How does your garden grow?

by Stephanie on December 27, 2008

When I was eight, my father took me (just me) on a four-wheel-driving trip with his cousins and their friends. Kathleen, my third cousin, and I sat in the back of one dusty, muddy Landcruiser after another as we drove along, used to the bumps and the crackle of the CB radios, colouring in our colouring books whenever the car was stopped for long enough. We were too young to be of much practical use; it was our job just to enjoy the experience.

Somewhere along the road, we came to an almost vertical rock-face. One side of it was smooth, the other jagged, and the men stood around trying to decide how they were going to get the convoy of Landcruisers up it. Dad’s car—with me and Kathleen in it—was the guinea pig. They tried the smooth slope first but the tyres couldn’t get a decent grip, so they backed us down ever-so-carefully and tried the jagged side instead. The engine strained and Kathleen and I—almost horizontal—held on tightly to the seats. Halfway up the rock-face, the car paused for a minute or so as Dad got a firmer grip on the gears and the wheel, and Kathleen and I thought, “Oh, we’ve stopped.” Never mind that were almost lying down in a car whose wheels were clinging precariously to a few chunks of stone, we proceeded to open our colouring books.

I started with a story because it’s late and I’m trying to keep the motor running. I’m in a bad mood and people insist on walking into the firing line, claiming “I can handle it, I can handle it.” No, you can’t. You say you can because maybe you want to, but you can’t. So I’m going to shut you out because I’m tired of small talk and I’m tired of anxiety and I’m tired of feeling like I need to explain myself. I’m not doing it to be nice, I’m not doing it for some bullshit attempt to sound like I’m tough—I’m saving myself the guilt-trip later. You may as well get a glimpse of what you’re missing all at once because it saves me having to go through it again.

All week, friends and family (bless them) have been talking about me, to me, saying things like, “Look at what you can do! Look at what you are doing!” And I look and what I see is that I’m running on borrowed time. I know I should be grateful—I am more than grateful—but I don’t know how to fight for things when the odds aren’t severely against me: when people aren’t saying, “Yeah right, as if you could.” And the more people tell me I can, realise I can, the more third chances they give me, the more contrary I feel. No, don’t let me hand this in at the last minute. No, don’t tell me my excuse is “fair enough”. I don’t want special consideration; I want a challenge that electrifies me. It’s the arrogant discontent of the excessively privileged. If it’s too easy, I switch myself off again and float out into space, ignoring the stars colliding on the far side of something, wondering where the anchor is or what it anchors me to. And I wonder even now if I will spew this out and care what you think, or if I will spew this out and leave it idling, half-finished, going nowhere, and bury myself in the waste of my day and the excess food, and the way that lately my eyelids get heavy the minute I feel like I need to write, and the fact that I write to avoid work, that I work to avoid writing, that I try to write when I should be sleeping and that when I fall asleep the words start coming. Sometimes I feel like I’m made of conflict and the tension is all that keeps me upright. But I can’t move either forward or back. Perhaps every artist’s life is a constant struggle with the impulse to create—medicating the world away with one anaesthetic excuse after another, as the pressure builds up on the inside until finally the smooth veneer is ruptured—and the voices outside murmur, she’s successful, she’s smart, she’s got it all together—and then the dam wall cracks and gives way, words pouring forth, thundering through the valleys, washing away fences, uprooting trees. And perhaps that’s what this is, the inevitable build-up. But I don’t want to validate inertia, and I don’t understand why I manage to get away with it all the time.

Then there’s the fact that art doesn’t come from quiet comfort; it comes from quiet comfort being torn away. It comes from tension and conflict and uncertainty and discordancy. It comes from euphoric joy and unheralded despair. Its creators are selfish and biting and incredibly messy, and the process of construction is contrary and draining and physically debilitating.

Or maybe I’m just talking about myself.

How’s the writing going? I hate that fucking question. How do you measure a good day? Quality? Quantity? A spark of inspiration? All three? In that case, most days are bad days. I could write 3,000 words and not use any of them. I could write 40 and it could be the best sentence of my novel.

How’s the writing going? Here’s the truth: it’s stagnating, because I’m stalled at the bottom of the rock wall. I’m too proud to turn around and go home, too stubborn not to eventually succeed, and it’s not like I can’t do it, or think it’s worth devoting my life to—because I can and I do—but I’m the one that’s driving, I’m the one that has to decide which slope to take, I’m the one with the keys and the means and my foot on the clutch, and instead I’m colouring in my fucking colouring book.

Pathetic.

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