Sunday, November 24, 2013

Getting It

My family is supportive of my writing, but I don't think they get it. 

My father never did. Once, when I was in high school we moved the length of the state at the end of Year 10, and I got to start Year 11 at a new school. And I was fifteen and hated my parents. And this move was like the worst ever, since my sister Kath was starting university in Brisbane and hadn't come, and we moved in the school holidays so I didn't know anyone, and the pets didn't arrive for weeks after we did, and we couldn't even move into our new house straight away because there was massive flooding and the guy who was moving out hadn't been able to leave yet. Oh...yeah, and because everything was so busy and unsettled and up in the air, this was also the year my parents forgot my birthday

Welcome to Townsville. Fuck my life. 

So that was me: fifteen and full of rage and self-pity, with this one really weird hobby that my dad just didn't get. He sort of ignored it, I think. It wasn't like it was a real hobby or a sport or something. No, it was just his kid moping around, glaring, and scribbling angry things down in a notebook. 

I guess he knew I was an okay writer, but, to my dad, there was really only one way to judge the value of a thing: monetarily. I don't mean that like he was a scrooge or something. I mean that he just didn't get the idea of art for art's sake. Art for art's sake was pure wankery, according to my dad. How I got away with eventually doing a Bachelor of Arts at uni, complete with useless subjects like History and English, is beyond me. I guess "uni student" trumped "unemployed", but just barely. 

I'm worried this is sounding a little like a pity party. It's not supposed to. Lots of teenage kids and parents fail to see eye to eye. So many, in fact, that I'm pretty sure it's the natural order of things. If you're lucky, you'll be friends again sooner or later. When I was a little kid, my Dad and I got on great. Not that you can tell from this picture, where we're both scowling, but to be fair the sun is in our eyes. This is actually one of my favourite photos of me and Dad. We're on a ship, on our way home from New Guinea. Look at that: we're a super scowly team. And also, he's got me. 

Anyway, I think the point is that my dad grew up in a very different family situation. He grew up working class, in a family where everyone was expected to pitch in. Reading for pleasure was something that was acceptable, but writing for pleasure? Get out there and get a damn job. 

By the time I came along, he'd had his damn job for so long that he had himself a pretty decent career. He was smart with money and maths (something that skipped a generation with me) but always remained what he would call practical. And I would call close-minded. But that's okay, because even if he didn't get what I was doing, he tolerated it. 

Back to Townsville. I was miserable. When school started I was still miserable, in that determined way that only a teenager can be. Because my parents had ruined my life, dammit, and no way was I going to validate them by actually being happy and making friends. They could go to hell. 

Anyway, back track a few months before I left Goondiwindi. My English teacher had told me to enter a statewide writing competition, so I did. But because by that stage I knew I'd be moving, but didn't know the address yet, I put my address down as care of the Westpac Bank manager, Townsville. 

So when my dad was flicking through his mail at work one day, he opened the envelope addressed to "J Burke" without even thinking. It was his name too. And inside he found the letter telling me that I'd won the statewide competition. Also enclosed was a cheque for $500. 

Turns out you could get money from this writing thing after all. 

That afternoon when I got home from school I found the open letter and the cheque on the table I'd commandeered as a writing desk. Right beside the new electric typewriter I'd been ogling in catalogues -- computers were still big, expensive, and weighed a ton back then. 

Better than Christmas. 

Even now, I'm not sure that he ever really got what I was doing. I think it would be hysterical if he was still alive so I could tell him I'd finally got proper books published...and they're erotica BTW, Dad, wanna read one? But I think that maybe he finally got that perhaps this wasn't just a hobby, or a waste of time. 

And when I finally moved onto a computer -- Dad brought his laptop home on weekends and I pretty much stole it from Friday night to Monday morning. Thanks, Westpac! -- he supported that as well by taking me with him to the office when he needed to work on weekends and looking the other way while I printed out reams and reams of whatever story I was working on at the time. 

(Again, thanks Westpac.) 

And thanks Dad, too. 


  1. Can’t imagine finding that cheque and typewriter on your writing desk. That’s better than any Pulitzer could ever be.

    My own father worked as a carpenter and machinist, and in the same way, we’ve never connected with books or music. When I show him something I’ve written, he’ll say, “That’s good.” Which is about all I can muster when he shows me some machinery he’s been working on. We can’t understand what goes into each other’s work or what parts to appreciate. But the important thing is we’re behind each other all the way.

    And I’m sure your Dad would be chuckling about your books and proud at how you’ve stayed with it.

    1. Thanks MC! Yeah, I think that might be it. Neither of us really understood what the other one was doing. I can still remember him trying to explain something finance-related, and I just sat there with a blank face tilting my head like a labrador.

  2. Aww, I love this story. And that picture is priceless. I'm sure your dad would be proud of you now. I mean, look, you've got a blog and books! ;)

    1. I love that picture too. And I like to think he would be proud of me, even if I'm writing the kind of books that would make him squirm!



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