Essay: Bill Wilkieon writing

My Difficult Apprenticeship

This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.

The scene was not a remarkable one by any standards: a toddler in a high chair complaining about the prospect of going to day-care. But the whinging was incessant and I was tired. I snapped. Tears came as I explained to my two-year-old daughter why she had to go. My tears provoked tears from her. There we were, 7.48 am and both in tears. And me, also, racked with guilt, because it was Thursday, and Thursday was NOT normally a day-care day. She was booked in for the extra day for the sole reason that I could get some writing done.

We both recovered and I packed her up and took her off. She would have 20 weeks in which she would have an extra day. It became a lifeline for me to keep my writing project going. I also found a way to make getting there easier for both of us.

She knew from what I was wearing whether or not I was going to work. If she knew that I would be at home she wanted to be at home too and kicked up a real stink. So when I dropped her off at day-care on my writing days I put on my work uniform, changing into normal clothes when I got home again. One day on the way home I stopped at the shops and bumped into a friend. ‘Don’t let me hold you up,’ she said. ‘You must be late for work.’ I explained the situation to her and we laughed at the absurdity of it. But it worked, so I kept doing it.

The main reason we found ourselves crying that day was the busy lives we were leading. My partner, struggling with being a stay-at-home mum, decided to go back to full-time work. To get the job she agreed to upgrade her qualifications. She was working full-time, studying part-time, and also trying to fit in being a parent. I had gone from full-time to part-time work to care for our daughter two days a week. I had also thought, naively as it turns out, that this would allow me a bit of time to work on my book. But the pressures of working, being a parent, and keeping the household running, meant that not much time was left for writing. My frustration grew.

I knew I was onto a big story but I just wasn’t getting anywhere with it.

We had moved to far north Queensland from Sydney for my partner’s work a few years earlier. It also seemed like a good tonic for the stifled creativity brewing within me. Not long after we arrived I heard about The Daintree Blockade, an environmental protest that occurred an hour north of our new home. In 1983 a small group of local conservationists organised a protest to stop a road going through the Daintree National Park. I was immediately captivated by tales of greenies lying down in front of bulldozers; hippies chaining themselves to trees; chainsaw wielding council workers; and police dogs ravaging protesters. It all seemed so fascinating. That it happened during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era added a spicy political element as well. With serious national media coverage, the blockade put the Daintree on the map. And a full account of the protest had never been documented.

After interviewing many of the people involved and gathering a lot of information I hit a bit of a roadblock. I thought the words would simply tumble out of me into a perfectly formed manuscript. When they didn’t, I felt lost.

A few years earlier my mother had given me a copy of The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. I dusted it off and, like someone going through addiction recovery, committed to a twelve-week program. The Artist’s Way is divided into twelve chapters, each dealing with a theme that is explored through a series of exercises and questions aimed at releasing the reader’s stifled creativity. I followed the program with religious vigour, going on ‘artist’s dates’ with myself, and waking up early to handwrite the prescribed three ‘morning pages’ – a daily stream-of-consciousness exercise designed to clear the mind. I came to call this time my ‘creative recovery’. After a period of soul searching guided by the tools in the book, I gained some confidence, let go of some doubt, and committed to finishing my Daintree book.

I set about the slow process of pulling all the different threads of the story together, weaving the diverse material that I had collected into something that could do the story justice.

A few other hurdles had to be overcome. My writing desk was just outside the nursery and our daughter was a light sleeper. Every time I stood on a creaky floorboard outside her room I dreaded waking her up. I bought a small folding table and folding chair, and at night or early in the morning created a pop-up writing room in the bathroom of our small wooden cottage. The table and chair tucked neatly away behind the bathroom door. I would conduct a few phone interviews while sitting in our car parked underneath my house, so as not to disturb the sleeping child and studying partner.

Never a great sleeper, as a toddler our daughter began resisting her afternoon naps. This was the time during the day when I could get a little bit of writing done between jobs. I began to calculate the pros and cons of getting her to sleep, a process that required lying there with her for up to forty minutes, then sneaking out of the room without making a sound. Was the half an hour of freedom gained worth the forty minutes spent getting her to sleep? When she abandoned her naps altogether she was allowed to watch a movie at lunchtime. I sat beside her, my laptop on my lap, trying to pull a paragraph together, while humming along to ‘Let It Go’.

Some important blockade anniversaries came along which would have provided great marketing opportunities for the book and a date to aim for publication. When my partner became pregnant with our second child, things changed again. Her version of morning sickness included severe nausea and overnight stays in hospital to treat the associated dehydration and weight loss. Looking after our now three-year-old daughter and trying to keep my partner healthy became the priorities. As such, my writing went on the back-burner, and the anniversaries came and went: more missed opportunities. Our second daughter was born healthy and we were a little more prepared second time around. After six months my partner went back work.

Now there was a baby as well as a toddler to look after, and my partner was still working and studying. I was working part-time and trying to finish the book in-between loads of laundry, playgroup, the never easy day-care drop offs, shopping, doctor’s visits, and the plethora of things that engulf life as a parent. There were days when it all seemed too much, when it seemed like everything would collapse around us, our family would fall apart, and the book would find a permanent home among the other abandoned writing projects in my filing cabinet. Life seemed to happen in a blur. After a day at work, I got home, threw some pasta at the kids, fell asleep in their beds while putting them to sleep, and finally got to the desk at 9pm with a stiff neck and zero energy.

I edited drafts in the early hours of the morning, sent emails during lunch breaks, and wrote the book’s final chapters after the kids were in bed at night. I chewed up my long-service leave taking days off to get the book finished. At times I felt like giving up. The Daintree Blockade had lasted about eight months all up, and here I was into my eighth year of writing about the damn thing. I swapped parenting days with a friend who was studying nursing, looking after each other’s children on alternating Fridays. This arrangement allowed me one uninterrupted day every second week to get some writing done. Through all of this, I was learning how to be a writer, researcher, interviewer and editor. ‘My difficult apprenticeship’, I came to call it.

Living in far north Queensland I felt way out of the writing and publishing loop. The Queensland Writers’ Centre organises workshops in Cairns, and Cairns Tropical Writers meet regularly, but all of this happens an hour away and it was rare that I could get to an event. Book launches, festivals and workshops where I could meet other writers, or even a contact in the publishing industry, seemed to take place a world away.

An antidote to this isolation came through the 2015 ‘Hardcopy’ manuscript development program, facilitated by the ACT Writers Centre. Three long weekends in Canberra with a great bunch of fellow writers and feedback from the course mentor, as well as publishers and agents, re-invigorated my love of the process. I also now had some writing peers, two of whom would end up editing my manuscript. Many others offered advice and support along the way.

I also learnt to take a punt. The actor Jack Thompson had narrated a film about the Daintree in the 1980s and I thought he would be perfect to write the book’s foreword. I had spoken briefly on the phone with the director of the film and recalled that she had said that her husband was a friend of Jack’s. I called her up and re-introduced myself. ‘We spoke on the phone for about five minutes two years ago…’ I proceeded with my pitch and she agreed to see what she could do.

The next day I was on the road doing some research and when I came back into phone range, there were three missed calls on my phone. When I called the number back I heard the familiar gravelly tones of Jack Thompson himself. We had a good chat and he agreed to do the foreword. Next was Bob Brown, who also endorsed the book with some comments that appear on the inside sleeve, and later a glowing review.

Somehow, our little family survived. And I finished the book: The Daintree Blockade: the Battle for Australia’s Tropical Rainforests, which was published in May 2017. The overwhelming feeling was one of relief. Five months later the book was nominated for a Queensland Literary Award in the category of ‘a work of State Significance’. When I took the phone call to find out I had won, I was on the footpath outside a pet supply warehouse in Cairns. After I got over the shock and excitement of winning, a familiar feeling came over me: relief. Along with the welcome prize money came the acknowledgement of the book as a work of literature. Then I walked into the pet store to buy kitty litter.

This Writers at Work essay has been funded by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland. This stage of the series has also been funded by Creative Victoria and Arts Tasmania.