THINKING, ONLY EVER
1. thinking, i’m only ever alone when i’m up to my neck in tepid water
i slide on the tap with
my toes until it goes up
my nose and i let it all out
again, and let it all in again
sit in the cold, my back pressed
until a few moments later
when i’m red all over
2. thinking, of the light that streaks your walls
but only ever past four PM
and the cars close it off
when the light spills go from here, to there again
to here again
and my eyes drift from the wall, on my left
to the edge of your chin, on my right
to the paint job on your ceiling
and back again
3. thinking, as i bust in the front door
with my keys in one hand
three days of dirty underwear in the other
and a twenty dollar note between my lips
you squeeze me around the gut, kiss me
on the forehead
struggling to keep everything in my arms
as you ask me if i had gotten
over it and i think of ten years earlier
when i held gold coins on my tongue
without any worry of where they’d been prior to meeting me
as the note falls out my mouth and at
as i answer yes, i got over it days ago
and realise you only ever kiss me on the forehead
when i’ve been gone for
forty eight hours, at least
WRITING GENETICS: THE FEELING BETWEEN THE WRITER’S BLOCK AND THE HARD PLACE
[Attached is a piece of creative non fiction I wrote for uni. It’s centralized around the myth of the born writer rather than the made writer, with my own stories interconnecting my ideas to enhance the points I make. I would say more but the wind is cold, this cardigan is thin, and my I’m only typing with one hand because my dog won’t let me stop scratching her between the ears. Here you go - ]
“When did you first realise that writing was for you?”
My newly-torn cuticle is splitting away, little by little, as I push my ripped fingernails against my palms. They’re grazing my skin red raw, back and forth, bit by bit. I’m fixated on the air-conditioner that’s droning at the back of this classroom and the back of my mind drip, drip, dripping a stain into the carpet that won’t be scrubbed dry for years to come. This girl’s talking at me, and her voice has tumbled back even further beyond the thick hum of the dog-tired A.C. This girl is no more than a mumble. Oh, boy, I have completely lost any grip whatsoever of whatever she had been talking about. I’m burrowing my frow – I mean, furrowing my brow. God, it’s hot. I’m trying to pick up on her frequencies as the loose, lingering fingernail finally tears away, falls to the floor, and my chest drops as I let out a rush of air: “Shit.”
My neck snaps. The tear of the cuticle is what got me; I’m up and running again. I must not have sworn aloud, because this girl’s still going at full steam. It’s the longest afternoon of the week, a Monday, and I’m on the third floor of my high school, watching a bead of sweat as it steadily suspends itself from one of her eyelashes. I’m getting acrobatic penis envy over this bead of fluid. A part of me is praying it loses its balance, trickles into her left eye, and she has to ask for a hall pass so she can go wash her eyes out from the sting. Is she dripping from the weather, or is she this heated over whatever she’s talking about? I’m working up a sweat just looking at her –
“I mean, I’ve always felt that I was born to be a writer, haven’t you? I think it’s in my blood. Maybe it’s a gene that gets passed down to the best of us. I think I might have a bit of J.K. Rowling in me!” She giggled, shrill. It drilled into my eardrums and bounced back and forth between the walls of my brain as she slapped me on the shoulder and stood up to leave. The bell rang. I watched the drop of sweat lose its balance and hit the ground right between us – damn. So close.
People like this girl have been treading on my heels for my entire life. They step on the backs of my ankles until my runners slip off. They snicker to their friends while I wobble away as quickly as a person can with half their shoes on. They always finish me off the same way: “Have you got it in you to be a REAL writer? Take the quiz on BuzzFeed today!”
People like this are a part of a species that have maintained a stable rate of survival for years now: born-to-be-writers, or in other words, strong believers in the hypothesis that writers are born, not made. They’re self-proclaimed prophets. They will rip you right open, get under your skin, and watch you itch out any potential talent you might have told yourself you had in you. That is unless you can list at least five of your published Aunts and Uncles from past generations of your family that prove you have the blood of playwrights oozing through you. Were you a Dickenson fan at six? What do you mean, you haven’t been writing since you fell out of your mother? This is the myth of writing genetics.
It’s not that I completely disagree with these people. I believe in the birth of a writer. But with the birth of the writer, comes the death of the writer; and I refuse to agree that these births and these deaths work in sequence with the womb and the grave. I am eighteen-years-old. In my mere eighteen years fuelled by phobias of penmanship and poetry, I have been born as a writer three times. Hand in hand, I have also killed off two of these versions of myself. At this moment, you are speaking to the third. But I’ll fill you in on how the others ended up in the ditch:
It’s 2003. I’m cross-legged on the floor, probably picking a wedgie, struggling to make out the weekly notices from the blown out overhead speakers read by my primary school’s unbelievably apathetic janitor. I never heard a word of the announcements; partly because I couldn’t make them out, but mostly because I was a seven-year-old and had much more to worry about. So I had no idea what the principal was approaching me about later that afternoon when I was asked to participate in ‘Bushfires and Beyond’: a competition encouraging young people to write about their personal experiences with the January bushfires that devastated Canberra that year. Now, I was not present for the bushfires. I was actually in Sydney for the weekend visiting my Grandmother. But this didn’t stop me from gratefully taking the opportunity, baring my baby teeth, and fictionalizing my entire traumatic experience. I took the self-assuring pat on the back that told me I was at least a little note-worthy for something. I mean, my school Principal referred to me as the second best writer in my grade – which, retrospectively, was telling me that I was a pretty good writer out of twenty-something kids, but still not the best. Nevertheless, this back-handed compliment flew straight past me. Chock-full of confidence, I went on to write a sixteen line free verse poem which alluded to my immediate family passing away as a result of the fires. This won me first place in the lower primary category ACT wide.
This was my first birth. In hindsight, the award meant nothing. All I was given was a hundred dollars for a bookstore that I chose to spend exclusively on Roald Dahl. Yet, from then on, I began to feel shackled to the pursuit of creative writing. It’s been eleven years, and I’m still unsure why this is – but I think it had something to do with Noni Hazlehurst. She presented me the award, and as a kid in second grade I was star-struck for months. I had come face to face with a Playschool host. A Playschool host thought I was going places. Surely I was headed somewhere worthy of at least a four star rating.
The death that accompanied this kid was subtle. I covered up my tracks well. No one bothered to organize a funeral. I ditched this version of me at around the age of eleven. I wasn’t getting the persistent pushing that I needed to keep going; I was biting down at the wrong end of the pen like an amateur poet and staining my tongue blue. Dozens of others began racing way past my grades, and by the time I had caught my breath, I was squinting to make them out at the finish-line. I let my newly-budding hormones get to me, threw my journals up the chimney, – literally. I was exposed to far too much Degrassi High as a budding teenager – and rolled my eyes as they went up in flames. I didn’t gather up the ashes with a dustpan and broom for another few years.
I brought my second self back from the dead in 2009 as a house chore out of obligation. I read the Lord of the Flies between the break that separated my seventh grade self from my eighth grade self, and my teachers crowned me as their own Christmas miracle, but instead of popping up beneath their tree on December 25th I had arrived at their desks with eager eyes first semester back. My upper arm was always aching from incessantly raising my hand. I fed off the praise I was given from my familiarity with literature. This was a boost from my former self; my writer’s ego had grown about five inches. This was the second me, and I was reassured of my potential on a regular basis each time my essay results rolled in. I took in this self-assurance with open arms; I kept my friends close, but my grades closer.
This version of me thrived underneath the nose of a school teacher, but otherwise I was coughing up a lung. Away from the third floor of my high school, away from my permanent desk by the windowsill caked with bird shit, away from the nod of a reassuring report card – it was a feeling similar to being away from an IV. Joan Didion never nudged me hard enough and I never fell into keeping a notebook. It’s not that the ideas never came; it’s that I didn’t give them enough room to mature before I threw myself into aggravation and frustration, scrunching up my thoughts and hurling them into the trash. These flattened characters would linger in the midst of me, waiting around to have homes built for them – or at least to be introduced to the backing characters that would surround their lives. But I would never quite get there. Instead, I was blindly groping around my innards, grabbing for an inner Annie Dillard and coming out empty. I had an ever-growing dread of writing genetics.
You should have 900-page-novellas coming out as upchuck. You should be struggling to keep all those stories from overflowing and falling out your mouth. You haven’t found it in you yet? I would throw in the towel if I were you. If you don’t feel it in your bones, you won’t feel it in your blood.
I was deeply afraid of my creative flair, or lack thereof. The death of my second self was not a murder shoved under the rug like my first, but a decaying-from-the-inside disease. I let my incessant writing block eat away at me. I was constantly reminded that if you aren’t sodden with the written word, you weren’t meant for the written world – so when the words weren’t at my surface, I refused to dig any deeper. My first two births had been sparklers; lit by someone else’s hand only to fizzle out a moment later. It was not until my third and final birth that I was introduced to buying my own matches.
This version of my writer arose from the deathbed early 2013 after a lengthy nap. I had been an English double major for over twelve months. I had kept a groan going for my entire first year of college after watching dozens of horrendous Lang-and-Lit teachers come and go. By the time twelfth grade rolled around, my tonsils were aching and I was sick to death of in-class essays that just weren’t worth the blisters anymore. This lasted until February, when two teachers found me doubled over by their feet. They poked and prodded around my insides until they found my half-dead potential gasping for breath. And then they shoved an illegal firework straight through my middle.
My third birth was about 6% reliant on potential and 94% reliant on persistence. It was the first time in my life I was working away from a school desk. I was handing in drafts from home with a shaky hand and I was getting them back through a paper-shredder. This teacher was looking down his nose at me just as my high school teachers had four years earlier, but instead of seeing a sparkle in his eye when I brought up Oscar Wilde, this teacher would look at me like: “I don’t give a shit if you can recite Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ back to front. What have you got in you?”
Whilst this guy punched me in the gut with the practice of editing and drafting, my other teacher was introducing me to the writers that I would soon come to craft shrines for at the core of my own writing. Making the time to read was what demolished the writer’s block that had been clogging the tunnel between my brain and my pencil for my entire life. I began to make the time to write, but not out of obligation this time. Instead, I was writing to thwack fat on the bones of my ideas; ideas I had peeled off writers like Dave Eggers and Chris Kraus and stitched into my own skin. I began to write for the feeling of closing the front cover of The Virgin Suicides for the first time. I mean, everything I was coming up with was a pile of rotting shit, but that’s beside the point – I was letting out something, and for the first time in my life I wasn’t weeping at the prospect of the blank page because I wasn’t letting myself come face to face with one.
These two teachers were my post-grad proof that writers can be made, not born. By the time I graduated, I had written things that even maggots would scrape into their napkin to chuck in the bin on their way out. But some of it was worth a second taste, and whatever passed the cut made wading through all the shit worth it. These two teachers had elbowed me in the gut hard enough to get me going. They refused to light my spark, but they gave me the number of someone who would sell me banned fireworks. By graduation, I had lit my own flair and it had been firing off in every direction for months. Since then, it’s fizzled from time to time. But I have some matches in my back pocket for safe-keeping.
What I’m trying to say is – sure, some are born with it in them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t light your own creative flair. There is always another chance at birth; you might just be a little late to labour: a thirty-three-year-old with a fire cracker roped around their gut, blast out of the womb ablaze with a vile of Orwell’s blood in one hand and a fountain pen leaking ink stains all over the other. Nothing is unheard of in the written world. Just remember there’s no reason to wait around for someone to strike the match for you when you can always light that cracker for yourself on your way out.