Audacity and shame

Not much to go on. A hint of something that nags at the periphery of my mind. The joy of the new.

Those five words and I’m transported back to a time when everything was new, as it is for my twelve-month-old grandson who has a habit of pursing his lips into a tight O whenever he sees something that enthralls him.

Oh, he says. Ohhhh, something new. 

I scratched my lips in my sleep last night. I felt it as it happened, a brush of my hand across my face to dislodge a few loose hairs that were pressing on my neck, and my fingernail came in contact with my lip and scraped off the top layer.

I ignored it till this morning. The congealed blood of a tiny wound on that most delicate of surfaces, my topmost lip, which is prone to cold sores and fungal infections, so I must take care.

It’s so easy to hurt yourself, so easy to stub a toe or walk hip height into a cupboard and bruise the bone and surrounding tissue. So easy to be careless and fling your body around as if its ability to preserve its walls is endless, even as it’s not.

‘Audacity always flirts with shame.’ An Adam Phillips’ special.

The analyst comes out with sentences like this, short and pithy and filled with resonance. Breathtaking and yet, I want to scream out at him,

‘What gives you such confidence, to state your ideas with such conviction when so many others grapple with the possibilities of other meanings. Never certain of anything.’ 

Audacity ALWAYS flirts with shame.

Is it possible there are moments when an audacious gesture, when an effort to rise above your years can travel unaccompanied by any such fears whatsoever? Though I take his point. 

Even writing this here now is accompanied by the ever-faithful internal voice that says, who’d want to read this crap?

As a writer you know this voice so well, you learn to ignore it. You learn to press on with fingers at the keyboard, pen on paper, you learn to push ahead despite the nagging fears you have nothing of any value to say. 

In a novel-writing class several years ago, I threw out a quote from AS Byatt’s novel Still Life, about the need for a wool-gathering time.

” She remembered from what now seemed the astonishing free and spacious days of her education the phenomenon of the first day’s work on a task.  One had to peel one’s mind from its run of preoccupations: coffee to buy, am I in love, the yellow dress needs mending, Tim is unhappy, what is wrong with Marcus, how shall I live my life?  It took time before the task in hand seemed possible, and more before it came to life, and more still before it became imperative and obsessive.

There had to be a time before thought, a wool-gathering time when nothing happened, a time of yawning, of wandering eyes and feet, of reluctance to do what would finally become delightful and energetic.  Threads of thought had to rise and be gathered and catch on other threads of old thought, from some unused memory store.”

I was tired of listening to people go on about where they might send their manuscript and how they might get a foot in the door of the publishing world. As if they were selling sausages at a marketplace. 

I wanted to worry myself with these concerns only when I had what felt close enough to a finished product.

‘All very well for you,’ one man said. A tall man who once walked the pilgrimage Via Francigena in Italy and described how when he reached the shrine his feet were red raw, his sandals in tatters.

Here was a man who knew how to persevere, but now in his sixties, he was wary of life sneaking past him. He did not have time for wool-gathering. He needed to get on with it.

When we started the novel writing class that year Janey Runci, our brave teacher, challenged us to look into our motives for writing. 

‘Let’s face it’ she said. ‘Most of the books you’re working on in this class will never reach publication.’

It was a sobering thought and enough to stop some people from returning to complete their novels. But a good fifty percent of us persevered.

I sometimes wonder where they are now, those would-be writers from my novel writing class. I do not hear of their book launches within the small sphere of publishing in Australia or at least not among the awards.

But awards are another notch up, several notches up from even being able to complete the writing of a novel, or even a short piece of writing like this.

The internal voice that screams at you to be silent is always there hovering over your shoulder like a banshee screeching death is not too far away and then you can have a rest, for now, if you continue like this, you’ll only bore your audience.

If you can find one, and for the rest, consider it a writing exercise, going up and down the musical scales of words, repetitive notes up and down, rehearsals behind the scenes, but far from the real thing.

5 thoughts on “Audacity and shame”

  1. If we waited until we were certain about everything we’d write nothing. When I was younger I was surer about so many more things than I am now. Nowadays I’m content with fuzzy truths. According to Wikipedia, “In fuzzy mathematics, fuzzy logic is a form of many-valued logic in which the truth values of variables may be any real number between 0 and 1 both inclusive. It is employed to handle the concept of partial truth, where the truth value may range between completely true and completely false.” I loved this concept when I first learned of it. I mean I delight in the precision of maths but its application in the real world is never 100% accurate; it doesn’t need to be; there’s always a bit of wiggle room: I say I’m 5’ 7” tall, weigh 12st 7lbs and am 61 years old but I’m not any of those. Good enough for government work, as my wife is fond of saying. Is the purpose of writing to reveal the truth? It’s something to aim for but one needs to be realistic. Of all the topics I written about over the years truth is the one I keep returning to and it’s come to weigh on me even more in recent years due to the damage done to it especially by politicians. A word like “truthiness” (the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true—coined in 2005) has no right even existing outside of satire and yet it’s been embraced: “truthiness” was selected as its 2006 Word of the Year on Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year, based on a reader poll, by a 5–1 margin over the second-place word “google”. I’ve written several novels but I don’t associate audacity or shame with any of them; persistence, yes. My primary goal was to get to the point where I had no more to say and had said what I had to say the best way I knew how. I wasn’t aiming to get to the truth but I did try to be truthful, as truthful as one can be when everything in a work of fiction is made up, ergo a lie. Language is not maths and maths only vaguely resembles language. Language is empirical. It aspires to logic but that’s it. Do we write to be read? I’ve always regarded readers as a bonus until I started blogging and then I was writing to and for others. I used the same techniques but it was different knowing I was going to be read. For many years no one read anything I wrote but I still wrote and even now only my wife has read anything I’ve written in years not that I need her to but I’m in the habit of at least getting her to proofread stuff.

    1. Truth is such a dodgy concept, Jim, however much we struggle to find it. And shame will always be with us – needs to be with us – though hopefully, like anxiety, in an optimal way that doesn’t leave us too devastated. Thanks, Jim.

  2. Hi Elisabeth,

    Such interesting words on audacity and shame. I wonder if women are more likely to feel shame, less likely to be audacious without misgivings?
    And yet we persist, the serious writers, men and women. Publication as you say can’t be the only goal. Ideally it should be a flow-on from creating something good (though often we aren’t rewarded so directly).

    I love the concept of wool-gathering, and don’t think it can be rushed, even if we’re hearing the ticking of the clock. Dreaming up stories requires a relinquishment of time.

    Hope your Christmas is happy and relaxing, and I look forward to reading more of your work and posts in 2021!

    1. I had a terrific Christmas Fiona, which now seems so far away. That’s the funny thing about this time of year. It rushes in and out and then the usual pattern resumes, though these days the usual pattern is anything but usual. Happy New year to you too, Fiona. I hope it’s a grand year for you. For all of us.

  3. Truth is such a dodgy concept, Jim, however much we struggle to find it. And shame will always be with us – needs to be with us – though hopefully, like anxiety, in an optimal way that doesn’t leave us too devastated. Thanks, Jim.

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