My mantra: write without expectation of any outcome. Write into the unknown.
Grade two, 1960, seven years old, pen in hand.
And then I go into a non-fiction class where the facilitator reckons that anyone who can’t write five sentences on what her book is about is in trouble, or words to that effect. I challenged the notion.
We are talking about different processes and perhaps even different times in the life of a book. I may well still be at the beginning whereas she’s talking about the end phase when the book needs to come together.
I stood over the cats this morning as the boy tried to pinch the last of his sister’s food before he had decided to leave. He’s a real standover merchant and so I stood over him, ordering him out of the house until his sister had finished.
I told the non-fiction writer that I love to write. That was a mistake. Besides it is not true, not entirely true. I write because I need to write, because not to write would leave me feeling as if my life has no purpose or meaning.
I write to find that meaning and to make sense of my life, but that is not something I love, not really. It’s more like something I am compelled to do, for the pleasure it gives - and indeed it gives me pleasure - and also for the need.
Hilary Mantel in her essay, ‘Diary’ writes about her experience of hospitalisation for surgery that went wrong. She describes her hallucinations, her ‘hallies’ as she calls them, as if they are real and no doubt they were real to her when they appeared to her mid fever and pain. But towards the end of her essay she talks about her reservations about this writing. As if she is fearful of being included among the so-called 'confessional writers', those who, to use her words, 'chase their own ambulances'.
Is that what it’s all about, this writing of mine?
I asked a friend to define the expression. ‘Chasing your own ambulance’, as he understands it, means to go looking for an accident, to write about your trauma, as if to bear witness, thereby encouraging the reader also to bear witness.
While the word ‘confessional’, despite its religious connotations of admitting to sin, can also mean the notion of disclosing something that has hitherto remained hidden. It has perhaps a more neutral tone, though the notion of sharing secrets to me does not.
For some reason secrets carry the weight of sin. Why else keep something secret unless somewhere along the road there is some sense that someone has done wrong? That someone has something to hide and that something stirs up anxiety or fear.
We don’t keep unimportant things secret.
Keeping things secret takes an effort, which is not to say there aren’t many things we might repress, seemingly without effort. They slip out of consciousness and only crop up when the pressures they exert for exposure rise to the surface. How did Freud term it? ‘the return of the repressed.’ But that's not the same as deliberately keeping a secret, one that refuses to leave your consciousness.
I have long tried to understand my inability to learn while I was first at university from eighteen years of age till I was twenty two and went out into the world to take on my first job. Certainly numbers had me flummoxed.
In places they talk of a female phobia of mathematics and perhaps of the sciences generally, that goes back in time. Certainly in my family my father’s conviction that girls were good for nothing apart from housework, child rearing and sexual comfort held sway.
Despite this, my mother read all her life. She still does. But in my father’s mind her reading was limited to trashy romance or pot boilers and religious propaganda like the Catholic Tribune and the Advocate.
The education system within the Catholic schools I attended both in my primary years and at secondary level added to this fantasy of female inferiority.
The focus was on memory, which we polished with rote learning. Understanding why people might behave as they do, as explored through English literature and history books, came through a thick layer of religious conviction.
For instance, Attila the Hun was a barbarian who sought to overthrow the Christians. We read and rote learned the lives of the saints and were encouraged to practice with sincerity and devotion, and an eye to our calling as dedicated to others.
If we were not called to follow God as priests and nuns, then marriage was the only option, marriage to another Catholic with whom we would bring up several children, as did my mother, but she had married a convert. Mixed marriages were then frowned upon.
There was a system of rules in place that barred deeper explorations of the meaning of things and I did not come to understand the meaning of the words, concepts and theories until much later in life.
There were facts and religious beliefs, faith and goodness. Others practised evil and wrong doing. We should not and that was all. A black and white world, and one which I now prefer to avoid, especially in my writing, other than to describe it.