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

by Stephanie on 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 ballooning. I don’t remember how my body felt before puberty, but I know I always felt older, and that it felt lonely. I tried to shrink myself to feel less awkward. I wanted to be small and pretty and graceful and rough and tough and hardy all at once. Sometimes, I still want that.

We were keen to win at games and campcraft, but more interested in each other. The adults knew this, and they took to patrolling the grounds after curfew to make sure kids weren’t in each other’s camps, each other’s tents, each other’s beds. One of those boys was my first kiss. Another, my first touch — a fumbling, confused, uncomfortable grope. I remember torchlights flicking through the dark. Hiding behind the trees to escape being caught in the beam, ants crawling over our hands. I remember the scrape of stones on tin. The sound of younger boys jeering at each other in the big tents not far away. Arguing over the rules of Cheat. A thick, wet tongue and a mouthful of spit.

Years later, we would all head out into the bush again in a convoy of beat-up old Toyotas and enormous four-wheel drives, with eskies full of booze and boxes stuffed with eggs, bacon, hash browns and maybe a joint or two. They weren’t parties so much as our own private festivals. We hooked up subwoofers and fairy lights to the generators, and sank gallon after gallon of beer and Jack Daniels and cheap vodka and terrible cask wine. We shared boxes of Barbecue Shapes and took turns doing the dishes, didn’t wash our bodies for days, and didn’t bother brushing our teeth before we kissed someone.

One year, I drank so much that I passed out in the bush with a guy’s hand down my jeans. He left me where I was, less than half conscious in the undergrowth, away from the party, away from the lights. At some point he found my best friend and said nothing more than, ‘Steph needs you,’ before turning back to the campfire crowd and forgetting all about it.

I ignored him whenever I saw him afterwards — which was often, given the circles we moved in — but the aftermath, as far as I can remember, consisted of little more than me feeling stupid, abysmally hungover, and in need of a bath. I was in love with someone else at the time, drowning myself in booze and kissing everyone I could get my hands on in order to forget about how I really felt.

It could have meant a lot of things. In another life, it might even have hurt. But to me, then, it was just another route to disembodiment.

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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.

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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.

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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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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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