I nearly didn’t tell you. I’ve had the strange pleasure of winning a literary award last week. And ever since I’ve had this impulse to play it down, while at the same time I want to shout it to the world.
At last someone recognises something in my writing that’s worth, not only a trophy and a certificate, but also a $2000.00 cheque. On top of which the organisers of the first ever Lane Cove literary awards flew me to Sydney and provided accommodation over night at the Stamford hotel near the airport so I could make an early get away the next morning.
There were four other awards, besides mine for memoir, two for local writers, one for short story and another for poetry.
It is the first time I have arrived at an airport alone to be greeted, not by family or friends, but by a man holding up a cardboard sign with my name on it.
The man who held up the sign was one of the librarians who had been given the task of collecting me from the airport because the other librarians were busy organising the event. We travelled through busy Sydney streets to the Lane Cove library and all the way I wondered whether it was really happening.
Was this me? A prize winner or a fraud?
They must have it wrong.
All the while as the two judges read out the names of the short listed, first in the short story category and then in memoir, I wondered whether they might end up calling out another name, not mine.
The evening flutters by, drowned out of my memory by my tiredness the next day. I needed to wake at 4.30 am in order to be ready for my 6 o’clock flight back to Melbourne.
I discovered then something I had not realised before on the plane to Sydney in a book about compulsions and eating disorders.
I discovered that one of the reasons that people might choose to starve themselves to death is, not only to do with trying to get some control over their lives and suppress their desires, but also to do with competition, and with their refusal to compete.
The idea is that the person who tries to take control over her life by getting control of her eating, does so by working hard to convince herself that she has no such desire for food, or nourishment, or even for love.
It gets tangled up in sexuality as well. The two great life forces, food and sex, bound together as we know biologically, determinants for personal survival but also survival of our species. They’re also bound up in pleasure.
Adam Phillips re-tells the story of a man named Bartleby, Bartleby a scrivener in Wall Street in the 1800s, who for some unfathomable reason when his boss asks him to undertake the work for which he is employed, says
‘I would prefer not to.’
Herman Melville wrote the story in 1853 and for years people have struggled to understand what it’s about.
Bartleby takes up the position of one who goes on strike.
I refuse to participate.
I will not be drawn in to whatever it is you have arranged for me.
I will assert myself by my refusal, even if it kills me.
These ideas stay with me. I’m trying them out, rolling them around inside my mouth as if savouring a new flavour, a new texture, a new sensation and it pleases me to see things from this angle.
There is a reason behind starving oneself to death.
There is a reason behind someone’s refusal to participate and compete.
There is a reason behind what on the surface seems like the maddest of behaviours.
And I am getting one step closer to understanding it.
How then can I link the competition of awards night with my own competitive impulses and my contradictory desires to water them down?
So many times I have gone to say about this award:
It’s no big deal.
How many times have I told myself it’s not one of the big awards? It’s more a beginner’s award.
How many times do I compete with my own success as if I cannot bear to allow it?
Is this what women do, and more so than men?
I’ve a sneaking feeling that’s true.
Women are used to hiding in the curtains.
To be on centre stage for more than a few minutes can be overwhelming.
It’s easier to be like Bartleby and rejoice in resistance.
I’d rather not.