By Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
It was inevitable, I suppose, that the first Southerly blog post of 2014 should involve the dreaded topic of the New Year’s Resolution (and in line with most people’s resolutions, mine is being put into practice now, after I’ve, erm, had a chance to get a feel for the upcoming year). Resolutions often involve quantitative changes that we hope will lead to qualitatively attractive outcomes.
Cutting down on cigarettes involves subtracting a concrete number of gaspers from the currently consumed amount, but the benefits – the increased volume of oxygen in the breath, the return to the nostrils of sensual odours like summer fruit and frangipani, the number of stairs one can bound up before wheezily collapsing – are, although scientifically quantifiable, generally perceived in terms of a wholistic ‘enhanced lifestyle enjoyment’ package.
Likewise, the actual free time gained due to less bickering with co-workers, relatives, frenemies or partners is not the main prompt to consume less (or no) standard drinks per interminable family or collegial get-together (or exhausting evening of parenting small children). A Vaseline-smeared lens reveals the soft, glowing, broadly-defined outline of a ‘better person’; physically, emotionally, and perhaps most important for some, morally.
No surprise, really – the lessening or removal of a favourite vice, particularly if it’s a physically addictive and thus most likely destructive one, never seems a sufficient reward in itself to compensate for the immediate and daily pangs of loss.
What about writing and the New Year? Second perhaps only to those involved in the fitness industry, whether as hobby or job, writers (again, both amateur and professional) are (perhaps obviously) very keen to publicise both their own resolutions, and lists of suitable resolutions for others. As well as the added pressure of public commitment to a goal, there is always the possibility of increased web-traffic flow around one’s name – a must, I am told, in this marketability-driven age. A Google search of ‘writers new years resolutions’ (the apostrophes of possession were confusing the issue) gets well into the thirteenth page before the tangential (i.e. posts that are really about cats) starts to take over.
The intangible, soft-focus advice basically boils down to this: ‘think of yourself as a real writer’. Walk in the woods. Muse on the journey of the autumn leaf. Nuzzle the ground under the nearest oak tree, imagining the rich, earthy smell of a prize truffle. (Previous Southerly blogger Kathryn Heyman mentions a similar set of activities used as prompts for writing exercises, but here I am referring to the idea of inhabiting the senses, making metaphorical connections between the world and the self before pen ever touches paper.) The quantifiable, on the other hand, involves setting hard targets, whether hours or words per day, number of submissions in circulation at any given time, or projects completed per year.
Most advisors, many of them published authors, seem to concur that diligence in the latter arena will lead to solid outcomes in the former. No one suggests giving up writing for the New Year. No great surprise there: all over the interwebs, in the blogosphere, sparkling throughout the twitterverse in great self-affirmatory clusters are the insights, the lived experiences, the inspirational, if occasionally misapplied, quotes that tell us to stay on the path; that we will manifest what we truly believe or desire; that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Bullshit!
Just as in most other scenarios, applying this kind of linear rhetoric to the writing process, or the process of being a writer, is reductive and probably downright false. The quantifiable act of pumping out a certain number of words per day is not necessarily going to trigger emotional or mental trauma. It is at the other pole, the qualitative zone, that of ‘thinking of yourself as a real writer’ that distress is likely to occur. I’ve been there. And I’ve consciously given up writing on more than one occasion, feeling that the pain of its production wasn’t worth the outcomes. Inevitably, though, I’ve taken it up again, generally using academia as a framework to compel me to perform.
The suggestion of the ‘strength’ gained through struggle with difficult situations is that it somehow mitigates the cost of its own gaining. And yet, people, writers a prominent group among them, might gain and gain and gain the strength born of trauma and catharsis only to eventually meet that one final hurdle which is too much to take. For the many writers who have taken their own lives over the centuries, has the act of writing been a salve or a goad, or a strange mix of both – essential to daily existence, yet poisonous over time? ‘Real writers’, we often are told, bear witness to unnamable horrors, whether lived or imagined; reveal to us their dark places so that we can make them our own. When Kathryn Heyman, in her blog post of December 23 speaks of ‘the fear that you’ll touch something, once you start to write, which might open you up so terribly that you’ll never be put together again’, I think she homes in on a key cause (for me at any rate) of the struggle and tension that animates both the author and the written text. ‘Without courage’ she goes on to ask, ‘how is it possible for a writer to face the truth? And truth is the cornerstone of good writing’.
The extent to which I find my current preoccupations mirrored in Heyman’s posts of the past weeks has come as a surprise, and also serves as an example of my strange ambivalence toward my craft. On excitedly accepting the offer to be this month’s blogger, I vacillated wildly between wanting to memorise the content of the last few months’ blogs and not wanting to look at them at all, torn between the poles of ‘getting the tone right’, and wanting to present a unique, unmodulated voice.
For someone in my position, a not so young but very much still emerging ‘writer’ (whatever that may be) these are concerns associated with writing publicly in the nonetheless enclosed arena of an Australian literary community forum. But I know that this is a step I need to take. It is part of ‘thinking of myself as a real writer’, not so much because of the dialogue it might provoke within the community (although this is something I am very hopeful of) but because it involves thinking honestly about what my own praxis, such as it is, means to me.
And this, finally, coming down the home straight towards the [end of the] post brings me to the beginning of a theme that will rise and fall through the following entries – the complicated relationship between writers, truth and language. What is ‘truthful’ writing? Is it the gritty, factual recount of a harrowing scene, or the perfect word set evoking the author’s desired emotions in the reader as in Eliot’s objective correlative (more on which next post). Is the truth something that language can tell? And in today’s age of multiplicitous forms, how important is the writing act? For the slam poet, the electronic literature writer and the print novelist, they might be very different things, occupying very different places in the creation of the finished piece.
Oh, and my New Year’s resolution? It’s not to make a plan, or to write more, but to focus on processing and feeling; on living a writerly life by thinking in and through language; learning to deal with the discomfort that can be part of not just trying to tell the ‘truth’, but trying to work out what that ‘truth’ actually is. Even more importantly, it is to try and recognise that perhaps this feeling of ambivalence towards one’s own craft is not something that needs to be resolved, but could be accepted and incorporated into future work.
All images (except rose) generated by the What Would I Say? Facebook App (what-would-i-say.com/). These bot generated statuses are part of a current poetry project.