Readings of Place

David Malouf

David Malouf

In Writers in Action, David Malouf says we learn about dimensions and space from our first readings of the place in which we grow up, and we go on to apply that to whatever else we look at.

One part of his mind expects that “every city is a city of hills like Brisbane: where you go up and down and where, when you get to the top of the street, you see something new…”

His friend from Adelaide thinks “cities are flat. He really did think that if you looked down a street you ought to be able to see all the way to the end of it…”

Malouf believes that we are deeply determined by such factors. He challenges us to think about the place we came from, the house we lived in, and ask ourselves what our initiation into reality was in our first house – not just the shape of the rooms, the architecture of it, but also the objects that were in it, the kind of mythology and history it contained, and the way all of these factors lead us out into the world.
australian bush (2)
I took up the challenge and sat down to write about the place where I grew up. The house started out as one room which my father built for my mother when they were first married. It was situated on top of a ridge with views over the trees to the village in the valley. I still remember the steep dirt road where deep gutters were gouged out by the rain, deep enough to swallow unwary cars.

With each new baby my father built on a new room. I remember watching the construction: the trenches and string, the course of bricks on concrete, the timber frame and the tin roof, the timber floorboards, wooden walls with plastic wires threaded through, and the thick chalky smell of gyprock and plaster.

My father had no final vision of what our house would look like. I’m sure when he built that first room for my mother he couldn’t have envisaged it would one day flow out to a huge lounge room at the back and internal stairs down to an art studio that led out into the back yard.

And while I wrote about this house I started to see how the way I construct my stories is the same way my father constructed our house. Instead of bricks and timber I use words and sentences, one after the other, building without knowing what I will eventually end up with. When the shape emerges and I can finally see its form, I build onto it and into it, threading the elements through like electric wires. Like every builder I’ve ever known it can take me some time before the door handles are on and the paint spots cleaned off the windows for a clear view.

Perhaps this is why I start by writing without a plan, and the writing turns into scenes, and the scenes suggest new scenes, which grow finally into a story. Just as the rooms my father built led to more rooms and finally a large rambling house.

In the next few weeks I’ll take up the second part of Malouf’s challenge and think about the objects, mythology and history contained in my first house, and the way all these factors led me out into the world, so I might understand how my first view of culture might come through them.

I invite you to take up the challenge with me and let me know what you discover.

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11 Responses to Readings of Place

  1. anne says:

    What an interesting Malouf thought and I like your interpretation, Karen, and how you show it has reflected your writing process.
    The biggest influence for me was definitely the backyard and the spare blocks behind us, which we accessed, and the back street where we raced scooters and climbed trees.
    I always seemed to be discovering something about life and self out there.
    I look forward to reading some of the results of this exercise.

    • Thanks for your comments, Anne. Nature and a sense of space full of things to discover and explore must resonate with lots of Australians from our generation. Bushfires, too. I have a heightened awareness of them, even though I now live with the protection of a city on three sides and the sea in front. I’m the first to smell them, and in summer find myself watching the horizon.

      • anne says:

        Was the photo next to your piece what you looked out onto when you were growing up? Did it face North or West or?

      • I took that photo in the Blue Mountains last year. While the bush around us where I grew up was that thick, and we had a great view over the valley, the town was in the valley. Our huge window looked south over it and some great storms.

  2. Wow – loved the connection of building to writing a story. I’m more of a planner before I start building houses… i like to see the finished product in my mind. But then as the house is built the creativity is limited and it takes so much more time to make minor alterations. And your room-by-room house sounds so intriguing… just like your stories! Great post 🙂

    • Hi Jessie. I’ve heard people say that can be the downside of having a story planned in advance. The difficulty of writing to see what comes can be that at the end you haven’t got anything that coalesces. Your stories certainly don’t lack creativity. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Maree Gallop says:

    This is an interesting way to look at writing. Some of my early childhood memories were of playing in the back spare bedroom (junk room) there was everything from toys, books to a piano. It was a place where you could be anyone you wanted. Imagination and creativity was the mode of transport. We also had a lot of freedom outside, beach, bikes, parks etc a lot of places to create our own fun.
    My stories start off as an idea and go off on many tangents until I make the connections and a theme. Maybe that’s why I love creative writing so much.
    Thanks for the interesting post.

    • I love your comment that you could be anyone you wanted in your back room, Maree. It’s part of the excitement with stories, too. Kids then seemed to have so much more freedom to range over the landscape. It would be interesting to see how that affected the way we see the world, and as a consequence, the impact on our writing.

  4. What a wonderful idea! I’ve been thinking lately that growing up on the northern beaches surrounded by houses not much holder than the 1950s did influence my early novels. Yes I wrote an historical novel based on my family tree but I do believe I would have written different novels if I had been born and raised in Newcastle surrounded by so much more history.

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