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Every calling demands the search for truth, says Geraldine Brooks in the final Boyer Lecture.

Like the mathematician, I am after nothing less than eternal truths.

Afew years ago, on a crisp autumn day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I attended a lecture entitled ‘‘ Singularities in Algebraic Plane Curves’’ . For reasons that I will not go into, it was necessary that I attend. I slumped into the room, armed with a doodle pad. My plan was to sit politely and let the talk sail over my head. I would use the hour for meditative reverie; perhaps, if I positioned myself wisely, a discreet little nap might be possible.

On the pad I carried that day, I have a few fragments of the sentences the mathematician used:

A formal power series about the origin is an infinite sum

Homomorphism is an isomorphism if and only if the matrix is inevitable

This is like poetry, I thought, and I leaned forward to hear more. And when I set aside my firm belief that I could not comprehend her, something strange happened. It wasn’t that I understood her work, but I understood her vision. I realised I had lived, until that moment, in an airlock, and that she was prizing open the heavy door, just a crack. In the sudden brief shaft of light, I glimpsed a sliver of the world beyond, the world in which she lived.

When she looked at the old maple beyond the lecture room window, at the great swoop of bough arcing out from massive trunk, her consciousness overlaid a pattern on that branch that was elegant and sensual.

I could imagine what it was to see with her eyes, to feel with her heart, to inhabit a space in which the language was not particular and national, but infinite and universal.

I know now that it is a beautiful world, but I also know that I can’t live there. If she has lungs, I have gills. I swim in a sea of words. They flow around me and through me and, by a process that is not fully clear to me, some delicate hidden membrane draws forth the stuff that is the necessary condition of my life.

I am sure though, that our work, the mathematician’s and mine, is essentially the same. In her exploration of the singularity in every plane curve, she seeks a way to more perfectly describe that arcing branch, or a soaring bridge, the squiggle in the iron lace of a terrace house, the quivering S bend of a squirrel’s upraised tail. She pushes her way deeper and deeper into the full truth of the world. This, also, is what I must do.

It is my great good luck the words I use are English words, which means I live in a very old nation of open borders ; a rich, deep, multi-layered , promiscuous universe, infused with Latin, German, French, Greek, Arabic and countless other tongues. I would not be able to swim so far, dive so deep, in a linguistically isolated language such as Hungarian, or even a protectively elitist one like French.

When I write a word in English, a simple one, such as, say, chief, I have unwittingly ushered a querulous horde into the room. The Roman legionary is there, shaking his cap, or head, and Andy Capp is there, slouching in his signature working man’s headgear. The toque-wearing cook is there, too, reminding me that English had chef, from the French (who had changed the Romans’ k sound to sh, and the p sound to eff ) before it had captain, from the Latin, which is why the word chief now sounds more like the younger word than its elder.

As a novelist I am glad to have this immense cast of captains and chefs standing behind my chief, telling me that whoever she is in my novel, she trails a vast raft of history and association behind her, subtly framing her in my readers’ minds before I have let her utter a single word.

Henry David Thoreau wrote that ‘‘ The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or perchance a palace or a temple on the earth, and at length the middleaged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them.’’

Well, it did not go that way for me. I started out hoping for the woodshed – a nice tight serviceable structure that would serve a modestly useful purpose. I would be a newspaper reporter in the city of my birth. I would try to write stories that helped people; perhaps, every so often, an article might right a local wrong or even shift policy a few degrees in a more progressive direction . Then they’d end up lining the floor of the budgie cage.

In my 20s, my ambition enlarged a bit. I started thinking that building a temple might not be out of the question . As a foreign correspondent bearing witness in the dark and troubled places of the earth, I began to entertain a hope that my words might have an impact on the councils of the powerful. I hoped they would be a true and valuable reflection of the history unfolding before my eyes—that ‘‘ first rough draft’ ’ that historians and analysts would turn to as they shaped a better understanding of our times.

Now, as a fiction writer, my ambition has slipped all bounds. In middle age, I aspire to build that bridge to the moon. Like the mathematician , I am after nothing less than eternal truths: what is this world, how can we more perfectly describe it? Who are we, who have we been?

Of course, it is one thing to have the ambition, another thing to have the means. But I know I have to do the best I can with the materials I have; materials that I started assembling from the time I became literate , and have continued to amass throughout my career in journalism and on into fiction. By now, the toolbox has grown quite heavy, and some of the first acquired implements continue to be the most useful of my craft.

At Sydney University, I studied government and fine arts. A freshly minted BA (hons), I came to the Sydney Morning Herald tremendously well informed on the merits of fresco over tempera in Quattrocento painting and classical political theory from Plato to Hobbes.

So they sent me to the sports department to cover the races.

Actually, that’s putting it grandly. I didn’t actually get to ‘‘ cover’ ’ the races, if that conveys writing delightful Runyonesque colour pieces about characters at the track. My job was to amass and record the ‘‘ details’ ’ – the plethora of facts on which the senior reporters relied for their reporting. I had to take note of how the odds fluctuated in the runup to the start, note the condition of the track, record where each horse was at each turn and at the finish, the weights and the handicaps.

As much as I disliked that work, I acquired some useful and durable tools from it. Above all, I learned a respect for factual details, which is essential to fiction. That might seem odd; why should a novelist need facts? Isn’t fiction fact’s antonym? For me, facts are first inspiration, the idea or set of ideas from which my imaginative edifice will grow.

So the tools acquired by the racing details cadet all those years ago get a good workout these days, as do many other tools picked up here and there in my career as a journalist. I was a news reporter for 16 years, seven of them a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. Perhaps the most useful equipment I acquired in that time is a lack of preciousness about the act of writing. A reporter must write. There must be a story. The mot juste unarriving? Tell that to your desk. Your editor will not wait for you to get your aura on straight. File, or fail.

Due to that discipline, I no more believe in writer’s block than in panel beater’s block or hairdresser’s block.

Writing may aspire to art, but it begins as craft. Words are stones, and the book is a wall. You choose each stone with consideration, you place it with effort. Sometimes, you find just the right stone – the right shape and heft – for that difficult niche, and the effect is beautiful and satisfying. Your wall has gone up straight and true.

Other days, you pick up one stone and then another, and none is right. You try it, it will not fit. Frustrated, you jam it in anyhow. The effect is unsightly, the balance precarious. You come back the next day and cannot bear to look at it. You bring in the back hoe and knock it over.

The important thing is the effort. There can be no day without lifting stones. And after enough days, if you have sweated enough, scraped enough skin off your hands, been patient and diligent with your craft, unsparing in use of the back hoe, you will, in the end, have a wall. And it may even be a beautiful wall that will last for a hundred years.

In his 1936 classic for children, A Little History of the World, the Austrian author Ernst Hans Gombrich describes the business of writing about the past. It is, he says, like lighting a scrap of paper and dropping it into a bottomless well. As it falls and burns, it lights up the sides of the well in the same way that our memories light up the past. The deeper it falls, the less is illuminated.

Living memory gives way to archives, archives to cave paintings, cave paintings to fossils, until the light goes out and everything is dark. But, as Gombrich writes, even in that dark silence, we have not yet reached the beginning of the human story.

Behind every beginning, no matter how long ago, there is another beginning . Every generation has its Once Upon a Time. Your grandmother, her grandmother, your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother … and already we are back several hundred years. And every one of them probably telling stories that started with some version of Once Upon a Time.

And now, as I make my home in literature, in a particular genre of fiction that explores the places in the deep well that the burning paper has left unilluminated, I think of that mathematician, and her search for a more perfect description of the world’s swoops and curves. What can I know, after all, that is true about these people who lived and died so long ago, lived and died, as Henry James asserts, with a consciousness different from ours, a consciousness formed when more half the things that make our world did not exist for them?

But I believe that consciousness isn’t shaped by things. You can move the furniture about as much as you like; the emotions of the people in the room will not change. Consciousness is shaped by fear and joy, hatred and tenderness. This is what I know: They loved, as I love. And that is as good a starting point as any.

This is an edited extract of the fourth 2011 ABC Boyer Lectures series delivered by Geraldine Brooks and available in the book Boyer Lectures 2011: The Idea of Home (ABC Books, $24.99). The lecture will be broadcast on ABC Radio National tomorrow at 5pm.

Copyright © 2011 The Sydney Morning Herald