I never tire of reading about why writers write—the reasons are many and varied, and the pathways as divergent as each individual writer. But what always strikes me, too, are the similarities: that feeling of never quite belonging, of never quite being good enough. Then there’s the seeking, and finding, of solace in reading, and the sense of finally coming home when writing.
All of this struck me as I read Susan Francis’s piece, and when I reached the end I felt as if I’d made a new friend. I’m sure many will relate, so please read on. There’s also a chance to win a copy of Susan’s book at the end of the post.
Susan Francis is an writer from Newcastle, NSW. Her debut book, a memoir titled The Love that Remains, was released by Allen & Unwin, in February 2020. An earlier version of Susan’s memoir was accepted into the Varuna Publishers Introduction Program, and she has appeared on the ABC radio program, Conversations.
Why I Write
From an early age, I remember shame. The sense that I was not quite what I should have been. You see, I wet my pants till I was eleven. Experienced a horrific medical procedure in hospital to discover the reason, and endured confusing experiences after school speaking to some kind of child therapist.
Then one day in Year Five, squatting down to flick at a marble, enjoying myself so much that I was ‘holding on’, another child shoved me and I toppled over. Very unfortunate. The mortification of watching my wee trickle down the slope of the bitumen playground is an image I see now as clearly as I did then. I’m nearly sixty years old.
Adopted, physically uncoordinated, overweight, I’m not sure if it was my outsider status or the encouragement my parents provided that meant I discovered my place inside the pages of books. But books have saved my life. My whole world has been built around the love of reading and a passion for words. Till eventually my own book was published. This is the story of how that book was written and why I write.
My memoir, The Love that Remains, was published by Allen and Unwin in February this year. I began writing that book because of those childhood years where I never felt I was good enough. I remember at thirteen, overweight and the kind of teenage girl my parents didn’t quite know how to manage, being presented to my father before we left the house. Even at that young age I intuited he’d ‘had a word’ to my mother about my appearance and dressing me in the denim pantsuit had been her attempt at mollifying his dissatisfaction. But his face fell when he saw me. Pimples sprouting across my cheeks, baby fat padding out a tied-around-the-middle tunic of the trouser suit so I looked like a sack of potatoes, the cat’s eye style glasses. I wasn’t pretty. Or sweet. Or any of those other ideals little girls were meant to be made of.
A stereotype? Yes. The ugly duckling who never grew into a swan. Reading in my closet, or in my room or in the car while my family watched a local soccer team playing was my retreat. And my lifeline.
In Year Nine I was reading books such as Go Ask Alice and Valley of the Dolls. And sneaking my father’s library books off his bedside table (Fowles’ The Collector made me see the world—and my father—in a surprising new way). Then, late one night, I experienced what I must (I’m sorry) describe as a teenage epiphany.
No doubt inspired by my reading material, instead of sleeping that night, I wrote. Those hours are still a part of the purest writing process I’ve ever experienced. My pen worked itself and I was unaware of time passing. Then it was morning.
My English teacher read my short story, Sam, out to the class. To the rough-faced boy who had only yesterday screamed at the ‘fat pig’ to get out of the window seat. To Robert McDonald whom my tender soul loved with all her little heart. To the netballers whose lithe, long legs were tanned even in wintertime. Then my English teacher said, ‘One day you will be a writer Susan’.
With my two best friends, I abandoned Newcastle and we took a flat together in the big city. I landed a job as a copyholder in a publishing firm because my dad figured the one thing I could do was read. So he rang every publishing firm in Sydney and made interviews for me, drove down for the day and ferried me from one firm to the next. A quarter of the way into the list, The Law Book Company took me on.
Later I married. Bore my son. Divorced three times.
At twenty-nine, I went to university for the first time. A double major in English. A Masters Degree in Australian Literature. A half-finished PhD on the poet Ronald McCuaig. But always chasing love. A little like Christina Stead’s character in For Love Alone. Writing was a passion never prioritised.
Shame however, never lost its grip on me and it’s why I began to write again. Searching for the parents who gave me up for adoption, searching for the story of who I was and where I came from – the ones who’d fled Melbourne and left me behind in Newcastle while they circumvented Australia raising money for the IRA; this was the unexpected inspiration.
Speaking to my biological mother on the phone, while my adoptive mother sat beside me holding my hand, I assumed Enid would happily share the background knowledge I desperately needed. My first mistake.
What do you want? she shouted. If it’s money you’re after, you won’t get it from us. We have good solicitors.
I had never been made to feel so cheap. And it was somewhere around that time, that I decided to write a memoir. Twenty years later, despite attempts to deny me information, I finally knew my narrative, and I wrote myself onto the page. Captured my journey to self within the pages of a book.
That emotion of shame has served me well. As has anger. People ask: How can you write about confronting your biological mother, your husband’s crime, your Herpes? How can you write a memoir so raw and intimate? One reviewer was flummoxed by why a woman of my age would write about such material. But I made myself through these words and these experiences. My decisions, my afflictions, my fat, my guilt, my grief. The words brought that together. My ability to love, the friendships I share, my relationship with my son, my mother, my books, my writing, all there proudly written on the page.
I wrote myself onto the page and was finally able to say this is me and that is why I write.
Susan has kindly donated a copy of her book, The Love That Remains, to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on any of the blog or social media posts. Your comment can be about why you’d like to win a copy of Susan’s book, writing memoir, feeling like an outsider, or anything at all the post brings to mind.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 16th July, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.