How to write

Other people’s words about … writing (and shame)

The voice I wrote with felt new to me — unrestrained. For years I had been trying to cool down the temperature of my writing, to pull it back, pull it back, pull it back — neutralise it, contain it, make it crisp, clear, and sharp, every word carved out of crystal. This writing was nothing like that — it was drippy, messy, breezy. I was working through a mind frame, not a conceit. I was creating a world, not words on a page.

from ‘Vladimir
by Julia May Jonas

There is a practice called Loving Kindness Meditation that I first encountered some years ago when I was participating in a forty-day meditation challenge that involved raising money for a particular charity by pledging to my sponsors to meditate for ten or more minutes every day for forty days. Although I tried many different kinds of meditation during those forty days, and although ultimately I didn’t keep meditating after the challenge was over, the idea behind Loving Kindness Meditation has stuck with me. Essentially, this kind of meditation is about generating, through your meditation practice, kindness and love to other people — as well as to yourself.

There’s a quote by Femi Kayode about writing that I keep close to me whenever I myself am writing. I don’t remember where I got the quote from, and I’ve tried but failed to trace it back to its source. In it, though, Kayode says:

Most of all, write in love. Love for the characters — good or bad, and the story. Love for the reader, for the craft, for humanity. An unconditional compassion for the human condition is the one true gift I believe a writer can give the world.

I thought about Kayode’s words when I came across the passage I’ve quoted at the start of this post, from Julia May Jonas’s wonderful novel Vladimir. The narrator in Vladimir is, like me, a middle-aged female writer who has had two novels published early on in her writing career but has struggled to bring out a third novel. Now, when I think about the ten years I spent between having my second novel for young adults published and submitting my third manuscript to my agent, a novel for middle-grade readers that remains as yet unpublished, what I remember most is how I wrote and rewrote the same manuscript, then wrote and rewrote it some more, all the while trying to perfect it — all the while not understanding that there is no such thing as perfect, and that the search for perfection can take you a long way away from the place you started, that place of excitement and hope.

Stormy skies over the Port River, Port Adelaide, February 2023.

I mentioned recently that I’ve now begun working on a fourth manuscript, a literary fiction novel. This time around, in an attempt to break free of the tangle of lonely perfectionism that I’d somehow found myself ensnared in during the writing of my third novel, I’ve deliberately sought feedback from readers early on in the process. Predictably, some of the feedback I’ve received has been positive, and some less so. Your writing lacks introspection, one reader said. And: We never really get to know or understand your narrator, so it’s hard to care about what happens to her.

To be honest, I was a little shocked when I got this feedback. I thought I’d been writing with great restraint; I thought I’d been ‘showing, not telling’; I thought I’d been practising the principle of ‘less is more’. All those old writing saws. But I’ve slowly come to see, as I’ve mulled this feedback over, that in writing this way I’d been falling into the same trap as Jonas’s narrator, trying to carve my words out of crystal. To neutralise my writing. To contain it. To pull it back.

And here is where I find myself returning to the idea of loving kindness and compassion that I began this post with. It’s okay to try to improve your writing, to see the flaws in it and work hard to make it better: more interesting, perhaps, or more insightful, or more moving. But trying to improve your writing isn’t the same thing as condemning it. Because what is the act of trying to neutralise your writing other than a reflection of your own self-doubt and self-hatred? What is the act of trying to contain your words and thoughts other than a reflection of the shame you feel about yourself? What is this whole painful process, other than a way of saying to yourself that your writing is not good enough? That your characters are not good enough? That you, by extension, are not good enough?

Calmer waters, the Port River, Port Adelaide, February 2023.

In the end, what I’ve learned from all of this over the last few weeks (or perhaps over the last ten years) — what I’ve learned from Jonas’s words, and from the words of those people who were kind enough to read my manuscript and give me feedback, and from, finally, the words of Kayode — is that writing, any kind of writing, can’t come from a place of shame.

If, as a writer, you ask your readers to care about your characters, then you have to allow yourself to care about your characters, too. You have to write from a place of compassion. You have to write — yes — in love.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Please

Other people’s words about … chronic pain

I told [my parents] how that afternoon I had actually gone and seen another psychologist [for help with my chronic migraine]. I was just feeling so low and so down, and a friend had recommended her, and she could squeeze me in. I told her the pain would come and the pain would go, and that I couldn’t control it, that some days I would be fine, more than fine, ecstatic, but that other days the pain would return and I would slide into a depression so deep I could not see my way out. I told her I felt like a rat in an experiment, a rat made to drink water — sometimes the water was normal but other times the water shocked with an electricity so violent that I would swear never to drink it again, but then I would see everyone else drinks water and I would wonder why I couldn’t do that too. I told her I just wanted to drink the water. Sometimes I could, but mostly I couldn’t and I never knew when. I told her I just wanted to know why. It had been years since I’d had the initial migraine, but even now, right then, the pain had returned and I couldn’t read or write or — I told her I was sick of being an experiment, that I just wanted answers, someone to help. Then I asked her if she could help. I asked if she’d ever heard of anything like this before and then I told her please. I said, Please, I would just really appreciate it if you could help, and she just smiled and told me she’d seen it all before. Then she got out a piece of paper and a pen and told me to rewrite negative self-thoughts as positive self-thoughts. I asked her what she meant. She said, Well, you could rewrite ‘I am worthless’ as ‘I am special’; ‘I am alone’ as ‘I am loved’; ‘I am useless’ as ‘I am capable’. And then she sat back and pushed the pen and paper towards me and told me to try. I told Mum and Dad I just got up and left, then — because I knew she was just the same as everyone else — full of bullshit just like the whole world was full of bullshit. I told them it was like I was eight years old, and everyone was playing pretend.

from ‘Train Lord
by Oliver Mol

There was a period in my life some years ago when a headache settled over me which, despite all the cures and treatments I tried in response to it (both conventional and alternative) would not fade away. Unlike the chronic headache that Oliver Mol describes seeking treatment for in the passage above, my headache wasn’t a migraine: the pain I experienced was of a milder kind, what doctors call a tension headache. This meant that, unlike Mol, I could still function. That is to say, I could still present to the world an image of myself functioning. Unlike him, I could still read and write; I could still watch television and use computers; I could still get myself to work.

Still, the pain during that period was omnipresent. It varied in intensity: sometimes it was faint, just a light tingling sensation at the edge of my eyelids or (oddly) inside my nose; sometimes it was strong and persistent, as though someone had lodged a heavy, blunt object (a hammer? a mallet?) into the top of my head and was pressing this object — pressing and pressing it — down into my skull. Sometimes the headache made me feel dizzy and sick, and this, because of my phobia about vomiting, triggered bouts of anxiety that weakened my ability to cope with the pain. On days like that, I felt desperate. I made a mask of my face in social contexts; I disappeared from my desk at work to cry behind the closed door of a toilet cubicle; I made excuses and went home early from gatherings (or didn’t go to them at all). I felt myself, or the person I thought of as myself, slowly disintegrating.

I hadn’t known until then how much my sense of myself as a social creature, and as a socially worthy creature, was predicated on an assumption of my good health. I’ve since learned that this is an experience common to people experiencing chronic pain or illness, but I didn’t know that then.

Aldinga Scrub, summer flooding, January 2023.

Mol’s migraine lasted ten months initially (although later it returned for another few months). My headache faded away around the two-year mark. I still don’t know why, really — whether the cure was due to something I did, or to one of the treatments I tried, or simply to plain luck. Sometimes it returns, settling over me for a day, or a few days, or a week, or a few weeks — but eventually it leaves again. And because of this, because the pattern has changed, because I know now, or at least allow myself to assume, that the pain is only temporary, I have learned simply to wait it out when it visits. To let it run its course.

And yet. That word: temporary. And then I told her please, Mol writes, and that’s what it feels like, even now, when I’m in the midst of a long headache: a prayer to someone, anyone, to make sure that the pain is only temporary, that it won’t take over again the way it did for those two years. Because once you’ve felt it, you never forget it: the way pain changes you, the way it writes itself on you, the way it renders you powerless. The way it robs you of yourself.

This, I think, is what Mol’s psychologist failed to see. Perhaps the worst thing, when you are experiencing chronic pain or illness, is the sense of betrayal that accompanies your pain. You feel, first, as though your body has betrayed you, this body you have been lucky enough never really to have thought about before, which until now has performed for you mostly without pain or grievance; and then, second, as though the people around you — the ‘experts’ you have consulted — have betrayed you, too, with their so-called treatments and cures, with the promises they make you, with the money they take from you, all to no end; and then, third, as though the world itself has betrayed you, in its refusal to operate in a way that is manageable or meaningful for you in your pain.

If, in the end, you are lucky enough to get relief from your pain, what you never quite forget is that when you were in pain, you changed. You no longer knew yourself. You became a person who said, Please.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Replenish

Other people’s words about … being alone

As the train left the station, I felt a sense of relief. I wanted to walk in the woods and among the trees. I wanted not to speak to anyone, only to see and hear, to feel lonely.

from ‘Cold Enough for Snow
by Jessica Au

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about solitude and loneliness, about participating socially and withdrawing. Though popular scientists and the mainstream media continue to exhort us to maintain our social connections as we age, both for the health of our brain and for our psychological wellbeing, I have come to believe that it’s just as important to be comfortable in your own skin as it is to be comfortable in a social context.

Garden pickings (1), October 2022.

Some years ago a friend said to me that what she admired most in me was that I am a person who has a rich inner life. I have often thought about her words and what they might mean. I tend to think of myself as introverted and shy, a social choker, and I often find myself wanting because of this. But the truth is that when I let go of my expectations of myself as a social creature, I am happy wandering the avenues of my mind.

I think that’s why I find such accord with Jessica Au’s words in the passage I’ve quoted above. What if loneliness wasn’t just a negative version of solitude? Why not embrace it for itself? In fact, why not seek replenishment from it?

Truly: why not?

Garden pickings (2), October 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Roar

Other people’s words about … country and city life

Ramesh was used to the sounds of the suburbs. He never noticed barking dogs or level crossings. On the train to work every morning he turned up the volume of his audiobook so it was louder than other passengers’ mobile phone conversations. But [tonight he was in] the country [and it] roared. He could hear the air move in the trees. He had grown up in Croydon, moved to Glasgow at seventeen, back to London at twenty-three, then Sydney at thirty-six. As a child he’d stood outside his parents’ bedroom listening to his father’s whistling snore. He liked living in places where he could hear others alive. He reached for his phone where it sat charging. For an instant he saw his hands illuminated in the bluish light of its screen. He set his rain sound app to the setting called ‘Harbour Storm’.

‘What are you doing?’ Henry croaked. His face was pressed to the pillow. ‘You don’t need that tonight.’ 

Ramesh opened his mouth to argue, then he heard the rain outside, like gunfire on the corrugated iron roof.

from ‘Pulse Points
by Jennifer Down

I love this passage, not because I’m in accordance with Ramesh, but for the opposite reason. I love the ‘roar’ of the country. I spend most of my time living in a house in the suburbs. It’s close to the beach, which I love, but it’s even closer to the railway line, a line that trains zip up and down every half an hour from five in the morning until midnight.

Sunset, early August 2022.

I don’t mind the sound of trains, actually — as suburban sounds go, I find it vaguely comforting — but when I leave my house to stay outside the city, to visit Aldinga Scrub or to camp in Yorke Peninsula, I feel a knot inside my chest of which I wasn’t even aware releasing itself.

Sounds I love when I am away from the city: the dull roar of the ocean at the end of the road (yes, another roar). The whistle of a hot wind through the trees. A frogmouth letting out its low, persistent, booming call at dusk. A shrike thrush singing. A magpie warbling. Frogs croaking. Insects clicking in the grass. And, yes, like Ramesh, the rain drumming on the roof.

Still, the photo accompanying my post today, like so many of my photos on this blog these days, comes from the suburban beach at the end of the street I live on. The sand is being eroded away and there are car parks dotted along the coast line and on most weekends a food truck selling hot donuts sets up shop during daylight hours.

But it’s still the beach. It’s still wide and beautiful and open and … The sea still roars.

Lately I’ve been reading …

It’s a lengthy list today, because I’ve been reading far more than I’ve been posting. But I hope you find something interesting below.

Only [dis]connect

Other people’s words about … beauty

I wondered if a more complex language like [my mother’s native language] Korean had a singular word to describe the feeling of getting off a long shift of a physically demanding job and finding that, for at least half an hour after, everything, every last thing, was too beautiful to bear.

Jenny asked the question so simply — ‘Okay, what do you want to talk about?’ — and I nearly reached across the table and grabbed her hands back, whispered thanks against each of her knuckles. I was about to ask her opinion on lakes and oceans — which did she prefer, contained and musty, or vast and salty? — when she suddenly sat up straight, eyes wide. ‘So — what did you think of that meeting today? Hold nothing back.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I don’t know, it was fine.’

from Pizza Girl
by Jean Kyoung Frazier

I thought of Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You? when I read the passage above. In Beautiful World, Rooney’s characters variously mourn the loss of the sense they used to have that they were moving through a beautiful world, or they lament the ugliness of the everyday world, or they remark upon what Rooney calls a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world.

Sunset, early July 2022.

I think this is what Kyuoung Frazier’s narrator is getting at. She wants to tell Jenny about the beautiful world she sees all around her — but Jenny, like everyone else in the narrator’s life, either doesn’t want to hear what she has to say or doesn’t know how to hear it.

Some years ago when I was going through a difficult patch, a friend of mine offered to exchange a daily photograph with me via text message. ‘We’ll just send each other a picture of something we see,’ she said. ‘Something we like. Something that makes us smile. We’ll share our pictures, and it’ll be a way to reach out. To say hello.’

Dune flowers, early July 2022.

We ended up exchanging daily photographs for over a year, and it was a way to say hello, but it was also so much more. What I loved most about our exchange, beyond the sense of connection it gave me with another human being, was the knowledge that we were each finding something beautiful in our day and then sharing it with someone else. Passing the beauty on.

Maybe we should all share more beauty. Maybe it doesn’t matter if beauty is fleeting and makes us feel fragile. Maybe that’s exactly why we should keep on sharing it.

Before sunset, early July 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Revelation

Other people’s words about … secrets

‘Philip,’ [his mother Rose] said. ‘There are things I could tell you.’
‘Tell them,’ Philip said.
‘No.’
‘Why not? I’m prepared.’
She turned, looked at [Philip’s father Owen] slumped on the sofa. ‘Because I don’t believe that just because something’s a secret it therefore by definition has to be revealed,’ Rose said. ‘Keeping certain secrets secret is important to — the general balance of life, the common utility.’

From ‘The Lost Language of Cranes

by David Leavitt

I have always been fascinated by people like Philip’s mother Rose in the passage above: people who keep their own counsel. I have a tendency to do the opposite — to over-share, to talk to people for advice, to feel guilty if the life I lead isn’t entirely transparent. I’m not sure why. I may just be wired that way, but I suspect that years of therapy during adolescence and early adulthood ingrained this way of being in me. When you are used to talking things through with someone on a weekly basis, it can feel odd — unsafe, even — once you stop.

Gnarled trunk, early July 2022.

I like Rose’s matter-of-fact statement that secrets don’t have to be revealed. Sometimes, when I am uncertain about a course of action or a decision I have to make, I think of the oath that I’m told doctors must take: ‘First, do no harm.’ I find this oath, applied to life in general, one of the most useful creeds I know.

And so I find myself thinking that Rose may be right. If keeping a secret doesn’t harm anyone, then why feel compelled to reveal it? Why not learn to live in silence with one’s own truths?

Waterways, early July 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Mysterious

Other people’s words about … ageing (yes, again, but bear with me …)

I was not a happy or a healthy young person. I had chronic asthma exacerbated by smoking; I was unfit; my diet was ordinary. ‘Orphaned’ by 29, I spent most of my 20s and 30s in grief. I was deeply anxious with little confidence, my fretful neediness causing relationship problems. For many of those years, I cried every week.
The day I turned 50, I felt a mysterious surge of what I could only think of as power. A deep optimism, energy and peacefulness took up space inside me. Give or take a few crises since, it hasn’t really left. In my mid-50s, I’m physically and emotionally stronger, healthier, more calmly loved and loving, more productive, more organised, smarter, wealthier and exponentially happier than I ever was in my youth. In the past four years I’ve really cried about three times, on one occasion because a good friend died.

From ‘The Luminous Solution

by Charlotte Wood

In my last blog post I talked about how a feeling of invisibility is something many women complain of experiencing as they grow older — and about how that feeling of invisibility doesn’t have to be (only) a negative experience. I talked about how feeling invisible can confer a certain grace and dignity to the way we live our lives.

It was my mother who reminded me subsequently of Charlotte Wood’s words about ageing. I have heard other women in their fifties and sixties express similar things and while so far I can’t say I share their feelings or their experiences, I find a certain comfort in their words. In my early fifties, I am, unlike Wood, neither more energetic nor healthier than I was as a younger woman; nor am I more productive or smarter. And I certainly don’t cry any less frequently.

And yet. The words optimism and peacefulness resonate deeply with me. I have fewer expectations of life than I did in my twenties and thirties — less hope, perhaps, but also, strangely, more joy.

Optimism, peacefulness, hope, joy. These are all invisible things. Maybe that’s what makes them feel so profound.

Shining sea, Late May 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

How to go on

Other people’s words about … hard work

He worked construction down on the river, where they were putting up a new footbridge. His own job involved the careful freighting of materials onto the platform where the crane rested on the water. There were times when he thought he’d get sick from the motion of the barge, the constant shifting underfoot. There were times when his hands hurt from lifting and pushing and turning, tightening the straps until they wouldn’t give, tightening them until it seemed impossible that anyone would ever be able to set them loose again. Days when his back ached and his stomach hurt and his hair was peppered with grit, when his eyes burned, and his nose burned from the stench of oil and of the river, which was dying a slow, choked death via a series of minor diversions. But then, on bright winter days, he’d look up and see the geese tracking across the sky, moving up there free as air, and he’d think that there was something beautiful left in the world. And he could go on like that, as long as there was something beautiful left in the world.

From ‘Filthy Animals

by Brandon Taylor

I work in a call centre, an office job, unlike Brandon Taylor’s character Hartjes in the passage above. It’s not a physically demanding job. Even so, there are days when my head aches from breathing in stale, recycled office air, when my hips ache from sitting too long, when my voice croaks from talking for hours on the phone, when my stomach hurts from choking down my emotion after a difficult phone call. In the end, just like Hartjes, I feel my job in my body.



Neighbourhood frangipani tree, Taperoo, April 2022.


What grabs me most in the passage above is the river, in all its symbolism, dying its slow, choked death. Like Hartjes, I find myself looking up from my day, seeking the sky, seeking the air, seeking a glimpse of beauty and wonder.

That brief hint of beauty. That brief reminder of how to carry on.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Only connect: One moment apart

Other people’s words about … connection

‘We should probably go back [to the party].’
‘We?’ Lionel shook his head. ‘You can do whatever you want. I think I’ll hang out here for a while.’
Charles sighed then. There, [standing] resting his cheek against the wall, he looked a little helpless. Lionel mirrored him, turning, resting his cheek against the cool plaster.
‘You mind if I hang?’
‘Suit yourself. Not my house,’ Lionel said, but then he saw it. Relief. Charles was shy too.
‘Okay, tough guy.’
Lionel felt their breathing sync. The eye contact had reached the point of being ridiculous, but it wasn’t uncomfortable or uneasy. Lionel wasn’t even sure if they were seeing each other anymore. His own eyes had gone slightly crossed, and Charles broke up into blurry segments. But they were in another moment apart. They had returned to their own tempo, just the two of them. Lionel felt free of other people’s expectations for how he should act and be. He felt free of his expectations for himself.
It was like kindness, as simple as that.

From ‘Filthy Animals

by Brandon Taylor

In my last post a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about not having the words to describe the life I live now, the life so many of us live now. And that hasn’t changed. I’m still feeling quiet, still waiting things out. In a sense, I think the whole world is in a waiting phase right now as we move into the third year of the coronavirus pandemic.

I feel as though I’m waiting myself out, too, until things make more sense again.


Port Adelaide, February 2022.

Meantime, moments like the one Brandon Taylor describes in the passage I’ve quoted above continue to bring me succour. As Taylor tells it, this is a moment passing between two people, a moment of wordless understanding. Whatever happens next to Charles and Lionel, we know that they will be richer for this moment they have shared.

When I read about moments like this, I feel richer, too.




Aldinga Beach, February 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Wordless

Other people’s words about … the things we say

All that talking, years of reading: There was a time I thought that all language might contain something of value, but most of life is flat and boring and the things we say are too. Or maybe it’s that most of life is so much stranger than language is able to make room for, so we say the same dead things and hope maybe the who and how of what is said can make it into what we mean.

From ‘Want

by Lynn Steger Strong

I’ve been posting less and frequently on my blog over the last few months, I know. And it’s not, as you might think, because I have become more active on other (more instant) social media, though I can see the appeal of posting photographs (excluding selfies) on Instagram. 



Spring flowers, Aldinga Scrub, 2021.

In fact my quietness on this blog is more to do with the fact that most of life is so much stranger than language is able to make room for, as Lynn Steger Strong puts it so wonderfully in the passage I’ve quoted above. The Covid-19 pandemic, now entering its third year globally, has left me feeling, in the truest part of me, wordless. I am surviving, for which I am grateful. I am getting on with my life. But I don’t know how to put that into words very well, or at least not in the form of a blog post. I enjoy blogging, and I like my space in the blogosphere, so I hope that this phase will pass. But in the meantime … here I am, not finding the language I need to say what I want to say.





Pathway, Aldinga Scrub, 2022.

Another reason for my quietness on this blog is that I’ve been doing a different kind of writing in my spare time recently, which is to say I’ve started writing fiction again. As I mentioned in my previous post, last year I submitted the manuscript of a middle-grade novel to my agent, who is currently trying to find a publisher for it. (No luck yet.) And now, somehow, I find myself writing a novel for adults. I don’t know whether any of the fiction I’ve written since the beginning of the pandemic will ultimately be publishable, but somehow, entirely unexpectedly, it seems that I’ve found the courage to try again, and because of that very unexpectedness, I’m allowing myself to honour my courage for now and see what happens.

Life continues, albeit quietly and unexpectedly, I suppose is what I’m saying. Sometimes I have the words for it and can compose a blog post about it and sometimes I don’t. But I will keep trying. That’s a promise.





Wordless, 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …