A potent and moving friendship springs from a creative writing class. By Alice Pung.

The power of words

The two friends met 10 years ago through a creative writing class. That time, Barry Garner was working six days a week at the Lost Dogs’ Home driving an animal ambulance. He hadn’t been in a classroom since he was 15. “I walked in, and there was this little ball of enthusiasm at the front,” Barry tells me. Barry’s hands shake when he holds his cup, but not because of nerves.

Bruno Lettieri laughs. “He wrote me a letter a few weeks in. He started with ‘Dear Professor’. It takes the piss out of me but it’s very endearing because I work in a uni where every second person is a professor and I’m just the TAFE literacy teacher.”

They are both sitting on Bruno’s red couch. Red is Bruno’s favourite colour, as evidenced by his shirts. Sixty, and a little over 150 centimetres tall, Bruno likes to make expressive gestures with his hands as though he is holding an enormous, expanding ball. “He kept re-enrolling for the course!” Bruno exclaims. “It got to the point where I said, ‘You could have got a degree by now with the amount of times you’ve re-enrolled!’ ”

Barry laughs, whacking his hand on his leg. “It got to the point where Bruno said to me, ‘You are not to enrol anymore, go away!’ By that stage we were such good friends he could say that. But he sat me down and said, ‘Look, you’re at the point now where you can start motivating yourself.’”

Barry, 57, was diagnosed with bipolar in 1991, just after the death of his grandmother. She had lived with him for the last 10 years of her life, because he was a single parent. “When she died, I took it pretty hard and got depressed. It sort of went on and on and there was something not quite right. I’ve always had it but it just wasn’t given a label – back then people called it bad nerves. I had a breakdown at 18. I’d been prescribed some Valium, took an overdose and went to the hospital. That was a very bad experience. In those days they said, ‘You’re an idiot, man up.’ ”  

“Something in my teaching must have touched Barry,” Bruno says. “My father was an Italian peasant, an uneducated man who wasn’t touched by great literature, but he had a tendency to cry. My mother would always go, ‘Oh, look at him, pissio occhio – pissing his eyes.’ ”

Barry talks about how Bruno rang him to ask him to speak to his writing class in Sunbury, north-west of Melbourne, while he was in the middle of a very bad episode. “I said, ‘Aw mate, I can’t write anything, I can’t think about anything except being depressed.’ ” Bruno said, “Why don’t you write about it?” That night, Barry sat down and wrote a poem about manic depression. 

“People always love his stuff,” Bruno says. “Here is this person who left Collingwood Tech at 14 years and nine months – they didn’t even know he had gone because he was wagging so much! – and he’s speaking alongside the great John Marsden, Raimond Gaita and Hannie Rayson.”  

Barry’s first public performance in Bruno’s new writing class was one that would change his life. “He read a poem he wrote called “The Ride”, which was about hanging on because you’re about to go into this steep descent,” Bruno says. “He was still shaking from the medication.” 

Caz, Barry’s future wife, was in the class. She was so moved she had to leave the room. “I don’t think she’d heard a man speak so sensitively about a condition she also lives with.” 

Barry tells me, “There’s something about being in a writing class that supercharges the getting-to-know-you process. I reckon two writing classes is the equivalent to 15 first dates!” 

Caz got Barry’s address off Bruno and they fell in love swapping letters. “Eventually we met up at the uni on a Sunday afternoon.” Barry tells me. “When she turned up, I thought, this is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I just want to kiss her once, because as soon as I open my mouth I know I’ll stuff it up. So I threw my arms around her and gave her this great big kiss – I don’t know who got the biggest surprise!” 

When Barry and Caz got married, Bruno gave Caz away because her family was in England. Bruno shows me a photo of the day, his hair still curly and black, grinning alongside his two tall former students. 

“Bruno is not a psychiatrist but he’s taught me little things to help me get through. He’s taught me to always dangle a carrot, always have something on the horizon that you’re working towards, even if you feel like you can’t do it now.”

Recently, Barry had another serious breakdown. 

“I didn’t like having to visit Barry in a psychiatric ward,” Bruno confesses. “I didn’t know what to say to someone in the deep abyss, but you soon realise that you are better at it than you think you are.” Bruno speaks of a fatherly feeling he has for his mate, and how they have lived through each other’s major calamities and joys. He cried on Barry’s shoulder when his own marriage went belly-up: “Barry is instinctively the man I go and sit with when I’m broken-hearted. Great friendship is about the short cuts and the coded language referring to moments that you don’t need to explain.”

Barry inhales deeply and then exhales. He says slowly: “I’m a firm believer that if you feel strongly about someone, you should let them know. My father died when I was 13, and he never said to me ‘I love you’. So I spent a lot of years wondering if he did.” He sighs. “I carried that around like a little secret envelope. And Bruno opened up the envelope and put a stamp on it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 19, 2014 as "The power of words".

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Alice Pung is the author of Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter. Her novel Laurinda will be published in November.

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