jjsheahan.com
Welcome to the web site of JJ Sheahan

How did I become ‘a writer’?

I am passionate about writing and literature. They have figured large in my life for nearly forty years. But it was not always so.

Life was fairly uncomplicated for this quiet boy from the bush until I sort of ‘woke up’ during my final year at school – woke up to the world ‘out there’ and to the one inside. Who knows what brings on this change? It suddenly dawns that life is immensely complicated. Questions become important.

Then I accidentally bumped into Writing.

It was the final term of high school. I was a Maths-Science geek. I returned to boarding school with a dose of chicken pox and promptly ended up in the infirmary for a fortnight, quarantined. I had left a drought-besieged family farm and come to a rain-soaked city. I listened to it pelting down outside, watched it pouring across concrete into drains and uselessly away. There was an English assignment on War Poets. Completely fed up with essays, I took a shot at the creative option: write two poems modelled on two war poems. I wrote two sonnets. Awful works to look at later, but writing them did something to me that no essay had ever done.

During that term I also started to learn the guitar. What a time to start. Was I seeking distraction or what? The school entered a volleyball competition for the first time, and I joined up, looking for something new. All the while I was struggling with the issue of what to do post-school: study medicine or join a religious order? Introspection was the order of the day and poetry filled the bill neatly. Metaphors and symbols – how to describe and explain without getting tied into knots over semantics. Oh, the naivete of the lad!

I discovered that writing was both a way into the labyrinthine inner world and a way to bring something back. Search and discover, find and recover.

I joined the Marist Brothers which took me down to Sydney. It was a teaching order and teaching was one of the last things I wanted to do. The next few years were the most intense of my short life: Love, Spirit, Self, Teaching – and the poetry torrented forth. I lasted 18 months in the brothers. When I broke up with my first ‘fair dinkum’ girlfriend, I sat for 5 or 6 hours and wrote a suite of poems as a way of dealing with it.

The first dances with depression began in those years, slow and will-sapping. The poetry alternated between expression and catharsis. I discovered Rod McKuen’s poetry, fell for the free form, and stayed stuck there for far too long. Way too long.

I met my soul-mate about the time I turned twenty and it only took me four months to ask her out! She began to write also. We moved down to Wagga Wagga – a compromise between city and bush – and both started teaching. I wrote 60% of a musical and loads of poetry. Slowly,  a curious thing happened: writing in term-time thinned, retreating to the holidays, which then thinned again until the only time I was writing was late in the Christmas holidays … then not at all.

I joined the fledgling writers group in Wagga. Les Murray visited and, bless him, read what I thought was the pick of my work. He liked two of the little pieces and recommended that I write short. His advice has influenced my work in all forms ever since.

Then the years of desert. Just the mad scribbling into notebooks. Nothing polished, nothing pursued, nothing completed.

Until, one summer break after the computer had made its entrance, I wrote up a first draft of  twenty years research into my family history. It would be five years before I had it printed, but it was my first taste of writing consistently on a large-scale project. I liked it.

Time passed. Children grew up and moved away or got their licences. The teaching career hit its intellectual and emotional crescendo, then I quietened it down before it killed me. One of the lights was being able to teach the specialist writing courses that began in NSW in the early 2000s. It’s hard to be doing that and mix with other writers/writing teachers keen on writing without it rubbing off. I scribbled some more.

I wanted another change from the classroom and began a MAsters to facilitate a move. I found a course at Deakin Uni in Writing and Literature that would allow me to write my own stuff. It took six years to complete and pushed my writing boundaries waaaay out. Some of the assignments are on this site – ‘Shorts’.

9th July 2007 – I made the first notes for The Bracelet. We moved to Tassie in 2008 and, in amongst everything else, I managed to complete a first draft on the day before I started back to fulltime classroom teaching in 2009. That, now, seems to have been the honeymoon period in the production of the novel. It has been a slog since.

So, writing has been a crucial part of my life in one way or another since I woke up at 17 – writing mine, studying others’, and trying to spark and develop the talent among my students. Now I am writing a blog.

Good grief.