Writers are often asked what inspires them to write. I want to share two very different sources of inspiration; the first from Canadian writer Carol Shields’ short story, ‘Scenes’. I found it in Michael Ondaatje’s collection, The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories.
These are just some of the scenes in Frances’s life. She thinks of them as scenes because they’re much too fragmentary to be stories and far too immediate to be memories. They seem to bloom out of nothing, out of the thin, uncoloured air of defeats and pleasures. A curtain opens, a light appears, there are voices or music or sometimes a wide transparent stream of silence. Only rarely do they point to anything but themselves. They’re difficult to talk about. They’re useless, attached to nothing, can’t be traded in or shaped into instruments to prise open the meaning of the universe.
Shields inspires me because she respects her readers and her sentences are faultless and beautiful.
I also find inspiration from a woman whose name I will never know, but whose determination transformed my life. In the late 1990s my ex-husband and I moved our family from a dry, dusty suburb north of the city to a home near one of Adelaide’s beautiful beaches. Every morning my ex and I walked along the beach. Some mornings, the warm, still ones, we’d see a woman in a floral bathing cap and a thick white bath robe, walking towards the water. She used two strong walking sticks to pick her way through the seaweed and seashell fragments that littered the beach. When she was within fifteen metres of the water’s edge, she let the walking sticks fall and dropped the robe from her shoulders, revealing limbs like weathered driftwood. Her pale green bathing suit clung to her emaciated frame like the over ripe skin of a Granny Smith apple. The woman’s husband, following two paces behind, retrieved her robe and the walking sticks, handed the sticks to her and then watched as she continued, alone, towards the sea. She stopped five paces from the water’s edge and, using the sticks for support, lowered herself to the wet sand. Ignoring the joggers and beach walkers averting their gaze from the marathon taking place before them, she crawled into the water.
The woman’s husband, planted against the rising sun, waited as she briefly rested on her hands and knees, letting the waves lap her chin and caress her shanks. Then she crawled deeper into the water’s cool embrace, lowered her head, spread her arms and legs and floated. After another brief lull, she started to swim, her bony elbows flashing in the sun as she lifted first one arm, then the other, in long, sure blissful strokes. After a few minutes she swam back to shore, retraced her long crawl across the sand, retrieved her sticks, and climbed along their length until she was upright. She took several slow steps to the proffered bath robe, turned once more to face the sea and waited as the robe was draped across her shoulders. Only then did she lean against her husband as they climbed the gentle slope back to their car.
Later that year I enrolled in a creative writing degree at my local university. Due to a busy timetable and the onset of autumn, the walks along the beach stopped. I never saw the woman again. My decision to return to study led, ultimately, to an entirely new life. When I despair of ever writing a captivating sentence, I remember the woman in the green bathing suit and hope the water she swims in is warm and the waves are gentle.