The second day of the year and I sit down to a tidy desk, a tidy room and a fresh spirit. I spent the best part of yesterday sorting books, filing papers and clearing out my writing room such that I can now think more clearly at the keyboard. I did not resolve to do this. I just did it knowing that were I to leave it any longer the weight of the mess would swallow me up and I could no longer think at all.
For me there is an optimal level of mess that is conducive to thinking; too much mess, or no mess at all and it seems nothing happens in my brain. In my tidying up I found a draftsman’s square, which I imagined belonged to my husband but had somehow found its way into my room, as things sometimes do. I brought it to him.
It turns out it once belonged to my father. In all likelihood he made it himself, my husband said. It is a tool that allows you to measure exact right angles and to be certain of the straightness of a line.
The draftsman’s square becomes a metaphor for me, a metaphor for structure. Structure, or rather a lack of it is one of my greatest handicaps. I blame my father for this. In that part of my mind that likes to order things, which is paradoxical given my abhorrence of too much structure, I imagine that the business of structuring is a masculine attitude of which I do not have enough. Were I to have a better grasp on structure I would not feel so daunted by the piles of paper, the thousands of words I have written thus far on my thesis topic, ‘life writing and the desire for revenge’. I would easily put them into order.
I try. I have tried and I will try again but it is so hard to find a structure that can contain the ideas without one spilling over into the other. The ideas are never neat and orderly, they are not discrete pieces of information and when I write about one idea, such as the nature of shame, it leads me on to think of trauma, and trauma leads me on to think of rage. I can define all these various emotions. I can offer examples, but soon they leak one into the other. I can put them all together in the same chapter, which I have done so far, but then the chapter gets longer and longer.
It does not surprise me that I have not yet managed a book. A series of essays yes, but an entire book with one chapter linked to the next requires structure.
My father’s draftsman’s square is made of a fine-grained wood, a reddish toned wood, and most likely oak. It is smooth to feel and stands erect in front of me like a lopsided crucifix. My father’s initials were JCS and my brothers sometimes called him JC for short. He was imperious and intelligent, a razor sharp intelligence but the alcohol soaked it up as did the trauma of war and migration, family shame that he tried to leave behind in Holland, nine children and more beside. He was not able to teach us about structure.
My father’s draftsman’s square will be my guide.
I once described a memoir on which I was working – though at the time when memoir writing was not fashionable, I called it a novel – as being like my mother’s corset, thick and bulging, held together with safety pins. This is a feminine perspective, though it is not so much feminine as a constraint on femininity.
I never wore corsets myself. By the time I came of age they were no longer in popular use. Corsets represent too much structure, too much held in, too much firmness and control.
I often wonder about the women who lived one hundred years ago, the women we see portrayed in films, the BBC period dramas into which I love sometimes to escape: those women who were their husband’s possessions, who owned next to nothing, who could not control a thing except through wile, cunning and manipulation. Those women who had a structure imposed upon them and had no choice in the matter.
Many years ago my oldest daughter gave a speech at a Rotary competition in which she who was then sixteen years old talked about the freedom she believed she had in life as a young woman of the 1990s to choose her own destiny, a career and/or children. She now has both, but she will tell you that it is not as easy as she once imagined. In those days the way was open to her, as long as she worked hard and fought for her rights.
My daughter did not win the competition. A young man who has since risen to extraordinary prominence here in Melbourne, a young man who at the age of 25 is the editor of a significant magazine called The Monthly won the competition. Or at least was one of the winners. It is strange that I should remember the evening so well.
The young man talked about film noir. I do not remember the details of his talk, nor of the films he discussed but I do remember him. He was all but fourteen years old and had a commanding presence, a wit and stature that belied his height and his years. My daughter’s talk was fine too but hers lacked humour and the adjudicator at this particular eisteddfod was looking, among other things, for humour.
There was another participant whom I also remember well. She stood to speak and after the first ten or so words she froze. She had rote learned her talk it seemed and anxiety had grabbed her by the throat and forced all memory of the words she once knew so well from her mind.
Never rote learn a speech, my daughters tell me. Always prepare it in your mind. Use a point system: make three points and speak around them. Prepare well. My daughters are good at structure. You would not know it from their sometimes-untidy bedrooms but you can see it when it comes to their written work.
You must plan ahead, my husband told them whenever they approached for help with an essay, plan ahead and write out your plan. I watched my oldest use sheets of butcher’s paper to plan out her structure for her honours thesis years ago.
A couple of years ago I tried to do something similar. I wrote up a plan of my ideas and the people who had written about these ideas like a type of racecourse that I might charge around, but like a racecourse, it became circular.
I pinned my plan to the side of my filing cabinet and there it sits. I do not refer to it. It has become an unused corset. I know in my subversive mind that for all I have learned about ways of structuring, the importance of planning and thinking ahead, I will not do this. I will not write a plan again. I will do as I have always done. I will launch into writing to see what comes up for me. It is the thrill of exploration into unknown territory that gives me the greatest pleasure.
One day soon I know I will need to drag these thoughts into some kind of order but for now I will write corset free.