It’s too hard to write good – I’d rather write bad

by Dorothy Porter

© all rights reserved

Once upon a time I tried to write good. By good I mean I steered deliberately and painstakingly clear of anything that hinted of sex or the slightest breath of bad language. It was during my brief stint as a writer for young adults. I’d sold out. I was writing for money.

I was sick and tired of being a broke and overlooked and unread poet. I wanted an audience. I wanted some money in the bank. In my impoverished arrogance I thought, deludedly as it turned out, that writing books for kids was the way to go. And I’ll pause at this juncture to apologise to any children’s author who might be in the audience this afternoon. One of the few good things to come out of my brief stint as a writer for young adults was meeting the realwriters for young adults and reading some terrific fiction.

Moving on. Even though I was on a false passport I enjoyed writing the two books I wrote ostensibly for the so-called young adult market. It was fun – not to mention a terrific discipline – consciously writing a story as vivid, as clear and as entertaining as possible. My later verse narratives owe these books a huge debt. It’s quite an education working hardnot to be long-winded, wilfully obscure or just plain tepid dull.

My first book had a moderate success. A handful of schools set it for Year 9 – and it got a couple of very gratifying short-listings. But it made me no money. I knew I had yet to hit the kids’ book jacketpot – getting shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council. With hindsight I had Buckley’s Chance, but I didn’t think so at the time. Encouraged by the reception of my first book I decided I’d write another one. And despite the strictures I placed on myself to write good,ie nothing that would offend the children’s lit gatekeepers – school librarians, parents, headmasters and so forth I had both an enthralling and harrowing time researching and writing this book.

I won’t waste too much time explaining its story because it’s been out of print for years. Suffice to say it was titled The Witch Number and to my mind its central theme was difference, loneliness and the yearning for a soul mate.

It kicked off with that freezingly desolate quote from Keats’ marvellous poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”: “And I awoke and found me here/ On the cold hill’s side”. Nothing reminds me of the ravages of my own adolescence more than that quote. But in reviewers’, and the Queensland Board of Education’s mind, it was a diabolical and subversive text with designs on gullible young minds to twist and turn them on to the foul practices of witchcraft. They’d leave their Sunday schools in droves after reading my book in their eagerness to set up their own covens. But that was not my worst offence. Nay, mortal sin.I had mentioned the unmentionable. I’d even made up a secret ceremony for co-conspirators (female teenagers) to celebrate the unmentionable. Menstruation. Periods. I discovered to my horror that I had not hit the Children’s Book Council jackpot – I’d hit the taboo jackpot instead. And nothing had been further from my intentions. I had read through, verily sniffedthrough the book to stub out any sexual brushfire that I’d inadvertently started. This was going to be the book that made me a fortune.

Looking back I was of course incredibly naïve. Menstruation, periods, female bleeding is still almost unknown in Australian writing. It simply doesn’t happen. Or appear. I’m sure there’ll be those of you in the audience racking your brains to contradict me. I’m very happy to be proved wrong. But for the time being I stand by my statement. And by the way – was there much discussion in all the clamour in parliament over the effect of the GST on the price of tampons (already ludicrously expensive – nothing like a taboo to shut protest off)??? Let’s be honest – for the majority of women the price of tampons is more important than the price of books.

So writing good for me didn’t pay off. And The Witch Numberwas the last book I ever consciously wrote for kids.

When planning my next book I decided I would please myself entirely – and that is the advice I give to any aspiring writers this afternoon – please yourself. I wanted ingredients that stank to high heaven of badness. I wanted graphic sex. I wanted explicit perversion. I wanted putrid language. I wanted stenching murder. I wanted to pour out my heart. I wanted to take the piss. I wanted lesbians who weren’t nice to other women. I wanted glamorous nasty men who even lesbians want to fuck. I wanted to say that far too much Australian poetry is a dramatic cure for insomnia. But I still wanted to write the book in poetry.

The book ended up as The Monkey’s Mask. And after my experience of The Witch Number, under my defiant bravado, I was extremely nervous waiting for its reception. The conservatives will hate it. The lesbians will hate it. Men will hate it. Straight women will hate it. The poets will hate it. And no one will buy it.

Its reception still surprises me. It’s even made, to my thrilled amazement, some money.

I wrote bad because writing good definitely did me no good. And finally in my most recent book, What a Piece of Work, I’ve gone the full monty. This is a verse novel in the voice of a male psychiatrist, Doctor Peter Cyren, working in Sydney’s Callan Park Mental Hospital in the late 60s, who goes from pretty bad to heinous worse. My model here was Shakespeare with his black-hearted but full blooded creations such as Macbeth and Iago. The challenge is to make bad men good company. And Shakespeare takes that hurdle with magnificent ease.

Here’s a quick taste of Macbeth at his grimly eloquent best at the conclusion of the play:

“I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cooled
To hear a night shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in’t: I have supped full with horrors:
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
cannot once start me.”

The key is poetry. Poetry gives that sixth dimension – that subterranean psychic landscape – that can give the most evil character a vivid, even sympathetic, luminosity. It’s bad speaking wonders.

I’ll finish with two poems of mine, “Sticky Morning” and “Answered Prayers” from What a Piece of Work which I hope shows, to turn on its head where I began this paper, how a bad man can try to be good.

Sticky Morning

In the shade
of a twisted-trunked
Frank shows me the poem
he sweated out
in the airless swamp
of his ward
last night

under my jacket
my shirt is glued
to my back
my tie, as always,
chokes me
but Frank
in the vice of his dirty disarray
worships the grace of formality
I sit in discomfort

his poem
sticks to his hand
he peels it off
and palms it
on the ground

a cool-breezed
love poem
to a tree
that could never exist

a creole lovely
spawned from trees
in the ground
we’ve enjoyed together

a tree
with the drooping elephant tail
of a Moreton bay fig

a tree
with the caressing
of a barkless spotted gum
a tree
with the aloof skinny elegance
of a cabbage palm

Frank’s woman tree

a tree
that pricks my eyes
a tree
that doesn’t exist.

Answered Prayers

I can’t believe the peace
of this morning

I take Frank out
into the grounds

I make us both
a cup of tea

everything is vivid
and gentle

the blue of Sydney sky
and Sydney water

the just right breeze.

Frank holds his cup
with a frail
and humble grasp

Frank holds my eyes
with the serene intensity
of great music.

This morning
he is the saint
he longs to be

this morning
I am a good man

the glowing
good friend.


Dorothy Porter presented this paper at the Tasmanian Readers’ and Writers’ Festival in August, 1999. Her latest book isWhat a Piece of Work, Picador, Sydney, 1999 from which both “Sticky Morning” and “Answered Prayers” are reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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