transcendence and uncertainty

by nike, September 1, 2014
Inchworm, Fuzzy Bear, and Charles Aznavour's hand

Inchworm, Fuzzy Bear, and Charles Aznavour’s hand

Many moons ago, Jessica White tagged me in a ‘blog hop’. I only had to answer five questions, but it has taken me more than a month to get to it.

In my defence: the questions were HARD!

What am I working on now?

I’m a bit of a bower-bird as a writer: always attracted to the new things/ideas. Though green, not blue, would be my colour of choice. As a consequence, I’m working on a few things.

The Book of Ruth

This is the main thing that I’m working on. Meaning: it’s the biggest project on which I’m spending the most writing time. The main character is Ruth: the child of a post-war migrant. She emigrated to Australia with her father after the second world war, and her mother’s death, and is growing up in a small northern rivers town with her father and stepmother (Elspeth). Her best friend, Beth Moon, lives just downstream with Peter (her brother), and her parents.

There are things I can’t tell you about Ruth’s family; things she doesn’t quite know. Oh, I can’t tell you! It’s sort of a secret, for now.

The Orphan King

This is the next book I’m going to write. Meaning: I’ve written a very bad second draft and it’s in the proverbial bottom drawer until I finish The Book of Ruth.

The Orphan King emerges partly out of my deep amateur love of history. It’s the first of three books in a series about the orphaned children of King Henry VIII (he of the many wives). Henry had three (legitimate, living) children when he died in 1547: 10-year-old Edward (the son of Jane Seymour); 21-year-old Mary (the daughter of Catharine of Aragon); and 4-year-old Elizabeth.

This first book is about the six-year reign of Edward, the orphan king. It’s not strict historical fiction. Particularly because, in this world, each of the orphaned rulers has a mother – a ghost mother – who watches over them. Matilda, the main character of the three books – can see and speak with these ghost mothers.

The third draft, which I abandoned and may never return to, was written as a series of sonnets.

Short works

I’m also working on a handful of shorter pieces:

  • a piece of memoir that’s mostly about writers in relationships with other writers;
  • a poem about the history of what is now de Molay house in Toowoomba (but was formerly many things, including a hotel, the meeting place of a local film society, a gaol where at least four executions took place, and a women’s reformatory/laundry),
  • a non-fiction piece about the life of James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon, and
  • a kind of libretto/performance piece about the relationship between Hermione and Paulina (two female characters in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale), which takes place during the sixteen years they (secretly) lived together,
  • and miscellaneous short stories and poems. Of course.

How does my work differ from other works in its genre?

I don’t see myself as working exclusively within a particular genre. I’ve noticed that since Rupetta won the Tiptree, a lot of people talk address me,or introduce me to others, as a science fiction author. This often makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, but only because not all of the things I write are works of science fiction. It feels uncomfortable because it feels as if it leaves out a lot of the work I do, and a lot of the things I’m interested in, as a writer.

I think of myself as someone who writes, and who will write whatever most appeals to me, in whatever form or genre most suits at the time. Perhaps that’s what makes my work differ from others, though I suspect not. I think a lot of writers work this way. Certainly I think a lot of writers who are otherwise described as literary also draw on elements from science fiction, fantasy, crime, poetry, bicycle novels, steampunk … whatever works; whatever fits.

In another sense, I think one thing that distinguishes/marks my work is my interest in the relationships between women, and the experiences of mothers. These are experiences and relationships that I come back to again and again and again.

Why do I write about what I do?

I could probably go on at length about why I’ve written the things I’ve written: the ways those stories came to me, and what kept me engaged in writing them, and so on, for hours. But the things I’ve yet to write are mysterious to me, as is the reasons I’ll write them.

Once, I would have sworn that I would never write memoir. I’m a deeply private person, and have often felt shocked and appalled to have my own life discussed in anything like a public forum. But, right now, snippets of memoir are often what come to me.

I write about women, and women’s experiences for all the obvious reasons, to begin with: because I am a woman, because I love women, because I am endlessly fascinated by women’s experiences and the ways they respond to life. Probably, also, because they remain a mystery to me. Because, as a feminist, I think women’s experiences – the stories of their lives – tell us things we need to know about how *our* culture has been made, and continues to evolve. Women’s experiences have been, too often, simplified, simper-fied, ignored, sidelined. To me, women’s experiences of life are deeply fascinating. And deeply revelatory.

There’s a line from a Muriel Rukeyser’s poem ‘Kathe Kollwitz’ (coincidentally written the year I was born) that goes:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open …

That’s as honest an answer as any: I write about women’s lives and experiences because, in a sense, it’s possible that we still haven’t managed to tell the deep truths about our lives. And because, one day, I would like to split the old world open.

How does my writing process work?

The last year or more has been one of enormous change. I spent some time in the Netherlands, travelling, but also spending time with my grandmother, who was suffering from dementia. My long-term relationship ended, to borrow  and from and abuse T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, not with a whimper, but with a bang. I spent time living in my car, time living in a friend’s guest house. I was working a stream of dribs and drabs jobs. I won the Tiptree award and travelled to America, but I couldn’t get (still haven’t got) my next book published.

In between all this, writing happens. I try to work on it every day, but I forgive myself easily if it doesn’t happen.

I set myself goals, and mostly I achieve them. Most of my goals are to do with time spent writing, rather than word counts or deadlines. This works for me, because I think of it as opening a space into which the writing will fall. And when it falls, I am grateful. And when it doesn’t, I close the door quietly and walk away.

I don’t plan things very much, though I often know something about where my stories will end. I know where they are headed. I work, in that sense, very much in the way Robert Lowell described Elizabeth Bishop as working in his sonnet ‘History’:

Have you seen an inchworm crawl on a leaf,
cling to the very end, revolve in air,
feeling for something to reach to something?
you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice board,
     with gaps
or empties for the unimaginable phrase—

unerring Muse who makes the casual

In his book, Fictions of Form in American Poetry, Stephen Cushman says of this image:

Lowell makes it clear that Bishop’s method of poetic composition stands in his mind as a synecdoche for her way of living and looking from ‘the very end’ of what is solid and known towards some invisible and perhaps unreachable link or connection, at once an image of transcendence and uncertainty.

Transcendence and uncertainty: yes, I think that’s it. An apt description of my writing process.



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    • September 1, 2014

    This is wonderful, Nike! I love your persistence in the face of that uncertainty. I like, too, that you are not a planner (that makes more of us!), and your desire to get to the heart of things. Really looking forward to reading your next publications :)

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    • September 2, 2014

    This is beautiful, Nike, and inspirational. Thank you for answering the questions. One day I too would like to split the old world open...

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      • September 2, 2014

      Hi Jane! Thanks for stopping by, and for your lovely feedback. Let's gang up and crack this baby open together :)

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    • September 2, 2014

    Hey Jess! Thanks for dropping by to comment. It's interesting how many people do just a *little* bit of planning, but basically plough on in from there. Fingers crossed I have a new publication to announce soon. Ish. I ALWAYS look forward to reading your work :)

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