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.
Robert Lukins is a writer living in Melbourne. His debut novel, The Everlasting Sunday, was published in 2018 and was nominated for several major literary awards. His writing has appeared in Meanjin, Rolling Stone, Overland, The Big Issue, and other odd places. Loveland is available now through Allen and Unwin.
The Secret Diary Years
For reasons described below, I have very few memories of childhood. Those I have are all attached to scraps of evidence: photographs, notebooks, a few home movies. So it’s difficult to know what is invention and what is fact, but I’ve been assured that I was fixated on reading and writing from an early age.
My family home was one filled with library books – my elder sister’s, brother’s, and my first afterschool job was at the local council library. It wasn’t highbrow but there was certainly a lot of reading going on. Early on, for me, it was all Asterix, science fiction and Stephen King. Then I read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ and everything changed. I was fixated on Adrian and I modelled myself on the poor guy. Particularly, I modelled myself after his reading habits. For all his faults, Adrian had lofty intellectual ambitions and read almost exclusively books that were considered classics. Dusty old, unreconstructed, from-the-canon Classics. So I did too.
For all those early adolescent years and well into my later teens I lived on a diet of all the books a crusty 1950s English schoolmaster might consider essential. I didn’t enjoy these books, I didn’t understand these books, but I read these books.
As a consequence, the rest of my adult and reading life has been an attempt to undo the well-meaning but rusted-shut literary taste hard-wired into my then-youthful brain.
The Wildness Years
I wrote my first novel when I was 14. It was called The Rock and it took place entirely on a small asteroid hurtling through distant, empty space. A man sat cross-legged on the eponymous rock, and had thoughts. The long, embarrassing, excruciating thoughts that my 14-year-old self wrote into his mind. When I finished writing it I printed it out and put it in the back of my wardrobe.
I wrote a novel a year (give or take) for the next 20 years. They all went in the back of the wardrobe, or more often I would just delete them off my computer.
When I was about 19 I had a series of psychotic episodes and ended up committed (or whatever they called it in Brisbane in the late 90s) into a secure psychiatric hospital for about 18 months. As part of my treatment I underwent courses of Electroconvulsive Therapy (once called electroshock). It didn’t help but it did have the charming side effect of almost entirely erasing my childhood and, on-going, seriously affected my ability to form long term memories.
Then I was homeless for a while.
Eventually I was helped into secure housing, my mental health stabilised, and I was able to get my life into a more straightforward arrangement.
Now, I mention all of this only because that period of my life shaped the person and writer I am today more than anything else. A: it gave me a tremendous and enduring sense of perspective. Missing out on a grant or getting a bad review in the newspaper seems like pretty small potatoes after all that. B:
Through all that time – the craziness, the hospitalisation, the sleeping in the park – I kept writing my little novels. They were rubbish, of course, but I kept writing. Writing seems to be something fundamental to me. It’s been the one real constant in my life and I’m so grateful for it.
The International Roast Years
Later, in my 30s, living in Melbourne, life had become a calmer, safer place. I went to my day job, I wrote my books in the spare time I could scrape together, I drank a lot of instant coffee. A day simply arrived when I realised that I had come to the end of the road with my novels.
I was writing, and keeping it secret, because deep down I was afraid of sending it out into the world and it being rejected.
Who was I if I wasn’t a writer?
What I did know was that I was tired, I wasn’t getting any younger, and soon I might not have the energy to keep making these readerless, pointless novels. So without any great catalyst, and certainly no fanfare, I decided that the next novel I wrote would be the one I sent out into the world. I opened a new word document and decided to finally put it all on the page. I would be content with that. Over one very hot summer I wrote a book called The Everlasting Sunday. Without any connections in the publishing world I posted one copy to the University of Queensland Press and carried on with my life. I didn’t hear a thing for 18 months and then I got a phone call that they’d like to publish it.
The Prostate Years
In March 2022 I published my second novel, Loveland. It’s been a very peaceful, gratifying process.
Although there were moments of incredible strangeness, darkness, and emptiness along the way, I wouldn’t trade my road to being a writer for anything.
I now know a lot of writers and a lot of readers. All people that I would never have known if things had ended up in another place. I feel like a member of a much bigger ecosystem and I feel very grateful to be able to play my small part.
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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.
2 thoughts on “How to Become a Writer: Robert Lukins”
What an extraordinary man you are, Robert. What courage, honesty and integrity – forgive the cliched words, but every one is true and right. I so admired your first novel for its tenderness, psychological insight and exquisitely restrained writing. Your story about ‘becoming’ a writer is an exemplary illustration of what matters: the drive to keep writing, against seemingly disastrous odds, because you found something that mattered, and continues to matter, to you. I’m looking forward to reading your new novel: congratulations on its arrival in the world.
You’re so right, Susan, I had the exact same reaction when I read Robert’s story.