3.1 Until Death Do Us Part

1978 – resplendent in my hand-knitted jumper and already fascinated with writing

The word discipline is a loaded one for me. I realised earlier this week, while out walking the dog in the bush, that discipline is synonymous with punishment for me. Between discipline and punishment is coercion and fear. Not surprising, as an extremely sensitive and shy child, I was very very good and avoided getting into trouble. The model child. I didn’t like conflict. I hated yelling. I was undone by the perpetual state of terror of ‘wait til your father gets home’ on occasions where I found myself on the wrong side of right, thanks to a younger sister adept in lying and manipulating adults. And being hit demolished me – especially because my parents never hit in anger, so corporeal punishment came with a waiting period which was often more devastating than the actual physical act.

Not surprisingly any writing advice that talks about ‘discipline ’ immediately and permanently isolates me from any wisdom that it may contain, because the small girl in me hears discipline and makes a conscious choice not to invite in coercion, fear, shame or physical pain. Can’t say I blame her.

Discipline is a demand to follow; it is a training in obedience from an external source that demands capitulation and a forgoing of sovereignty. Discipline is an overt act of control, and for someone hell bent on choosing her own path, you know where I’m going to tell  discipline to stick itself.

ORIGINS

But if we look at the origins of the word discipline, to the Latin root discere, the heart of the word is ‘learn’. We discipline as a branch of knowledge in higher learning and in the case of disciple someone who follows (one could argue, from the heart) with the intent to learn from a mentor, leader or teacher.

So what of learning or following from your heart when it comes to the personal experience of parking your arse to put words down, if you’re someone who wants to flip discipline the bird?

COMMITMENT

For me, commitment is where the passion meets purpose meets practice meets productive output. Not discipline. Commitment asks me to make a conscious choice and stick to it. Yes, it sounds like discipline, but the locus is internal. The pay off is joy of achievement. The joy of collaboration. Or simply the joy of exploration.

I have always said that writing is my first and greatest love affair. I adore it. I am dedicated to it. I love it deeply. I am indebted to it. I’m committed to it. But like human love affairs, we fall in and out of favour. It requires work. Attention. Time. Energy. Prioritisation. And I am okay with that. I remember. I forget. There are better days, there are worse days. The sun rises and the sun sets. But like souls dancing a karmic pas de deux, we eventually find our way back to each other to begin again regardless of the hard time we fall on.

THE DAILY BREATH

In January, I made the unprecedented decision to commit to a yearly project that would see me produce a piece of cut-up poetry every day. In the past, I have kept away from anything with a ‘daily’ attached to it. ‘Daily’ screams of discipline and its handmaiden ‘routine’. I have recognised myself as a cyclic creative who produces best in wild bursts of original output, with (often long) fallow periods following. The idea of doing something every day has, until this year, felt like a slow death.

Then the idea for The Daily Breath landed and invited me in to learn new about my capacity for commitment, love, creativity, joy and putting myself first. The Daily Breath is a poem-a-day-for-a-year project that I put in motion, first and foremost for myself as a small precious dawn enclave. Each morning I get up, make a cup of tea and then set about building a poem for the day (it often includes making the postcard the poem goes on). The Daily Breath is kind of like a stretch goal from last year, where I collaboratively completed The Red Thread of Fate across 141 days, followed by another of 63 days of Beauty of Oracle.

The Mechanics of Commitment

I’ve learned quite a bit over the last 80 days about the mechanics of commitment:

  • Only commit to what brings joy, inspiration and terrified-excitement to push beyond the comfort zone and release any assumptions about what it looks like or what is asks of you.
  • Once committed, share with just enough people to create a support network and cheer squad to listen and hold space when things get rough.
  • Ask others to commit alongside you by inviting the people who love your work as much as you do to enter into a fair exchange to engage with your work.
  •  Actually be committed. Do whatever it takes to make you turn up. Prioritise it. Make time and space. Follow through to the end by simply taking one step at a time.
  • Be committed from a place of ease. Make it easy. Be organised. Don’t take it too seriously. Have fun. Surrender. And then surrender again.
  • Celebrate the high points and learn from the rough patches. Ensure it is a growth experience from start to finish by being open the whole way to how it can act as a catalyst for transformation.

IN CONCLUSION

I have already experienced the crushing devastation of thinking I hate something I loved only a few weeks earlier, and the ecstatic rush of discovering I did still love it a few weeks later. I have cut up Angela Carter, Thoreau and Italo Calvino. I have hand-cut and made over 60 postcards. I’m about to complete the third chapter (month) and ready to crack the spine on a new book and shuffle a new set of postcards.

I may have made a commitment to a poem-a-day-for-a-year, but no two poems are the same and every day is a brand new adventure waiting for me because of this. The sun rises, and the sun sets and for the next 280 odd days, it’s very much the love and devotion aspect of ‘until death do us part’.

Poem One – In the Beginning
Analogue | Illustration: Scruffy the Tugboat | Source Text: Adam, One Morning, Italo Calvino
Poem Two – Memories of Walden
Analogue | Photo: Rus VanWestervelt | Source Text: Walden, Thoreau
Poem Three – Nights With Remedios
Digital | Artwork: Remedios Varo | Source Text: Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
Poem Four – Doorways (1)
Analogue | Photo: Doors Calendar | Source Text: The World and Other Places, Jeanette Winterson

Words As… Fictions-of-the-Self

The feelings are intense and unexpected; the crushing grief, pain and longing. And rising beside it, equally unexpected, is a voice that refuses to be repressed: words, sentences and whole paragraphs form in my head as I rush to gather my laptop and exit the house. I’m well and truly on my way to an old haunt to write before the logic part of my brain can catch up and say: you don’t write from emotional anguish.

My logic brain needs a gentle redirect on that thought: I don’t usually write from emotional anguish. I’ve never been one to thrive in discord, in drama or instability. That is why I was so discombobulated in the middle of February when this happened to me. It was one thing to be suffocated by emotion, but it was another to find myself simultaneously wildly spiralling in a creative updraft. As it turned out, I arrived at the top to a different kind of suffocation, I had flown so high into my own creative atmosphere I had a kind of reality hypoxia. The mix of large amounts of coffee, emotion and creative immersion turned out to be a heady but not particularly kind mix.

Last week, my partner handed me his collection of Aphra Behn’s work (the first female to make a living as a writer). The introduction included a dissection of the originating body of criticism leveled at her as an author, based in the fact she was not ‘truthful’ in her writing; she apparently made large omissions about the crossover of her real life with the fictional lives she penned. It was the kind of literary cross-examination her male peers were not subjected to and detracted from the actual substance, breadth and importance of her work.

As writers we are forever at the mercy of readers’ assumptions about the intersections of fiction and reality and how they may (or may not) intersect with the real life of the author. I know I have on more than one occasion been guilty of this – wondering what real event, or actual person sparked or informed what I’ve read. To be a reader is to flirt with the temptation to be a literary tracker, trying to identify the emotional and biographical footprints in fiction. I know I leave them behind in my work, usually unconsciously. However, the fiction I sat to write two days after Valentines Day wasn’t the accidental infiltration of something subliminal rising through my story – this was an intentional act of fiction as comfort, as witness and as a safe place to land. It was fiction-of-the-self.

Until I discover it, I forget I have written it. I come across it by accident re-arranging items in a wardrobe. Here, in the back of this massive hardback day-to-a-page diary from 1987, is me trying to write my way through trauma I can’t write in a journal and can’t share with my friends. It unfolds in my perfect teenage printing; a wish fulfilment version of my life in late 1989, only it’s kind of fan fiction-esque writing, taking my existing life and rewriting it ever so slightly to fictionalise it. I don’t think to erase the trauma though. Instead I am trying to navigate through it. Reading it, I choke up; there is such sadness and despair in that prison of shame and guilt and pain I was trying to write my way out of. But there’s also the glimmer of strength and tenacity which would eventually see me through to the other side 25 years later.

Virginia Woolf once wrote: let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. I don’t believe emotional pain is any less. While I have been a dedicated journal writer since 2014, and have credited a lot of my emergence from the dark years of depression to spending time every day at the page –  in contemplation and in bare-faced honesty – there is something entirely different about intentionally using fiction-of-self to engage with emotional pain, and attempt to transmute and transcendent its overwhelming nature.

Even after I opened up to talk to my friends and began to share my trauma, when silence was no longer a co-warden in my experience, there was something that remained missing. In leaning into the trauma via fiction-of-the-self, I found solace. Something no amount of hand-holding, or hugging, shared tears and outrage, conversations or quiet space were able to provide. There was something in the fantasy world where I deliberately wove words around my pain that allowed the unbearable to become bearable.

At the end of the session I can barely breathe. I check and double check what has poured out of me, change a few paragraphs around. Gently rewrite a few sections, but for the most part I leave it as it has disgorged. It is raw and beautiful. In an act of sheer bravery (or stupidity) I copy and paste what I have written into emails to three of my most trusted friends and literary allies. It is almost a way of trying to give voice to what I am struggling to give voice to – how absolutely fucked this pain is, the emptiness within like a black hole and how my memory is already distorting.

The following weekend the same voice rises up in me and I repeat the ritual of café and coffee and writing, despite my misgivings. After the initial purge, and the comfort and solace I found amid the words – both inside and outside of my pain – I am unsure if I want to return and inhabit the space. I am unsure if this is unhealthy and a way of prolonging the pain; of remaining inside stories I really need to let go of. But I trust the call, because the voice is insistent. And I write.

What comes out is subtly different. There is unexpected space between myself and the narrator. At the end of the session (and I can almost laugh at myself when I parse these experiences as ‘sessions’) I see there is a divergence, both in path and voice. Though we share a very similar emotion experience and my experience has connected me to her narrative, we are not traveling the same narrative any more.

The following weekend I return and again, the degrees of separation expand; she is definitely no longer me, she has a name, belongs to a world that is not mine and has a mission I’d never accept. Georgie now has the potential to be something other than fucked up fan fiction of my own life.

There’s distance now, but re-entering Georgie’s world is a potential invitation to re-enter my pain, despite the obvious separation, and I remain undecided if this is where I am willing to go. My teenage self was invested in her narratives in a way I am not. And that’s not to denigrate her – rather than to honour her for knowing how to access what she needed, when every other avenue was closed to her.

Fiction-of-the-self does not subjugate or cauterise the wounding. It offers space for the pain to breath, to be, to gentle itself. It is a compassionate invitation into the embrace of solace, especially when there is no immediate relief available. It is perhaps the rawest and most intimate engagement with writing, because as writer and reader of, we are both within and beyond, autobiographer and weaver of fictions, voyeur and vicarious traveler through narratives we wish had never been written.

Raw and unrevised
A Pearl Threaded #1
A Pearl Threaded #2