On writing and guilt

by Stephanie on October 19, 2014

I spent last weekend by the ocean, reading books, drinking wine, taking long walks along the shoreline and listening to the moody waves rumble against the rocks. We often think of the Great Ocean Road in terms of its beach towns — Torquay, Lorne, Apollo Bay — or by the natural sculptures towards which the tourist buses trundle, swinging precariously around the road’s hairpin turns, while half the tourists inside press their noses to the windows and the other half throw up in their handbags. But the coastline out there is rugged and brooding, more temperamental than tropical, and while those Gold Coast-style beaches are beautiful in their own way, I can’t help but think they are rather flat and unremarkable. This coast, on the other hand, has personality.

It also has wildlife. There are koalas and wallabies and lush birdlife: bower birds and splendid wrens and flocks of squawking parrots. Every piece of conventional wisdom says we shouldn’t feed the parrots, but they are so bright and cheery that it’s hard not to go outside in the afternoon and look for the flashes of red and green in the trees that indicate their presence. It is kind of a tradition now, inherited by anyone who visits the house, and has been going on so long that, for better or for worse, the parrots expect it when the house is occupied.

They are king parrots, mainly: bold, curious creatures. They squabble like small children and eat sunflower seeds like candy. When I hold out a handful towards them they cock their heads, look me in the eye and make little inquisitive noises in their throats, as if to ask, ‘Is that really for me?’ They are so accustomed to humans that they will not only eat from your hand if you are patient, but hop right up onto your arm — or in my case, jump onto my bare shoulders and once or twice land on my head — in their effort to out-do each other in their pursuit of food. I didn’t notice the scratches until some time later, at which point I hastily bathed my arms in Dettol from an ancient bottle bearing a use by date of 1994 and tried not to think about avian flu.

I’ve tried a lot harder to take time off in the last 12 months or so. My first psychologist was adamant about it. I was burnt out, he said. I needed to learn to rest — to properly rest. My first proper holiday in years, a three-week break in November 2013, was revelatory for me. For that period of time, I had a single rule: I wasn’t going to do anything out of a sense of obligation. Because if there is one thing that characterised the entire period in which I wrote my PhD — indeed, has characterised an extraordinary part of my life so far — it is an ever-present, all-encompassing, crippling sense of obligation. Whether that obligation was mandated by a contract or enforced by social conventions and relationship structures, its current pulled me along channels I would have preferred to avoid. It gave me anxiety attacks. It kept me in destructive relationships well past their due date. It made me ashamed to act in my own interests, for my own welfare. It swamped me.

Obligation alone is not a bad thing. Part of having a social conscience necessarily rests on the understanding that relationships of any kind are built on exchange, and that fairness requires upholding those shared understandings. An enormous part of my political sensibility is built on the idea that the way the world is currently organised is inequitable, partly because the vast majority of power-brokers within it do not recognise that they have obligations to anyone other than themselves. So it’s is not obligation in and of itself that has been causing me trouble; it’s proportion.

I could glibly attribute the guilt I have felt about these real or imagined slights to my Catholic upbringing, but the reality of the feeling is disproportionate to the role that religion played in my childhood. Perhaps, and I suspect more accurately, it is the consequence of an incredibly fertile imagination. The same traits that had me conjuring up worlds beyond the one in which I was currently existing would, from my teenage years onward, also conjure up imagined social mishaps and misdemeanours, a web of apologies and private grudges, and a sense that if I didn’t do all the things I said I wanted to do, I would not only be failing myself but everybody else who had invested in those dreams and plans with me. But not every misspoken word requires daily atonement. Not every rejected invitation will be taken personally. If I need to change plans, plans can change. And perhaps more importantly than all that, I should be writing because I want to, not because I think my loved ones or my friends or my supervisor or anyone else wants me to. And when I do write, the direction of my work should not be mandated by the self-interested opinions of others.

This pervasive sense of obligation and accompanying guilt has had a profound impact on my writing process, but becoming heavily involved in sport has helped me to think about the discipline of it differently. I do not have to write all the time. Rest is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Bodies can’t function at optimum if they are run ragged without respite. Neither can the creative brain.

Placing a discipline around a process requires an understanding of the process itself. Creativity is not linear. The mental space that is necessary for creativity to flourish simply can’t occur if the brain is forced to pump out matter relentlessly, if it is too focused on the outcome, or simply feeling tremendous pressure. When I think about it now — about how anxiety has clamped around me for years whenever I sat down to work — it’s no wonder I’ve been unable to write. That fight or flight response we feel when staring down a deadline triggers only a very narrow set of associations; for new ideas to sprout and new connections to be made we need breathing space, time to allow ideas to slip off and make their own unexpected associations, when we feel as if we are only half-focused, only half-aware of the pattern of our thoughts.

Part of learning how to rest, for me, has also been about learning how to tell the difference between time off and what I’ve come to understand as ‘loose construing’ time (after Sue Woolfe’s analysis of precisely this phenomenon in The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady): the lull in my writing process that allows ideas to percolate. It is different to avoiding the project altogether — just like learning to respond to obligation and guilt proportionally is different to freaking out about every perceived slight, real and imagined. The key is not to force those lulls out of the way, to deplete them, or to see them as dead time, but to incorporate them into the very structure of the discipline itself. This means accepting that it may take me longer than I think to write an article of any given length. It means accounting for the fact that even when facing deadline, I may spend significant periods of time staring at the screen without typing, and possibly even daydreaming. It is understanding that some days I may only write a sentence or two, in spite of all the time spent with my project open in front of me, and that this is not a wasted day.

But it is not time off, either. Time off is meals with friends, reading trashy crime novels, and playing with the cat. Time off is travelling halfway round the world to have a spending spree in New York. Time off is feeding parrots and taking afternoon naps and walks along slippery shoreline rocks after rain. Time off is resting, and not feeling guilty about it.

Sea shell sketch

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Gone Girl

by Stephanie on October 6, 2014

Gone Girl is an MRA’s wet dream.

Look, I enjoyed much of the novel. Gillian Flynn writes a highly readable sentence, and the text is a masterclass in the use of the unreliable narrator. I enjoyed David Fincher’s film interpretation of it, too, even though I already knew where its plot twists would lead. Watching it on the big screen on Saturday night, however, just crystallised all my problems with it: Gone Girl is so sexist it hurts.

gonegirl

Reviews of the novel have focused on its criticism of contemporary marriage. That two people could bring out the absolute worst in each other instead of the best is perfectly good fodder for a thriller. I’m certainly not against revenge narratives by women scorned, and I absolutely think that terror and fear can inhabit the domestic sphere just as much as they can linger in any dark alley or gloomy forest. But did Gone Girl really have to pander so perfectly to such bullshit tropes? Amy Dunne is everything that Men’s Rights Advocacy fedora-wearing douchebags believe of women, eg:

  • Women fake rape allegations;
  • Women lie about what they want from men;
  • Women use sex as a weapon;
  • Women will fake a pregnancy purely to manipulate a man;
  • Women will create an actual pregnancy purely to manipulate a man.

Amy is so into fake rapes that she constructs at least two of them, jabbing herself in the snatch with a wine bottle to make it all look ‘real’. As for her lies, oh, she’ll pretend to be into a guy — she’ll play Cool Girl so well you’ll actually believe she’s legit — but when husband Nick slacks off and isn’t quite the Prince Charming she thought he would be, she turns on him like a viper. And then there’s her manipulation of consensual sex, which in Fincher’s film, is taken to the extreme: Amy kills Desi while he’s actually fucking her. She makes herself pregnant with her husband’s sperm sample to keep him from leaving.

And then there’s just the plain old MRA-optional sexism, because when women are unhappy they become nagging bores, so who can blame a guy for cheating? And if it just so happens that he starts up an affair with his perky 23-year-old creative writing student, it’s understandable, right? He’s just a man and a man has needs. He’s just a victim in all this. And if you’re not on his side when you find that out, you’ll definitely feel sorry for him when his wife does.

I know, not all the female characters are so vile. Boney and Go are smart, sensible, and grounded, but Gone Girl isn’t their story. And the woman at the centre of this story is such a hideous creature that when she finally reveals herself, it seems almost as if she was created simply to justify the anti-feminist’s worst, most misogynistic fears.

The worst part is, in the beginning, you believe her. You believe in the romantic haze followed by a domestic relationship that becomes all too realistically strained by circumstance and familial obligation. You believe in the breakdown of the marriage, the perfunctory sex, the emotional nitpicking, and the descent into domestic violence. You believe it because it’s common enough to be familiar, and familiar enough to make you uncomfortable.

And then, Amy kicks you, the reader, and your sympathies in the face. Because bitches be crazy.

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On the rise of Scott Morrison

by Stephanie on October 5, 2014

The signing of the new refugee resettlement contract between Australia and Cambodia last week had all the makings of a political farce. Before the gathered dignitaries were able to toast the new arrangements, a full tray of champagne flutes crashed to the floor. Morrison and Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng clinked lonely glasses amid growing heckling from a disgruntled media, frustrated at the diplomats’ refusal to answer questions about the MOU or its implications for the future of Australia’s refugee resettlement program.

Morrison’s late arrival to the ceremony and subsequent stony silence about the arrangements belies the seriousness of the deal. $40 million is reported to be changing hands for, at the moment, only a handful of ‘voluntary’ resettlements. For a government that insists upon austerity and fiscal responsibility, it’s a remarkable outlay for what is effectively a pilot program. But then, the federal government’s anti-refugee agenda has never been hampered by questions of cost. Reports from the National Commission of Audit show that annual expenditure on asylum seeker arrivals by boat alone between 2009-10 and 2013-14 has increased from $118.4 million to $3.3 billion: a growth of 129% per year. It costs $400,000 a year to hold an asylum seeker in offshore detention, $239,000 to hold them onshore, and less than $100,000 if they live in community detention. By way of comparison, an asylum seeker living in the community on a bridging visa while their claim is processed costs approximately $40,000.

The financial issues alone should make the program untenable, not to mention the horrendous human rights abuses inherent in it, were the architects of the program not driven by a greater fear: loss of power. There is a great irony in the fact that the man who used to be the head of Tourism Australia — an institution entirely devoted to the influx and investment of foreigners in Australian cultural products and the Australian economy — is now responsible for the indefinite detention and persecution of those who arrive without being asked. But then, perhaps these are simply two manifestations of the same ugly philosophy, articulated so clearly by Morrison’s mentor, former PM John Howard: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

It’s perhaps not irrelevant that Morrison represents the federal division of Cook in Sydney, an electorate encompassing Caringbah, Miranda, Sylvania and Cronulla — the latter of which became a byword for racism and Islamophobia in the aftermath of the 2005 beach riots. In 2011, Morrison was revealed to have been encouraging the Liberal party to pursue an electoral strategy which capitalise on the anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia. Now, after allegations of repeated claims of sexual abuse of children in detention, Morrison has called for an inquiry — into whether or not the aid workers who reported such incidents were making them up. It’s an extraordinarily cynical act of state-sanctioned victim blaming, and it should provoke no end of outrage.

But the terrifying truth is that Morrison isn’t fazed by outrage. In fact, his political standing depends upon it. Once you have established yourself as the go-to guy in any crisis, real or manufactured; once your public persona has been cemented as he who will not compromise, he who makes the hard decisions, he who will deal with the ‘undesirables’, he who unashamedly never apologises, you can find yourself in a remarkably powerful position — particularly if your party has the ear of a media mogul and the backing of a worldwide network of tabloid newspapers. Short of being punished for his unpopular decisions, Morrison looks set for a promotion, a testament to the fact a politician who isn’t afraid of the wrath of the public is not simply anti-democratic, but dangerous.

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Fixing

by Stephanie on September 20, 2014

Some nights I lie in bed half asleep, listening to the chattering in my own head. Different sets of voices overlap one another, as if I’m standing in line at the bank or the supermarket checkout queue as crowds of people bustle around me, relaying to each other their anecdotes and grievances and the details of their day. Snatches of song lyrics. Thumps and creaks and ticks and hums. As if my brain has absorbed all that busyness and bustle: has picked up the momentum of the city and needs to whir and turn and wind itself out before it can shut off for the night. I guess meditation is what we call the process of quietening all of that. I’ve never been very good at it, and to be honest, I am suspicious of it. But late at night when the buzzing becomes incessant and the whirl and thrum of my mind threatens to keep me from sleep I do try, if only enough to help me relax and drift off.

The nightmares are something else. Do they come from exhaustion, sugar, sleeping on my back, unresolved anxieties, overheating, a fucked-up subconscious? You name it, I have considered it. I used to think I got nightmares when I wasn’t using my brain enough. Kind of like Dahl’s Matilda, except instead of manifesting as the power to levitate objects, the untapped potential was just festering and eating itself. But then, when I was writing my PhD — a time when I was never not engaging critically with the world — they came relentlessly: crocodiles and rabid dogs lunging for my throat; stalkers and murderers; all kinds of physical abominations.

I’d like to think I’m engaging critically with the world now, and using my brain in a whole heap of productive ways, but if I am honest, I am actually in a process of writing rehabilitation, with everything that entails. It is simultaneously slow, difficult, painful and boring. Breaking old patterns and reestablishing new habits, clean habits, productive habits requires repetition, reassurance, repetition, escalation, repetition, reassurance, repetition, repetition. So I’m doing my exercises and loathing them, while knowing that they’ll become a foundation for something else, something better, something worthwhile — that is, if I can ever think of anything interesting to talk about.

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Late night

August 25, 2014

I remember: The sharp stink of campfires and the tang of eucalyptus and pine. The crunch of shoes on gravel in the dark. Rain on a canvas roof. The sound of nearby water, and the way it changed the feel of the air. I was taller than the boys, mostly. Taller, heavier, thighs and hips […]

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The Chicken Project

July 5, 2014

I have to come clean about something. Not because I think it’s unique, or exciting or brave to fess up. I don’t think the result will make particularly good reading, and I certainly don’t think any of it needs to be public knowledge. If anything, I’m writing about it simply because I’m sick of sleeping […]

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Muse

May 1, 2014

  Hollowed out, I am scraped clean with a steel spoon, seeds and pulpy excess in jars and these little monsters, sitting neatly in a row. Here: tentacles and spongy parts, crocodile eyes and a soft belly. There: a gelatinous membrane covers writhing organs and a quiet, beating heart. I learn anew each time: that […]

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Halcyon days

June 22, 2013

These frosty June nights are biting. They numb my fingers and turn my lips blue. I drink mug after mug of hot water, wrap myself in shawls and scarves and sit at my desk with a heat pack slid under my thighs, trying to ward off the inertia that comes from icy skin and viscid […]

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Deluge

June 1, 2013

My parents called me yesterday from Montreal. Various stems of the family grapevine had covered the distance before I could bring myself to do so and let them know about the second burglary: that hefty gobbet of muck spattering up over the top of all my other troubles. I miss them both, and perhaps it […]

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For posterity’s sake

December 31, 2012

I struggled a lot this year. I worked really hard and have come so close – if not crossed over – to burnout on a number of occasions. I have been depressed and exhausted, anxious and upset more than is healthy, and it’s possible I have been this way for longer than I am comfortable acknowledging […]

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