In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination … The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios — there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.
From ‘The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ by Janet Malcolm
I was disabused of the notion that memoirists and autobiographers write ‘the truth’ a long time ago, after I read, and wept over, James Frey’s ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces, only to discover subsequently that he had made up much of what he had written about within it. Since then, I’ve learned to take anything I read in a piece of nonfiction with a huge pinch of salt.
Like most people, though, I am still used to thinking of works of fiction as telling something that is the opposite of truth. I think of them as stories, things that exist only in our imagination. I love the way that Malcolm, in the passage above, subverts this concept of the truth. In doing so, she tells us something far more truthful, I think, about the nature of truth.
Interior versus exterior:
Grass trees from a distance
It was my mother who introduced me to Janet Malcolm, after a conversation we’d had about nonfiction writing. I found Malcolm’s thoughts on the problem of truth in biography and other nonfiction writing illuminating, even though the passage I’ve quoted from is now more than fifteen years old.
Truth versus fiction, internal truth versus external truth, interior versus exterior. How much of what we see and read and think is subjective and biased? How much can we ever say is true?
Interior versus exterior:
Inside a grass tree
Lately I’ve been reading about …
Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately:
But a certain dullness of mind seems an almost necessary qualification, if not for every public man, at least for everyone seriously engaged in making money.
From ‘The Idiot’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Hmmm … read and weep. Dostoevsky’s observation about people is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in the late nineteenth century. If only our public figures, our business people, our politicians would take heed!
But onto other things — no more weeping for now. One of the overarching reasons I’ve had for writing this blog in the last few years has been to give myself (and hopefully you, my readers) the chance to explore the joys of reading: to revel in other people’s words, to find meaning in their thoughts and the way they express them, to learn from them, to find communion and kinship with them. As I’ve remarked before, without books and reading, I would be a far lonelier person.
Recently, I’ve found a different kind of companionship in my reading. On Mother’s Day earlier this year, my mother and I started a reading ‘project’ together, our own little two-woman book club. At her suggestion, we have decided to read works of translation. We take it in turns to pick a title and read it, and then we exchange titles, and, having read them, meet up for coffee or for a walk to talk about them. The Idiot was one of her choices.
My mother is an inveterate reader. She reads widely, hungrily, curiously. Her joy in reading is contagious and almost palpable. I’m glad — and privileged — to have ‘caught’ that joy from her. And I’m extra glad to be exploring new books with her, to be having my world opened by her and by the writers she chooses.
Meanwhile, while we’re on the subject of translation, here’s the thing about reading, and the happiness you can find in it: it translates into life.
And that happiness is only amplified when it is shared.
Nick didn’t call me that morning, or that night. He didn’t call me the next day, or the day after that. Nobody did. Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen. I applied for jobs and turned up for seminars. Things went on.
From ‘Conversations with Friends‘
by Sally Rooney
I hadn’t planned to write this post. I thought that I would be — I planned to be — too busy to post anything between now and next week. I had family celebrations planned, after all, and a holiday trip away with a dear friend, and even a couple of shifts at work.
But I haven’t been well this Christmas, and so most of my plans for the holiday period so far haven’t eventuated.
Christmas is a tricky time, isn’t it? For some reason, I often get sick around this time of the year (and at other times of celebration). Like Sally Rooney’s narrator, Frances, in the passage above, I keep waiting for this to change, but the thing I am waiting for — not to get sick at Christmas, not to feel sad about getting sick at Christmas — continue[s] not to happen.
So why am I writing a post now, after all? Partly, I’m writing because I have unexpected time on my hands. Mostly, though, I’m writing because I wanted to reach out to other people who might also be feeling sad — whether unexpectedly or otherwise — this Christmas.
I don’t have any advice. I wish I did. The only thing I can find to do at times like this is to wait them out — which is ironic, given Rooney’s words above.
Still, whoever you are, wherever you are, if you are feeling sad right now, know this: you are not alone. Sadness is part and parcel of the deal.
And it passes.
Like the weather, like the tide, like footsteps in the sand, like all those hackneyed things — like Christmas, even — sadness, too, passes.
I am the sole tea-abstainer in my family. I think they regard this as a baffling perversion. To me, tea tastes like dried lawn-clippings, diluted leaf mould, watered-down compost mixed with a dash of bovine bodily fluid. I have never been able to stomach it.
From ‘I Am, I Am, I Am‘
by Maggie O’Farrell
I loved this quote from Maggie O’Farrell. My sister, an inveterate coffee-drinker, feels much the same as O’Farrell, I think: she wrinkles her nose in disgust at any suggestion of tea. She, in contrast to O’Farrell’s family members, is baffled by my love of the stuff.
Each to her own, right? I would find it harder to give up my one or two pots of tea per day than I would to give up chocolate or cake or wine. Tea provides me with what amounts to both a daily treat and a ritual, and it gives me, each day, a small moment (often temporary but still cherished) of sanity and solace.
I would write more, but it’s 9.30 in the morning and the kettle is on the stove waiting for me to make my daily pot of tea …
It rained all day before we went for dinner at Melissa’s. I sat in bed in the morning writing poetry, hitting the return key whenever I wanted.
from ‘Conversations with Friends‘
by Sally Rooney
I had to smile when I read these words. In the last years of his career, my father, who was a professor of English literature, taught an undergraduate course on poetry. Ever a traditionalist, he taught his students to appreciate the form of the poems they read as well as the words themselves.
Though I’ve never studied English literature at university level, through some mysterious form of osmosis I absorbed some of what my father was teaching his students. Through this process, I now have a passing acquaintance with terms like blank verse and iambic pentameter, and with poetry forms such as sonnets and villanelles. And I’m with my father on this: discipline is a vital ingredient in poetry writing. Where there is no recognisable form or structure to a piece of writing, there is no poem: there are just words on a page, with a few strikes of the return key employed for good measure.
Funnily enough, when I happened to mention to my father that I was writing this post, he alerted me to this piece by David Campbell in The Australian, which my mother had first pointed out to him. In it, Campbell bewails the lack of rhyme, metre and set forms in current Australian poetry. Perhaps these things will become fashionable again one day. We can only hope.
Meanwhile, do you have a favourite poem? What is it? Here are the links to some of mine (including one by David Campbell), each of which transcends the strict form in which they are written in order to produce something more than its parts:
I’d asked [my disabled friend] Jessie when a doctor had last looked at her. She couldn’t remember, so [while Jessie was staying with me] I went to my doctor, still Jock Ledingham’s wife, Una, at her practice, which was in their home in Ladbroke Square.
Una listened to me kindly, and then asked if anyone was nursing her. ‘Only me.’ There was an awkward pause, and then I added, hardly audible, ‘And I’m afraid I’m very bad at it.’ Lack of food and sleep made me start crying again.
‘I’m going to make you a tomato sandwich,’ she said. ‘All my family can manage a tomato sandwich whatever they are feeling like.’ She did, and I ate it, and felt much better.
from ‘Slipstream: A Memoir‘ by Elizabeth Jane Howard (p. 147)
When I was a child, my mother would sometimes make my sister and me tomato rolls for dinner instead of our usual cooked meal. This was a summertime-only ritual — she saved it for those evenings when the air was thick and heavy with heat. My sister and I would have spent the day dipping in and out of the swimming pool, so that our skin and hair reeked of chlorine. We’d come inside and stretch out on the carpet in the living-room at the front of our house, next to an electric fan. We’d read, or watch the cricket on television, or play Lego, or colour in, while the fan blew warm air over us and our hair dripped down our backs, forming great wet circles on our t-shirts. And then, at last, it was dinnertime.
My mother made her tomato rolls with white bread — the kind that is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. She cut the rolls lengthwise in thirds rather than in halves, and then spread each layer thickly with butter. Over the butter she laid slices of tomato. Then, as a last touch, she seasoned the tomato with salt. (Never pepper. Children hate pepper.)
These were the days before Australians of Anglosaxon heritage knew about things like basil or coriander, ricotta or feta. We had never eaten avocado or garlic or extra virgin olive oil. We didn’t know of the existence of focaccia bread or ciabatta or sourdough. Most people ate margarine in preference to butter, thinking it was a healthier option. And we ate salt with everything — we lived in a hot climate, after all; we needed to replace the salt we’d sweated out during the day. So a tomato roll was just what it sounded like: a tomato roll. Nothing more, nothing less.
It’s almost forty years since I ate one of my mother’s tomato rolls, and yet when I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s words above about the curative powers of a tomato sandwich, I was instantly transported back to those simple summer meals my mother made us.
Bread. Butter. Tomatoes. Salt. I still think of this particular combination of food as the ultimate luxury, the greatest treat.
And as a symbol of my mother’s love.
Note: All the photos in this post depict our vegetable plot, a plot at the back of our garden which my partner zealously tends, and which, despite his cheerful disregard for the weeds choking the vines, produces the most delicious tomatoes each year. Gardening, too, can be an act of love.
Recently, I spent a weekend in Perth, Western Australia, celebrating a friend’s fiftieth birthday.
Read that sentence again. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? I hopped onto a plane in Adelaide on Friday afternoon, and arrived in Perth two hours later; I rented a small, sunlit apartment in West Perth for two nights; and then late on Sunday afternoon, I hopped onto another plane and flew back to Adelaide. This is the kind of thing people do all the time, if they can afford to. It’s what people call a ‘holiday’, a ‘break’.
And this trip was both of those things, and for me, that seems a little like a miracle.
In my twenties, I spent over two years travelling and living overseas: waitressing in London, volunteering on an archaeology dig in Texas, working in a factory and then an ice cream shop in Germany, and, in my last year, teaching English in Cairo and Jakarta. I was a well-seasoned traveller by any standards. By that age, I had had emetophobia — a fear of nausea and vomiting, which I have mentioned in passing on this blog before (here, for example) — for over fifteen years. It caused the odd anxiety attack (the kind I’ve referred to here and here), but nothing else. It certainly didn’t stop me from my travels.
But then, in my late thirties, something happened. Something — some edifice of bravery or stability or spontaneity inside of me — crumbled. For some reason, I began to feel queasy and nauseated more often, and so, because of the emetophobia, I began to feel anxious more often. The sickness and the anxiety always accompanied each other: sometimes it was hard to tell which came first. (This is the emetophobe’s eternal dilemma: Do I feel anxious because I am nauseous? Or do I feel I nauseous because I am anxious?)
My illness and anxiety seemed to be magnified when I travelled. They became even worse if I was travelling in the company of people I loved, people I really wanted to travel with. Despite the occasional bout of nausea and stomach upset during camping trips, I continued going camping (truly, thank goodness for my beloved Yorke Peninsula!), but, in the end, I stopped all other forms of holiday travel. I booked rash, non-refundable trips to visit my dearest friends who live interstate — Perth, New South Wales — and then cancelled my bookings, losing all the money I’d spent in the process. I planned holidays in Portugal and New York, with family, with friends, with my partner, and then I cancelled those trips, too. I wanted to go on those trips, but I felt that I couldn’t.
In the end, I stopped going on holidays anywhere beyond the state borders of South Australia.
I just stopped.
Fear of holidays is a very strange fear to have. Adelaide author Elisa Black is one of the few people who understand it:
The anxiety during this trip was so intense that it is almost too much to remember, no matter how hard I try. I know I thought I was going crazy. I know I was exhausted …
Constant dread, that is what I felt … What I wanted was to not feel this way, to be normal, but if that wasn’t possible then I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe, where everything could be controlled …
from ‘The Anxiety Book‘ by Elisa Black
Those phrases: constant dread, and I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe. They say it all. For me, they speak to a form of social anxiety. For many years, I have been ashamed of my phobia. What is there to fear about vomiting? And so, when I get nauseous, and the nausea triggers my anxiety, I am also flooded with feelings of shame. I try to act ‘normally’ during the course of an attack of nausea, but my terror and my shame impair my performance. (Note that word, with all its implications: ‘performance’.)
What I long for when I am nauseous is to be alone. I long for some kind of sanctuary.
Fear of holidays and travel is one thing. But then, too, there’s the fear of flying.
Winter in Adelaide this year has been very stormy. We have had one of the rainiest winters ever recorded; we have had statewide power cuts; we have had floods. It is spring now, and yet winter still hovers and menaces. The night before I left for Perth, there was another storm, and when I went to walk my dog the following morning, I saw that branches from the pine trees that line the esplanade by the beach had come down, barring our path over the dunes.
It did not seem a very auspicious day for flying. All that wind! All that turbulence! I wondered — I truly wondered — if I could get on the plane and fly to Perth as I’d promised.
Oddly, I am not actually afraid of the act of flying itself: unlike many anxious fliers, I don’t fear plane crashes or hijacking. I once knew a woman who feared flying because she had a fear of sharks, but I don’t share this particular terror. My fear is, I think, more like a form of claustrophobia: it is a fear of becoming nauseated and thus anxious whilst I am trapped inside a machine, way up in the air, with no escape. I am not very good at staying still when I am anxious about being sick. I do not lie down, as most people do when they feel unwell: I go outside; I pace; I tremble; I sob melodramatically; I run away. I do not like to be witnessed or contained. An aeroplane is, unfortunately, the perfect vessel of witness and containment.
Scott Stossel shares my fear:
For instance, the fear of vomiting … makes me afraid of travel because I’m afraid I’ll vomit far from home. It makes me afraid of flying not for the conventional reason that I’m afraid that the plane will crash, although I also have that, but I’m afraid I’ll get motion sick and get nauseous … The horrible kind of self-fulfilling vicious cycle of emetophobia is that if you’re prone to acute anxiety and nervousness, as I am, it often manifests itself with stomach symptoms.
At first glance, today’s post might seem to be all about fear. Yet here I am, back from a wonderful weekend in Perth, despite all my fears.
So what I am writing about today is, in fact, celebration. Forgive me if it seems solipsistic, but this is about me breaking a pattern. It’s about me, stepping onto a plane; me, flying; me, not getting ill while I was on holiday as I’d feared (though I did get anxious). It’s about me being able to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. It is about some part of me being restored after all these years: rebuilt. Not recovered, exactly: I am still emetophobic; I still have a funny tummy; I am still anxious; I still find recovery, from both illness and anxiety, a problematic concept.
Most of all, what I am writing about today is hope.
By the way, if you should ever choose to holiday in Perth, you must visit Kings Park, where most of the photos on today’s post were taken. It is a beautiful place: a kind of sanctuary, if you like. Take a picnic there with you, or a book; go for a wander with friends.
Enjoy your time there. Celebrate it. Allow yourself to feel restored.
And, wherever you are today, whatever you are doing right now, breathe. Smile. Wonder.