When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all. Because every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven by others.
From time to time people have suggested that I should write for a living. I appreciate the implied compliment, but I don't have the right temperament for the kinds of writing for a living that might seem open to me. I am an undisciplined writer: I start with inspiration, and continue with improvisation and digression. I am a creative writer, but only on a small scale: an anecdotalist, not a story-teller. I am a careful writer: I want my writing to be accurate, and am disappointed when it isn't; I want it to be clear, but clear writing demands clear thinking, and my thinking isn't always clear. In a sense, I lack what one of Ursula Le Guin's characters in Searoad calls "the necessary indifference and passion of the scholar". In a sense, I have too much of what John Mortimer had in mind when he wrote, in Clinging to the Wreckage, "The only rule I have found to have any validity in writing is not to bore yourself." He may say that, but in all his writing he shows a keen sense of writing appropriately for his intended audience, of trying not to bore them, a discipline I rarely practise.
In the late 1960s I worked for a time as a journalist, and I was no good at it; my attitude was all wrong. In journalism you need some general skill at writing, but in particular you need a great deal of skill at writing to order. At the Age in 1970 I had to write little pieces about caravans and hi-fi equipment and display houses. My pieces weren't needed urgently -- their main purpose was to fill the spaces between the advertisements and product lists in little books of dubious usefulness -- and for a while I enjoyed writing them, but I enjoyed much more visiting the people who sold these things. The salesmen (I can't recall a saleswoman) were invariably knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their product, and usually anxious to impress a journalist. I was offered discounts on amplifiers, free use of caravans, free advice if I wanted to buy a house. I would return to the office feeling I had made a friend for life, or at least a useful contact, then wonder what I could write about this salesman's product that I hadn't already written about another's. Once, I remember, when I should have been writing about installing something or other in your caravan, the third or tenth such piece, I spent the day writing about installing a trampoline in your caravan. It was mildly amusing.
I knew the editor well enough not to mention the trampoline to him. He was a frustrated motoring writer, who felt he had been sidelined (I am tempted to say demoted) by being taken away from his beloved motor cars and put in charge of these books. The Age had acquired a string of publications from another publisher, only one of which, Motor Manual, was a good money-spinner. One of my boss's colleagues had been appointed editor of Motor Manual; my boss had got the rest. As editor he did even less writing than I did, but he eased his frustration by moonlighting, doing road tests for other publishers. I knew a number of moonlighters at the Age. I worked in a large office that was almost empty much of the time, and many journalists used it to make private phone calls. One was a politics writer, who came in most afternoons to dictate stories to other publishers. What fascinated me about these journalists was their apparent devotion to one subject. One of them was a real-estate writer; he had been writing articles about houses for years, and was writing some for the "Ideal Homes" book that I was working on. Don't you ever get sick of it? I asked. No, he said, and seemed surprised at the suggestion. I haven't noticed his byline lately, but he was still writing about houses in the Age fifteen years later.
One day the Age decided sensibly to give the caravan book to the Motor Manual people and close our section. That's it then, my boss said, clearing out his desk. He had lined up a job with someone else, probably a publisher he had been moonlighting for. What happens to me? I asked. He advised me to find another job in the building quickly, before Personnel confirmed my redundancy in writing. Try radio, he said.
I tried radio. I spent my first few days monitoring television news and other people's radio news. I wasn't required to write anything. One day it was suggested that I might like to spend the next morning on police rounds, go on to the Premier's press conference if I wanted to, or come back to the office, whatever I liked. This, I suddenly realized, wasn't offhandedness but simply the kind of courtesy due to a B-grade journalist. I knew I didn't deserve it, but they didn't. So next morning, about 6, I was in a bare cold room at D24 in Russell Street, listening to police radio. I picked up two interesting stories. Someone had stolen a millionaire's yacht the day before -- I had heard that on the evening news -- and it was gradually emerging that his son had taken it, that the millionaire had been informed and was now insisting that his son had merely borrowed it, that the police knew there was ill feeling between the men and wanted charges pressed, and so on. The other story was about a man who had just been picked up for speeding. The police who had stopped him noticed a lot of sports gear on the back seat of his car, and found a lot more when they made him open his boot. He had robbed a sporting goods shop at Benalla. And he would have got away with it, I thought, if he'd stuck to the speed limit when he got back to Melbourne. I decided to write an ironic little story about that.
About 7.30 I was joined by an untalkative, bored-looking cadet. I told him I was new to police rounds and radio, told him what I'd been doing at the Age, told him about the millionaire's yacht. He didn't comment. I told him about the story I had written. He read the story and said it was written the wrong way. I invited him to rewrite it. He did. "Police early this morning detained a Brunswick man on suspicion of breaking and entering . . ." Something like that. The sort of story you hear or read every day. No irony, nothing unusual: shop robbed, thief caught, full stop. I will never learn to write like this, I said. It's easy, he said, suddenly earnest and looking embarrassed, as if I'd complimented him; radio is different, but you'll pick it up. I thanked him, then rang the office and said I wouldn't be back.
For a few months in 1971 I worked for a public relations firm. The people who made aluminium cans were rapidly increasing their share of a market once dominated by steel. The aluminium industry was running an apparently successful PR campaign based on the fairly new public awareness of conservation and recycling: they were good corporate citizens because their cans were being recycled. The firm I worked for had been engaged by the steel industry to counter this image with the "Steel Can Plan for Conservation". Aluminium cans were much more easily recycled than steel cans, but it seemed to me that the resources used to produce aluminium and steel were at least as important in any discussion of conservation as those used in recycling. This was none of my business. I was not involved in a discussion. PR is about advocacy and persuasion; facts are only useful if they support your case; image is everything.
One day I went to a school where young children had spent months collecting steel cans, stripping the paper from them, cleaning them, flattening them. They had collected a truckload. I gave a little speech, congratulated them on their terrific work, then took photos of them as they loaded their cans on the truck. I headed back to the office to write a story about it. The truck headed for a rubbish tip, where the cans were dumped. I learnt that some time later. My employers didn't know about it. But does it matter? The answer depends a little on the facts, more on your viewpoint. In general terms it was either a cynical fraud or an unfortunate misunderstanding, depending on who made the decision to dump the cans. In PR terms it was potentially disastrous, depending on whether the story got out. From the viewpoint of someone employed to write PR material, the question "Does it matter?" has no relevance. If the PR writer is asked to answer the question, then it becomes a matter of professional relevance, and the answer depends on the client's requirements.
In 1984 I was employed briefly in the Victorian Public Service. The job wasn't advertised: my boss liked my writing and wanted me on her staff. I told her I was a useless journalist. She said she wanted an editor, especially an editor who could write, and offered me a salary that was five times as much as I was earning as a freelance. It turned out that there was very little editing involved in the job, and not much writing -- except press releases. In my second or third week I was asked to write a press release. I said I had never written one. It's easy, she said; every press release is the same, except for the facts. The facts, it seemed, were not only interchangeable but virtually irrelevant. The main function of the press release was not to convey facts; it was not even to get the Minister's name mentioned in the news media, though that was of course useful and in some respects the mark of a good press-release writer. No, the main function of the press release was to show the Minister that he or she had a thoroughly professional press-release writer. The professionalism consisted in writing quickly and never straying from the formula. The formula, once you learnt it, allowed you to write quickly. The formula allowed busy journalists who read the press release to grasp the main points quickly and translate them into their formula. If you were thoroughly professional, you could be asked to write a press release at 10 and hear the gist of what you wrote on the midday news. I never got the hang of it.
My next job, three years later, was proofreading part-time for a small typesetting firm in East Brunswick. It should have been a full-time job, but the partners couldn't afford that, so I did my best to fit a day's reading into four hours, and most days I managed to do that. Things like bus timetables tended to slow me down, things you can't read for sense and literals, but most of my work could be best described as speed-proofreading. During my time with this firm, which I enjoyed a lot, I was doing very different work at home: most memorably, this was when I proofread Gerald Murnane's novel Inland for Heinemann. I'm not sure what to call the opposite of speed-proofreading, but reading Gerald was it: this wasn't just reading line by line, but word by word, and confirming every comma. Gerald is a very exact writer, and proofreading him demands total concentration.
Well, all proofreading demands total concentration, but the focus differs from job to job. I once had a client who was in the habit of saying "Don't find anything wrong with it" when she gave me a proofreading job. I knew what she meant: read for sense; if you find a glaring error of fact, correct it, but I don't want to know about it; don't look anything up, don't query anything; and get it back to me by Friday. Some kinds of proofreading shade over into copy-editing, even rewriting, but you must be very sure that your client wants you to do that kind of job, and then you must get the balance right: what is desirable at the copy-editing stage may be wanton luxury on the proofs.
I will happily proofread anything. I will happily do the kind of proofreading, plain or fancy, that any client wants. In other words, I don't just proofread: I proofread to order. I am more restricted when it comes to copy-editing. If my client and I agree on what needs to be done to a manuscript, and how long it might take, and I am confident that I can do it, we're in business. But I can't claim an ability to edit to order, because except in minor matters, matters of house style and procedure, I don't have it. When it comes to writing to order, something in me rebels against it. I write because I want to, and usually when I want to. I feel no moral obligation to write. Sometimes I feel the opposite: black moments when I feel bound not to write, when I think the world needs fewer writers and more editors and proofreaders. But that's ridiculous. What we need, in this little world that we choose to work in, is not fewer anything, but better everything.
The Society of Editors Newsletter, November 1993