This weekend I spent several hours at a writer’s workshop, A mind of one’s own, where the facilitators, novelist Charlotte Wood and Alison Manning, asked us to explore the question of why we write:
I write to dissect my doubts. To put them down on the page like a frog in a biology experiment. I take my scalpel and slice it open. I write to look into the heart of this once beating creature and figure out, not only how it works, but also what went wrong.
I write to dissect every sinew in the frog’s long legs, to stretch them out and pull apart the fibres of this creature’s being and so make sense of my own.
It started when I was young, when I wrote down my father’s words on small scraps of paper whenever he was drunk and raving. I wrote down his words as he spoke, crazy words as I saw them then, but words that lost their sting once written down on my scraps of paper.
There, they took on the aura of lunacy. There, I could pull each word apart for meaning and resonance.
Before then I wrote, or tried to write, the poetry of my day. The grand phrases of the British poets who filled my school books with their flourishing phrases, the grand men of literature.
I used their words to create my own, to transform the many ravings of my father into something beautiful, but even then I could sense the false hoods.
These words came from them, my father, my brothers, the great men of literature, and I turned inwards to study my own mind and consider the minds of others, working in the service of others, to help save people from families like mine until I turned thirty nine.
When I was thirty-nine the analysts decided that I was unsuitable, that I was like a foreign body in their otherwise quiet and respectful team and they told me to go.
I wrote then to find a voice when my own had been silenced once more, as it was in childhood and now later in my chosen career.
The more I wrote the more I sensed the rage surging through my veins, and the more I recognised this rage, the more I knew I must tame it.
‘You cannot write out of rage or revenge,’ Helen Garner said to me as I sat opposite her in a café in Brunswick Street where she had agreed to meet me to discuss my thesis topic, ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’.
On a small slip of pink paper she wrote before our meeting, that she knew nothing of revenge. She did not tell me, as I discovered later that she is drawn to revenge like an addict to her next fix, drawn to the criminal courts, drawn to dissect her version of what it is that drives people to murder, that drives people to inflict pain on others. Perhaps she hides her own desire for revenge in her morning pages.
While I write into mine. Splat onto the page.
I write to confront others with the cruelty of childhood, to ask people to look once more on scenes of unspoken depravity, or callous disregard for others.
I write to pick away at the entrails of secrets, the secrets of my family of origin, of incest and misogyny, and the rules of men.
I write to scratch away the skin, the hard carapace of my own professional institutions, to split apart the idealisation that was once my own.
I write because much of the time I am sad, and writing helps to shift my sadness into something that draws in light and breath.
I write to keep a report of events long gone, a report however distorted because it emerges from the limited observations of my eyes and mind.
I write to create an illusion of control. On the page in the words that pour out of me, words unfettered by anyone else’s control. My own control over my own unruly world and though I cannot get these words into perfect order, the words are still out there and when I read and re-read them and shift them around – much as I shifted around the words of my father, all the time trying to make sense of his ravings – I come to see some of my own struggle.
A writer’s task is to explore ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’, William Faulkner writes. A man’s words again. A woman might have put it differently. At least Faulkner called it a human heart, not a man’s.
I write because I cannot bear the inequality of life, my own privilege now as an adult against the unfairness of my childhood.
I write against the non democracy of life, the fact that as much as we try to create equality, at least some of us might, the reality is, we are never equal.
We are all different and we cannot speak for one another, only from ourselves to another, to others and in so doing I write to communicate something of my struggles.
I dissect the frog on the page. I take notes on what I find there. I take notes on my experience of taking notes and then I take to these notes with a scalpel and sheer away the excess fat to get to the raw line of why it is I write.
I write to mitigate my hatred, to turn it into something more loving, to turn it into a less toxic river running through me, to turn my mind from its monstrous underpinnings into something worth saving.
11 thoughts on “A writing life and some thoughts on hatred”
Over the last year as I’ve been editing/rewriting my book I’ve found myself preoccupied with meaning. It bothers me that meaning is a shared experience, a melding and there’s always something lost along the way. I know nothing of revenge. I know what it means and by that I mean I can define ‘revenge’ but that’s only half of it. In my book I write:
“All my life I have fought tooth and nail—God, you know how hard, more than anyone else—to find suitable words, like Glenn Miller and that damned sound of his, only I’m not sure if I have ever found the words, no, I have found the words—I am familiar with so many of them, intimately—but I have never found my way with them. I view them gynaecologically not erotically. Ah, now this is a confession if ever I was going to make one; my immune system feels better already.”
I know of revenge. I do not know revenge, at least not in the Biblical sense. When I think of revenge I think about wanting to hurt someone and immediately stumble over, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” I remember having Deuteronomy 32:35 explained once and it’s a verse that’s always stuck with me because it was there for the first time I heard the word ‘recompense’: “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip…” Compensation is a big think in the Bible, the law of retaliation, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, but in practical terms it was never applied; if a slave lost his tooth or eye he gained his freedom in return which then raises this issue of the price of freedom. Mostly though the Jews got away with offering up doves and oxen for their sins until Jesus came along and told them to turn the other cheek and the doves and the oxen breathed a sigh of relief.
Like you I feel sad much of the time and although it’s not the worst thing to feel—I’d hate to feel constipated all the time—it would be nice to be less sad. The list of people who’ve made me sad is not a short one but the idea of getting back at them, of injuring them is quite alien to me. It would make me feel worse, not better. Because it wasn’t all their fault. It’s never that simple. An eye for an eye is simplistic. What if the person who’s injured you has no eyes to start off with? What do you do then? My siblings are not blind but they are blinkered; it’s almost as bad.
Revenge plays no part in my writing. There’s a bit in the book where Jim talks about putting someone who’s injured him in a book, “Yes, he’d write them into a novel and set them or fire or bash their brains in.“ That’s not me. Like you I write for many reasons. Mostly I write stuff down because there’s too much to hold in my head. At its most simplistic that is it. I’ve said this before: my writings are my workings and once a problem’s been solved the poem or the story or even a whole novel could be tossed aside, job done. I don’t write for other people except, like just now, when I’m writing to another person. This is for you. It will sit in a public forum and others will be free to read it and that’s fine but they’re just eavesdroppers.
There’s a problem with dissection. For the frog it means its destruction. We’re not gods. We can’t put things back together once we’ve pulled them apart. Okay we can sometimes patch things up but they’re never the same afterwards. Knowledge, even self-knowledge, costs and sometimes the price we have to pay makes us wonder if it’s worth it. Ignorance isn’t especially blissful but it has its charms.
You’re right about dissection,Jim, especially when it comes to organic matter, as in a frog. Once cut up it can never be the same. Therefore it’s a lousy metaphor perhaps, but still I was trying to make a point about the business of dissection, exploration and as you suggest that also involves a level of destruction. It’s interesting to read your take on revenge.
As ever I want to emphasise the desire rather than the enactment. I reckon the enactment of revenge is a problem, but the feeling, the desire is not. Thanks, Jim.
So well put. Negative emotions are so addictive, our only hope is to be our own saviors. I hope you’re feeling the worth of the process and the ever-unfolding result.
William Hazlitt, in 1826 wrote an essay on ‘the Pleasure of hating’, Kass: http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Essays/Hazlitt/Hating.htm. He might well agree. There’s something delicious about knowing these things as long as the poison doesn’t infect us to much. Thanks, Kass.
I think I write pretty much for the same reasons, though you’d probably be hard-pressed to detect those reasons as I flit from one pop culture topic to another.
I reckon there’s plenty of the desire for revenge in pop culture, Kirk, but you’re right it probably doesn’t show up much when you write about it. Thanks.
This is just marvellous… perhaps, in the end, the analysts did you a favour?
I’ve heard that said before, Christine. The idea that I’m better off as I am is not always so easy to recognise though, depending on the time of day. Thanks for your kind words.
Oh… my words are more of a response to reading this piece than intended as ‘kind’.Your reaching for the truth of one’s feelings and speaking about what needs to be spoken about moved me. Your words about being ejected by the analysts suggest an opening up within yourself. My reading, of course…
These things open slowly, Christine, but given I’ve written a book, still in manuscript form, about the whole event, it doesn’t feel new for me. Though it’s true, I don’t write about it much here. Here in the lounge room of ideas, things tend to be neat and tidy. Out there, first in the kitchen where it gets hotter, I might say more, before we finally get to the toilet and bedrooms. Nothing like a house metaphor to evade speaking out loud. I’m grateful that this piece resonates for you.
This whole piece is just beautiful, Elisabeth. Beautiful words, and written honestly. Rage and myself were very close for many years, but we’ve parted company lately. Writing and telling people about my childhood and the trauma of it was the first step towards that. Keep writing your beautiful words. x