The air that you breathe

Other people’s words about … air quality

It was terribly hot that summer. Mr Robertson left town, and for a long while the river seemed dead. Just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the centre of town, dirty yellow foam collecting at its edge. Strangers driving by on the turnpike rolled up their windows at the gagging, sulphurous smell and wondered how anyone could live with that stench coming from the river and the mill. But the people who lived in Shirley Falls were used to it, and even in the awful heat it was only noticeable when you first woke up; no, they didn’t particularly mind the smell.

from ‘Amy & Isabelle
by Elizabeth Strout

Recently, after several members of staff in one of my workplaces became sick over the course of consecutive shifts, the part of the building in which we work was shut down, due to what has been deemed an ongoing air quality issue.

That particular office is on the upper floor of a fully air-conditioned building: one of those buildings where you can’t open a window even if you want to. I have always struggled with this: I believe, right down to my core, that breathing temperature-controlled, recycled air will never, ever be equal to breathing air that drifts in through an open window. I continue to believe this even though the air outside the windows in that building is itself compromised by petrol, diesel and exhaust fumes from the nearby main road.

To me, the most pernicious aspect of all of this is the habituation. Like the residents of Shirley Falls in the quote above, when my colleagues and I first walk into work at the beginning of a shift, we notice things in the air that we stop noticing after we’ve been at work for a while. Like them, we don’t particularly mind the smell of our workplace. Or not consciously, anyway.

Luckily for me, I have a place to escape to, and I did so the first weekend after our workplace was shut down, going on another of my strolls through the Scrub, another of my wanders out and about. I took the photos accompanying this post (of vanilla lilies, grass trees, acacias and boobiallas all newly in bloom) on that very walk.

In the Scrub, at least, the air I breathe always seems sweet.

The one true story

Other people’s words on … writing

He said, ‘What is your job as a writer of fiction?’ And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.

from ‘My name is Lucy Barton
by Elizabeth Strout

When I first began this blog, I was adamant that, though I am a published writer, my blog would not be about writing. A writer can blog about things other than writing, right? A writer isn’t just a writer: a writer is a person; a writer has a life. That’s what I wanted to blog about.

Besides, it seemed to me that blogging about writing would be, in my case, an inexcusably audacious act. My thinking went like this: I have published only two books. I haven’t published anything since 2010. My books have gone out of print. What can I tell anyone about writing? Who would want to read what I had the temerity to say?

Early drafts: an audacious act
Early drafts: an audacious act

I don’t much like the word ‘writer’. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t published much and don’t make a living from my writing, but I feel pretentious and arrogant when I call myself one. I think of myself instead as someone who has written two books, and would like to write another one, but is struggling to do so.

That’s another word I don’t like: ‘struggle’. When I first began writing stories and fiction, the writing was an act of joy. It was a process of humble discovery. Each word that I wrote, each sentence, each chapter, was a journey. I was learning to do something new. I was learning to do something I loved. I was learning.

Writing is a learning process
Lessons in writing: all part of the learning process

So when I first read the words I’ve quoted above from Elizabeth Strout, I thought: Yes! Writing fiction, for me, has always been about opening myself up to sorrow, and to joy, and to humility, and to discovery. It’s about expressing those things, however afraid I am to do so. It’s about making sense of my life. It’s about trying to make something beautiful. It’s about having the temerity — the audacity, the arrogance — to share my words with other people: people who, like me, love reading.

Most of all, writing fiction, like blogging, is about sharing.

And so that’s the reason I’m posting these words about writing today. Call it pretension; call it temerity. Call it audacity; call it arrogance. Call it learning; call it sorrow; call it joy.

Elizabeth Strout again (from the same book):

You will have only one story … You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.

Maybe this is the only story I have to share, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth sharing.