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.

What I see now

Other people’s words about … tears

I can’t help it, the valve between my thoughts and tears is so worn down that I don’t think I have any control over them anymore. Fat tears drop onto my cheeks. I feel them before I even know what’s happening and I just let them fall. I pull my hand [away from Gideon’s, and he] rolls over to face me.

from ‘Beautiful Mess
by Claire Christian

When I first started reading young adult novels I was already in my mid-twenties, several years older than their teenage target audience. That was partly because when I myself was a teenager, young adult novels had only just begun to become a ‘thing’, especially Australian young adult novels. And it was partly because something drew me to those novels in my mid-twenties, despite my age: something about their coming-of-age themes — and then, too, something about the way they handled those coming-of-age themes. Most of all, I liked the raw, direct voice in which many of their narratives were written, a voice that was both bleak and hopeful.

After I’d written my own two young adult novels, my love for the genre started to fade. This was partly, in turn, because I had in the meantime grown older again: my life now had nothing in common with either the novels’ protagonists or the novels’ intended readers. But it was also partly because it seemed to me that there were, suddenly, too many young adult novels being published every year. That raw, direct, bleak/hopeful voice seemed to me suddenly overused. Over-familiar. Hackneyed, even.

I don’t know what made me pick up Claire Christian’s young adult novel Beautiful Mess the other day. At any rate, it is the first young adult novel I have read in a long, long time, and I read it on our latest trip in the caravan to Yorke Peninsula. The reading of it felt like one, long, jagged, indrawn breath that I couldn’t release until I had got to the end. There it was again, that raw, direct, bleak/hopeful voice — familiar, yes, but not overused this time. Not hackneyed. It was a poignant voice. Intimate.

The view through the caravan while I was reading

That’s what I love most about good novels, whatever genre they happen to fall into. Their protagonists, and the writer behind them, reach out and speak to you: they say things you know you’ll never forget, things you yourself have been wanting to say, but haven’t figured out how to. I see now that this is something I haven’t managed to do in my own writing for quite some time, though I didn’t realise it until I stopped. Perhaps that’s why I stopped: though the decision felt instinctual and unplanned, perhaps my instinctual knowledge simply kicked in before my conscious knowledge did.

In the meantime, even though I’m not writing fiction, I know I’ll find more good books to read (whatever their genre), and more narrative voices to hear, and more tears to shed. There’s nothing bleak about that prospect: in fact, the view ahead of me seems filled with hope.

The end of the story

Other people’s words about … writing

April has never really known loneliness until now; she has had all tastes of its dregs, like cold milky coffee curdled at the bottom of the cup, but she has always had faith in the fact that it would pass. Now, she is not so sure. And this loneliness is entangled with her failure as a musician, another certainty in her life that seems to have gone.

Most days, she tries to write.

She sits by the window with her guitar and picks idly at notes, strumming chords underneath, humming to herself as she does so. But nothing ever sticks, and she feels as if she is just pretending, playing alone outside a room she can no longer enter.

from ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I did something I had never expected to do this week: I stopped working on the book I’ve been writing, on and off, ever since my last novel was published in 2010. Actually, I stopped writing fiction altogether, at least for now.

The novel I’ve been writing all these years has gone through many, many permutations: I’ve written it as a ghost story for young adults; as a reworked ghost story for middle-grade readers; as a love story for ‘new’ adults’; as a coming-of-age story for women my own age. I’ve written it in the first person and in the third person, and in past tense and in present tense. I’ve written it using pen and paper, and Microsoft Word, and Scrivener.

I’ve written it. And written it. And written it.

All the time I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve been telling myself that the doubt I feel in myself, and in my ability to write a third novel — this third novel, anyway — would pass. But it hasn’t. Sometimes it’s quietened down for a period, but then it’s flared up again. And over the years, like April, the sense of inner loneliness I carry with me — which is in part an aspect of being me, Rebecca Burton, and in part an aspect of being me, a human being — has slowly become ensnared with the doubt I feel about my writing. [N]othing ever sticks, and she feels as if she is just pretending, playing alone outside a room she can no longer enter. Yup. Yup. Yup.

Ever since I wrote my first novel and it was accepted for publication, I’ve believed, with all of my heart, that writing books was something I would do for the rest of my life, because that’s what writers do, right? It’s what they want to do. It’s their privilege, and their gift. Or so the story goes.

But I just don’t think I believe that particular story anymore. That’s what I finally realised this week, after all this time. I don’t think — as April thinks, in this passage which I have loved so much for so long — that I am a failure as a writer, or as a person, if I stop writing, for a while, or forever. I think the world is bigger than that.

I don’t know what the future holds for me if I’m not a writer anymore — for now, or for a while, or forever. But you know what? Unlike April, I want to find out.

It’s a big, big world.

On labour

Other people’s words about … loneliness

Dad’s dying had been like a long labor, the work mostly his, but the experience for me was as profound, as isolating, as the labor of birth. For weeks after my son was delivered, I remember, I was stunned by it — by what I’d gone through, by how alone with it I’d felt, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. Others held my son, admired him. They saw him simply as a big healthy baby. But when I looked at him, part of what I saw and felt was how he’d come to me, that long solitary labor, the amazing combination of agony and release that I felt I could explain to no one else. And in some nearly parallel way, this is what I felt about my father’s death. It was what I returned to frequently, it was privately where I lived, for a long time after it was over.

From ‘The Story of My Father
by Sue Miller

Let me start by explaining (hastily!) that the affinity I feel with the words in the quote above is not because I’ve ever given birth (I have not). Nor, more importantly, is it because I’ve recently experienced the death of anyone close to me, let alone my father, who is a strong, healthy, happy man whose company I hope to enjoy for many years to come. No, not at all.

I am a big fan of Sue Miller’s writing. What I most like is her attention to detail, her scrupulous examination of people’s inner workings — their thoughts, their feelings, their individual senses and perceptions — and the way she then builds on these ‘small’ things to make ‘big’ stories from them. A writer friend of mine who isn’t a fan of Miller’s books once said to me that she feels ‘dead inside’ when she reads a Miller novel. And I get that, actually. I think, in fact, that what my friend dislikes about Miller’s writing is exactly what I like: the precision, the detail, the refusal to hurry over anything, or to be swayed by sentiment or affection or a need for resolution for her characters.

I’ve explored loneliness and isolation a lot in my posts on this blog, but I thought the theme was worth returning to because of Miller’s words here. I was stunned by it, she says of giving birth, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. This, for me, distils the experience of living itself, the realisation that each experience we have, however great or small, however joyful or devastating, is an experience we feel we [can] explain to no one else.

In the last couple of years, whenever I’ve experienced bouts of unwellness or anxiety (or both, combined) that have left me feeling isolated at home, struggling to go out, struggling to get to work or to catch up with people I love, I have found myself, afterwards, return[ing] to those experiences repeatedly in my mind; I have found that those times of illness were, for a while, privately where I lived.

Miller’s use of the word labor here refers only to giving birth, but the passage applies to other things, too, if you reframe it: to the labour of living, of loneliness — yes, to that astonishing labour.

And yet, still, it is worth labouring on.