Before I venture into any creativity other than sewing again, I need to do some clearing out of the closet.
Over a flu-ridden New Year, I re-read an essay of Margaret Atwood’s called ‘Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double Why there are always two‘ from Negotiating with the Dead.
I thought I was re-reading it because I’m teaching The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and I wanted to see if it gave any new pointers on the novel. But, the truth turned out to be that it was the writer me that wanted to read the essay again. To be honest, Atwood could write a shopping list on the back of the ubiquitous fag packet and I would devour it whole. Love her stuff. The essay didn’t throw much light on the Victorian novel but it did raise the question, whatever happened to my writer self? (And that’s exactly what my writer self wanted; it’s a piece of work, that one).
As Atwood puts it, there is the person who ‘exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth’ who is one of the two and there is also ‘that other, more shadowy figure and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no-one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing’. I’m drawn to two of her words here: equivocal and commit. Equivocal, ah yes, the use of words by the arch deceiver, the deliberate use of words to create smoke and mirrors. Commit, as though the writer is a master criminal – the superlative liar, once again. Why would any sane person fraternise with their duplicitous writer self? So, I haven’t. For four years. I’ve been the dog walker (because a tired dog is a happy dog),
the wife, the mother, the friend, the daughter, the sister. But not that equivocator who commits writing.
Well, that’s a lie, of course, I’m writing now, aren’t I? But the article writer me is a tamed beast. Almost bovine. Or bovine in a ballgown, maybe. No, the real writer creature, the one who does the literary stuff, that one lives much deeper underground. She’s not a trip up the magic faraway tree but a descent into the underworld. And I parked her life.
In a final act of conceit four years ago, I sent this poem off for publication in Magma and was told it was perfect for their next theme and would I send it to that guest editor? I didn’t. You see, like the poem shows, the writer me knew that I’d already cut myself into component parts and was busy attempting to drown my writer self at sea:
Woman as a Fabric Bolt
You were cut in two and both parts
of you made separate
ways. One part of you became a dress
with a string of tiny knots your stitches,
a print added as an after thought,
white peonies like sea foam skulls.
You hang in a wardrobe, eddy
on the breeze, a handless,
headless maiden. Somewhere
at sea a boat flounders,
its mainsail with a missing piece
like an hourglass figure,
all breast and belly in absence.
Some woman tills the boat, all hands,
her head in the basket of the crow’s nest
like the shell of a strange white egg.
When I wrote the poem, the dog walker me thought that there was a simple split between selves – the two parts of the writer that Atwood draws our attention to. I knew when I wrote the poem that I had to return to teaching which would oppress my creative life and I thought that I would just be the rest of me who does the other stuff and sometimes sews. But, oh no! That equivocator me who committed the act of writing was far more ambiguous in telling the truth. I thought I’d said, look at me – I’m split into two. When really, the equivocator was saying, look closer, you are the fabric bolt, the empty shell of dress in the wardrobe, the absent woman in the sail, the headless woman who tills the boat, you are the head in the crow’s nest, and the egg, hell, you’re even the boat. And all of these yous do not make the whole.
If you’ve borne with me thus far, I’m painfully aware that this isn’t the everyday experience of people who don’t have the urge to create. I’ve tried to be that person. But if you’re creative and you try to ignore it, well, you can’t. Of course, you can refuse the call to adventure for a while. But, the call doesn’t go away. That way madness lies. Who said that? The writer me or the dog walker me? It’s in every artist’s work. Here’s how Jacob Polley puts it in his collection Little Gods:
So yes, I’ve tried to ignore it and it’s whined the whole time. I’d even written previously about strangling that creative voice, oh the irony of the writer me trying to shut herself up! Trying to tell me to maybe just love her instead …
Strange. She had known
the burn of bone needle,
a tugging of whiskery yarn
pulling on her sackcloth limbs,
but no cradle,
no child’s hands to comb
her rough hair.
Just a tightening
about her throat
a struggling for air.
But, like Old Death’s scythe in Polley’s poem, the bloody thing doesn’t lie down and play dead. The writer self tried to tell me that too:
A gift from my parents,
in the end, the vet tells me,
cremating him is the kindest thing.
So once his bones had cooled
from the kiln of his flesh,
I laid a fire in the grate,
knotted the newspaper sheets,
grazed a match fast as skinning a knuckle
and kindled the flame. Finally, the charred milk
smell of the boiling vapours of his heart
come, as familiar as tea drunk in grief.
In the chimney a soot baby quickens.
In the end, I’ll burn him, of course.
And because I’m not quite ready to start creating art with words again, because I’m not sure the world needs the infliction, this week I have made sure that I sabotaged that poet self for a while longer by deliberately sending the wrong poems to the wrong audience and thereby provoking a rejection and the justification to not go back to writing. The rejection felt like I’d been disemboweled by James Delaney’s curved knife and left like ‘a bowl’, note how it’s not the writer self that keeps the pain to herself, I got to feel it too. If you haven’t seen the new anti-hero on the block, you can watch a taster here:
And once you’ve been disemboweled, you have to sit in the matter and stench of your own entrails. It’s the perfect excuse to tell yourself that your poetry stinks and should be locked back away.
But, while I may have parked all that. I have sent one thing into the universe, fly well little wish-bird. But more of that in a future post. I’ll make sure my next blog is more of a trip up the Magic Faraway Tree. Thanks for bearing with me while I’ve been cleaning out the closet.