Playful child and iron teacher: the two halves of the writer

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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Decide.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Good Links

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

 

 

 

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
This entry was posted in Essay, Memoir and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Playful child and iron teacher: the two halves of the writer

  1. Another excellent post! Most of me is still that trigger-happy kid, ready to lay down suppressive fire at the first sign of conflict. I’m slowly learning the fine art of diplomacy though. 🙂

    • Hi Pillip. Thank you! Lovely analogy about laying down suppressive fire. Slowly learning is right – but I think the best lessons are the gradual ones. Stick at it 😉

  2. I love these posts! Thank you for writing specifically about writing on occasion. Your insights are truly helpful to me. 🙂

    • Aw – you’re such a wonderful follower, I love your encouragement, and the fact that you ‘get’ me. I’m also enjoying seeing that people are clicking on the link (on my stats page) to read that lovely post of yours.

  3. Mayumi-H says:

    Beautiful post, Gabriela! You craft with such intricate detail, and the point is always at the fore. It’s a lovely story, but – perhaps more than that – it’s also a strong reminder that both writer and editor need to cooperate.

    I love the whole paragraph that starts, “If the two persons of the writer are at war, they will seek to punish each other….” It’s so true! And, your observation of what prose is really struck me.

    Perhaps I love words too much, but I want them to be more than mere service to a plot. Why can’t we add a bit of poetry and wordplay into our storytelling? Maybe an editor will take it out, but that initial crafting is so wonderful to me. It’s part of what I enjoy about posts like this, too. Words aren’t there simply to function, but to weave a lusher tale.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you Mayumi – comments like yours are such lovely validation. I love your thoughts on the beauty of words, and the fact that they deserve their rightful place – not just as the supporting role. I do love it when prose has an extra level of poetry, but I do find there is a fine line between that lusher place, and an overwritten place, which is why the editor’s role is so hard – making that judgement call.

  4. Gabs, I adore how you have written this, perhaps I do need to imbibe in the beverage a little more at times when I write! Your skill, interpretation, knowledge far outweighs mine. This story I probably would have put into a paragraph, not knowing how to embellish as you do. You write with fluidity and ease. This as an example “which resembles the dregs of some tube that has become so caked with self-consciousness that only an emaciated maggot can squeeze out”
    Oh how I wish to write like you. Editors versus the writer a battle – the writer wanting to express in their way – the editor feeling it better in another. Give and take on both parts, but the writer must be free ….or perhaps drunk too take it all on board 😉 xx

    • Jen – you are so full of wonderful appreciation, but let me tell you: when you compare what you would have done with this story to what I have done you need to know how long it took me to do that. I have been writing about The Mountain for probably two years now. I have a story that takes in that horrible rounders match, and the time I got drunk. And my writing group have seen a few versions. So it took a lot of time to find the narrative, distil the words down. So, when I came to write this post, and I had the idea of writing about the Editor and the Creator in the writer I suddenly remembered how The Mountain had made me feel, and the journey of our relationship and was able to use some parts for this blog.
      We never see what goes on behind the scenes with writers, and also, I will add that I love the freedom that I see in your own writing – how much you give, how much you love. 😉 x

  5. I loved the descriptions of this woman, and all the details you gave. You had me hooked from the jaundiced-tinted glasses. This is a wonderful account.

    • Hi Marylin – I’m glad you liked the glasses. I love it when someone refers to something specific in the text. I spent a while sitting there, with those glasses in my mind, trying to find a way that would bring them to life – so at least that time spent was worth it! Really appreciate you stopping by.

  6. Oh Gabriela, you always hook me in… I can hardly bear to read your discussions on writing, I’m so desperate to get to the end of your story about the teacher! And I did so love you getting drunk!… I know how you came to read the notice wrong, it was always like that with my stepmother.. who was the nearest thing to Miss Murdstone… and yes, a few years before she died, she came to terms with me!
    Lovely post , utterly readable as ever… I always worry that I don’t have these writing conflicts and console myself that basically I’m not a creative writer. or even a perfectionist. – but I love reading your discussions..and the thoughtful intelligent comments

    • Poor you to have a stepmother like The Mountain – as least in the school holidays I was free of her. I am glad you found your peace with her though. It made me laugh to think of your racing through the piece to find out what happened. It’s also really useful to know – sometimes I find it hard to believe that stories of me being little, playing sport, not getting on with a teacher, can be interesting. So, I am glad that you were hooked. And also more glad because it proves that you don’t have to use gimmicks to lure your reader in, just tell it like it is.
      Lucky you to not have writing conflicts. My students would want to know what you have for breakfast! I do think it does have something to do with the kind of writing though, as you touch on. I certainly find that my fiction students are usually panicking a lot more than my non fiction ones!!

  7. Wowza… so gorgeously written!

    I had a no-nonsense daycare teacher back in elementary school. Her name was Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones had to put up with me and my friend Alicia – we treated after school as an excuse to go balls-to-the-wall.

    My dad and I ran into Mrs. Jones in a grocery store many years later.

    She smiled at me and said, “You and that Alicia gave me all these grey hairs.” And, then she hugged me.

    • Britt! So kind!! And I love your story of Mrs. Jones. Moments like that can be quite profound. I’m not sure what I’d think if I saw The Mountain today and she hugged me. If she read this post she might not feel like doing that 😉

  8. You can write, woman. I’m always eager to read your posts, but hold off until I can really soak it up.

    The way you tied this story in with the two faces of writing is so well done.

    • Thanks, Tim. You no nonsense compliments always make me smile so much. And thanks again for sharing this piece beyond wordpress – it’s so wonderful to be read, and that other people are helping that happen really makes me feel very lucky.

      • I didn’t realize you had replied to this comment. Usually, replies show up in that little balloon at the top of a blog next to New Post. Maybe the WordPress program is developing some glitches.

  9. diannegray says:

    This is a wonderful post, Gabriela! I love the analogy of the two characters and the intertwining of both being related to the writing process. You are an amazing writer 😀

    • Hey Dianne – you’ve really made me happy with your words. And thanks for your tweet – it means so much that you’d take the trouble to do that. As I mentioned to another reader up a bit – this material on The Mountain has been something I’ve tries to work on for years – in short stories, both memoir and then fiction. My writing group have seen every version. But this is where it has found it’s place – finally!!

  10. rowena says:

    It’s a great analogy, and a story written with perfect pace to keep the reader engaged……, but it’s set my memories off into the past and the loathsome sadist who was my gym teacher. Even the distance of time and maturity can’t make me think charitably of her, but as the strict teacher is good way to characterise the discipline needed in writing, instead I’ll conjure my maths teacher, much more inspirational!

    • That’s the trouble with memoir – usually it reminds people of their own similar experiences. If you have a more positive set of memories for your maths teacher, that is good. The Mountain also taught me maths – really she invaded all areas of my school life, so it was so hard to get away from her. I’m glad I finally got the pacing right on this piece. For a while the whole rounders match bit really wasn’t working – then I used Hilary Mantel’s advice to cut a third. I think that did the trick. Thanks for popping by, Rowena!

  11. Thanks! I will try to remember to tell my two halves that they’re on the same side!

  12. Another great read. You always cram so much personality into the reads, and the ending opens up a new wealth of possibilities

    • Personality – I like that. I guess that’s part of the voice when you are working on memoir stuff. It makes me think of how I felt when I first started writing about myself – I kept getting caught on the worry that people wouldn’t like me. It was good when I finally got over that one – like the floodgates had opened! Nice to see that little duck this week 😉

  13. I just hoped that you were going to find a moment of the Mountain’s vulnerability! Lucky for you. My nemesis was Doctor Godbold in Honors English in Brick New Jersey. She intimidated us all and I’ve spent more time than I should have mulling over our interactions, now that I’m an adult. I believe she did care; some people think being a hard a#$# is the only way.
    I think the Mountain would be rich material for a short story. right?

    • For a while when I wrote about her, i didn’t want to talk about her vulnerable side – I wrote story after story about what a cow she was. Then my writing group were like: um, this isn’t really working – she’s not really believable… The Mountain is great material – it’s about telling it right, and I think I’m nearly there.
      I think you are right about the way some teachers believe things have to work – that being hard is the only way to get results. Shame really. Hope you’re well, Bllu. Thanks for reading.

  14. gotasté says:

    And I love the photos you’ve specially picked to go along with this post. Two doors, two windows, two colors….I supposed one is the playful child and the other the iron teacher. Such a lovely post as always.

    • Yey, Danny – you’re the first person to have spotted what I did with the photos! What I find really interesting when all the comments have come through for a post is that between everyone all the things that I felt were important are noticed. Thank you 😉

  15. I need to read your posts quicker because by the time I get to them, everyone else has expressed in the comments all the things I would say. I don’t want to just give you some bland gushing praise, not when you give me cake, and I don’t want to just say ‘ditto’ to what everyone else has said, even though that’s mostly how I feel! I don’t want to do those things, but I don’t know what to do instead!

    As always, you have brought what could be dull instructional material on writing skills to life with personal experiences and a wonderful tale!

    • Aw, Vanessa! I have to say, from my point of view, there is nothing wrong with gushing praise 😉
      I’ll tell what I love most about people’s comments are the little things they notice in a post – the things that resonate for them, or an image that stood out, or even a turn of phrase; maybe the post makes you think about something, remember your own personal event. xx

  16. Hi, Gabriela! I just wanted to let you know formally 😉 that I have nominated you for The Sunshine Award. I know that blogger awards are not everyone’s bag, but just know I was thinking of you and if you are interested in accepting, the info is here:
    http://thisisyourrealmotherspeaking.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/you-are-my-sunshine/

    Have a lovely day!

  17. eleanor lubbock says:

    Best ever darling Gabriela…a wonderful read! Thanks…!

  18. seerovum says:

    I am a fan of “Writing Down the Bones” as well! Nice post!

  19. Pingback: Which Window? – Point of View in The Valley Walker | Gabriela Blandy – The sense of a journey

  20. Gabriela,

    Hmmm? I now realize that whenever it comes to writing comments I feel the editor choking me. Also, it is interesting I how several years ago I had chosen the handle name Romantic Editor for another blog, not realizing how it depicts the two contradictory parts.

    So much wisdom here in your blog to ponder.

    Many thanks,

    Vincent

    • Vincent, I love that you saw how the editor even comes into the comment box! But also, that dichotomy between romantic and editor! Sometimes life suddenly can appear as very serendipitous. Lovely feedback. Thank you for exploring xx

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