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.

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

A year of words

Other people’s words about … other people’s words

I’ve been thinking about reading again recently — what it means to me, what it gives to me, why, even though it’s a solitary activity, it makes me feel connected to the world. I like Sarah Clarkson’s use of the word journey, in the passage below, to describe the act of reading. Reading, like life, is a journey. You never know where it might take you.

Reading, rather, is a journey. Reading is the road you walk to discover yourself and your world, to see with renewed vision as you encounter the vision of another … Reading is a way to live.

From ‘Book Girl
by Sarah Clarkson

Reading is a journey

PS It’s good to be back in the blogging world. I’m changing the format of my posts slightly this year, but it’s still all about celebrating other people’s words. So … here’s to another year! xo

No time like now

Other people’s words about … cages

At not yet thirty, she can feel her life shrinking into the gentle sameness of her days and she knows she is pacing back and forth in a comfortable cage of her own construction. She needs someone to bump against, to disrupt things. she can’t go on like this, she knows. She must resolve the tension between longing and fear.

From ‘The Fragments
by Toni Jordan

I’m back! I’ve missed blogging. I’ve missed you all, too.

And I’ve gone on collecting other people’s words, gone on taking photographs of the world around me, gone on wanting to have a place to keep the words I’ve collected and the pictures I’ve taken. So I’ve decided, rather than ending this blog completely, as I first planned to do, to pop in every now and then with a quote I love or a photograph I’ve taken. I’d like to keep the practice up, and I hope that some of you will continue to enjoy reading the words I’ve found, or seeing the photographs I’ve taken, as you might have done in the past.

Last year, as some of you may remember, I lost my job. In the end, instead of looking for a new job straight away, I decided I would take a few weeks or months off first. And so that’s what I’ve been doing in the weeks since I last wrote: living on my savings and trying out, meantime, new habits, new practices. I’m trying to disrupt some of my old ways, like Caddie in the passage I’ve quoted above; I’m trying to stop pacing back and forth in a comfortable cage of [my] own construction; I’m trying to let my life expand, rather than to shrink. There’s no time like now!

Because there is always a way through … always

Thank you for accompanying me so far on my blogging journey. Thank you, too, to the readers who wrote to me and encouraged me to keep posting, if only sporadically: who told me I was missed. I hope you all find pleasure in the posts that are still to come.

Rebecca xo

Chasing clouds

When the run does its work, I will become lost in its beating heart.
We run on.

From ‘Running with the Pack’
by Mark Rowlands

Today’s photos come from a run I went on in early September on a day when the first faint hint of spring was in the air.

The course I followed took me south along Aldinga Beach; then eastwards, into the Scrub; then north, along a grassy path that skirts the boundary of the Scrub, between the vineyards and the bushes.

At the end of that grassy path, an elderly couple were standing, leaning against the wooden fence. The man greeted me as I came closer, and called out, ‘Where have you come from? Where does this path lead to?’ And so I stopped to chat to them, describing how to get to the beach from where they were.

The last part of the run took me through the wetlands, which is where I pulled out my camera at last. The pictures show the landscape, but they don’t convey the sounds — frogs croaking, a hidden moorhen squawking wildly in amongst the reeds.

And they don’t convey the feeling of the sun on my skin, either: warm and sweet and new, the way the sun always feels in the first, early days of spring.

Tentative

Other people’s words about … railway stations

The ideal place for coffee is part of a railway station. I have always felt this. There’s something about the stillness amid the bustle, something about standing and stopping as a great crowd flows around you. One of my best railway coffee stops was Ramses Station in Cairo on an undergrad trip twenty years ago: citizens of the world drinking beakers of sweet black tea and eating brittle, quietly disappointing cakes on their way to places I would never visit myself, a sun-stained ruffle of Baedeker pages to everything I saw and touched and smelled.

From ‘The Unmapped Mind
by Christian Donlan

Picture a young couple arriving in Cairo, not by train as Christian Donlan describes it in the passage above, but by bus, having met and travelled together from Jerusalem. Now picture the young woman, a few weeks later, leaving Cairo again, this time by train, this time, like Donlan, from Ramses Station.

It is 1993. The young man is American. He has been studying at the American University in Cairo, learning Arabic. The young woman is Australian. The two are very much in love, though newly, tentatively, messily. After a few weeks of living together in Cairo, he has told her that her English-speaking, Western ways are distracting him from immersing himself in the Egyptian world — its language, its people, its life — in the way he’d planned to before they met.

And so she has agreed to leave.

The day he takes her to Ramses Station, she doesn’t see anyone drinking coffee the way Donlan describes it. She sees only a grimy railway platform swirling with people. It’s grimy and swirling with people in the same way that all of Cairo is grimy and swirling with people. She’s decided to catch the train to Luxor, to Aswan, to take a felucca down the Nile — to do all the things that tourists do when they are in Egypt, though she prides herself on not being a tourist and has till now studiously avoided doing those things.

They stand on the platform and hold each other, and because they are young and tentative and newly, messily in love, they find it hard to let go of each other.

I don’t want you to leave, he whispers.

You’ll hate me if I stay, she answers.

Both of these things are true.

And so she says good bye and shoulders her backpack. The last thing she will remember of him before the train departs is the way he turns, finally, to walk out of the station, calling out his farewell over his shoulder to her in Arabic.

In Arabic. Yes. She takes this as a reminder of the resentment he has felt towards her. That resentment sparks just enough anger in her to make her climb up onto the train without looking back.

Three weeks later, she will arrive back in Ramses Station, in a train from Upper Egypt. She will get out of the train and walk through the station and make her way along the crowded, grimy streets back to the apartment where he is living, where they lived together before she left. He won’t be expecting her — or not exactly, not that day. There are no mobile phones in 1993, and there is no landline in the apartment. She has tried to call him several times from various pay phones in the rickety, dusty streets of Aswan but they have spoken only once.

Come back, he said over the phone, his voice raw and husky from sleepless nights and cheap cigarettes. I miss you. I can’t live without you. Please come back.

And so she has come back.

Cairo, 1993

You know, perhaps, from previous posts that I travelled far and wide in my early twenties, and that some of that travel was certainly by train. You know, perhaps, that I lived in Cairo for a short period in my early twenties. So maybe the story above is mine, or maybe it’s a composite of stories I heard or witnessed along the way during my travels, or maybe I made it up.

All of these things may be true.

Here is a fact about Ramses Station, though — or rather, a fact about any railway station. They are full of stories — arrivals, departures; journeys to, journeys from. Because of this, railway stations are full of all the emotions that such things entail: joy, sorrow, confusion, hope, longing; they are full of emotions that are new and tentative and messy, that are tinged with love.

And, if for no other reason than that, the railway stations you’ve arrived at, the railway stations you’ve departed from, are worth remembering, long afterwards. Long after you know you’ll never come back.

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.