Writing into Darkness by Caroline Reid
Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.
Imagine this: You are a woman, not very tall, a playwright who has forgotten how to play, so every time you write, a great darkness the color of bolt cutters rears up over your head, pours into your mouth, enfolding itself around your heart. What do you do? You could sit on a hotel balcony overlooking the Indian Ocean and say to your friend, Angela:
‘What’s wrong with me, Angela? Every time I write, I’m afraid. I feel like I’m drowning in the not-knowing, and I can’t seem to move on.’
Angela might lick her fingers and offer you half her sugary donut.
‘Things change,’ she says. ‘When I was a girl living in Fremantle, I was called a greasy wog. Now look at the place—the cappuccino strip, pasta everywhere, people dipping their ciabatta in olive oil, thinking nothing of it.’
Perhaps you take her advice and move to a smaller city, two and a half thousand kilometers away, where you hope the physical change will bring a corresponding shift in your writing practice, that, in the words of Peter Elbow, you will ‘stop worrying and hang loose and trust that good stuff will come.’
In the smaller city, for the first time in your life, you have a room in which to write. You place your desk in the middle of this sacrosanct space with its scumbled orange walls and lilac skirtings. You are commissioned by a youth theatre company to write a play about youth curfew. You’ve successfully written plays in the past about diverse topics such as work safety, blood-borne viruses, suicide, mental illness—all the good stuff—and even though as an undergraduate, these weren’t the kind of plays you dreamt about writing, and you were mostly in a state of doubt, panic, and fear while you were writing them, you still managed to meet deadlines and get paid.
You mostly enjoy writing Curfew. It’s a play with music, a community production with over a hundred people involved. It’s challenging and you’re working with a great team. Then the director is rushed to hospital and he almost bleeds to death while undergoing surgery for pancreatitis. The orchestra withdraws, and so does the choir. This is a disaster. While trying to finish the script, you put your hand up to be assistant director/chief organiser because, you know, the show must go on. It sure does, but can you? By the time Curfew opens, you’re bushed and worried. You know the script needs another draft, but there’s no time. Opening night has arrived, as opening nights do. It’s a weird show. The reviews are critical, confused about why you wrote a fabulist fairy tale and not gritty social realism. You weep out of sheer exhaustion. You think you may have had enough of playwriting and this little city.
So you move north to the tropics where there are many things that can kill you—cyclones, crocodiles, the Australian box jellyfish—but theatre is not one of them. You write about life around you: tropical rain, the motorcycle drone of the cane toads’ mating call, the green tree frogs that spawn in your spa, dusky fruit bats, Aboriginal people speaking Aboriginal languages—the first time you’ve heard these languages, despite living in Australia most of your life. In the tropics, you spend a lot of time listening. You begin to hear your voice in the words you write. Little by little, writing and life seem to be part of the same thing, and not something to be afraid of.
Then an extraordinary thing happens. You find DAGS, the Darwin Authors Group. You can’t believe it’s taken you forty-two years to join a writing group. Encouraged by your new writer friends, you pen short stories and send them out for publication. Your first story is published in 2010. You are over the moon. In the same year, another story is shortlisted in a competition and Currency Press publishes your play, Prayer to an Iron God. You do a double take. You think perhaps playwriting is something you can get back into, after all. You have an idea for a play, a ghost story, but when you try to write, the only ghost to materialise is the color of bolt cutters. Your voice disappears. You become afraid. You concede you have lost the ability to play when writing plays, though the irony is not lost on you. For now, the best playing you do is in prose.
You move back to the little city, and in order to gain some perspective, knowledge, and confidence, you decide to employ a writing mentor. Her name is Threasa, a PhD candidate in creative writing at Flinders University. Threasa agrees to guide you through writing a collection of stories with the working title, Satisfied. Your reading widens. You fall in love with Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Angela Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Donald Barthelme. In his essay on writing, ‘Not Knowing,’ Barthelme writes:
Play is one of the great possibilities of art.
You copy the line. You paste it on your study wall.
As well as writing, you draw and paint; make music, make collage. You remember how much you love cutting up pictures and gluing them together in different arrangements. This collaging becomes part of your writing life. You talk with Threasa about goddesses, women writers, and spirituality. You realize how much you’ve been viewing life through a male gaze and how important it is for you, a female writer, to read female writers. You gobble up Deborah Tall, Rebecca Solnit, and Eileen Myles. In her essay ‘Being Female,’ Myles writes:
I think writing is a passion. It’s an urge as deep as life itself. It’s sex. It’s being and becoming. If you write, then writing is how you know.
You copy these words. You paste them on your wall.
You write a list of emotional responses you want in your life: to be competent and confident, to acknowledge self, to be aware of life achievements, to feel important in life choices. You know you’re doing some deep work, and it makes you excited. But it also makes you afraid. This is a different kind of fear. This is fear of getting to know self; fear of being and becoming. When Threasa talks about transformation through writing, you feel disturbed, overwhelmed. You’re afraid the darkness might get you, destroy you. Aren’t you being just a little over the top?
‘No,’ Threasa says. ‘Working with the whole can be overwhelming. So work with a single thread.’
You write every day and unpick the threads. You continue writing about the life going on around you, and you write about the past too. You sense connections between things—walking, the collages, immigrating as a child, your estranged sister, the puppy you adore, washing dishes, moving house, the partner you love, the winter display of pink blossom on the silver princess eucalypt in the back yard; even planes that cruise low and loud over your home are regular noisy metaphors for transition and possibility. A bigger story emerges. Short fiction is not satisfying enough. You think: Could it be I’m capable of writing a novel?
‘Just because you’re a small person doesn’t mean you can’t write a big novel,’ Threasa says.
‘Yes,’ you say. ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’
In 2015, you begin work on your first novel.
Imagine this: You are a woman and the room in which you write is as wild as virgin bush, a space you move through in a twizzle of words and senses, memory and emotion. There is a wide window overlooking your garden planted with natives and rosebushes. The room smells of coffee, dogs, and incense. You still have your fearful days except now you’ve learned to write into the darkness and bring something back out to the light; and there are many more days when your writing practice is as serene an activity as walking in the park. On those days, you hover in space, calm and weightless. Ten years ago, you could not have written that sentence. Ten years ago, there’s no way you could have written this essay. Ten years ago, you would never have imagined you’d be dipping your ciabatta in olive oil, thinking nothing of it. And yet. Here you are. Writing. You found a way to keep going. You found another entry point. You consider this your greatest achievement.
In the spirit of play, of being and becoming, and in an act that demonstrates you know something, perhaps you will finish this essay with a quote from your own journal.
You copy. You paste:
Write. You will find treasure every time you turn up.
Even though some days it feels like rubbish, it’s really not.
It’s gold, every day.
More work by Caroline Reid at apt: “Just for Jesus” (October 2013)
Caroline Reid wrote her first commissioned work for theatre twenty years ago. Her plays have been performed, published and broadcast. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals online and in print, including in Review of Australian Fiction, Spineless Wonders, Verity La, Seizure, and apt. When she’s not reading, working on her first novel or hugging her dog, Caroline works as a writer, teacher, and artist-in-residence in the community. She blogs atcarolinereidwrites.blogspot.