Tag Archives: Writing Process

The prophet Elijah got me published

ACADEMIC PROPHECY ‘Elijah reviving the Son of the Widow of Zarephath’ by Louis Hersent.

A Writer’s narrow escape.

BY the time I got to Sydney University to start my arts degree I was so sick and tired of essays, studying, research, and examinations, that I pretty-much floated my way through the whole year.

I was thrust into large, anonymous lecture halls, where everyone else seemed to be getting the jokes, was cooler, better connected, more studious, more artful and more alive than I was.

So I spent a lot of my time skulking around, mainly in the Fisher Library, reading titles that were not on my reading lists (actors’ biographies, mainly) and going to the movies in the city during the afternoon.

My results reflected this malaise, but even then I didn’t care. Years of academic competition at school had rendered any desire for tertiary achievement completely impotent.

I lived on campus in an all-male college, which was a total shock to the system. Escaping the ritual humiliation inflicted on new students was not actually very difficult – the older students doing the shaming really only wanted willing participants in their ridiculous ceremonies anyway. I would hide out in the cafeteria of the neighbouring hospital.

In terms of essay writing, I learnt very quickly how emotion and opinion were to be stripped-away. This made academic sense but put my enjoyment levels into the negative. I recall using the term ‘pure art’ in a Fine Arts paper, only to have it red-penned with great question marks. I couldn’t see why, if all the professors and tutors were having so much fun, that the words on the page had to be so damned boring.

In Ancient History I excelled, but only by default. Our chaplain had been the Ancient History teacher at school, so we had studied minimal Greece and even less Rome, but instead we’d gone through the history of ancient Israel in enormous detail.

The Old Testament of The Bible had come alive in those classes, not in an overtly religious sense, but as documentary evidence of societies long gone. This working knowledge of texts that have become so influential to modern thinking would prove invaluable in years to come, particularly as I joined one of the groups sidelined by the Levitical laws.

So it was a case of laziness when I selected an essay topic right in my field of knowledge – to examine another scholar’s views on the prophet Elijah. I can recall neither the scholar nor his views, but I brought the prophet himself as alive as I could, using neither emotion nor opinion. The trick was quoting far and wide, from dialogues full of religious fervour and belief, to soundly trounce my academic colleague for his lack of imagination.

In hindsight, the effectiveness of my argument was undoubtedly the way I suggested that in ancient Israel, blind faith conquered rational thought each and every time. I probably also felt that in three thousand years, not much had changed.

Prophets were always more three-dimensional than other biblical figures. They were cantankerous, usually because they worked hard at day jobs and resented the holy spirit taking them away from the basics of regular life. And they were funny – some of the only classic humour in the old testament appears in Elijah’s challenge to the high priests of Ba’al, when he heckles them into throwing more sacrifices onto their altars, shouting ‘Where is your God? Where is your God?’

Juxtaposition is everything, even in academic writing it seemed. For my word tricks, I got a high distinction, and an invitation to my Professor’s office one afternoon.

The thought that I’d been caught-out as a complete fraud did occur to me, but as I sat down in this man’s office, after he’d cleared a chair for me from underneath the layers of dusty papers and books, and looked at me through his thick glasses, blinking in the half-light, he said: “And what are you going to do with this high distinction?”, before blinking again and expecting me to speak.

HALLOWED HALLS The very English Quadrangle of Sydney University.

Nothing crossed my mind, except what a strange question it was. “Do better next time…?” I muttered.

“No!” the Professor boomed, banging his hand Elijah-like onto the desk.

“You’re going to do honours, and I shall help you. First, we are going to publish this paper of yours.”

Being published sounded like fun, and in due course, my fervour-filled evocation of the prophet took its place in the front of that year’s edition of Edubba, the Ancient History and Classics Department’s undergraduate journal.

Becoming an acolyte of this professor did not sound like any fun at all. Any chance of his fervent prophecy about me coming to pass was all the fuel I needed to get out of university by applying to drama school.

I completed my final exams, including one in which I answered questions about Roman writers whom I had read not one word of. I passed, miraculously, and waited for my escape plan to come to fruition.

That one essay is all I have left of my sole university year – I don’t have a copy, but it will be there in the Fisher Library somewhere, testament to my ability in writing to a prescribed, academic formula, but with a fine flame of life burning within.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

E. M. Forster – literature’s god of love

BARED IT ALL Edward Morgan Forster, 1911 portrait by Roger Fry.

A Writer’s first hero.

FROM the moment I saw the trailer for David Lean’s 1984 adaptation of his A Passage to India during an English class, I became a sucker for the literature of Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970).

I’d been ambivalent about the drab Penguin Modern Classics edition, but the sight of Judy Davis as Adela Quested, scrambling down the dry slopes of the Marabar Caves, bloodied by thorns, pith helmet rolling in her wake, dislodging rocks (and an ensuing British panic) gripped me into attention.

We had our toes dipped into the ideas of Bloomsbury and the racial overtones and class structure of Empire.

Merchant Ivory did the rest, with their iconic production of A Room with a View in 1985. Through their lens Forster’s English hypocrites and heroes came to life.

“Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.”

The icing on the cake was the word which I spied in the blurb of the edition of Maurice that my enthusiasm for Forster had garnered me at Christmas. The word, of course, was inescapable when describing that work.

I wonder now if it was the first time I ever saw the word in print? Only whispered around the schoolyard, it had, by that time, been uttered louder at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the mid 1980s.

But here, on the reverse of Forster’s posthumously published story of Maurice Hall and his gay sexual awakening, it brought a wave of validation.

I recall waiting for my family to register the word. Had my mother seen it when she purchased the book? Had my brother sneered about it when she gave it to him to wrap up for me?

When nobody mentioned “homosexual”, I took that as tacit approval.

I subsequently devoured all Forster’s novels. My favourite moment was starting Where Angels Fear to Tread when alighting my train to university, only to be flawed by a classic Forsterian-surprise-death before reaching the next station, just six minutes down the track. What great ignition for a story!

On summer holiday, during my first year in the United Kingdom, I came across a collection of Forster’s short stories at a hostel in Cornwall.

The inclement weather saw me feast on them, immediately hit by one in particular – Other Kingdom. The Irish Home Rule theme of this story went right over my head, but the gusto of the young Irish protagonist (Evelyn Beaumont), brought my consciousness to a standstill, while I tried to capture her, as did all the other characters in this shining example of Forster’s storytelling skill.

I agreed with Iris Murdoch, in that “I loved Miss Beaumont, because she bamboozled a pack of bores.”

Being a film school student, I had big plans. The biggest became my obsession to bring Other Kingdom to the screen.

I adapted it into an approved screenplay at the behest of the owners of Forster’s work (King’s College Cambridge) and tried for some years to tout it around the funding bodies, to no avail.

The central mystery of what happens to Evelyn Beaumont when she escapes from an ill-fated marriage into a dour English family could not be explained even by Forster himself, let alone by a potential screenwriter in a pitching session.

It wasn’t for another decade that I really understood my attraction to the story, when I realised a deep-seated wish for a solution just like Evelyn’s. I admired her escape in the light of my own need to find a way out of the life I was leading.

In the wake of my coming out, Forster continued to deliver. My second reading of Maurice brought the searing grief and triumph of his gay protagonists back to haunt my recovery from the death of my partner five years later, because Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder loved, no less ordinarily than any other couple.

Forster’s long-unpublished epilogue to Maurice was the heartbreaker. Anyone seeking to understand this novel should read Forster’s exploration of what happened to his characters, for it is no elemental conundrum like that of Miss Beaumont in Other Kingdom.

Forster’s trusted friends who read the drafts prior to 1933 suggested the epilogue be cut from the final manuscript, but I get the distinct impression they were baffled by Forster’s unsullied vision of Maurice and Alec happily ensconced as woodsmen, living rough, fused by the heart, and happy, despite their accidental discovery by Maurice’s unsettled sister Kitty.

Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.

Forster left as much written material about his childhood, his career, and his relationships as any biographer would ever need. Trouble is, few have used this resource – the ‘sexuality issue’ undoubtedly the main obstacle.

The finest work on Forster is Wendy Moffat’s A Great Unrecorded History. This study has done more to debunk the myth of Forster as simply a class-conscious comic novelist who stopped writing in 1924, than anything which came before.

PERFECT PANIC Adela Quested (Judy Davis) flees in David Lean’s screen adaptation of Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’.

Forster earns hero status from this writer for protecting his great love, policeman Bob Buckingham, from the criminal courts while he, Bob and Bob’s wife May lived-out a three-way relationship from 1930 until Forster’s death in 1970.

He earns it for politely, and with humour, pointing out the hypocrisy of those in positions of power and privilege in his literature.

He earns it for writing himself onto Hitler’s ‘hit list’ of authors with his WWII broadcasts exploring the axe of Nazism as it threatened to fall onto the neck of civilisation.

He earns it for not killing himself, despite as much cause for depression, isolation and marginalisation as Virginia Woolf cited.

He earns it for creating the archetype of the lusty English Gamekeeper. Long before D.H. Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors’ trysts with Lady Chatterley, Forster’s Alec Scudder hunted his way into Maurice Hall’s bed, and his heart.

And he earns it for diarising himself as he was, warts and all, and sometimes that meant writing about actual bodily warts.

For gay men, Forster’s humanist document on the entire life of a homosexual man will endure as a record of emerging and practical homosexuality which may well come to eclipse his novels.

E.M. Forster might not have physically embodied a Love God, but with his pen, in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, he carved a place in history as a Titan who turned from the affairs of men and women, to those between men and men. His publishers must have hated him for it.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Every boy’s fantasy

FANTASY JUVENILIA 'Rogan Crag', from 'Shelhal, The Seahart' (pen and ink) by Michael Burge.
FANTASY JUVENILIA ‘Rogan Crag’, from ‘Shelhal, The Seahart’ (pen and ink) by Michael Burge.

A Writer’s first lesson on charisma.

LIKE many of the awkward, nerdy boys at my high school (and there seemed to be a larger-than-usual number of us), I was drawn very quickly to the fantasy genre.

I willingly signed-up for Dungeons & Dragons on Thursday afternoons, where the Doctor Who lookalikes with their endless Tom Baker-style knitted scarves held court over the game boards, role-playing with their little die-cast figurines and throwing intriguing multi-faceted dice. ‘D&D’ had a kind of gambling quality to it, and the older boys playing it sported an attractive, intelligent confidence.

The hierarchical structure of the group meant I never actually got a turn at the board, in fact I think I ditched D&D quite soon in favour of a singing group that went to entertain the residents of a local nursing home, but not before learning an important life lesson.

“Something about alternate worlds and universes made the real world more palatable.”

It was Dungeons & Dragons that introduced me to the concept of ‘charisma’. Being one of the traits that your D&D character (like an avatar) was required to exhibit, in addition to strength and skill and such things, charisma could see you charm your way past a three-headed guard dog or a pack of orcs in a tower.

I think D&D’s creator’s might have been gently reminding us all that to attain charisma meant ‘getting a life’ in addition to fantasy role-playing. I resolutely resisted this prod until many years after leaving school.

Instead, I devoured fantasy fiction: Tolkien, of course; Stephen Donaldson; Ursula Le Guin; Anne McCaffrey; and semi-fantasy works like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series.

Something about alternate worlds and universes made the real world more palatable. While unravelling the finer points of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, I was distracted from the shame of receiving two black eyes while in the outfield during the one cricket match, when the ball hit a clump of grass and angled straight into my eye socket… one on each side. Secret knowledge of imaginary places anesthetised such low points of my adolescence.

By the age of 14 I started writing my own fantasy fiction, and unlike most of my early writing, some of these stories have survived.

All of it is completely derivative, such as the (thankfully lost) Tale of Ninior and Galdain, the result of reading Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in one sitting after Scouts on friday night. Filled with un-explored romance, my hero and heroine were ill-fated lovers traversing my imaginary land, constantly missing one another whilst lost in barren dragon-scoured hills, or exiled beside cold lakes in faraway mountains.

Great ways to avoid writing a love scene! I would have been incapable of executing one at that age, but I won the school’s junior writing award with that story. Actually, I think mine was the only entry.

FAST-TRACK TO FANTASY Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 Album.

The writing of this piece also coincided with my first hearing of When Doves Cry on the radio. The borrowed electric typewriter I was using had a kind of current humming through it which resonated with Prince’s beats.

Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart had been the soundtrack to many Choose Your Own Adventure reads the year before, and Chris de Burgh’s Don’t Pay the Ferryman seemed specially designed to keep all nerds reading our mythology books. There was a kind of fantasy role-playing ‘cool’ in the charts during the early 1980s. It didn’t last long, but it happened. I was there.

The next year I embarked on a whole novel, tapped-out on a brand new Brother typewriter I’d received for Christmas.

Titled Shelhal, The Seahart, this innocent piece of juvenilia survives. After many years stuffed into a file of my childhood art, I recently re-read it. Taking into account all the obvious influences (Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea being the strongest, but even J.K. Rowling has been accused of drawing on that), like an archaeological find, my first real novel reveals its secrets slowly.

The story of Peri, the son of a King drawn into a great adventure, Shelhal is replete with ancient oracles fulfilled, spells to release tools of discovery and the kind of alternate language consistency that would have made Tolkien proud.

I created whole races of sea creatures, mermaid clans and dolphin tribes, in a classic power struggle between the realms of the Sea and the Land, ruled by supernatural deities who thwart or aid Peri on his journey.

Peri’s quest is to recover a lost treasure – the Shelhal – a great shell known as the ‘Heart of the Sea’, in order to restore balance and continuity to the line of Kings he is descended from. He encounters characters along the way whose positions in life are as tenuous as his.

The most telling of these is the moody Landevaw, unwilling earthly puppet of Rogan (the supernatural ‘Wisdom Keeper’ of the Earth). Peri himself serves the same purpose for Nerrinal (the ‘Wisdom Teller’ of the Sea).

By the time Peri and Landevaw come face to face, Peri has managed to discover all the tools he needs to recover The Shelhal, and Landevaw has supplanted (by magic) the rightful King. Peri falls into the trap and is about to surrender his birthright, when all of a sudden… but that would be giving the story away.

From an adult’s perspective, the psychological journey I was on is so very clear. Suffice to say that Landevaw resonates powerfully with where I was at as a 14-year-old – tortured, conflicted, without power to determine my own fate (or much charisma), and bearing a great secret that, if revealed, would see my whole dynasty come crashing down on top of me.

I won the senior literature award that year, and again, I think mine was the only entry. But heck, I’d written a 45,000-word novel with psychological depth, and illustrated it to boot. Not bad at age 15.

Whether it was my idea or someone else’s, mum asked another school parent, Australian writer Kit Denton, to sketch out for me how to format the manuscript to send to a publisher. He suggested a small Sydney outfit called John Ferguson. My cousin was recruited to type the work up in the correct way, and it was bundled off sometime in 1987.

In 1988 I received a rejection letter – my first of many. I was 18 by then, and my novel felt silly and probably held too many of the kind of truths I was trying, like Landevaw, to conceal. The letter was very encouraging, but I filed it, with the manuscript, deep in my bedroom and tried to forget about it.

The reality of university was looming ahead of me. Life outside my bedroom was becoming all too real, and there were other words to employ my Brother typewriter on.

Feature image from 2013 comedy Zero Charisma.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.