How books are made.

The dentist did not send us a
reminder of our half yearly visit this year and I have used it as an excuse to
avoid the visit.  Even though I
know in the back of my mind that I should call for an appointment, I use the
dentist’s failure to send out a reminder as an excuse to avoid doing what I
know I must eventually do.  
signed up for the Keiser weight training though, that’s a tick in the box of
the doing-things-good-for-you category, but for the dentist and the rest I
can’t claim much success.  The rest
being all those other jobs I put off until I must get them done, the washing,
report writing, cleaning out cupboards, but I will get there. 
Procrastination I call it, the
demon of progress.  My greatest
avoidance is to immerse myself in the book I tell myself I am writing.  Actually it’s written, mostly, only I
must put it together, make the pieces into a whole, and eliminate that which is
I joined a class recently, six
sessions,  to help us produce a manuscript, and Lee Kofman who takes this class gave me the task of working on my structure, at least four hours a
week.  Lee knows how much I hate
Even the word sends shivers through
me.  I gather that structure is
like a skeleton on which the flesh of the story hangs, but then I think of what
Julian Barnes has Flaubert say to us in his novel, Flaubert’s Parrot:
Books aren’t
made in the way that babies are made: they are made like pyramids.  There’s some long pondered plan, and
then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s
back-breaking, sweaty time-consuming work.  And all to no purpose! 
It just stands like that in the desert!  But it towers over it prodigiously.  Jackals piss at the base of it and
bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc.
I lack structure, I entirely lack
structure through out my life.  The
obvious example to me comes in my approach to housework.  I might start to tidy up the kitchen sink,
put dishes in the dishwasher, wipe nearby benches, but as I stand stacking and
wiping a thought will come into my mind about what needs doing elsewhere or an
object will appear in my line of vision that needs to be put somewhere else and I
will traipse up through the hallway to the bedroom or bathroom or wherever and
while in this new room I will see something else that needs attention, the
bathroom cupboard calls for re-arranging for instance, and I will work on
this.  Pathetic really.
I hold my experience of my father
responsible.  My father may have
been a man of structure but he passed none of it down to me.
 The man of structure even as underneath the neatness he was beginning to fall apart.  
When my daughters complain about
writing an essay, their father will insist they come up with a plan first of
all.  Then he will urge them to
work on a beginning, a middle and an end. 
Say what you are going to say, say it and then say what you’ve
said.  Simple. Hey presto – a
typical academic essay. 
To me it’s boring, but if I had
learned this, whether from my father or from the nuns at school, I might not be
in trouble with this book as I am today. 
I do not plan anything in this way,
not anything written.  No, I simply
plunge in where the fancy takes me and I wind up with many possible beginnings,
several chunky middles and an occasional ending, but they do not necessarily
fit well together.   I
cannot get the form.  As Julian Barnes writes:
Form isn’t an
overcoat flung over the flesh of thought (that old comparison, old in
Flaubert’s day); it’s the flesh of thought itself.  You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form
without an Idea.  Everything in Art
depends on execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of
Alexander.  You must write
according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything
else go hang, when a line is good, it ceases to belong to any school.  A line of prose must be as immutable as
a line of poetry.
Blogging is the perfect medium for
me because it can be more chaotic than a novel.  My only structure is the weekly post.  The rest I leave up to chance.  And chance is a fickle creature,
sometimes she offers wondrous gifts and at other times, a load of crap.  

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.