Bob Rich

I?m here to entertain you, but before we start, I thought to introduce myself. You may get more out of my stories if you know where they came from.

There are three things you need to know about me: I am a writer, mudsmith and psychologist.

What is a writer?

A writer is not just a person who writes. Almost anybody can write, which is why publishers are drowning in a flood of manuscripts that no one wants to read. But a writer must write. I can no more give up writing than I can do without breathing. It is something I do all the time. Working at one of my many jobs, talking with a friend, whatever I am doing, I am also observing life and translating it into words. I look at the expression on a face, the movement of a hand, a flower, the scenery, on joy and suffering and squalor and magnificence, and all of it is stored away, to emerge some time later. Everything is ammunition for the machine gun of my imagination. It will become part of some work or another, perhaps a long time later, transformed and hidden and combined with other experiences.

Sometimes, a publisher has rejected a work I?d submitted, or a critic has been unkind. I feel that a child of my spirit has been trampled, and get depressed. I think, What’s the use? I might as well be sane like everyone else and watch TV or something.

At times like this, I need some solace. And what do I do to survive?

I write.


The inside of my mind has been like this, for as long as I can remember, but I didn?t know that I was a writer. My passion as a youngster was distance running, and as I covered the many long miles, I passed the weary minutes and even hours by making up endless monologues. I never thought to share these with anyone else--for Heaven’s sake, who?d be interested in my thoughts? But unknowingly, I was a grub feeding on the juicy green leaves of experience.

At school, and later at University, my quirky mind allowed me to excel, while at the same time it was impossible for me to fit into any system. I just felt different, and odd, and therefore inferior. I coped by trying harder than anyone else, and accumulating a long list of successes.

Did they make me feel better about myself? Of course not. So, I continued to strive, and to buck the system.

Here is an example. During my second year at University, I chose to attend Philosophy. One of the Professors gave a very well organized series of lectures, I think they must have been the chapters of a planned book. And at the end of the year, while preparing for the examinations, I noticed that Lecture 3 and Lecture 11 were incompatible. If one was correct, the other couldn?t be. Both were important topics, so I tried a gamble. I prepared a double-sized answer that summarized both topics, then showed how they conflicted with each other.

Sure enough, two of the five questions were on these two topics. Gulp, will I? Won?t I?

I did. I gave a combined, double-length answer to the two questions.

Then of course I spent the weeks until the announcement of the results with the snake of apprehension slithering about in my stomach. In vain did I tell myself that I answered the other three questions well, and that this was only one of three exams in Philosophy, and I was bound to pass even if this man chose to fail me.

But it was all right, he had a sense of humor. He gave me a High Distinction. And the next year, he?d dropped Lecture 3.

Later, my creativity found a happy temporary home in research. Not that I could keep to the customary formulas! My PhD project was so odd that I had to spend a year inventing a new method of statistical analysis, one that, as far as I know, has never been used by anyone else.

And then I had a kind of a religious conversion, of which later. This led to my career as a Mudsmith, and to a deliberately low-income, almost self-sufficient lifestyle, and to writing. [Read my essay that explains this crazy idea.]

Hemingway advised: "Write what you know about." At that time, I was building my house, and learned new skills every day. This was what I wrote about, mostly in an excellent magazine called Earth Garden. These ?how to? articles were pedestrian, like the recipes in a cook book. But they struck a chord, and my ideas resonated with the thousands of people reading the magazine. So, one day I wrote a letter to the magazine’s publisher, Keith Smith, suggesting that the two of us could co-author a book about building. He had posted a letter to me on the same day, with the same proposal!

The Earth Garden Building Book took us two years to write, maturing like good wine. It came out in 1987, and now, in 2001, the third edition is still selling. It has been reviewed as the ?Australian owner-builder’s bible?, and has been used as the main reference by tens of thousands of people as they built their houses.

My second book, Woodworking for Idiots Like Me, was more ambitious in a way, being a series of autobiographical short stories. Each story had a practical lesson and a recipe for doing some aspect of woodcraft. It also did very well, being repeatedly reprinted over five years. It’s still not ?out of print?, or so Michael the publisher says--it’s just that he hasn?t done another print run.

In the meantime, I continued my growth as a writer. My first win in a competition was in 1991, a third prize for the story, Peace for the Joker. Ever since then, I?ve had occasional bursts of short story writing, and each time won prizes and awards.

Gradually, I got more ambitious and tried to write novels. The first three were no more than learning exercises, but gradually I grew wings of many colors, and flapped them, and my ideas flew. Last year, I published seven books in electronic format, and the critics have been kind--well, almost all of them.

I hope that my words will give you pleasure, and open doors of understanding into worlds you haven?t yet explored.

And what is a mudsmith?

A mudsmith handcrafts houses from earth. I became a mudsmith because I didn?t want to fall asleep in the Library.

In 1972, I was ?Mr Rich? to several hundreds of first year Psychology students. Wednesdays were for Library research, and by then I was thoroughly bored with my PhD thesis. So, I stayed awake by reading things on shelves other than Psychology. Having small children, I gravitated to futurology: not astrology or Nostradamus, but the study of what current trends can say about the future.

Within six months, I knew where the world was going. The future we were heading for was a bleak place.

* Automatic devices were replacing people, leading to high structural unemployment, with a resulting increase in the gap between rich and poor, meaninglessness, alcohol and other drug addiction, crimes of desperation, rising suicide rates, perhaps destructive conflicts between the haves and have-nots--back to the 19th Century.
* The dislocations due to two World Wars, a great Depression and an incredible rate of technological change were bound to destroy entire cultures (more meaninglessness), and combined with the ’sexual revolution?, weaken or even destroy the family. This in turn had to lead to a great heap of social ills.
* High and ever-increasing mobility would give disease organisms more chance to mutate and adapt, leading to new, virulent strains of old diseases, and entirely new ones.
* Rampant, unchecked population growth combined with an increasing level of material consumption within the wealthy countries just had to lead to resource shortages, causing much hardship, and perhaps resource-based wars. Also, I was aware of research on the effects of crowding on all mammals: stress-related diseases, the breakdown of proper patterns of parenting, violence in the defense of territory, irrational, emotion-based wars of genocide.
* Pollution of the environment to the point where cancers, birth defects and other diseases like asthma would become epidemics.
* Exhaustion of renewable resources like topsoil, water, fresh air, various food species like fish due to a rate of usage higher than Nature could do its work of renewal.

I could go on. In summary, I accurately predicted today’s world. So, I became a born-again Conservationist. The desire to work for a sustainable world, which is also fair to everybody of whatever race, religion or language, has motivated me ever since.

When we have destroyed our own life support system, at least I?ll be able to say, "It wasn?t my fault."

And finally, a psychologist

All through school, I was going to be a scientist, because, naively, I wanted to contribute to the betterment of mankind. In my ignorance, ’science? meant physics. But halfway through first year at University, I realized that we had far too much technology already. What was needed was knowledge about human beings, so we could learn to use what we had more wisely. The study of mechanics, electricity, light, sound were all old stuff. Physicists studied the mighty atom. And the dangers of nuclear engineering horrified me, and still do.

Now I must pay tribute to Mr Woods. He taught English to me in my final year at High School, and often told stories of his experiences as a Psychology student. When I got to Uni, I had to study ?Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and one other subject?. Thanks to Mr Woods, I chose Psychology. Accident? Karma?

So, when I became disenchanted with Physics I switched to a Psych major, still the keen scientist. I was ambitious, and worked hard, and learned lots.

Then I had my Green conversion, and a few years later, retired at thirty-five. At first, my new profession as Mudsmith took up all my creative energies. But then, a few disasters struck, and suddenly money became all too scarce. I was unemployed for two years. Despite my PhD, despite my many achievements, I learned what it is like to be a second-class citizen, to be the subject of disdain. More karma?

At last, a friend suggested that I train as a nurse. A registered nurse needs to study three years full time, but there was a more lowly occupation, then called ?State Enrolled Nurse? (now it is Registered Nurse Division 2). This needed only one year of training, and I took the course.

As an ?SEN?, I could work part time in nursing homes and hospitals near my home, choosing my own shifts. It was an ideal backup to my other activities, including writing, and a great source of experience.

Nursing did me a great favor: it toughened me up. Before, I was a lame duck collector, always there to help anyone in trouble, often worrying more about someone else’s problem than the sufferer did. This was why I?d never gone in for counseling. But the first lesson of nursing is ?SEP?: Someone Else’s Problem. As a student nurse, I learned to leave the pain and suffering behind when I went home.

So, in 1991 I apprenticed myself to a friend who is an excellent therapist. Six months later he told me that I was ready to counsel on my own. Since then, I?ve done the equivalent of two and a half years of full-time study, worked under the supervision of talented therapists, and learned lots from hundreds of my clients. As the famous American brief therapist Steve de Shazer has said, "Therapy is magic: I don?t know how my clients do it."

My writing has soared and blossomed as a result of my work in psychological counseling. The therapist’s main tool is empathy: being able to sense the world from the client’s viewpoint, to be able to see through other eyes. I am now in the habit of doing that, all the time. And this is one of the major requirements for good writing.


Bob Rich
Wombat Hollow,
November 2001.

Titles Available from Dr. Bob Rich



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