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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