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:

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.

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.

Why do you write?

Other people’s words about … writing and joy

Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story [that he was writing], and he felt the old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

From ‘Normal People
by Sally Rooney

I have a friend, whom I very much respect, who has been writing fiction for as long as I’ve known her, without any desire to seek either publication or readership. It seems to me that she writes purely for the pleasure of the process itself, and for what that process brings her; it seems to me that writing, for her, is an entirely internal process of discovery and exploration, requiring no further justification, either to herself or to others.

Light through leaves (1)

Since my own decision to stop writing a while back, I’ve gone on thinking about writing and the role that it plays, or has played, in my life. And I’ve come to find my friend’s concept — whereby writing is a private act, an act for no-one other than herself, with no thought to the future or to the past — consoling and inspiring in equal measures. I like the honesty of her act. I like the wonder in it. I like the courage. Sometimes, it takes courage to do things just because.

Light through leaves (2)

So I hope that my friend experiences, when she writes, those brief, flickering, sun-dappled moments of joy Rooney describes so beautifully in the passage above. I hope she feels the old beat of pleasure inside [her] body.

And I’m sure that she does.

A question

A quick, extra post today, because …

I have a question for you …

(And meanwhile, feel free to enjoy the pictures that accompany this post, which have nothing to do with my question, but everything to do with all the usual reasons I keep writing this blog … )

Autumn sunset

The list of books I’ve quoted and discussed on this blog is growing and growing, and the current page of links I have to them is growing and growing, too. I’m thinking of reorganising that page, sorting the books into more categories than the current ones (which are fiction and literature; non-fiction; poetry; magazine/newspaper/blog posts).

Winter sunrise

How would you like to see these lists organised? Would you like further subdivisions of the current categories (e.g. fiction: Australian; fiction: American, etc.)? Or would you prefer categories that don’t distinguish between, say, fiction and non-fiction or between book and non-book but are theme-based instead (e.g. running; walking; love; nature; life; health)?

Summer clouds

I’d love your feedback. Pop a comment here …