The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

So here I am, as Abraham said to the Lord when offering up his son for sacrifice. “Here I Am” is the title of a wonderful new book by Jonathan Safran Foer, a monumental work close to 1000 pages, exploring themes of cultural identity, fidelity and betrayal, the ephemeral nature of love, families functional and dysfunctional, and what makes them so.

As for me myself and I, this post is in the nature of an apology to you, my readers, for my untoward absence. SInce I last posted back in April, life has overtaken me. There’s been illness, convalescence, slow recovery, as well as the joys of grandchildrens’ birthdays. and celebrations of their achievements, some sojourns in beautiful Darwin, home of my daughters and grandsons, and the minutiae of everyday life.

On the writing side, I’ve been hard  at work on my new novel, ‘A Difficult Daughter’, and preparing my first novel. ‘Capriccio’, for publication. This entailed a major rewrite, mostly in appeasement to Faber and Faber, publishers of the works of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and the Hughes Estate. Like Jonathan Bate, I fell foul of the Estate when requesting permission to quote thirteen lines of Hughes’s poetry, fully expecting dispensation for such a small amount of material. The lines I quoted were used to introduce chapters, each of which was given the title of one of the ‘Capriccio’ poems by Hughes. Titles, I know, are not subject to copyright. However, to be on the safe side, I have removed every syllable of Hughes’s poetry, and, in order to comply with the other request by the Estate, changed the name of  every character. The astute reader will no doubt recognise my novel, “Capriccio”, as the tragic story of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the lover of Ted Hughes, who came between Hughes, and his wife, Sylvia Plath.  My novel ends with one of Assia’s poems (quoted with permission of her sister, Celia Chaikin), a final clue to the true identity of my protagonist.

Now for the Joy of the writing life: my company of writers, the Randwick Writers Group, continues to flourish, with all four of us preparing to submit novels or memoirs to publishers. Without my fellow-writers, I would never have achieved the completion of one novel and the development of another. Their constructive feedback, wise insights, consistent encouragement, and friendship, has been the motivating force which keeps me going.

In Darwin, I was lucky to join the talented playwright Sandra Thibodeaux for her weekly writers’ workshop, which helped me develop ideas for ‘A Difficult Daughter’, my novel-in-progress. Then there was the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, the Jewish Writers’ Festival in August, and only last weekend, the St Aubin’s Writers’ Festival. More on this bucolic festival in my next post!

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Yoga and Kabbalah

 The kabbalistic tree of life and the Ten Sefirot  

There are many similarities between the Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah, and other Eastern philosophies.

In kabbalistic lore,there are ten Energy Centres (Sefirot), which correspond to parts of the earthly body. They are, in descending order, Keter (the crown), Chokhmah (wisdom), Binah (intuition, understanding), Chesed (mercy) or Gedulah (greatness), Gevurah (strength), Tiferet (glory), Netzach (victory), Hod (majesty), Yesod (foundation) and Malkut (sovereignty).

The ten Sefirot include both masculine and feminine qualities. Kabbalah pays a great deal of attention to the feminine aspects of the spiritual world. Focussing on a particular centre is said to greatly enhance the physical, emotional, and spiritual life.

The ten Sefirot are usually represented as in the diagram above. This diagram is commonly known as the Tree of the Sefirot, or the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. There is great significance to the position of these various attributes and their interconnectedness. The Sefirot connect with everything in the universe. Thus they are both a reflection of the individual’s spiritual life, and that of the whole of humanity.

Sages have spent millennia discussing these spiritual pathways, so I dare not presume a fuller explanation, after only two years of Kabbalistic study! This post is a very simplified comparison of the Energy Centres in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and the Chakras in Yoga Philosophy.

Energy Centres in Yoga 

Similarly to Jewish mysticism, Yoga is informed by the Hindu religion. The  energy centres in yoga are called chakras, and bear a remarkable resemblance to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. In ascending order, they are:

The Muladhara,  situated at the base of the spine, which governs your family ties and feelings of survival, belonging, and guardedness.

Svadhisthana, in the pelvic region,  corresponds with  the reproductive and sexual organs, and represents fluidity, creativity, and fertility.

Manipura in the solar plexus,governsself-esteem and confidence to take action and be productive.

Anahata, or the heart chakra, heals past wounds by reopening your heart, learning to love unconditionally, and forming healthy relationships.

Vishuddha,corresponds to the throat region. When this chakra is open and stimulated, the voice moves through space to help communicate emotions.

The crown chakra (Sahasrara), connects to beauty itself and the spiritual realm.  It is not located in the body but actually hovers above the crown of the head. When it’s closed, happiness seems  come from the outside. Working on this chakra helps you to feel free in any situation.

Meditating on the chakras is  said to be a powerful way to reach self-fulfilment.

There are countless more parallels between Judaic, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious and philosophical systems of belief. Do you know of others?

 

   Kabbalah and Creativity

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The Kabbalah teaches that space is essential to creativity. In the 16th century, Shabtai Sheftel Horowitz, an Eastern European sage, wrote: ‘Before the Creation of the World, the Infinite One withdrew itself into its essence, from itself to itself within itself. It left an empty space within its essence, in which it could   emanate and create.’ (©Orna Triguboff).

I have been attending a series of talks by Rabbi Orna Triguboff, in which we study a text fro the Kabbalah in detail. Each session is enlightening, adding to the knowledge and wisdom scholars have given us for centuries. Kabbalistic scholars describe two energy channels: the left side for logic and understanding, and the right for spirituality, the ‘spark’ of an idea. These two sides merge in the centre, so that both logical thought and spiritual energy give birth to the creative process. In other words, according to ancient wisdom, we need both ‘inspiration and perspiration’ to produce a creative work. Neither pure, raw, imagery, or carefully structured thought are enough alone; an artist, writer or musician needs both. The meeting in the middle is where the final work is manifested.

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CREATIVITY

creativity1As most who practice the creative arts know, creativity comes from a place deep within the soul. To reach that place, we need to make space in our lives, and in our minds. As a writer, I can immediately relate to this concept, knowing that I have to make space, both physical and mental, before being able to access the imagination, or the ‘unconscious,’ the source of dreams and fantasies. A clear period of time and an uncluttered space are essentials for creativity. In today’s busy world this is no easy task.

Strategies for creating space include clearing one’s desk, emptying the day of other commitments, and turning off the phone. Other methods are the practice of meditation to clear the mind, and freeing oneself of the ‘baggage’ of the everyday world. (Leave the dishes in the sink!)

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There are so many obstacles to creativity. In my case a spell in hospital and subsequent recovery time all but sapped my creative energy, after the assault on my brain from anaesthetic and  Which is why you, my dear readers, haven’t heard from me for so long. Now, two months down the track, my energy is slowly returning. With it is a stirring of that mysterious force that can put me in another realm where the laws of everyday survival, metamorphise into a  freedom and release, where creative writing, painting, or musical composition can take place.

Creativity is defined by Wikipedia as ‘a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed. The created item may be intangible (such as an idea, a scientific theory, a musical composition, or a joke) or a physical object (such as an invention, a literary work, or a painting).’ (Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia).

Where does this elusive ‘phenomenon’ come from? Some say only certain individuals can access their creativity. Others believe it resides only in the right side of the brain – a theory of dubious scientific substance. More on this in the next post.

Watching my grandchildren effortlessly produce an intricate. original drawing, or playing a musical instrument, it seems to me that perhaps we are all born with this uncanny ability, but somewhere along the way, we lose the clear joy and freedom so evident in those early years. Where do you think creativity comes from? I’d love to hear your views.

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Brushes with (Writerly) Fame

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While waiting for my novel to be published, and for the hoped-for fame its undoubted brilliance will bring (if only!) I must content myself by rubbing shoulders with the already famous. Even though these chance meetings are mere brushes with fame, perhaps they may magically transfer a whisper of their glory to my humble self.

Last year I was honoured to meet the Honourable Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, after the launch of her book ‘My Story’.  I have long been an admirer of her strength and courage in the face of such mysogyny. Here she is signing her memoir. I was impressed by her grace.

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One of my favourite writers is Gail Jones, author of many wonderful novels, including my favourite,  ‘Sixty Lights’.  It was a thrill to meet her at the Darwin Writers Festival, and recently at the launch for her acclaimed novel, “A Guide to Berlin”. img_2499img_0340

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Darwin I met the playwright Mary Anne Butler, whose play, ‘Broken’, has won the prestigious Victorian Prize for Literature. was a hit at the Festival. Here she’s sharing a few words while signing my program for her previous play, “Highway of Lost Hearts”.

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After seeing Alana Valentine’s drama, “Letters to Lindy”, I was moved to congratulate her for writing about one of the grossest miscarriages of justice in Australia: the incarceration for over six years of an innocent, grieving mother. Lindy Chamberlain has been fully exonerated, yet nothing could make up for the cruelty of that sentence. Alana told me she hopes her play will help people who are still affected to let go of anger and imagegrief. img_5204

On a happier note, I spent some time with Marieke Hardy of ‘The First Tuesday Book Club  fame, when helping out  at the Darwin Festival. Her session,’Women of Letters’, in which women in the audience read letters they have written on a set theme, was a sellout. As you see, she was great fun.

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The Art of Forgiveness – and Writing

 

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The words of author Ann Patchett  are both an inspiration, and a warning, to those of us for whom writing is a passion, and who believe it’s a gift, rather than a craft which needs to be practiced to perfection. Here she explains the importance of forgiveness and acceptance in our quest for perfection:

I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

Patchett pokes at the strange logic by which we exempt writing from the beliefs and standards to which we hold other crafts:

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

 

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/04/27/ann-patchett-on-writing/

How to Critique Others

 

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Helen Garner, in ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993, writes:

‘You’ve got two selves I think. One of them is the deep one that can do the work, and the other one is constantly discouraging you and saying: ‘oh come off it, who do you think you are?’Some days when you feel like this you just have to keep on.

Some days I look at what I’m doing and I think: this is pathetic. How can I have thought this was any good? Some days it’s so awful I have to put my pen down and lie on the bed. I feel I’m going to be exposed. Other days you start a paragraph and suddenly out it comes, all these ideas streaming out of you and you can hardly keep up.’

In her accomplished essay on Helen Garner’s ‘Cosmo Cosmolino’, published in the Sydney Review of Books, Tegan Bennett Daylight has this to say about the dangers of too much technical analysis when critiqueing our own and others’ writing:

‘We all grow our own methods from our own practice and our own personalities, but I’d say there’s a general consensus among us, and it’s this: simply, that less is more. Too many instructions, too many fussy little exercises about point of view and tense and conflict and character are likely to break the heart of the real writer, who is writing from an urge she can’t quite name, a place she can’t quite locate. When real writing begins, decisions are not made about point of view and tense. These things are for the writer to notice later.’

Thank you, Tegan, for putting into words what I find so difficult: that however well-meant, the sort of feedback that pulls apart one’s writing, agonising about  point of view, and whether the narrator is omniscient or close third person, can so confuse the writer who’s working from that deep space, the ‘other self’, that all confidence in one’s writing can fly out the window. The sort of critiqueing which focuses simply on ‘what works’ for the reviewer, and a global, emotional response, is so much more helpful. The creative self is a delicate creature, and needs to be handled with care. That said, no serious writer wants to hear ‘that’s nice’ or ‘well done’; tell us also what doesn’t work for you, what interrupts the flow of narrative, where there’s too much description, or too little.