Saturday, May 26, 2012

Illicit love


At the moment I’m stuck behind a screen of censorship.  Every thought that pops in I bat away.  Nothing passes the test of acceptability to the audience in my mind.  There are tears in the back of my mind and I know they have to do with an experience I’m not free to write about, and so I look further back to find the meaning behind it.  The feeling is one of rejection, of feeling a failure, of not being good enough, of making a mistake, only I don’t quite know what the mistake is.  I only know I’ve left another person hurt and it hurts me, but I’m not sure how to rectify it or whether I can or whether it will persist in the back of my mind as yet another example of my ineptitude.

Recently in Mark Doty’s blog he describes how difficult it is for him when he cannot write about certain life events, which he would like to draw upon within his imagination as fuel for his writing, but cannot.  The event itself becomes a block to his other writing and before he knows it he is unable to write at all, not a blog, not a letter, not a diary entry.  

Perhaps it is to do with the taboo nature of certain events in their immediacy. 

It’s pointless beating up on ourselves.  It’s useless writing about an experience in such cryptic ways.  But I have to write my way into it and through it if I am to move beyond it.


When I was young in my second last year at school I fell in love with one of my teachers, a nun who had arrived at the school after travelling overseas for several years.  She was younger than the rest of the nuns and more beautiful with elf like features.  She wore fine framed glasses that sat atop her button nose and when she smiled there was the faintest hint of a dimple on one side of her cheeks. 

This nun befriended me as much as I fell in love with her.  She set me small tasks like passing on notes to my fellow students who learned Latin with me.  At my school in the final years of schooling, girls made a choice between Latin or needlework.  Most chose needlework but only a few of us went on to study Latin in more depth. 

I studied Latin because I loved my Latin teacher, this nun, first and foremost.  I studied Latin because in my family it was important to be seen to be academic.  I studied Latin because the thought of needlework sent shivers through me.   All those doilies.  

My favourite teacher the nun became even more important to me when in the middle of the year my younger sister and I were forced to board at school, instead of continuing as day scholars. 


My school.  I took this photo in September 1969, a year after the events I describe here. 

There is a long story behind my arrival at school as a boarder with a suit case of marked school clothes and a dressing gown handed down from the nuns’ store of surplus clothes. 

Boarders tended to be the daughters of wealthy farming families from the Western District and thereabouts.  Boarders were a breed apart, different from the day girls who came from the suburbs around the school.  Boarders seemed superior to me, and consequently I kept to myself after hours in the dormitory.

The feeling I have now, these tears behind my eyes,  match the way I felt at night in boarding school.  My sister and I were given beds alongside one another in the Immaculate Conception dormitory. 

The beds were single with cast iron frames and mesh wire webbing under what in my memory seemed like a kapok mattress.  Lumpy and unyielding.  We went to bed at nine, lights out half an hour later and in between times the girls shuffled in loose fitting slippers to the bathroom to wash faces, brush teeth and visit the toilet.
            ‘Glory be to God,’ the nun in charge chanted as she turned off the lights.  ‘No more talking now.’

And we listened as she shuffled off down the corridor beyond the door that led to what I thought of then as 'no-man’s land', the secret place where the nuns lived and slept. The place where my favourite nun had a bed in a cubicle, which she later told me was no bigger than a kitchen pantry. 

In the beginning of my boarding school experience I did not think about this nun.  I did not think about home and my mother who had been left behind on the advice of my oldest brother who decided that we younger children should be farmed out elsewhere in order that my father and mother be given time to sort out their differences.  Their differences being, at least in my mother’s eyes, my father's alcoholism. 

We told the other girls at school that we had come to board because our parents had gone overseas to travel.  It seemed such a fantastic lie to me, but one that was strangely acceptable.  Not only did it imply that my parents had money enough to undertake such a voyage but also that they were then of the upper class to which so many of the boarders belonged, and yet we were more like the poor kids who lived in Richmond in the side streets near to where the school was located. 

The story starts here.  But there are many other beginnings.  At the moment I'm struggling to find the 'right' beginning for my book.  Until I do, I fear I cannot go on.  

58 comments:

Ms. Moon said...

Well, even though you feel you cannot write about whatever it is you are going through, this is a beautiful piece of writing, in and of itself.
So thank-you for not being blocked. Sometimes you have to go around the fence the long way. That's okay, too.

Kirstie said...

This story of your school days is very intriguing, I look forward to reading more if you choose to share it.
I also know the frustration of wanting to discuss something online but knowing it might complicate matters - and by might I mean definitely will. I hope you can work through it soon.

ellen abbott said...

You don't always have to start at the beginning.

Rob-bear said...

Painful. Awkward. Challenging. A powerful beginning place for a story. And the nun. Who will perhaps figure darkly.

Such an intriguing beginning to a story.

Blessings and Bear hugs.

juliet said...

I remember reading something Doris Lessing said, about her writing being most charged when she was writing what couldn't be written, when she was breaking a taboo.
When other people are implicated, that's not so easy. I guess that's why people write fiction.
Good wishes with writing your way through this Elisabeth.

persiflage said...

Perhaps you are in between knowing and remembering too much, and imperfect understanding - although it seems to me that you understand far, far more than most of us. You will come up for air again, I am sure.

The Weaver of Grass said...

This kind of writing on your blog is cathartic and I feel it will help you in the end. Blessings to you from here in the UK Elizabeth - nice to read you again.

Kath said...

The story does indeed start here. You've already found the right beginning for your book, Elisabeth. You'll also soon find the strength you need to continue it.

River said...

just write and write and write until you have it all out, then edit until you have a story. Let it take all the time it needs. You don't even need to publish, just get it off your chest, out of your mind, at least a little bit.

Joanne said...

Write reams. You may unlock the cipher.

Rubye Jack said...

I avoid thinking about certain life events because I don't want to deal with the pain once again and think some things are certainly best left buried. I know this is not the current consensus on how to handle problems but it is what makes sense to me. Other traumatic events are often less threatening when brought into the light.

Ms Sparrow said...

I'm holding my breath for what comes nest.

Anthony Duce said...

You are obviously heading in the right direction, figuring out where the pitfalls are at, where the struggles will be, in writing it all out. A wonderful start…
Your words here are very helpful to me. There are some walls I hit. I know I need to remove them too, to get the many attempts to start moving towards what I really want (and need) to say.

R.H. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
little hat said...

On wednesday I'm off to hear Susan Johnson (My One Hundred Lovers) talk about the dilemma of writing about people you know, or creating composite characters based on close friends and aquaintances. It's risky. Even when people passed on 100 years ago it feels risky. One is still risking being challenged on a factual or fictional basis.

Jim Murdoch said...

Censorship's an odd thing if we exclude minors from the mix; we all understand the need to protect our young. When it comes to one adult deciding what another should see or read or hear then that’s a whole different ballgame because one of the rights adults make such a big deal over is the fact that they and no one else get to decide when they go to bed, who their friends are, what they ought to eat and what they get to read. I could go on but you get the idea. We also get to decide what get to say or do that might affect others and get to live with the consequences of those actions. You can write anything you want to—you have that right—but you don’t need to make that writing available for others to read at least not at the present. Is that a problem for you? It depends why you’re writing I suppose. We’d all like to attend our own funerals but that’s not going to happen. We simply have to imagine what our nearest and dearest say about us, those who can be bothered attending. A book is different, no?

Mark Twain wrote a piece about the Philippine-American War. This short piece, containing an indictment of war and all of the blind patriotic and even religious hysteria that motivates the public to support it, was thought by his family to be too much. They prevailed on him not to publish it. However, he did leave instructions that it be published after his death. Twain said, “I have told the truth in that… and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.” It was, and, if you’re curious, it can be read here. Of course there are been many others who have left similar instructions. Some, like Beckett, have been closer to death than let’s hope you are—he was very open with his biographer James Knowlson but there was the stipulation that the book not appear until after he had passed away; others have kept schtum until all the parties involved in whatever affair they intend to discuss have likewise passed. Is this censorship though? Or propriety?

You mention a nun above. You had a teenage crush on her. It’s nothing new. She, at least from your account, behaved properly and professionally and so the only person you’re in danger of embarrassing is yourself. Had there been furtive fumbling behind the cloisters then that would be another matter entirely even in these liberal times. Rachel Sherman wrote about a high-school girl's crush on her female teacher in The First Hurt; Myriam Aziza directed a film about the same thing called The Evening Dress; Mariko Tamaki’s Skim treads the same ground but is specifically aimed at young adults.

There are many things I could say in my writing, ghosts I could try to exorcise, but I’m reminded of something my (and most everyone else’s) mother said many time as we were growing up: “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.” That advice can be taken to extremes but as a general rule of thumb it stands up well. As adults we soon realise that most of what we do or say involve tradeoffs of one sort or another. People have gone out on a limb, revealed terrible things about their pasts, because they realise that by doing so the public becomes better informed and can become more vigilant. There was a time when a Catholic priest was the most trusted member of a local community; not so much these days.

The radio show Dragnet opened with the following narration: "Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." It’s a common approach. When Flora Schreiber wrote about the life of Shirley Mason she changed the name to Sybil Dorsett. Facts and truths are two different things. As long as the reader knows where you’re coming from they’ll buy into whatever you present on the page. Clive James’ fictionalised biography is a perfect example. Just be honest about what you’re being honest about up front.

Anonymous said...

This is a very real problem. Writing about my husbands alchol abuse was very difficult but eventually I felt it needed to be done in order to come to terms with his death - a little selfish becuae I know my daughter reads my posts occasionally and I didn't want to hurt her. Hope this issue resolves itself - I enjoy your post so much.

R.H. said...

Sorry, gang. Shameful comment.

Elisabeth said...

I'm about to reverse my response to comments here, starting with the most recent and I must be brief as I am in the middle of a writing workshop. To begin, RH, is this a sign of remorse?

I posted your earlier comment despite its intensity and negativity because I'm not too censorious, though it made me cringe, as I suppose it's meant to do.

Poverty and emotional pain are relative, but say that to someone on the skids or who's dying or in intense distress or pain and it all seems irrelevant.

Thanks, RH.

Elisabeth said...

It is hard to write about the difficulties of times past and our vexed relationships with others, Jane. Thanks for your support here. I can imagine it must have been terribly difficult to write about your once was husband, especially given that terrible history.

Anonymous said...

Are you thinking abut something recent or something from your past?
I am a bit with Rubye Jack on these matters. What good will it do to rehash something you can't change if it only makes you feel worse thinking about it?
I am one of the girls who took needlework. Not because I had a crush on the teacher - truth be told, i probably had too many crushes on boys - no, I just loved the possibilities and textures of anything textile. Still do.
Looking back through worldly eyes, I would definitely consider learning a language.
Growing up I was terrified of being sent to boarding school after hearing of a very distressing experience of a family friend my own age.
My husband was a boarder and loved it. Maybe because he was at a co-ed school.
I'm sorry this story is causing you distress but the voyeur I am can't wait for you to tell it.
Karen C

Zuzana said...

Dear Elisabeth,
how exciting that you are writing a book. I bet you will find the right beginning when the time is right.
As for not being able to write, because what we want to write about most of all we can not - I recognize that so well. Luckily I write my blog as a hobby in my spare time and can stop writing when I feel this way. I went through such a period too, not long time ago - I was hurt and mislead and abandoned and experienced a terrible loss. When I thought I could not be happy ever again, I met my husband. He brought my life back on track and I could write again. Today I still feel not brave enough to write about that incident in my life, but it will come.
I hope you will find a savor too someone who will help you deal with your pain and move on.
xoxo

R.H. said...

Of course you're supposed to cringe! And I want Ten Hail Marys too and an admission that all you've got to beef about is your old man hit the bottle a bit too much but you still got a top education didn't you and a husband who could decorate you in jewellry. Good heavens, what do you think I am, a dried up humourless Greens voting clone propped up in a Fitzroy cafe run by a stockbroker?
I get the idea uni grads want to be like the famous people they've studied. You can't be Freud, or Virginia Woolf, and you wouldn't want to be Helen Garner, writing romance tales for the latte set, but maybe you could do a pretty good book of essays. And really, is there any other use for writing workshops? My social worker niece (all social, no work) has a chapter in a textbook coming out soon. She's gone right off her head over it, can't shut up. Is that what you want: Notice?

India Banks said...

So it is perhaps at boarding school that your writing career started, Elisabeth. A story is sometimes nothing more than a terrific lie. I'm intrigued and will wait to know more about this story. Enjoy all the agony & pleasure of finding your way into it, India

Anonymous said...

Good writing is, like anything creative, a letting go of fear. This is what I was taught many years ago. This is easier said than done. What is the worst thing that can happen when writing about the past?
If anonimity is required, names can be changed into pseudonyms. The reading of auto biographies of well known writers usely don't hold back much. They overcame and moved beyond fear. I wish I was that brave, but I am getting there. Thank you for your inspiring writing once again.

R.H. said...

O' to be in Burke Road now that Winter's here. Boutiques, chocolate shops, arcades surrear.

Years ago I intended smashing the window of a camera shop in that aecade to grab a movie camera. I've since found out a cousin owned the shop. I'd still have done it.

Answer some of these bloody comments!

Mary LA said...

The taboos we can't or won't break as writers, this post resonates so with me, Elisabeth.

I write 'instead of' nearly all the time, in papers, in emails, in blogs, ritually deflecting my topics. The alternative would be to make those close to me feel hurt or angry or unsafe because the secrets I would share would be theirs as well as mine. And so there is displaced intensity, deferred intensity, the sideways nature of writing that dare not speak its name as Wilde might have said.

I had my own crush on a nun once, something that was painful then and went unspoken for years, is still painful to recall. And an affair with a foolish Catholic priest, a man in flight from ageing and personal unhappiness. So family secrets came to be replaced by secrets of my own private life, the forbidden. And my foolishness kept me silent too, not wanting to reveal myself as somebody who hid so much, who ventured into short-lived affairs that could not go anywhere.

Such a convenient lie, the parents who went away overseas. Like the parents of Peanuts cartoon characters or the invisible never-present parents in children's books who just disappear while the children hunt down spies or find buried treasure or chase pirates. What we are free to do when nobody is watching. But then we can never tell, never share what we did and why --

Elisabeth said...

Sorry to all, and especially to you, RH, for not yet responding to your wonderful comments. I shall do my best to get to them tonight.

As it is, I'm in the middle of a two day writing master class, which is an extraordinary event, and although you might think it twee, Robert, and part of the elitism of the gentry of Camberwell and environs, I don't.

There's a bunch of people in this master class working on fascinating ideas that they are trying to find ways of better communicating to a general audience. That's not easy.

There's a great deal of talk about pitching our ideas to would be publishers and that takes courage and a particular preparedness to expose not only your words and soul, but also to some extent your body. Not literally but metaphorically.

In pitching we can't hide behind the written word, rather we must present our ideas in a thoughtful, pithy and coherent form.

Most of us suffer stage fright. We are none of us great improvisors and actors, and so we limp through. It's a tough gig but I'm learning new things and up and down in my appreciation. It's eight am now and I must get away soon, but I'll try to write more to each of you individually in the evening.

Wish me luck for my two minute pitch today.

Kirk said...

Well, now you've made me want to read more, you've piqued my interest, whetted my curiosity. I don't want to push you. Proceed at your own pace. Or not at all.

But could it be that by piquing our interest, whetting our curiousity, and allowing comments, such a mine, that express such interest and curiousity, that you're really pushing yourself, boxing yourself into a corner so you feel you'll have to say more?Just wondering.

I really should be the last person to exhort anybody to wax personal. I never get personal in my writing. Aside from the complications it would cause among friends and family, there's just too many jerks out there who love to hear that stuff, but not because they want to empathize or sympathize, but to take advantage of the teller, to put that person in their place, and to make themselves feel superior by comparison, laughing derisively in the process.

See how well I talk myself out of ever revealing anything personal?

Elisabeth said...

I feel very much that I'm going around the fence the long way, Ms Moon, and it's becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Thanks for your encouragement. I need it.

Elisabeth said...

I'm sure I'll work through all this self- censorship one day, Kirstie, but maybe not soon. Thanks to you for your encouraging words. I'll keep on trying.

Elisabeth said...

I know I need not start at the beginning, Ellen. I wonder whether there is ever a real beginning. How far do we go back? But for the purposes of the book, I have to find a beginning however late it happens in the story.

Thanks, Ellen.

Elisabeth said...

The nun an intriguing figure, you reckon, Rob-bear. that's good to hear. I'll have to flesh her out more. Thanks for the bear hugs.

Elisabeth said...

I agree with Doris Lessing, Juliet, on the need to write into taboos, and yes it is difficult when others are involved, which is pretty well all of the time, otherwise why should it be taboo, unless we're talking about those odd seemingly perverse activities that some of us get up to behind closed doors. But there's no doubt a reason for them too that most likely involves others.

Thanks, Juliet

Elisabeth said...

I'm still trying to come up for air, Pesiflage, as you suggest between too much information and not enough of it processed, but in time things will hopefully be clearer.

Thanks, Persiflage.

Elisabeth said...

Sorry for the typo in your name, Persiflage, it almost slipped under my proof reading radar just as I pressed the type button.

Elisabeth said...

Pat, thanks for your kind words, Cathartic reading indeed. I've been meaning to get back into visiting others in the blogosphere but lately I've been snowed under. Hopefully the snow will melt soon.

Elisabeth said...

I'm not so sure about this as a start, Kath, but as I've said elsewhere I have so many starts, one day one will emerge that seems just right, for now I keep making all these false starts. Thanks, Kath.

Kass said...

You've totally got my attention and...

you've made me care.

...makings of a good story.

Elisabeth said...

I agree, River. The writing's the thing, if only I could get more time at it. Thanks, River.

Elisabeth said...

I try to write reams, Joanne, but sometimes there's just too much and much of it not worth a candle and so I need to refine.

Thanks, Joanne.

Elisabeth said...

To each is own, Rubye Jack. Some folks find it more helpful to revisit their traumatic memories, while others prefer to keep away.

I don't think there should be rules about these things, whatever proves most helpful for you, and me. I'm a revisitor, clearly.

Thanks, Rubye Jack.

Elisabeth said...

I'm holding my breath too, Ms Sparrow. Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

I'm holding my breath too, Ms Sparrow. Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad this post was helpful to you, Anthony. It can be so difficult at times to get into wherever we need to go, to make a start and to plough through the walls of resistance.

Thanks, Anthony.

Elisabeth said...

I wonder how the Susan Johnston talk went, Little Hat. She should have had something useful to say about self censorship. She's such a wonderful writer. I wish I had been there.

Thanks, Little Hat.

Elisabeth said...

To do justice to your comment, Jim, I'm going to need to revisit you. I'm so tired now. It's been a full on week, but I'll get back to you shortly, and everyone else here.

A Heron's View said...

In order to free ones self from the past it is necessary to confront the pain. Counselling is the best option it will of course involve tears however the reward is wholeness.

Elisabeth said...

I try to be honest in my non-fiction writing, Jim, but even then there are so many different perspectives from which I might write. At the masterclass I spoke out loud about my writing and I'm still cringing.

We had to pitch to a group of four publishers. It was a horrible experience, worse for some others than for me but bad for all of us as a group of mainly women academics of sorts who are trying to write for a general audience.

The bloke running the master class over two days was full of hype and exaggerated intensity. He pushed us into refining and reducing our pitch into a two minute grab but even then most of us could not sustain the tension. Most, if not all, read from notes, some more loosely than others.

It began to sound like the story itself - we were meant to be pitching an article - and the bloke in charge was scathing. I'll probably write more on this. It's a different form of censorship, one that requires polishing and refining your ideas to make them palatable for someone else's view of a general readership.

My relationship with the nun has been influential on my life at so many layers but I won't try to analyse in depth here. Essentially, I think she was a substitute for my mother at a time when my mother as unavailable.

I' npt sure about the aphorism if you sdont have anythong nice to say...I reckon there are many times when we need to say something that could e deemed to be not nice. Unless it has an edge to it, it's unlikely to be heard. 'Nice' to me is one of those appallingly empty words. Whenever I hear it I think of those sugar coated NICE biscuits we used to eat when I was a child - sweet and bland.

I'm in a strangely combative mood, Jim. The master class is still in my head. I should settle down soon.

Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

I can only imagine how hard it must have been to write about your husband's alcoholism, Jane. There must have been times when it felt perilous, especially given your daughter in the blog audience.

Relationships, especially relationships and writing, can be so fraught.

Thanks, Jane.

Elisabeth said...

I have a different view of needlework these days, Karen. I wish I could be more crafty and artistic but I'm not. Some of my daughters are though and that compensates in some strange way. At least they can appreciate something I could not value so highly at their age.

As for writing about the past, I reckon it's important to write about things that give you trouble otherwise to me they might well lack an edge. Still it can be hard during the process.

Thanks, Karen.

Elisabeth said...

Zuzana, when you put it like that - the excitement of writing a book - I shudder. Years ago, many many yeas ago when I first started to write again, after a long dry spell during my young adulthood and early days of motherhood, I wrote a title on one of my computer folders which I called 'Elisabeth's book. I trembled to write that title. I'm still writing the book. It's had a long gestation and I do not feel so much excited by it as terrified, but as you say in time I'll find a beginning, and hopefully a middle and an end.

I'm sorry to read about the hard times in your life, that they were terrible and so painful that you cannot bear to write about them, but maybe in time you will. It's terrific that it's so much better now with your new husband.

Thanks, Zuzana.

Elisabeth said...

In a way that's true, India. My writing career began in boarding school. It's when I first began to keep a journal. it's when i first began to recognise the comfort of writing about the things I observed and felt. Before that I'd tried to write poetry, unsuccessfully I might add.

I resonate with the idea of a story as a 'terrific lie'. Truth and lies are close cousins on a continuum, depending on whose perspective.

this reminds me of a quote I read recently: history is shaped by those doing the telling.

Thanks, India

Elisabeth said...

Courage indeed, Gerard, that's what all writers need, the courage to write the unspeakable, the courage to unsettle, the courage to be authentic to oneself however much it might ruffle feathers.

Thanks, Gerard. Write on.

Elisabeth said...

Mary La, you put it so well, care of Oscar Wilde: 'the sideways nature of writing that dare not speak its name'.

I'm at it all the time. The other day I wrote a piece about my experience of priests, not that I have ever bedded any, but I am close to those who have and I know of the allure - especially for good Catholic girls - the allure pf the priest, the figurehead of the father and of God. And do you know? I lost it all to the ether when I inadvertently pressed delete rather than save. My unconscious at work, and now I will have to write it all over again. But how to speak the unspeakable?

Thanks for a wonderful comment, Mary.

Elisabeth said...

I hope I haven't boxed myself into a corner, Kirk. I have and will write more on this. The point is what will I do with it once it's down on the page? The point for me at the moment is how to mesh so many strands together and how to find a beginning.

I'll get there I'm sure but in the meantime, from time to time at least, I suffer great qualms of conscience.

I'm afraid I do not think I could hide behind the abstract or obscure in any thick way, although of course I do not reveal even half of the all. It only appears that way.

Thanks, Kirk.

Elisabeth said...

Kass, how lovely to hear from you. Thanks for the encouragement.

Elisabeth said...

I'm not sure how this post reads, Heron's View - I never can quite imagine how it comes across - but if it sounds like I'm in need of therapeutic/counseling help, so be it. As for the past, I try to use it to my advantage in my writing having [processed much of it through other means. Sp please, be reassured, I've had years of help.

Thanks, Heron.