When we write, we go looking for Trouble.
Ted Deppe (from talk ‘Making Trouble for Yourself, Making Trouble for Others’), Dingle, 2018
Writing as Pain, Writing as Trouble? Mmm. I’d love to hear someone talk about Writing as Joy.
Annie Deppe (in conversation, paraphrased from memory), Dingle, 2018
The questions jam my brain. I flail about, my ideas hopping like mosquitos. First I draw a spider-map, and from that decide to write freely for an hour. Nothing much comes, beyond some words around the challenges that the representation of multi-dimensional action, unfolding in and through the body, places on the linear, cerebral process that is writing. At the end of this, I do another mind-map. The word ‘impossible’ appears twice. On my next session, I plump down at the PC, with the intention of discussing the conditions that support my writing. I have Andrew O’Hagan’s distinction between auditory and visual writers in my mind and I’m thinking I’ll explore my own auditoryness—specifically, my need for silence at key stages of the writing process—but very quickly I begin to write about getting hung-up, at final proofs stage, on visual layout and commas. Then I find myself writing about longhand and typing and I realise how different my attitude is to ‘mistakes’ I make in each mode, and this leads me into an experiment where I try to type the way I write—not correcting, just keeping going—and this throws up more unexpected information, like how, in anticipating errors, I hold my breath when I type, something I don’t do when I write, and how I never learnt to type with my little finger properly, so there’s always a jolt before I reach for ‘q’ or a quote mark, and how, when I make a ‘mistake’, instead of pausing the way I do in longhand before fluidly moving on, leaving the error uncorrected to write the next word, I keep jabbing at the keys, creating an arpeggio of wrongness, and I conclude with the realisation that, contrary to my argument, I am, at times, a writer most definitely trapped by the visual.
On my next session, I start fresh, trying to reclaim the aural, except half a para in, I’m writing about longhand again, trying to describe the experience, how it feels, how I think doing it, and then I’m onto flow, but now anxiety is setting in, because I’ve written about longhand recently for another essay, and I’m worried I’ll just repeat myself. By this point, I may have already made the third mind-map—containing the words ‘revenge’, ‘retribution’, Ted Deppe’s name and the phrase ‘R. in the garden’—though I don’t know anymore because I haven’t dated it. Maybe this is why I start pushing the piece into a new direction, about R., a young person I know. This material feels promising, but before I know it, my hour is up, so I stop. Next day, overwhelmed by the different directions I’ve gone in, I decide to make a stab at po-mo; I’ll write up the process of creating this piece as a quasi-scientific experiment. I go at it with gusto; a day later, when I read the text, I realise it’s flat and pretentious.
The results are in. So far, I’ve failed because I’m avoiding the hardest question.
What is the purpose of writing?
When I’m not writing, I’ve no idea. By this, I mean I don’t know why I, more than anyone else, should write. I grew up believing it’s important to contribute to society, to use my skills to make a material, positive difference. When I’m not engaged in artistic work, it’s easy to feel that what I do doesn’t amount to much; it’s just feeding the machine of capitalist-consumerism or my own lonely ego. It’s then I wonder if I should do something more worthwhile, like teaching young people, or return to working in an addiction treatment centre. At the same time, I’m aware a small wizened bit of me wants the World to throw up its hands in horror and go ‘Oh No, You Must Write’. Yet I know the whole tortured dialogue is bullshit, because the moment I start into the next project the agonising will stop. Here’s my shame: I write, in the first instance, because I feel worse when I don’t.
I recently spoke in Dingle at a residential week run by Bay Path University as part of their MFA in Creative Writing. My topic was ‘Sitting with the Pain’. In preparation for the talk, I’d emailed a group of writers from WORD (a collective that meets quarterly at the Irish Writers Centre), asking them what stages of the writing process were painful for them, and how they dealt with it. The answers were funny, honest and articulate. They spoke about RSI, conflict during the publication process, and the trauma of filling in funding applications. A lot of the writers talked of doubt—losing faith in your ability to say anything, thinking what you’re writing is shit, or that you’re no good as a writer. Others described process issues: not being able to start a project, getting stuck in the middle, trying to finish, having to let work go. Many spoke about the pain of not writing. All the answers resonated with me, the last one in particular.
John Cleese once said when asked to advise would-be actors: Don’t do it if you want to, do it if you need to. This is great advice, but it took me a long time to realise that writing for me is a question of need, and for the act of writing itself, above the need to say something through it. I can’t recall ever wanting to be a writer. When I was a kid, I just wrote. I wasn’t aware of feeling bad when I didn’t, but I was always playing at something. Reading, dress-up, drawing, ball-games, wandering, running, chasing. I loved making stuff up, acting it out or giving life to the inanimate. With my cousin Karen, I’d often assume the role of auteur, directing siblings and neighbours in the creation of long, meandering plays. In my early to mid-teens, I continued to play; I wrote terrible poetry, made paintings of David Bowie from his album covers, turned my essay assignments from English class into short stories and joined the Dublin Youth Theatre. The year I left school, I started making paintings influenced by JugendStil and J.G. Ballard and devised a theatre piece with friends from the DYT; that summer, after visiting Amalfi, I wrote a short story about a swimming-pool attendant. The stage, it seemed, was set for something. Then in November, at 17, I went to Germany to au pair.
I au paired for six months but I always say ‘a year’ when I talk about that time because it had such a formative impact on me. On my first day there, I collected the youngest of my charges, M., from playschool. When we returned, his mother asked me to play with him in his room for an hour before his siblings came home. At the start, it was fun in a nostalgic kind of way, muddling around with his wooden farmyard animals and miniature shop full of tiny wooden things, giving them voices and names, watching him invest in the imagined universe unfurling in front of him. It was like acting the role of a child, a role I’d only recently divested myself from (or so I thought), and I liked acting, and M. was a good audience. 'Nochmal,' he’d shout. 'Again!' After a while, I started thinking ahead to lunch. Because once his siblings were back and we’d eaten, then surely I’d do what I normally did when I babysat in Ireland? Read or catch up on my German grammar, keeping an eye on the kids as they played their own games, only getting involved the odd time, only if they asked.
I can’t remember checking the time during that hour, but I remember feeling very dazed, almost out-of-it, by the time lunch was called. Once I’d done the dishes, I sat down at the table and took out my book. The kids were messing around in the drawing-room, visible through the dividing doors. Their mother came in. She frowned. 'Bitte,' she said, 'spiel mit den Kindern.' Please, play with the children. Huh? I thought, and there I was, swept upstairs with the kids, down on hands and knees, making stuff up again, out of it again, till 6 o’clock sounded and it was time for Sesamstrasse and Abendbrot.
My terms of employment were basic: bed, board and pocket money in exchange for looking after the children and light housework. No time off had been specified beyond the evenings. Not having any daytime activities planned or friends to meet, I ended up playing with those kids every weekday from 11.30am to 6pm and all day on the weekends, holidays included.
I think I went a little mad that year. Time is different when you’re younger, minutes can feel like days, but those hours I spent playing with the German children stretched into something else altogether. Trapped, bored stupid, I felt myself shrink against the infinite cliff-face of each afternoon, reduce to the size of the children. At the same time I felt too big, squashed like Alice into a house that refused to fit me. What do you do when the things you love to do become things you have to do, when play becomes work? I think it’s significant that I didn’t write much that year, though I did a lot of drawing and painting in those few hours in the evening that I could call my own.
I painted landscapes, cityscapes, and trees. The paintings were usually a response to a visual cue I’d see on my walks or out a window—a forest glade, the purple hue of a twilight. I’d see a shape and colour in my mind and when I sat down to paint, would start making marks; either with pastel or acrylic. Sometimes a figure or other form would come first, then a background; other times abstract shapes would emerge, making the background, and I’d incorporate a figure on top. Behind the visual impetus, there was always something else, something wordless, that I wanted to communicate. A physical-emotional feeling. A tone I hoped would sound through the work.
Adam Wyeth, one of the writers I surveyed for 'Sitting with the Pain', talks about creativity as 'serious play'. ‘As Hemingway said, [says his email] writing is easy, you just sit by the typewriter and bleed. Bleeding sounds like pain here, but bleeding itself isn’t actually painful?’ My dominant memory of making those paintings is feeling a sense of calmness. Was I bleeding painting them? It seemed more like an act of capture—though letting a tone sound is a release, of sorts, isn’t it? While that calm feeling, isn’t that a bit like the effect of the blood-letting done by doctors of old, to balance their patients’ humours?
And now I realise I’m wrong in saying I didn’t write much in Germany. In fact I wrote lots. Letters, long ones, every day, to family, friends, anyone who’d reached out to me. With some correspondents I only mentioned the good stuff; with others I shared the bad, particularly my difficulties with the kids. I’m interested in why I so readily overlooked my letters as ‘writing’. What need didn’t they meet? What purpose didn’t they serve? Those texts were serious, but there was no sign of play in them, and writing them didn’t feel like letting go of anything.
In 2011, interviewed by Robert Crum, Michael Ondaatje spoke about a phrase he had once read: 'people who lose their childhood eventually have to retrieve it'. I enjoyed most of my childhood, but I hated the last six months of it before I turned eighteen. There were positives: I learnt German, I met some great people, I saw wonderful places. But the experience of au pairing was to change the foundations of my relationship with myself, and not just because of the boredom. I was living in what was tantamount to an abusive situation—the children verbally or physically attacked me every day—but instead of leaving, I made myself stay. As the weeks passed, my trust in myself frayed. In its place accumulated a profound unease, a sense of bad faith that oozed into my life for years afterwards, affecting my experiences of intimacy, family, work and play.
It seems to me that my entire adult life as an artist has been about reclaiming that lost part of my childhood: learning to seize back those six months, those endless hours in the playroom, re-own my imagination, play the way I want to, need to, not the way someone else has made me. I play now, seriously and with a vengeance. I play because if I don’t, I feel bad. And if I feel bad, I’m not good for anything.
Five and a half years after returning from Germany, I wrote a story, Departure, which felt different to anything I’d written before—apart, perhaps, from that very early story about the swimming-pool attendant. I’ve discussed Departure in other essays because it was such a watershed; it was personal and revealing and I felt reluctant to show it to anyone when I’d finished it. In terms of this piece, I can see I definitely bled into it, though the bleeding itself wasn’t painful. But nor did it seem like play; more like channelling. I became a conduit for a voice, a stream of images and, most of all, a feeling: shame, that core of bad faith in myself. In the years after Germany, I’d tried approaching this unease through writing. But I’d always found myself skittering away, into heightened genre, or abstract ideas influenced by my time in college. In painting, I’d got closer, making dark, stylised pieces of hairless humanoids eviscerating themselves or huddled for protection under the roots of a dying tree. I’m a little embarrassed writing about them now. Oh God, I want to say, aren’t they so adolescent? I’m not sure if they were a successful release of blood, but I knew making them was a conscious attempt to get a handle on my unhappiness, to communicate it—though I’m not sure to whom. As in Germany, I’d start with an image: something I’d seen in real life, or from a deeper, unconscious place. This was always linked to an emotional feeling, or to a set of conflicting feelings. Then I’d begin mark-making. The act of painting felt serious, but playful too: I was working with oil and I remember the flash of satisfaction when I’d discover a new way of creating dimension or light with the materials. When the pieces emerged, there was a tone sounding in them; bloody, yes, at times painful, but they also felt strangely organised, far more resolved than what was going on inside. Later a friend told me that in order to really communicate, to convey meaning through paint, I needed to know the language better.
By the time I wrote Departure, I was ready to go back to words, my other language, one I knew I had a better grasp on. Writing that story, I knew there was a wound there, but the act itself wasn’t wounding. It flowed. I’ve happened on flow in other work since, sometimes when writing about troubled fictional situations, or digging into my own pain, sometimes just writing. Like this passage in my second novel, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland:
She steps into the shimmery mirage of wobbling air. The lane breathes out and the sounds of the neighbourhood fade, leaving her quarantined in a hidden dimension of silence. Under the sun’s glare, the images around her sharpen: hotch-potch limestone render, a patchwork of doors leading to other people’s back gardens; scruffy dandelion heads and parched green weeds in tiny triangles of dirt. Halfway down the lane gleams the disintegrating carcass of the stolen Cortina the robbers dumped there at the start of summer. Something percolates up through her awareness; something is not right. The broken and whole bits of the car are bouncing back white splinters of sun that hurt her eyes. The tyres are flat and droopy, as if melting into the ground. The crack in the back windscreen, extrapolated into a frosty, glittering spiderweb, stares at her. From its crazed glass eye comes the sound of music.
It is a tinny sound, faint but recognisable. The sound of a transistor radio playing pop, the type of music Joanie Flynn listens to, the type that makes your feet want to tap and your bottom and shoulders shake. Curious, cautious, Georgie draws closer. A flicker of movement behind the windscreen. She stops. The lane breathes in. Georgie finds herself looking into a pair of cool, heavy-lidded eyes reflected in the rearview mirror.
There are a couple of images here from previous drafts, but I remember writing this encounter with a sense of integration, aware of being neurologically invested in multiple modes simultaneously. Feeling, emotionally and kinaesthetically, the attitude, body and action of the character in their world. At the same time seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, smell, taste and touch. I think—though I’m not sure—that the emotion/kinesis comes first, then the images, then the other senses. As I begin recording, I realise I’m thinking in words, seeing/hearing the scene unfold, getting it down, dancing with it. There are, I see now, so many parallels between this and painting. Shape, colour, feeling; a tone sounding through the work. Is this the bleeding that’s play?
This July I had an intense conversation with Ireland’s new Fiction Laureate, Sebastian Barry. He’s doing a series of podcasts over the next three years, interviewing Irish writers about the point of writing. He’s not releasing the podcasts until his Laureateship is over, so I won’t say too much about our chat here, apart from the fact that I was surprised by how easy it was for me to talk about purpose when I spoke about reading, rather than writing.
Reading is a gift that I’m privileged to have. I’m educated, unlike many women past and present; I live in a society that allows relative freedom of access to texts of all kinds; and I don’t have dyslexia or other conditions that make reading difficult. I love it. When I read a book that gets me, I’m gone. I’m not out there anymore, in the untenable present. I’m in there, with them, the characters. With a special book, I carry its people and world around with me for days, and I try not to watch telly or read something else straight after I’ve finished in case it contaminates the experience.
During my time in Germany, reading aloud to the children was the one bit of play with them I had no problem with. In spite of my bad mispronunciations, it seemed to calm the kids, providing a respite from the hours of insults, running away and violence that constituted their usual MO with me. Like my paintings, it calmed me too, allowing me a way out of our enforced collaborative playtime, the children’s capricious game-rules. It was no longer on me to entertain, serve as jester, come up with ideas, or try to control their behaviour. I could let the book do that. Reading kept us away from the dangerous cliff-edge of boredom; by allowing us access into the writers’ worlds, it also gave us a space we could share as equals—our differences temporarily surrendered to the power of story. Crucially, reading let me get away from myself; the powerless, inept, eejity Irish Kindermädchen I became every time we played Shop or Farm or Cowboy & Jesus.
It’s a wonderful feeling, to be undivided, even just for a moment.
When I painted, a key part of the process was showing the work to others. I wanted them to see something: the images, but also the tone bleeding out through them. Maybe I wanted them to see me, what was going on under the surface. With writing too, the act is not just for myself, but also for readers. I want readers to see, hear and feel the characters and the world I’ve created. I want them to ‘get’ whatever tone I am trying to imbue the text with, even if I, and they, don’t know what they’re getting. I want them to immerse themselves in the act of reading, find undivision inside the text, forget themselves, like I do when I read. However, I don’t think I’m writing to be seen, in the same way I wanted to be seen through my paintings. I want my readers, maybe, to see what’s going on under their own surface.
Adam Wyeth said something else in his email which stuck with me: ‘There are several ways in which we bleed, from giving blood to the menstrual cycle, and then, of course, there’s blood sacrifice, an offering to the gods.’ Maybe it’s hubristic to claim that writing has a fundamentally spiritual purpose. I could argue that storytelling has roots in shamanistic practice, or draw parallels between what I do and the catharsis of the first Athenian theatre festivals, where the city’s population came out to the amphitheatres, and by participating in stories enacted by masked actors, attempted to feel, share, and transmute their collective pain. But this feels very big, and my blood sacrifice—if that’s what it is—is a small thing. I can’t see it saving lions or halting the forward momentum of the plastic sea. My booksales to date have a modest reach and, unlike the Athenians, we live in a fragmented cultural multiverse, so I’m not sure how collective a catharsis my work might trigger. Even though there’ll be individuals who get that feeling of immersion reading my work, there’ll probably always be someone who doesn’t. But I still need to do it. I still do it. And part of that doing is wanting others to read it.
In the past, if someone asked why I didn’t have kids, I used to joke that my experience as an au pair put me off it. But the truth is, I’ve never had a grá for motherhood; if I’d wanted children of my own, I think I’d have had gone for it. I’m happy with my choice, though it’s meant I’ve needed to actively create opportunities to meet younger people on this planet, through teaching or hanging out with my friends’ children. Like C. and A. from Cork—gifted and sensitive, one about to finish secondary school, the other about to enter it—or D. and L., from Dún Laoghaire, adult now, both skilled writers in their own right, making fresh stories in Dublin and Berlin. Eighteen-year-old B. in London too, with his wicked sense of humour, and G. in Ringsend, who I often catch observing our adult goings-on with an amused glint in his ten-year-old eyes. Or the other C., living near Blessington Street Basin, who sings and paints and recently decided I should be her godmother (oh, pride!), and her sister S., nimble and mischievous tiny dancer. I love being with these young people, listening to them, witnessing their creative exploits. I’ve even loved playing with them.
And so I’m back to the start of this essay, with R., who appeared in my second spider-map. R. is ten, 41 years my junior, a fellow-Taurean and, like me, the daughter of a writer-actor named Miriam. About eight years ago, I spent a weekend in R.’s house in County Clare. We played adventure games on her kitchen floor, pretending to be cats and using her toys as other characters. At one point, I realised where I was: on the ground, at child-level, the place where I’d played with the German kids. In writing now, I try to re-engage with what I felt in that moment of recognition. My psyche gingerly reaches in, a tongue poking a gap where a tooth used to be, the place inside where the past lives. What do I expect? Pain? A rush of blood? What do I feel? Nothing. Just a sense of okayness. The game with R. was, in fact, great fun. A few months after that visit I found myself facing a major setback; I’d finished my second novel, but no publisher wanted to pick it up. It was around then that I made a decision to write not because I’d anything to say, or the World wanted me to, but because I had to.
Are these moments connected? I’m not sure, but it feels like there’s something interesting at work there.
Now the years spin forward, and it’s August, 2018, a week into trying to write this essay. R. and I are sitting in her back garden in Ranelagh, four streets away from where I grew up. Miriam, her mum, is out at a screening of The Meg; R. didn’t want to go because the trailer creeped her out, so I’m babysitting.
The grass is dry and rough. It’s been the hottest summer since 1976. One of R.’s cats, crazy Frankie, is curled up against a very low wall, his haunches in shade while his head still gets the rays. R. and I are lying on a woollen blanket on top of which is a cotton spread, yellow, patterned with flowers. R. has just read me the start of her latest novel-in-progress. It’s compelling, I say when she asks what I think. What does that mean? she’ll ask me later. Well, I’ll say, starting to explain the word ‘compel’— No, she’ll say, I know what the word means. I want to know what makes it compelling.
This is a great question: the type it took me years as an adult to learn to ask when I wanted feedback. But Miriam, who approaches parenting with the rigorous commitment of an artist, taught R. baby sign language when she was an infant so they could communicate before R. learnt to verbalise words. So it’s not surprising that R. has learnt, much younger than many kids, how to ask for things, and that when she asks, she’ll be understood.
Well, I say again…Then I begin to articulate what’s compelling about R.’s work. The fact that it’s happening in the present tense, through the form of a letter conversation between two girls, Thea and Brey. The tense, I say, makes me feel that it’s very urgent. Something might happen to Thea any moment—it might happen NOW. I’m gripped by R.’s use of the second person. It makes me feel like I’m Brey when Thea’s speaking, and Thea when Brey is, and this makes me feel I’m in the story, not just listening to it. I tell R. that I also admire her choice to have Brey ask Thea questions; it’s a great way of getting the story out. Thea HAS to answer Brey, and Brey HAS to wait for the answers, and that’s compulsion.
My anxiety about the purpose of my creative work stems from lots of things: upbringing, education, the year in Germany, my own mosquito-hopping curiosity. It took me ages to trust my adult voice, the things I wanted—needed—to say. My song, as Sebastian Barry might put it. The only way I can find purpose in any individual act of writing is to discover what interests me, latch onto that, and follow its course. The only way I can do that is by asking enough questions, until I come to the hardest one. Then, having faith that the difficulty itself is a key to something, stop; allow myself feel, see, hear, taste and smell, and start putting down the words that arise in response to those sensations. Sometimes there’s flow, sometimes the words come one at a time, trickling slowly onto the page. Sometimes they make a shape that might, if I’m lucky, carry something like blood in it.
As the hot evening lowered over that Ranelagh garden so like the one my childhood self played in, R. drew a picture of me. Then it was my turn. I’ve long given up on the idea that I can paint my bad faith, let it bleed onto a canvas or piece of watercolour paper. My pictures in words seem to release whatever my creativity requires more effectively. Over the years I’ve destroyed and got rid of a few of my paintings—the dystopian ones I did in college and the one my friend said showed how I wasn’t a painter—but I’ve kept all the others, including the little twilit skylines and Alpine forestscapes that I made in Germany. Maybe I’ve held onto them because of the calmness that emanates from them, the calmness I remember experiencing as I made them. You’d never know that painter was going a little mad. If there’s blood in those marks, it’s hard to see. Or maybe I’ve kept them because they offer a touchstone; a continuum that’s endured from child me to adult me.
Although I’ve left painting behind, I still love drawing. It’s so unloaded. All I have to do is look, see, and make a mark. Not worry about purpose, or meaning, or readers, or the right word, or being misunderstood, or judged, or my own bad head. Everytime I draw, I think Christ, I should do more.
Hey, I said to R., curious, still thinking at the back of my mind about conditions and aural and visual writers and what a great essay that would make. 'You know when you’re drawing, R., or you’re writing, what sort of feelings do you have?' 'What d’you mean?' said R. 'Well,' I said, 'I’m just wondering if, you know, there’s a different feeling between one or the other.' 'Hmm,' said R. She thought. 'No,' she said eventually. 'It’s the same. Bliss.'