The corset and a draftsman’s square.

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.

21 thoughts on “The corset and a draftsman’s square.”

  1. So sorry to hear your friend lost her fight against cancer Elisabeth – life is so unfair for some.
    I feel very much as you do about mess. My workroom reaches a certain degree of untidiness which inhibits all creativity, and there is nothing for it but for me to spend an entire day sorting everything out before I can work again. Looking around me, it appears to have reached that point again!

  2. When I think about the biblical description of humans as “leaky vessels” it impresses upon me just how unnatural structure is. There is very little of it in nature, no straight lines until you start looking at sugar under a microscope and since that’s been refined I’m not sure how natural sugar molecules really are. It’s Man who likes straight lines. I like them very much. I was top of the year at school in Techie Drawing and aimed for a career as a draughtsman. All the art I’ve ever produced has basically been technical drawings coloured in. Every line is a straight one.

    I’m working on a book review at the moment, a review of a biography and so a review of one man’s life. Now the biographer has taken a more or less linear approach to the problem but the more I read the more I realise that, if I can twist one of Murnane’s expressions, no man is only one man. At the same time I am a fifty-year-old man I am also a twelve-year-old boy and all the rest. We keep the past alive; we are our own sepulchres.

    Corsets many not be designed with straight lines in mind but they nevertheless attempt to straighten out Nature’s curves to redefine beauty in artificial terms.

    Some writers plan. Because of the books they write with intricate plotlines they have to plan. I don’t. Only with one novel, Milligan and Murphy, did I know how it would end but I had no idea how I would get my protagonists there. With a biographical work everything is known up front especially if you are writing about yourself but what are the truly important bits? Simply a record of who did what and when is anaemic and colourless.

    I have my own thoughts on form as you know but can I leave you with a tiny poem by Charles Bukowski, the subject of the book I’m reviewing as it happens although the poem isn’t in the book. I think it speaks for itself:








  3. I am not a writer but I am the biggest fan of my blog. I am an accidental blogger and when I read my old posts, I was impressed with myself 🙂

    I started off without any structure but as I moved along, I found that I need to develop somekind of structure for the blog, and a little, just a little for my posts.

    Thank you. You are one blog that I could learn something in each of your post. And I am glad I found you.

    Have I wished you a Happy New Year!

  4. oh my dog, a thesis? heaven forfend, how exhausting and dry…what letters will you get to stand behind your name for doing this? I'm amazed.
    My unconscious has wanted me to get a PhD like my father who got one, effortlessly, in math. I'll never be good enough. and wouldn't be, even if I got one. He was orderly, precise, bathed in Scotch, had a wry sense of humor, hardly ever talked and has bedeviled me.
    I'm struggling away on a memoir that I worked like the devil on for years from the mid-nineties and then forgot…until two weeks ago…about not remembering and the absence of childhood, the subsequent chaos, trying to find/form/create a stable self through all the bad-non-choices.
    I hope that I'll take off from your bog for a blog entry because it was so provoking….me surrounded by mess…
    I wish I'd found your earlier, but if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride..
    what a good entry, Elisabeth!

  5. Oh Structure!!! I struggle with it all the time! It never happened in that planned way for me, at least in the thesis I finished a couple of years ago. That was in history; I wrote something akin to a biography of an era in settler-indigenous history. This was the first time I had embarked on such a long project. So I was scared. The thesis became like an organism, growing and developing, needing to be reigned in from time to time, until it reached a stage of completion enough to launch out unto the examiners.( I passed brilliantly, I am pleased to say but I have been exhausted for a long time… I am only now, after a couple of years, dusting off the keyboard again and thinking about publication). When I was writing the thesis I often imagined I was working on a large patchwork quilt, piecing bits together. Other times I imagined it to be a large tapestry. I eventually learned that thesis writing, and no doubt other pieces of writing, is of at least three – nay four or five dimensions. I was lucky enough to have a brilliant, perceptive supervisor who gave me my head and encouraged me to write history with my own voice. I am much indebted to him, enough to be experimenting again now.
    BTW I fell over your blog a couple of weeks ago when after peeking over husband's shoulder at what he was engrossed in, I decided to read a few…totally serendipitous!

  6. Thanks, Heather. It's true: a good clean out of the mess does us all good at times. I can't stop the build up though. I look around me and already it's happening again.

    Thanks, Jim, for your generous and fascinating comment. Leaky vessels indeed and the shape of sugar molecules. I love your train of thought, the way one idea bounces off another and seemingly as you say never in a straight line.

    I agree with you and Murnane wholeheartedly, 'no man is only one man, apologies to the feminists, no woman either, no woman or man is either one woman or man – it works better in the single gesture for the rhythm but not for the politically correct.

    Thanks for Bukowski's poem. It reminds me of Peter Bishop's words at my recent writing event, that 'the writing itself dictates the form. You cannot force form onto it.' In other words, the form finds itself. Bishop is forever on about the notion that 'a book is ready when the book knows what it is'. Ah me. I'm not there yet.

    Thanks Ocean Girl. I disagree: you are a writer. from the little I have seen of your blog, you write, and others read your writing and others derive pleasure and meaning from your writing, including me. You write because you have to write. That makes you a writer.

    Most bloggers are writers. Not all write as well as each other, but nevertheless blogging would not exist without writing and for those who persevere with their blogs, for those who write regularly, I think it's fair enough for them to call themselves writers, at least for the time that they write.

    I shall get off my soap box now and thank you Ocean girl for your good wishes and kind words.

    Oh dear, Melissa. It's not as bad as it sounds. I have three brothers who hold PhD's and a fourth who almost completed one. I am the first of the four girls in my immediate family to go for one.

    Ours was an academic family of sorts, our one great claim to fame. Even so I am haunted by my fantasies of academia and I am not an academic. I am far too undisciplined. I also resent the strictures that certain academic people bring to thinking and writing about life. Fortunately, I have a certain freedom within my PhD to pursue what is meaningful to me and my livelihood does not depend upon it, so I can operate more freely than were I a younger soul seeking to further my career.

    For me it is all good fun. When it ceases to be good fun, I will hasten to finish it and then move on. As it is, I have till mid 2012 as my deadline – another two and a half years to play – though the closer I get to the deadline the more I'm sure I shall panic.

    I look forward to reading your memoir. I'll bet it's fantastic. Your blog entries are riveting and alive. There is a form there in their very formlessness. And yes, you can use the mess, as a springboard into order.

    It's so much easier to see structure in other people's work. We are always so much closer to our own. It blurs the boundaries.

    Thanks Christine, I'm glad you looked over your husband's shoulder and found my blog. You're lucky to have finished your PhD and by the sounds of things so well. I'm not surprised you're exhausted but as the saying goes you must get back onto your horse, and get that book published.

    It deserves to be read by more than your friends, family and three examiners, particularly judging by the quality of your writing here.

    I like the idea of a patch work quilt. It's a metaphor I've thought to use myself occasionally. I've also used the metaphor of a house, a corset, a quilt, a container of some sort, maybe even a skeleton, as an internal structure on which the rest can hang. Metaphors abound.

    Thanks for your thought provoking and helpful words. I look forward to exploring your blog and reading more about your work.

  7. Thank you so much for your visit and your kind words.

    It is great to read you. I have always been impressed with writing skills (I have none;)) and it is interesting to read your process. I like that you do not have a plan when you start to write.
    I never know what I am going to shoot either when I am going out with my camera.

  8. It seems that New Year's is a logical time to clear off desktops.

    I was also thinking about the masculine/feminine issue in regards to successful writing after reading this Washington Post article: . Perhaps you will find it interesting.

    As far as structure goes, in teaching, I find that some teachers are very organized, and some are very creative, and some are very humane; rarely all three. All are effective and valid in their own style. I've had to learn to be myself.

  9. i seem to be much more satisfied and much more effective if i've got a great number of projects going on all at once. it makes a big mess, for sure. chaos even sometimes. and too much chaos brings the whole shibang to a stand-still but having a bit of creative mess following me around seems to very helpful and encouraging. ideas spring from ideas and on and on and on. my practice is teaching me (slowly) that the two things i need to cultivate are patience and stamina for the ideas. i'm so all over the place that, more often than not, i have no clue what i've made until months pass by and i get all the work out, look at it together, and then i can see the connective thread.

    your work, though it sounds like there's a lot of research involved, is also a highly creative endeavor. and i don't think there's any real guideline for such things. visiting people's studios is always such a fun experience because the way each space is set up is completely specific to the needs of the person using the space: the strange nic-nacs and collections, pictures on the wall or walls that are completely blank, levels of order or disarrasy. i think in creative work, the process is a personal one… extremely individualized.

  10. i think, that in a world bombarded by so much information, that just being able to wade through stream of consciousness is a major accomplishment …
    formality, like corsets, become a habit of presentation – another arbitrary necessity that undermines the journey …
    i'm enjoying the experience of your assemblage of thoughts and words …

  11. Thanks Elisabelle, for your comment. It's exciting, isn't it, for you with a camera, for me with words, not knowing what we will find as we move along? This to me is one of the greatest pleasures.

    Brett, it's good to meet you. Thanks for the Washington post article. Unfortunately it's accurate. Recently I counted the ratio of male contributors to females in the Australian Best Essays for 2001 and 2003, the two copies I had with me there in my library at the time. I am sad to say that in 2001 the ratio of female to male contributors stands at 14 to 48, not including the editor, Peter Craven's introduction, and the ratio for the 2003 edition stands at 9 to 43, not including Peter Craven's introduction. Maybe men are better at writing essays than women, but I wonder about that. Ho Hum.

    Angela, I'm that way inclined myself, more than one project on the go at once, but it can become overwhelming, too much to do in too little time. Still somehow we always manage. They call it multi-tasking don't they? Though I take it here you're talking about creative projects.

    I imagine your studio would be a fantastic place to visit. Artist's studios are more interesting I suspect than writer's spaces, where most of the stuff gets hidden in books. Though I agree with you about the images on walls and the surrounding nic nacs. They can tell you so much about the artist/writer/photographer.

    Thanks, Paul for your kind words. I love the business of stream of consciousness, as I said earlier to Elisabelle – what a great name, I wish it were mine – it's wonderful not knowing where you are going until and sometimes even after you get there.

    And thank you, Mim, for your comment. I like the idea that my pieces 'shine'. I worry too often that they are flat and dull.

    I'm glad, too, that you mention the value of straight lines. I'm sure they have their place, as do most things. We need diversity.

  12. I think I have to take issue with Jim: you can have structure without straight lines. The double helix is a structure. There is a great deal of helpful guidance in your post, I think, not least your daughter's not to rote learn speeches.

  13. How extraordinarily well you write, Elizabeth. I started here on this post, my jaw dropping further toward the floor as I read. Continuing on to the 'Self Portrait' post, I found myself whispering 'wow, wow, WOW!'. A somewhat vacuous expression of awe I know, but I couldn't help it….I was bowled over, blown away. It isn't often that one comes across a blog that is so well written that one finds oneself gibbering in stunned delight – it's akin to the feeling you get when discovering a new author when you thought that you'd finally read everything in the entire world that was worth reading… Wonderful! Now I'm off to make a fresh cup of coffee which I will sip contentedly as I read through more of your writing.

    I hope the new year will be sizzlingly creative for you! I look forward to following your blog journey.

  14. This is beautifully written, compelling. Even in talking about structure and the attempt to organize the chaos in your mind, you have the ability to carry, sometimes drive your reader along. There must be some kind of structure in that, while not neccessarily linear, it provides a road that gets us to a place that elicits an "Ah, that was really good!"

  15. I like the idea of "fresh spirit" for the new year. The simplicity of that phrase just hits me right where I needed a jolt today, on the snowiest, most wintry day of the year. Thanks, Elisabeth.

  16. Elisabeth,
    First your hair. Interesting that you had straight hair and then in your thirties you had curls. I had straight, very straight hair until one day when I was fifteen, it started being wavy. Now I have waves all over. I am growing my hair long finally. I had short hair for a long time because I could not stand the waves.

    I read your post this morning, I tried to comment but the x-ray tech called me before I could publish and my blackberry lost it's signal inside the x-ray room. Oh well, I am sure you are interested in my mundane affairs. Hahaha!

    Your post, I kept, thinking to myself "Oh that is a good point!" I'll comment on this and then I read another and another, pretty soon I read every word you wrote. I have to be honest, I have given up visiting blogs unless they are art blogs except for three or four but you captivate me with your writing. I love the way you write!

    I don't think structure demands straight lines and angles, very seldom does a drawing of mine have very straight lines and angles yet there it is a series of very short lines and thousands of squiggles and I've created structured chaos! Hah!

    However, yes, my house which is my refuge is structuraly sound, thank goodness they used a level and t-squares etc. or did they? Some of my cabinets do not close properly.

    I am like you. There has to be a certain level of acceptable mess that can still support the flow of creativity.

    Lovely meeting you Elisabeth. I would like to return if you don't mind.

  17. Thanks, Dave. You're right about being able to have structure without straight lines. I think of a central psychoanalytic concept, that of container: the idea of mother as the first container. A container in my mind and imagination is pretty well always round or at last curved. Curved surfaces have a softness that straight lines lack. They can nevertheless provide structure.

    Thanks, Tessa, for your kind. Structure and balance are clearly related and both as you suggest difficult to attain. Maybe it's true what others have told me, that the writing itself finds its own form and we need not try too hard to impose it. It comes out of the ordering of both our conscious and more importantly our unconscious minds.

    I think you're right, Kass, as I said above to Tessa. There is structure there often but we cannot see it as we work. It's only later after the event, for me sometimes well after the event that a sort of order becomes apparent.

    Thanks John. I heard on the news today that you folks on the other side of the world are enduring your worst winter in was it thirty or forty years. It sounds frightening. We have not yet hit sweltering temperatures yet. They are around the corner. The extremes are always frightening, times when we wonder: will we survive? It is important then to keep up our spirit.

    Thaks, Ces. I'm glad we share the acceptable mess level of existence and that like mess our hair is curly. Not that curly hair needs be messy, but the fashion here st least in more recent times has been for dead straight hair.

    Perhaps we defy fashion. Who wants to be fashionable anyhow? Too much fashion is like too much mess, or its opposite, too much order, it stifles. We need optimal levels of all these things, as you suggest.

    Thanks for your kind words.

  18. Elisabeth – there is always a balance between free form and structure. It is well and good to plan, to have straight lines and edges, forms and vessels to pour our spirits into – but they do not define us. And while they help us express our creativity in ways that others may understand better, they are not creativity themselves. We look to these boxes to create balance, not to pour our hearts into and then close the lids.

    May your 2010 be wildly productive, passionate, and a spontaneous mess of well-planned adventures.

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