May 2006 archive

creativity, life writing and the desire for revenge

I have left my profile a blank, not that I’m reluctant to share, more that I’m fearful of what will happen to my words, will they be misconstrued? It is rare for me to delete my words, not on a first draft but today I am deleting and deleting again. Nothing satisfies, nothing quite reaches my core.
Tomorrow I will go to the Freud conference in Melbourne and spend the day listening to eminent psychoanalysts talking about matters analytic.
One of my writing teachers once told us that it is best to read writers who nurture your creativity. If there is a particular writer who leaves you feeling inadequate after you have finished reading from them, do not visit that writer immediately before you start to write. Instead visit a writer whose writing thrills and inspires you. Drusilla Modjeska has that affect on me. The first time I read her book, Poppy, the biography of her mother, I was overwhelmed with a feeling that I too could write like this. I, too, could tell my story in this way. Of course I could not. I am no Modjeska but there is something about her thoughtful analysis and her honesty about her experience, an honesty that never feels self-indulgent or cloying, that has inspired me, along with other Australian women writers like Helen Garner. And of course they do not have to be Australian. I have been similarly inspired by writers such as the American Siri Hustvedt and Ursula le Guin and Virginia Woolf. The list is endless.
At the moment I am struggling to write a paper on revenge and life writing for a conference in Germany in July.
I wrote the paper, too many words, and have needed to cut it down. My supervisor vetted it. I’ve practised going through it. I’ve agonised on how I might present, words alone, words and pictures. I’ll probably settle for words alone because the thought of struggling with pictures, computers and technology, sets my heart racing. I need to minimise my anxiety.
That’s why the analysts dismissed me from the analytic training, or at least it’s the one concrete reason offered to me about my dismissal, that I was too anxious.
But I digress.
This paper explores the notion that feelings of revenge can lead to creativity. This morning I began to consider the issue of creativity, how does it happen? The Cartoonist, writer and philosopher, Michael Leunig once gave a talk to a small group of therapists and counsellors in Melbourne. During the talk he began to tell us about the process of art. He told us about the way in which the artist conceives an idea in his mind about what he’d like to paint. The idea is thrilling, exciting. He sets up his canvas, collects his paints. He’s ready. The idea and its execution are foremost in his mind. He begins to paint lashes of colour on the canvas. It flows on smoothly, effortlessly, but as he proceeds, something happens. The idea he first conceived begins to change. It does not translate so readily onto the canvas. It fractures in his mind. He can’t hold into it. He’s disappointed in his work. He might struggle on, but only in a state of despair, of deep disappointment and sadness.
He’s faced with a choice. The whole idea has lost its lustre. Might as well throw it in. Leave it behind. Go have a cup of tea. A glass of wine. Go out shopping. Collect the kids from school, anything but stay here in front of this failed canvas. He doesn’t care anymore. He spatters more paint onto the page, a dab here, a stroke there. Listless, lifeless without energy or hope. He has given up on his original idea.
If he can persevere something might happen, something new might emerge on the canvas, something he had no idea of, no conscious conception of, like a bud unfurling, some new life. Then the energy returns, new hope, the possibility of some new creation. Leunig urges us to consider the importance of the second try.
But how can I link this idea up with the idea of revenge?
If I think about the analytic training, the training could be seen as something like my canvas, my idea in my mind. I had been so pleased to be accepted into the training, so pleased that one day I would emerge as a competent therapist, a bit like the wonderful painting imagined by Leunig’s artist, but for me the disillusionment that came with time when the dream was taken from me. I could not continue with the training, not because I gave up but because others gave up.
Herein, rests the source of the desire for revenge. It is born of that sense of unfairness, the sense of outrage, that my dream was taken from me at a time when I might have begun to see it differently.
I have needed to change course. I have needed to refocus my energies.
My thesis is my attempt to do this. Yet every time I go to a gathering of those analysts whom I might once have joined, the ancient feelings of being the outcast, the spurned one, return.

Life Writing and the Desire for Revenge

I am 53 years old, far too old to be doing this. My hands tremble at the keyboard. I am writing into outer space, into the nether nether. To those out there who may be interested, I am trying to explore the notion of life writing and the desire for revenge. My thesis is that trauma gives rise to feelings of shame and a desire for revenge. If these feelings can be harnessed, if they can be gathered together, thought about, processed and understood, they can lead to creativity, in particular to the act of life writing.
It’s hard trying to turn something negative into a positive. It’s hard to extract some goodness out of something like revenge. Mention the word and I can see people’s eyes flicker. ‘Oh, that sounds interesting,’ they say. As if there’s almost something salacious in the suggestion.
It’s not a dirty word exactly, but oh indescribably disturbing. I pick it up everywhere now. I seek it out, overt and covert. The writer Siri Husvedt tells us in her book of essays A Plea for Eros about how she is troubled as a child by a teacher’s comment. They are dealing with the story of Abraham’s readiness to kill his son Isaac for the love of God. Siri asks the teacher ‘Should we love God more than our parents?’
‘Yes,’ says the teacher and sensitive child that Siri is, she turns it round thinking that a parent might love God more than his child. She has tortured imaginings of Abraham, sword in hand ready to exact vengeance.
Is she picking up on the idea of parental envy, that a parent might seek to destroy his child out of some sort of envious wish. Before I hit on envy I had a thought. Siri talks about the way we create scenes in our minds from other people’s stories. The bible can be a good starting place.
My memories of Job covered in sores and half wrapped in filthy rags. He has a bowl at his feet, a plain porcelain bowl and he is begging, begging for whatever passers by might throw him, but also begging God to let this cup pass over. Let this suffering pass. There’s a dog there licking at Job’s wounds and Job doesn’t even have the energy to kick it away. And people are indifferent. There’s a lot of indifference in the bible and a great deal of passion. It’s like the passionate ones must battle against the indifference of the multitude. I suppose that’s true today as well.
The other story that unnerved me as a child is the story of Lot’s wife, the one who looked back upon the city as they were leaving and was turned into a pillar of salt. It always struck me as such a terrible punishment, for her curiosity, or her longing for something she was leaving, for the child who is told not to do something, the temptation that’s stirred up to do it, just because we’re told not to, especially if the injunction makes little sense. Did Lot really communicate to his wife the danger of looking back, did he really? Or did he just tell her they were leaving? Did he even bother letting her know it was for their own good they were leaving? I can’t remember.
I can’t remember well enough all the peripheral details, which maybe is a child’s way, or this child’s way. But in my mind’s eye I can see Lot and his wife setting off on their journey towards the horizon, bundles on their backs, loaded down trudging across the sand. I can see Lot’s wife who has no name in my memory other than Lot’s wife turn back, look over her shoulder. I can hear the lightening flash of God’s vengeance on the sinner. She has looked where she should not look, tasted of forbidden fruit, another Eve and turned into something as useless and ephemeral as a pillar of salt.
I liked the name Lot juxtaposed with the pillar of salt. I liked the word Job, pronounced Jobe as in robe, juxtaposed with all those sores and all the time is the sense running through of a cruel, some might say, just God. I could never be sure. God’s arbitrariness in some of his decisions reminded me of my father’s arbitrariness. That some nights out of the blue for no apparent reason as we sat in front of the television enjoying something like Disneyland, he’d issue the order that it was time for bed. Six o’clock in the evening and time for bed. At other times we might stay up till ten. Admittedly most of this time I’d be pushed up against the wall partially hidden behind one of the heavy lounge chairs and if I said nothing and did not stir even at the ad break, he would not notice. Another day, I remember my father calling me into the lounge room and handing me a ten shilling note. We were expecting a visit from our cousins that afternoon and my father wanted me to go down the street to the milk bar and spend the ten shillings on mixed lollies. My choice. Ten shillings worth of mixed lollies. I had never seen so many lollies altogether in my life, and all under my control. I could choose. The arbitrariness of my father’s sudden bursts of generosity like the night he came home from work with a microscope and let all of us take turns to look through the hole in the top onto the slide below. We all had little offerings, a strand of hair, a dead ant, a sugar grain and my father let us look underneath at how our tiny offering was constituted.

Such mystery and awe revealed through my father’s genersosity was rare. Other times, he shut down, lost in an alcoholic fog and wanted us all to disappear with it. This to me was like God’s authority, the arbitrary, the unexpectedly kind, the more reliably cruel and vengeful, a vengeful god who would not tolerate ingratitude or criticism. A merciless god who expected you to tow the line and even if you did, there was still a good chance he might hit out at you anyhow for some small infringement, some oversight on your part, that you didn’t think was such a crime at the time. But later if you looked at it again, you could be overwhelmed by shame at the hugeness of your sin.

That’s how I felt in the psychoanalytic training. I tried so hard to do the right thing. To follow the rules. To be a good girl and do as I was told. I became a stickler for order. Any request I might have, to be late to a seminar for instance because it coincided with my daughter’s seventh birthday. I wrote a letter requesting an absence certificate. I wrote letters explaining why I had difficulties getting through my professional indemnity. I wrote letters to keep things proper and formal. More often than that I never heard a word back. No letters except one from my mentor after I had cracked it when he came back to me following an initial discussion about my husband’s failed analysis in which he was all sweetness and light. In the next interview his whole demeanour had changed, as if he had gone off to God to get instructions on how he might best deal with this and God had said to him, tell her to get over herself. Either she’s in this or she’s not. We don’t make concessions to delicate flowers.

All of these experiences fuel my desire for revenge, and make me wonder about their desire for revenge, against the girl/woman who tried to play by the rules so closely that she became a pedant.