Deflated Dreams
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Some useful words from a wordsmith


TUMBY BAY - Writing skills, like most things, develop over time. While the technicalities can be taught the actual skill derives from aptitude, practice, reading and personal experience.

After a lifetime spent writing I find the process fairly easy, mostly painless and decidedly pleasurable.

That doesn’t mean that what I write is particularly good, it just means that it comes a lot easier than it did when I was young.

Apart from the bothersome business of making a living, the two most detrimental effects on my writing have been working for the public service in Australia and completing a degree in English literature at university.

As anyone who has been there will know, the public service in any country demands a particular style of writing.

In most cases it is a highly formalised style of double-speak that kills any hope of creativity. For anyone who wants to revolt against its strictures the only opportunity lies in turning it around on itself.

Not that your immediate superior will condone any ironies you might like to include in the process. More than likely what you have written will either be bounced back to you for re-writing or amended without your knowledge.

Unlearning bureaucratic jargon is very difficult and takes time.

The only public service that I have worked in that found my attempts at creativity amusing was the Department of District Services in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

I discovered this quite by accident when I was informed by a new Cadet Patrol Officer that Jack Baker, a training officer at ASOPA, was reading excerpts of my patrol reports to his classes.

One particular report that acquired a degree of notoriety concerned some comments I made about a missionary.

I said, among other things, that he “continues to visit the area hawking his god along with the cheap mirrors and bush knives of his walking trade store”.

I also mentioned his “savage business ethics, exorbitant trade store prices, plundering of precious artefacts for sale overseas and his reluctance to share seeds from his vegetable gardens for fear of competition for his lucrative trade with mining companies operating in the area.

The double degree in English literature that I completed began as an innocent attempt to bring some order and relevance to my hitherto scatological reading habits.

I had previously completed a course in journalism advertised on the back of a magazine by a mob called the International Correspondence School. I enjoyed it immensely and got excellent feedback from its lecturers.

ICS is still going and, within limits, it is an excellent training source. I lost my ICS journalism certificate years ago but the experience and my erratic reading habits made me think about tackling something at the tertiary level.

I had inexplicably won the school prize in literature when I matriculated and that had boosted my ego and estimations of my capabilities.

Unfortunately the university adventure morphed into a nightmarish journey from Beowulf, Shakespeare, and the Victorians right through to some horrendous modern stuff that defied definition.

The only thing I really picked up on was that academic success in many fields relies upon working out what your lecturers want and feeding it back to them. I used the same trick when I went on to complete a degree in politics.

I remember one fateful essay that I wrote which dared to compare my existence on a remote, upriver, patrol post to the events in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. That didn’t go down well at all.

Getting all that stuff out of my system was just as hard as shedding the peculiar sub-culture of the public service.

Nowadays I read what I like and avoid what I don’t like. Universities won’t allow you to do that but, believe me, it’s a lot more healthy and satisfying.

In the same sense I know what I can best write about and what I can’t. Despite my early aspirations I now know that journalism is not my forte. Neither is highbrow literature.

I am a reasonably competent wordsmith, not too adventurous but inclined to experiment now and again. It’s a happy little rut that I find very comfortable, thank you very much.


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Chris Overland

Phil, your useful words from a wordsmith made me realise that, in some respects at least, we have trodden the same etymological path. This makes perfect sense given that we are both former South Australian public servants.

Like you, my induction into the dark arts of public service writing was swift and brutal.

In my case, it came in the form of the then Secretary of the Department of Education, whose grasp of the subtleties of the English language was provided by the very best private education that money and social aspiration could buy.

Very soon after taking up my position of Chief Clerk I was indoctrinated into the ways of my betters. No more would I commit the unthinkable faux pas of writing “I think” when I meant “it is considered”. Nothing, I was told sternly, should be written in the first person.

The meaning and correct use of hitherto unknown Latin expressions like stare decisis, ipso facto, inter alia and in loco parentis was drummed into me (ad nauseum!).

My work was routinely returned covered in corrections until, after an arduous apprenticeship like you, I achieved true mastery of the language of bureaucracy.

Later on, once I had joined the SA Health Commission, I was introduced to the technical languages of the various healing professions.

Pretty soon I learned the difference between a laparotomy and a laparoscopy and how one used a laparoscope to carry out a Cholecystectomy.

In the world of Pharmacy I came to understand the difference between Acetylsalicylic Acid (Aspirin) and Mefenamic Acid (Ponstan) for the treatment of primary dysmenorrhoea.

As for health Physics, I am afraid that my tiny brain struggled with even the simplest concepts that very earnest technicians strove to explain to me.

Still, I came to know a little about Radon Daughters (you definitely don’t want them in your house) and the mining of uranium oxide (don’t do that for a living either).

Later still, I was introduced to the world of Casemix Funding, with its 900 plus Diagnosis Related Groups and efficient pricing principles.

During my university studies, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I learned the particular requirements of the world of academe with its demands for more Latin expressions such as op. cit. and ibid.

Nothing I wrote (except one long essay on the history of Kiaps in PNG) reflected anything that I had personally felt, experienced or believed.

I got a Distinction grade for that one break out piece of work thanks solely to the fact that my Lecturer (the blessed Dr David Hilliard) had actually been to PNG.

Anyway, the end result of all this is that I can knock out a Cabinet Submission or a response to a Ministerial Inquiry or a set of Parliamentary Briefing Notes or even a Second Reading Speech with relative ease.

What I cannot now do is write anything that I regard as reflecting my authentic voice because, basically, I no longer have any idea what that sounds like.

At least you have written and published a book or two Phil, which is more than I can say. Whatever talent I may have had has long since been perverted by over 30 years in the bureaucracy, rendering me creatively impotent.

Alas, I will never write the great Australian novel.

Such is life.

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