Bryce Courtenay and me

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Author Bryce Courtenay took a seat in Yahoo's Big Idea Chair in 2010
Author Bryce Courtenay took a seat in Yahoo’s Big Idea Chair in 2010

News of Bryce Courtenay’s death last month reminded me of my own debt of gratitude to the man, not so much for his books but for something I read about his approach to writing and life.

About three years ago when I was feeling deep in the trenches of laundry and cooking and caring for little people, I despaired of ever having time to do the kind of long-form writing I have always dreamed of doing.

I knew it was possible, I admired other writers who did it, but I couldn’t see how I could do it given my own circumstances.

I came across an extended ABC interview with Bryce where he described his life and work.

It gave me so much hope for which I will be forever thankful. He had wanted to work in journalism until he was around 35 and then write books.

But life didn’t work out that way and it wasn’t until he was 50 that he sat down to write his first book, The Power of One. He wasn’t a journalist either, but an advertising executive.

He married and had a family who needed him first, especially his sick son, Damon. Surely those extra years of living added richness to The Power of One which made it a novel beloved by so many?

This was my first ‘aha!’ moment.

Life wasn’t a race merely to jump through hoops I set myself. I had put pressure on myself to write a book before I was 30, and then 35. Now at 35 I was depressed about that.

But now I felt free to wonder why not just do the work God puts before me now, i.e. raise this little family, and entrust my writing hopes to him for later? So I did that, keeping happy in the meantime by writing here and on a blog I meaningfully named Live First, Write Later. The other way Bryce inspired me was, strangely, in my spiritual life.

Once he had devoted himself to writing he really devoted himself. He brought an intense focus and energy to it, and put much of the rest of his life in place at the service of this core work.

At age 72 he would sometimes write for 12 hours a day, and he stopped drinking alcohol because it made him sluggish in the mornings and lost him precious hours.

“If I’m really lucky I’ve got 10 years and that makes me 82, 83. And 10 years isn’t very much … and so, yes, I am in a tearing hurry and can’t waste time doing the wrong things, stupid things,” he said.

Bryce knew his time was limited, and wanted to make the most of what was left. Isn’t this the way we are to be during Advent?

Mindful that time is short, our lives are shorter, and we should be filled with passion to burn, to use up our gifts and energy and time for something good?

This passion is what I want to bring to my life, too.

The kind of passion which strips away anything which is extraneous in order to bring razor-sharp focus to what is really important in my life.

What Bryce Courtenay did for the sake of his writing I want to apply to my life of faith; embrace the reality, remove the unnecessary and unhelpful, and order my days around what is important.

Rather than run my own arbitrary life-race I know I’d be ultimately much happier doing what St Paul wrote about when he referred to throwing off every burden (even self-imposed ones like mine was) and running the race God puts before us while keeping our eyes on Christ.