The Chicken Project

by Stephanie on 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 in damp sheets, and the only thing that will get rid of the mildew is bright sunlight and a strong breeze.

For the last 18 months I’ve been undergoing treatment for anxiety and depression that is directly related to my career as a writer. I had my PhD in Creative Writing at the age of 27. Two months after graduating, I was taking medication. I didn’t tell my family. My partner had concerns about it. But I didn’t really know what else to do.

I was crying a lot, and I wasn’t really sure why. I was exhausted all the time. I was letting things slip at work. I was sobbing in the bathroom stalls, with my make-up bag on my lap so I could fix up my face afterwards and walk out again like nothing had happened. I couldn’t finish even the simplest list of chores at home. Washing piled up. Bills would come in and I would just look at them, like, I know what this is and what I’m supposed to do with it but I just… no. I put it down to all sorts of things: burn out, fatigue, the massive learning curve involved in my PhD, particular aspects of my relationship, drinking, the PhD, ex-partners, full-time work, lack of regular writing routine, lack of time, the PhD, the PhD, the PhD. I couldn’t understand what my psychologist meant when he told me I cared too much about my writing.

I was finding it harder and harder to write, but still, I tried. I opened lines of communication with editors. I applied for things. I got an ArtStart grant from the Australia Council. I got an Arts Victoria project grant for a new non-fiction work. I got an agent who loved the novel I wrote during the PhD and wanted to sell it, tried to sell it. And still, I found it harder and harder to write. I talked about writing. I had ideas. I researched. I read. But I didn’t write. I couldn’t.

I don’t know why I tried so hard to keep pushing up that hill. Perhaps on some level I thought, if I convince everyone else to invest in me, maybe I will be able to convince myself that I am worth the investment. Or, maybe material circumstances like that will help me move past this block. Or, maybe I’m just imagining it. But all the swirling matter in my head was crystallising around one particular sticky central spot: my novel wouldn’t sell.

There’s a scene in an early episode of Orange is the New Black in which Piper, the incarcerated heroine, spends an entire day dealing with the fallout from the fact that she saw a live chicken in the prison yard and nobody believes her. The phantom chicken has ruled the prison world during that time so intensely that when she spots it again through the window while on the telephone waiting for a very important call to connect — a call that will likely make or break her business outside the prison walls — she drops the receiver and bolts outside to chase it down. By the time she catches up to it, however, the chicken is on the other side of the chain link fence, out of reach, and the phone has long since gone dead.

That’s how I feel.

It’s occurred to me over the last few months that I am very ill-equipped to deal with failure. Something to be avoided at all costs, except as a matter of my own choosing: in the past, if I failed, it’s not because I was incapable, but because I chose to fail. I can see this pattern in everything from the massive disparity in my high school grades (I topped the classes I liked and worked only precisely enough to pass those that bored me) to my attitude towards running. People say I am driven. I am also my own worst enemy, throwing grenade after grenade in my own way to spur myself on, as if to remind myself that the achievement is worth it. I am beginning to think that the reason I don’t know how to fail is because I don’t allow myself the space to practice.

Dealing with the nexus between writing, publication, social expectations and my own understanding of what success means has been the single most difficult mental obstacle I have had to overcome. I think every artist has to face this problem in some capacity. In my case, it resulted in a complete meltdown. I have had it said to me more than once by much loved people that making progress with writing is, more than anything else, a matter of discipline. I get that. I get where the ethos comes from and I get why it’s important. But discipline has not stopped the knot in my throat building into a terrible aching fear every time I think about the projects I haven’t finished. It hasn’t stopped the disappointment and completely undignified jealousy that rises up inside me when I am reminded, as I have been every time I have thought about about my novel over the last couple of years, that I am not the exception. I am not the twenty-something with the international book deal. I am not making any money from my work and nor am I likely to. Publishing — even book publishing — is unlikely to ever bring me anything other than pocket money and the privilege of speaking perhaps a little bit louder than I could on my own.

Unfortunately, art and art practice doesn’t quarantine itself from the rest of life, and as a result I’ve made an unholy mess over the couple of years, fucking things up all over the place. Not just writing things, but life things. I’m still fucking them up and I don’t know how to fix them all and admitting that is really scary, because I feel like maybe this time I finally fucked something up permanently. I don’t know how to deal with fuck ups when the mistake is not ‘this broke’ or ‘I forgot’ but ‘I didn’t’. I said I would and I didn’t. I meant to, I wanted to, theoretically I could have, and there was nothing material standing in my way. But I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t. I can’t remember why. It’s self-sabotage, I suppose. I am still not sure where that impulse comes from because I don’t intend to do things that way. There’s a mental process going awry somewhere. I don’t know the location of the warp but I know it’s there, and its effects disorientingly outweigh the significance of the original task.

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I know that from the outside that all makes about as much sense as chasing after a chicken, but somehow, somewhere, a pattern was established, and that pattern was reinforced by other patterns and now it seems as unconscious as breathing. Unlike breathing, it can be unlearned, but that process is long and hard and will inevitably involve more fuck-ups and more chicken chasing and arguments and apologies and probably a fair bit of crying too and all of that is very tiring and difficult and unpretty and undignified. But that’s the way it is.

In the midst of all of that mess it’s completely reasonable to ask, is this even what I want to do? I’ve certainly thought about it often enough over the last couple of years. Because in order to write, one has to spend a lot of time not doing other things — one of which includes making money. As the Marxist in my head helpfully reminds me, art is an expression of labour power, labour power is measured by time, which is also what I sell to my employer for their exploitation, and thus once sold is no longer mine. What is, at the outset, a free exchange of services becomes thereafter unequal: those eight hours a day I spend at work are not mine. Even if am writing for employment, those hours I spend writing are not mine. And sooner or later, one starts to feel the question creep up: who am I doing this for? Is the 29-year-old at her desk today the same one that could touch-type at age 11, and churn out story after story on her Dad’s old DOS system for her own amusement? If so, what happened to that joy? What happened to that focus? Have I been wrong for all these years when I said this was what I wanted to do? Have I been wrong to invest so much time in learning how to do it? And who the hell am I if I don’t write?

In a way, it is its own answer. On Thursday, as the muck of yet another life fuck-up landed on my lap and I started spewing out my angst about it onto to the page, it was suddenly all so blindingly obvious. Of course I want to do this. This isn’t who I am, but how I am. I write to work through problems. I write to untangle ideas. I write to alleviate myself of burdens, whether they’re political problems or emotional knots or social issues or why I keep thinking about that fucking chicken. I write to communicate. To make connections. To bridge loneliness. To draw out meaning. To escape fear. This is how I process. To say I care too much about my writing is like saying I care too much about life. Because the truth is, it’s not that I’ve been caring too much, but I’ve been caring for the wrong reasons.

I need to stop feeling like my work belongs to everyone else. I need to remind myself — to reteach myself — to reiterate to myself and incorporate into my everyday practices that I am doing this for myself first. I need to remember that this is mine.

{ 37 comments }

Muse

by Stephanie on 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 knot inside my chest,
it pulls gnaws tightens
and my breath — a gasp
caught behind my tongue as my jaw clamps shut.
A rush of heat behind my ears
and for a tingling moment, that blaze —
that firecracker pattern in the dark —
illuminating every bulge and excrescence,
each half-formed lump
of swelling, pulsing, mutating matter in the body
of an involuntary host.

There are days
I care more for soap suds
or the delicate clicks hums murmurs purrs of this settling house
or the iron-grey scrape of the vacuum cleaner shredding the domestic lull
than the thought of wrenching out
the pieces of some new contorted brute.
Ganglions rise on my wrists
and my fingers ache from stitching.
Sense brings its own comforts:
a pencil skirt in the morning,
a glass of wine in the afternoon,
an affair in the evening.
The constant rearranging
of the disorderly mundane
is a kind of art
not unlike mine, and yet
I cannot feel that churn, that push,
that impending hot-blood catastrophe
away from these wretched creatures.
The silver snake of time still stretches out
in the space between what I see
and how I see it, and through that fissure
the punctuation of my life is rendered
in the gullies and rocks of the slow ascent
to here,

and I am tired.

 

My knuckles crack.
Skin splits and blisters.
It would be quicker
to cleave these pieces from the bone with a rough blade
because the time it takes to disconnect every vessel
each microscopic vein
with careful, meticulous fingers and baste them anew — but no.
I bury my elbows in terse dawn
and begin again
to suture this malignant growth to some new beast.

{ 1 comment }

Halcyon days

by Stephanie on 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 blood. My electricity bill has done enough damage.

Halcyon is now seen only in the idiom “the halcyon days” although it was once used as a verb. It is generally used as referring to days distant and more pleasant, shrouded in the contentment of selective memory.  Properly used, it refers to the 14 days of calm weather at sea which, according to Greek legend, interrupt the storms of mid-Winter. It comes from hals (salt, or the sea) and kuo (to brood on).  According to Greek legend, the kingfisher makes its nest on the water and hatches its eggs during the 14 days of calm at mid-Winter. Properly used, halcyon means the tranquil spell surrounding the Winter solstice. In the southern hemisphere, that is on 20-21 June.

I rode along the creek in the dark last night, blue-white headlamp flashing across the water, still as glass. And I thought, if there is no soul and I am simply body, then where does love come from?

Halcyon was the daughter of Neptune, keeper of the seas. She fell in love with Ceyx, the mortal king of Thessaly. Ceyx went to sea at mid-Winter and was shipwrecked. His body was washed ashore, where Halcyon found it. Distracted by grief, she took his corpse into the water, wishing for death to reunite them. But the gods took pity on her and turned the two of them into kingfishers. 

If love is reducible to hormones and proximity, and romance to social context and chance; if my instincts are socialised and my thought patterns so potentially malleable, then what impacts do the changes in my body make? And if my physical responses are so easily manipulated by chemical-in-chemical-out, how do I evaluate the difference between how I feel now on medication to how I felt without it? Which feelings are real? What can I trust?

Out on the stormy seas, the two kingfishers mated, and made a nest on the sea. Neptune, concerned for his grandchildren, stilled the waves whilst the eggs hatched. The sea was still for 14 days – the halcyon days. 

If I don’t know which of my feelings to trust, how can I possibly ever know myself? And how on earth can I know what will make me happy?

 

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Deluge

by Stephanie on 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 is their absence, or perhaps I am just getting better at talking about how I feel, but I need little prompting to pour my heart out to them over the distance. ‘Things are awful. I feel awful. None of these choices seem right but I have to make one.’ And they give me advice, one after another, comfort coming in short, intense bursts over the scratchy line. ‘It’ll get better, love. Just remember to breathe slowly. Take one day at a time. You can always go home if you need to.’ I am sure I have never heard my father be so kindly and understanding as he is being now. But there was a time, after all, when it was just the three of us: before my baby brothers came rolling and tumbling into the world; when a family of seven was a simple cocoon of three. He was there for me then, completely accepting of my every irritating quirk and cry, and he is here for me now, even while he is on the other side of the world. And I realise as he talks how well he actually knows me. No matter how much conflict there may have been in the middle, somehow we have come full circle.

My mother sends me beautiful postcards: a map of California; a blazing sunset over the grey Lake Michigan beach; the apex of Frank Lloyd Wright’s roof rising up against a clear summer morning. I blu-tac them to the wall so that I can track their journey from my desk. She writes that she visits these places and thinks, ‘Stephanie would love this.’ I expect I would, and part of me aches with it. She wasn’t going to talk on the phone while they were on their trip — ‘The point of going away is to be away, I think’ — but she is worried about me. I am glad she breaks her rule for these calls. The little things are so important right now.

Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions.

I read this essay on Thursday morning over breakfast. I read it four times through. My tea went cold as I retraced the final four paragraphs, again and again and again, and with each sentence I saw myself, naked and branded, exposed for all my sins in cruel black ink.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game.

I have always found myself saddled with a bubbling urge to go, to leave, to be somewhere else. A desire for change is healthy, I think, but this is something more. It manifests geographically but it is a reflection of internal conflict. Disorder. A machine cobbled together from slightly ill-fitting parts that have begun to scrape and wear and break apart.

I’ve been taking painkillers to sleep. The headaches are too intrusive, and I can’t wake in the middle of the night or my mind whirrs into rasping half-life again.

To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no-one at home.

A vase of lilies sits on the living room cabinet, blooming unexpected white stars on a dismal, rainy evening. They were a cheer up gift. An it will get better soon gift. Will it, I wonder? Will it? And I take a deep breath.

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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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In pursuit of a political argument for exercise

October 3, 2012

I’ve been a bit low lately. I’ve had knee problems since the half-marathon and for a few weeks I didn’t run at all. Even my bicycle seemed to be constantly in for repair, which meant hideous train rides to and from work every day. I got sick. Then I got sick again. The Melbourne Writers […]

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On offense

September 1, 2012

1. At the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival, at the Overland panel on the Tent Embassy, a woman in the front row put her hand up to make a comment. She understood Indigenous people were angry, she said. She understood that horrible things had happened. But she felt personally offended by what she perceived to be […]

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One foot in front of the other

August 2, 2012

I used to hate running. I hated it like I hated mornings, or sitting down to start an essay. The threat of dawn invoked dread. Impending deadlines made me want to curl up on myself, clutch at my knees, like a caterpillar being poked in the belly. And putting on my running shoes, stepping out […]

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Addendum

June 16, 2012

Sometimes the water gets so muddy it’s impossible to see through the swirling dirt and debris looms dark and sudden though the murk. Sometimes you have to wait for the silt to settle to clear your head. For what it’s worth: Sexism is not simply reducible to the prejudice of individuals. Individual misogyny is not […]

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Pocket holes

August 16, 2011

We flew the budget airline. My father blithely strolled through customs, waving cheerfully at the guards who waved cheerfully back, took our fingerprints but asked us almost nothing. When we checked in at the hotel, he started pulling half-open packets of biscuits, chocolate, candy, piles of muesli bars—even a chicken wing—out of his bag. ‘In […]

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