I've been emailing my good friend and mentor, Joyce Murdoch, a lot. She is grieving her partner, Deb Price– America's first openly gay columnist whose mantra was "don't let fear choose your path".
Joyce has been encouraging me write fiction for years. I recently told her I was struggling with workshops I had attended, and the process involved in receiving feedback. She wrote back, with trademark elegance.
Hello, my friend--
Deb used to always say that she didn't know what she thought until she
said it out loud. I didn't want to speak until I knew what I
thought....That was a minor source of conflict over the years. She
always wanted me to speak a bit more; I always wanted her to speak a
bit less. And now, of course, I'd give every cent I own just so speak
with her again.
Anyway, that's a long way of getting around to saying, once again,
that I think you ought to take the risk of writing fiction. Just write
it for yourself. Get the pleasure of seeing your thoughts and feelings
take shape on paper (well, on a screen at least). And do NOT--repeat,
do NOT--show a word, a paragraph, a chapter to anyone until you are
satisfied that you're done. Yes, writers are extremely sensitive,
especially to anything that smells like criticism. Yes, writing
something that actually matters to the writer feels like opening a
vein. Yes, the entirely human response to having one's creative
writing critiqued is to want to run away and never pick the project
Despite all my years as an editor, I have never ever understood why
anyone thinks writing workshops or sharing a writing project while it
is underway are good ideas. Creative writing should be just
that--imaginative, new, unique, something no one else could have
written in quite the same way. And it should tap into--for lack of a
better word--the "soul" of the writer. Premature feedback--if it
doesn't simply shut the writer down entirely--is going to push the
writer back toward the expected, back toward works that are already
out there in the world, back toward what the "group" thinks you ought
to be saying with your writing, not what the blood spilled on your
pages tell you.
Embrace your sensitivity. Cherish it. Nurture it. Respect it. Your
sensitivity is one of the traits that, I feel confident, will one day
make you a fine writer and, if you want, a published author. Do NOT
try to pound your sensitivity out of existence. You would, I think,
kill off your creative spirit at the same time.
Several years ago I wrote a novel, Twelve Turtles. The project began
as simply catharsis: I had things I needed to "say" and nowhere to say
them. The person I wanted to say them to wasn't speaking to me at the
time. As the word count grew, the writing became really enjoyable. I
loved spending hours on end with the characters I was creating and
enjoyed discovering how they interacted with one another in ways I had
not expected and seeing where they were taking the plot, which had had
only the vaguest outline in my mind at the start. I wrote the chapters
in a thoroughly haphazard order, depending on what part of the story
was speaking to me at the time, and had to sort them out later.
Eventually, the novel felt complete. And I was quite pleased with it.
Still am, in fact. I think it's one of the best things I've ever
written. Because I didn't want the novel to be public, I paid a vanity
press to print 15 or 20 copies. I gave most of them to a few close
friends. And even then--even when I gave them to professional writers
and editors--I said, "This is a gift. I hope you enjoy it. This is not
an invitation to critique the work." Even though my novel was a work
of fiction is was really personal and if people had "helpful
suggestions" about how it could have been different I just didn't--and
still don't--want to hear them any more than I'd (theoretically) have
wanted to hear that my baby would have been more handsome if his eyes
weren't blue and his hair weren't curly.
Can you imagine if Mary Oliver had "workshopped" my favorite poem,
"Wild Geese"? People would say, "what's with the first line'''You
don't have to be good?' Sounds like the intro to a self help book!"
And "Why 'wild' geese? Why not just 'geese'? And on and on....until
the wonderfully strange amalgam that makes "Wild Geese" so meaningful
to countless readers would been ruined.
Gotta run to mahjong. Would love to hear your thoughts.
As I write this, I wonder whether I have anything at all noteworthy or useful to say. An intention to stay as upbeat as possible has persisted through the month and through this half of the lockdown, although I really am struggling with the extent to which life truly feels like Groundhog Day at the moment, struggling to find the patience for it. It feels like it's cracking me up a little bit, like it is everyone.
What to report when everything is more repetitions of the same? Well, two new plants have entered the household. Joe and Karmala. Karmala flourishes, Joe struggles to get the sunlight he needs, however many manoeuvres around the apartment I take him on. The rescuer in me struggles in watching him suffer, keeps wondering if there’s something else I can do. Perhaps I need to let go a bit, let him find his own way.
Caring is hard work. Hard work but important work. That goes beyond these four walls, of course. I see a hashtag trend on Instagram that I approve of. “Community-care” as a subcategory of “self-care” –and as a step away from the increasing egoism of the aforementioned movement. I like this. If I were an inspiring influencer I would say, now “what are you doing to extend beyond yourself and support the spaces that bring us together which we once so took for granted?” I am not sure that is quite the language an influencer would use, though.
I don’t think I would be a very good influencer. I am far too awkward. Recently I had to listen to my own stupid voice when I was transcribing an interview I did for an article. Who says “I feel you” five thousand times to a computer scientist explaining ‘multi-agent systems’? What’s wrong with me?
What else to report?
What else to report? What else have I discovered helps in such strange times? The usual suspects: gratitude lists and little projects. Trips outdoors whenever there is a sliver of sunlight. I am grateful for my job, that I have work interesting enough I can get lost in, challenging enough that it feels like there’s always something new to learn.
I am grateful for the tiny wins along the way in discovering more and more about this new field I am in. One is that I managed to sneak a cheesy pop culture reference into a complex computer science piece this week. That was ‘fun.’ I report this fully aware of how nerdy it makes me sound.
I always say that learning anything feels like stepping into a forest in which you are quite alone. At first, everything feels so dark and scary, and you can’t find your way. You are fumbling so inelegantly, and –honestly– the only thing keeping you going is the sort of blind faith you have that clarity will eventually come.
So you keep going, moving through this darkness that is at once terrifying as is it electrifying. There is just so much to learn. A whole, completely uncharted territory waiting for your footprints to wander through it. And slowly, through all that bumbling, and faltering, and tripping, and looking like a complete idiot, your eyes start to adjust. Your ears sharpen. Your fingers develop a cleverness to them you never knew they had.
Slowly, this darkness is no longer an unfathomable mesh. It’s gloomy shapes you begin to identify, little pieces in these endless puzzles of knowing. For my part, this is one of my favourite stages on the journey –the first crossing of total unknowing into some form of intelligibility. In language learning, for example, that’s the point where you can listen into a conversation and start knowing what the subject matter is, even if you can’t really follow it. In discovering a new field, or investigating a story, it’s the place where you start being able to join the dots together you wouldn’t have seen before.
In fighting, it’s being able to hold your own and not completely freeze up, in having and holding to a rhythm. In settling into a new city, it’s being able to ride a bike around and know where you’re going. In getting to really know someone, it’s the arrival of that indescribable gravel that comes with letting them get under your skin. And all those strange frictions.
Each journey of course is completely unique, unfolding at its own pace and with its own specific ups and downs. But one thing most have in common, is that –unless they are forced upon us –they only begin in our being brave enough to take that first blind leap into the unknown. Brave enough, and trusting enough in our own capabilities in charting a course through the forest, and being OK with whatever happens to us along the way.
But anyway, it’s now light outside, and honestly, this is all there is to report. BerlIn’s dark and strange winter, they say, is on its way out. Nights are supposedly shortening despite how very long they still feel. Perhaps, then, I should see this experience as its own dark and endless forest, something to keep moving through and moving through and moving through and moving through.
And moving through.
Snow fell on Berlin, the first I’ve seen in seven years. I was grateful for it. Grateful for having adjusted to the cold again, too. This time last year I couldn’t stand it, layered myself up like the Michelin man, made a b-line in whichever room I entered for whatever chair was closest to the radiator. Now something about the cold thrills me a little bit, especially when sucking in air after a tough run that tastes like it’s descended from the north.
Snow fell one day after the second of January, the day two friends and I had agreed to complete a circuit of the city that had amounted to 21 kilometres – my first half marathon. Theirs too.
Again, another thing to be grateful for. Having the kind of friends who would agree to do something like that, with almost no notice and with little prior training besides the variations of a much shorter route we repeated week after week in our local park, raking up a commendable mileage during a time in which the possibilities in how we could actually spend our time together had narrowed and narrowed. If it’s true that we are what we repeatedly do, then I’m a runner now. And a relatively good one, despite my short legs.
Of course, like everyone else, I am looking forward to the lifting of the lockdown and the end of the pandemic. Most of all because the spreadsheet of people and organisations in my head that I worry about, all over the world, will, I am assuming, shorten a little bit. I am not worried about myself. The year provided the crisis I personally needed to step into a career and a professional arrangement that has a sense of security, support and optimism my old life always lacked, just as everything from the year before served as a much needed prompt to make a home in the city I always wanted to end up in. I know all of this makes me quite lucky, that these options were available to me, and that what it was that I had to do was determine the door I wanted to open and knock politely but determinately enough until it did.
When you worry a lot, you think quite often about all the bad things that could happen. And you often forget to think about the good things that might sometimes be on the other side. Not necessarily ruin. Sometimes, and in some cases, renewal. I’ve enjoyed being a plant mum. Ernie and Bert –winter plants that grew voluptuously and which I am certain thrived all the better when I placed them next to each other (a gesture that perhaps speaks to my own social distancing blues) –have been joined by a set of daffodil bulbs to help mark spring’s gradual onset.
The streets on the day of the half marathon were relatively empty. It was a nice way to see the city, especially with the added variable of an absence of tourists. And I had a fresh and nice feeling one rarely has at the beginning of a new year: “This is exactly where I want to be. This is exactly how I want to feel.” It’s been a very strange year to return to Berlin, but not a wholly bad one, for me.
There has been something in the narrowness in possibility that has felt quite calming and comforting, especially knowing that it isn’t going to last forever, and having these rituals and routines to which I’ve grown quite attached. Like the beautiful park I see at least three times a week, with a lovely hill that comes especially into its own at sunrise and as your indefatigable training buddy powers ahead of you.
Sometimes this year makes me think about my first in China, in a third tier city in the middle of nowhere that proffered the most intense feelings of culture shock that I’ve ever had. It was quite a difficult adjustment. Actually, I was surprised by how difficult it was. You walked the streets with constant dread (albeit of getting mowed down by a motorcyclist, not contracting the horrible flu that shut down the world), you spent a large portion of your time feeling confused and frustrated, and entertainment-wise, certainly. Well, Toto– we were far from London.
I think we accumulated the most time sitting on a large rock outside a small shop owned by friends we could barely talk to, but who we liked very much, whiling away the hours drinking beers, chain smoking terrifyingly cheap Chinese cigarettes and chucking peanuts shells on the ground. Initially, I worried about making a mess with my peanut shells, but soon learnt that this was what everyone did, this little behaviour showed that I belonged. So I took pleasure in it. I even developed a taste for rice wine.
Sometimes, someone’s very cute toddler would be plonked on your lap, which would be an interesting variation of an evening. At other times, someone would walk past, first rest their eyes on your friend. And then on you, and say, in Chinese. “A foreigner! No… TWO FOREIGNERS.” And then move along. That Christmas there was one of the nicest I’ve had. A shopkeeper’s dog had just had puppies.
Anyway, when I look back on 2020, I think I’ll feel about our weekly running route the way I think about that large rock we always sat on in Foshan.
Da Capo al Fine
I haven’t got nearly as much reading done as I’d imagined I would, but I did finally get around to finishing Jane Eyre –a book I wouldn’t have been caught dead with a couple of years ago, but which –paired with Gloria Steinem’s chapter in her book on self-esteem, has proffered welcome insights. And I love Jane Eyre’s sass.
Other developments that might not otherwise have transpired include a renewed patience for flute practise, and a sense that I am getting close to sounding almost like did when I was sixteen and took it quite seriously –to the point where playing stopped being at all fun and just became another instrument for self-admonishment.
When I picked it up again a couple of years ago, promising myself to focus on the pleasure of it and not turn into that scale-gunning ogre I was, it was nice, though I was disappointed in how much skill I’d lost, the amateur-ness of my sound. The solution has, of course, come, in making space for both. The pain of endless and at times infuriating and crazy-making repetitions. (A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat –sorry neighbours – A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat .A sharp to E flat .A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat.) And the pleasure of a piece you can play well as a result of all that pain.
I have been teaching myself some new pieces, but actually the ones I like playing the most are the ones that most challenged me as a teenager. I still can’t get through Danse de La Chevre without making at least one mistake. Those arpeggios are mental.
And you’d think, having played them hundreds of times, that they’d bore me. But they don’t, really. That is the whole point of classical music performance. You go through each repetition seeking mastery and perfection, and each time bring in something special and unique to a moment unlike any other. And it can be nice, even if what transpires isn’t exactly what you thought you wanted.
News from the fjord
An elk fell from the sky and landed on the roof of a car speeding down a winding highway in the Norwegian west country last week. The driver survived. The elk– which it turns out had fallen off a cliff overhead– did not.
I know this because my mother read about it in her local newspaper and shared the story with me in our now weekly phone call, a new ritual that has come out of these long and, at times eerily isolated months.
The routine of weekly phone calls between us began when Norway went into lockdown earlier this year. She was worried she’d get lonely. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed talking to her that often.
The phone calls continued while she was in our family home in London, too. Why she went, when she could have stayed in Norway– a far safer place for a pandemic, was beyond me. But as I said, she doesn’t like being alone. And I was glad she wasn’t alone. I sent her workouts for the park. “I’m in my sixties, Sarah. I’m not going to crawl around like a bear in public.”
Now she’s back Norway again, enjoying an enviable freedom, keeping me abreast of all the latest wildlife news interspersed by observations of her own of how ‘mean’ seagulls ‘bullied’ an eagle out of his dinner near the boathouse of the family cabin out in the Trondelag fjord. And how a ‘rude’ woodpecker has made a home on the front porch, loudly digging holes into the wall to impress his lady friends.
My father and I used to make fun of how inane the Norwegian news cycle was. This year I’m grateful for it –I’m almost tempted to get in a subscription to one of these papers, sift through pages and pages of astonishingly-sized fishing conquests, and Norwegians in their silly folklore costumes marking some event no one outside the country has heard about. My grandmother was especially fond of a magazine called ‘See and Hear’ (Se og Hør), which as far as I could see, was just a catalogue of B-list Norwegian celebrities and their fishing boats.
“This poor elk, just landed with a ‘thump’ on the car. Of course he died on the spot,” my mother said, in the Norwegian lilt that has grown more noticeable since she moved back to her homeland six years ago, a sort of limbo situation forcing her to straddle London and Norwegian family life while finishing off her final years as an immunologist at her hometown’s university in Trondheim.
“What did you do this week at work?” I ask her regularly. “Oh, you know. Science,” she always says, looking to change the subject. It’s funny, journalists go on and on about their work, you can’t really shut them up. Scientists are usually quite different. They tend to have more humility, the work itself being much more mundane on a day-to-day basis.
Over dinner, journalists talk about news events as if they were in the middle of all of them. Scientists return home with very little more to recount than that they might need to invest in a more upscale pipet.
Vindictive lab rats
My mother trained initially as a nurse, working in this capacity for long enough to realise that there lived inside her a hunger for solving the sorts of long and complex puzzles to which scientists dedicate themselves. I think I always respected the level of engrossment and dedication she had with her work, although there might have been frictions around the long hours. During my early years, before school started, I spent a lot of time with my father. He worked night shifts at a London newspaper at the time.
My mother moved to London in the eighties on earning a little inheritance from an uncle, and with the aim of completing a PHD. This is how she met my father. Their marriage came faster than it might have done otherwise, owing to changes in immigration laws implemented by Margaret Thatcher.
“I’ve always just gone with the flow,” she says. By flow, I think she means that her capacity for devotion, for moving through the patterns of her life without questioning too much, is rather strong.
She’s a person of faith, too. Never saw a conflict in what she had learnt as a scientist with what she felt about her God. I respect her for that, though growing up I found this Nordic fatalism trying. If you don’t ask yourself the right questions at the right moments, how do you know you’re on the right track? How do you know you’re not an elk about to wander off a cliff?
When I was little, she’d sometimes take us to the lab, introducing us to the rats you were allowed to hold, alongside the white ones that could never leave their glass cabinets. Once, she placed a grey one between my fingers. It bit me and I cried.
Words that swim
My brother was the budding scientist. I was the kid who couldn’t read. I hated it. Words would sort of– for want of a better way of describing it– swim on a page, and I couldn’t make sense of the ways the letters came together, couldn’t really see the logic that came naturally to everyone else. Learning to write felt like trying to paint on paper with a spear. It just didn’t really work.
“L-A-P” – what word is that, Sarah?” I didn’t know. Trying to know always put me in a panic. Reading terrified me, but I didn’t really have much choice but to plough through it, trying to conceal this slowness as best I could, trying desperately to find my own solutions. I’ve ironed out the worst of it, now. Sometimes, when I’m in flow, I don’t notice it all– this panic and doubt that makes me second guess every word such that they start swimming again.
If I need to, I can stem the way they swim by isolating a sentence, and tackling it word by word, remembering breathing exercises that have helped create calm in sparring scenarios, too.
I am not really sure where or how this arrested development came about. With each new language I have learned, I have struggled with the initial building blocks of it, and fluency for me has always come in the form of having a handle on the unique rhythms and flows of a language, not really in mastering the grammar or spelling on any innate level. I still compulsively spell check. And I still harbour fears around being ‘found out.’ Which is funny, because I do this professionally now. And I’m good at it.
But maybe it’s not that surprising, maybe it’s what I do to claw back some sense of control, however uncomfortable the process can still make me. It’s always a relief to finish with an edited piece. Tidy something up so there’s nothing wrong with it anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. I genuinely love what I do. And I love words in a particular way that has nothing to do with the pain they initially brought to my life. Most of all I like how they sound, and that feeling you get when you finally think of the exact one you need.
Some self-help gurus say that we either do one of two things: We either operate out of fear. Or out of love. And that it is ultimately up to us to choose love over fear. I understand this premise and I see its value. But I don’t think matters of the human heart are ever that simple, or that we always have that much power over what drives us. I think a lot of the time, we can’t really help the fact that our motivations and passions are driven by an interplay of both.
Back to Berlin
This weekend I had a friend come round. My funniest German friend.
“Oh my God. This place! You’re Hannibal Lecter!” she said, before diving onto the piano and cracking out some of “Freddy ‘Small Hands’ Chopin”’s greatest hits. Though she’s a self-proclaimed ‘loner introvert’ who enjoys her own company, I think she’s going mad like the rest of us muddling through this strange year of repeating disconnection. This reflects itself in how she played, which felt more frenetic and passionate that usual, more magnificent. Makes sense. Art that endures usually comes from a place of discomfort and yearning.
For my part, It was nice to get company in this hall of dark and ungodly things, to punctuate time spent between watching the frost settle outside my window in the mornings and trying to fix the pink flamingo figurine in a Christmas hat that I accidentally decapitated last week.
Honestly, I thought I would make better use of all this time skulking about at home in a robe, to read and write. I got halfway through a decent Danish thriller that I enjoyed up until the point where I felt like it was making me lethargic. I have yet to complete the third draft of the beginning of a short story that has decided that it never wants to be written. One of these days I might end up printing out the entrails of these aborted efforts just to shove a spear through them.
In the backroom of this lair –Hannibal Lecter’s lair– is a punch bag. Probably the crown jewels of the place. I could easily spend about two hours a day in there if it weren’t for other commitments and a fear of annoying neighbours.
Bag work isn’t optimal –nothing replaces having a human partner, however many scenarios you dream up in your head as you shadow box. (Shadow box: how lovely is that phrase?!) But it’s a great way to focus on the foundations of the movements and the sequences, which is probably what I need anyway. I am out of practise in my striking, having mostly focused on trying to learn the interlocking logics of grappling this year as and when training has been possible. And last year, everything was so mad and gungho –I didn’t get enough time to just, sort of. You know:
Jab, cross, right roundhouse, switch kick. Jab, cross, switch kick, right roundhouse. Right tee. Step back. Right tee. Step back. Right tee. Jab Jab. Right elbow. Block. Block. Jab. Cross. Jab. Jab. Jab. Cross. Jab. Cross. Knee. Step back. Knee. Block. Knee. Elbow. Block. Jab. Cross. Uppercut. Cross. Decoy jab. Gnarly right hook. Pause. Step forward. Clinch. Knee. And he’s down.
On a side note, I’ve replaced the wilted, cut flowers with pot plants which I intend to water regularly and watch grow as a lockdown mood-lifting strategy. I have been told that I am unlikely to do well with plants, owing to my struggles in maintaining focus on simple tasks.
“You can barely take care of yourself, Sarah,” a flatmate said this year. I don’t know. There are a lot of things people have told me I can’t do that I’ve done. So I don’t see how gardening is any different.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.