What it means to be free

Lately I’ve been reading about … how to write

Last year, I stopped writing. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I had stopped writing forever, or if it was just for a while. In my heart, I was convinced it was forever. I felt sad, but also strangely certain. I felt, very strongly, that I had come to the end of the writing I could do, and that I had to learn to let go. To move on.

A few months later, I lost my job as the Senior Editor at a university press. I felt far less sanguine about losing my job than I did about stopping writing, because it wasn’t my decision. And because I loved my job. And because I didn’t know what I would do next, or how I would earn an income. If I’m honest, I still feel all of those things now. I still don’t know what will come next.

But for now, I’m taking a break; I’m not actively job-seeking. I’ve been spending my time building a website to set myself up as a freelance editor, and … I’ve been writing again, working on an old manuscript that I thought I had abandoned forever, and feeling — at least sometimes — as though I might actually, one day, be able to finish it.

Look up. Let go. Move on.

I feel freer now to write than I did last year, or indeed than I did during the years preceding that. I don’t know why this is, except that, without the regular schedule of getting up and going to work four or five days a week, without the commitment to a tiring and demanding (though rewarding) job, my mind feels clear. And the clarity gives me courage. I feel brave enough, suddenly, to take a risk again in the creative sphere, to take the risk of failing.

Because I see now, though I didn’t see it last year when I was still deeply enmeshed in my work, that my fear of failing as a writer had, in the last few years, grown very strong. It had become, at least as far as writing was concerned, incapacitating.

It’s true that not all hardworking writers publish. Often the circumstances that drive the industry are out of our control. But the willingness to write through what might seem to be an unending succession of drafts — however you define “draft” — is one factor that you can control.

From ‘What if All Writing is Just Drafts, Forever?’
by Joseph Scapellato
At The Literary Hub

One of the things that’s so tricky about writing is that there are no rules, no surefire ways to creative success. Some writers write every day, without fail, setting themselves a target (whether that’s a word count, or a certain number of hours they spend at their desk, or a publishing deadline). They write draft after draft, like Joseph Scapellato in the passage I’ve quoted above (which you can read in its entirety here), and in doing so they find a way through to the other end: to the finished book.

But, like Heather Havrilesky in the passage I’ve quoted below (which you can read here), other writers approach writing in a less disciplined way, determined to seek only the joy, only the moments of flow.

Why is my routine so messy, random, and kind of lazy? It’s because I don’t force it anymore. I feel like my brain now knows that I don’t actually have to work that much, I just have be in front of my computer for those times when everything is flowing and it’s possible to hit that high note. I’m not going to torture myself the rest of the time.

From an interview with Heather Havrilesky
At Extraordinary Routines

Clearly, there is no one, right path that every writer must go down in order to write a book. What wasn’t clear to me until very recently, though, is that there isn’t even one, right path that an individual writer must go down in order to write a book. The process, at least for me, this particular individual writer, is a learning one. It changes with the book you’re writing, and with the years, and with the state of your (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) health.

I still don’t know whether I’ll finish writing the book I’m currently writing, which I began so many years ago. Even if I do finish it, I still don’t know if it will be publishable. But for now, I’m grateful to be experiencing a feeling of freedom again, the freedom to be myself, whatever that means, to write because I want to write, without becoming enmeshed in either hope or despair.

This new place

Lately I’ve been reading … essays

What makes an essay an essay? Does it have to be scholarly? Does it need a central argument? Must it be informative? Can it be purely autobiographical? How literary, how poetic, how lyrical can an essay — any kind of essay — be?

As William Deresiewicz observed in an essay about essays for the Atlantic, ‘what makes a personal essay an essay and not just an autobiographical narrative is precisely that it uses personal material to develop, however speculatively or intuitively, a larger conclusion.’
Is that, then, the definition of an essay? Everyone has their own theory. According to my own (evolving) criteria, an essay is not a poem (nonfiction though a poem often is); nor is it a speech which operates according to rhythmic and textual laws of its own. Not all works of journalism, memoir or criticism are essays, though they can be if they reach beyond their subject and offer more, including the capacity to move … That’s about as far as my definition goes.

From Anna Goldsworthy’s introduction
in ‘‘The Best Australian Essays’ 2017
Edited by Anna Goldsworthy

As a young woman, I focused my reading solely on works of fiction, but the longer I live, the more curious I grow about the world: the way it works, and how I fit into it. Perhaps in response, I often find myself, these days, turning to nonfiction and, in particular, to essays — those nonfiction equivalents of fiction’s short stories. Like Anna Goldsworthy, quoted in the passage above, I particularly like the reach that some essays, the best essays, have — the places they can take you, if you let them.

Note:
For many years, Black Inc. publishers published an annual ‘Best Australian Essays’ volume. The series has recently ceased, but you can see the back catalogue here.

This is my work

Other people’s words about … the sea

Vale, Mary Oliver. I’m not a fan of all of her work — not by a long shot — but I do love the way she observed and wrote about nature: intimately, intricately, affectionately, quietly, humbly.

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I Go Down to the Shore
by Mary Oliver

That lovely voice

Raw

Other people’s words about … making art

What is it that makes some artists productive all their lives, while others founder at the slightest hurdle, convinced of their own lack of talent? Are those who continue to produce art more gifted? Or are they simply more certain of themselves?

But perhaps her ambition outweighed her abilities, or else her perfectionist’s unappeasable eye scuttled what talent she had, for at art college she soon discovered she was no longer the best student — and indeed could not even capture the attention of her teachers … She was full of self-doubt, forced to recognise that a modicum of talent got you so far and no further, and that while she had imagined she was climbing the mountain, in truth she was only ever at the bottom.

From ‘The Landing
by Susan Johnson

A long time ago, just after I had had my second novel for young adults published, I talked with a woman who had just had her own first novel published. She told me that the thing she worried about most, as a writer, was that she would run out of time. She had so many more novels inside of her, she told me: so many ideas. What if she didn’t live long enough to write them all down?

I wonder now: was it an awareness of her own talent that enabled my writer friend to ask this question, or was it simply self-confidence? I don’t know. What I do know is that this was ten years ago, and she has written and published several more novels since then, and time does not appear to be running out for her. Not at all.

She made one last, honourable effort to become a full-time artist, but nothing she made satisfied her, nothing seemed original or bold or magnificent enough, everything was only half good. She strove for an aesthetic perfection she could never reach, and every day she did not reach it was a misery, the febrile pressure she placed on herself impossible to bear. She could not transfer to the canvas the perfect illuminated world inside her head; she was her own harshest critic and could not accept work she knew was not first rate. In the end, art had to be wonderful or nothing; there was no in between.

Perhaps an artist’s talent will wither away and die unless she nourishes it with a certain, requisite amount of self-confidence. Or perhaps her productivity has more to do with her courage and fortitude — with her dogged determination to carry on, free of caring — as Penny, the character about whom Susan Johnson is writing in the passages I’ve quoted in today’s post, finally discovers.

And Penny will pick up her paintbrush in an ecstasy of release … [S]he will try to make whatever she is making, imperfectly and full of mistakes. She will take long-service leave; not certain what she is going to do with what remains of her life, but certain she is making something manifest, exploiting to the best of her abilities — or the worst! — her raw materials. She is herself, no-one finer. She might travel, or she might not; her project might come to something, or it might not, but, suddenly, she will be free of caring. She will see how far she can take a line for a walk.

Perfect illuminated world

Snatched phrases: on translation

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.

On purpose

Other people’s words about … meaning

Some people … believe they have to find their purpose to live fully … [But] it is perfectly fine — and in fact recommended — to simply live each of your moments fully and marvel at it all. What if that is your purpose?

From ‘The Energy Guide
by Dr Libby Weaver

I am not much one for self-help books, these days, especially ones that focus on how to find happiness or health. I don’t think — as I did when I was younger, as young people so often do — that health and happiness are things you can seek out or earn, or that they are things you can, or should, feel entitled to.

But I do like Libby Weaver’s words here, even though her book falls squarely into that category of books I’ve just derided. I like her words because what else does it make sense to do other than to simply live each of your moments fully, no matter what each of those moments is like, or what is happening during it? What better thing can we do as we live out our days than marvel at it all?

Weaver goes on to say:

Consider that the real purpose of anyone’s life is to be fully involved in living. Be present for the journey. Act on what you care about.

You could call the attitude Weaver is advocating mindful, if you so chose. Or you could call it sensible. Or humble. Or grateful. Whatever you call it, I think it’s an attitude worth cultivating.

Winter sunrise: be present.

Because unlike health and happiness, unlike riches and freedom, unlike love and success, unlike youth and beauty, unlike wisdom and intelligence, being fully involved in living is achievable. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible.

And that, I think, is a good place to start.

Tipping point

Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

by Jane Kenyon

I have never known whether this poem, which I love, is about gratitude or fear, joy or sorrow. Is Kenyon, who experienced terrible bouts of depression throughout her life, describing her gratitude for, and joy in, the small moments of beauty and happiness she has experienced on the day she describes in her poem — the peach, the walk with her dog, the work she loves, the time with her mate?

Or is she describing her fear of losing these moments — of tipping away from happiness, back down into sorrow and depression?

A small thing, this, of beauty.
It might have been otherwise.

It’s a see-saw, this poem, I think. The poet hangs in a kind of precarious balance between one life and the other, without knowing when the hinge will tip her down again, away from the things she loves. It might have been otherwise, she writes at the start, and then, later, sadder and more afraid: it will be otherwise (my emphasis).

Gratitude. Joy. Fear. Sorrow. Grief. Yearning. They’re all there in this one, short poem.