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.

Identity and the tyranny of self doubt

One of my brothers alerted me to several relatives in Holland who have made contact with him through Facebook. Presumably they knew to make contact with him because of their shared second name.

Once again, I was saddened by my concealed identity, hidden by my married name.

More and more as I grow older, I resent the loss of my maiden name. Not just my maiden name, but the name of so many other women from my past who married and then seemingly disappeared from the world of possible connections.

Every time I try to befriend someone on Facebook who travels under my father’s family name, my so-called maiden name, I need to identify myself as a Schooneveldt and not some random stranger who’s approaching them for friendship, as if an unwanted spammer.

A number of people have asked me why I don’t assume a false identity online so as not to create problems associated with my other roles in life, as a writer, as a therapist, and given my familial ties with some people preferring that all things family stay offline and some friends likewise.

But if I assumed a false persona wouldn’t I have to give all the ‘real’ people in my life a false identity too, not that I identify people online unless they’re in the public domain. Still after a while it all gets too hard.

I prefer to start from the point of myself as a real person, however many identities I might assume under that guise.

And maybe it’s just a rationalisation, but as Margaret Atwood writes ‘All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read.’

Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication. She’s talking here about published books and their authors but maybe the same could be said of blogs and so much writing that appears online.

In the immediacy of a chat room or on Twitter or Facebook, maybe it’s safe to assume the words and the person who typed them are one and the same, but the very fact of writing them changes things.

Nothing stands still even as words on a page can appear fixed. Once read by another person those written words can shift around. They’re open to different interpretations and perspectives even after they’re published.

We all imagine the words differently.

Identity is like this, too. It’s fluid. It shifts and sways and refuses to stay put.

I hesitated to post these meandering thoughts until I read Adam Phillips “Against Self-Criticism” from his book Unforbidden Pleasures. (Thanks Christine Brett Vickers for putting me onto this.

If you’re anything like me, these words might give you the courage you need to go on in defiance of that ‘obscene superego’, and the internal voice that tells you to shut up.

Phillips writes:

“We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences?

Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.

Nothing makes us more critical – more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused – than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves.

But the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive.

It is cruelly intimidating – Lacan writes of ‘the obscene super-ego’ – and it never brings us any news about ourselves.

There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses – the super-ego is reiterative.

It is the stuck record of the past (‘something there badly not wrong’, Beckett’s line from Worstward Ho, is exactly what it must not say) and it insists on diminishing us. It is, in short, unimaginative; both about morality, and about ourselves.

Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel.

We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.”