Say it loud, say it true

Other people’s words about … writing

Dan sits at his desk [to write his book] and closes the door to the hall, to the world. Winter unfolds around the cottage, June to July, and time flutters to the ground like pages. Too few pages. Never enough.

From ‘The Breeding Season’
by Amanda Niehaus

A few weeks ago, right at the end of my first week in my new job, I spent a weekend with a group of women who are writers and artists, some of whom I’d known for many years, a couple of whom I’d never met before. We walked along the beach, and we talked, and we laughed, and we ate, and we drank gin and tonic. And then we parted ways again, some of us driving back along the winding coastal roads towards the city to a life made entirely of writing and drawing, some of us driving back to a life made partly of writing and partly of child-rearing or paid work outside of the home.

Lunch break view (1): Climbing the mast

The woman who had organised the weekend had planned it, loosely, as a writers’ retreat, and indeed some of the women — a couple of whom had strict deadlines to meet with their publishers — did write during the weekend. The rest of us sat outside around a table on the sun-drenched balcony, sharing stories of our writing: our latest work in progress, recent reviews, launches we’d attended, talks we’d given, and so on.

I say we and us, but the first-person pronoun sits queasily with me, because I haven’t published anything for ten years, and because I’ve been through periods in recent years where I’ve consciously stopped writing altogether and tried to move on to other things in my life. This year, during the early months of my freelance life, I started writing again, but the process has continued to feel tentative, precarious (that word again!), and filled with doubt and fear.

Lunch break view (2): Red and blue

And so I felt a little like an intruder at that sun-splashed table on the balcony overlooking the sea. Sure, I have stories to tell about writing and about the books I’ve written, but they’re stories anchored in the past, not the present. Mostly, then, I stayed silent, without contributing when the talk turned back to writing. I listened to the things my companions were discussing, the things they said they thought about as they wrote. And as I listened, I reflected — as I have so many times over the last year or two — that what stops me from writing these days (or, more accurately, what stops me from completing any of the writing I start these days) isn’t so much a lack of confidence in my writing as it is a lack of confidence in my self: who I am, where I fit in the world. What I experience. What I think. What I stand for. What I believe. What I feel.

What I want to say.

Lunch break view (3): Seagull companion

For me, writing has always been about having a voice. In essence, it’s about having a conversation on the page with my readers. And so, implicitly, it’s about feeling that I have the right to express myself, to speak up, to tell a story: my story. It makes sense, then, that in the last few years, as I’ve found it increasingly hard to talk aloud — in conversation, I mean, to family, to friends, to peers, to colleagues — about the way I experience the world, my world, I have also found it increasingly hard to write.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever write or publish another book again in my life, and I understand that, in the scheme of things, whether I do or not is probably neither here nor there. But I do know that in order to write again, I will have to learn to believe in my voice once more, and to be able to listen to myself somehow, and to manage to see myself not as an intruder but as someone who belongs in this world. Until I can do these things, I will keep letting those pages of mine — the actual pages and the metaphorical ones, the pages of time, the pages of my life — flutter, like Dan’s in the passage I’ve quoted above, to the ground.

Weekend view: under the arch

Sometimes when I write posts like this on my blog, they feel self-indulgent, self-referential, self-absorbed. And perhaps my posts are all of these things. But perhaps, too, there’s a reader out there somewhere, reading this post, who has felt (some of) the things I’m writing about today, and who hears her voice reflected back to her as she reads. I want you to know, reader out there, that you are not alone in this world. Your voice matters. Your short life matters. You matter.

So go on, say what you have to say: and say it loud, say it true. This world, this life, belongs to you, too.

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.

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.

Unpacked

Other people’s words about … surfing and the sea

Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable — language is no help. Wave judgment is fundamental, but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment was frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now. This calculation is based on: your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred-plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and a half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and the water colour; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express. The last factors are like the ones that the ancient Polynesian navigators relied upon when, on the open seas, they used to lower themselves into the water between the outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were.

Of course, the moment can’t be frozen.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

My partner is in his mid-fifties now, and, like William Finnegan, has been surfing since he was a teenager. Though he and I are both avid beach-lovers, I know that when he looks at the sea, he sees something different from what I see.

I (from my admittedly middle-class, Western, leisured perspective) look at the sea for beauty. I don’t understand the sea’s tides, its swells, its waves. I understand, simply, how the sea makes me feel.

It’s hard to express my feelings about the sea in actual words, though. They are, to use Finnegan’s words in a slightly different way, subtle, fleeting,subcortical, ineffable.

And … good.



Snatched phrases on … birds

‘It was eluding her again: the essence of bird.’

From ‘Nest
by Inga Simpson

I love this sentence. Jen, the protagonist of Nest, is an artist, and in this passage she is trying to draw a fairy wren.

I’m not an artist; in fact, I’m spectacularly untalented when it comes to drawing. But I know the feeling of trying to capture — in a photograph, perhaps, or in conversation, or in writing — what you see when you see a bird. To say that a bird flies, or that it sings, or that it is beautiful is true, but those descriptions come nowhere near to capturing what a bird really is, or how it makes you feel.

The essence of bird. Perhaps it will always elude me, as it does Jen. Perhaps that’s part of the fascination.

This moment, now

Other people’s words about … the everyday

The sunlit room is silent and there rises a kind of aural transparency through which a deeper background of sound emerges, intricately embroidered like an ocean bed seen through clear water: the sound of passing cars outside, of dogs barking and the distant keening of gulls, of fragments of conversation from the pavements below and music playing somewhere, of phones ringing, pots and pans clattering in a faraway restaurant kitchen, babies crying, workmen faintly hammering, of footsteps, of people breathing, and beneath it all a kind of pulse, the very heartbeat and hydraulics of the day.

From ‘Aftermath’
by Rachel Cusk

I’ve been saving this quote for a while. My copy of Aftermath came from the library, and so I can’t look the quote up again and remind myself of the context; but from memory, Cusk, who was at the time living and working in the British seaside town of Brighton, is in this passage writing of a visit to the dentist.

It’s easy to focus our attention on the beautiful things we see and hear around us. (I do it in my posts on this blog all the time.) But I love the way that Cusk does the opposite here: she takes an everyday moment — not a remarkable one, not even a particularly pleasant one — and describes it so vividly that the moment shines; it sings.

Sometimes, as I go about my own day — at moments when I am particularly busy, or grumpy, or stressed, or anxious — I make myself stop. I glance around; I tilt my head to one side to listen; I sniff the air. I make myself take everything in, just for that moment. It’s a way of stepping back, I suppose: of absorbing rather than participating. However unremarkable my surrounds at that moment, the act of stepping back from them and observing them creates a stillness inside of me.

That stillness is useful. It reminds me that I’m alive.

Look up from your work
every now and then.
Take a step back.

I suppose you could call this a form of anxiety management. I suppose you could say that I am teaching myself to be present, or trying to practise mindfulness. But I’m not consciously striving to do any of these things: the act feels more instinctive than that. It feels, simply, as though it is an important — no, an essential — thing to do, every now and then.

And that’s what Cusk does in this passage, I think: she grabs a very ordinary moment, she witnesses it and she breathes life (a heartbeat, a kind of pulse) into it.

And somehow, along the way, with the words she uses, she breathes magic into her day.

Snatched phrases on … the sea

‘The sea pronounces something,
over and over, in a hoarse whisper;
I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried.’

From ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’
by Annie Dillard

Sometimes when I’m walking on the beach I close my eyes and listen to the sea as I keep walking. It’s a way of shutting out the beauty of the visual world, in order to concentrate on the other kinds of beauty accessible to me at that moment, in that particular space.

The sea murmurs.
It sighs.
It whispers.
It roars.

Like Dillard, the language of the sea is one I can’t make out …

… although unlike her I’m not sure that I want to try.

I’m happy just to keep listening.

Snatched phrases on … the sea

‘They’d ended up sitting on the beach,
the sea a great black heaving beast,
sighing and rolling under the white light of the moon.’

From ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I don’t have any photographs to accompany this post because I still haven’t yet managed to get the hang of the craft of night-time photography. But isn’t that a wonderful image of the sea at night? — that great black heaving beast, sighing and rolling. It makes me want to go for a night-time walk on the beach right now …

A breakfast of clouds and chocolate

Other people’s words about … what works

Chocolate at breakfast has always seemed wrong to me somehow. It seemed too decadent and lusty, entirely out of place, like watching a sex scene on television when your parents are in the room. But I have now spent eight mornings eating chocolate granola for breakfast, and I have concluded –- with all due gratitude to [my husband] Brandon, my personal granola pusher –- that chocolate is, once and for all, perfectly acceptable at any time of day. I had been a doubter for so many years, but now, good lord, I get it. And I think this revelation might, quite possibly, be the cosmic purpose of our marriage.

From ‘All We Ever Really Want to Do
by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette blog

I came to Molly Wizenberg’s blog only recently, many years behind most people. There are so many cooking blogs out there in the internet-world now, and so many of them are so beautiful, that it is easy to feel overwhelmed, or bored, or cynical. Moreover, the idea of using a recipe to introduce a post that discusses a theme entirely unrelated to food — in other words, to discuss life — has become such a common approach amongst food bloggers that it seems to me to be verging on the clichéd. But Molly was one of the early bloggers to take this approach, and she writes well, which makes all the difference. I will be reading her blog again, I’m sure.

As for chocolate at breakfast — well, why not? A therapist I used to see once said to me, as I agonised over how to live my life better (or rather, how not to live it so very, very badly): Life is short. Do what works. Though I’ve left much of his counsel far behind, I think about these particular words of his from time to time. Life is short, indeed. If chocolate works, then eat it. Please.

(Alternatively, you could try cake. Cake never fails for me.)

Meanwhile, today is my first day of two weeks’ annual leave. I currently have two part-time jobs, so time away from both of them simultaneously can be hard to pull off. (It has only just occurred to me that I live between two houses, too — do you sense a theme here?) The next fortnight feels incredibly precious to me.

For some of that time, I plan to go camping in Yorke Peninsula again, with my partner and my dog. Autumn is in full swing now: our holiday there will be different from our last trip to Yorkes, back in February. There will be clouds; there will be rain; there will be wind. Now that the fire-ban season is over, we’ll light a fire at sunset and sit together by the flames, looking up at the sky as the stars come out. It will be too cold to swim, so we’ll walk miles down the beach and along the clifftops. We’ll sleep late into the morning and go to bed early at night. My partner will surf; my dog will play and sleep; and I will read.

I’ll read.

I’ll read.

Afterwards, we’ll come home grateful for heaters and hot showers, and ready — already — for our next camping trip, whenever that happens to be.

I don’t know if, like Molly, I’ll be eating chocolate for breakfast while we’re away. It doesn’t matter. Life is short, and these are the things that work for me. That’s why I do them.

All in all, it’s not such a bad way to live.

On asides

Other people’s words about … other people

Some writers describe nature beautifully; some express their characters’ inner lives with great insight and pathos; some describe people pithily. I came across two writers of the latter kind recently.

How’s the following for a description of someone, for example?

He had the countenance of someone who’d weathered a thousand tiny insults; they were etched into the lines of his forehead and cheeks. He had the drawn, inelastic face of either a serious smoker (with no time for the inconvenience of food) or a fastidious vegan whose pursuit of a healthy lifestyle had left him on the verge of sickness.

from ‘A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy
by Colin Grant
(p. 2)

Colin Grant’s book is a memoir about life with a brother who lived with, and ultimately died from, epilepsy. It’s also a history of epilepsy’s treatment (both cultural and medical) over the last two millennia. But it was Grant’s descriptions of people which really held me.

He held disgust in his nose, a magnificent diaphanous beak with thread-like blue veins and tobacco stains on the nostril hair and dividing septum, usually slightly cocked and in a permanent sneer.
(p. 16)

After I’d finished reading A Smell of Burning, I moved on (in a completely non-sequitur fashion) to Angela Carter. I’d never read any of her novels before, though people had told me over and over that I should. I’m still only partway through The Magic Toyshop, but already, I’m relishing Carter’s descriptions of the characters who populate her story.

Here she is on five-year-old Victoria:

Victoria had no sense of guilt. She had no sense at all. She was a round, golden pigeon who cooed. She rolled in the sun and tore butterflies into little pieces when she could catch them.
(p. 6)

And here’s her description of twelve-year-old Jonathan:

Jonathon ate like a blind force of nature, clearing through mounds of food like a tank through the side of a house. He ate until there was no more to eat; then stopped, put knife and fork or spoon and fork together neatly, wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and went away to make model boats.
(p. 4)

Meanwhile, when Melanie, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Carter’s story, first meets Finn, she watches him from afar before he notices her. When she does capture his attention, he fixes his gaze upon her before speaking:

His eyes were a curious grey green. His Atlantic-coloured regard went over Melanie like a wave; she submerged in it. She would have been soaked if it had been water.
(p. 38)

These are snatched phrases, I guess, more than anything. But that’s the thing about the experience of reading: it’s not just about plot, or emotion, or catharsis. It’s about the little things, too: the words and the phrases; the asides and the diversions. The sentences I’ve quoted above aptly capture the essence of the people they’re depicting: they made me smile in recognition (and wry admiration) and then re-read them, just in case I didn’t miss anything. And, like the characters they’re describing, they stayed in my mind long after I’d put the books aside to get on with the business of my day.

They stayed in my mind. I can think of no greater praise for someone’s ability to write — and no greater reason to keep on reading — than that.