I have always felt myself to be rather porous. Things affected me. Paying close attention to what was going on around me was a means of survival: I didn’t know why, but I needed to do it, and I needed to write down what I saw and heard. I practised attending, night and day. I developed what the late Nadine Gordimer says all writers have: “powers of observation heightened beyond the normal” that can even go so far as to become “a monstrous detachment”. This did not make me popular. “I don’t know how you can stand it,” said one friend, “being so alert all the time.” “I did not want to be part of what you were looking at,” said another. “Your terrible eye,” said a third, “that can’t not see.”
Still, driven by temperament and by financial necessity, I found a use for this habit and managed to turn myself into a writer who could earn a living.
One morning, when I was already middle-aged, I drifted into a court of law. I sat down. I paid attention. A day passed in five minutes. I emerged into the street dazed and moved, knowing that this was what I had ignorantly been practising for, all my life. A new world cracked open, and I walked straight in. I sat still. I watched, I listened, I wrote, and I thought, “I was born for this.”
But now I’m in my 70s, and the equipment I use for paying attention, for exercising the only skill I’ve got, is starting to wear out.
A year or two ago, very gradually, I noticed it was becoming harder and harder to hear what people were saying in court. I panicked. Was I going to have to give up work? I went for a test. My hearing loss, said the cheerful young audiologist, was normal for someone of my age. Normal? Were we all walking around cranky with frustration and anxiety?
He took me into a back room and showed me a row of hearing aids laid out in a curve on a table. At one end was the old-fashioned sort that looks like a wad of pink bubblegum; at the other, a minuscule, weightless contrivance of wire and a substance it would be an insult to call metal.
I said, “A friend of mine has just got hearing aids. He paid ten grand. I was hoping to pay a lot less than that.” “How bad was his hearing loss?” “He told me that until he put the aids in, he’d forgotten that birds sing.” “Oh,” said the audiologist, “you’ll get away with only half of that.” His hand swept over the display and hovered above the middle.
I paid five grand for dainty little hook-on ones with a volume button, shoved them into my ears and rushed away. Oh boy, the traffic on Swanston Street! The chiming of the trams! I could once again watch Brooklyn 99 with my grandchildren and almost follow its rapid-fire dialogue, though they still get twice as many laughs as I do. Only the solemn, syntactically sophisticated Captain Holt is completely audible to me: another reason for the huge crush I have on him.
How a writer pays attention: you spot details you can’t imagine having any possible use for, and you make a note of them
But still I couldn’t hear in court. Willpower and the audiologist’s art could not prevail against the hopeless acoustic of those buildings, whether they were lofty Victorian halls clogged with cumbersome mahogany or modern lounge-room-like spaces where muffled voices drooped and faded into the carpet.
On the day I gave up and trudged sadly home, I glimpsed a typed sign affixed to the outer door of the supreme court. It was a heritage permit to “carry out works to address acoustic issues in courts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 15”.
Too late. I’m gone.
And if you want to know how I can quote that sign so accurately, it’s because I got out my phone and took a photo. That’s how a writer pays attention: you spot details you can’t imagine having any possible use for, and you make a note of them. And when time catches up, and a little gap opens in what you’re writing, out they pop from the dark, all fresh and shiny, and you grab them, and polish them, and slot them in.
Cataract surgery, everyone was telling me, was all the go for my generation. Like the hearing aids it was soberingly expensive, but things had been looking drab and featureless for a while, so I went for it. When I mentioned the fee to a physician friend, she said, “Huh. You can do cataracts in a fucking paddock.” But believe me, before the floaters started to waft like insect wings across my field of vision, I was grateful. It was thrilling to feast again on colour and texture and distance, even if my eyes recovered much more slowly than advertised and one of them remained half-closed for months, so that in publicity photos for my next book I looked louche and sinister, like an ageing pirate.
Then, the summer of the mighty fires. Then, the virus. Everything slowed down and stopped.
I was lucky. I had a job to do: cutting and filleting for publication the second volume of my diaries from the 80s and 90s. In lockdown, I wasn’t allowed to cross town to the rented office where I usually hide to work. I went into my room at home and shut the door.
Like the world outside my quiet house, time turned itself upside down and inside out. The daily work habits of 40 years went up in flames and new ones sprouted from the ashes. Instead of going to bed early and starting work straight after breakfast, I wallowed on the couch till one in the morning, feasting on wild-eyed Jewish stand-up and cold case investigations by women detectives. I’d wake at eight, let the chooks out, walk fast for 40 minutes, do pilates on the mat, and sort out my emails. By noon I was ready to rock.
And then, surrounded by stacks of old notebooks, I’d go flat out for seven hours. I never got tired, never needed a nap, ate only when hungry, drank glass after glass of water. The arthritic parts of me – wrist, lower back, left foot – gave not a twinge. I kept thinking, can it be that I’m happy? Is a woman of my age allowed to be happy, when the world outside her window is going to hell in a handbasket?
I began to wonder why the verb that goes with “attention” is “to pay”. Is it a debt? A duty? A tax? An outlay of energy? Work seems to be involved in the phrase, or perhaps sacrifice. And what do we get back, if we pay it?
I couldn’t believe, as I worked through my notebooks, the smallness of some of the things I had noticed 30 years ago. My god, I was the queen of attention! How I paid $1.19 for two chops. The fact that I ironed a tablecloth. A grown man who had never heard of Dolly Parton. A nun who said she had blushed “as red as these carrots”. My friend’s golden shoes. Some garden dirt that smelled like mushrooms. A hard-boiled egg. A handful of 3B pencils. A shred of Christmas tinsel caught in a doctor’s hair. How precious these things seem when I come upon them again, what treasures, what tiny bombs of meaning, though when I wrote them down I thought they were nothing but chips and fragments between bouts of narrative – the raw material that I used for daily practice.
The only thing I’ve ever had to offer the world is my attention. Sometimes at 2am I think it’s not much, not enough, hardly anything. But now, reading the record of what it focused on and randomly preserved, I’m starting to see that I was doing more than I knew. I think I can even be so bold as to say that it’s all been worth it.
• Helen Garner writes novels, stories, screenplays and works of non-fiction
• This essay was commissioned by Melbourne writers’ festival, syndicated as part of a partnership with Guardian Australia