I started blogging two years to find a way back to the joy of writing fiction. The pattern of success and rejection that writers face in their empty room had become too much, especially as life was swelling up around me with such persistence that making up stories seemed a futile dance in front of the inevitable.
I wanted to exercise my writing muscle, clear my mind; find that joy. I found it crafting pieces I was happy enough to share with whoever cared to read them.
This year I applied for an undergrad workshop in creative non-fiction at Victoria University, using some of my blog posts as examples of my writing. They got me in, and I loved it. So much so that I applied for the short fiction workshop. I’m reading great stories; loving talking about writing with writers.
After three weeks of exercises it has become even more apparent that non-fiction and fiction are not mutually exclusive. Two of my pieces have been drawn straight from life. One has been made up. My classmates are writing a similar mix.
On Sunday I had a crack at our latest exercise, ‘Negotiating With the Dead’; an exercise reflecting on the hypothesis that writing is motivated by a fear of, and fascination with, mortality. We had to write a 1st-person piece of prose where the dead are given voice via audio technology (a phone, a computer, radio or stereo). Given my run of writing about the subject (“love your writing but less about death, please” said one comment) I wanted to make it purely fictional. And fun.
That morning I read a wonderful story for class by George Saunders about a hapless old man trying to off himself so he doesn’t end up shitting the bed/being a bother due to Alzheimer’s. It was inspiring in its approach, and humour. It also resonated given my father’s suffering from the disease. I was party to many conversations about ‘exit-strategies’ as we waited for his undignified end.
I decided to write a help-desk story with the voice of the operator as the only prose. As I wrote it I wasn’t sure if it was people trying to reach the dead, or the dead trying to reach the living, but once I had milked all the gags and Kafkaesque frustrations I could think of it became clear that The Helpless Desk is about a help desk for helpless ghosts.
I was very pleased with it. Even more so to have pulled it completely out of the air.
Elated, as I always am after writing, I went to bed and did something I try not to do; I checked out Facebook. An old friend had died. As I read through the tributes it became evident that it was the type of death that has begun to plague my various peer groups. I was so sad. George was a well-liked person, a true character. A lot of people were hurting across the digital ether.
I thought back to our many conversations in our youth, when we were student-radio DJs, and live music fans; the memorable night we had to flee a massive house fire just as our private conversation was getting life-definingly interesting. And, more recently (around the time I started this blog), when in great despair about whether I would qualify to get my Haglund’s Deformity corrected, he PM-ed me regarding my bleak post-assessment status (stuck in a carpark, crying behind sunglasses… eek! Not like me to be like that, or communicate it without self-deprecating humour). It was a long message that talked about other things, conversations we had had in the past, things he had wanted to say at the time but hadn’t had the maturity or courage… it was incredibly revealing and encouraging. I was stunned and thankful; diverted from my self-absorption. Reassured that support can come from the most unexpected quarters.
As I sat in bed on Sunday night feeling like I had failed him, I looked for that message. Was it as long and interesting as I recalled? Yes. A good 1,000+ words or more. And it was two years ago. To the day.
The co-incidence made me smile and grieve. More so having conquered an unsettled weekend wondering how I would give voice to the dead.
I wish I could be at George’s funeral tomorrow, more so at his wake. I want to be amongst my peer group from those formative years. I ache. But it is in Christchurch and I just cannot get away from Wellington. Life holds me tight as it bleeds into fiction.
In the year that surrounded the 4-month gap when my parents died 3-4 years ago, 7 people I know took their own lives. That’s a lot of pain to go around. At the time I tried hard not to look for connecting meanings and patterns, especially as they were all male and around my age. It felt like a curse I wanted shot of. How could I resolve this with having just watched both my parents struggle for life?
I cannot be there to celebrate George’s great wit and intellect; his sensitivity, humour and life. The bouncy way he walked, the measured way he talked. But I can write this. And I can, when I feel up to it, listen to his voice on the radio shows people are sharing from Soundcloud on Facebook.
I wish he was still around. The world is a poorer place without him.
This is a beautiful post, Campbell and I it is so good to hear about your writing course and your renewed joy exercising the writing muscle. I look forward to reading more!
Cheers, Maggie. Glad you liked the piece!