Sunday, July 14, 2013

In competition with death

This is it then.  The week I take my writing life seriously and spend everyday at a writing retreat on my own, full time, apart from an interruption on Tuesday when I will take a group of creative writing students for a morning workshop. 

The rest of the week I dedicate to my manuscript, to refining it, to pulling it apart, to dragging it together, to getting the overall view.  Without distraction.

 A friend has offered me her writing room on the other side of town. She recognises my need to escape the distractions of home.  I will write two floors up from Helen Garner and sense the presence of other artists, not just writers, who will egg me on.  But will that be enough?

Terrified is too strong a word. My dreams tell the story.  In one I decide to tidy up my writing room.  I look around and there are cobwebs as thick as veils.  I decide to cull my clothes and papers and then slip into a story of my younger self.  

I park my car near St Ignatius church in Richmond as I have decided to go to Mass each morning before I begin to write.  

I sit in the front pew, my habit since childhood.  I have two heavy bags filled who loose notes and my manuscript. I sit beside a woman dressed in her Sunday finest and a man weighed down with age.  The priest, a famous Australian Bob Maguire look-alike, begins his sermon and in my head the words form;
‘What am I doing here?’

I pick up my bags and leave the church to the shock and disgust of the woman beside me.  I look for my car but it has disappeared.  I lose precious writing time in search of it and before I know it I am into day two of my writing week. 

And here ends my memory of a dream that speaks to me about my anxiety over the forthcoming week.

Last night a cold sore erupted on my bottom lip.  Predictable I thought.  My anxiety attacks my lip in the form of this virus that rests there dormant most of the time.  I imagine a direct link between my brain, my mind and all its teeming fears and the virus in my lip, like a troll underneath a bridge waiting to pounce, the virus waits for when I am most vulnerable.  And so it is today.

There are these four precepts I have absorbed over the years in relation to the business of writing.

The one is ‘to show up’. 
The next is ‘to tell the truth’, not necessarily literally but certainly emotionally, if that makes sense. 
The third is ‘to pay attention to the sensory detail’.
And the final precept, ‘to remain unattached to the outcome’, to me is the hardest.  I think of it as permission to write badly, but even with this idea firmly in place it's hard to resist the demons in my head that insist on something better, something worthwhile. 

I visited my mother last night.  Her first words:  'I think I will live to one hundred.'  She is in competition with death. 

After several minutes of listening to my mother repeat herself again and again, the Ground Hog Day experience of a woman who is fast losing her memory, her short term memory, and knows it, she told me yet again how well she feels, how young she feels, though she knows she is old.  

And what can you expect of someone in her nineties, but that she will slow down.  Slow down and do only what she wants. 

‘That’s why I’m so happy,’ my mother said.  'Nothing worries me any more.  My body won’t let me do the things I used to do, but I don’t mind.  Why not live till I'm one hundred?’

That’s another six years,’ I told my mother by way of warning and reconciling myself to the thought of all those weekly visits down the freeway.

‘But I won’t be counting every minute,’ my mother said.  ‘Why should I?’

Whenever my mother tells me how free she is of anxiety, I am reminded of my own, as if we live in a parallel universe.  One carries all the optimism while the other shoulders its opposite.

Not that I am pessimistic, by no means no.  But I am still able bodied and as such I cannot declare with the same frivolity as my mother that I will only do as I please.

I climbed on top of my desk just now to resurrect a fallen series of pictures that one of my daughters once wrote about her life.  She was little when she wrote it and called it 'All about me'. 

I fear the post you have just read reads similarly, 'all about me' and the long held complaint directed against the autobiographical rises to the surface.  Narcissistic clap trap. 

I spend my life apologising for the things I write and then go into battle to defend them.  This will be my struggle during the next week.

Here then is a picture from the series my daughter produced 'All about me' taken years ago when she was just on three.  Someone had painted her face at the local school fete.  And thereby my daughter could change her identity into that of a cat for a few hours.

Oh that I could do likewise, change my identity, not into a cat, but into a serious writer, who succeeds in her task. 


Jim Murdoch said...

I know other writers who leave home to write—Sue Reid Sexton does it—but I’ve never felt the need as long as I had, as Virginia Wolff put it, “money and a room of [my] own.” I always wanted an office and I enjoy having one (my tidy haven) but I rarely write there anymore. I wrote the whole of Exit Interview sitting here on the couch in the living room. Carrie’s not a distraction. She rattles away of her laptop—she’s working on formatting the ebook of Making Sense as I write this—and I rattle away on mine and look after the music—just listening to a nice soundtrack by James Horner at the moment (The Life Before Her Eyes). I couldn’t work in a café and I don’t understand those writers who choose to. Far too distracting. Besides I’m one of those people who orders his drink, drinks it and leaves. I tend to use places for what they’re intended for. I would never think of reading on the loo although loos are great places for a few moments of peace and I’ve had countless good ideas whilst spending a penny. That said I suppose writing in the living room contradicts that but then I’m human, not a character in a novel; I’m allowed to be contrary.

I’m not sure how I would feel having a real writer a couple of floors below me. I do like to see where other writers work because quite often it’s a kitchen table or something like that. I like the idea of demystifying writing. I am a real writer. I do what real writers do. What real writers do is nothing special. They sit at a keyboard and write. Some have deadlines. Most don’t. TV shows get recorded and some watched, bills get paid, bodies bathed, coffees made, fish fed, cages cleaned. It’s not as if real life gets abandoned but most of these things are done by rote. I don’t think about most of those things. I have my allotted writing time. I write in it, get done whatever I get done, and then it’s time for tea or to watch TV but that’s when the other writing gets done, the subconscious bit, the mysterious bit. One flows into the other. I can’t switch it off.

Being a writer is not a character or a role. It’s like saying you can only be a woman in the women’s room. Stupid idea. I don’t like to think of writing as work. Writing is life. I don’t have to work to live—I don’t work—but if I didn’t write I wouldn’t feel as if I was alive. I don’t need to finish a lot although it would be nice if I did but I’m always engaged with the writing, always willing to drop whatever I’m doing to write something new. Maybe that’s the difference between nonfiction and fiction writers. I don’t think of my blogs as real writing. They’re more like a job. It just so happens that I get to exercise my writing skills in the process. I can’t imagine being passionate about nonfiction. I’m pouring emotion into this comment—it’s not that nonfiction is unfeeling—but it’s not the same.

I don’t think what you write is “narcissistic claptrap”. You and I process things differently. The novella I’ve just written is so me it’s just not true—it was the first thing that Carrie commented on when she read it—but only someone like Carrie would be able to tell you which are the autobiographical bits and how they’ve been twisted to fit the character on the page. Fiction is a distillation of real life rather than a replication or an evocation. The best lies form around grains of truth. I’m working on an article about the Swiss writer Blaise Cendrars at the moment and he’s a wonderful character. He’s a bit like Dalí. He was perpetually reinventing his past so much so that’s it’s really hard now to know what the truth was. What it was was probably boring. Mostly the truth is.

Gary L. Everest said...

Hello Elisabeth,
Since first reading your blog, I've tried to find most excellent and "writerly" ways to praise it, and you. I'm now convinced it's the inevitable result of exposure to your superb work.
Your words are so honest and woven with such great skill into a beautifully irresistible tapestry of your life, how can anyone reading them escape the desire to elevate their praise to a similar level?
Not me. That's for sure.

Rose said...

Good luck Elisabeth, you are a brilliant writer I love your writing, I may not always comment but I read every post :)
Have fun and don't worry so much!

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

I feel close to the intensity of this post of yours and in particular the rules for writing you have established for yourself, precious and sincere.

aguja said...

Write. It will happen and your words will flow.

Unknown said...

Mum, she is clearly not a cat! It's a princess face! See the crown and red lips and blue eye shadow?