I was nine when a new games mistress arrived at my school. She was a grey-haired woman, although she wasn’t old; I could tell because her eyebrows were black. Her bum was boxlike, giving an impression of very little waist. She wore glasses that had a jaundiced tint to them. Perhaps she wasn’t as tall as she seemed, but standing beneath her, I always felt in the shadow of a mountain, afraid of some volatility.
It seems to me that if there are two halves of the writing personality, one of them is the playful, innocent, exploratory child; and the other is the iron teacher, unremitting in her ambitious expectations.
When it is time to write, the iron teacher must step aside, but something I remember is that my games mistress – The Mountain – was such a fearful presence that even in her absence I felt crippled by the thought of her.
Dorothea Brand says that when the two persons of the writer are at war we get the unhappy artist – ‘the artist who is working against the grain, or against his sober judgement, or, saddest of all, is unable to work.’
I know something isn’t right the moment my mother parks outside the school gates. The street is deserted. I race towards the girls’ changing rooms. They are silent. A shoe, kicked across the room, sits like an island on the tiles. I think of not going out, of hiding in the toilet, but then I snatch up my games kit and begin to dress.
Now, I rush out of the changing rooms and down the tarmac slope towards the playing fields. I cannot see beyond the pavilion – a thick row of pines hides the girls’ rounders pitch – so, I hurry on, my arms flailing.
Second deep comes into view first, the red of her polo shirt startling against the grass. I hear a tock. A ball flies through the air. Someone begins to sprint. Already, a few of the opposition are sitting at the edge of the pitch, run or caught out.
The Mountain has drafted in our reserve player who cannot catch, and throws the ball by spinning round, faster and faster, until she decides to let go. You can only pray she will let go at the right moment. Usually, it launches in entirely the wrong direction. Instead of shifting the players round so that the reserve goes in at first deep – the least crucial spot – The Mountain has put her in at first base, which is my position.
This is the sort of thing The Mountain does in order to teach a lesson.
Some of the girls are waving at me now. I’m heading towards first base. The Mountain comes striding over. Her face is taut.
When I’m closer, I say: sorry – sorry I’m late.
The Mountain is motionless. She says: you’ll have to wait until the second half. Her voice is deadly.
I see a dark depth in the blue of her eyes, but I will not give up my shame to that. Even though I’ve let my teammates down, I will not yield; even though the feeling of upset is like my guts have been scorched.
Okay, whatever, I say, and stroll towards my mother, knowing the worst is still to come.
I was at war with The Mountain for many years. Even though I was her best squash player, I signed up for cross-country one season, and ran up hills all winter.
The state I was in reminds me of that tense muteness, which can come down over a writer overwhelmed by the judge of his other half. The Mountain was the critic, sitting at my ear, shouting so that my eardrums ached. I was desperate to be free of her.
When we write, there is nothing more unpleasant than to have the excessively scrupulous, fault-finding voice at the front of our mind. Sometimes, the only way we can be free of it is to not write – just as I felt the only way I could be free of The Mountain was to forego my position as captain of the girls’ squash team. But if our two halves – the creator and the editor – are at war, our mind is the battlefield: every blow we deliver is to ourselves. I hated running up hills – each time I would dream of how much I loved to hit a black rubbery ball up and down the wall. My lungs burned and my soul wept and the hills never cared.
When I was thirteen, I decided to get drunk with a friend.
The Mountain has by now become my housemistress.
My friend and I hide in the woods and drink a concoction made from small amounts of every bottle in my parents’ drinks cupboard. On the way back to our boarding house, my friend has to prop me up. She keeps telling me to shut up. I don’t know what she’s so worried about.
We reach the house and run for cover in the dormitory, flopping onto our beds and laughing. Whenever I try to stand up, I fall over.
There is no critical voice now.
My friend hits her head on the wall and a mauve blotch appears on her flesh like a stain. It’s too hilarious and I wet myself a tiny bit.
I’m aware of someone coming into the room. My friend is at my side, telling me to get up. I look over and see The Mountain, standing in the doorway, but I stay on the ground. I have enough clarity to think, this is strange, but not enough to be able to do anything about it. My friend is reaching under her pillow for her pyjamas. Now, she unhooks her towel from the pegs above the radiator. It is a pretence at being very busy.
You’re to come to my flat, The Mountain says – both of you.
My friend puts all the things that are in her arms carefully on her bed.
The Mountain looks at me and I hiccup.
She comes over, hauls me to my feet and marches me down the corridor. Girls come out of their dormitories to look.
Woo hoo! I shout.
In The Mountain’s flat, I drape myself on her couch.
My friend sits upright on one of the highbacked wooden chairs that are arranged around a small oval table. Suddenly, her head jerks forward and she looks alarmed. A sound comes from her belly and she throws up in her hand.
I glance at The Mountain who is standing in the doorway to her cramped kitchen. The expression on her face makes me burst out laughing.
I’ve read a lot of writers that liked to get drunk before they worked. I certainly would have never been able to behave that way in front of The Mountain if I hadn’t been plastered. I switched my fear off.
The trouble is, the lights always come back on at some point.
The moment arrives when you have to go into your editor’s study and face the shame, just like I did when I woke up the following morning and received the message that The Mountain wanted to see me. My fear came back, gushing, unstoppable.
The playful child and the iron teacher must find their place together.
After the rounders match, I watched The Mountain’s slow, ominous approach. I knew the weight of her presence would force my explanation out of me, in the way a punch to the stomach brings a sharp gasp.
I told that I thought the game started at three thirty.
Her eyes widened behind the sickly tint of her glasses. She licked her lips and said: I would like to know why, when every other match you’ve played at this school starts at two forty five, you would decide this one was different.
I felt a familiar a sucking in my chest at this word, which said: there’s no trust here, no cooperation. It was this very lack of understanding between us, which kept me locked in a frenzy: I couldn’t do anything without being afraid I’d be wrong in some way.
I tried to tell her that I read the time on the notice board.
Show me, she said.
I remember that walk from the playing field towards the main building – the sense of her fury, which I endured all the way. And there we were, standing in front of the notice board. My heart was thumping. I scanned the scraps of paper with lists of names, tennis pairs, cross country runners…there, three thirty. I pointed.
The Mountain leaned forward. It was a while before she spoke.
The annual meeting of the A and B cricket captains? she said, each word clear and separate.
She began to shout. The more her face stormed, the more I felt the surface of my own, stilled, almost slackened by a sense that whatever it is she thought I’d done, I hadn’t. But only I could know that – the fact that I lived in such terror of her, I couldn’t even read a noticeboard accurately.
If the two persons of the writer are at war, they will seek to punish each other, and the surest way to do that is to not write. They will fight for complete, uncollaborative ascendancy. If the iron teacher criticises the other into submission, the result is prose, which resembles the dregs of some tube that has become so caked with self-consciousness that only an emaciated maggot can squeeze out. If the playful child becomes oblivious and over-intoxicated by creativity, the result is pages of indecipherable manure, which is so embarrassing to read your chest aches. Neither writing is worthless – there is always something that can be salvaged – but the rescue mission is often agonizing.
Instead of war, try submission – but both sides must consent. When each agrees to its place, the writing ball tocks endlessly back and forth.
Eventually, the woman who had overshadowed so much of my school life, stood down as housemistress. It wasn’t my fault – it wasn’t any one individual’s fault – though, I suspect I was a contribution. The day I heard of her resignation, I went into her study. I didn’t intend to be stealthlike, but there was a moment where I caught a glimpse of her, slumped and wilting at her desk, before she saw me and straightened up. She gave something of a sigh.
What is it, Gabriela? she asked.
This was the day we became friends.
Successful writing is about being able to observe your playful child and iron teacher and, through that process, move between them in a collaborative way.
It’s an aim, a process. There will be times when you sense a war coming, or find yourself in the midst of one; the trick is to realise that you’re both on the same side.
Hear ‘you are boring’ as distant white laundry flapping in the breeze – a truly wonderful book on writing: Writing down the bones by Natalie Goldberg
Please read Chalkdust Fairy. This is a post that has stayed in my mind as a great example of ‘collaborative’ writing where there is freedom, but control.
And a belated thank you to Anthony for nominating me for a very inspiring blogger award. His is a brilliantly diverse blog – here is one of my favourite posts by Anthony on skeleton bubbles…