We went through a door in the corner of the room, then down a short hallway until we came to the kitchen at the end of it. I noticed that there were several other doors and rooms along the hall, all of which appeared to house offices.
Once in the kitchen I quickly noticed that the room smelled of freshly brewed coffee. Anne pointed at a coffee machine which was filled with the dark brew.
‘This is one of the best things about using these rooms. The coffee is always on the go,’ she said, while reaching up into a cupboard and pulling down two mugs.
‘It smells wonderful,’ I replied.
‘How do you have it?’ she asked. ‘There’s milk in the refrigerator if you need that.’
‘Thanks,’ I said as I opened the refrigerator door and pulled the carton off the inside of the door.
She filled the two mugs almost to the top, then added sugar to one, while holding the spoon above the small sugar bowl and looked at me with raised eyebrows.
‘Errr … one thanks,’ I said.
‘I hope you’ve saved some of that for me?’ came a gruff voice from the open doorway. I knew it in an instant. It was my old mentor, Bill Joyce.
We turned to see him standing there, leaning on his walking stick, which was a new addition from when I had seen him last.
‘Bill!’ I said excitedly. ‘I was hoping you would show up. What’s with the stick?’
‘Ah, it’s just the gout playing up again. Nothing too serious,’ he said.
I stood back and looked at him. He was still wearing the same old crumpled clothes on his thin frame, accompanied with scruffy brown shoes, but his grey hair was cut much shorter these days, and the full beard he once had was now just a moustache and goatee.
‘Well, it’s bloody good to see you again,’ I said to him. ‘Here, take a seat and have some coffee for a few minutes, before I have to go and face the vultures.’
At that he gave a loud guffaw, which only earned a reproachful look from Anne as she set our two mugs on the table closest to us. Bill had always referred to those wannabe writers who hung around these types of events as vultures, always trying to pick up every last available morsel to carry it away with them, each thinking that it would be the last secret ingredient they needed to become rich and famous.
Of course, I realised very early on in my learning process that there were no such secret ingredients. Success came from within. It didn’t come from tricks or gimmicks. It came from the imagination, and the heart and soul of a writer, all poured into his story, with a liberal dash of dedication, and just a touch of luck and good timing.
In my mind at least, that’s what made a writer, and his stories, a success.
‘Okay then, you may as well have my coffee Bill, I’ll just leave you two lads to get re-acquainted,’ Anne said.
‘Yes, thank you Anne. The crowd was starting to trickle into the room out there when I arrived. Just give us a call when you’re ready and I’ll bring the young whippersnapper out so they can tear him limb from limb!’
‘Bill!’ she scolded, adding, ‘They aren’t that bad.’
‘You mark my words, young Tony, you’ll be lucky to get out of here alive! Now, what do you have planned for these heathens?’
‘That’s just it, I have no fucking idea,’ I replied, honestly. ‘Anne didn’t say anything about what she wanted, or what the group wanted, so as far as I know it’s going to be one of those fly by the seat of your pants deals!’
‘Poppycock!’ was Bill’s reply. ‘You’ll need to have some plan in mind, even if the dragon lady out there has no idea what she’s doing. You still need to look, or sound, like you know what you’re doing.’
‘Well, the last one of these that I did ended up being something similar. I just told them how I got started, how I had this crusty old slave driver who kept me on the straight and narrow … well, at least as far as the writing was concerned … then threw it open to questions. There were only about a dozen people there though, not the forty-odd that Anne is expecting for this one, judging by the number of seats she has set up out there.’
‘All right then, that sounds like half a plan, so you just might be able to fudge your way through this after all. If you get stuck, or if any of them get out of line, you just give me the nod and I’ll straighten them out for you.’
‘Thanks. Let’s hope it goes okay then.’
‘Now, have you sorted out your issues with that young fella of yours yet?’
‘Oh Jesus, not you too?’ I laughed.
‘Well, I just hate seeing people having troubles when the whole world knows that they should be together. That’s all I’m saying!’ he said, while shrugging his shoulders and hoisting his palms upwards.
‘It’s nice to know you care, Bill. And just so you know, we spent last night together, for the first time in quite a while.’
‘Attaboy! Maybe there’s some hope for you yet.’
‘Maybe,’ I replied. ‘Anyway, how have you been? What are you doing in your retirement?’
‘Ha, retirement! I’m busier than I ever was when I was working,’ he replied.
For the next ten minutes he proceeded to tell me about his weekly poker games and rounds of golf, being sure to grumble about being unable to play this week with his gammy leg, then complain about his wife ordering him about doing gardening and jobs around the house.
‘Sounds to me like you’re enjoying it! So what about your writing? Anything new?’
‘Nothing of consequence. All dried up I reckon.’
It was then that we were interrupted by a soft knock at the door and when we looked up we found a young lady standing there, looking rather nervous.
‘Ummm … Ms Rummery says that they are ready for you now, Mr Scott.’
‘Thank you. We’re on our way.’
* * *
About thirty faces were turned my way when I made my entrance into the room. I stopped for a moment, taking in the scene.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Anne began, ‘please welcome this month’s special guest, author of the hugely successful novels Shifting Sands and Footprints in the Sand, and with the third in the series, Sand Castles, about to be released, I give you, Mr Tony Scott.’
The audience started clapping and I felt like a deer caught in the headlights, but a gentle shove in the small of my back, from Bill, soon had me stumbling across the floor toward where Anne stood at the lectern.
‘Thank you Anne. I’m very honoured to have been invited back here as a guest of the Macquarie Harbour Writer’s Centre, and I am happy to have the opportunity to be able to meet you all today,’ I managed to say, as I glanced around the room at the faces that were staring at me, a mix of old and young, and male and female. I recognised a few familiar faces from the old days, and even received a little wave from Megan O’Reilly.
I also recognised two other faces. They belonged to the two girls I had met in the cafe at the bus terminal on the day I arrived here.
‘Yes, not everyone would know that it wasn’t all that long ago when you were one of those faces out there sitting and listening to some of the guest authors that the Macquarie Harbour Writer’s Centre invited along. How does it feel to be on the other side of the lectern now?’
‘Absolutely bloody terrifying!’ I replied, which raised a laugh from many in the room.
‘Well, I wouldn’t be too worried if I were you. You’re one of us. You’re the star graduate from the M.H.W.C.! The first of many, we hope!’
‘That’s very kind of you, Anne, but it still doesn’t alter the fact that I’m shaking like a leaf up here,’ I said, which brought with it another short burst of laughter.
‘Okay then,’ Anne said. ‘How about we break the ice a little first. I’m sure everyone would love to know a little about you, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Just who is Tony Scott? And what got you into the writing game? Then after we’re done there I’m sure most of our visitors would love to pepper you with questions about your writing and the whole writing process.’
Now I was trapped, I thought. I’d just been set up perfectly to start talking about myself, whether I wanted to or not. There was no backing out now.
From the side of the room I heard a familiar chuckle. It was Bill. And he knew exactly what had just happened.
The table and the lectern at the front of the room weren’t elevated at all, and although there were several chairs behind the table I didn’t think that it would be very good form to spend the entire session sitting down at the same level as the audience, as most of them wouldn’t be able to see anything other than the back of the head of the person in front of them. I also didn’t feel like standing for the entire morning, but after a quick look around the room I spotted a stool, which I thought would be perfect.
‘Well folks,’ I said. ‘If you’ll just let me get comfortable first we’ll see what I can do for you.’
Bill and Anne both looked puzzled for a moment, but when I walked over to the stool and picked it up, they both quickly realised what I was doing. A minute or two later I had turned around the microphone and positioned it where I would be able to talk directly into it without having to hold onto it, and was ready to start. Bill and Anne then made their way to the front row of seats, where two vacant chairs were waiting for them.
‘Okay then,’ I said into the microphone. ‘I guess we’re ready.’
‘Hello there. My name is Tony Scott,’ I began. ‘I guess you all know that I’ve written a couple of books.’
Quite a few people laughed.
‘As Anne mentioned, it wasn’t all that long ago that I was one of you guys. I was a student of Bill Joyce, when he ran this writer’s center,’ I said, while gesturing toward where he sat. ‘And Bill, I will be forever in the debt of you and this little group for the start that I was given.’
From his seat Bill gave me a small bow, then I continued.
‘As you now know, this was where I started to learn about putting together sentences that were reasonably coherent. This was where my dreams really started to take shape. And if you are willing to apply yourself, then it can also be that place for you, whether you want to write professionally, or just for pleasure, or whether you just want to further appreciate the written word.’
A few murmurs seemed to come from the crowd, so it looked like I was off to a respectable start.
‘I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. I first started to get seriously interested in writing after I came to Thompsonville, almost ten years ago, when I was sixteen years old. I had been living on the streets in Sydney for a short time, after having been kicked out of home. I found out that a cousin of mine was living in Thompsonville, just up the road from here, and with nowhere else to go I came here hoping and praying that he wouldn’t turn his back on me as well. He and his partner took me in and fed me, gave me a bed to sleep on and I haven’t looked back since. If it wasn’t for Luke and Matt, I don’t think I would be standing here in front of you today.
‘Now, for any prospective writer there are probably two lessons that can be learnt from that. The first is that no matter what you want to write, a bit of life experience certainly doesn’t go astray. For me, that came when I was living on the streets. I saw things then that would make your skin crawl, and ultimately that was why I sought out my cousin, just so I could get away from that environment, before it killed me.
‘The second lesson is that no matter how good you think you might be, you can almost always be guaranteed that you won’t make it just on your own. Of course, you must always strive to be the absolute best writer that you can be, but from time to time you will need others there to support you, to help you, to cajole you, and sometimes, just sometimes, to beat some sense into you. Trust your own judgment, but always be prepared to take advice on board. Very few of us will ever produce a first draft that is word perfect, so I suggest you take on the attitude that first time round you come up with the story, second time round you go over it and polish it up. Then, and only then, will you have that gem that is worth showing to anyone.’
As I looked around the room I could already see a number of people scribbling furiously, while others looked slightly more relaxed, with small digital recorders in their hands. It appeared that people were already taking what I had to say seriously, which rather surprised me.
Bolstered by that positive response, I plowed on.
‘From the time I was in primary school I had always loved writing down stories. In high school that seemed to fall by the wayside a little, as once you make it to your teenage years there are so many distractions. Then when I was about fifteen or sixteen my life fell apart. I ended up here, I also met someone who became very special to me, and that was when I started writing down my thoughts and observations of what was happening around me, filling exercise book after exercise book with page after page of drivel; all of which I still have, by the way. I was encouraged by my cousin and his housemates and eventually I went back and finished my last few years of high school, and it was while doing that I discovered the writer’s centre and started coming along.’
‘Oh yes, I can definitely vouch for what he was saying about drivel!’ Bill interjected, with a laugh. Most of us laughed with him, but there were a few in the audience who didn’t seem to approve. Writing was a serious business, after all.
‘Well, Bill, you couldn’t have thought it was too bad,’ I shot back, ‘otherwise you wouldn’t have sent me to see your mate at the Harbour Herald.’
‘Poppycock. You wouldn’t listen to me, so I had to try and find someone else who could knock you into shape! Seems he did a pretty fair job of it too!’
‘Should I tell these good people what he used to tell me about you, then?’ I asked. That seemed to shut him up, as he immediately sat back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest.
Bill’s mate from the Herald, Tom Bradshaw, was the senior editor at the local newspaper. He was a large man, both in body and personality, and it was at Bill’s suggestion he consented to my contributing a few short pieces to the paper.
He always said that Bill was a pompous, over-educated, dreamer, whose flowery prose suffered from delusions of grandeur. About Tom, Bill often called him a boardroom puppet, concerned more with embellishing the truth in order to sell a few more copies, than with upholding the integrity of the art.
Despite all that they were best of friends, and somehow, miraculously, I actually managed to learn from the pair of them.
‘Anyhow,’ I continued, ‘the long and the short of it was that while I was still completing high school I started helping out at the newspaper, eventually managing to submit a few local interest stories and reports on local activities that were actually published. I was finally a writer, I thought. But oh, how wrong I was!
‘It was Tom who brought me back down to earth, when he told me, “A few fluff pieces in a newspaper doesn’t make you a writer, lad.” But then he asked me about what else I had written, and specifically mentioned those “infernal exercise books” that I was always carrying around and scribbling in. I told him that they weren’t anything but notes and scraps, and weren’t really worth looking at. Nonetheless he picked one up off the desk where I was sitting, and before I could swipe it back, he started reading. I was angry and embarrassed, but he said nothing. He was reading some of what I had written and kept looking from the pages, back to me, then back to the page again. “How long have you been doing this?” he asked.’
I stopped talking and looked down at Bill sitting in the front row. He was nodding and smiling. He knew all about what had happened that day.
‘I had found out some time later,’ I continued, ‘that it was Bill who had told Tom all about my notebooks and that he should take a close look at them. At the time I was pissed with him. I was pissed with both of them, actually. I felt that it was an invasion of my privacy, but they quickly dismissed that and told me to wake up to myself. “Writers don’t need privacy,” Tom had said. “They bare their soul every time they put pen to paper; they just need inspiration, and you, young fella, seem to have found yours,” he declared. “What you need to do now is read through it all again, and again, and again if necessary. Then you edit and rewrite, and one day you might just have something there,” he said. “When you’ve done that, bring it back to and I’ll take another look. In the meantime, however, bring me one thousand words on the plight of homeless youth in Macquarie Harbour … I’m sure there must be some of them around here somewhere!”
‘I can tell you, I was gobsmacked. But I went home that afternoon and locked myself away in my room and read everything I had ever written in those notebooks. I could immediately see what he meant about having to edit and re-write, so afterwards, and starting with the first book, I began the process of doing just that. A week later I finally presented him not only with a second draft of that first notebook, this time in the form of a story, rather than the personalised and diarised notes it had started out as, but also with the requested one thousand words on Macquarie Harbour’s homeless youth, which, once I had started looking, I found were almost everywhere.
‘And that, my friends, was how I set myself on the path of becoming a real writer.’