A little while back the magnificent Lit Kitten invited us all to confess the truth about our writing week when we had finally staggered to the end of it. This week I find myself in need of a little blogging absolution as it’s been a tough one. I wish I had a pound for the number of times I’ve been told that I sound confident; I’m sure I do sound it, for the alternative would be the kind of endless whining that would be as welcome to those around me as the whine of a mosquito when you turn the lights out. In reality I am regularly wracked by self-doubt and have to put up with a constantly nagging inner voice that doubts my worth and competence. But to look on the bright side, it’s been a very motivational sort of doubt: I would never have done half the things I’ve done if I hadn’t been so unsure whether or not I could do them. And I think it’s good for research never to lose sight of uncertainty; thinking you are right can lead to all sorts of false assumptions and errors of judgement. But just sometimes the balance tips and it’s hard to live with. The inner battle is wearying and it leaves scars. ‘I just wish I had faith in myself,’ I moaned to my husband. ‘Oh come now,’ he said kindly. ‘You’d be unbearable to live with. A monster would be born.’
So there I was, making good progress with my chapters when a number of spanners hit the wheels. First, I caught a nuisance bug that made me feel groggy and dull-witted. What comes first, I wonder, the illness or the lowering of spirits that reduces immunity? Either way, the result was the same. Then I was writing about losing children, which turned out to be far harder than I’d imagined. Now you might say this was naïve of me (and you would be right), but I think it was also about misjudging the gap between academia and general non-fiction. Across my academic career I’ve written about terrible things – trauma, madness, child abuse, breakdown, despair, this is the stuff that literature is compelled to consider and like other literary critics, my job has been to trawl its chaotic wake. If academic writing sounds stilted and impersonal, it’s partly because it offers a highly regulated way to approach the really upsetting issues. Analysis holds any unpleasant material at arm’s length and the stern erasure of the writer’s subjectivity means you never have to get tangled up in it. Suddenly I found myself dealing with a terrible subject wearing none of my usual armour. I sat looking at the computer screen sifting words in my head; how could I possibly talk about the experience of losing a child in a way that would be truthful but still retain a reader’s interest? That wouldn’t be sentimental or manipulative or brutal or cold? That might even be surprising, or intriguing? Were such things possible? Nothing seemed right and in the end I fell back on the old formula of telling stories, but whether they are the right stories remains to be seen. Unsurprisingly, I have my doubts.
And then I had a couple of conversations with women friends that made me worry about the whole project. I was trying to explain what it was about (this sounds like it ought to be simple, indeed essential, but at the beginning of a new project it’s really hard to do) and gave as an example the question of yummy mummies that I’ve been writing about. I was a bit shocked by the virulence in their responses to the notion (of the yummy mummy, mostly, but also of my own ideas of approaching the topic of motherhood) and I was reminded, yet again, that mothers are a pretty ferocious bunch when you run up against their dislikes and disapproval. Their day is spent, after all, being the arbiter of right and wrong, of enforcing the rules, of declaring what has value and what is ‘silly’. It’s no surprise that every mother has a clear idea of what motherhood is and a conviction of her own rightness, otherwise her life would be unbearable. Even I, swimming in my ocean of doubt, have one of those. But of course everyone sees the issues differently, the variety of approaches is enormous, there will be no pleasing people, no matter what I say. And I’ll let you into a big trade secret: I like to tell people things they don’t want to hear. It’s my general modus operandi, but the trick is to do it so gently that it comes across instead as something interesting. The academic I’m-not-here writing style is also very good for this as it provides marvelous self-protection. But here I am trying to tell mothers that yummy mummies don’t as such exist: they are media creations that mess with the fantasies and the frustrations in the head of the average mother, inviting her to evacuate her negativity about all she has to do onto the image of someone she doesn’t know. I’m telling them that the chances of a child being abducted by a stranger are infinitesimal compared to the chance it will get fed up with its parents and run away. Up to 2.8 million American children run away each year to escape abuse, violence and family breakdown, compared to the hundred or so who are ‘stereotypically kidnapped.’ This kind of thing is not going to go down well. At low points in the week I had visions of a slow-moving caravan of angry mothers with pushchairs wending their way to my doorstep to put me in time out for the next decade.
And there are other questions that loom large in my mind. How can I be true to the huge variety of experiences out there when I am a white, educated, middle-class mother? What right do I have to speak for other groups of which I have no personal experience? All of which leads me to wonder who it is I think I’m speaking to? And what response do I really want to provoke in the reader? Okay so this kind of thing is potentially endless. It’s a slippery slope of pertinent worries that can lead to turning the computer off and not being able to turn it on again. But I do find that no matter how troubled I feel in one part of my mind, there’s a sort of hamster on the wheel that keeps me going. Once I’ve begun on a project I find myself compelled to keep plugging away at it. Partly I know that I can’t produce a second draft until I’ve written the first one, partly it’s just plain stubbornness, and partly those anxieties meet up with words on the margins of my mind and keep on suggesting alternatives, possible sentences, other stories, other arguments and it’s quieter to write them down than have to keep listening to them. Once I’ve finished moaning here, I know I’ll go back to it and start picking all over again. Just because it’s depressing doesn’t mean I can leave it alone. I am, however, behind on my blog reading, due to illness, low spirits and being fed up of staring at a computer screen. I will catch up. If that lynch mob of mothers should arrive to tear me limb from limb, never forget, dear blogging friends, that I loved you very well.
Oh and something I’ve been meaning to link to for ages: I found these wonderful creative writing exercises online. So many writing suggestions seem tedious or obvious, but these I really liked.