Failing, blathering … playing

piano keys

Breath trembling and vision fuzzing around the edges, I picked my way through the crowd. Messed it up. Started over. Crept away.

The kids in the front row were encouraging, and the applause was friendly, but I left that stage – my first piano recital – feeling that I’d failed.

We tell our children that making mistakes is important. It’s how we become accomplished, successful adults who handle social situations adeptly and eat job interviews for breakfast.

This is the part where I confess that the recital I’ve just told you about took place not in the dim, safe recesses of childhood – but last month.

As adults, we’re mostly able to limit ourselves to our sphere of expertise. This builds our sense that we are, generally, the grown-up people we need to be. We read the newspaper. Make sensible choices when it comes to cheese. Deliver sage advice about commitment and hard work. All of this is relatively easy, when the outcome isn’t earth-shattering. I know how to use the vacuum cleaner. I’m pretty sure I know where that semicolon goes. I understand the worth of good-quality shoes.

But what about when you’ve really, really, tried, and fall short anyway? When the outcome really matters?

Well, such situations are clearly designed to turn one into a blathering fool.

That’s certainly what happens to me every time I confess my secret ambition: to write and publish fiction. It just brings me undone. I’ve approached a publisher at an event, only to respond to polite queries about my book in monosyllabic whispers (“it’s about a boy”). Told friends and family that yes, I’ve written some stuff, and laughed it off (in that uneasy way that shouts, not laughing. Not at all). Then when the self-pity gets beyond toe-dipping and progresses to full-blown wallowing, I try to give myself the talk that I give my kids: persistence is the key. Just keep at it. Do it because you love it. And then I think: Lordy, I’d roll my eyes at me too.

Of course, lots of clever people have written about failure: its importance as part of any creative process, and its inevitability in life. I rather think Julia Gillard might have a thing or two to say about it – as, I suppose, would Kevin Rudd. Meanwhile, bestselling writer Graeme Simsion told this year’s Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne that he’d fulfilled his dream of giving up his day job, but still found himself fretting about film rights; Melbourne author Jo Case wrote about thinking she’d have finally ‘made it’ when she published a book, only to find herself as uncertain as ever; and the philosopher Kierkegaard apparently said that anxiety (let’s assume he means the blather-inducing kind) is necessary for creativity. No matter where you’re at, it seems that success – or even satisfaction – is elusive. The Irish novelist Anne Enright put this rather beautifully when she said: “Success may be material but is also an emotion – one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold.”

For Enright, the ultimate goal is to “meet people in their heads”. It’s not so much about whether your work is judged well (though of course you don’t want it to be junk), but whether it connects. And doing that – or even just trying to do that – is really a privilege. One is lucky to be in a position to try.

Which brings me back to the recital. Not my own part in it: fortunately, that was over pretty quickly. I’m thinking about the other performers – the kids. They played piano, drums, trumpet, guitar. They sang. Watching them, it struck me that children inhabit the first-recital stage every day. Kids are expected to put themselves out there. Often. School reports, sport, music concerts. Even shy kids find their paintings displayed on the art room wall.

But one of the great things about childhood is that although you’re forever on the first-recital stage, you’re always – in theory at least – on the way up. Being young is about potential. You don’t yet have the disadvantage of being an expert on dull things that don’t really matter (such as how to put back the toilet brush, or where to store the butter), nor do you know yet what you’re going to be good at. That’s scary, but liberating. You can just get up on stage and play – in both senses of the word. Produce the piece of music, and tinker with it. Enjoy yourself. Try, and fail, and try again, and shrug, and smile.

Of course that’s not always how it will be, for kids – but it’s how it should be. And I’m going to try to channel those kids’ performances, the next time I submit a story or find myself blathering at a publisher. Because there’s no avoiding the fact I don’t know what I’m doing. Or the fact that I still want to do it. Which means sitting down at the desk, taking a deep breath – and having a play.

On Beauty

Image courtesy of Penguin
Image courtesy of Penguin

Let’s pretend.

Let’s pretend that I spent my high school lunchtimes in the library because I was an undiscovered genius with an unquenchable love of books.

And not because I was – ahem – between friendships.

These days, I mostly visit the library to stock up on picture books and novels featuring mystery-solving mice. Occasionally, I also manage to pick up something for myself. This month it was On Beauty, by UK writer Zadie Smith.

At first I thought I wouldn’t like this novel. The protagonist is a middle-aged, English-born professor of art history – he’s nervy, self-satisfied, and faintly ridiculous. He’s married to a fabulous African-American woman. And he cheats on her. Naturally.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the older I get, the more PG-rated I find my tastes have become. I don’t tend to go looking for morally sticky situations. I don’t like watching someone make a mess of things. It just makes me squirm – and go bolting back to Jane Austen.

But this book got me in. I read it like I consumed books in high school: at the breakfast table, on the train, into the night. There wasn’t one big plot point that I was wanting resolved – no mystery, no big twist I was waiting for. I just cared about the characters, and the world they were moving in. I even, by the end, gave a damn about the self-obsessed professor, Howard Belsey.

I actually picked up On Beauty[1] because it looked (on the shelf) like a non-fiction book. And in a sense, it is an essay: about race, and gender, politics, and ambition. And in the tradition of the best essays, it resists the temptation to offer simplified answers. It explores, teases, reveals. It spins a good yarn.

Now I won’t presume to unravel all – or even a few – of the novel’s threads here.  I’ll just focus, for a moment, on its notion of beauty. Smith gives us a beautiful, large black woman and a rangy white man. Howard has two particularly inappropriate affairs. He knows this is vile. Meanwhile, he’s stomping about the university campus denouncing Rembrandt’s genius (for what appear to be largely postmodernist reasons), and grinding his teeth about the success of a conservative academic whose book about Rembrandt has actually been written, and is selling well. Howard continues to love his wife, Kiki – and she’s surprised, at least initially, by her own ability to forgive.

It’s clear to me that Kiki is the most beautiful person in the book. She’s honest, wise, and real: “Her chest gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting – it was a mirror-world she’d stepped into in her mid forties, a strange fabulation of the person she believed she was. She could no longer be meek or shy … And yet she had been a tiny thing for years and years!” The narrator shows us both Howard’s desire for his wife, and his awareness of this change in her. We also see Kiki’s love for her husband, and her frustration at his pomposity (the family, in deference to Howard’s theoretical sensibilities, don’t hang any representational artwork in their house – abstract pieces only). And through Kiki’s ‘mirror character’, Carlene (the wife of the conservative academic Howard despises), we see the honour and sadness of a woman who has “staked her life” on home, marriage and family.

Beauty, in this telling, is love. Love among people who measure themselves and find, in various ways, that they don’t quite meet the mark.

All of this is sketched in rich, well-paced prose that re-creates a family, and a world (specifically, that of a US east coast college town). But it’s not magic. It doesn’t give me the twitters, quite in the way that Austen does; I didn’t come away from this story wishing I could re-live it, inhabit it.

Not that this is a criticism, as such.

Perhaps it just points to difference between reading contemporary fiction, and an older work. The language and the setting of this book – its themes and preoccupations – are familiar. I’ve experienced autumn in that part of the world, seen the “hint of yellow curl on the leaves of the trees, like the catch fire thrown at something about to go up in flame” (so beautifully described). When I think about On Beauty’s social and political themes, I don’t have the clarity of looking back at the early 19th century, and feeling able to sum it up in a sentence fragment (very early suffrage movement, women living limited domestic lives). I can’t just give in to imagining history. What I want to do, is look for what I recognise – try to trace the seams that hold the book together, and see where it draws, selectively, on messy reality to make its argument.

This is useful, even if it does suck the fun out of things a bit.

Of course I don’t think such distinctions ever bothered my teenage self, hiding out in a library corral, searching for something to hold on to in the pages of a book. That person (having failed to live up to the physical and social ideals of high school) was, I think, looking for ambiguity. For new ways to look at things; for a sense that big social problems played out in ordinary lives and could be, if not solved, then at least begun to be understood.

That’s what I got, from reading On Beauty: a sprawling, social essay of a book which gives us imperfections, families, children, love and infidelity. That resists stereotyping, while playing with it: that tells us we’re all a bit rubbish, really, but we try to be good.

I also got a renewed enthusiasm for those white metal shelves, and the Dewey Decimal system. Beautifully coloured book spines; pages in varying shades of yellow; whole rooms full of possibility.

 



[1] Okay, for those who are interested (and didn’t already look it up), a little dust jacket history: Smith was born in London in 1975, and still lives there. She became famous for her first novel, White Teeth, which was published in 2000. On Beauty was published in 2005, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. Smith now has four novels to her name: the most recent, NW, was published in 2012.

 

 

You’ll be disappointed, I’m afraid

disappointed
Myth and Ideology B, Assignment No.3

One of the trickiest things in life, is staying awake.

I mean this literally – who, once they’ve reached the appropriate coffee-drinking age, isn’t in some way addicted to caffeine? Doesn’t wake, dough-eyed and creaky, unable to face the day without that sweet hit of stimulant? (Lots of people, I’m sure, but not too many that I know).

And I also – being the somewhat earnest, frowny creature that I’ve been at least since primary school, if the photo record is to be believed – mean it figuratively.

Life has so many bits to it. Family, house, car, insurance, superannuation. Job security. Marriage. (Or lack thereof.) Children. (Likewise.) Friends. Exercise. Elections. Natural disasters. Christmas.

And then, of course, there’s death.

It’s a lot to hold in the balance.

I was a rather single-minded, if generally under-occupied, teenager. Didn’t do hobbies; wasn’t one for socialising; would seek to fix just about any mood with sugar (forget exercise). But I did love school. Not the social stuff – that sucked. But the classroom, the assignments, that pop of a moment when things fell into place – it was great. I liked how structured everything was. I enjoyed school report time. Lots of other things were falling apart, but at school I approached my life with a clear sense of what I wanted; I felt as if I were truly awake.

I was, of course, a fool. As one of my university lecturers would later write on a particularly rushed, ill-thought out essay: You’ll be disappointed, I’m afraid. I don’t really understand what you’re doing here … Your language often betrays fuzzy ideas … and you clearly don’t quite understand terms like ‘ideology’, ‘langue’, and others. 

It turns out that you can’t just string together a few vaguely clever-sounding sentences, and call it an essay. Any more than you can string together a few wildly unrealistic plans, and call it a life.

One actually, unfortunately, has to work at things.

At some point I must have noticed that Hazel Rowley, who wrote those words on my junky essay, had written a book. There was a promotional poster in her office. I’d never heard of Christina Stead, and didn’t know that the biography Hazel had written of her was internationally acclaimed. I enjoyed Hazel’s tutorials, though – the way she’d stride energetically around the room, apparently unaware that such enthusiasm was rather, well, embarrassing – and I took every opportunity to stop by her office, discussing essay topics, getting help, negotiating extensions.

When Hazel told me she was leaving Australia – she seemed surprised to have been offered a sizeable advance to write another biography – I was focused, pretty much, on myself. My helper was going away – to write a biography of some guy named Richard Wright, apparently. I didn’t really care what for. What I knew was that since the disappointing essay, Hazel had helped me write better ones – and had written some nice things on them, too. She might be able to help me get to where I ultimately, secretly, wanted to be – to a life as a Proper Writer.

Eventually, I got around to reading Hazel’s books. They were incredible. Her language was sharp, her research exhaustive. She was smart. Really, really smart.

Hazel died in 2011. She was 59. That day I sat at work – thinking about my children’s schedules, the dinner to be made, the to-do list on the post-it note next to the computer – wondering how to feel about this event. The obituaries talked, of course, about her remarkable contribution to literature. About how she made her mark in Paris, New York. Her uncompromising standards. Her insight.

What I felt, was sad. And disappointed – that she hadn’t been able to go on working, and writing. And that somehow, in spite of the nice things she’d written on my essays, I’d stopped.

It took me a while to realise that I had things arse-about. The relationship I had with Hazel was enormously important to me. She encouraged me, and she gave me a window on another kind of life. But although I took the time to tell her how much I enjoyed her books, and ask her for the occasional academic reference, I don’t think I ever thanked her for teaching me. For sharing with me the pleasure of the act of writing, of thinking, of making sense.

Next to that, my achievements (or lack thereof) are little more than a list.

A friend of mine recently put it like this: With six billion people in the world the odds are pretty stacked against any of us, or anyone we know, being truly outstanding. Happy? Now that is an option. So is fulfilled. And creative. And, occasionally, in a funk. Of course this friend is already outstanding – the point is that the proof, to mangle a cooking metaphor, is in the doing.

In other words, getting on with the big stuff – looking after ourselves and our families, reading, scribbling, staying awake – is what there is. We are what we do. The rest is window dressing.

 

 

Writer