Writing about Writing

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When you write, you lay out a line in words. the line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. It is a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.’
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

In moments of writing doubt – and there are many moments that would qualify – then there are several books on my shelf I reach for. I have slowly amassed and continue to collect books by other writers on writing. Some are practical books of writing exercises, others intellectual reflections on the structure and nature of the novel or short story and then there are books on what it is to write, essays of hope and encouragement such as Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Of these three The Writing Life  is the one I return to most and it is more likely, seeing as we’re on the subject, to be in my bag amongst  papers, pens, exercise books and my laptop, than to be left on the shelf.

It is a short book – 100 pages or so – given to me by a friend when the moments of doubt had rolled over into a longer period of writing anxiety, when technical difficulties seemed as insurmountable as an annual tax return. I was quite stuck and I just couldn’t budge. This was the right book to give me. It pulled me out of the rut.

Annie Dillard is a thoughtful, reflective writer. Her book is at once a comfort, a commiseration and a call to arms, at least if a pen or a keyboard are your weapons of choice. It’s a book to be read and reread. My copy is tatty. There is a coffee stain on page 36. I’ve underlined passages in pen on pages 3, 5, 27, 58. Page 13, amongst others, is dog-eared because it contains a particularly important passage about how long you might expect to spend writing a novel. I read that part over and over. I tell everyone to read this book.  I don’t lend my copy to anyone.

​Dog-ear.
I decide to look it up in the dictionaryI do this when I use a word or phrase that I haven’t often used before, or that I’m suddenly and unexpectedly experiencing some kind of doubt over. A kind of word-blindness. It’s a hangover from my sub-editing shifts at magazines, a sudden doubting of the provenance and suitability of a word whose use I have, until that point, taken for granted. I look these words up in the large two volume version of the OED that sits on my bookcase. I trust it more than the online version. I find the dictionary reassuring.  I  flick through the pages of the dictionary, easily distracted. I land prematurely a page or two away from my word and browse through the entries: divertimento, divertive, divest…

For any writer words are currency. This is not wasted time. I am sifting words, a lexical speculator.  Twenty five words later and I flick to the correct page but I am waylaid by other words now: dog-cart, a small cart drawn by dogs, dog-cheap, meaning very inexpensive and dog-legged, which apparently refers to a set of stairs without a well-hole.

The OED states that dog-ear is a variation of dog’s-ear (v) to disfigure a book by turning down the corners of the leafs.

According to the OED the word’s first documented use is 1659. I imagine learned gentlemen in 17th century  coffee houses sipping the devil’s brew, taking a pipe and dog’s-earing important passages in their books before going off to witness a public hanging, disembowelling or other pleasing 17th century diversion such as burning witches  at the stake (see below).


dog’s ear  (v) to disfigure a book by turning down the corners of the leafs

The Writing Life is a personal and at times profound reflection on what it is to write. Annie Dillard explores her writing practice. She shares small epiphanies, defeats, set-backs and victories. I seek out the same passages again and again. Writing is a solitary business. On these pages I find empathy and reassurance and an acknowledgement that what I am doing is at once a privilege and  an obscure pursuit. People would miss you putting a shift in at the shoe store more than they would miss any notional novel manuscript you might be writing, she reminds me. Quite true. She also reminds me it takes between two and ten years to write a book.

​It’s taken me five years so far, but I’m closing in on the final chapters, if I can put the dictionary down for long enough, that is.

What I’m Reading

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

yellow_orig.jpgCharlotte Perkins Gilman was a writer, activist and feminist best remembered for her story The Yellow Wallpaper published in 1892, although she wrote over 200 others. An article I read recently described the story as  the archetypal feminist horror story.
​I’m not so sure.There’s no doubt that it’s a feminist work, the interior monologue of a thoughtful but increasingly troubled woman, confined for her own good by a husband who apparently means well. It’s an unsettling read. The narrator’s obsessive, paranoid account of her confinement in an attic room decorated with strange, faded yellow wallpaper and her growing obsession with it, grows increasingly tense with every feverish word.

‘It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw-not beautiful ones like buttercups but old foul, bad yellow things.’

​Charlotte Perkins Gilman gives a forensic first person account of a descent into madness in the form of postpartum depression. She had many things to say about the treatment of women in society – both in sickness and in health – as well as the damage caused by confining their role  to marriage and motherhood. This is a study of the loss of a woman’s sanity and a misunderstanding of how to treat it.
​It is horrific, but is it horror?

‘I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!
It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!
I don’t want to go outside. I won’t even if Jennie asks me to.
For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow.
But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot loose my way.’

There is method to the story’s madness. Gilman suffered from crippling bouts of depression throughout her life and it shows in every pressured line and troubling pattern emerging from the wallpaper of this story.

However, The Yellow Wallpaper is not only a literary examination of insanity, but an indictment of the treatments available in particular to women suffering from mental health problems in the later 19th century.

The rest cure was commonly prescribed for women diagnosed with hysteria or neurasthenia at that time. This treatment consisted of isolating the patient, putting them on bed rest and feeding them a high fat diet.

Extraordinarily, Gilman actually named the doctor who pioneered the rest cure for women, Dr Silas Weir Mitchell and sent him a copy of her story on publication. She had been sent to him for treatment  in 1887 following the birth of her daughter. She had come away from her treatment with a recommendation that she desist from all creative pursuits and devote herself instead to domestic life. She discusses her treatment in her essay Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper. Virginia Woolf was another female writer prescribed this treatment.

I might call this a feminist gothic story, a reworking of the madwoman in the attic trope. And as we’re on the subject of the gothic – again –  I’d make the distinction that Ann Radcliffe made between horror and terror in her essay On the Supernatural in Poetry, 1826.

She considered terror the higher form, using ‘obscurity’ to lead the reader towards the sublime, whereas horror ‘nearly annihilates’ the reader with specific atrocities. This state of ‘awful apprehension’ seems to be what Gilmore Perkins has captured in The Yellow Wallpaper

But then again the story is as extraordinarily modernist in structure, spirit and tone as it is gothic. It could equally well have been written in 1942 as 1892, so slow were the advancements in psychiatric medicine.

At the end of the ordeal Gilmore  refuses to resolve the situation, instead leaving the reader in a state of brooding ambiguity.  Has the narrator achieved freedom? And if so what form does that freedom take? Is she alive or is she dead?

‘Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!’​

It simply isn’t clear.

 

The Friday Walk

Why Straw Bridges Are Never a Good Idea
Our Friday walks aren’t going too well at the moment. My problem is this:

This is the notice on our bridge. It was only ever a temporary bridge and it needs replacing, but it’s the wording of the notice that bothers me. Until further notice implies the situation not changing until a further announcement is made. It’s a neat way of avoiding commitment to a deadline. Clever move. It could be tomorrow. It could be next year. 

It’s unlikely to be tomorrow. Lola and I have been monitoring the situation closely over the past few days. First the bridge was closed off with barricades. Then a mini digger arrived. Following this a few bales of hay were deposited next to the old bridge and progress has been slow ever since.

A couple of workmen seemed to spend one day staring mournfully into the river. A small hole was dug and a rectangle plotted out with string and pegs on another day. The following day nobody turned up at all. No work at all has been done this week.

Curiouser and curiouser.

The reason this is important to me is because we live on an island. It’s not a big or fancy island, and there is another bridge which leads up to the main road, but this is the river route along which Lola and I are accustomed to walking.

We only discovered we live on an island last year when our neighbour came over with an ordnance survey map to show us. Sure enough the river splits in two around this small patch of land and he knew we would be suitably excited.

It was in the dark days following the EU referendum and he was wondering if we could barricade the island off, declare ourselves an independent state and negotiate our own deal with the EU. We’re still keeping the idea in reserve if things get too bad on the mainland but we have yet to decide on a name or draw up a constitution, decide on bank holidays and design a flag. We’d probably start with some sort of barter economy and take it from there. Whilst this sort of project does run the risk of turning into a hellish Ballardian  dystopia, Britain post EU divorce isn’t looking too rosy either. For now we remain a notional micronation. Let’s call it the Republic of Starling River until formal succession talks are  satisfactorily concluded.

I’m left wondering why bails of hay are required for the bridge. This surely can’t be some sort of bizarre austerity measure? Or are we defiantly building bridges from straw in order to flout EU building regulations because soon it won’t matter anyway?

Which leads me to my point about bridges which the Grimm fairytale of The Straw, the Coal and the Bean aptly illustrates:

Once upon a time a piece of coal, a piece of straw and a bean all narrowly escaped being used up in the kitchen as a widow cooked her supper. Naturally they got chatting and decided to escape from the widow’s house together. Soon they came to a river. The piece of straw offered to stretch himself across from one side of the river bank to the other for the piece of coal and the bean to walk across. The hot coal began her journey  but became frightened of the flowing water underneath the straw, and, afraid of drowning she stopped halfway across. In stopping she began to burn  through the straw. The straw split in two and the coal fell to the bottom of the river. The bean laughed so hard he split his sides and a tailor had to sew him up, which is why to this day beans have a black seam.

Straw bridges are never a good idea. I did say. They are banned in the Republic of Starling River until further notice.

The Friday Walk

A Storm called Doris
We went out today to appraise the damage left in the wake of Storm Doris. This was probably the last of the winter storms for this year – we’ve already had Storm Angus, Barbara, and Conor. The weather seems a bit more serious since we started giving it names. Weather with its own name must mean business. Even a storm called Doris.The wind got high at times yesterday making the house creak and shudder, which got me thinking of Aunt Anwhistle’s house on stilts over looking Lake Lachrymose in Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Lola the dog spent most of her day sheltering under the coffee table emerging only to growl several times at the letter box rattled by the wind and not, as she had hoped, by the hapless postman.But the wind dropped overnight and today was cold and sunny with a fresh breeze. And unlike poor Aunt Anwhistle’s house (which fell into Lake Lachrymose during Hurricane Herman) ours was still standing. In fact there was hardly any sign of a storm having raged yesterday apart from a few wheelie bin casualties in the square (soon cleared, we run a tight ship at Water’s Edge) and a couple of large branches and lots of smaller sticks strewn down by the river. Lola and I speculated that the fish must be unusually lively after stormy weather, as the fishermen were out in relatively high numbers.
Well three, since you ask.

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O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? 
P.B. Shelley, Ode to the Western Wind

We’re on the brink of Spring now – daffodils and crocuses are emerging, and there are patches of snowdrops along the riverbank. The green woodpecker has returned to the bottom of the garden – we are bordered by a nature reserve. His call is loud and sounds uncannily like laughter. Students have begun using the woods as one of their shortcuts again – we are also neighbours to a student village. 
 
Whilst on our walk we were obliged to step aside for an old lady on an invalid carriage, rattling along the towpath towards us and passing by at breakneck speed. Further along a part of the river path forks in two and she took the path leading uphill. She seemed to be ensuring she had enough momentum to tackle the steep gradient involved. We watched with interest. About halfway up the slope the vehicle faltered, slipping backwards in a most alarming fashion before the driver regained power and slowly juddered to the top and retreated into the distance.
 
I VOTED BREXIT announced a sticker on the back of her carriage in vast, glittery capitals.‘​There’s a metaphor there I’m sure of it,’ I said to Lola, but she had already gone chasing after a leaf and did not reply.