While partaking of the rite of passage that is underage drinking at Sydney Uni’s Manning Bar one sunny afternoon when I was sweet seventeen, one of my unlearned fellows laughed at me on approach: ‘You’re really not into fashion, are you, Kimbo.’
No, I wasn’t. I was wearing an orange and black striped t-shirt and a pair of black tights: I’m sure I looked like an over-sized bumblebee, with a lager-froth moustache. My unlearned fellow, on the other hand, was most fashionably attired for the times in check-flannel shirt and stove-pipe jeans, his long hair studiously unwashed – so cool.
I shrugged at his statement of the obvious, and then he went on to ask me a question: ‘Don’t you have any ambition?’
Hm. I could only shrug again. At seventeen I barely knew what the word meant. Ambition? Did that mean climbing the corporate ladder? Getting yourself famous? I couldn’t see myself doing either of those things. I knew I wanted to write – probably novels, certainly poems – but I couldn’t tell such a cool person anything like that, not when he’d already laughed at what I was wearing.
He went on to become a popstar of some note (seriously), and I went on to make a really bad choice of marriage partner along my way to single motherhood. But his question stayed with me: did I have any ambition? These days, thirty years on, he’s not quite so notable and he’s cut his hair, while I seem to be fulfilling the only ambitions I ever had: writing and loving people who love me back. I have become a near obsessive frock-collector, too. I love dressing up – any or no excuse will do.
But I have never been fashionable, and I’ve realised over the years that I don’t quite understand what fashion is, apart from a capitalist construct designed by a bunch of desperate losers to make you feel inadequate and desperate, too, so that you will buy whatever crap they want to sell you. Yes, when the Almighty One was handing out cool, I was obviously off somewhere reading a book. I’ve never rushed with the mob for the next fabulous thing, not from any resistance on my part, but usually because I’m busy doing something else – like writing.
Curiously, I’ve discovered that a lack of mob mentality is not a quality much admired in authors – at least in some quarters. Earlier this year I was given some unsolicited advice by someone quite powerful in the publishing industry: ‘If you want to be successful, maybe it’s time you thought about changing your style. Have you considered writing a dual-timeframe narrative – you know, like Kate Morton? Something with lots of family secrets? They’re so popular.’
Praise be to Morton, but I’m still blinking at that question. Along with others I’ve heard over the years, such as: ‘Have you considered not writing in the first person, Kim? Your prose is wonderful, but you know first-person narratives never do well.’ And: ‘Have you considered not writing in the male voice? If you focus on the female story, your books will sell better. I know – perhaps your heroine could actually fly the plane to New Guinea herself, and then somehow become the hero’s nurse, then fly back to Australia with him to deal with the drought? Have you thought about maybe including a bushfire, too?’
Authors are routinely challenged by this kind of nonsense, and it’s very easy to feel quite knocked about by it. I know I have, and it’s left me asking the question: ‘Isn’t it good enough to want to be me? To tell my stories the way I want to tell them? Hello?’
It’s also very easy to be led to believe that the success you have achieved is meaningless. Of course we all want to sell truckloads like Rowling – who wouldn’t? – but most of us never will. For me, and I daresay the majority of those who stick at this writing caper, dollars and acclaim are not the goal – in my case, not because I’m particularly virtuous in this regard, but because my ambitions lie elsewhere. I want to keep learning new things, ploughing my field of curiosities, pushing my own boundaries, writing out my heart in the best ways I possibly can, and sharing these stories with those who mean the most to me in this realm of the page: readers. Besides, and for freak’s sake, I’m already successful beyond my wildest imaginings, and in my quiet, unfashionable way, that success builds and builds with every new day.
Today, it’s fairly easy for me to laugh at stupid questions. I’ve learned the only opinions that count are the ones from truly learned fellows I respect, the ones that come from people who genuinely care about what I’m trying to achieve over the long game. But if you are feeling a bit crushed or confused right now by those who question the worth of that one beautiful, timeless, necessary thing you do, know that I walk with you in solidarity.
And know that you are already winning by wanting to be you.