Late last year, at an event at RMIT, I heard Sophie Cunningham speak about the space between the ordinary and the extraordinary. She said that it was porous – or that it ‘had porousity’. An audience member asked if she could expand on it – what exactly was this space? “Well – I think it’s where story is,’ Cunningham replied.
I went on to read Cunningham’s 2015 Calibre prize winning essay ‘Staying With the Trouble’ on walking New York (among other things) where she wrote:
‘As I get older, I no longer try to find meaning in order so much as draw meaning from randomness. I feel this strongly: things are both random and connected, all the time. Leonard Woolf used to say ‘nothing matters’ by which he meant ‘everything matters’. All of it. The lot.’
I’ve been feeling porous lately. I’m in the early stages of a new project. Or not so early, really. I think I’ve been saying I’m in the early stages of a project for the last 6 months. And each early feels different. I’ve got words on the page, tens of thousands of them, I’ve even got various versions of those words. I’ve got writing residencies coming up. I’ve got characters whispering in my ear. My desk is covered in random jottings, my browser filled with strange searches. I’ve accepted an advance and have a due date. So, by some accounts – some yard sticks – it isn’t early. But it is that beginning place – a time Joan London described in an interview with Charlotte Wood in her excellent anthology The Writer’s Room: conversations about writing, as ‘slow and tentative and clumsy’ where everything is swirling around or ‘composting’ as Natalie Goldberg puts it in Writing Down the Bones. London says she doesn’t like it – she prefers when it all starts coming together, and of course, at some level, I suppose that is what I like too.
But there is magic in this part: where the randomness makes meaning, and all things feel connected, where every day there is that strange coincidence of someone repeating the thing that is just – so – for your new work.Where ordinary life and extraordinary happenings hum and fizz and crack at each other, fuelling the story.
I think maybe there are times in our lives too, where the boundaries between parts of our lives are more permeable; where our regular worlds collide with magnificent days, with moments of insight. Where emotion is always threatening, spilling, leaking. Where we find ourselves heartsick or sideswiped by tears or overcome by something akin to bliss. Where we are distracted, unfocussed, and for once this is as it should be.
I am in such a time now; aching for the end of a wonderful summer that was filled with the kids in rivers and ocean, and beaches and campfires and good company; unexpectedly overcome by the fact of my eldest daughter starting school; despairing and frightened and uplifted simultaneously by what is happening in the world; trying to embrace writing as work; resisting the urge to huddle back in where it is safe, but instead to take risks, to be brave. Everything feels huge.
Towards the end of the process of writing my last book, the boundaries between the outer and the inner became less transparent, more firm. I was hunkered down, separated from life in the isolation of the work, the clear purpose, the absolute focus. Such direction can not, perhaps, afford to take heed of emotion or random connections.
But now I am open, feeling loose and susceptible to any and every idea that passes me by: making connections, neurons firing to join the next idea and the next, a milky way of ideas across my brain, fuelling me and depleting me in equal measure.
I wonder if there is a ‘protective psychological construct’ – a phrase Elizabeth Gilbert uses in her famous TED talk on creativity and the muse – that one should put in place to manage this liminal space?
How do we create distance from the rawness of feeling and experience – the blessed words that sometimes bubble up to the page – and the insight required to make sense of all this for ourselves, for a reader?
Or perhaps, right now, I don’t. And what is needed is to just sit in this porous space awhile. Soaking it all up, letting it swim and swirl and be.