Every writer has essential traveling partners to assist them on the journey: a favourite beverage, pen, notebook, playlist or perhaps something more esoteric. Here are my top three ‘not withouts’.
her blood was
red like summer roses
fragrant and in bud
is this the thread that binds me to you
wherever you go
Written on the Body #10 (Jodi Cleghorn)
In 2002, I studied medical anthropology and did a major essay on the experience of chronic pain. One of the source materials was a book called The Absent Body by Drew Leder, and his chapter ‘The Dys-appearing Body’ was an eye-opener. For the first time I thought deeply about ‘body as a silent invisible vehicle’ (this was long before ‘body as temple’) and how it is only when we are sick or injured the body ‘dys-appears’. The year previous I had spent more than six months unable to walk. While my ankle and foot eventually healed, it changed forever the way I walked (less of those long sassy strides…plus a mortal fear of walking on grass). The experience of being in my body, in the world, was forever altered. Leder’s work has persistently called me back into reviewing my relationship with my body, through the lens of physical change and illness.
For the last decade, I’ve been at varying places along the tired-exhausted spectrum—from mildly to completely incapable of functioning.
Even when my son was older and I stopped burning the candle at both ends with eMergent, some level of fatigue became my norm. Over the last decade, fatigue has ridden shotgun with many of my physical and mental health challenges: depression, anxiety, chronic pain and insomnia. I simply got used to not being full of energy and put it down to something that would go away if I mindfully managed the other core issues or was finally spat out the other side of these spiritual upgrades. Like a continually lowering affect (depression/anxiety), I learned to accommodate and habituate to persistently diminishing physical energy. As it lowered, I adjusted and adjusted and adjusted, while at the same time being hyperaware that without my body in strong, healthy functioning order, there was no way I could do the things I wanted to do: the priority of which was always writing. I believed if I kept trying to manage my mental health and chronic physical issues, the fatigue would eventually right itself.
Then it didn’t. In fact, it crashed in the most spectacular of ways over the course of a month, and I have spent the last few weeks rethinking what I know about cause and effect.
The body is an amazing ecosystem. After years of persistently ignoring the gentle (and let’s be honest, not so gentle nudges), it fired an unmissable shot across the bow—I thought I was having a heart attack, and finally I took myself off to the doctor to discover (gratefully) my heart was fine. My ferritin and iron stores, on the other hand, were the lowest my doctor had seen in a patient. “Spectacularly low,” she said to me. “No wonder you feel so rotten.”
This is the start of a new deepening into my body and my relationship with it, and how to be more responsibly* responsive to what it is telling me. Because as I have discovered (I’m actually breaking my ‘no work’ rule to pen this), without this most fundamental level of health and wellness, there is no writing. There’s no anything. In fact, I was hurtling toward something far more significant and life altering than a temporary health crisis.
Without my health—this fundamental foundational wellness—there is no spark, no life force, no impetus to create, be brave, take risks…much less what is needed in reserve to finish what I start.
Writers birth characters and create their lives—we are givers of life. This a sacred transference of life force. Without an overflowing reserve of that essential life force, there is nothing but ever deepening and eroding levels of dead, hardened, creative earth and zero energy to even try to chip into it, much less till, plant, care and prepare it for a coming harvest.
my life is not my own
I shall have to haggle
over my reality
an ordinary miracle
to believe in the obvious
loving the shell laid out
I’ve been sitting in
no longer the crude lever
beginning from a fixed perspective
Written on the Body #2 – Jodi Cleghorn
In 2007, I was talked into doing NaNoWriMo for the first time by two amazing women I was completing The Artist’s Way with. My son was 3 ½ at the time, yet to start kindergarten; while I was a SAHM, I was also doing the equivalent of a full-time job for the homebirth association here in Brisbane as a volunteer. The allure of NaNo arrived at a time in my life when there was no space for anything new—let alone a 50K manuscript. I had done nothing more than scribble a few thousand words here and there for the previous three months, and 50K felt like a marathon when I’d only just learned to walk with maybe a few dance steps when I was really brave.
But I wanted to give it a try. I wanted to see if I was up to the task. I sat down and explained what I wanted to do with my partner and son, and we made a deal: if the clothes were laundered every week and dinner appeared every night, then I could ‘clock off being Mum’ at 8:30 to sit and write. It was the first time I had specifically asked for something just for me. It turned out to be the best thing I could have done at the start of my writing career.
They held up their end of the deal. I held up mine. Despite all manner of trials and tribulations (including taking my partner to emergency with a suspected heart attack two days before the end of NaNo), I crossed (crawled/staggered?) over the 50K mark on the final day. It was a minor triumph in writing: a pretty average draft and story idea which I never returned to for completion. However, it was a major triumph for me as a writer. It cemented within my family dynamic the importance of writing, and while my family have felt abandoned at times, they have never begrudged my creativity and have always made space for me within it. No one has ever dared suggest that maybe it is getting in the way or that I should give it up (if we discount my MIL in the early days who was adamant it was getting in the way of taking ‘proper care’ of my family).
That first NaNo showed me writing and the mundane could be complimentary to each other (and we all laugh that when I am in full writing swing, the domestic landscape is a far more organised affair than usual because cooking and pegging clothes on the line are essential thinking spaces for me). It showed me that ‘writer’ was not mutually exclusive to other parts of my life.
Writing is the one aspect of the last 12 years which has been absolutely non-negotiable. It has given me something important enough to learn how to create boundaries and stick to them. It has given me a barometer for what is healthy and what is detrimental in my life, i.e., anyone or anything impeding my ability to write nor misaligned with my creative pursuits. (My former boyfriend managed to find a loop hole in the ‘limited shelf-life’ for the non-aligned…and I let him. I’ve learned the hard way, detrimental is detrimental—period!)
unreconstructed as I am
I’d rather walk through the damp
outer layers of movement
when movement indicates life
had a hole that let the rain in
because my love for myself
let the rain in
to make something
by the fire
Written on the Body #10 – Jodi Cleghorn
Stephen King talks about two types of doors in his book On Writing. There is the metaphysical door—you write with the door closed and edit with the door open. Then there is the more obvious physical door; the one to the room you write in that you shut to the world as a psychological prompt to the self to say: right, now it’s time to write. Plus, it is usually an effective way to signal to others ‘do not disturb’ (but for anyone with experience of small children, they will know a door is only a momentary obstacle to your full attention, even in the toilet).
For years I yearned for a door. If I was still writing letters to Santa for Christmas, a door would have been the top of my list for years. My at-home writing space was in a weird alcove corner of our writing room, and my away-from-home space was often a loud and crowded indoor playground. My earphones/buds became my doors. Nothing has changed, even though I now have a writing room, and it’s been years since I last graced Lollipops Indoor Play Centre.
My earbuds are essential. All the best playlists in the world or access to favourite writing music on a fully charged phone are useless without something to listen to it with. I have arrived at my favourite cafe, more times than I care to admit, to discover they’ve been left behind, destroying a much anticipated writing session. I have two pairs now in an attempt to avoid this happening.
I’ll push them in even if I am at home and everything is quiet. They are like my essential Pavlovian prompt ‘now, write’; who am I to argue with classical conditioning at its best?
*Please please please—if you have been experiencing persistent, long-term fatigue/exhaustion or generally low physical functioning without a known contributing condition, please see your doctor. It is not normal. We are here to thrive, not merely survive. The world needs us right now. Our vitality. Our equanimity in a world thrown into extremes of polarity. And as always, our words as beacons of hope in a pervading darkness.