Wednesday, July 22, 2015

For you

I stopped writing things for you around the time the baby died and my mum fell over, drunk, and broke her hip.

These things happened on the same day, but my mum lay on the floor for 48 hours and when I called she, answering from her faded pink carpet, told me not to come over. The little boy was long gone by then, and the whole world knew it.

From then on it seemed like there was nothing much to say. No point in saying anything.

He wasn’t really a baby, but he was. A tender thing, all round limbs and skin like silk. They all are. Not yet two. I didn’t know him, had only seen him once or twice. Held him in my arms when he was too young to crawl, sitting down because I’m not a mum and have to take great care in holding a baby.

On one hand, it doesn’t make any sense, logically, to be obliterated by the death of a stranger. On the other hand, obliterated seems the only logical thing to be. We’re talking about a new life. The fleeting pulse beneath that silky skin. Hope personified. We’re talking about a world-ending loss for the left-behind.

I couldn’t stop that. None of us could. And when my mother came back from the hospital with her walking frame and her painkillers, I couldn’t stop her drinking, either. The whole deal, the whole month of March, became a terrifying thing. Suffocating. All I wanted was to get away from those days.

I had a dream the other night — a vision, really, because I wasn’t asleep. I was on a beach holding a grain of sand in my palm, and holding it out toward the ocean like an offering. Holding that single grain as if it was important, even though I was on a beach, surrounded by sand. It was wet beneath my feet. Then I looked up to the horizon and saw the tsunami coming.

Words can’t change anything. Actions are what matter, deeds. These are irrevocable, and they hold the truth. They are the truth.

Writing is an action. It seems important to keep writing for you in spite of the pointlessness of the words. So I’m trying.

Friday, June 5, 2015

On love and writing

Very rarely, but occasionally, I like to read an article about “content creation” on the “internet” to find out what the cool kids are advocating these days.

Turns out, according to a recent instalment from ye olde Content Marketing Institute (which I'm not going to link to — too depressing), it’s the same old, same old. These kinds of articles really are just lessons in human manipulation. Because, after all, that’s what copywriting is, right? The “creation” of “authentic content” that “resonates” so much that the reader is incapable of resisting your carefully “crafted” “CTA”?

My first thought on reading this piece was, Jesus God, did I ever write something like this? Something that prescribed manipulation and gave readers the precision tools (if not the talent) to do it? Christ I hope not.

My second thought was, thank fuck I’m not in that world.

As far as I can work out, writing things is about touching people. Empathy. It’s that simple. You want to create a connection? Try putting yourself in their shoes. Try putting your own arse on the line. Try putting yourself into whatever you’re writing.

That’s it.

Perhaps I’m wrong. I don’t work at Buzzfeed. I don’t have a blogging empire or write for HBO. These are the modern measures of writerly success, aren’t they? So maybe I’m kidding myself.

Recently, a stranger said to me, “You’re a writer? You can help me! I want to write about my life, and pass on what I’ve learned to other people. I’ve had such gifts! But I don’t want what I write to sound vain. I don’t want people to think I’m writing out of vanity.”

You’d be surprised how many people tell you they need your help when you say you’re a writer. It’s as if you, dressed up in your printerly black and white, can absolve them of their natural blemishes, the quirks in their character that make them who they are, and present their purest self to the world exactly as they intend.

I said to this guy, Listen. If you’re not writing from vanity, and you write your story from the heart — if you write it honestly — it won’t come across as vain. That will be impossible.

Someone else said to me recently of cooking, “It’s always good if you do it with love.” I’d say it’s only good if you do it with love.

The same goes for writing. The same goes for life.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How it happens

This is how it happens. You start off writing a story that's intended to be something formed, formulated. Planned and objective. You have a goal.

But whatever's happening, in the real world, I mean, inevitably taints what you say. Maybe it's not clear up front, but it's there beneath the surface. And as you polish each sentence, the grain of those happenings becomes clearer and clearer. It skews your pretty plans. It mocks your good intentions until the story is nothing like you'd imagined.

Here are a couple of excerpts.

For these people, the world had an order, an unbendable logic that left no room for anomalies. There were immutable laws—men, sweat and hats; women and their silences; work; and the way the days turned over, year on year.

And one more.

Sanders’ wife was setting down fresh plates of bread and butter. He took a slice and thanked her. She smiled, but said nothing. He moved to the far end of the table and made a cup of tea. Then he turned to the west, to the saw-toothed ridge of hills that rose like a wave of nightmare against the sky.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Two conversations and the meaning of life

Two conversations:

In the first, a friend who's a dad tells me he can't believe how much time people without kids waste. He looks back now at the unfulfilled potential of his pre-parental years with longing.

In the second, a friend who's not a dad tells me he worries about being 60 and having "nothing" if he doesn't have children. Having nothing? Being nothing. The two seemed interchangeable.

I've thought about these conversations a lot. The real question here, of course, seems to be the tried-and-true perennial query: what is the meaning of life? But perhaps more specifically, and more helpfully, it's: where will you find meaning?

Well, where?

It's good to be hungry, but hunger's no good without an object. You may not achieve the thing that gives your life meaning, but to at least know what that thing is is a meaning in itself.

For me, it's connection. Belonging. To understand and be understood.

Others, though, are (even) more ambitious. The goals are more concrete, the meaning far more tangible. Measurable. Objective. Populating the world with offspring. Owning certain things. Earning a certain amount. Reaching a certain "level" or "place" or "status". As if any of these things was a measure of our worth.

I'm lucky. For me, it's much simpler.

Right now I have a friend narrowly escaping cancer, another whose family member is the subject of a nation-wide police hunt. One wrestling with PTSD and unemployment, and another with Biploar 2 and a slowly but dramatically imploding family. I have others learning to be with new babies, new pets, new jobs, new homes, new partners.

Being with these people—being inspired by them, learning from them, belonging with them—is everything.

Maybe you're thinking, "Oh, but it's not an achievement, though. You're not contributing anything to the world by doing that."

I would strenuously disagree.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Reading beyond your means

Reading seems like the ultimate adventure: every book is a new story. Someone recommends something; you give it a try. You go the library; you come back with armloads of new goodies.

I grew up in a household that seemed to champion fiction. Only years later did I realise they were all non-fiction lovers also. And poetry, and mythology, and on and on and on.

Over time, though, it's all too easy to develop reading prejudices. Subtle ones, but prejudices all the same. Authors we can never get into. Genres we think are weird or boring. Entire national literary canons that bewilder us. And when the going gets tough, there's the old catch-cry: If you're not enjoying it, stop reading. Life's too short.

Last year I read Derek Bickerton's latest, which contained at least one entire chapter that was literally beyond my understanding. I read it cover to cover the first time. The second, I left out the grammar chapter and got far less sidetracked. Should I have avoided the difficulty altogether the first time? Hell no. They're just words on a page, and I speak English. I read it, and although I understood little, I really believe that what we glean from such challenges adds up.

I know this from reading science magazines. When I started reading New Scientist, the thought of reading an article on physics made me want to set something on fire. But New Scientist makes things pretty accessible. So I gave it a go, and over time I came if not to understand physics, to at least get a clearer picture of how some things fit together in the world. Now I'm into Scientific American, and the principle still holds.

I know it also from reading authors like Jared Diamond, Hilary Mantel, John North. If you try, you can learn. If you don't, you won't.

I don't want to understand everything I read. I want always to be reading beyond my intellectual means.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

On not being a parent (Or: No dessert till you've finished everything on that plate)

"No one tells you about the hard stuff!"

I've heard this from more than a few new mothers recently and each time I've been astonished.

Everyone tells me about the hard stuff. New mums, new dads: they're not holding back. Perhaps it's because they know I don't want children of my own, so they can't scare me off.

For the record, and for all the misty-eyed would-be mums and dads out there, here's an inventory of the hard stuff managed by my immediate circle of friends before, during and after birth:
  • inability to conceive, leading to multiple rounds of IVF
  • miscarriage and in one case mishandling of ensuing medical procedure
  • dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy 
  • baby dies at term
  • induced birth
  • emergency caesarean (usually after endless hours of labour)
  • vaginal tearing and cutting
  • prolapse
  • post-birth haemorrhage requiring emergency surgery
  • "baby" is in fact twins
  • baby born with physical defects requiring surgical attention
  • baby suffers seizures within hours of birth
  • mastitis
  • mother produces no or insufficient milk
  • baby has difficulties learning to suckle
  • baby refuses bottle
  • weaning issues
  • sleeping problems (in some cases, but not all, ameliorated by sleep school)
  • post-natal depression, in one case requiring hospitalisation
  • child has Asperger's syndrome
  • mother develops conditions during pregnancy that require surgery after the birth
  • parents find relationship problems emerge between them in the months immediately after child is born.
And in the case of my close friends' families and close friends:
  • baby is born months premature
  • baby sustains brain damage during birth and dies within weeks
  • baby dies of sudden infant death syndrome.
Seriously. People. These aren't extreme cases; every parent reading that list will be thinking, well, of course. 

I hear these kinds of stories all the time. So how is it that so many would-be parents are missing out on the news? Are new mums and dads really keeping the challenges under their hats? Really?

Needless to say, this is just the beginning. After the baby arrives and weans and starts being a little human, there are all manner of challenges, and these, too seem to surprise the parents more than they do me. I've developed a separate theory as to why this is, thanks in part to a friend who once told me how she wished she was still a kid because her parents took care of everything and her life was just fun, fun, fun! No responsibility! If only she could have stayed a kid forever...

My theory is that if you enjoyed childhood, your parents probably did a pretty good job of coping. They probably managed quite well not to let show how very hard (a.k.a. sometimes downright excruciating) it is to be a parent. And so perhaps you think kids are basically fun, because you basically had fun being one.

My parents did a poor job of coping, so I got a very good sense of how hard it can be. How difficult it is to balance the competing needs of everyone in the household, and to sustain a supportive, loving family. From what I can tell it's basically a minute-by-minute challenge.

So I never expect kids to be basically fun, either in person or in theory. I expect whatever fun there is to be mixed in with a tonne of other emotions that are far less exciting and inspiring, that are much more taxing, that require proactive, hands-on, entirely conscious, very deliberate parental management. 

I'm not saying that, overall, parenting isn't positive or inspiring; I'm just agreeing that no, it's not easy. No one tells you about the hard stuff? Ask your parents.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A certain line of enquiry

I read a little something on stories today that you might like.

The especial quote?

"The best way to ask a question is to answer it yourself first. "My experience is this, what's yours?" That way you're not asking for anything you wouldn't disclose yourself. ...Telling a story gives you the right to ask for one in return. It constantly surprises me how little people seem to understand this. How some people ask questions like they're throwing hammers."

Just days ago I told someone:

"People tell others how they feel as a means to solicit the same kind of thing back: I'll be vulnerable first so you won't feel shy about doing it too."

People ask questions like they're throwing hammers. To me it feels like throwing hammers to ask direct questions, but I was beginning to think that was ridiculous, oversensitive, crazy. Perhaps it is kind of indirect to offer information as a means of enquiry. Perhaps I should work up my throwing arm... I read this letter just as I was reaching for the free weights.

There was also this, which speaks enormous volumes to me:

"[Lies are] especially hard for me because I live in words. I love words. I believe the words we choose are a lossy formatted version of our truest thoughts and feelings. And the right words, at the right time, can change lives."

Change lives? On the one hand this may seem ludicrously idealistic. But on the other?

Don't we spend the entirety of our speaking lives using dialogue to seek connection, understanding, sense, answers, truths? Don't we spend our verbal existences longing to find—and to hear—the right words?

Those are rhetorical questions. You don't need to answer them.