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.
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.