This series is based on an early short-story by Lorrie Moore called ‘How to Become a Writer’, a wry account of all the seemingly random events, choices and missteps that led a young woman to dedicate herself to a life of putting words on paper. This is a subject I’m fascinated by. Whenever I talk to authors, read their interviews or hear them speak, I’m struck by the enormous variety of routes there are to the same end-point.
There are those who come to writing through study, others are self-taught; some begin early while others are ‘late-bloomers’; some are lucky enough to find mentors, others go it alone; some begin as teachers, editors or in other word-related professions, others come from lives as accountants or sheep shearers. I take tremendous comfort in knowing there’s more than one way to pack a sack; that just because you haven’t done certain things (like gone to university), doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer; we must each find our own path to the writing life.
Fiona Murphy is an award-winning deaf poet and essayist based in the Blue Mountains, NSW. Her work has been appeared in The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Griffith Review, The Big Issue, among many other publications. Her debut memoir, The Shape of Sound, was released by Text Publishing in March 2021. Fiona regularly teaches creative writing workshops and facilitates disability equality training sessions.
My parents have always worked with their hands. Mum was an enrolled nurse and Dad was a bricklayer. They would come home after each shift with muscles sore and feet aching. They wanted us—my siblings and I—to work hard. More than anything else, they wanted us to be practical.
Dad taught me how to tie knots (clove hitch, reef, bowline); how to strip rubber from old wiring to sell the copper for scrap metal; and how to extract honey from beehives. Mum taught me how to use aloe vera leaves to soothe skin smarting from sunburn; how to pick the best place to pitch a tent; and hundreds of ways of how to avoid an untimely death.
They also taught me how to read.
As a deaf child I could not understand how a page could contain hundreds of sounds. My parents would clap their hands and click their fingers to coax each letter alive. I would watch their faces, read their lips.
Eventually, with years of practice, I learned how to read. And then, I became perhaps the most unpractical thing of all: a bookworm.
‘You just can’t sit there all day,’ Mum would cluck her tongue whether she caught me marooned on the couch, book in hand.
I would slide down lower, hiding behind the covers of the book.
‘You’ll strain your eyes reading all day. Get up and make yourself useful.’
Throughout high school books became my solace.
I could quickly and easily follow written conversations, whereas in real life I found myself straining my eyes whenever somebody spoke.
I read anything I could find in the school library, from Chekhov to the wildly disturbing Flowers in the Attic. I read street signs and community notice boards. I would wander through supermarket aisles reading packets and cans. I read the weekly television guide from cover to cover, though rarely watching any of the shows. The dialogue was always too quick, too indecipherable.
By the end of high school, wanting to please my parents, I focused on only ‘practical’ occupations. I enrolled in physiotherapy. I would learn how to use my hands.
With just the right amount of pressure, I learned to unravel knots of tension from shoulders, buttocks and calves. How to press on bones to free stiff joints. How to alleviate pain and rehabilitate injuries. It was immensely satisfying. But so too was reading and writing.
After graduating from university, I began to attend weekend writing workshops. Every night, I would burrow into a book. I carried multiple books with me at all times, just in case I ran out of things to read.
Eventually, in 2016, I enrolled in the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT.
During these night classes, I learned how to wrangle words. How to wield a red pen to cut commas, strike out tautology and lasso dangling modifiers. How to make a page sing.
Every weekend, I would write for hours at a stretch, until my fingers became inky and indented from the pen.
Having never felt at ease in conversations, I had finally found a way to express myself, wholly and completely.
I began to collate my experiences of what it is like to live in a deaf body. These vignettes would eventually become my memoir, The Shape of Sound. Everything I have learnt from my parents is within those pages, as well as all the things that I have had to discover on my own—Deaf culture, sign language and how to survive in a hearing world.
I realise now that reading and writing is immensely practical. They have been both my compass and map. Without them I would be lost.
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Annabel Smith is the author of US bestseller Whiskey & Charlie (published in Australia as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot), digital interactive novel/app The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. I am currently working on Monkey See, an epic quest with a sci-fi twist featuring a monkey, an evil priestess and the mother of all tsunamis.