Insight ... writer Edna O'Brien.

Insight ... writer Edna O'Brien.

This time of year, dominated as it is by turkey and ATARs, puddings and plans for the future, inevitably features kindly relatives asking new matriculants: "And what are your career plans?" Too often the answer is "acting" or "journalism". Everyone wants to be an actor or a journalist. Why do what everyone else wants to do?

On the odd occasion I meet a young woman or man who says "plumber", "nurse", "engineer" or "historian" instead, I feel like kissing them on both cheeks in joy. But I don't. I just yell: "Thank god, not an actor!" Or a journalist.

We'll always have them, we'll always need them, but if the Australian labour force ends up consisting entirely of actors and the journalists who write about them - first in their theatrical incarnation and then in their political incarnation - not a lot else is going to get done around here.

Fortunately Edna O'Brien and J.M. Coetzee have just weighed in with advice on that other outstanding career option: writer.

O'Brien, by birth and upbringing an Irish country girl, published her first novel, The Country Girls, to acclaim in 1960. Revealing the truth of life for girls and women in a country ruled by backward religious scruples, it was banned in Ireland - a massive boost for a new author who promptly became central in the London literati, enjoying a legendary social life and writing successful book after book.

Doing the publicity rounds for her new memoir - yes, inevitably, Country Girl - O'Brien has shared her opinion that the child becomes the adult and that if you were a lonely child, you've got a key trait common to writers.

"I suppose our disposition as children remains with us throughout our life," O'Brien told The Guardian. "Most writers that I know, and most writers whose letters that I've read like Flaubert's letters, or Chekhov's letters … apart from permanent anxiety about money, there's also the thing that they are, they are lonely. You have to be. You wouldn't go through the purgatory of writing unless you were a lonely person. You couldn't. It wouldn't work."

So got that? Lonely. Perpetually anxious about where the next cheque is coming from. That's the substrate of life for those engaged in "the purgatory of writing".

J.M. Coetzee's reflections on the work of Australian novelist Gerald Murnane in the latest New York Review of Books is another glowing advertisement for the writing life. The NYRB coverline on Coetzee's piece is "A Haunted, Radiant Writer", so for those who've not read Murnane (and that includes me), we've got the summer to catch up.

Some say every book is about its author and in a particular sense, that's what Coetzee says about Murnane's oeuvre: that every work, fiction and non-fiction, is about "the consequences of an Irish-Australian Catholic education for a boy child with a history much like his own". Yet he's not a realist, Coetzee demonstrates, but rather works on the basis of the Paul Eluard proposition that, "There is another world but it is in this one" - cited not infrequently by Murnane, Coetzee points out, as well as by Patrick White as an epigraph to The Solid Mandala.

After school Murnane considered the priesthood but hesitated and gave up religious practice altogether, while remaining preoccupied with "the other world".

Coetzee says that Murnane's fictional works are fundamentally "explorations of the qualities of images" without any particular interest in where in his life experience the images come from. "The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration," Coetzee's comments of Murnane's approach.

Murnane's family disapproved and a favourite uncle cut him off. Decades later, Murnane wondered whether his uncle was right and whether he had, in fact, wasted his life. Coetzee locates Murnane's ultimate rationalisation for his choice in Murnane's comment that except through writing he "would never be able to suggest to another person what I truly felt towards him or her".

So on the one hand, "being a writer has set him apart from human society", Coetzee says of the extremely shy Murnane, but "on the other hand, it is only through writing that he can hope to become human" - that is, communicate with the rest of humanity. A drastic solution to an elemental individual problem and not a little paradoxical.

But if you're a matriculant with a high tolerance for loneliness and financial anxiety, a penchant for purgatory and find it difficult to communicate directly with your fellow humans, the writing life could well be the one for you.