Learn from your mistakes! Keep trying! Don’t ever give up!
Competitions don’t work without losers.
We can’t all be successful writers – where would you find enough readers?
Keep writing the stories you want to write, even if nobody wants to read them. And keep writing them badly – in ignorance, because if nobody but family bothers reading them, you’ll never get any sensible feedback (also don’t do any courses lest you start writing by numbers, or it kills the magic).
I would love it if people enjoyed my stories and appreciated my ideas but maybe that’s not really why I write. As Stanley Rogouski says in a blog post about being a failed writer:
‘…while I didn’t actually like to write, I needed it, needed to write the way a heroin addict needs his fix. The reasons are the same. The heroin addict and the failed writer both want one thing, to be alone, to forget reality, and live inside his imagination.’
When you emerge from your imagination, to justify having spent so much time writing (when you could have been doing things that make your real life better, like spending time with friends and family), it is necessary to try to coax people into reading your stories, despite the nausea you get from knowing they’d rather not. Here’s a ‘short story’ I wrote in April about failure.
Whenever the government wants to get rid of an employee they transfer them to one of the regional offices, or so the story goes.
I liked the comfortable city life, I liked my desk job, I liked that the muscles I built at the gym were purely ornamental – and I really liked showing it all off on social media.
Although I knew I wasn’t a good person, I didn’t think I was a bad person either. If all else were equal, I’d have preferred to make the world a better place, but not if it meant taking a more difficult path, and it wasn’t my fault that doing good things was usually harder and the outcome less certain. It wasn’t as if I disliked hard work, so I wasn’t being lazy. I think I was just terrified of failure and wasted effort.
Whoever is in charge of administering my Karma must have always wanted to be a teacher.
Looking back, my lesson must have started in Centennial Park. I was there reluctantly, for the birthday picnic of a close friend. I didn’t like the thought of sitting on the grass with all the ants and other creepy crawlies, but I knew the outdoors presented interesting photo opportunities and great lighting.
After an awkward lunch spent shooing flies away while pretending to enjoy eating cold food from a plastic plate, I’d had enough. It would have been impolite to leave before they cut the cake so I decided to have a little wander while the others lay on their picnic blankets, talking about prosecco and their new cars.
My photos show I walked past a pond and into a swampy area where my blueberry-coloured faux ostrich-leather shoes got muddy. I posted the photo of my muddy shoes with the hashtag #nature. To be fair, I also took some photos of the trees with springy, papery bark and the ferns that liked wet feet, but I didn’t post them because I didn’t know what they were called.
As I fearfully navigated my way out of the swamp, occasionally slipping and swearing, I noticed a woman laughing at me. She wore the park staff uniform. I thought about reporting her rude behaviour but didn’t want to draw attention to what had happened to me, so instead I held up my phone to make it obvious I was taking a photo of her. She posed, putting one hand on her hip and the other behind her head, and smiled insincerely. I couldn’t think of an appropriate hashtag so decided to post it when I was feeling calmer, but when I looked at the photo later I didn’t feel angry anymore – I even smiled.
I looked at the photo again the next day just before my professional development session at work. When I mentioned that I wanted to work on becoming slower to anger, my manager nodded but seemed more worried that my lack of regional experience was holding back my career and that I should put my hand up when an opportunity arose to spend time at one of the regional offices. I didn’t listen because my goal was to move to a more influential department. I’d secretly been doing the necessary networking.
Once you get high enough, public service is no sacrifice, but if you want to be a high status public servant, you have to be the right sort of person – someone who can climb ladders without looking down at the mess they’ve left below. You must keep looking up. That’s what I wanted to do.
When I didn’t volunteer for the next regional opportunity, my manager responded by making it compulsory. The day before I left, my more experienced colleagues offered me some advice.
“Don’t drink coffee from any cafés that aren’t on this list,” said Katie.
“Don’t rely on your phone for navigation,” said José.
“Don’t drive too fast,” said Oscar.
I decided to ignore what Oscar said because the hire car I’d booked wouldn’t go anywhere near as fast as his Tesla.
Nobody warned me how dusty it would be. When I stopped to take a photo of myself in front of glowing yellow canola paddocks, I noticed that the edges of my white shirt cuffs were brown. I was feeling unusually tired and had sore sinuses so I stopped at the next town for a coffee.
I ordered a double shot almond milk latte to take away in my own monogrammed, double-walled cup with a leak-proof lid. The coffee was surprisingly professional, despite not being from one of the cafés Katie recommended. I took a photo of myself standing outside the café enjoying a taste and posted it on social media, tagging Katie, Jose and Oscar and adding the comment, “Not on the list.”
As I drove away from the café I turned the music up and enjoyed the luxury of an empty road. With no traffic to limit my speed, I went as fast as I could and was annoyed when I had to slow down for twists and turns. I sipped from my coffee cup as I drove and was trying to get the last sip out when the car wheels slipped in gravel on the outside of a corner. The car didn’t go where I directed it. Instead of following the road around the corner, it left the road, tipped over and rolled, over and over. I noticed my phone come out of its holder and felt it hit me on the head. The airbags inflated, the music stopped and the car hit a fence, making a long twanging sound like someone doing fancy guitar moves. I found it funny, even though I knew there was a high chance I was about to die.
When the car stopped moving, my first instinct was to reach for my phone to call for help and take a photo or two, but I couldn’t see where it had landed. Then I remembered movies where cars caught fire and exploded after crashing, so I tried to get out of the car but the door wouldn’t open and my right arm hurt too much to push hard. The side window had smashed and I was covered with small chunks of broken glass that prickled against the exposed skin of my neck. I noticed blood seeping through my pure wool herringbone trousers and fainted.
“Anyone home?” said a man in a heavy duty blue shirt that wasn’t able to button up over the summit his belly. His thigh-sized hairy forearm reached in through the window and shook me. His fingernails were grey, his hands felt like greasy sandpaper and he smelt like the sheep trucks I’d passed on the road. The hair growing from inside his nostrils and ears reminded me of the weeds that grow in cracks in the walls beside city train tracks. Given all the dust in the air, it was likely that he’d accumulated a bit of good topsoil in there.
“I’m glad I’m not washing your undies. I’ll call an ambulance. Don’t go anywhere. Bloody city people don’t know how to drive,” said the farmer, and he walked off.
I wasn’t offended because I imagined he’d now have to spend the rest of the day catching sheep and mending the fence, and I knew I wouldn’t be helping him.
My injuries were perfect – just bad enough to qualify me for a stay in a comfortable regional hospital, but not serious enough to have lasting effects. What I couldn’t get over was that the ambulance officers had destroyed my clothes by cutting them off me and that my phone, wallet and suitcase had been left behind in the hire car, which was probably on its way to be crushed and recycled.
“Can I get you anything?” asked the kind nurse called Darryl. He was tall and wide and, despite all the footy he talked about playing on the weekends, very soft. I suspected that a few months of clean eating would leave him looking really fit.
“A late model smartphone and the WiFi password?”
“What about a nice cup of tea?”
“But I really want to post a photo of you so all my friends can see what a good nurse you are.”
“I’ll get you a cup of tea.”
I decided I’d look up the nearest phone shop and call to see if they’d deliver, only realising the flaw in that plan when I went to reach for my phone.
“When Darryl comes back, ask him for a copy of the Yellow Pages and use the landline on your side-table,” said the man I was sharing a room with. Darryl addressed him as ‘Mr. Thompson’, the visitors he’d had from the Men’s Shed that morning had called him ‘Tommo’, but he told me his name was Ian.
My mum likes to say that large ears are a sign someone will live a long time, but because ears and noses continue to grow, I think large ears are a sign that you have already lived a long time. Given the size of Ian’s ears, he must have been about 100 years old. His ears also had hair growing in them, and the growth was so sumptuous he must have accumulated even more dust than the farmer who rescued me.
Unfortunately, the local phone shops did not deliver, nor would they give me a SIM card without seeing identification. To ease my pain, Ian kindly lent me his digital camera so I could record my hospital stay.
After a lunch that tasted like it was 90 percent cardboard, an interesting bunch of people came to visit Ian – his daughter Ruth and two of his friends – one with a lush beard and the other with lush eyebrows. They brought him a bunch of tiny flowers and mentioned that it was a bad year for orchids but that it might improve if there was rain soon. I’d seen tropical orchid collections but nothing so small and supposed that when there was decent rain they grew much larger.
“Should you have picked them if it is such a bad year?” asked Ruth.
“No, but they might not last much longer with climate change so Ian may as well enjoy them while he can,” said Ian’s bearded friend.
I resisted the craving to take photos of Ian’s visitors and instead asked Darryl to draw the curtains around my bed to give them a bit of privacy, but I could still hear what they were saying. I couldn’t help laughing at their jokes and found myself wondering whether Ian was old enough to have known Oscar Wilde. If I’d had my phone, I’d have checked.
When Ian told a story about a lady accidentally doing a poo in the back of her husband’s slipper I gave up and opened the curtain a little bit so I could watch. Ian laughed like The Count from Sesame Street.
I caught myself sighing and noticed that I was feeling envious of Ian and his friends, but what hurt more was the accompanying realisation that my friends were all so vapid. As I pondered why my friendship circle was lower quality, I remembered hearing someone say that people become like the ones they spend the most time with, and pictured the finger of blame pointing straight at me. That’s when it occurred to me that I’d rather be a person of value than high status.
“Try the banjo Dad,” suggested Ruth but Ian wasn’t very enthusiastic and got out his jaw harp instead. He played a reverberating tune that made me shiver. The notes were haunting, yet slightly ridiculous. When he finished I couldn’t help clapping, which was a stupid thing to do, considering I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
“My friend here crashed into a fence,” said Ian.
“Why would you want to do that?” asked the friend with bushy eyebrows.
“I got carried away listening to music.”
“What were you listening to?” asked Ruth.
That was the question I’d been dreading. These farmers would surely ridicule me if I admitted listening to classical music. I wanted to lie but didn’t know what to say that would be acceptable (all that came to mind was Chad Morgan), so I told the truth, in a squeaky voice.
“Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance.”
“Not bad, but I’d rather crash to one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances,” said the bearded one.
I nodded and wished I could look them up.
Later that afternoon, when Ian and I were alone, I heard him sighing. He had a strained expression so I asked him if he was alright.
He said, “It just hit me that I’ll never see Angaba again.”
I’d overheard the names of Ian’s other daughter and ex-wife and neither were Angaba. I imagined Angaba being exotic and much younger. Perhaps she was only in it for the good times, or maybe Ian’s family didn’t want her around. By the time I’d gathered the courage to ask Ian about Angaba, the moment had passed and Darryl came in with some pills for Ian.
In the morning I noticed Ian gasping for breath and pressed the emergency button. Nurse Tracey and Dr Christmas rushed in and stabilized him, but I could tell from their expressions that they weren’t optimistic. Ian had a sleep and woke at lunchtime. I was determined not to miss my chance this time. As we ate our cardboard lunches I casually said, “Tell me about Angaba.”
Ian stared out the window, smiled and said, “Whatever happened to me, Angaba was always there, just across the paddock. When you are better you should visit. I’ll draw you a map after lunch.”
After lunch, it was my turn for medical attention. I developed a fever so Darryl and Dr Christmas checked my wounds and discovered that the cut on my thigh was infected. I was given antibiotics via a drip, and stronger painkillers. I didn’t mention that I’d tampered with the dressings the day before when I’d taken photos of my wounds.
Ian’s afternoon visitors were quieter this time and I fell asleep. It was a long, tumultuous sleep. In the middle of the night I woke up after having a bad dream where I was being chased by giant germs.
I turned my reading lamp on and noticed a piece of brown paper on the table beside my bed. It was a basic hand-drawn map showing the way from town to an asterisk, which was labelled “Park here and walk.” I concluded that it was the way to Angaba’s place.
I looked towards Ian’s bed and noticed it was empty and that all his things were gone, all except his digital camera, which was in my drawer. I turned it on and looked through the photos I’d taken on it and, even though I kept telling myself that Ian had lived a good life and I’d hardly known him, I cried. It took me months to realise it, but what I was really mourning was the loss of someone who was, to me, incogitable. It was similar to the way scientists would mourn the extinction of species before they were able to study it. I was probably also mourning because it was the beginning of the death of my worldview.
On the Friday evening after my first week at the regional office, I was tidying up when I came across Ian’s map. I decided to visit Angaba the next morning.
I drove to the asterisk and found a path leading into bush.
“Angaba must really live in the bush,” I though as I started walking. The dirt road was sandy in places and rocky in others. When it took me uphill to more open, scrubby parts, I noticed the temperature increase, and in the valleys the air was cooler and moister. There had been rain recently so there were puddles. It must have been quite heavy rain because I could see bare clay where streams of runoff had washed leaf litter into piles against rocks and sticks. The smell of the damp, decaying eucalyptus leaves was comforting – like sweet tea.
The tips of the tree branches were covered in new shoots, some translucent spring green, others yellow or orange, setting off the duller blue of older eucalyptus leaves. The shadows of the leaves made patterns on the ground as they moved in the wind but I spent most of my time looking up, trying to find the birds that kept making unfamiliar calls. The writhing tree tops created intensely coloured lines of movement. I felt like I was looking through Van Gogh’s eyes.
A small tree with yellow leaves and bright red fruit lured me off the track. I cautiously tried one of the fruits. It was really only a thin skin over a large nut, but had a nice tangy taste, although it was a little bit gritty – as I chewed I suspected that an insect had gotten there first, but I resisted checking.
As I spat out the seed I looked down and noticed spiky bushes that were only tall enough to graze my ankles. They had little red, bell-shaped flowers. As I scanned the ground for more treasures I noticed a patch of purple flowers so I went closer to investigate. I recognised them from the posy Ian had been given – orchids. They had one delicate flower per stem with five large petals on the outside and a smaller sun-lounge petal in the middle shaded by a hood petal. On the sun lounge was an even smaller yellow petal, as if the orchid was sticking out its tongue. Each orchid had only one leaf, located so close to the base that they were hardly noticeable among the leaf litter. The orchids were still small, despite the recent rain. I realised that a bad season must mean fewer orchids rather than smaller ones. As I walked towards another even larger patch of orchids I wondered why I’d never been told about such delicate flowers. Why hadn’t anyone shown me photos? Why weren’t they on TV? Now that I was paying attention I noticed three other types of orchids – smaller baby pink ones, more flamboyant yellow ones with spots and the occasional green, bearded one.
On the way back to the path I passed a damp piece of ground and knelt down to explore moss, sundews and spongy lichens. As I stood up I absent-mindedly pulled on a loose piece of tree bark, destroying the abode of a large spider, who ran up my arm. Surprising myself, I calmly leant against the tree and the spider gratefully climbed back onto the tree. While the spider was at eye height I had a closer look, took a photo and resisted the temptation to stroke its velvety back.
If I had to pick a point in time when I started to detest my old self, it would be when I took my last glance towards that spider, remembered all the spiders I’d sprayed or squashed to death in the past and decided that nobody should be allowed to destroy anything they don’t understand.
After about an hour of walking, I emerged into a paddock. I could see a farmhouse with a shady garden and, remembering how Ian had talked about Angaba living just across the paddock, I assumed I was finally close to her house. It was surprisingly glary and windy without the protection of the trees so I hurried towards the farmhouse.
These days I never walk across that paddock without sock protectors. I’m not sure if anyone would have been able to convince me to wear a little skirt on each ankle back then though. I never did get all the spiky grass seeds out of the socks I wore that day. I even tried wetting them and leaving them outside in the hope that the seeds would germinate – thinking that at least then they’d feel softer against my skin.
As I approached the house I saw a woman coming and going as she moved boxes out onto the verandah. She was disappointingly un-exotic so I hoped she was one of Angaba’s friends, but I couldn’t see anyone else around. She didn’t notice me until I came in the gate.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Ian suggested I visit. We shared a room in hospital – one of the last things he did was draw me a map.”
“Well, while you’re here you can help me. I’m doing a big clean up. I’m bringing everything outside to sort on the verandah. Come inside and get some more boxes.”
The house had a comfortable scent – I could detect lamb chops, ginger, mildew, mud, dust, gum leaves, pine, leather, wattle flowers and newspaper. It wasn’t what I’d expected Angaba’s house to smell like. It reminded me more of Ian.
The boxes were full of articles and letters written by Ian relating to good causes that he must have been part of – from negotiating for the creation of nature reserves, to preservation of historic buildings, to looking after vulnerable people, to building soil. He and Angaba must have worked on these things together.
“I can see Ian left behind a lot of responsibilities.”
“Yeah, someone else will have to step up now.”
My heart rate increased at the thought of carrying such weight, but with excitement instead of fear. I suddenly comprehended what had always been there to see – that failure is never a waste of effort because learning is what makes life worthwhile. For the first time in my life, I felt like running towards difficulty, not away from it.
As we sat on the verandah, taking things out of boxes, examining them and sorting them into piles, I couldn’t help asking, “Why didn’t you visit Ian in hospital?”
“You must have been too out of it to notice. I was sitting with Dad when he passed away.”
I inhaled sharply when I realised I was talking to Ian’s other daughter Judith, not Angaba.
“Sorry, I thought you were Angaba.” I said.
“Ingalba isn’t a person, she’s the nature reserve over there, across the paddock,” said Judith.
Judith and I laughed at my stupid misunderstanding for a long time, but I could feel something more perturbing developing.
“Do you need a place to stay?” asked Judith. “You wouldn’t want to rent this place would you? We could never sell. When do you go back to Sydney?”
Thinking about going back to my life in Sydney made my blood run cold and my mind convulse at the absurdity of it – as if I were to ask a fly to turn back into a maggot. As I realised that it was inevitable I would forsake my old self, I smiled.