My version, your version

Other people’s words about … truth

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:

The labrador and the mandala

Other people’s words about … mindfulness and meditation

I am not a fan of ‘mindfulness’. I have tried. I have really, really tried. I was first taught it in a hut in Cambodia, by a smiley, wizened old monk. The main thing I remember, as I sat cross-legged on a very hard cushion, was trying not to think about the pain in my hips. Then there was the chi gong instructor on the holistic holiday in Skyros. Then there was the hairy American at the Thai spa I thought might be a cult. By then I was used to searching for my ‘inner smile’, but I drew the line at laughing on demand while flexing the muscles of my pelvic floor.

From ‘The Art of Not Falling Apart’
by Christina Patterson

As I’ve mentioned before, I go back and forth on the topic of meditation. These days, I feel both less caustic and less flippant about it than Christina Patterson describes feeling in the passage above, but still, overall, ambivalent.

But I do respect the practice of being present, which is, I believe, the essence of the Western interpretation of mindfulness. I see the value in being able to sit with your thoughts and feelings, being able to observe those thoughts and feelings and then let them pass. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that wellbeing, at least for me, isn’t about happiness, or clarity, or contentment. It’s about co-existing: with the good, the bad, the ugly. It’s about living despite these things. Living anyway.

Some time ago, I wrote a post about how my feelings had changed, over the years, with regards to writing a journal. At the time I wrote that post, I couldn’t seem to overcome the disgust I had come to feel at the thought of returning to writing in my journal regularly, as I had when I was younger. I felt unable to bear the repetitiveness of my thoughts, spelled out on paper. I understood that journal writing had at one point served a purpose for me — the purpose of venting, and also, sometimes, of clarifying my thoughts — but that it no longer served that purpose. Or rather, that that purpose no longer served me.

This year, I contemplated trying yet again to return to a daily meditation practice. But instead, at the last moment, I decided to take the principles of meditation — that is, bearing witness to my thoughts and feelings and then letting them go — and to apply them to writing in my journal. At the time, I wasn’t sure why this decision, which felt so spontaneous, also felt so right; but I see now, a couple of months down the track, why it did. Writing in my journal each day, I’m starting to see how my thoughts and feelings and mood ebb and flow. It’s not all about despair, after all. Sometimes I write with sadness; sometimes I write with joy. Sometimes I write with boredom. Sometimes I write about myself and my inner world; sometimes I write about the things I’ve seen as I’ve gone about my day — that is, my external world.

And what I write about doesn’t puzzle me or bother me anymore. Writing so frequently, so — sometimes — inanely, I’ve learnt not to impose judgement on anything I write. I just write it, and let it go. That, to me, is, as I’d hoped, exactly what meditating is about (just without all the candles and mantras and breathing exercises).

But there are other things I like about writing (almost) daily in my journal, too, things I hadn’t anticipated. One is, I feel as though I’m not losing my life anymore. In years to come, I’ll be able to look back at these pages, as I look back now at the pages that I wrote in my twenties, and remember the woman I was. I’ll be able to remember the life I lived, the things that happened, the people I loved and lost. To me, that feels like a good thing. I’ve always wanted to live a life rich with memories, even if those memories are incredibly trivial and insignificant. Writing in my journal again is making that possible.

And finally, it’s a writing practice, too. The more I write, whatever kind of writing that is — journal writing, or blog writing, or fiction writing, or essay writing — the more I learn how to say what I want to say, and what it is, exactly, that I want to say. Journal writing, random and undisciplined as it is, is part of that process.

In the end, if nothing else, it’s another way to learn.

My 12-year-old labrador is clearly a Buddhist in training

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately:

An open and shut case

Other people’s words about … signs

[The waitress] leans over our table and turns the sign in the window so that it says CLOSED on the outside. But on our side, perfectly positioned between Mabel’s place and mine, it says OPEN. If this were a short story, it would mean something.

From ‘We Are Not Alone’
by Nina La Cour

I am the kind of person who, like Marin, the narrator in the passage above, can’t help seeing life through symbols and signs: I see metaphorical OPEN and CLOSED signs in my own life every day.

Lately, as some of you know, I’ve been released (at least for now) from the routine of salaried office work. I’m not answerable to an employer any more; I don’t have to be at the office at a particular time, or sign on and off at the beginning and end of my shift, or conform to a certain dress code, or take my lunch hour at a stipulated time for a stipulated duration. All of which implies a certain freedom, the kind of freedom I’ve often craved.

But I do have to hustle. If I want to get work as a freelancer, I have to go out and seek it, something I never had to do as a salaried employee. And in the daily transactions of that hustling — contacting people, letting them know of my existence and of the work I do, following up their responses, thinking of new people to contact and new ways to work — it’s all too easy to see signs everywhere I look. Someone doesn’t answer my email? That’s a CLOSED sign. Someone writes back, saying it’s lovely to hear from me? That’s an OPEN sign.

And so on.

It’s exhausting and exciting, both those things at once, and I don’t know yet where it will take me or what it will lead me to — or whether, ultimately, it will be sustainable. But for now, it’s early days, and I’m giving it a chance, and I still believe there might be some OPEN signs on the path ahead of me …

Signs and symbols: The way forward?

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, as always, I’ve been reading! Here’s the recent digest:

The stories we tell

Lately I’ve been reading about … river red gums

I didn’t just notice the river red gums, but also the cracked mud of receding water, rotting gum leaves, greater eastern egrets, kingfisher, heron, ibis, ducks, emus, kangaroos, wild horses, wasps and flies. I even saw (threatened) Murray cod foraging in the shallow water along the lake’s bank, and quickly learnt to look for them at the centre of the ripples of golden tannin their fins sent out. It was the first time I’d seen them surface, amphibian-like, in this manner. The effect was prehistoric. A single galah feather caught in a spider web stretched, strong as rope, between two river gums, waved gently in the corner of my vision.

From ‘Biyala Stories
by Sophie Cunningham

Each month this year, I’m taking a walk through the Aldinga Scrub — the same walk each time, along the Coral Lichen Circuit, which follows a gentle, undulating loop through the Scrub, with spots that overlook both the coast (to the west) and the hills (to the east) — to watch the seasons ring their changes on the landscape. I’ve walked the Scrub so often, taken pictures of the trees and the flowers, listened to the birdsong and the sound of the waves in the distance, to the wind moving through the trees. But I want to know the Scrub better, to know it intimately, to witness it. I want to know its intricacies — the kinds of intricacies that Sophie Cunningham describes so beautifully in the passage I’ve quoted above.

Cunningham’s essay is about the river red gums that grow in the part of the world where she lives: Melbourne (mostly), Victoria. It’s a thoughtful, erudite, poetic essay, at least in part about the stories these trees can tell us, the stories they might add to our own (human) narrative if we were able to listen. (You can read it here.) It came to me, as I read her essay, that I don’t know the stories of the trees in my own part of the world, this part of the world I’ve said so often and so glibly that I love.


Aldinga Scrub: January.
SA blue gums.

The trees of the Aldinga Scrub, like the river red gums in Cunningham’s essay, are struggling to survive. So are the plants of the Scrub, the birds and the animals. Their survival is threatened by many things, including encroaching housing developments; farming practices that have, since World War II, diverted the natural water flow away from the Scrub to nearby crops; pollution; climate change; islandisation; the spread of weeds from people’s carefully curated gardens and lawns.

I’m neither a scientist nor an ecologist; I can’t use any particular knowledge or training to save the trees or the plants or the birds on a large scale. But I can keep witnessing the Scrub: wandering through it, posting pictures of it here on my blog and my Instagram feed, sharing, in the process, the things I see and learn, the passage of the seasons, the stories I discover.

I can ensure those stories don’t go untold. That, at least, is a start.


Aldinga Scrub: February.
Above: Old man’s beard and bent tree trunk.
Below: Bracken fern, dying off in the summer heat, and grass tree spear.


Note:
For anyone who’s curious, Cunningham mentions in her essay that she has an Instagram account in which she posts a daily picture of a tree. I thought this was a splendid idea, so I searched for her account and found it here.

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