This piece originally appeared as a post on the Southerly website, where I was guest blogging for Feb 2013.
I just heard Richard Ford tell Margaret Throsby on ABC-FM that, in writing, what writers do is make themselves smarter than they really are. He likened the creative process to a crucible, one which was hot and focused, and which made him seem smarter than he is. And this fits in perfectly with what I was thinking last night: that writing is very much about vanity, and embarrassment.
It’s always astonishing to me how little we talk, in essays, interviews, in teaching students, about the psychology and emotions of writing. Those things are what brim in us every time we sit to write. Fear, often. Glee. Pride. Astonishment and assurance. Fear again; stronger: terror. And often at the heart of all these and the other fugitive things we feel are the questions: how dare I think I can do this? And, why would I think I can’t?
I’m finding it difficult, Southerly readers, to get down to doing these guest posts, because I realise I haven’t done any writing since last September. Life has been busy since then: there was a holiday of tiring travel and then Christmas and then January torpor and February frenzy, and I just haven’t had the focus (only the remorse) and now I’m unpacking the house and it’s all I can do to find my desk under the boxes. But it’s also because I think I’m still coming down off the back of the six and a half years of writing a personal column for the Age, which ended abruptly last April, and the massive carnival ride of hubris and sheepishness, confidence and crisis that is involved in producing even a single published personal piece, and which occupied a disproportionate amount of creative energy simply in the management of so much writing-oriented emotion.
The column ran fortnightly in the A2 (later called Life&Style) Saturday section of the paper, on page 3 and then the back page, for years longer than I imagined – six and a half years more than I imagined. When Jonathan Green first rang and offered me the gig, just after my first book In My Skin came out, I was astounded. There was nothing in my idea of myself that said that I had anything to offer the public beyond the story I’d told in the book, and the tangents of discussion that came out of that story in publicity events, and even that all seemed like some ludicrous misunderstanding, half the time. You’ve made a horrible mistake, I said. Surely there’s someone else. There’s got to be. Someone actually clever. Honestly, Jonathan, I said, I’m an idiot. But he insisted I have a go. So every two weeks I would have a preliminary pee, clench a cup of coffee, swallow the fear and sit down on a Tuesday afternoon to write 750 sheepish words of me, me, meeee.
Of course I could have written about anything, but apprehension of breaking some implicit pact of confidentiality with my friends, and my total inexpertise in any other subject other than my own solipcism, meant that generally I fell back on using myself as a prism through which to talk about issues. So to the admixture of vanity and embarrassment I added narcissism/neurosis. Not that I’m complaining. It was a fantastic gig. I needed the money, enjoyed the challenge, loved the rush, learned a lot, received lovely feedback, got my name out and about. People, not everyone, but enough, seemed to like it. And I knew how lucky I was, how coveted a position it was, a regular gig in the Age., and the chance to share my thoughts. It’s only that it brought home, like a pulse of dread in the throat, just how volatile it is, the confidence and the humility required to write, and how vaporously they can rise to smother you; or evaporate away entirely just when you realised that, after all, you need them.
Every time you write something with the idea that it might be published (in any format) you have to confront these two fears (or at least I do): that I am too good, and that I’m too bad. It’s like Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death forces. One of the voices inside me says: Really, they’re lucky to have you! You’re so clever, Kate. You and your lovely words, your delightful turns of phrase, your perceptive wisdoms. What charm, what élan. You make it look easy. Honestly. And the subtle things you think: the way you capture life’s truths, the humanity that glows from your page. It’s amazing. So young, and already so wonderful.
It’s all about making myself look smarter than I really am. Trailing my cape, flourishing my polysyllabic Latinate adjectives and my elegant way with semi-colons; it’s making myself, in the privacy of my office, sit a little taller and think, You know, it’s true, I really am a clever girl. I can do this. I can do this so well. How gorgeous, that I’m getting the chance to show everyone! – and myself. And show myself.
I would think: no, actually, it’s not vanity: this is the attitude of a professional. I know my skill set. I am aware of my assets. I’m confident in my work. This is how a real writer thinks: that they’re a real writer. I must be: look, I’m writing!
And the other, inevitable, inexorable voice says: BULL. SHIT. God. Pathetic. It’s exactly that kind of arrogance that produces bad writing. Slack writing. You’re hardly even trying. Disdain for your readers. What’s that, you just sat down and wrote something in twenty minutes and barely read it over before filing? You’re riding for a fall, young lady. Everyone can see how hopeless you are: and how up-yourself. It’s worse that you don’t even know it – that you’re so mediocre. So embarrassing for you. Week after week you expose this delusion that you’re cute. You’re not just as boring as everyone else, you’re worse, because you imagine you’re interesting. And who do you think you are to be taking people’s time? They could do anything else with that five minutes it’s going to take to read your drivel! You! Why should anyone listen to you?
And then it’s so horrible, even the act of putting down words, even spending time thinking up words. Who are we, these monstrous things called writers? Us parasites, us self-absorbed ninnies, crawling creatures of vanity which we then impose on others. Surely we could be better used digging latrines for the poor, or distributing soup, or just pointlessly breaking rocks in the sun. Wankers. Losers. We should all be whipped.
In the midst of this clamour, this screeching, the words must be put on the page. The fingers must type. They must hear the third voice, the one that’s trying to dictate, ever so humbly, some thoughts into the ends of your fingertips on the keys. For the duration of the writing, you have to shut up those voices. There is, I tell myself, plenty of time for them later. On the tram. Washing up. In the dark of the night at 3 a.m. I can listen to those harpy howls of disagreement as to my fundamental worth as a person and as a writer any time and I shall.
But for the moments I spend with the thoughts and the keyboard and the page and the work, I have to shut them up.
And yet… we do need them. We need the caution of them – don’t take it for granted, this talent! don’t waste your chance! don’t forget: someone has asked you to write this, they must think you’re worth it – and we need the energy of them too. Like actors who love their stage-fright, writers need the surge, the electricity of shame and superbness. The catch of breath in the throat. Otherwise we’d just sit here, plonking out words, dull as porridge, glum as mud. And none of it would be any fun – to write, or to read. It would be nerveless, neuralgic. Then we really should be whipped.
At this point I’m going to leave this… because I don’t have the nerve to imagine, right now, that I have too many other ideas to share in this month of blogging, and I must also listen to the voice that says: tempo, tempo, tempo…. So. More of my asinine, mediocre, commonplace/wise, luminous and valuable thoughts on this next week.