The Space Before Writing ~ or, Let Go And Float

Friday, 13 March 2009

I've got this little grandson. His name’s Ambrose, and he’s nearly two. When I’m with him, if I am minding him when his parents are out, at first I’m very nervy and scratchy and cross and impatient, and we’re sitting in the dirt out in the backyard. And I just want to say, “Come on, Amby. Get to the point, man. I’m bored. I’ve got a house to clean, I’ve got taxes to do, I’ve got to answer my emails and bloody hell, look at you, you’re filthy from head to foot and I’m going to have to – you stink. I’ll have to take you inside and wash you, scrub you from head to foot.”

These are my thoughts. And he’s just sitting quietly beside me in the dirt. But if I can hold myself there, on the ground, beside the child, after a while a switch seems to click in my brain, and it becomes calm, and rich, and brilliant. We sit there in the dirt, and we poke at it with sticks, and I can hear the pigeons on the neighbour’s roof, I can smell the tomato stalks. The child gives me a companionable smile, and he passes me a little crumb of broken brick. I don’t have to do anything with the piece of brick. I don’t have to say anything clever or analytical about it. The form of the game has not yet crystallised. It’s not my role to crystallise it. We’re not trying, or striving, or battling to achieve anything. We’re just sitting in the dirt fiddling with rubbish and looking around.

Helen Garner, talking at the Sydney's University of Technology conference on Creativity and Uncertainty

I heard these words last night while I was cooking dinner. They just oozed their way into my soul and I felt, as I heard them, the cameraderie of humanity, that "Oh, I'm not the only one," feeling that is such a comfort for me when I feel like such a failure, especially in this area of creativity when I wonder if I will ever do what I have been saying and desiring to do for much longer than a decade.

Then I read Garner's words and think, "We all experience the void. All of us. And it terrifies us beyond belief. Because we're abjectly horrified that there is nothing there. Or even more scary, that there is. But, like looking into the eyes of the sun, this void seems to be where much of the fun is :)

Once you get past the awful feelings that you will explode, or disappear, or fall into Hell, or see too much reality at one time and stab yourself with sharp knives, or whatever. I think God does wonderful symphonic work in that mysterious place, too, the place where all the deep unknown uncontrollable beautifully wild stuff dwells.

But, strangest of all, as Garner says further on in this interview, we have to learn this over and over, every time we do things, the shock of newness, of letting go, of sitting with nothing to say, feeling small, like a loser, like a moron, like we want to be dead, like we will never do anything spontaneous and life-affirming ever again that's ever any good, and we will alienate ourselves inside our little boxes and snap at the young girl down the street who's come visiting again 'cos she's lonely, and then you give up on trying and then it's always beyond that giving up and striving of our control freak brains that then our hearts get to play, and string words together for fun, and play with our grandchildren. Because, like good old Wayne and Brad just talked about on the latest The God Journey podcast, it's not our minds that know the deep things and tell our hearts, but our hearts that have had the knowledge of God poured into them like honey. And we have really no idea how hard it is for us Westerners to let go of our insane minds or how terribly, terribly poor we are in spirit we are for all of that.

But still, blessed are we. Because there is always beginners mind for those with the courage to choose it. And a God who will never give up encouraging us that we really have nothing left to lose.


  1. Our minds are so busy thinking about the next thing we have to do or the thing we are worried about or the holiday coming up that we really struggle to live in the moment. Even in the course of writing this comment I thought about the birthday party I have to go to tonight and whether or not I have time for a nap this afternoon and how much food boys eat.

    So when it comes to writing, I find that the biggest struggle is to write in the moment, without thinking too far ahead....but that also usually becomes my best writing.

  2. Living in the moment is terrifying, over and over again, even though I know it's where all the good stuff is. What kind of weird disconnect is that?????

    I am sick of this life today, Erin :) I want some other cosmic existence, that doesn't involve fucking fucking fucked-up disconnects like that one.

    I'm also frustrated that while I absolutely know what you mean about writing in the moment when it comes to a blog post or a poem, I can't seem to translate that to something bigger like a short story. And I don't know why!!!!!!!!!

    Sigh. I hope you managed to get a nap this afternoon. I have woken up this morning stressing about the massive amount of housework I have to do before my cousin and my friend come for lunch tomorrow. Isn't it weird the way our minds just pick pick pick over the same stuff? Boring!!!

    Have fun at the partay

  3. Hello friend. I get ya. Life is this swirling gyrating thing that makes no sense. We have so much fear, so much pain...these things are always in our way.

    I wonder if the reason you can't do this for a story is because it is supposed to be long (relative to a blog post or poem) and there is something in your head that frightens you from something looming that is longer than short. Some sense of performance you expect from yourself? I'm just guessing...but it might be interesting for you to look more closely at that disparity, because there is a reason, somewhere.

    If you've never tried this, try writing a story one sentence at a time...don't think ahead any further than the next sentence. Even if it doesn't come to anything at first, it's a great exercise in writing in the moment and letting it come.

  4. Erin - yep, absolutely there is something that frightens me about longer than short. I'm not sure exactly what I am telling myself - you know those low-level sorts of things we tell ourselves but we cant get a handle really on what we're saying, or we can't articulate it?

    I haven't tried a sentence at a time. Maybe I will :O)


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