Saturday, May 29, 2010

Love like Treacle, Hate like Quicksand.

I find myself feeling irritated by my experience within the blogosphere of late. Endless arguments about the nature of writing. It’s my own fault. I bring up a topic and then others come in with counter arguments. I do not object to counter arguments by and large but I find myself increasingly irritated by a tendency I detect within the blogosphere to emphasize the good and the lovely, to steer clear of the negative and for some to read my writing as though I write in absolutes.

I’m as bad as the next person. I try hard not to insult people and I write comments of praise here and there to all manner of people whose work I appreciate. It is not this to which I object, it is more the emphasis on writing that does not distress or surprise. This troubles me.

It probably hits on a raw nerve. I think of a paper Jane Adamson presented several years ago in which she talked about the poet, John Keats. She talked about the way Keats valued an openness of mind. It was Keats who coined the term ‘negative capability’, the notion that ideally we seek to approach our work without expectations or desires, that we keep an open mind.

Keats tried to practise this in his poetry but it was more difficult in his personal life. There was a chap by the name of Charles Dilke. Keats despised him. We know this through correspondence in which Keats berates Dilke for his closed mind, his rigidity of thinking. The paradox is that in his considerations of Dilke, Keats himself was doing the very thing he railed against.

I see this tendency within myself. I rail against the ‘sweetness and light’ I find throughout the blogosphere and yet I do it myself. I try to be friendly and sociable and I do not enjoy carping comments anywhere. I want appreciation and good will, too.

Given my interest in life writing and the desire for revenge there must be something of these impulses within me, and with which I must grapple. I own up to this. Millions I suspect would not.

I own up to wanting to see my enemies suffer, but it stops there. I do not spend my time in pursuit of my enemies, seeking to bring about their downfall. I make a point of avoiding the people I dislike. It seems the best way, the safest way and if the feelings are mutual and we stay clear of one another then all goes well.

At the Freud conference in Melbourne last week, Salman Akhtar talked about the way we invite certain people to our dinner parties. We invite those we love. We invite those we like and we also invite those we hate - those we hate are typically married to those we love. Akhtar meant this as a joke.

We invite those we hate, he said, because after they have left our dinner we can feel relieved and virtuous.
‘Phew, thank goodness, they’ve gone’. And then we can talk about the ones we hate behind their backs and we can feel good.

I think this is my struggle within the blogosphere – the effort to integrate all three aspects - the loving, the liking and the hating - both internally and externally given my suspicion that these elements live within me as much as I experience them outside of me.

If my world - internal and external - were populated by only one or another of these elements, if it were all love, or liking or hate, it would be a dreadful world indeed. Boring and/or destructive.

Too much love is like treacle – you get stuck in it. Too much hate is like quicksand – you drown, your mouth filled with dry gritty bits of earth. Too much liking and life becomes a sort of blancmange – all of the one sickly sweet consistency with nothing to get your teeth into.

This then becomes a sort of plea to allow for more robust and healthy ‘hating’ in our lives. Healthy in the sense that we can know about the feeling - even speak about it in our writing - without necessarily acting upon it.

One of my brothers once kicked me. His foot landed on my pubic bone. It landed with such force that I fell over. He was angry about something. I’m not sure that even he knew what he was angry about. Perhaps I had provoked him, little sister that I was. Perhaps he resented the circumstances of the moment. We were about to get into the car, all nine of us – the two oldest had left home by then – in any case the car would have been full.

One grey station wagon packed with nine bodies, adults and children alike. We four in the middle, aged between eight and twelve, squeezed into the back section of the car, the place where these days most people put their dogs or groceries.

There were no fixed seats. We sat legs out in front and leaned against the rear side windows, my sister and I on one side, my two brothers opposite. My brothers’ legs were longer than ours, and there was never room enough. They needed to bend them and hold onto their knees to fit. My sister and I irritated our brothers by stretching out from time to time. They did the same to us.

We knew to keep quiet about any disagreements about who took up too much space. My father in the driver’s seat did not tolerate noise. My brother kicked me before we climbed into the car and I forgot to keep quiet.

My brother’s punishment, my father’s sharp tongue, a slap across the face, was worse than any kick I had received.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Writers Beware

I have been thinking lately about the contract between readers and writers - if such a thing exists - and the ways in which it is upheld by different writers and readers, whether it is clear cut, whether it is sacrosanct, whether it can be broken and what happens when it is.

Behind the scenes there are those who accuse me of violating some unspoken contract with my readers. In my previous post for instance. I began with a few general thoughts on the nature of the term autobiographical and its contrast with the confessional. Then I launched into an example of the autobiographical, first with my experience of going to confession as a child, and my struggle to understand the nature of sin. Then I outlined what some might consider a traumatic experience that I wound up taking to confession.

My adult self looks back and sees the incident as potentially traumatic but my memory of the event is one of bemusement. It is tricky because I cannot remember the events from my childhood as accurately as I might like. I have written about these experiences before and never once have I felt satisfied with my writing. Somehow the telling of this story defies me.

Could this be one reason why it slipped into my previous post the way it did last week, unbidden? I had not intended to include it in the post when I first began my argument about autobiography and confession.

It popped into my mind as I wrote, in the way thoughts often do. I did not plan for it. It lodged itself there and it seems to me that it had a right to be there as it had insisted itself upon me.

Then I wrote the post. I edited for typos and grammar before finally posting it on line. I had thought about it over the course of the afternoon on the day in which I wrote it and then I posted it.

Is this wrong? Should I have sat with it longer? Should I have left out the disturbing vignette. If I had sat with it longer would certain of my readers then not be offended as I understand some have been, that I have perhaps breached the writer’s contract with my reader, that I have foisted an experience onto them into their minds that they did not invite, and that they did not welcome?

Philippe LeJeune wrote about the autobiographical pact years ago. He argued that in autobiography the writer whose name appears on the cover of the book must be the same person whose life is described in the text and that the account of the life so described must be basically truthful.

There have been countless examples wherein writers have played around with this notion before and since. Some have led to significant reprisals for the author. But the autobiographical pact so called is no longer held to be gospel.

Fiction writers also enter unspoken pacts with their readers. This might in some ways account for the obsession we have in seeking to classify a book’s genre before it hits the bookshelves. This desire to identify genre may not simply be in order to place the book into its correct category in the library and book shop, it may be because people in the main like to have some degree of confidence in what they imagine they will encounter along the way.

Taken in its extreme, we come to formulaic writing, the likes of Mills and Boon where we can know before hand how the book will end without reading the last page to check it out.

Even as an autobiographer I prefer not to know where my writing will take me. I prefer to be surprised at what will come up for me. But in the process of surprising myself I might sometimes surprise my readers even more.

Is this because, although the thoughts that rise to the surface of my mind can sometimes surprise me, they are thoughts that have rested within me and although I may not have been consciously aware of them, they are still my thoughts. Others who later read about them might well be troubled by the arrival of such thoughts when they had least expected them.

To me the element of surprise is important in performances of all kinds, in art, in theatre, and in writing.

But how can I talk? I make unspoken demands on other writers, too.

Years ago I read A S Byatt’s Still Life. I won’t outline the story other than to say there is one central character in it, Stephanie Potter whose unfolding life I followed with pleasure. Shortly after the birth of her first baby, Stephanie described in poignant detail her baby’s accidental scratch as ‘the first wound on new skin’.

Perhaps Byatt here was attempting to warn her readers.

At the beginning of a chapter, three quarters of the way through the book, in the most glorious writing, Byatt kills Stephanie off.

I read this section over and over. I refused to believe it at first. Byatt must have had it wrong. I howled and howled. How could she have done it? How could she have killed off one of her main characters?

I was in analysis at the time and talked it over with my analyst who interpreted what now seems predictable to me, a reliving of my devastation as a twenty-one month old child at what must have felt like the loss of my beloved mother when my younger sister was born.

At the time of reading Still Life I considered Byatt had broken an unspoken writer’s pact. But I realise now, she had made no such pact with me, nor with anyone. The pact was of my making, and it was one sided.

I am a creature of the happy ending. I want happy endings. I know they do not exist. The only thing that exists for all of us in the end is death. I know this, but as Salman Akhtar said at a conference I attended yesterday, we all have to realize that ‘not one of us can get out of this life alive’.

Perhaps this is a good point at which to end this discussion in the knowledge that I cannot get out of writing and being read in tact and alive. There will always be a part of me as a writer that is challenged by readers disappointed in my take on things, as if I have killed off one of their beloved beliefs. I have transgressed the reader/writer’s pact.

And so I end by saying: Writers beware. It is a dangerous and demanding world out there.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Autobiography is not Confession.

Recently at a seminar, after I had presented a paper on Straddling Two Worlds, about my difficulties of working both as a therapist and as an auto biographer, an audience member asked about the need to question the impact of autobiographical/confessional writing.

Initially I was flummoxed by her question, and disturbed by her insistence that we should interrogate the value, and the consequences of the impact of confessional writing on others who might also be involved and on readers.

I am hazy about the exact nature of her question and comments, only that they have continued to rankle over the past few days. They rattle around in my head like so many loose bullets about to explode.

And then it came to me. I object to her use of the word ‘confessional’. I object to people using the word ‘confessional’ as if it is synonymous with ‘autobiographical’.

I have made my confession many times in my early life, from the time I was seven years old when I went for my first holy confession, to the time I was nineteen years old when I gave it all away.

‘Bless me father for I have sinned. It is one month since my last confession. I accuse myself of…’ I then manufactured safe sins, sins like telling lies twice, stealing once, and disobedience.

The sin of disobedience sat uncomfortably. I was an obedient child. Other people disobeyed. Not me, not then. But in confession it seemed safer to admit to disobedience than to mention my real sins, my sins of impurity.

I convinced myself that ‘hell fire and damnation’ awaited me at the end because from the time I was twelve years old, from the time I noticed my body changing, from the time I felt the first rush of desire towards my own body and that of another, I was tortured. These were the sins to which I could not admit. If I were to admit such sins to the priest, questions would follow.

How did I know this? How did I know that the priest would ask questions about my impure thoughts and that he would not otherwise bother to inquire into my sins of theft, dishonesty and disobedience?

I learned early, the day I took hold of a man’s penis under the bridge that spanned Canterbury Road, after which the man gave me sixpence because I did as he had asked - I held his penis and watched the cream come out.

I have written long stories about this moment in my life, this moment when I first took hold of a man’s penis. I kept it secret at the time from my sister and my brother who had come along with me on this outing and who had wandered off when the man called me over. The next day I told my mother about it. My mother suggested I take the details to confession. It was then I decided my sin must be serious.

For the uninitiated, confessional boxes are like coffins standing on end, narrow dark closets, in which you are immediately faced with a wooden paneled wall after you walk through the door and there is room only for you to kneel. At eye height once on your knees, there is a grille that the priest slides open when it comes your turn to confess. There is a confessional box on either side of the central chamber in which the priest sits. You speak into the grille hot and breathless and the priest mumbles and murmurs.

The only time a priest ever questioned me about my sins was after I told him about the man whose penis I had held.
What did you do? What did the man do? The priest asked. He wanted all the details.

Usually after I had confessed to my sins, the priest offered easy absolution, a few Hail Mary’s, an Our Father. But this time, he ordered an entire decade of the rosary. I concluded my sin was enormous. And thereafter I shied off telling a priest in confession anything other than my rote learned mandatory sins.

This long digression into my early confessional experience is my attempt to tell you that confession is the place in which you admit to your sins. Autobiography is the place in which you write about your life. The two are not synonymous.

My life as I write it is not simply a list of my sins. I hope I have the courage to bear witness to my mistakes and misdemeanors in my writing if necessary but that is not all that I write. I do not confess my sins in my writing. I am not on the lookout for absolution or redemption. I do not want forgiveness.

If I were confessing my sins here on the page then I would turn my readers into my priest, the one who passes judgment on behalf of God, who can decide whether I am worthy of forgiveness and how I might go about gaining that forgiveness.

As William Michaelian says in a comment on Paul L. Martin's post, Looking around the Blogosphere, on The Teacher's View blog,
'I want what all writers, artists, and human beings want, whether they publicly admit it or not: I want to be understood; I want to be appreciated; I want to be known and recognized in my lifetime...'

I do not want to confess my sins. I want to share my story.

Friday, May 07, 2010

A Good Work Ethic

There are ants in the toilet bowl. In search of water, perhaps. I wonder that they go there. They come by night and by the morning’s first flush they are drowned. They float like so many specks of black fluff on the surface of the water until the day’s toilet use gets rid of them altogether. The following morning the process starts again, and a new batch arrives.

Ants often appear at the turn of seasons, when the rain begins. I imagine their nests have been flooded and they come inside for drier quarters. Why then make their home in the base of a toilet bowl?

I do not understand ant behaviour. I do not understand my own behaviour either.

So often I find myself wishing that something good would happen, as if I need an external jolt to shock me out of my current state. A sort of non-electric ECT.

The other day I tried to talk to my youngest daughter about her state of mind, which she reassured me was fine. She was just having trouble adjusting to the demands of her final years at school. She would learn to adjust, she told me, and then asked why I had been so gloomy of late.

Gloomy was her word and I pondered on this. I have not felt myself to be particularly gloomy. Despite the generally pessimistic tenor of my blog posts, I am a cheerful person; at least this is how I see myself. Optimistic, one who looks on the bright side, nicknamed Pollyanna by my analyst years ago for my tendency to see things in a positive light. How then could I be gloomy?

Maybe, I thought, I have not been making such an effort these days to hide my dissatisfactions. No longer do I pretend not to mind such inevitable frustrations as housework. No longer am I so bright and cheerful about all the things that need fixing, the things my family look for from me. I grumble more. I am less forthcoming. I groan. I grizzle.

A friend had asked my daughter, if she could have her wish come true, what would she want most of all.
‘A good work ethic,’ she said.
Her friend was surprised. ‘Most people want money.’

A good work ethic, my daughter’s wish. I ponder on this. Perhaps that is what I am missing of late. I have not lost it in relation to my professional work, that remains, but I have lost momentum as regards my thesis and my enthusiasm wanes.

My daughter is confident she will develop a good work ethic. I have only to find mine again and all will be well.

‘Autobiographers lead perilous lives’, writes Paul John Eakin. They smash up against the rocks of non-compromise, their own and other people’s interpretations of what they have written. Shipwrecked on the judgments of others, all the autobiographer can salvage from what can sometimes feel like a volley of criticism, is the knowledge that she tried her best to communicate an experience – her experience – and that although others might see things differently, she is not her writing, nor is hers the only perspective. Her writing is but one aspect of her and it changes.

My husband has just walked in with a new wind and waterproof jacket to wear while riding his bike. It is bright canary yellow.
‘Excellent, ‘I say, ‘people will see you coming.’
This slick will keep him safe. It will keep out the wind, keep off the rain and make him such a target that it might keep others on the road out of his way.

If only the autobiographer could clothe herself in such a jacket. If only I could find better protection from the elements. Instead I am like those ants it seems. I keep reaching towards the perilous toilet waters for a drink only to be flushed away next time someone else needs to use the toilet.

Saturday, May 01, 2010


Yesterday, a woman I met on line sent an email to ask if I had any thoughts about her dilemma. She, like me, is in the final stages of a PhD but is much closer to finishing than me. She finds herself unhappy with her work - so close to the end but it no longer satisfies her.

I am aware of entering a similarly odd and negative space myself, one in which the thesis that I had imagined all those years ago - this wonderful book that I would write filled with extraordinary examples of how the desire for revenge has triggered creative writing - has become stuck. The ‘book’ although it is filling out, has lost most of its lustre.

It is not a book anyhow. PhDs are dressed up as books but they are not books in any conventional sense. There are too many requirements to mark a thesis as a book. It is one that no person other than an academic would want to read.

I want my book to be a ‘good read’. I want my book to grip my reader from go to whoa.

I now know that this is not to be, in part because as I said earlier there are requirements for a PhD that mean I have to include stuff – I call it stuff – that I would prefer to leave out. In this sense it is like being back at school preparing for final exams.

I have seen it with my daughters, all of whom write well. Often times I have made suggestions about ways of developing their work and they say:
‘You can’t be too creative. There are rules. You can’t just do as you please.’

I began my PhD in part to give me structure, to give me momentum, to give me community. It has done this in spades, but now as I approach the finishing straight I find I resent the constraints. Is this just an excuse?

In an earlier blog I wrote about Michael Leunig’s take on creativity. It applies here.

During the week my second daughter graduated at a ceremony held at the Melbourne
Convention Centre. In a sea of many coloured gowns, my daughter wore cherry red with white piping to signify her admission into a master’s degree in cultural heritage. It was a proud moment when her name was called and we could see her face on the screen overhead as she walked up to the chancellor, tipped her hat twice as instructed before she took her place on the stage with the ten others waiting for their share of the applause.

When the academic procession first marched into the convention centre and I watched the guard in black gown and hood, carry the mace in his thick-gloved hands, my eyes welled with tears.

I do not understand my sensitivity to certain rituals. It happens at my daughters’ school, too. When the procession starts up at the beginning of presentation night, when the academics and teachers line up in rows and march in their gowns, hoods and mortarboards into the assembly hall, I choke up. I am back in the church of my childhood, feeling the comfort of tradition wash over me, centuries old traditions that stir up some primitive longing.

Yet my cynical self baulks at this sentimentality.

I reckon we need rituals. They form the punctuation marks of our lives. They heighten our sense of what matters in life: the weddings, the funerals, the graduation ceremonies.

I did not bother to attend my own undergraduate ceremony over thirty years ago. I graduated in absentia. I thought I was too cool then to waste my time sitting around with a whole lot of fogies in academic gowns. Not for me, then. Now I look forward to the day of my floppy hat, but I have some hurdles to get over before then and these hurdles seem high, too high, perhaps.

I fancy I have taken to blogging as an act of avoidance: to assuage the loneliness of the road ahead, to comfort me in face of the task that stretches before me. I have to shape my thesis into a form that makes sense, that has narrative energy, and that does not include too much superfluous nonsense, does not repeat itself too often, and that holds meaning in a pointed and well articulated way.

I write about it here and I feel like a three-armed juggler with five balls who does not know how to use her third arm. I am awkward, at sixes and sevens, in a muddle and drowning under the weight of my wish to procrastinate.

Who wants to read this drivel? Some of my blog friends might, but they are not as demanding as the three people who will read and decide on the fate of my thesis.

Bloggers have expectations: to be entertained, to be moved, to be shocked, to be comforted, all manner of expectations, but academics have other expectations that are more hard boiled.

While I am stuck like this, my writing is stuck, circular and lumpy.

When I was young there were days when I sat around hour after hour in search of something idle to do, something that might occupy my mind, my fingers, and take up energy without taxing me.

Sitting in front of the television might have worked once but I gave up TV when I was twelve years old. One day As I scribbled the last of my history homework in my exercise book I considered what it would be like to take my time over my work. What it would be like to hand in neat and thoughtful work rather than this haphazard higgledy piggledy stuff I had just dragged out of the text book and my head that morning as I rattled along on the train to school. On such mornings I needed a seat. I could not do my homework standing up.

'You must stop watching TV,' I said to myself that day. 'TV eats up time and does not help you to pass exams.'

It was as easy as that; to give up television, like giving up smoking, which I did ten years later, but which was not at all easy until I found I was pregnant. Somehow after that smoking did not matter one bit. Pregnancy took away all my desire for a cigarette.

What can I draw on now to drag me out of this appalling state of procrastination? Why do I resist that which was once so compelling? What perverse part of me has taken hold and insists I waste time writing drivel like this for my blog when I could in fact be editing and thinking about, considering the weightier subject of my thesis topic? Why have I become such a slug?