSW Writers’ Centre, now Writing NSW, opened in Garry Owen House in Callan Park.
I have this centre to thank, not only for the inspiration provided by the courses I have done there, but also for the writing group I have belonged to for almost two decades. Once again, a happy accident: after a lively weekend workshop the participants, of whom I was one, decided to continue meeting. This group still meets today and bears the name of that weekend workshop from long ago; original members remain part of it and new members have enriched it.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my friends in this group, for their affection and support and enlightened critique, for biscuits and chocolate to have with our tea once a month, on a Saturday afternoon, in this lovely stone house.
Grief and Hercule Poirot
We all grieve for what Covid took away from us. This hasn’t stopped us from finding new ways to connect, and sometimes written words have been essential to the process.
When Sydney went into lockdown at the end of March 2020, my granddaughter could no longer come to stay with me on weekends, something she had done since she was a toddler. Since reading was a constant in my home and in hers, we decided to read together on our screens for as long as we were locked down. We would be together that way; we would take our minds off the world outside.
She had been reading an Agatha Christie novel the last week she visited me, so we continued. We read our way through all Hercule Poirot’s adventures over the months, skipping only the rare ones where the victim was a child; neither of us felt up to that. We loved how Poirot’s friend, Colonel Hastings, was portrayed and we discussed how the author depicted his calm forbearance when confronted with outbursts of Poirot snark.
We have continued to read every weeknight since then, even though we are long since out of lockdown. From Monday to Friday, at eight o’clock in the evening, I call her. I read out loud while she draws. We are presently several books into a gentle series about a lady detective in Botswana. Our discussion around the books we read evolves as we both get older. She now talks about tropes and narrative arcs; I spend more time marvelling at how brightly she shines.
All of us who write books, or read them and love them, are held in a fine web of words that support us, warm us in cold times and comfort us in hard. Words connect us: on paper or parchment, on stone or on screens, they have made us a community since writing began. Divisions and disputes arise whenever humans gather but those disagreements will eventually fall away. We remain connected, wrapped in the universality of the words we read and the words we write, united by what we love.
That’s what community is. And that’s what writing is for.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie was born in Canada but lived for many years in France. She studied in Paris and later worked as a translator and a business editor, despite being a specialist in 18th century French literature. After moving to Australia, she lectured in French Studies at Macquarie University. She taught ethics in a primary school in Sydney after retiring.
Vicki is passionate about writing, education and communication. Her memoir, The Erratics, won the 2018 Finch Memoir Prize and the 2019 Stella Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction at the 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. She has won prizes for short fiction.