finishing and beginning

selfie-with-wellingtonSelfie with Wellington, 5th November 2016

I had to do it on my own.  It was something that required me. To show up to myself. I didn’t think about counting. The hours of reading. The days and days of writing. The minutes and hours and days and weeks and nights of thinking. Did that make it lonely? No. I was alone with my thoughts, which is not exactly alone, and always a rewarding experience. There were moments of doubt; I had to face them head on. I had to look at myself in the eye and not shrink back from what I saw. The raw gristle and meat of me. Me in all my frailty and fervour. I saw myself.

It could have been almost anything. The thing I had to do on my own. It could have been a very long race, run on my own two feet until my lungs were fire. It could have been a piece of art. A canvas the size of a wall. Or a throw. A crouch and turn and heave of a weight away from myself. Or the first year faced newly alone, or the first year with a tiny one, newly responsible. Any of these feats require the person only. To show up to themselves. To look the challenge in the eye and decide, perhaps despite the evidence, that they are up to the task. And then to follow through.

I had a meltdown, of course I did. Before I’d even started writing. I thought it was too much. I thought I couldn’t do it. I started catastrophising. I wasn’t the person to do it. It was going to get harder and it was going to get too hard for me. I hadn’t been born with what it took and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. So I started planning how to give up. How to get through the bare minimum and bow out gracefully. How to avoid biting off more than I could chew by exiting the dining room. I was full, thank you. I did not need to eat.

But I was starving. I was withered and skinny on the inside for not having eaten a full meal for years. For having spent too long watching what other people were eating, following their lead, not wanting to be greedy, not wanting to be different. And so I starved myself. Routinely ate small portions, avoided seconds. Became a chronic snacker. Almost convinced myself that social media was a food group. Narrowly missed contracting one of those ubiquitous online diseases. You know, the ones where you end up forgetting how to actually live.

I’d spent way too long flitting over the surface of things. Parenting magazines. Books about how to get your baby to sleep. Books about how to get your baby to eat organic vegetables and organ meat. Great big homeschooling manuals. How to get your kid to learn everything you missed out on learning in one year. And every now and again I’d pick up a book off my shelf and read an old favourite. But new fiction? It was either too bland or too thin or too male or too strange to my ear – for some reason I could never put my finger on.

I went back to work. Is that what was missing? A sense of being, in amongst it, out in the real world, getting up in the morning and coming home at night. All those hours in the car alone to think and notice things. That got me going back to study, a post-graduate counselling paper – gender studies. So this is how it goes, I thought, this is what thinking feels like. The lecturer talked about creating an intellectual genogram. A record of a journey of reading and thinking. His was eclectic, from Tillich to Foucault and everywhere in between. Where was mine, I wondered? Had I actually been thinking?

So I started reading again. Fiction. Being an English teacher is good for that. We’re peddlers of other people’s words, us English teachers, and if we don’t read we don’t have anything to peddle. I had a sparkly class of girls that year I started studying again, who I thought might handle An Angel at My Table – Jane Campion’s film of Janet Frame’s autobiography. They were fifteen and sixteen and bright-eyed and maybe I broke them a little, maybe I shouldn’t have shown it to them, disturbing as it is. But I did so much reading to teach it that I could have written an over-sized essay myself. And I remembered all over again how much Janet Frame’s words meant to me.

I was twelve when I read Faces in the Water, and after that, I wrote my first story. It was about a girl going blind (God knows why), and it was melodramatic and stuffed full of repetition and run-on sentences. I wrote it in pencil on a pale newsprint pad and showed it to the mother of my friend Zoe. Who said that it wasn’t the kind of writing she normally read but that she liked it, and thought it was good. Well that was high praise. That was feedback I could run with. I decided, almost out of nowhere, that I was going to be a part-time writer and a part-time speech therapist. I don’t know where the latter idea came from, but you can see that from the beginning I was pulled in opposite directions. One inward, the other outward.

Reading is an entirely interior act. It excavates us on the inside, brings in the materials required to progress with the next stage of building. There’s nothing to show for it. Not initially. Reading is private, invisible, profound. It is something we do for ourselves, by ourselves. After all those years of being pulled outward, desperate for approval, sitting down to do my Master’s was like giving myself the gift of attention. Once I’d started down that long road of focused reading and writing, I couldn’t turn back. I couldn’t change tack, or change subjects or change my mind. I had to stay. With myself, with my thoughts, and with the words.

This was my transformation.  I sat in silence and hauled the words in one by one. I made them mine, I added them to myself. I used them like travel guides, like clues, like the shining shreds of bread that Hansel and Gretel followed home. The words took me to me. I showed up to the work and found I was showing up to myself. This is how I finished something I thought I could never do. And this is how I will do it again.


how to write

pic school roofline

I stayed late at school with my Year 12 students earlier in the week. Their writing portfolio was due at four o’clock, and I sat at my desk after the bell had gone and watched them typing furiously. I could have left them to it, but it was satisfying watching them work. After a year of English four periods a week, they were finally discovering themselves as active agents in their learning. They had decided they were actually going to try and nail this thing.

I’m a reluctant writing teacher. I don’t like making students write about things they don’t want to write about. I’ve never enjoyed contrived writing exercises and I rally against the notion that if you throw a bunch of adjectives and adverbs into a description you’ve improved it. I see writing that shows evidence of this faulty thinking all the time. It is not pleasant reading.  And I resent the expectation that fifteen and sixteen year olds should be able to “craft” a piece of writing into a polished product. I couldn’t have, not at that age. I could write, certainly. But I couldn’t tell you exactly what I did that worked. I just wrote.

If it was sixteen year old me sitting in that class, I’d be the one who bombed out at the last minute. I would have written one inspired piece, something that arrived perfectly formed on the edges of my consciousness. I would have been overjoyed with my creation, as attached to it as a mother is to a newborn. But the second piece needed for the portfolio would have had me stumped. My muse never performed on command. It wouldn’t have mattered how many different writing tasks the teacher gave me, something in me would have rejected all of them. No one could tell me how to write.

This resistance to being taught to write lasted well into the third year of my BA when I took the only creative writing paper offered. In the midst of what was a mixed experience at university I had been looking forward to taking that paper. But when the time came I was disappointed. I did not want to write a poem for homework. I did not want to write a poem with the same five words as the rest of the class. I did not want to write the first chapter of a novel, or the last chapter of a novel. As far as I was concerned, if I had the ability to write said beginning or ending of novel I would be writing the novel.

I must have been a difficult student. The feedback and grades I received that year reflect that. I probably presented an uncomfortable mix of arrogance, petulance and insecurity. I had begun my university degree clueless as to what I really wanted to do with life, besides write, and by the time I turned twenty-one in my final year I had even less idea. I was desperate to find some kind of identity that filled my deep need for approval, and if “writer” was no longer the identity that gave me the affirmation I craved, then I was more than willing to trade it for one that did.

I could have done some useful writing that year. I could have written about how I felt about myself as a student, about how I saw myself moving out beyond the confines of university. I could have written about my childhood which was ripe with stories. I could have written an autobiography in books, a story about the stories that befriended me as I grew up. I could have written about the bus ride into the city from the suburbs, or the sky outside the window of our classroom, or the view from the top floor of the library, which always filled me with a strange kind of certainty that I had places to go, and words to write. Any of the above would have been therapeutic. Any of the above would have assisted me, in small increments, to develop my voice as a writer.

There’s nothing about voice in the assessment criteria for the portfolio I will be sitting down to mark next week. I’m supposed to be looking for evidence that a selection of writing has been crafted, structured and controlled, and evidence of language features used for effect. Language features. If you’d told me at sixteen that I needed to use them in my writing I would have rolled my eyes and stopped listening to you.  I didn’t have to try to write, I just wrote.  It was nothing more conscious than that.

I sat in an empty classroom one day at the end of summer the year I turned sixteen, and wrote looking up at the exact same roof line you see in the picture above.  The sky was blue and clear just like it is in the photo; the predictable red brick of the building I was looking up at contrasting with the bright blue sky above. The words that came were stream of consciousness, purely automatic. I had no plan, no structure, and no sense even in the slightest of what I was writing. I was sitting at a desk eating a marshmallow easter egg, my cassette tape walkman beside me on the table. I’d found my cat dead on the side of the driveway that morning.  I didn’t need to be told to write. No one had to suggest that it would be a good thing for me to do. I just found myself, by the luck of the day’s timetable, in an empty room. I got out my pen and started writing.

It had rained in the night and the next day she went to school. Her teacher said now we have read six stories we have read six stories and then the teacher counted them aloud, reciting the titles the authors saying now we are enriched. But she was writing a story – she was writing and nobody knew and the teacher said what do you think what do you think and the teacher didn’t know, nobody knew that that morning she had walked past a dead cat a dead stiff cat wet stuck together fur looked like it was lying normally until you turned it over and saw it was flat on one side and they’d stood there outside on an almost cold nearly winter morning in their dressing gowns looking at this flat on one side cat trying to work out if it was theirs, trying to remember what their cat looked like, it had rained in the night… 

Plenty of people could have questioned whether my story was in fact a “story.”  My lecturers in the creative writing paper perhaps would have done so.  But I thought it was a story, a good one, and enough other people thought so too. The story won a prize, I was interviewed on the radio, and I distinctly remember being asked how long the story took me to write. I thought for a minute, and then answered honestly. “About an hour” I said. The interviewer thought that was hilarious.

Perhaps I haven’t written anything quite as good as that flat cat story ever since. Perhaps that was the peak of my creativity, right there sitting in an empty classroom twenty years ago.  Every time I write now, whether here on this page, in my journal or on the novel,  I can feel my fingers itching to go some where good. To get the kind of automatic flow I still remember feeling the day I wrote that cat story. And happily, it does come. It comes when the circumstances are right. When I am feeling full of words, when the room is quiet, when I am separated from the rest of the world by a closed door, and the sky is a bright square of light through the window above me.

I am the worst person to teach creative writing. I should probably apologise to my students and come clean. I have no techniques, no strategies.  “Just write” I say, as if it’s as natural to them as it is to me. And when they come to me with the ten lines they ached over for an hour, twisting and contorting each sentence until it sounds nothing like them at all, I take a deep breath, smile, and tell them to “say it simply.” Then I watch as their faces fall. In one small sentence I have contradicted everything they’ve ever been taught about writing.