Apple pie order

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I had such a day yesterday, a doing-jobs-I’ve-put-off-for-weeks day and now I feel that blessed relief that comes of a nasty job well done. I feel virtuous. Even as my feet are cold and I should put on socks, I can ignore them better when I feel this way. Such feelings are short-lived. I cleaned the stacks of notes surrounding me in my writing room into orderly piles and filed them as needed. I sorted the articles I need for the two essays on which I am currently working, one on migration and the other, straddling two worlds, as autobiographer and psychotherapist.

I do not know how it happens. It sneaks up on me. I begin to work on something and the books and papers begin to collect around me, one on top of the other. Then they become interspersed with letters, magazines and any other correspondence that comes in over the period. After a while I cannot find anything and yet this mess making, as I call it, becomes an inevitable part of the process for me.

Recently in The Age I read an article about Jane Clifton and her writing space, which she loves in part because it is away from her home. She can work in silence and peace all day away from domestic demands and children, then at the end of the day she can tidy up her space and return in the morning knowing the room will be in ‘apple pie order’. Her words: apple pie order. Apple pie order lasts for me as long as an apple pie would. I forgive myself this. I suspect it is the way I am.

When I work on an essay, it’s the same. I begin in a mess. I make many false starts. I cobble together bits and pieces that seem relevant from writing already written, then I try to find some narrative thread to tie them all together. I use Gail Jones’s wonderful parataxis. She has given me permission to continue in this disorderly way. To bring together what appear to be discrete blocks of writing: things that resonate for me, as having some underlying connection, even if the connection is not obvious. Then over time I work on these pieces. I play around with them. I drag one chunk from down under and bring it closer to the beginning. I add new chunks. Then at some point when I sense I have completed a good enough first draft, even though I know it is far from ready, I send it to someone like my wonderful editing and writing friend Christina Houen in the west who will read the piece through and give me an honest appraisal, often at this stage a scathing appraisal where she will point out all the bits that do not work.

More often than not, Christina will urge me to trust my own judgment, to write more autobiographically and to dispense with at least half of the wonderful quotes from other writers that I have included in my first draft. I do this every time and Christina has the same response. I love the quotes I use. I have an ear for them but she is right, they are the voices of others and sometimes my first draft can read like a collage of other people’s ideas and my own voice gets drowned. At this stage I often feel desperate, hopeless. The essay has become an impossibility. But I heed Christina’s advice. I pare back and pluck out the excess to try again.

Grace Cossington Smith, one of the artists whom Drusilla Modjeska writes about in the biography Stravinsky’s Lunch did this with her painting.

‘A continual try’, she writes. ‘It’s true of painting, it’s true of writing and it’s true of life. The process of staying with that continual try can produce long low loops and sudden illuminations, which we see in retrospect as springing open and banging closed. But in the tug and pull of time, it is another day lived, another piece of board on the easel, another squeeze from the tube…’(p. 322).

All this trying can be messy: lots of false starts, lots of unwanted bits floating around the room in the form of my notebooks, other people’s texts. My computer desktop is littered with new readings. My husband is disgusted. He is an orderly worker; he needs to be. He’s a lawyer.

At a seminar on memory several weeks ago I tackled Jeffrey Olick on his desire for order. He had talked about wanting to establish a canon for memory studies, namely his need to list a series of basic texts with which anyone should familiarise themselves in order to become proficient in the area, beginning with Holbwachs, Durkheim and the like.

People in the audience, creative types who do not follow easy, straight trajectories, challenged him. Someone offered Ross Gibson as an example of an academic whose work is scholarly but would never reach Jeffery’s canon. Jeffery’s canon is only to include theorists, no case studies, he declares.
‘Ross’s work is not scholarship,’ says Jeffrey. ‘It is art certainly, but not science.’ No room for art within Jeffrey’s canon. Then the fight was on for young and old.

When it was my turn to speak I told Jeffrey about the essay writing mantra my lawyerly husband trots out, about the need to plan: Write in the first instance what you plan to say, then write it and finally write about what you have said. There you have it: simple, so simple so neat, so orderly and to my mind so boring. I told Jeffrey before writing an essay I never plan.
‘I would not want you to be my lawyer,’ Jeffrey said after I had tried to suggest that both methods have their place, both are valid, simply different ways of approaching our work. No Jeffrey could not agree. The creative exploratory work of the Ross Gibsons of this world is all very well. But real scholarship comes out of painstaking theoretical writing that covers the field. Maria Tumarkin, Jeffrey says, is doing a bit of both. Christ knows, I think most of us are doing a bit of both, but in Jeffery’s mind the only valid work is the abstract, distinct and theoretical.

I felt for him then. He was outnumbered by most of the audience. He, the esteemed visitor from America who had been hailed the guru of memory studies and came here as a guest of Swinburne’s Institute for Social Research had been reduced to rigidity. By the end it was as if people were challenging his offering so heartily that if he were more sensitive than he appeared to be I think he could have felt very hurt and troubled. But I suspect, given his proclivity for distance and abstraction, he has a thicker hide than most of the messy creative types, all of whom, myself included are far more insecure in our undertakings. We can never have the confidence of a canon.

Canons include and exclude. Although they purport not to be definitive, they become that way simply through the power of the list. A list becomes a measure of belonging. If your work, your book, your name is on the list, you belong. If it is not, you are an outsider and somehow the outsider is measured in such academic circles, as far as I can see, as a maverick, not kosher, not rigorous enough in their scholarship.

Scholarship, schmolarship. To me it’s all about reading as much as you can within and around an area and trying hard to think your way through the ideas, the stories from the past and present, trying to come up with your own measure of things.

In my writing I have found so many ideas repeated again and again and every time I read the same idea repeated in a different voice, by a different writer, the idea takes a slightly nuanced slant in a different direction that shifts and balances the weight of other ideas. But the basic ideas remain.

Here I remind myself of my analyst’s helpful comment years ago about the nature of theory. ‘Theory,’ she said, ‘is simply other people’s ideas.’ Other people’s ideas I would add now that have been validated and confirmed by others in authoritative positions from the academy. Not every one’s ideas can be offered the label of theory. Ideas also need time to percolate within the public psyche before they can be offered the status of the theoretical. But they are ideas nevertheless and the world is full of them, and rarely can if ever reach anything like a state ‘apple pie order’.

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11 Comments on Apple pie order

  1. Artandmylife
    November 1, 2009 at 4:28 am (8 years ago)

    I write at my kitchen table and DREAM of 'apple pie order'. Just now it's as likely I am sharing the table with a real apple pie (and crayons, and stickers and split yoghurt and small plastic toys and ….)

    Reply
  2. Ann oDyne
    November 1, 2009 at 4:44 am (8 years ago)

    that 'apple-pie order' being the neat, trimmed-of-excess, minimum amount of pastry required to encase the filling

    Mr Neat lists as his first step:
    "Write in the first instance what you plan to say"

    when that would be the second step; the first being gathering all the facts and information from which you might choose 'what'. like the pastry one makes, knowing that a percentage will be trimmed and discarded.

    "how do you win battles?" the interviewer asked General Napoleon, and got the reply:

    "well first you get everybody together and you go there".

    fighting is messy, life is messy, death is messy. I used to be fearfully neat, and realised that neat people are fearful.

    Reply
  3. lmrb
    November 1, 2009 at 10:08 am (8 years ago)

    I can be tidy, and I can be incredibly messy. The orderly part is about my desire to produce a coherent self, about stopping time maybe – this world is knowable, an abstraction. Doesn’t last long, the messy me arrives (I start smiling inwardly about this time), and things start to flow. I’m not distancing myself from the rhythms of life, I’m travelling, and the words arrive from many side roads.

    If I stay too long in this ever-moving world, I begin to lose my sense of direction. A narrative has to have some purpose, though only if the magic of the free fall moments is not lost in this move towards coherence.

    I have a story that is a cobbling together of bits with a similar theme. I put these bits together on purpose, despite my little voice saying “don’t”. It remains a mess. It doesn’t work, it is disjointed, and I’m blowed if I can get back to where I was when I wrote these bits. Maybe I’ve fallen in love with some of the writing, and can’t let it go, can’t see it for what it is.

    Reply
  4. Jim Murdoch
    November 1, 2009 at 3:59 pm (8 years ago)

    Order is very important to me. We order what we can to make us feel better about our inability to order what we can't. When I cannot work I'll tidy often at the oddest of times too That said my room never needs much ordering so I'll dust instead. There have been so many times I've sat down at my desk and something wasn't sitting right and I'd have to sort it first whereas at other times I'm oblivious to everything but the work. I hate distractions, which is why you'll never find me working in front of a window. I have no problem piling up books in front of me when I'm working and even leaving them for days on end but when that project is done they all get put by. Nowadays the Internet is my library so it's rare for me to have even a scrap of paper on my desk. Here's a photo of my desk if you're interested.

    Reply
  5. The Weaver of Grass
    November 2, 2009 at 10:24 am (8 years ago)

    I like the idea of "continual try" Elizabeth – shall use it as one of my mantras – the one I shall apply to my textile art.
    How we write and how tidy we are in the process is such a personal thing isn't it? You sound rather like me in your approach to writing. I do an awful lot of thinking before I commit to paper and then go for it – and get someone else to then read it through. As far as tidiness goes – there comes a point at which I have to stop and tidy everything away because otherwise I can't find anything – also it is so easy to knock a pile of books over and scatter the lot.
    Thank you for visiting my blog. I have really enjoyed my return visit and shall put you on my blog list now. See you again I hope.

    Reply
  6. Elisabeth
    November 2, 2009 at 12:30 pm (8 years ago)

    Pauline, from artandmylife, your comment reminds me of something I read somewhere about a woman writer, (for some reason I think it was Harriet Beecher Stowe) who wrote her novels at her kitchen table, just like you, surrounded by the domestic bits of her day and her children.

    When I was young I loved to do my homework surrounded by my sisters and brothers, but these days I prefer the space of my own quiet, albeit messy, writing room.

    AnnODyne, I agree life and creativity are mess making events.

    I once heard Michael Leunig, the Australian cartoonist and writer, talk about the notion of creativity. He talked about our needs as artist/writers to start with an idealised image of what we might paint or write. But once we set about the task, once the artist puts paint on his canvas, the writer puts words on the page, this initial idealised image begins to disintegrate.

    It no longer seems such a fantastic idea. The stuff we produce on the canvas or or the page does not match the ideas in our head. It's at this point that we are faced with a choice: chuck it all in or persevere.

    In the event that we, as artist or writer persevere, now we splash paint onto the canvas or words onto the page with utter disregard.

    The idealised image no longer applies. In time something new appears to develop on the canvas. This, Leunig says, is creativity.

    He, too, talks of the need to keep trying. In Leunig's view the first idea is never so good as the second.

    I paraphrase badly here, but I hope you get my drift.

    Reply
  7. Elisabeth
    November 2, 2009 at 12:31 pm (8 years ago)

    Imrb, no doubt you've heard the expression: 'murder your darlings'. I'm not much good at doing this myself, but I try sometimes.

    Still I can agonize for hours after using some cliche somewhere in my writing. Recently in a letter to a friend I wrote the words: 'I laughed like a drain'.

    I keep going over this cliche in my mind now because it seems like lazy writing, but at the time I wrote these words, they felt alright.

    Do you agonize like this over the odd sentence? I often do and yet in my mess making I also often leave well enough alone.

    Jim, your photo of your office/study/writing room is wonderful.

    If I had the energy, I'd take a photo of my desk too, and post it on my blog, only I'm ashamed.

    I can describe what's in front of me now: the mess of sugarless lollies that spill out of cellophane bags – mint, butterscotch and barley sugar; a bottle of water and glass; a the half filled glass of read wine that I'm finishing now post dinner; a pair of scissors that for some reason is sitting on top of a pile of biros just above my key board; a pump pack of Sorbolene cream that stands high above the books, and letters and magazines,I've mentioned elsewhere. I use Sorbolene periodically to moisturize my dry hands; a stapler, currently empty of staples on which one of my daughters has written the words: 'This is Lis's stapler, please leave'; my circle of bracelets that I've taken off as I type because they rattle against the keyboard; my three pairs of eye glasses and a spectacle case. I wear different glasses for watching DVDs on my computer and others for typing on the keyboard. We do not possess a television in this house and all DVDs etc are viewed on the computer screen. My telephone on its stand; a chart I wrote up two years ago that plots the main outline of my thesis which no longer applies; a birthday card from a friend that arrived today in anticipation of my birthday on Guy Fawkes day; various paper clips and scraps of paper with the odd note on post it paper to remind me that I must find a certain reference book for so and so, which I promised to send to her ASAP.

    Have I decscribed the mess enough? A photo no doubt would offer a better view but perhaps this is enough.

    Gerald Murnane is also obsessional about tidiness in his writing and his writerly habits. You, Jim, and he would get on well.

    Finally, Weaver, I'm so glad you have visited my blog. I have been so taken by the beauty and honesty of yours. Here in Australia, during the fifties and sixties when I grew up, we feasted on such images of the English countryside.

    Your blog images remind me of this, but your writing, especially your poetry is something else.

    I am pleased to think that we might operate similarly as far as writing is concerned.

    It's amazing what comes out of mess, with a little help from others and tidying up between.

    Reply
  8. lmrb
    November 3, 2009 at 2:07 am (8 years ago)

    I don’t usually agonise over what I’ve written, and I’m quite ruthless when editing. Often find myself chuckling when I review what I've written – I'm quite brilliant at repeating the same word, either in the same sentence or paragraph. And my mixed metaphors are superb!

    Once, I tried Track Changes in Word, and felt swamped by all the hidden text sitting in the background. The reckless part of me turned Track Changes off – I felt better immediately. The piece I mentioned is an exception, and your post made me think about why I’ve been reluctant to ditch it, so thank you. Each piece has its own magic, but the pieces have been strung together in a false way. They aren’t part of a whole. A gestalt, maybe…

    ‘Art and My Life’s’ comments took me back to Helen Garner’s ‘The Children’s Bach’, and that small and beautiful portrait of domestic space and creativity. I was raised in Pauline’s part of the world, so I can almost touch that kitchen of hers. A wonderful image for me.

    Reply
  9. William Michaelian
    November 3, 2009 at 11:33 pm (8 years ago)

    Recently in a letter to a friend I wrote the words: ‘I laughed like a drain’. — a cliche to you, perhaps, but wonderfully new to me.

    Reply
  10. Tommaso Gervasutti
    November 5, 2009 at 7:32 pm (8 years ago)

    Dear Elisabeth, I have at last decided to write a not easy post with an enquiry on Eliot's Four Quartets.
    Please if you feel you can leave your comment you are very, very welcome and if you have time please tell your friends to leave comments too.

    Best wishes,
    Davide
    (Tommaso)

    Reply
  11. Dave King
    November 7, 2009 at 11:15 am (8 years ago)

    I was fascinated throughout by what you had to say, but most particularly by your penultimate paragraph. It is something I have found to be true for me. A really good post. Thanks.

    Reply

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