Just before dawn, I was called to one of the houses on the outskirts of the community. ‘A sick baby’, I was told. It wasn’t sick; it was dead. The obese mother had rolled in the night and smothered it.
That day was more of the usual in the clinic. That night, back on-call, I was rousted at three AM – ‘fella got cut. You come sew him up.’
The lights were already on in the clinic. Four big men in their twenties, three drunk but cheerful in the aftermath of the fight. The fourth, dead-drunk, sat slumped over, held upright by his mates. The ‘cut’ was a machete wound about eighteen centimetres long and five deep, running across his left shoulder toward the neck, a meat canyon that cut down through the layers of skin, fat and muscle like a geology text book. A skinnier man would be dead.
That day I got a letter from a friend. If I wanted a job on a storylining table for a new medical drama – supplying the medical angle – all I had to do was fly back to Darwin, and flights on from there would be provided.
I didn’t know what a ‘storylining table’ was, but I knew I needed a holiday.
Up to the moment I started to write soap opera, I’d never watched one, and held the view that it was mental chewing gum for people without lives of their own.
I came to know better.
The generation of stories for the never-ending narrative of soap opera, day in, day out, builds mental muscles. You begin to include commercial break points and cliff-hangers in your dreams. Awake, you see story everywhere, and wonder how best it could be told. You begin thinking of stories that don’t fit with television; stories that itch and nag, with characters who demand life on a page somewhere.
So, on a day off, you sit at the keyboard and open the door for a character who wanders out into the world they belong to, and which they create as they go. They are mutually attracted to other characters. All are internally conflicted, with conflicting needs and goals. Simply rolling a few obstacles in their paths creates narrative. Suddenly, they’re a team, working together, and directing you as much as the other way around. More.
One day, a word appears in front of you – ‘fini’. You sit back in your chair, bemused. A whole book is completed. Beginning, middle and end. And it was fun.
Now cursed with an addictive need to write – in-between writing full-time for a living – new characters and stories emerge. They come unbidden, singly and in ensembles, sitting beside you at work, silently willing you to write their stories, or cheekily leaning over your shoulder, pushing you to ditch what you’re doing – earning a living – and, instead, free them to roam and fail and fall and rise and love.
Novel manuscripts fill the bottom drawer, but there’s little time to enter them in competitions or send them to a slow death in a slush pile. Being an unpublished writer is an expensive hobby, a sweet torment of learning the realities of publishing, and allowing oneself the delusion of hope – at fifty dollars per entry. Foolish passion driving it all.
Writing is selfish – it inflicts burdens on others. But, ultimately, a good story, well told, is an act of love. It must be – nothing else can sustain years of writing for no reward.
There are many reasons we write, but love is the only one worth a damn.
Ben Marshall and his wife live in a kennel with two improbably large rescue dogs, on a lake north of Noosa. After being shortlisted for the 2017 QLA Emerging Writer Award, he’s now, officially, an Emerging Writer. This, he chooses to believe, contributes to his youthful looks and outlook. benmarshallwriter.com
Ben is represented by Danielle Binks of Jacinta di Mase Management.