Article: Why Write?

By Mavis Thorpe Clark

Published in the Australian Book Review, Number 53, pages 4-6

August 1983

In my early years as a writer, I wrote because I had discovered the intoxication of working with words; the discovery that words were a fluid raw material, adaptable, obedient, subservient, pliable, powerful. They allowed me to reconstruct and hold forever, sights, sounds, colours, thoughts, emotions, landscapes. I found great joy in experimenting with outline and colour, until I achieved what I considered a satisfying likeness. Which meant, simply, that I enjoyed the physical and mental activity of writing. I believe I would have gone on writing even if I had not been published; possibly I would have taken to diary writing. I kept a very full diary of a family trip to Europe when I was thirteen. This suggests that the deep-down animating energy was, and is, to record. I still keep a diary but not in detail.

However, being young when I began, not only in years but in life experience, I wasn't particularly aware, and certainly not fired or excited, by the world's joys and sorrows. Without taking a conscious decision on the matter, I wrote stories that offered little but entertainment.

It was my period of apprenticeship. By actual and loving practise, I was learning structure, framework, individual style, and the mechanics of my tools. I was also putting into that practice what I had already learned of the craft, from an early age, as a compulsive reader. Any skill I have is derived from that early reading and that faithful early practice. Not that we ever cease to learn, to develop, or to change our tone, our ideas or our approach.

And then the world's joys and sorrows presented themselves to me; in an offering that I was almost afraid to accept, yet from which I couldn't turn away. With that presentation came an irresistible motivation to go out and experience, to know, to be excited. Since then, I've never willingly turned down an experience, or lost the ability to be excited. And by excited I mean not only a euphoria of spirit, but emotional involvement.

I have worked in most of the various forms of written expression; biography, novels, factual works, some poetry, adult short stories and articles, radio plays. I have scripted serials of my own children's novels – which are for the older reader – and now television. While I regard my adult biography of Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls, entitled Pastor Doug, as my most important single work, the main body of my writing has been for young people. I am a children's writer. It is with gratitude and a sense of distinction that I make that statement.

Children's literature is part of the enduring, universal and classic literature of the centuries; beginning, perhaps, with Aesop's Fables written circa 600 BC.

Australian children's literature has already achieved universal appeal and international acceptance; reaching farther, I believe, than our· adult works. It was a joy recently to have put into my hands by the Japanese publisher a beautiful production of Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding, written in 1908.

Because works for children have played such an enduring part in classic literature, I am angered when I see literary competitions, such as the N.S.W. Premier's Award, offering $5000 for an adult work of fiction, and only $1000 for a work for children. A Premier's Award that can make this discriminatory distinction is not recognising the position in society of today's child. It reveals not only an ignorance of the quality and scope of children's literature, but a nineteenth century concept of children. It is a turning-away from the fact that children now are being taught to think, to be alert, encouraged to speak and be forthright; and to be more honest in a blunt, sometimes discomforting way, but with a maturity that will add many useful years of living to their life span.

The next decade or so could be crucial to the survival of Earth and its people. Never before has Earth stood so close to the brink. The minds of the elders who will shape and decide that destiny – to plunge over or to draw back – belong to the children of today. No other generation has been faced with the ultimate choice.

To write for today's child is to write for the most important generation of people ever, born. This is a humbling thought.

What leads a writer into this particular form of written expression? He may come to it by various routes, and at any time of life. All of them legitimate, provided he takes to this road only because he must.

Literary expression comes in many forms – poet, playwright, novelist, historian – different yet the same, all endowed with the ability to define and express with the tool of words. Many writers work in more than one medium but most of them will have one forte in which they excel.

It is not enough, however, to look over the field of literary choice and thrust in a red pin. To say "I'll be a poet" won't make that person a poet, unless he already has the rhythm of poetry flowing through mind and body. The one who says "I'll write a children's book", believing it to be an easy form of writing, or because he thinks it more lucrative than the adult novel, will not write a good book for the young. The writer of children's books, for whatever age group, must be drawn to this medium as inexorably as the poet is drawn to his music in words.

My route to this track? There were no writers in my family, but the house was ever full of books. Born with it? Probably, though there were other things I might have done. If I had been a man, I feel I would have worked in wood, in some form or another. I admire, envy, those who can create fine furniture, fine buildings. I may have worked in wood by day, and written at night. If I were starting out today, though female, I'm certain I would also include wood.

I started to write when I was very young, as soon as words had graduated from the flight of speech to be snared on paper. Even in those early pieces, I wrote mainly about the things I knew, the happenings I experienced, the trappings of my environment. Which probably explains my leaning still towards the factual. I wrote about children because, still being a child, these were the kinds of people I knew about. I had my first acceptance with children's material. This was a setting of direction, on an already prescribed course. Later, the writing of those adult short stories, radio plays, biography, did not seduce me away from writing for children. So this is my life's rhythm of writing.

I am still surprised to find that a news item, a place, a story told to me, a meeting with someone, will trigger off a story for the young, yet seldom offer me the ingredients for an adult work. Yet I am not unaware that the ingredients in many cases would make an adult novel. From this, I deduce, with much satisfaction, that there is no accident in my being a writer for children. Nor do I sidestep the issue by saying, well, I'm probably still a child myself. I am a child only in the sense that I retain the ability to be surprised, excited, jolted, by some discovery, good or ill; and that is not a trait confined to the writer.

We are all aware that technology – the media, instant communication, fast travel – has changed society generally. Our children have reacted, too. They have not changed in the basic qualities of loving, hating, being jealous, kindly, envious, violent, gentle, but in knowledge. What I learned slowly, over years and in snippets, the youngster now acquires in a few nights of television. This knowledgeable child allows an author to range wide.

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Australian Book Review Number 53, August 1983.

Does it release him from responsibility? I don't think so. Knowledge cannot be equated with experience, and therefore understanding. Recognition of this will impose its own restraints on the author. And yet… when I start a book… my conscious sense of responsibility drops away from me. I write what I want to write. (We all claim this! It's as hoary a claim as the 1000 words a day syndrome!) But this one is true. If it were not so, there would be no spontaneity, no free-flow in the text. I write my book because my subject has excited me, involved me; and because it excites, involves, demands to be written.

In particular, my own country excites me. The red earth, a few pudding-shaped saltbush, a mill on the skyline, dusty, red, long-legged sheep, an emu pacing my vehicle, the etchings drawn by the tail of a kangaroo... all excite me. In The Min-Min, I was not only excited by my country but moved deeply when I observed the child growing up in the squalor of a siding on the east-west line. In Blue Above the Trees I was saddened and motivated by the tearing-down and burning of the mountain ash forest of South Gippsland. I was so afraid for the possible destruction of the mutton bird and the Cape Barren goose of Bass Strait that I wrote The Hundred Islands. The abandonment of a child on the doorstep of a Babies' Home disturbed my nights, resulting in The Sky is Free. I felt so strongly about the child of separating parents, who had to choose to live with one or the other of the two people she loved, that I wrote Solomon's Child, even though it took me into research of the legal maze of law.

But then I have followed some maze of factual research in every novel I have written since the days of my apprenticeship. It is the reason why the writing of a book occupies me for a year or more. It is an extra workload on a novel, but work I enjoy. I appreciate gaining for myself a knowledge of and insight into a hitherto unexplored area. And no doubt this is why my didactic pieces, so-called, are there in my work. Detail, awareness, is so important to today's youth-and the detailed life unfolding ahead of them-that I can see no reason for withholding a relevant fact.

In using a factual background or backdrop – mining town, destruction of a forest, Aborigines, law – accuracy of detail is all-important. When the novel is complete, after carefully checking my own study and understanding, I pass the manuscript to an expert in the particular subject matter for further checking. Our children are entitled to accuracy; and their keen knowledge demands it. This is a responsibility that the author cannot leave to his subconscious.

My own understanding of the responsibility of the author – as separate from factual accuracy – is to present truth as he sees it. The picture will vary from author to author because we each see the truth of our world – the reality – with different eyes. The truth – as human eyes see it – is both beautiful and ugly. We should not be afraid to raise the ecstasy of seeing, understanding, and appreciating beauty; or to sicken with the picture of ugliness.

Then there is the projection of ideas. I once heard one of our leading children's writers say in a radio interview that a writer for children should not project his ideas on his readers. I could only take that statement to mean that a writer for children should not project ideas in the form of any kind of propaganda, and with this I agree. Propaganda is ideas, but only from one narrow angle. When this particular writer (the one on the radio) presents his theme he says, in effect, to the child – or so I presume – these are the facts of the matter, now work it out for yourself.

Or this is what he thinks he does, believes he does. I don't agree. I think he does project himself. He is a man of ideals and integrity; those ideals and integrity come through. We are all creatures of ideas, of varying value; the projection – of varying value – is inevitable.

Another hoary aspect that writers for children talk about is hope – not leaving a child reader without hope. It is a statement that gives a self-satisfying glow; but is also true. Perhaps one of the factors that has brought this Earth and its men to the brink of the ultimate is that writers of adult works have wallowed so long in the hopeless. They've presented a gloomy analysis and a gloomier prognosis, seemingly unaware of joyful anticipation. Yet hope – joyous anticipation – is a basic quality of the human being. It is the diamond glow in the eyes of a baby, anticipating the excitement of a seventy-year journey of living. Those children who are going to decide Earth's and their own future need to approach that ultimate decision with the light still brilliant. Otherwise, they'll find relief in jumping over. The writer without hope, himself, should keep his mind off words for children.

The writing of a children's novel involves no less labour, physical and mental, than in an adult work. Characterization and structure are equally important, yet the children's book demands the tightness and economy of the short story. A child, while aware of the rhythm of words, is not interested in words as such, but in the pictures they create for him. The clarity and simplicity of a good children's book – especially tor the younger age groups – is deceptive.

While the author is writing for people with all the basic qualities, traits and emotions of the adult, he can't be diffuse as he can in an adult work. He has to ensnare the attention of a reader who is not yet an established reader. He may have to labour over a sentence, a phrase, with the same patience and skill as a poet. Yet his writer's tools are not as many nor as sophisticated. That simple style has to offer a variety of words and imagery – with original metaphors and similies – but not too-difficult words. Which all means that writing for children is a discipline in itself.