Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way

Natalie gave me permission to write. She is the advocate of the dervish – writing freely and madly. With Nat as my guide I learned to trust deeply what came off my pen.

But it was The Artist’s Way that pushed me – like a teenager who needs to be packed off and moved away – out into the brave world of writers who stand up and ask to be counted. (Or read.)

The Artist’s Way led me to writer’s centres which led me to writing programs like Varuna, to mentorships and short story competitions and unpublished manuscript awards. It might sound simple and obvious but it wasn’t to me. Membership to a writer’s centre seemed to me something only actual published writers would do.

By the time I finished my three months of morning pages I had begun Sarah’s Song. Shortly afterward I had my first freelance article published and from there I secured two long term columns.

The biggest thing I learned from The Artist’s Way was to indulge my passion – with magazines, union membership, books. And even when we were very very short of cash I bought what I could, instead of coffee and cake, or new clothes, and I was better off for it; inspired, hopeful, creatively charged. And on my way, slowly, to more creative fulfilment. The wads of cash, of course, are optional.

What books have inspired you?

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Illusion of love

When Jessica returned the years had changed them both. She had travelled to Australia and New Zealand, stopped at Singapore on the way. The year she spent in a flat in Bristol seemed like a dream, or a joke, or a story she had heard told. Sometimes she would stop what she was doing, not realising she had paused with her pen in the air and her eyes lost in the cold white sky, and remind herself that it had been the same lifetime.

She would remember the time she thought she was pregnant; the thrilling terror, and the relieved disappointment every woman knows. She remembers the sunny day in May when she stood on the platform at Bedminster and watched the city glint in the distance and felt gently peaceful. The night Mal told her of his love; strong and simple under darkness. The small cluster of friends, coffees and lectures, finishing essays, and Saturday nights in The Artichoke drinking vodka and Red Bull and walking home in the watery heat of the dawning sun.

They meet in a bar in town. It’s a new place, called Yates’s. She has deliberately avoided The Artichoke at the other end of the street. It would cloud her memory like pink chalk smudged with a light finger; sweet smoky colour washing over the past.

This time she is staying. She has a third floor flat overlooking a scrap of the Downs, and a job at the University, and a research grant.

Mal has grown fatter while she is almost the same. She lost a few pounds the first summer, in Sydney, trying out surfing and volleyball on the beach. But the barbeques and beers had balanced it out. Mal had loved her large, soft breasts and her steady self worth and her capacity to drink beer beside him.

He looks at her, remembering where they both were, and seeing how far she has come.

So, tell me about your research then, he says.

I’m studying illusion. The way our eyes fool our brain, the way stimuli affect our senses – she breaks off, unless he wants to hear it in detail it sounds stupid. All research does. It probably sounds self-indulgent, she says.

No.

She’s not sure if he’s being truthful. But he had been brilliant. Then. So she tries again. I was looking at ‘trompe l’oeil’ in Paris. It means trick of the eye, she adds carefully, nodding as if he knows. They’re just stunning. And it just struck me – it was the first time I’d felt anything in – well, she rolls her eyes because they both know she has stumbled into that territory. The silent way she left. The silent way he let her go.

The chairs and tables are a cool blonde wood, yet he feels her warmth as he sits opposite her. The atmosphere is lighter, more airy than the pub. The carpet is not yet blistered with cigarette burns. She’s grown into herself: she is excited without trying to please him. But he always knew she would be this way. It was him that would not grow up.

It goes right to the very base of philosophy and psychology, she is saying; the ability to view objective reality. What is true and real? Look. And she takes a thin stack of postcards from her large, pale grey handbag and shows him the Kanizsa Triangle and the Ponzo Illusion and her favourite Dali. He looks at Gala, naked, her erotic backside. He holds the postcard close, studies the tiny insert of Abraham Lincoln down at the bottom, to the left, then moves it back again – arms length from him – watching the image become a portrait of Lincoln. He smiles at it and then looks up.

But what is this supposed to tell us? he asks and she nods and laughs just a little.

You’re right, of course, she says. And she stops to look at him then. His fleshy lips. It’s good to see you.

There’s the searching in her eyes, the warmth in her voice. After the second drink she says that she has thought about him a lot recently.

He wonders if she thought about him when she left, when she took her brown leather suitcase and winked at him. Had she thought about him a lot then too? Or had new adventures beckoned? New cocks with new hair growing around the base; new eyes, and new accents, and new jokes to be made private and exclusive.

They all do this – look at him from under their plucked brows, mascared lashes and wispy fringes when they say this; showing him their soft needy nature, their kind calm warmth.

He doesn’t reply to this. He leaves them hanging, agape; smiles a little.

Another drink? he says, and heads for the bar and orders a double, wanting to tease out these confessions with a greedy masochism. Halfway through the second drink, when their eyes are so bright they are almost translucent, and their cheeks are hot and pink they say; isn’t it a shame we can’t go back? Or something similar.

They look at him when they say it, but something in his eyes makes them look down quickly, and he laughs then and says are you drunk.

She says No! but she is very warm and there’s a sense of holiday in the air. She laughs and puts her hands to her cheeks, rolls her iced glass against the right cheek, lifts the hair off her tanned neck. It’s a laugh she hasn’t felt in a long time.

What do you want to prove, he asks.

I want to find out why we see things that aren’t there.

But that’s easy, he says taking the Dali from her hand – the picture of Mala and also Lincoln. Something can be two things at once.

How?

He says, so tell me about Mike. He sounds like a nice guy. Sometimes he’s a fiancé, or a husband. Sometimes he’s a she.  He always calls them by their name so she is sliced by the dual knife; a sense of loyalty which she needs, so she can be guilty and shamed – and a sense of irritation. He is a nice guy. And she doesn’t want Mal saying that. It makes him appear kind and fair. She needs him to say something cruel so she can pull herself away indignantly. So she clears her throat and sips at her drink, sucking on a piece of Bacardi sweet ice, and tells him a few details, skimming the surface of their life; torn between divulging the boredom, and the gentle bliss.

He’s good. He’s kind. Life is settled and secure. I have things I need. Life is cleaner and calmer and less humiliating.

But he doesn’t need to know these things; these are not the secrets she came to share.

I had a dream about you she says now, which is not strictly a lie.

Oh, yes? he says, and raises his eyebrows just a little.  Now he’s made her acknowledge the third party – once he’s made her bring him into the circle he can play with her; pulling at her pretty wings a little. In the summer they are teal, but when she moves they change to an electric purple.

She blushes, fans at the air like a dog, and doesn’t answer.

Did you tell Michael about this dream?

She looks in his eyes and says of course not, so he knows exactly what kind of dream it was.

He watches her until she feels hot from his eyeballs rubbing her skin.

What were we doing? he says.

He doesn’t say what happened? He knows how to question suggestively, how to guide her.

She feels herself blush against the heat, leans back against the faux leather sofa and waves her hands in front of her face; banishing the crackling ions gathering above them. Then she grins at him and says, do you think we can ever go back? And fights an urge to put her hand on some part of him – his hair, his arm.

He laughs and she forgives him in a moment, without a thought, waiting for him to say yes, but of course he doesn’t.

A girl comes over to clean the ashtray. She turns her body away and sweeps the ash into a small metal bucket with a dry paintbrush. This is how they clean ashtrays in bars now.

He says what about Michael, or Will, or whatever middle class name he has to match his job, and she shrugs and smiles coyly as though she has compassion as well as desires.

The anger he feels is reassuring. He’d like to be Michael; the car insurance on direct debit and enough in the building society for emergency repairs or a new washing machine.  Inside their home the ironing board is put away, the back garden partly landscaped while they wait for spring. Michael doesn’t punch holes in the soft chipboard walls, and she doesn’t cry in the night because he stayed out til dawn.

At other times he merely feels the loss blow through him like autumn winds, signalling long dark nights.

Now he puts his hand on hers and shakes his head, readying himself for the sharp thrill of her pain. Two tears fall from her top lashes because her head is bent in shamed penitence.

Go home to Michael he says, glad to feel his reciprocal cut as he sends her away.

When she leaves she will feel drunk. The spent tears and the cold evening refresh her and there is a renewed sense of purpose as she walks home.

The single lingering kiss he gives her burns on her lips like a fading disc of black sunlight on her retina.  When she is lying in bed she replays it, watches it. She blinks her lips together, searching for the negative of burning sun, checking it’s still there. Watching it fade to a spot on the horizon of memory, knowing it is not really there – that it is gone already.

Illusion of Love was published in Burley Journal Issue Three.

Freedom to fail

My divorce is imminent. As I come closer to one kind of freedom the words race to be expelled.

I’m working on a number of short stories at the moment and feel very driven to get them finished. It’s wonderful to feel inspired and motivated but it’s also exhausting. Having children to take care of by myself, as well as commitments ranging from neurotic dogs to a range of freelance jobs, I’m finding it difficult to slow down. And that’s as frustrating sometimes as finding hard to rev up. I don’t want to be too scattered nor spread myself too thinly.

Last week I did a final edit of The Shape of Beauty and Robertson’s Dairy, two speculative fiction shorts I want to send to the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. The week before I redrafted Kinky Freedom, one of my favourite short stories ever. This week I’ve finished a first draft of another short. But I don’t want to rush these new stories out; usually if I let stories compost I can take them to another level after a few months.

One that’s giving me real trouble is The System because it’s so far from my usual genre. I’m really enjoying stretching myself this way but it’s like raising another teenager (for teenager read alien). Every few days I go back to it thinking I have it worked out, that I finally understand what it needs, only to be brought up short once again. Rework, refine. Repeat.

Meanwhile my YA ms patiently awaits polishing after its second draft two months ago. My adult fiction ms awaits feedback from its first beta-read, and I continue to wait until December when a second query will be up. Planning for my second adult novel has stalled to a grinding halt with a garden half designed and file cards and synopsis strewn about the house.

Then there’s Writing Australia’s Unpublished Manuscript Award to get sorted for, the blog I’m mounting, and putting my six year old to bed. See? Scattered.

If I had a husband I’m sure I wouldn’t have time for all this – but perhaps I wouldn’t feel so driven either. As my life stands at 40 I have my children and my writing. My writing is my gift to myself.

Learning about planning

I am approaching my fourth manuscript in a radically different way from my others. I’m not just planning – which I finally decided to do with the last one – I’m PLANNING. I’ve got file cards going on, I have a timeline and family trees and there’s no way I’m going to fill in the research after. Even writing that sounds ridiculous! Who would write about pre-war London and fill in the information about the architecture after?

Well, probably me at one time.

I don’t imagine planning is going to change my world, bring me Aaron Johnson or the elusive trillion-dollar book deal, but I’m not interested in the outcome so much as the process and how great it feels.

With Morning Drink I still find myself thinking about the characters while I’m off doing my right-brain stuff, and have a copious file of extra thoughts I feel compelled to add to the story. I hate feeling as though it is never going to be finished. Of course, even more than that I hate re-writing seven hundred times because I wrote myself into corners. From Not Planning.

So when I begin writing this next work I’m looking forward to having a very clear idea of my structure and not writing myself up trees and into relationships that make no sense or are physically or temporally impossible . I’m already itching to start drafting but I’m furiously denying myself until at least after Christmas. When I wave that metaphorical flag and allow myself to start running I’m going to be absolutely delighted to meet my characters and start making them breathe.

I hope they won’t mind that I have their whole lives mapped out for them. I also hope they behave – and do as they’re told…

How do you plan your writing? Do your characters stick to the script?

Writing Down the Bones: On Natalie Goldberg

Natalie is so much a part of me she even showed up in my manuscript At the Hour of the Morning Drink. When her voice begins to shine through in my writing it isn’t because I’m sitting with her books in my hand and typing up phrases, it’s because her words have done exactly what she said the words of my favourite writers should do; they have been absorbed into a deeper part of my consciousness.

Natalie has been my greatest teacher for many years – without her I might be typing this blog post but I’d have arrived via a quite different route.

Thanks to her I discovered how to trust everything I had been doing. I’d been on the right track all along! I’d been composting, working with my obsessions, going for the jugular. Practising my craft.

I knew it wasn’t a bad thing to write pages and pages of words. I knew in my belly that somehow I would figure out what to do with them. Now it was writing practise – I was doing the daily exercise that would one day make me a strong writer.

I knew I needed to be observant but Nat put down on the page concrete ways to do this. Sit in cafes and write about the dried blob of barbecue sauce on the menu, the dry grey décor, the little blond boy at the table opposite, whose sleeves are too short.

She nodded – yes, it’s okay to write what’s under the surface. The stuff that’s not nice.

My writing began to extend. Instead of just writing about LL (lost love) over and over, I wrote about my step-father, my brother, my best friend. I wrote about Deauville and Madeira and Cornwall and London. I began to see my passions in black and white – the themes that would separate me from other writers.

I could write about Nat for hours. How I’d like to play word games with her, sit in cafes and write and write, walk the warm evening streets of Taos with her. Share chocolate chip cookies.

So don’t be surprised when she shows up in my writing. She’s there along with my other loves as I strive to be more and more myself.

Who shows up in your writing and what do they say?

Why I Write

I write because I can’t stop myself.

I ‘began’ writing three times. Once at the age of thirteen in an old hardback notebook of my grandmother’s. The second time I was nineteen and wrote two-thirds of a play I had no idea what to do with. The third time was at twenty-four when I decided categorically I didn’t want to live alongside everyone else. I wanted to hide from a life that hurt too much.

Sixteen years later I’m about to have my first short story published. Life still visits me daily and I battle her and also embrace her. And  – as I have done since I was thirteen, and probably younger – I write to feel the pen in my hand, the paper beneath my wrist as I move it across the page. And in the years between I have slowly learned what to do with the words I’m compelled to put on paper because I can’t stop moving my hand.