Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Describing the mess

I heard Helen Garner on Radio National recently, speaking about writing her most recent novel The Spare Room. She described her difficulty in constructing the end of the novel, and referred to the 'small voice' within that told her that even though what she had written sounded good, it was utterly wrong.

Then she had a moment of revelation. She was washing or drying her hands after disconsolately going to the loo when it came to her that she could write the novel's ending as a flash forward. She began writing furiously and had nailed it in a couple of days, and then she lay on the floor and howled – she had been afraid to face up to describing the death that occurs at the end of the novel. Garner expressed wonder at the way in which some writers can keep ploughing on, ignoring the instinct that is telling them they're on the wrong track, until they end up throwing out '140 000 words'.

Hearing this was such affirmation to me of the pitfalls of creative writing. My creativity is like an elusive bird or butterfly that I can't catch. I start with a brilliant phrase or idea, begin writing and then it somehow disappears – as if a too-logical part of my brain has stepped in and blocked it or, more easily fixed, I've stopped following the idea and gone off on another tangent.

How easy it is to just keep writing at this point. And indeed, many guides to creativity advise just that. They talk about 'free writing' and insist that one should just keep going and not judge. But my creativity doesn't always flow in the right direction. I know when I've veered off, but I just don't know how to get back on track again.

Another thing Garner discussed was her habit of writing for an hour each day, practising getting down the tiny details of life, a skill that is a hallmark of her work. This is what I'm trying to do. But there's another difficulty here: how to stay true to one's own experience, and not adopt other voices and familiar tones, or echo popular discourses. It's so easy to avoid your own complicated, messy reality when it's not reflected in the culture. But the point is that no-one's is: not exactly, anyway. The rush to be like others can stop us examining the tiny revelations and puffball-like imaginings that make our brains and experiences unique.

This also holds for memoir. It's got nothing to do with writing talent and everything to do with sheer bravery, to dig down into the dirt and find the bulb of what was actually going on emotionally when recalling and describing any particular incident. What I've discovered is that the willingness to do this sometimes feels profoundly disobedient. In other words, parental injunctions about not feeling and thinking certain things have to be gently and persistently exposed and ignored. It's sometimes exhausting but the effect is exhilarating.

Compare these two pieces of writing about my discovery that I had inadvertently taken home a pencil after visiting my grandparents'. The first is an early version of the experience, which I wrote without thinking too much about the incident:

Sick with misery, I pondered my grandparents’ horror at the theft, their immediate loss of trust in me. I had disturbed the natural order of things and from now on they would regard me with disdain. I had no right to be in the car, no right to be going home to a normal dinner like a good child. My very future as a member of my family was suddenly doubtful.

I revised this text after letting myself relive the incident, and I think the result is stronger:

In that second of apprehension I fell through a kind of ontological trapdoor. God fled from the air: all the evil of the world came to rest in that truant pencil and my traitorous heart. For surely on some level I had meant to steal it? I had no right to be in the car, no right to be going home to a normal dinner like a good child. My very future as a member of my family, as a loved grandchild, was suddenly doubtful.

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