hose first words. I was sitting on the back of my mum’s bike cycling down a street somewhere in the Netherlands, reciting to her the names of every shop, the fleeting words on road signs, the chalked letters on the pavement — a landscape of jumbled scribbles suddenly legible to me.
I felt the authority of those words, the certainty that came with reading them — it felt a world no longer open to interpretation. Then came writing; I found myself surprised with that certainty yet again. This time the words appeared like a letter written by someone else.
At a certain point, my writing began to feel lonely. “Writing is lonely,” people said, evoking the flaneur in the sparse cityscape. But I sensed that words were more powerful than isolation. If words were the tethers that bound me to the world out there, surely I could anchor them into something other than road-signs and school essays; surely I could find someone else to write to.
"By writing, as by reading, one can pick one's own ancestors and establish a second, intellectual hereditary line to rival conventional biological heritage.”
— Judith Schalansky, An Inventory of Losses
I started to find the books and the authors I wanted to talk to. Slowly, writing became more conversation than assertion; I found a different kind of connection, a different kind of voice. My canon became what spoke to me.
Now, I write about what is meaningful to me. Topics I found addressed seriously only rarely, and exclusively in my own personal canon: the hidden lives in homes, the turmoil inside bodies, the bloodiness of periods. In these books, nature infiltrated lonely urbanity, people lived in bodies, not on streets.
Writers shouldn’t be lonely, and they shouldn’t be stifled. Writers should be free. And so I started to wonder why I wasn’t. I’m no longer tired of writing, but I am still tired of the way that we talk about writing.
In 1946, George Orwell wrote about his motivations as a writer. According to him, these could be broadly divided into four categories –— sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Of all of them, political purpose was fundamental to Orwell because it gave him something outside of himself, something that transcended his position as an individual in the world, to write towards. Political purpose cut to the heart of what mattered.
And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
— Orwell, Why I Write, 1946
For the author Deborah Levy, the transcendental aspect of writing was less reason and purpose than cause for fear. In Things I Don’t Want to Know, she recounts her conversations as a child with her favorite nun at a convent school in South Africa, how “there was a part of me that was scared of the power of writing.” It scared her, it seems, because of its transportive power: “Transcendental meant ‘beyond’, and if I could write beyond’, whatever that meant, I could escape to somewhere better than where I was now.”
Levy suggests that her writing will elevate her, ontologically, beyond the immediate circumstances of her life; tempting, but also immediately nostalgic: the certainty of a life, and an identity, just so, like childhood, irrevocably lost.
While to Levy writing is a risk, is sacrificing a former self in the hope that a reconstructed self might be free, Orwell seems entirely secure in transcendence. To Orwell, the political is what focuses his writing, allows him to “efface” himself and escape the egoistic trappings of the self-indulgent writer. That kind of transcendence doesn’t sit right with Levy. Something stops her from taking up that baton in the canonical relay. Orwell seems secure that when he returns from his transcendental flight, back to the material reality of his desk in the world, the self-indulgent writer will still be there.
Orwell wants to escape himself, but only for a bit, for the purposes of analysis and observation.
While Orwell needs a political focus to capture the world as it is, Levy seems concerned not with the slipperiness reality, but with her own identity. Identity is the great uncertainty for this writer at her desk, writing a portal more than a tool.
As a young Jewish girl whose father is being held as a political prisoner — a girl who was as a result punished for trivial things like skipping the first lines in her notebook at school — you might wonder if politics is not the very thing that makes her afraid to participate in this bigger-than-me dialogue.
Good prose is like a windowpane, Orwell writes. Levy wrote about windowpanes too. She remembers a phrase that makes little sense to her: “The window opens like an orange.” It is a phrase that follows the memory of the powerful feeling it gave her as a child in Johannesburg, when she rolled an orange under her bare foot to make it soft until the skin broke to yield its juice without splitting. “I felt so powerful when I figured out how to use my strength on something as small as an orange,” she wrote.
If good prose is a windowpane, its author must be confident that they are seeing what exists within that frame quite clearly. An author needs to be secure in their position in a chair, at their desk, looking out of that window.
“When a female writer walks a female character into the centre of her literary enquiry (or a forest) and this character starts to project shadow and light all over the place,” Levy writes, “she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part to do with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the societal system in the first place.”
How can a delusion write? How can a woman split between social roles and continents and histories — a woman also marginal to the male-dominated literary tradition — piece together a story that people will listen to? When identity is the thing in question, the allure of writing, the transcendence it brings, is marred by this difficulty.
This is not a seamless ascent, but a stumble into unchartered territories, as the writer looks for translations and connections that will communicate her view of the world. This trouble leads Levy to conclude that: “Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia, and Africa.”
When I started thinking about the act of writing, of what it means to me, the first phrase that sprung to mind was this: Writing is inserting yourself into convention.
If to Orwell the challenge is to efface oneself in writing, to me (and it seems to Levy too) writing is quite the opposite; it’s piecing together a coherent identity through words, in a tradition that is hostile to that very language. If tradition is ritual, is a pattern transcending generations that creates a sense of unity, the voices excluded from that tradition undermine it. Writing, for underrepresented writers, is trying as best we can not to write ourselves out of our own subjectivity.
Writing is the dance of working with convention, and against it, of subtly weaving new strands into a tapestry we know will be all the more beautiful for it. Only the process is tricky, and my writing often feels like a forceful intrusion on a style and a form that doesn’t indulge that very self-conscious process. Writers are meant to write with transcendental authority, after all.
For those who are not used to having authority over their own subjective experience of the world, different stories matter, different stories are true. I feel safe in stories about people getting to know their bodies, a room, a house—stories about a she.
Stories that take the time to question the reality of what they see.
And when these writers look into the shadowy corners of worlds forgotten when they invoke the magic of ancient languages that appear new on the page, they remind us that when a writer transcends himself, he also transcends us all, he loses sight of the conditions of his identity that matter: you must destroy in order to create.
And in the longue durée of time, you are remembered by what you destroy.
I was thinking about all this while entangled in the bloody web of my period. I’d just spent the day bleeding and writing at home. The cramps were so intense, that once subsided, they left my body floppy, and all there was to do was spread myself out on my bed, open up my laptop, and write. I only stopped occasionally to change my pad. Then I’d inspect the toilet bowl to see just how red it was, how many clumps of endometrium I could spot floating around in the water. It was cathartic, a natural detox. My uterus felt relaxed, like it had been relieved of a month’s pent-up pressure, the way your muscles surrender after a long massage.
It is no coincidence that my menstrual purging coincided with an emotional purging onto the page.
Having resigned myself to staying home that day, giving myself permission to do nothing I had to do, I found myself able to do what I wanted to do, to say what I wanted to say. I wrote, uninhibited, relaxed, explorative. Not a single doubt in the way.
We don’t talk much about periods and creativity. That’s largely because cismen have dominated these conversations. This has led not only to a total absence of periods as a subject in literature, or as a factor in the creative cycle of an author, but also, more fundamentally, it reflects a general misrepresentation of the creative process for men and women alike.
It’s no wonder that cismen — lacking the powerful procreative potential the uterus possesses to bear and birth life — felt impelled to mimic and, indeed mask, this fundamental role that women play in human society. Perhaps they said, “If we can’t birth babies, we’ll birth books.” And so they put themselves at the heart of a civilized society fuelled by ideas not heartbeats. Art is all about creation after all.
This is how James Joyce’s described his creative process in a letter to his wife, Nora, in 1912:
“I went then into the backroom of the office and sitting at the table, thinking of the book I have written, the child which I have carried for years and years in the womb of the imagination as you carried in your womb the children you love, and of how I had fed it day after day out of my brain and my memory.”
I have never given birth, and it is unlikely that many of the men who elevate the cosmic importance of their work through allusions to childbirth have either. I have, however, experienced the joy of creativity, and, as far as a writer is supposed to capture human experience, I don’t think the birth analogy quite does it justice.
To me, creativity is more like a period. A period, if childbirth were the end goal, would be conceived as a time of loss, of wasted potential; an egg that could have been fertilized lost to the cold harsh toilet bowl. Except my period is, creatively, very fertile. A time of release, a time of acceptance, a time of surrender to a pain you know does not need to be explained. With destruction and creation so closely entwined, we can surrender ourselves to a cycle that transcends us.
Life, when you see it this way, is never made, only maintained, sustained, as it passes through our bodies in the form of various cycles. And maybe writing isn’t too dissimilar.
The writers I admire may have been immortalized in the sense that they have been remembered, but this isn’t because they created or recreated a piece of themselves; I don’t admire them for the egoism they have in common with the rest of humanity. I admire them for offering a piece of themselves to others. I value their courage to delve into themselves, to face their own thoughts, even the ones we’re told not to have, even the ones we were warned to forget.
Then I admire their vulnerability.
The trust that when they voice their shadowy findings they will not be left in the cold, the trust that you will be held. Power in vulnerability, that is what to me elevates prose. From the silent margins of human society comes community and recognition. That alchemy happens not because authors have created something, but because they have shed light on the things we often refuse to see. Things like death and a history of oppression.
If good writing comes from speaking the words we have erased, what better source than the writers we have effaced? What better voices than the ones we have not heard before. Let’s write about our periods, those silences in the cycle that until now has been all about birth.
Let’s make meaning of everything that comes between the start and end.
As more of us do so, we will see that writing is less creation, more conversation. Writers don’t create, not really, they only bring thoughts together into something beautiful enough to be called prose, so that people might read it from time to time, maybe even out loud. Maybe while they split an orange.