One April, Winton receives the news that his publishers are happy with his final manuscript: his book is finished. The news takes a while to sink in, and Winton doesn’t know what to do with himself. By May, he’s severely restless, so he gets in his car and heads for the South Australian border.
Winton’s reaction to what seems like good news—a display of restlessness and anxiety rather than relief and celebration—opens this essay with an air of mystery. It’s clear there’s something bothering him about the manuscript, despite his publishers’ happiness.
In Australia, huge distances separate state lines, so getting to the border takes a few days. Winton remembers when his family crossed this border in 1969. When the blacktop road changed to a loose limestone track, they knew that a rough ride was waiting. Tim’s father sealed up the doors and windows with masking tape against the dust, and they bounced on along their way. Now, Winton drives on smooth bitumen in an air-conditioned car. After 600 kilometers, he stops for the night to cook dinner outside before dropping off to sleep in the back of his car.
The contrast between Winton’s childhood journey along rough limestone roads and his present-day expedition along a smooth, sealed highway reflects the advancements of Australian infrastructure—it’s as if more and more of the wilderness is tamed each year. Tim doesn’t have to plan so thoroughly for his journey, which is perhaps one of the reasons he decided to undertake such a long expedition on a whim.
The next morning, Winton drives across the barren landscape, and when he finally stops, he feels “stoned,” the smallest tasks requiring focused effort. The cold front catches up with him, and he feels vulnerable, exposed to the elements. He recalls how in 1969, he and his family slept in gravel craters as they made their way across the country, and his father slept with a stick beside him, having been warned by other police officers of a man who’d been attacking travelers on the road.
In this scene, it appears that Winton’s attitude has changed from stubborn persistence to a mood of uncertainty and self-doubt. While yesterday he was comfortable driving along the blacktop in his air-conditioned car, today it seems that the inhospitable natural environment affects him acutely—and this suggests that his qualms about his recently-completed manuscript are catching up to him.
By the third day, Winton feels relaxed as he drives. He’s aiming for Ceduna, the first town across the border, and perhaps he’ll go even farther. He drives with a blank mind, then he suddenly loses his momentum and stops, wanting to make a U-turn and go home. He pushes himself on to the lookout over the ocean, hoping to see a whale. He doesn’t see any, and when he gets back into his car, he heads west again, giving up on Ceduna and aiming for home.
Driving appears to have a profound impact on Winton’s mood; the consistent motion of the car tends to put him at ease. But once again he’s disturbed, it seems, by something at the back of his mind, and he displays an uncharacteristic level of discomfort at being in the wilderness alone.
Though Winton races home, only stopping to sleep, the road looks different to him. He notices roadkill littering the side of the route, and he wonders whether he was driving without seeing anything at all for the past few days. The roadkill begins to take up all his attention, and he muses on each bird-swarmed sighting as he drives. When he spots an eagle lying roadside, he feels personally affronted—it reminds him of the summer that he’s been trying to escape. That night, he thinks back over the months that led up to this.
Winton’s feeling that the landscape has changed on his return home implies that the journey has enabled growth or transformation for him. Perhaps those first few days of driving were necessary in order to clear the fog in his brain that resulted from his feverish work on his novel.
The preceding November, Winton has finished with his latest novel. He boxes up the hefty manuscript, ready to send it to his publisher, but he finds himself unable to send it. His growing doubt about the novel has come to a head, and now, rereading and trying to make sense of the novel, he knows it’s not finished. Somewhere in the final draft, he started down the wrong path. The book has already been advertised—its publication date is set—which increases Tim’s dread. His wife tells him to sleep on it, but he knows he either has to give up on the book or begin rewriting immediately.
Winton begins to explain why, the last year, he ended up in a state of such emotional restlessness. His restraint, which stops him from sending the colossal novel draft to his publisher, demonstrates that he's a tough critic of his own work and takes pride in it to the degree that sharing subpar work and having it published would cause him a great deal of distress.
Winton sends the manuscript to his friends, who all kindly agree with him—there’s a book somewhere in it, but it’s not a book yet. Winton is miserable. Even reading becomes stressful. One night, he rips open the paper wrapping of the manuscript and begins to wrestle it into shape. He writes out of vengeful energy, hardly believing he’s trying again. The process is like trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle, requiring him first to kill the camel, then to boil it, then to spit it through a straw into the needle’s tiny aperture. The next afternoon, he’s written 20 pages; after 55 days, his novel is finished—an entirely different book from the one he first planned to send to the publisher. He sends it to them in time for the set publication date, and they’re happy with it.
While sometimes the process of writing is meditative and joyful, much like surfing (as Winton describes in “The Wait and the Flow”), this process is more violent and haphazard. Instead of being fueled by inspiration, he’s fueled by misery and frustration. Perhaps this demonstrates the difference between producing ideas and editing them—the first inkling of a story is a joy, but the process of whittling it down to only its best lines is just short of agony.
Back in the present, on his last night of travel, Winton sits in the dark by his cooling fire. His thoughts begin to drift back to the book, and he loses the calm feeling his travel brought him. The next morning, he sets off on his final stretch. He sees dozens of wedgetail eagles along the way and they make him irritable, reminding him of the 55 days of painful writing he suffered through. He mourns the lost pages he cut from the hefty novel to turn it into something good. The eagles bother him so much because one of the scenes he had to cut from the story involved a couple hitting a wedgetail eagle with their car. It was once a turning point in Tim’s novel’s plot, but now it’s gone from the story.
Despite his vast distance from the place where he wrote his book so fitfully, Winton is still plagued by thoughts of his work. While usually he delights in the demonstrations of nature around him, today, the birds make him angry, which suggests that he was so attached to the scene he cut from his novel that it’s begun to affect his characteristic respect for the natural world.
Though the eagle scene is gone from the novel, Winton still carries it, and the process of writing and perfecting it, in his memory. As he drives onward, he sees two eagles tugging a third, dead one between them, its lifeless body seeming to taunt Winton like a ghost of the pages he lost.
Though Winton’s imagination has allowed him to be a successful novelist and to delight in art and beauty, this scene implies that at times, imagination can be more of a curse than a blessing, allowing ideas to bother him rather than bring him joy.