As writers we often play detective – probing, investigating, discovering, each step bringing us closer to the truth. But what if the subject of your investigation is mysterious, surly, contradictory and often inaccessible? What if the person you’re trying to understand is standing on the other side of a locked door, with a mad dog at their side?
What if that person is you?
Writing for me has always been a way of making sense of the world. As a child, I experienced a fair bit of trauma – there’s a book in there. I’ve seen people stabbed and pushed onto train tracks in the New York subway; I’ve been mugged numerous times; I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to find a drugged-out stranger sitting on the foot of my bed; I’ve lived in neighbourhoods that required three chain locks and a propped chair. I’ve survived death threats. I’ve grown up in an environment marred by violence and undiagnosed mental illness. That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Figuring everyone has issues to deal with, I buried a litany of ‘incidents’ and just got on with life. Escaping into books helped. So did philosophy, wrestling with big ideas, searching for meaning. And guffaws. I was always ‘the funny one,’ my claim to fame being able to make people laugh so hard that food came out of their noses – hardly a skill that I’d put on my cv, but impressive nonetheless. Humour is a defence mechanism but, dare I say, also builds character; laughter has seen me through some very difficult times. Now, later in life, the metaphorical suitcase is bursting open and I’m not sure why – is it the cumulative effect, the lifetime of packing away the truth? Is the leather simply worn, split? Or is the bag just too damn heavy to carry?
Recent studies have shown that arts engagement – music, writing, singing or painting, to name just a few – can improve resilience and self esteem for individuals, while also delivering public health benefits. Perhaps the bureaucracy that has deemed STEM subjects to be of greater value, hence scaling much more favourably than arts subjects for calculating ATARS, should broaden its paradigm. In times of crisis and confusion, arts can bring new-found well-being on so many levels, challenging us to see ourselves, and our world, through a different lens. Theatre often rises to this challenge brilliantly; perhaps that’s why dramatic writing has proved such a comfortable fit for me.
Heartened by The Street Theatre’s sold-out run of my play, Fragments last year, and how it seemed to resonate deeply with young and old alike, I’m now embracing a new challenge – putting my hat into the crowded funding pool to (I hope) bring Fragments to schools in the ACT and beyond.
The mad dog is still at my side, occasionally making noise. But I’m not worried. Writing has helped me realise something very important: A barking dog never bites.